New England Revolution central defender Jermaine Jones slid a pass across the Sporting Park field on Wednesday, and it landed at the feet of his backline mate, Jose Goncalves. After collecting the ball, Goncalves took his time and slowly trotted up the field.
It was a forgettable sequence a few minutes into Sporting Kansas City’s 4-2 victory, if not for its rather discernible absence — a pressing defender.
Over the past five-plus seasons, Sporting KC has prided itself on its league-wide reputation as a team that forces the action with its high press — a style it implements just as freely on the road as it does inside Sporting Park.
That identity has been less apparent over the past two matches.
And that’s by design.
“I think that we were executing the way that we wanted to play, and I think that they were kind of surprised that we didn’t step up right away on them,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “I think they had to (force) the game a little bit, which drew them out and created opportunities that we had.”
It’s the second straight match Sporting KC has opted for patience rather than its typical all-out aggression. And the intent — surprise — seems to have some value.
On May 9, on its way to earning a 1-1 draw on the road against Eastern Conference-leading D.C. United, Sporting KC opened the game by sitting back and waiting for the United to approach midfield before pressing the ball.
It worked, too. Sporting KC owned the bulk of the quality chances — firing five shots on goal compared to only two from the United — despite losing the possession battle by 10 percent.
“We prepared for them to be much more aggressive in their usual manner, but credit to them for slowing the game down and making it tough for us to break them down,” D.C. United coach Ben Olsen said after the match. “I think it took a little bit of our energy and hunger away.”
Sporting KC captain Matt Besler explained the strategy after the match.
“Anyone who knows our style probably saw something different,” Besler said. “We drew our line a lot further back than we normally do. It wasn’t because we were playing for a draw — I want to be clear about that. It was because, tactically, we thought that this adjustment gave us the best advantage to win the game.”
The game plan was implemented similarly Wednesday against New England, at least initially, and it offered Sporting KC an early counter opportunity, though Dom Dwyer narrowly missed the target on his shot attempt. Vermes credited the dropped-back press with creating the counter chance.
Might the abnormal look from Sporting KC be a sign of adaptation?
It’s long been known that teams prefer to bunker inside Sporting Park and wait for the home team to make a mistake, then take advantage on the counter. That was a successful strategy for opponents in 2014, when Sporting KC was only 6-5-6 at home, producing 24 points in 17 matches. That was tied for the sixth-worst points-per-match ratio in the league across home matches.
A year later, Sporting KC is unbeaten at home with a 3-0-3 record, which has equated to 12 points in six matches — including three points against a New England team it lost to three times in 2014.
While the element of surprise would be wiped out, the new tactics could stick around nonetheless — likely more intermittently than permanently — as a way to keep opponents guessing during their preparation.
“There’s definitely a balance,” Sporting KC defender Seth Sinovic said. “We want to play entertaining soccer, and I think we do, for the most part. We want to give our fans something to cheer about and win games, at home especially.
“We want to play attractive soccer, but at the same time, we have to get results.”