The Full 90

Full 90 Mailbag: What’s the matter with Sporting? What’s the matter with Besler?

After giving up three goals in 31 minutes Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi has a word with Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Lawrence Olum during the match with D.C. United at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas, in August.
After giving up three goals in 31 minutes Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi has a word with Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Lawrence Olum during the match with D.C. United at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas, in August. Special to The Kansas City Star

It’s been a rough couple of weeks in Sporting Land.

A four-game losing streak and an uninspiring East Coast road trip has seen KC fall out of the Supporters’ Shield race and fall back into the playoff scrum in the Eastern Conference.

With just six games to go in the season, the natives are justifiably getting a little bit restless.

Let’s break open the mailbag and see how restless.

I’ll answer this Jeopardy style:

What is “The sound of Supporters’ Shield dreams slipping away.”

And this is the visualization of that answer.

I’ve written previously about my two biggest tactical takeaways: 1) Kansas City has uncharacteristically lost control of games, and 2) Can’t keep Zone 14 clear.

Now, why those two issues are suddenly happening is probably attributable to the lack of a consistent presence in defensive midfield*, injuries/suspensions wrecking the back line** for long stretches and the team often aggressively trying to over-compensate for the first two reasons.

*Oriol Rosell was exceedingly important it turns out.

**Chance Myers was too.

All of that reared its head on New York’s second goal.

First, New York easily glides through the midfield (an area KC normally dominates) unchallenged. Then, the ball moves effortlessly from Igor Juliao’s flank to the middle (Zone 14) without being stopped. Lastly, the ball finds its way — unchallenged again — across the edge of the box to a way-more-open-than-he-should-be Thierry Henry. Henry, of course, does what Henry is capable of doing.

You aren’t weird. And you aren’t alone in questioning the form of KC’s captain.

He had a great World Cup. He really did. But he’s not the same player right now.

The commanding center back from Brazil suddenly isn’t. Too many last-gasp challenges. A lot of emergency defending. Basically, inconsistent. A word that hasn’t been used to explain Matt Besler in a looooooong time.

The problem with explaining Besler’s troubles, however, is that the things that make him so consistent — organization and recognition — don’t often show up clearly in the box score.

The best stat I can think of to describe Besler’s and Sporting KC’s slide? Kansas City hasn’t posted a shutout since the middle of June — 11 games ago. In that stretch — Besler played in 10 of those 11 games — Kansas City has allowed an un-Sporting-like 19 goals too.

It’s tough to lay the entire train-wreck of August at Besler’s feet — he had lots of help. But he’s not been himself and Kansas City’s defensive system functions a lot better when he is.

What explains his drop-off? It’s probably the same thing that explains the drop off for Michael Bradley. The World Cup was rough and they’re both likely fatigued. There’s a reason why top European clubs played most of the preseason (and at times also the start of the regular season) without World Cup players — it’s exhausting physically and mentally.

Specifically to Besler, it likely is a little deeper than just playing the World Cup. Consider: He has played in the neighborhood of 75 games over the last 18 months — pretty much without a single break.

Since the start of 2011, Besler has been one of the most consistent defenders in the league. He’s been the MLS Defender of the Year (2012), named to the MLS Best XI twice (’12, ’13), been an All-Star three times (’11, ’13 and ’14), won a U.S. Open Cup, an MLS Cup and became a regular starter for the U.S. national team. Oh, and he became the captain of his hometown team, got married and spent a whirlwind three-week period where rumors about his future led soccer websites across the country. Then, in rather triumphant fashion, re-signed as a designated player with Graham Zusi.

I’m willing to back him to get back on track. After all, there’s nearly four years of empirical data that Besler is good — a few bad games in a row ain’t swayin’ me.

Of the MLS contingent at the World Cup, only Bradley (390 minutes) and Dempsey (386) played more minutes than Besler (345).* Kyle Beckerman (270) and Graham Zusi (257) both played a lot too.

*Though, newcomers to MLS Jermaine Jones and DeMarcus Beasley both played all 390 minutes. They both had significant time off after the Cup before signing with New England and Houston respectively.

With the exception of Beckerman — who plays a lower speed with RSL — all of those guys have struggled with form. (Dempsey and Zusi both rebounded into form though.)

But Bradley and Besler — both vital cogs who do a lot of running and covering on teams without solid options behind them — have continued to slump.

Major League Soccer’s season wraps around the World Cup in ways that other leagues don’t.

It’s a lot to ask of those players to return from Brazil and maintain form during a grueling . To make matters worse for the two KC guys, Sporting plays at a tempo that makes slotting back in difficult.

You also can’t negate that, unlike Seattle/Salt Lake/Toronto, Kansas City had to be “in form” earlier this year to take on Cruz Azul back in March. Given the length of the MLS season, teams that have success in the fall tend to start slowly and build toward being fit and in form come September/October.

Kansas City — and specifically Zusi and Besler — had to be fit and in form from March through July. It’s a big ask.

It seems like both need a break now but, with only six games left in the season — and three Champions League fixtures — it’s hard to imagine Vermes has the ability to do that now.

As for the second part of your question: No. Unless D.C. United suffer an all-out collapse (I’m not seeing it from them) and New England stumbles (a possibility, but not likely), I can’t see KC in the conversation anymore.

But they are going to make the playoffs, likely as the two or three seed. There’s enough talent and firepower to stop this slide and get back on track.

I’ll even stake a Knoda prediction on this one. Though, please don’t look at my recent record — it’s worse than Sporting’s current slide. I’m a prediction free-fall.

 

You aren’t nitpicking. Zusi is an excellent corner-kick taker, but his attempts lately have been overcooked or off-target.

With capable players like Toni Dovale and Benny Feilhaber on the field, I’ve often wondered why KC doesn’t shake it up a little bit from time to time.

According to KC’s goal information in the press packet for the New York game, KC had scored directly off three corners this year — two were assisted by Feilhaber, one by Zusi. So, take that for what it’s worth.

Nagamura will definitely help return sturdiness to the midfield, but he won’t be a cure-all. He isn’t going to bring a lot of ideas to the offensive half and he’s not capable of being the interception-machine that Oriol Rosell was.

KC needs someone — anyone — to help muck up the center of the pitch and snuff out transition attacks before they happen though, desperately. He’ll do the dirty work off-the-ball that Vermes requires from at least one player on the field, which is something the team has been short of since Nagamura and Jacob Peterson* hit the injury table this summer.

*Is it a coincidence that he’s not played for the last five games and KC has lost four of them by a score of 11-3? Hmmmm.

It should be Claros. I’ve liked the dynamic of KC’s midfield when he’s back there, and his passing and mobility are upgrades over Lawrence Olum.

However, he appears to be working his way into the team. It needs to happen soon.

If Kansas City can get him, Nagamura and Feilhaber together that’s a balanced midfield. This team needs balance right now.

I’m not sure why Martinez was given a short rope other than he wasn’t quite as good against MLS competition as he was against NASL/USL-Pro and he was the spare midfielder the team needed to release to make room from Claros and Martin Steuble a few weeks later.

But, this question does give me a chance to close with this absurd video from USL Pro recently that involves Martinez, a bunch of red cards and a field-clearing brawl.

Flip ahead to the 2:25:00 mark. It’s crazy.

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