The Full 90

Why is Sporting KC struggling with set-pieces? How valuable are Graham Zusi and Matt Besler?

Sporting Kansas City defender Jalil Anibaba (23) and his teammate forward Jacob Peterson (37) are unhappy after the Philadelphia Union scored on Sunday, April 5, 2015, during the first half of the MLS soccer match at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan.
Sporting Kansas City defender Jalil Anibaba (23) and his teammate forward Jacob Peterson (37) are unhappy after the Philadelphia Union scored on Sunday, April 5, 2015, during the first half of the MLS soccer match at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan. The Kansas City Star

With Kansas City still stuck in a low gear to start the season, the questions from Twitter this week came in fast and heavy. We’ll tackle a lot of topics ranging from set-piece defense and the value of KC’s big-name designated players to Luis Marin’s struggles.

As always, this sausage isn’t going to make itself. Let’s do it.

Kansas City has struggled so far this year dealing with set pieces. Of the 12 goals allowed by KC (the second most allowed in the league), half have come directly or indirectly from a set piece — besides the two in Houston, Sporting KC allowed two against the Philadelphia Union, one against Los Angeles and a controversial (but it still counts) one on the road in Dallas.

Set pieces are chances to create havoc in the penalty box. Kansas City has been pretty bad at consistently dealing with that sort of havoc this year.

Having someone on the post might have helped for a few of those goals, but there are deeper problems than just zonal positioning.

1. Luis Marin has been tentative or downright shaky coming off his line. The goalkeeper should be the most commanding presence (and loudest voice) in these situations. If he is unsure of himself or has shown a few stumbles to his teammates, it affects the organization of the whole unit. It puts tremendous pressure on the defense not be in the wrong place at the wrong time, like Jacob Peterson was.

2. Injuries have robbed KC of consistency. Communication is a key component of defending. It’s why most coaches don’t tinker too much with a defensive lineup that’s working. Peter Vermes has had no choice but to shuffle up through 8 games. And it shows most prominently when communication lapses on set pieces.

3. Injuries robbed KC of its best aerial threat (Ike Opara) and really don’t have a player who stacks up with the opponent’s best aerial threat. This was evident against Los Angeles and Houston especially.

Opara would’ve been marking Will Bruin on this for sure.

4. This is an important lesson to remember: You cannot allow guys like Brad Davis chances — that means no cheap corner kicks, no fouls on the edge of the box, etc.

You just can’t survive that way.

My colleague Sam McDowell and I discussed this very topic this week in our as-of-yet-unnamed video segment.

The Kansas City Star's Charles Gooch and Sam McDowell discuss the struggles of Sporting Kansas City's Luis Marin and how hard it has been for KC to replace Jimmy Nielsen.

You can also listen to Andy Edwards and I explore this and other big Sporting KC issues on this week’s SKC edition of the Talkin’ Touches podcast.

With Servando Carrasco suspended this weekend for violent conduct, it’s looking likely that it might be Soni Mustivar Time.

Right now, Sporting needs someone who is resolute and positionally aware in the defensive midfield spot. That could be Mustivar, but it’s hard to get a read on his game though with just 61 minutes of action. He was used as a straight-up substitute for an ineffective Carrasco last weekend and, while French/Haitian midfielder wasn’t spectacular in those 35 minutes, he wasn’t being overrun either.

While we’re on the topic, let’s pour one out for our good friend Paulo Nagamura. While he’s not vanished from the team entirely, he’s been an unused sub the last four games with Mustivar or Bernardo Anor being the favored midfield sub. (The 2012 version of Nagamura could’ve have really helped this team the last few weeks with his toughness and leadership. The 2015 version just isn’t fast enough and gets in the way of Espinoza/Feilhaber a bit too much.)

Since it’s become obvious that neither player was fully fit after the World Cup last summer (when they signed their DP contracts), it’s probably hard to answer definitively.

Paying big money for a defender (even the team’s captain and hometown hero like Besler) is, objectively, a big burden in a salary-cap league. Teams only have so much room under the cap (and only so many DP slots). While defense is super important, most teams opt to spend DP money on guys who either create or score goals. (Omar Gonzalez and Damarcus Beasley are the first two DP-defenders that come to mind.)

The case for Zusi is a bit easier to make. When healthy, Zusi is one of the best chance creators in the league — last year he was Top 10 in key passes (2.8 per game) and this year he’s on that same pace through 6 appearances (2.7).

The 2013 MLS Cup is also proof that both are valuable players (even top-level players) in the league.

Question: If KC had not signed Besler and Zusi to a DP contract last summer and both decided to leave this offseason, would you feel better or worse about KC’s chances of competing this year? The only way KC could keep both is if they paid them both.

If value value is based on that they could have spent DP money on different players who might more directly help KC win, I’m not sure that really holds up.

The true “value” of Besler and Zusi as DPs depends on who is defining it.

From a marketing perspective, KC is certainly getting tons of value from those two — see the Made in KC campaigns, the 2014 World Cup bump, jersey sales, etc.

From a front-office perspective, it’s also a pretty good value for KC. It shows new players that KC is committed to building players into stars AND then rewarding them with contracts that befit that status. (BTW, most companies outside of the sports world do this exact same thing.)

Those two factors honestly don’t mean a whole lot when it comes to KC’s performance on the field, but both certainly play a large factor in how this team is constructed.

I’m not hearing much right now — which isn’t a big surprise, as KC is mostly tight-lipped about incoming moves publicly. But I’ve been keeping my eye on some rumor stuff (which I honestly put only a little trust in anyway) and have yet to hear much.

My best guess is that a big move doesn’t happen until after the European seasons have finished this summer.

You would be stunned how many writers forget to do something as simple as save their work constantly. Stunned.

However, yours truly utilizes the auto-save function on Google Docs. It’s like having Tony Meola in his prime — everything is getting saved all the time. Even if you don’t realize it.

This question came up last week, but it still holds up. Plus, since I am a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, Cody knew exactly what he was doing in phrasing this question. So, I’ll get the obvious joke out of the way first: The biggest difference between Sporting KC and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, of course, is that KC didn’t employ any known criminals.

Throwing out the Ravens comparison (it’s not really “apples” to “apples,” more like “apples” to “guys who obstructed justice in a murder investigation”) I still like this question, because it gets down to something that teams with historical good runs are constantly fighting: Regression and attention.

Kansas City has been dealing with both over the last 18 months.

In 2012 and 2013, Kansas City’s defense allowed just 57 goals. By comparison, four teams allowed more goals IN A SINGLE SEASON* in that span.

*2012: Toronto allowed 62 goals, Chivas USA 58. 2013: D.C. United 59, Chivas 67(!).

Since 2000, only 14 teams have turned in a season allowing 30 or fewer goals* — the 2012-13 KC squad is the only to do it two seasons in a row. Only three teams (including the 2011 Los Angeles Galaxy) have allowed 30 or fewer goals having played 34 games.

*The 2000 and 2004 Wizards also did this. Making for an interesting stat: Whenever KC allows 30 or fewer goals per season, it wins a trophy. 2000 Supporters Shield/MLS Cup, 2004 Open Cup, 2012 Open Cup and 2013 MLS Cup. Sample size is small tho!

Using math, that means KC allowed under a goal per game (0.83) for that two year stretch.

But, then regression happened. Over its last 42 games (all of 2014 and this season), Kansas City has allowed 53 goals — for a 1.26 goals/game average.

It was always going to be difficult to maintain that pace on defense. Opposing coaches start to figure out the system, players reach their peak, players leave, the salary cap happens, legendary goalkeepers retire to coach in the third division, other teams start spending money at a historic clip for the league, the league forces you to relocate to a tougher conference because of expansion, the league forces you to divest yourself of talent because of said expansion. I can go on and on. Parity and regression are pretty much part and parcel of the MLS package.

The other side of that is attention. Being good means other teams pay attention — inside the league and out. For KC, that meant guys like Roger Espinoza (Wigan), Kei Kamara (Norwich, then Middlesbrough), Oriol Rosell (Sporting CP), Belser and Zusi (both had lots of rumors attached post-World Cup*) all attracted offers from overseas.

*And, as previously discussed, KC had to pony up to keep those last two — which affected who they could keep heading into this year.

You put regression next to those sort of losses and you get the situation KC finds itself in now — trying to rebuild on the fly. We’ll have to see if Vermes can replicate his success during this rebuild.

Thanks again for the questions. As always, one of my favorite things to write.