The Full 90

The Full 90 Reviewed: Blown call, deja vu define tough road loss for Sporting KC

Sporadically (hopefully every week) throughout the season, The Full 90 Reviewed will take a deeper look at the most recent Sporting Kansas City game and bring you some thoughts, stats, numbers, trends and gifs.

A heavy loss featuring three goals by the opponent. A controversial call that alters the match. A new-look defense shredded by a lethal counter attack. An offense struggling to find the back of the net. A possession-dominant performance that ultimately struggled to create scoring chances.

No, this isn’t quite Sporting’s Groundhog Day. But a 3-1 loss on the road to FC Dallas begs the question: Same problems, different year?

I feel ya Luis Marin. Let’s start the review.

Sporting in crisis?

Over its last 25 games in all competitions (regular season, playoffs and CONCACAF Champions League), Sporting Kansas City’s record is 9-11-5.

This is right now.

Yes, it looks a little bad to already be on the bottom looking up of a very competitive conference. Yes, coughing up three goals isn’t a great way to kick off a road campaign for a team that has been decent away from home the last three years. Yes, that record over the last 25 matches is equal parts depressing and mediocre.

But... Kansas City isn’t going to shake off last year’s funk and magically transport back to the driver’s seat after two games. When the team is the star (trademark Real Salt Lake) and the team starts to take a step backward (as KC did last year), it’s not easy to pull it back as a whole.

Kansas City is a team in transition, still trying to replace Oriol Rosell and Jimmy Nielsen while also moving toward a more technical style of play to utilize the attacking strengths of Benny Feilhaber/Graham Zusi/Dom Dwyer.

It’s not a sexy description, but transition is a process. And the process takes time.

On Saturday, Peter Vermes’ starting lineup featured four players earning their first or second start with the club (Krisztian Nemeth, Marcel De Jong, Amadou Dia and Luis Marin), a fifth that is returning to a team that doesn’t really play the same style as when he left (Roger Espinoza), two more players (Benny Feilhaber and Kevin Ellis) playing in mostly unfamiliar roles and another (Ike Opara) still returning from an injury that sidelined him most of 2014.*

*For that matter, Graham Zusi isn’t 100% fit yet but still starting AND Paulo Nagamura was playing his first MLS game of the season. Basically, Dom Dwyer is the only player fully fit, returning from last year in his preferred position who has been selected for both games. And we’ll get to his struggles a bit in a minute.

That sounds like an excuse, but remember that that much turnover can be hard for any team to stomach. (Vermes hasn’t churned his roster over this much since the 2010 season.)

Contrast KC’s lineup on Saturday to what Dallas coach Oscar Pareja threw out on Saturday — 10 players* who started the final leg of Dallas’ aggregate loss to the Seattle Sounders in the 2014 MLS Cup playoffs.

*Right back Atiba Harris is the only change.

It’s no wonder one side looked locked in and ready for the season while the other is working out the kinks.

It will take a little time for the defense to build consistency. Opara and Matt Besler have only 70 minutes together this season thanks to Besler’s red card and suspension. Chance Myers is still on the road to recovery while Dia learns the professional game on the fly. And, after three years of consistent service, Seth Sinovic seems to have been pushed aside in the lineup by De Jong.*

*I’m not going to weigh in on this decision after just one game — but count me among the small group who believe Sinovic is the most underrated leftback in the league. Obviously, I’m a little curious what will happen in the next few games.

How long will it take to put everything together? Dunno. I spent most of last season assuming it would eventually click back into place but it never quite did.

But it would be prudent to withhold absolute judgment of this team until Vermes has had a few months to get the pieces to play as a whole. The season is neither won nor lost in the first two weeks.

The Blown Call

There are at least five Dallas players in an offside position when this cross comes in — four if I’m giving the assistant referee the benefit of the doubt of not totally knowing Ellis’ exact position.

But Blas Perez, the goal scorer? He’s definitely offside. He’s actually the most offside of the offside players. Why was he not called for infraction? It makes even less sense when you see it in real time.

Now, I don’t often like to harp on referee decisions — they are often bang-bang situations played at lightning speed with outside judgments passed after numerous replays. But the assistant referee’s main job is to assess offside and this was absolutely positively offside.

A shame too, as it absolutely changed the shape of the game for Kansas City.

Worrying Trend #1: Low Passing Accuracy

Through two games (an admittedly small sample size), Kansas City is completing a shockingly low percentage of its passes. Below you’ll see the 2014 passing stats for KC and the 2015 stats.

KC is a full 10 percent below its average from last year, which is in line with very direct teams (such as Colorado and Dallas), and not at all like the possession/attacking team KC has been over the past few seasons. (KC completed 75% against Dallas, already an improvement over the 64% against New York.)

Whatever the reason for the decline (new formation, new style, new players, rust, etc.) it’s a number that needs to move up this season. After all, incomplete passes are turnovers and turnovers can expose an over-extending pressing team in unfortunate ways. Like...

Worrying Trend #2: The Counter Attack

Dallas’ fast-break attack is an out-of-control wildfire. All it needs is a little spark (a small turnover), the right conditions (a team pushing its defensive line higher up the field) and some oxygen (a little open space) and it’s going to ignite the whole forest. It was a problem that plagued KC’s defense throughout 2014. It reared its head late in the second half as Dallas put the game away.

After the controversial Perez goal, Kansas City pushed higher and higher up the pitch searching out an equalizer. Then, this happened:

Zusi stumbles and turns over the ball, which is pounced on by Michel.

Five seconds later, the ball is already advancing into open space with an outlet pass that takes both Espinoza and Ellis out of the play.

De Jong is trailing Ryan Hollingshead (recently inserted into the game to bring some fresh legs and energy to Dallas’ frontline) while three KC players (Dia, Opara and Feilhaber) have a triangle of protection around Castillo. It won’t matter. The ball by Michel was so good and Hollingshead’s touch past Opara is just right:

The whole sequence took less than 15 seconds and covered nearly three quarters of the field.

This will always be a potential problem if KC continues to press high up on the pitch and doesn’t employ a player capable of fighting fires in the defensive third. Can Vermes get this sorted out? He’ll need to do it quickly as Portland (this Saturday’s opponent at Sporting Park) is a pretty good counter-attacking team this year.

Benny gets Benny’d

Mauro Diaz puts the shoe on the other foot. Or something like that in giving Feilhaber a taste of his own medicine.

A new Espinoza?

In his previous 113 MLS appearances, Espinoza scored just two goals. In his second chapter with Kansas City, he’s already nailed one in two games. (A nice one to boot.)

If Kansas City continues to use Espinoza in either a double-pivot midfield or in front of Feilhaber, he’s going to get more chances to score. If he finishes those chances, it’s a new facet to his game and Kansas City’s.

Kevin Ellis, emergency defender

Ellis is a solid and versatile fullback — he’s a fairly clean tackler, has good pace, is a tidy enough passer and has a decent read of the game. He’s not an ideal center back because of his size (though he’s better in the air than his size would have you believe), but he did a fairly decent impersonation of a ball-playing CB against Dallas.

It wasn’t a perfect night obviously, but he led the team in interceptions (9) and clearances (8).

However, those stats are also a bit problematic. That’s an awful lot of emergency defending deep in his own penalty box for an out-of-position and undersized central defender. Was Kansas City trying to protect its first-time-as-a-unit backline or counting on them to scramble away every chance that came upon them?

Worrying Trend #3: Dom Dwyer still not scoring

We discussed Dwyer in this space last week as he struggled to finish chances against New York. Well, that continued again in Dallas when he missed a penalty in the second half.

Last season, Dwyer was nearly automatic from the spot (hitting 7 of 8) on his way to a franchise-record 22 goals. (Of course, at this time last year, we were all sort of wondering what a Dom Dwyer was going to be as an MLS forward and questioning if his Orlando City streak was a fluke. Doubt Dwyer at your own peril.)

Unlike last week against New York, Dwyer didn’t finish his chances against Dallas (he had 3 shots on target) but he also didn’t help create any. One week after notching five key passes, Dwyer registered zero against Dallas — and completed a shocking 58% of his passes.

If he’s going to struggle to score goals and not bring other players into the attack, Kansas City isn’t going to get very far. And with only Nemeth, Jacob Peterson and rookie James Ansu Rogers behind him, KC can’t really afford for him to have this cold start become a full-fledged slump.

Where have you gone yellow card for blatant simulation?

Remember the opening weekend when the ref in the Orlando-New York City match gave out three yellow cards for simulation?

I was kinda hoping that that was gonna be a thing this year.