The Full 90

What is Sporting KC’s sputtering offense lacking?

Sporting KC’s Roger Espinoza (right) gets a pass by Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman during a 0-0 draw between the two teams on April 11.
Sporting KC’s Roger Espinoza (right) gets a pass by Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman during a 0-0 draw between the two teams on April 11. The Kansas City Star

In part one of this week’s Full 90 mailbag, we discussed questions/issues related to Ike Opara’s injury and Sporting Kansas City’s issues on the backline. In part two, we’ll dive deeper into questions about the team’s attack, overall construction and midfield strength.

Let’s bake this cake.

Coaches tend to construct a team somewhat in their own image — or at least, a team that is built out of how the coach sees the game. (For foreign examples, see Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone or Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola.)

Peter Vermes (the player) was known for his work rate, intensity and defensive strength. It only makes sense that Peter Vermes (the coach and technical director) would follow the same path. His teams will always press at some level of the field (typically high). They will also make life difficult on creative players in Zone 14 and, if playing to full capabilities, keep most of the action outside of the 18-yard-box.

They will also not shy away from a duel and tip-toe along the ledge of legality in the tackle.

Even without Aurelien Collin though, this might be one of PV’s highest work-rate/intensity teams with Roger Espinoza back in the fold and Dom Dwyer still raising his game. The recent inclusion of Jacob Peterson has only made the gritty/intensity more noticeable.*

*Also, don’t discount Benny Feilhaber drinking some of the Vermes aggression kool-aid and whatever intense Hungarian-only instructions PV gives to Krisztian Nemeth.

It certainly seems as if grinding out low-scoring games is the M.O. for this season — and there are likely some who would prefer grinding out results to whatever it was that happened after July last season. It doesn’t help the “grinding” perception that KC has become a bit more reliant on long balls from the back and set pieces than in years past.

I wonder, though, if this particular team isn’t really “lacking on offense” as much as “lacking on polish.”

KC has about as much attacking talent as it’s had in years (including the midfield), just not everyone has been healthy or in form yet.

Some of the advanced stats love Kansas City’s attack. Which was as shocking to me when I read it as it might be to you.

According to American Soccer Analysis, Kansas City has the highest expected goals for (xGF) per game in the league at 1.58*.

*Michael Caley’s slightly different formula for xG has KC leading the league as well. Caley introduced me to the idea of Danger Zone shots. Which is awesome. And KC leads the league with 33 shots in that area. DANGER ZONE!

Now expected goals is an interesting (and potentially flawed) stat. It’s kind of complicated, but it takes into consideration the placement of a team’s shots and the chances of scoring from that location. It’s not the greatest metric in the world, but it’s instructive of how many chances a team is creating and how effective those chances might be.

Kansas City is creating chances at a league-best rate, but finishing those chances at a below-average rate thus far. A simpler (and more gasp-inspiring) stat is that KC is second in the league in shots (80) and sixth-worst in shots on goal (19).

I wonder if those numbers will start to match up a little better when Graham Zusi (an elite chance creator in this league) returns to the lineup and when Nemeth is fully fit and integrated.

An area that remains a concern though is that Dwyer seems to be stuck in a bit of a slump (although he did finish an offside chance very well against RSL). Dwyer leads the ASA numbers so far this season with an xG of 3.28 — higher than Columbus’ Kei Kamara (2.75), Portland’s Fernando Adi (2.71) and New York City’s David Villa (2.51). Those guys have 8 combined goals to Dwyer’s 1.

The big question: Can Dywer can get back into the form that saw him contribute 22 goals and a goals per 90 minutes rate of 0.73 (the third-best in the league for players with more than 10 appearances)?

If he can’t, KC’s offense could continue to stumble in spite of the high creation numbers.

Dwyer is an instinctive goal scorer. He will always look for whatever advantage he can find, even if it means dabbling in the darker arts. (He probably also knows that a penalty kick or two might help kick-start him out of a slump.)

I don’t think, however,that he’s developing a reputation. Penalties across the board are down a bit this year. There have been only 10 PKs awarded through six weeks. Last year, there were 104 for the entire season.

I’m not sure if this is a league-mandated attempt to squash diving or an anomaly. It’s probably too early to derive a trend anyway.

This was something that I noticed as well. Feilhaber, Espinoza and Servando Carrasco all played quite well in controlling the game in the middle of the park.

The trio had the right balance of strength and fluidity to both hold Salt Lake’s midfield in check and also help push into the attack.

Vermes is a guy, historically, who has rolled over successful formulas from game-to-game. I expect that he’ll be pleased with how that trio worked together and won’t tweak it too much for the time being. That’s especially true considering the necessary change along the backline to account for Opara’s injury.

I think Nemeth/Zusi has to be the preferred pairings on the wings. It’s the most dangerous combination KC has right now as Jimmy Medranda and Jacob Peterson don’t quite offer as much overall as Nemeth has shown.

I think Anor could be a factor in this conversation still, but I may be one of the only people standing on Anor’s Corner.

Making that judgment now is like celebrating too much after winning your first game in the Final Four. It’s too early for that. (Sorry, Alex. I had too.)

Jalil Anibaba, Carrasco and Nemeth have all slotted right into the team and have played above expectations. De Jong is still a bit of a mystery starting over Seth Sinovic, but I’m willing to give it time.

However, the lack of an impact attacking sub is an area of concern. Anor has yet to prove he can be that guy, and he’s the only true option on the bench right now.

In addition to the centerback spot, Vermes will need to address that option at some point this summer.

As usual, thanks for the good questions. As a bonus, here is Sam McDowell and I previewing the Sporting KC-Los Angeles match on Saturday night.

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