The Full 90

MatchDay Preview: Sporting KC struggling to contain playmakers during slide

Aurelien Collin leans over United's Fabian Espindola to clear a ball during a match between Sporting KC and D.C. United at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas in August. D.C. United beat KC 3-0.
Aurelien Collin leans over United's Fabian Espindola to clear a ball during a match between Sporting KC and D.C. United at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas in August. D.C. United beat KC 3-0. Special to The Kansas City Star

There comes a point in any horror story where the hero/heroine realizes exactly the mess that he or she (or they) are in. After numerous bouts of refusal, denial or both, at some point it becomes incredibly clear: Yes, those zombies/vampires/clowns/lethal MVP-candidates wearing headbands are actually quite real.

This is where KC is now.

“You have to look yourself in the eyes. You can’t back off it,” Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said after the team’s 3-1 loss to New England on Wednesday.

“And right now we have to look this in the face, and we just have to work harder. The bottom line is we have to work harder.”*

*That sounds like a speech you’d hear Rick Grimes give to the rag-tag group of survivors on “The Walking Dead,” right? (No, he’d probably just yell “Carl” a whole lot.)

This isn’t a small blip, this is happening. The injuries, the defensive lapses, the mistakes, the inconsistency. It’s been a slow-building sports nightmare for most of the season. KC survived — initially. But it’s all starting to fray a bit at the edges now.

The league’s best defense two years running has allowed nine goals in three games. Last year, Kansas City allowed eight league goals total from August to October — a 10-game stretch that included 5 shutouts. Kansas City hasn’t posted a shutout in 2014 since June 27 — a stretch of 11 games.

Optimistically, Kansas City can survive this current situation. Despite the slide KC is on 42 points with seven games left. Four wins out those five matches would put KC on 54 points — teams with 54 points don’t usually miss the playoffs.

Of course, to get there they will have to work harder to survive this. They will have to work smarter too. And the clock is ticking.

The marauding horde of teams fighting for playoff position are at the gates and looking to break down the walls that D.C. United, Houston and New England managed to put a sizable hole in.

The Basics

Venue: Red Bull Arena

Time: 6:30 p.m.

Broadcast: NBC Sports Network (TV), 810 WHB (English-Radio) and 1340 AM (Spanish-Radio)

About Kansas City: 12-9-6 (42 points) overall, 7-6-0 on the road, 1-4-1 over the last six matches.

About New York: 7-8-10 (31 points) overall, 5-2-4 at home, 2-2-2 over the last six matches.

Tactical Observation: Zone 14 is open for business

If you’re trying to figure out how Kansas City’s vaunted defense is suddenly giving away goals like free samples at a grocery store, it all starts with failings in Zone 14.

Zone 14 isn’t a semi-trendy establishment in the Crossroads all the players frequent late at night. It’s the area directly in front of the penalty box in the attacking third — the space between the defensive line and the midfield, the most dangerous place on the field to launch an attack.

Before this slide, Kansas City was exceptional at keeping Zone 14 clogged. Chances against KC came either from long balls, set-pieces or crosses from the wings. Not anymore.

Take a closer look at how Luis Silva, Brad Davis and Lee Nguyen have exploited that area.

New England’s Nguyen is an extremely dangerous player who can move exceptionally with or without the ball. On the Revs second goal, Kansas City’s midfield over pursues while chasing the play and lets Nguyen — who has 12 goals this year — have entirely too much time to set himself up for a shot. He can literally pick his spot and have a go.

United’s Silva, the falsest of false 9s, would drop into soft spots in KC’s half and draw the defensive line higher to pressure. In setting up Chris Rolfe’s goal (D.C.’s second), Silva takes an intelligent touch to the side of the pressure and quickly and decisively exploits the space behind the line. Jon Kempin has no chance of making up that much ground.

Against Houston, Kansas City committed a high number of fouls in and around the box — often because other methods of winning back the ball had failed. Davis, owner of the most dangerous left foot in MLS, should never (ever) be given the opportunity to take a free kick from anywhere around the box — he’s lethal, as his two assists against KC proves.

Creative midfielders with time, space and opportunity are exceptionally dangerous in that area. It’s where strings get pulled, through balls get made and excellent chances get created.

It’s a good thing that New York doesn’t have a player capable of doing all of things and a lethal finisher closing in on the single-season MLS scoring record. Oh, wait...

If Kansas City can’t get its act together, Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Philips will definitely make them pay for mistakes in Zone 14.

By The Numbers

Looking at WhoScored.com’s defensive action stats (interceptions, clearances and offside won), you can start to see the struggle from above quantified.

Last year, Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler were two of the best defenders at clearances (9.4 and 8.3 clearances per game) and winning offside calls (1.6 and 1.1 per game). Collin was fifth in the league in interceptions (4.1 per game).*

*Also worth noting: Ike Opara, out injured for most of this year, was sixth in clearances per game (8.7), 10th in offside calls won per game (1) and third in interceptions per game (4.2). His absence, statistically, has been massive. Kevin Ellis, Lawrence Olum and Erik Palmer-Brown are nowhere near replicating those numbers.

This year, Collin and Besler’s numbers are both down in clearances — a key stat that tracks every time a player temporarily removes an attacking threat and alleviates pressure. For a team that plays with such a high line, that stat is extremely telling.

Collin is averaging almost three fewer clearances per game (and about two fewer interceptions as well). Besler’s clearances are also down almost two per game.

But perhaps the most telling is that Kansas City’s overall interceptions are down — a key stat when looking at how effectively a defender/team breaks up play. Last season, KC led the league according to WhoScored.com with 23.4 interceptions per game.

This season? Sporting KC is down almost eight interceptions per game (15.7, tied for eighth in the league). For good measure, KC is allowing nearly two more shots per game this year as well.

The loss of Oriol Rosell, an interception machine who averaged exactly four per game in 2013, has also been acutely felt in this area. Olum, Jorge Claros, Mikey Lopez and Benny Feilhaber all average less than two interceptions per game this year.

If the midfield can’t stop the play from building and the defenders can’t clear the danger once it arrives ... well, you’ve seen what can happen.

Lineup Questions

Dom Dwyer will be back. Good. Feilhaber too. Double good. Graham Zusi won’t have the burden of the entire offense on his shoulders and Andy Gruenebaum will likely be a little sharper too. That’s good news too.

The injury report is mostly unchanged from Wednesday night — Paula Nagamura is the only player listed as questionable. Erik Palmer-Brown remains away with the U.S. U-20 team.

Will Vermes make any more lineup tweaks after benching Collin in New England? Given the shaky recent form of Olum — who has had two sub-optimal performances in a row, first at defensive midfielder and then at center back — and Lopez, it’s a possibility. But there might not be enough options on the bench to replace everyone who has a bad game or two.

Prediction

While Kansas City has been quite good on the road this year — except to New England, who beat them 5-1 on aggregate over two games — I’m having a hard time predicting this current KC squad to pull out of this dive in one big move. It will happen slowly as regaining confidence and form is incredibly difficult.

New York has a potent offense with Henry, Wright-Philips, et al. But the defense has let them down at times this year.

I think it gets a little better for Kansas City and a result is possible — but the defensive issues for KC can’t be cleared up in just three days.

 
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