Sporting Kansas City captain Matt Besler grabbed a soccer ball and walked toward the edge of the practice field during a training session last month. For the next 20 minutes, he catapulted throw-ins from the out-of-bounds line into the penalty area, and then he stood and watched his teammates try to convert them into goals.
Over. And over. And over again.
A routine of corner kicks and free kicks followed the repetitious throw-in drills, until the club had spent more than half its training session working on the combinations of set pieces.
The emphasis has paid dividends.
Sporting Kansas City’s past four goals have come on set pieces — or the resulting recirculation from a set piece. That included all three goals in Sunday’s comeback win against Philadelphia. (Another one was disallowed Sunday.)
Even more eye-opening, the club is unbeaten over its past three matches despite not scoring a single goal during the normal run of play.
So what has made the set piece such a critical part of Sporting Kansas City’s game?
It’s simple, midfielder Roger Espinoza says.
“We practice them,” he said matter-of-factly.
More so than other clubs? Benny Feilhaber, a member of five teams over the past nine years, says that’s exactly the case.
But Sporting Kansas City’s success in those situations is more than that, of course. It’s personnel, too.
“The service has been excellent — whether it’s Benny, (Graham Zusi), (Marcel) de Jong,” Besler said. “They put the ball into such dangerous areas that it really doesn’t take much. All you have to do is get something on it, and it’s in such a dangerous spot that usually something good happens.”
Ike Opara has emerged as the team’s go-to target, and he’s responded with two goals in the first five matches. His leaping ability and athleticism make him a tough match up. In fact, the encouraging start has quickly sparked attention across the league, and Feilhaber said he noticed Philadelphia trying to double- or even triple-team Opara as he lined up a free kick.
It didn’t work.
Dom Dwyer scored his first goal of the season as a result of being unmarked on a corner kick. Krisztian Nemeth and Jalil Anibaba also scored to finish off set pieces.
“Dom’s had the opportunity to not be the main man in there, so he’s found some dangerous spots,” said Feilhaber, who leads the team with four assists.
Dwyer isn’t often noted for his presence on corner kicks and free kicks given his small stature, but Feilhaber says he overcompensates with an ability to make well-timed runs toward the goal.
And that’s the key component in the way Sporting KC tries to execute its set pieces.
“If everyone believes they’re going to get the ball, and they make the right runs, whether they get the ball or not, it’s going to create space for someone,” Feilhaber said. “For the most part, you’re just trying to put in a good ball that it’s going to make the goalie think a little bit about what he wants to do.”
And then there’s the other side of it.
As good as Sporting KC has been on the attacking side, it allowed Philadelphia to score twice last week off its own set pieces — which Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes attributed to his team’s mistakes.
There will be a particularly strong priority to defend them Saturday against Real Salt Lake.
“I think Salt Lake is pretty dangerous. We have to be very careful of them, as well,” Vermes said. “It’s easy to get focused on (the attacking) end and not the other. We’ve got to be very good defensively against this team, because they can hurt you.”