Sporting Park isn't a fortress. Not anymore.
It doesn't really take an in-depth tunneling through the stats to reinforce that argument. It was obvious enough after Philadelphia's 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City this weekend. But I'll do it anyway. Because it's completely bonkers.
Kansas City. New England. Columbus. Toronto. Chivas USA. D.C. United.
Those teams should have nothing in common. One is a perennial contender. Two are bubble playoff teams. One is a traditional powerhouse currently derailed. One is a train wreck as usual. And Chivas has been a train wreck on fire all season.
But they do. Those six teams make up Major League Soccer's "Five or More Home Losses" Club.
For historical comparison: In 2012, KC lost just three times at home. In 2011, the first year in the new stadium, just two losses. The sky isn't falling yet, but it's not a great sign to have as many losses at home in 2013 as in the two previous years combined.
What separates Kansas City from those other teams above -- who are either close to or already making playoff plans? A home goal differential of +13, which was earned in part by beating four of the five teams listed above by three or more goals.**Kansas City have just two scheduled games at home: Oct. 18 against a D.C. United team without a single win on the road this year and Oct. 23 they'll host Olimpia in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Which only makes KC's five home losses all the more confounding.
That the five losses have come, ostensibly, to other playoff teams (Portland, Seattle, Montreal, New York and Philadelphia*) should be of little comfort. There's a strong chance they'll have to play either New York or Montreal at home if they want to make the MLS Cup after all.*The Union have a tentative grasp on the fifth-spot in the Eastern Conference. So, technically, they qualify in that group.
In those five losses, Kansas City's oft-vaunted defense allowed an average of 2 goals per game (more than double its season average of 0.96). In the other 11 home games, Kansas City allowed just five goals total (for an impressive 0.45 goals-against average). If you throw out the Columbus game -- a 3-2 win in July -- KC have allowed three goals in 10 MLS games at home.
What's more, if you remove the five losses from the ledger, Kansas City's goal differential at home is a very impressive +18.
I'll reiterate: That's just bonkers. In 11 matches, Kansas City was one of the best teams in the league at home. Over 16 matches, they are mediocre.
So, Kansas City has been really good at home. Except when they haven't been. Does that make sense?
Let's start with the teams who picked up wins in KC.
All are above average away sides (average being 14.5 points-per game away from home) with New York, Seattle and Philadelphia all winning five times away from home. Montreal has won four. Portland haven't won a lot on the road -- just twice -- but they have 9 road draws. Points are points are points.
Of those five teams, only Portland is a Top 5 possession team for the season (though Montreal is oddly enough the fourth-best team in possession on the road) and none is a Top 5 team in shots per game.
Which tells you that those teams won't -- and didn't -- get rattled when out of possession and out-shot on the road.
Which is what tends to happen a lot when teams travel to KC. In those five games, Sporting KC dominated possession (average: 59.3%, just north of the season average of 56.4%) and shots (18.8, three more than the season average of 15.3)**SKC also attempted almost four more crosses per game more than normal (including three statistical outliers for this season -- 27 against Portland, 29 against New York and 35 against Philadelphia). Which is interesting. It shows a team that, when trailing or in need of a goal, relies on that route to create chances. As this small sample shows, that's not been entirely effective. (Cut to anyone with eyes who watched the Real Esteli match in the CONCACAF Champions League either nodding in agreement or shaking in disbelief.)
When at home, Kansas City tends to play narrowly with its main attacking players -- especially if Soony Saad, Graham Zusi and Kei Kamara were playing out wide and drifting inside -- to allow space out wide for the fullbacks. The midfield trio tends to stay very narrow in the middle and the central defenders push closer to midfield to cover. The result is that Kansas City keeps the ball in its opponent's half 30% of the game -- only Los Angeles has a higher rate at home, 32%.
Regardless of home or away, Kansas City has no particular bias to the left, right or middle of the field to attack.**The only true statistical difference in home/away styles? KC attempts 72 long balls per game on the road to only 66 at home.
When it works -- as it has 8 times at home and in most road games (Sporting KC is the only MLS team with a winning road record this season) -- there's no problem.
But when it doesn't work, that set-up leads to an often very crowded attacking half and wide-open spaces in the back.* A quick team or a smart team can exploit that space if they can force a quick turnover.*This is compounded when Collin or Uri Rosell drift too far upfield. Both are, statistically, Kansas City's best two players when it comes to ball recoveries and interceptions. If they aren't involved in helping break up the counter attack, Kansas City is already off on the wrong foot.
Here's Portland using pure unadulterated team speed to carve KC's defense open.