The Full 90

The Full 90 Reviewed: Sporting KC still loves the long ball, still sorting out recalibrated midfield

Forward Krisztian Nemeth attempts a shot on goal during the season opening match against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday March 8th, 2015 at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas.
Forward Krisztian Nemeth attempts a shot on goal during the season opening match against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday March 8th, 2015 at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas. Special to the Star

A look back at the tactics, moments and gifs that have slipped beneath the cracks of the 1-1 draw between Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls.

“Chicks dig the long ball.”

That was a catchy slogan for those old enough to remember when we didn’t even think it was possible that Mark McGwire might be doing steroids.

Does anyone dig the long ball in KC? Because, well, Sporting Kansas City does seem to play a lot of them.

Against New York, KC sprayed 81 long balls across the field. Which is a very high number of long-distance passes — it represents 12 more than the team’s average from last year, which was fourth-most in the league.

It’s route-one football.* A very direct style of soccer meant to move the ball as quickly up the field as possible.

*Try saying that in your most pretentious soccer voice to get the full effect.

With KC playing down a man for 20 minutes after Matt Besler’s red card, the high number makes a lot of sense. After all, it’s much safer to hoof the ball upfield and pin New York deeper in their own half. But, it’s also a style that Sporting KC often relies on a lot. Last year, it almost became a crutch for creating any scoring chances.

According to Tempo Free Soccer, Sporting KC led MLS in shots created from long balls at 27.2 percent in 2014 (a full two percentage points ahead of New York). Overall, pegged KC for 69 long balls per game — fourth most in the league. (They led the league in 2013 if you’re curious with 68. So, this isn’t a “new” trend.)

Peter Vermes’ high-pressure system likes to force turnovers and turn the ball quickly upfield into attack. A long ball is a very direct and effective method for doing that, hence the high numbers. Derisively, it’s often called route-one football.*

*In some leagues, being called a long-ball or route-one team is apparently quite insulting.

This tactic works especially if you have a striker like Dom Dwyer who has the speed, strength and work rate to chase down every ball that comes within 20 yards of him. He has the ability to turn a long ball into a scoring chance (a club record 22 goals in 2014) but he can also knock down the ball to create a second-ball chance or, at the very least, open up some space for another player simply because of his mere presence fighting for a ball.

Like this against New York, which would eventually led to KC’s best chance of the first half.

Dwyer doesn’t out-right win the ball, but he causes enough havoc (and creates enough space) for Krisztian Nemeth to slip in behind him for a shot.

In the first half, it looked like Vermes might be building toward a tactical style that was a bit more technical and somewhat less direct — part of why Nemeth and Bernardo Añor got the start and why he seems to be moving toward a two-man midfield in my opinion. However, with the substitution of Paulo Nagamura for Añor in the 60th minute, KC started to get more and more direct. When Besler was sent off, the long ball became options No. 1 through 4.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with route-one football — it’s not that attractive, but it can be effective. (The MLS Analyst tackled this topic really well last week.) As a sole strategy, however, it can become boring and predictable (see the above stat about shots created). It might have been both of those things at times against New York, but that direct-ness almost let KC grab a late victory.

Is KC still a long-ball team? Or is that just a piece of the tactical puzzle now? The strategy very nearly paid off and, while it’s not “sexy football” it’s something that might remains part of the plan as Vermes subtly (and not-so-subtly) adjusts his tactics this season.

When you try to cause chaos in midfield, chaos is what you get

The midfield in a game featuring Roger Espinoza and Dax McCarty is going to be a brutal minefield filled with tackles, elbows, funny faces and borderline abusive on-ball harassment, with both players roaming the middle trying to force turnovers and break-up play.

On Sunday, neither team was able to truly control action in the midfield, in no small part because every touch and pass was met with some opposition — a no-fly zone for most attacking movements. But New York had the slight upper-hand with McCarty (and his partner Felipe) making life hard on KC’s duo of Espinoza and Feilhaber — who struggled, like most of the team, to complete a high percentage of passes.* (Espinoza: 67.5%, Feilhaber: 63.4%)

*Maybe this partially explains why KC played so many long balls — KC was trying to avoid losing the ball in the middle of the field.

This was the first real MLS test of Vermes’ new double-pivot 4-2-3-1 formation.* The partnership will need more reps and more time to gel (this was the first real MLS action for the two together), but the initial results were unconvincing — especially with Nemeth not doing much in the advanced position to trouble McCarty.

*Double pivot refers to the two deep-lying midfielders who share the burden of protecting the defense, with one focused more on winning the ball and the other on distribution — which explains Espinoza and Feilhaber, respectively, in a vacuum.

Benny, as usual, still had his moments…

A slick pass for the Ike Opara goal and this slipped pass that really should’ve led to something…

Welcome back, Ike

KC’s standout defender was Ike Opara, returning from a nearly year-long layoff recovering from a serious foot injury. He sealed his solid return by banging home KC’s lone goal.

While his aerial abilities will come in handy in the box, it’s his speed that KC is most relieved to have back. There aren’t a lot of dudes who can keep pace with Bradley Wright-Phillips.

(Of course, Opara almost over cooks that pass back to Marin and narrowly avoids disaster.)

SLIGHTLY HOT TAKE ALERT: Dom Dwyer won’t scored 22 goals this year.

He’s gotten too comfortable, this new, happy and married Dom Dwyer. The workaholic bulldog striker has been housebroken.

C’mon! The Dwyer of 2014 finishes that top corner with his eyes closed and already planning on how he’s going to backflip and what foot he’ll land on.

Of course, that is ignoring the fact that he generally played well, got into good positions and actually created chances. In a nice change from last year, Dwyer created a team-high five chances created (he had 18 total last season). Relax. He’ll be fine and the goals will come.

But, to expect him to hit 20 goals again this year might be a bit of a stretch. Scoring 20 goals in a season as the lone striker isn’t easy. However... A Dwyer that only scores 14-15 goals but assists or creates another 4-5 might make this a more dangerous and dynamic attack.

(BTW, Graham Zusi needs to finish that because, well, Designated Players need to finish.)

One sentence about the newcomers.

Four players made their Sporting debut on Sunday. Let’s quickly assess them.

Amadou Dia: In a tough situation replacing Chance Myers, he wasn’t asked to do too much and made very few mistakes (and led the team in interceptions).

Bernardo Añor: Didn’t have the biggest impact on the game, but had some nice interactions with Zusi and Espinoza.

Krisztian Nemeth: Was dangerous playing off Dwyer, but will need to actually do a little defensive work for Vermes to really trust him later this year.

Luis Marin: Hard to judge a ‘keeper after one game, but he seems comfortable and confident enough to stand over an opponent after a save — so he’s got that going for him.