The Full 90

MatchDay Preview: With playoffs looming, Sporting KC needs to get back on track

Dom Dwyer celebrates a goal against Toronto FC at Sporting Park in August. He scored his 19th goal of the season against Chivas USA on Friday to set the single-season record for Sporting KC.
Dom Dwyer celebrates a goal against Toronto FC at Sporting Park in August. He scored his 19th goal of the season against Chivas USA on Friday to set the single-season record for Sporting KC. Special to The Kansas City Star

Sporting Kansas City’s four-game slide has pushed them out of the picture for the Supporters’ Shield race.

It’s hard to imagine KC catching the two teams at the top of the charts. The Seattle Sounders (with 8 games remaining) have a legitimate shot at winning 20 games (and earning 2+ points per game). Los Angeles was in the process of becoming a juggernaut before stumbling to a draw against lowly Montreal on Wednesday night. Those have to be the two favorites for the regular season crown.

The more likely race for KC as the playoffs near: Getting the ship righted and challenging for the Eastern Conference’s top spot. A race that’s gotten a lot more crowded the last few weeks.

D.C. United holds a five-point lead over Kansas City in second, though D.C. just dropped points to New York this week. United has the same challenges as KC (six games to go plus three CONCACAF Champions League fixtures), but its remaining fixtures are a bit easier — two against Chicago, one against Montreal.

New England (three points behind KC with a game in hand) is charging fast. New York (five points back, one game in hand) and Columbus and Philadelphia (both six back, one game in hand) are lining up behind Kansas City.

For good measure, Sporting KC plays every East team listed above except Columbus to close the season.

Also: One of those six teams isn’t going to make the playoffs. This could get ugly.

Which means that now would be a good time for KC to end the slide and get things headed in the right direction. Let’s preview.

The Basics

Venue: StubHub Center, Carson, Calif.

Broadcast: Kickoff is at 9:30 live on KMCI-TV (38 The Spot) and SKCTV outlets.

About Sporting: 12-10-6 (42 points), 7-7-0 on the road. Over the last six matches, KC is 1-5-0.

About Chivas: 6-15-6 (24 points), 3-8-2 at home. Over the last six matches, Chivas is 0-5-1.

Tactical Observation: KC needs to plug the gaps

Kansas City will always have gap or two to cover on defense — it’s a side effect of the high-pressure system.

However, it’s never been a major concern as long as KC defended narrowly and pushed those gaps out to less dangerous areas — such as the sideline — where a help defender (usually a wide forward or a midfielder) can pitch in to cover.*

*It doesn’t hurt that Jimmy Nielsen and Eric Kronberg were both quite good at directing traffic and organizing the defense at a very high professional level. That’s an area in which Jon Kempin really struggled during the losing streak.

Over the last few weeks, though, KC has been routinely pulled out of its defensive shape. Those gaps have then become major holes to be exploited.

There has been one common trend: Over pursuit.

Both Jorge Claros and Igor Juliao over-pursue the play trying to cover for Lawrence Olum — who is trying to cover for Juliao. That leaves the dangerous Lee Nguyen wide open and Mikey Lopez just never quite manages to get close enough to him to make any attempt — even a desperate one — to stop the shot.

This comes from a similar situation down KC’s right flank: Juliao gets stranded a bit upfield, which forces Aurelien Collin to shuffle out wide to stop Fabian Espindola. Collin is beaten* and Juliao drops too deep to cover the center and can’t close down Espindola once he breaks free.

*Collin is an excellent defender — but he’s best cleaning danger and being aggressive in the middle, not out wide.

Those are both preventable goals had KC been able to keep Olum and Collin where they belong. (Or, had a defensive midfielder been able to plunk between the two centerbacks to protect them.)

I could show the videos of KC getting torn up by D.C. United and Toronto recently too, but you hopefully get the point and I don’t want to depress you. Basically: Gaps are bad; gaps in the center channel are killers.

Against New York, Sporting KC’s defense performed much better. The return of Andy Gruenebaum and Paulo Nagamura from injury definitely helped with the organization and the problems of over-pursuit weren’t as noticeable.

The Red Bulls took only five shots (by far the best fewest allowed the current slide) and KC was beaten on a moment of pure genius by Thierry Henry (which happens).*

*Though Henry exploited the same area as Espindola did on Juliao’s flank. Juliao hasn’t been a good defender in case you needed that spelled out.

Is that a sign of better days ahead? KC better hope so.

Must Read

You might think you know everything you need to know about Sporting KC’s leading scorer Dom Dwyer. But, you probably don’t. The Star’s Sam McDowell has the story.

Big Number: 18

Dwyer’s goal-scoring prowess this year has him one goal away from breaking Preki’s single-season franchise record for goals.* Six of those goals have come from penalty kicks. But, did you know that eight of his total goals have come against Toronto and Montreal? Too bad KC is done playing both teams this year.

*That record has stood since 1996! Man, this really hasn’t been a franchise that featured dominant and prolific forwards, huh?

Injury Report

Jacob Peterson (left hamstring strain) remains out, but encouraging news: Eric Kronberg has been moved to questionable. KC could actually be close to as full-strength as they can get soon.

Yellow-Card Worries

However... Four Sporting players face suspension if they pick up another yellow card: Paulo Nagamura, Lawrence Olum, Igor Juliao and Seth Sinovic.

Given KC’s lack of options at defensive-minded midfielder and fullback, multiple yellow cards tonight could be tragic for the next match against New England on Sept. 26.

Missing Dangerman

The lone bright spot for Chivas this year has been the play of the fantastic Erick “Cubo” Torres. He’s single-handedly kept them afloat with 14 of the team’s 23 goals. The next closest scorers? Marky Delgado and Marvin Chavez with two apiece.

Unfortunately for Chivas, he’s suspended for tonight’s game. It’s the first game of his two-game suspension for a tackle that “endangered the safety of an opponent.”

Prediction

Sporting KC has to get its mojo back at some point. If it can’t come against one of the worst team’s in the league it might not come back this year. A must, must win. Without Torres, Chivas have been toothless. Time for KC to get ruthless.

 
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