The Full 90

Full 90 Mailbag: Sporting Kansas City’s resolve, home form and why the defense is a work in progress?

Sporting KC forward Krisztian Nemeth (9) split the defense of New England Revolution midfielders Scott Caldwell (6) and Andy Dorman (12) in the first half during an MLS match at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan. on May 20, 2015.
Sporting KC forward Krisztian Nemeth (9) split the defense of New England Revolution midfielders Scott Caldwell (6) and Andy Dorman (12) in the first half during an MLS match at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan. on May 20, 2015. The Kansas City Star

Fresh off Sporting Kansas City’s 4-2 win over the New England Revolution, some questions still abound about KC’s form, defensive shape and new-found attacking panache.

Let’s do this.

I think Kansas City played 60 minutes of a really good game, 20 minutes of an even/shaky game with New England and 10 minutes of absolutely terrible soccer (wherein KC could’ve reasonable been down 3-0 inside the 15th minute).

After the game, Matt Besler said he thought the team was close to figuring it all out: “That looked like us,” Besler said. “That’s the team we want to be, and that’s how we expect to play at home.”

We’ve just not seen it for a full 90 minutes ... yet.

It’s not really realistic to expect a team in a parity-driven league like MLS to be totally switched on for 90 minutes game in game out. However, with 11 games under its belt this year, SKC has yet to turn in a single dominant 90-minute performance.*

*A pair of 1-0 wins over New York City and Chicago and a 0-0 draw with Salt Lake are as close as KC comes. In other words, not that close.

It was erratic, but that’s to be expected without several key players — Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza, Marcel De Jong and Seth Sinovic to name just four.

The underlying question (if you’ll allow me to take this a step further) is probably: Is Sporting Kansas City good?

To which I can only give a wishy-washy answer: Kinda.

You’ve probably heard the Jekyll-Hyde stats before. I’ll refresh them.

Kansas City is tied for the league lead (New England, Seattle and Dallas) with 17 goals scored — but tied for second worst (New England, Houston, Los Angeles and Salt Lake) with 15 goals allowed.*

*The advanced metrics support KC’s place atop the goals for column with American Soccer Analysis pegging KC’s expected goals for (xGF) at 1.35 (fifth in the league). That means KC is creating chances to score in dangerous spots. The same site’s numbers however point to KC’s goals allowed as a bit of an anomaly — Sporting’s expected goals allowed (xGA) is the league’s lowest mark at 0.87.

With 1.55 points per game, Sporting KC is firmly fourth-best in the West (and seventh-best overall) — just four points behind western leaders FC Dallas, but only 3 points above the red line the separates the table into playoff and non-playoff teams.

With two matches against Seattle (away this weekend, at Sporting Park on June 6) and one against FC Dallas (May 29) it’s not going to get easier.

But Sporting, even while our eyes tell us is struggling, is still picking up points.

A few weeks ago, as KC headed into this four-game stretch, I predicted KC needed seven points from matches against Chicago, Houston, D.C. United and Colorado (which became New England when the Rapids match was postponed) stay afloat. Sporting picked up 8.

Peter Vermes might not have the best version of the team he wants thanks to injuries/etc., but he certainly has built a team with resolve. Lots of it.

So far this year, Kansas City has earned 8 points from a losing position — picking up a win or a draw during a game in which it was trailing at some point. Kansas City was down 1-0 and 2-1 to Philadelphia before winning 3-2. Against Houston, Sporting fell behind 3-1 and drew 4-4. Kansas City also trailed D.C. United and New England and picked up a road draw and a home win, respectively.*

*Furthermore, in both of KC’s losses — at FC Dallas and at Los Angeles — Kansas City equalized after going down a goal at some point in the game.

It was real good. Not quite “2013 Eastern Conference Finals” good. But good.

How about we pour one out for Krizstian Nemeth while we are here. He was the best attacking player on the field in that game — a game that featured Lee Nguyen, Juan Agudelo and Dwyer — and currently has five goals on the season to lead the team.

Part of the reason why Dwyer’s “slump”* hasn’t sunk KC’s attack is because Nemeth is starting to come into his own. A secondary scoring option is something Vermes has needed the last few seasons. He finally seems to have it.

*I used “quotes” because the dude does have four goals on the year and has scored 26 goals in his last 44 appearances for KC.

There were four things I noticed.

1. After Agudelo scored a beautiful opener, Besler started to mark him a lot more closely. Not necessarily a one-on-one defensive job, but Besler was definitely the one taking responsibility for him.

2. KC’s defense tightened up the gaps. When Agudelo scored, Kevin Ellis was almost playing as a right back (his natural position) but without any cover in between him and Besler. After that mistake, Ellis closed up that space — also, Jalil Anibaba and Soni Mustivar started to stay home a bit more to challenge the supply lines into Agudelo.

3. Sporting KC’s midfield was able to get a hold of the ball consistently and push back against New England’s defense. (Arguably the most effective way to take an attacker out of the game — deny him and his team the ball.)

4. One of the major knocks against Agudelo throughout his bizarre career (which saw him wandering Europe most of last season) has been that he doesn’t always commit to the running required of a solo central forward. It’s why the Revs seem better with Charlie Davies up top and Agudelo coming in off the wing.

I’ve written before about Mustivar. I still think he can abandon his position a little too casually (see the Agudelo goal for an example — he pushes up a little too quickly into attack without Ellis in place), but he definitely has helped solidify the midfield. Kansas City got stretched early against New England, but after the 20th minute, the shape was quite good. Mustivar is “quietly essential” to that process.

Yes. This is exactly why. Kansas City’s pressing philosophy works exceptionally well when teams get stretched out chasing a game. If an opponent bunkers, that stretched-out spacing isn’t the same. New England got stretched out, the game opened up and KC took advantage.

The Revs are a team (like KC was in 2012) that likes to play almost entirely on the front foot. When everything clicks for them in attack (as it almost did in the first 15 minutes) they can usually take just about any team in the league. However, when it doesn’t click, they can get pretty open.

It doesn’t help that Jermaine Jones turned in one of the worst defensive showings I’ve seen in a long time. (Will this stop Heaps/Klinsmann from using him as a CB? Not likely.)

I wouldn’t call it short-sighted, I’d call the decision to let the French defender go “budget conscious.” From what I’ve heard, Collin wanted designated-player money (like Besler got) and, quite simply, Kansas City just couldn’t afford to pay four guys DP-level money (Zusi and Espinoza are the others).

The team put a lot of eggs this offseson into the (admittedly fragile and less expensive) Ike Opara basket. That didn’t work out, Opara got hurt and it has left Vermes short. He does have Anibaba (a natural CB) around, but the lack of Chance Myers (which, honestly, is the biggest guy missing right now not named Roger Espinoza and it’s not even a conversation) has made Anibaba more useful to KC as a right back.

Until Myers is healthy, neither Ellis or Amadou Dia seems trusted with that job.

This is going to be a very tough match against a good Seattle team (that might be without Clint Dempsey and Brad Evans). The optimist outlook: Myers is healthy and Ellis-Anibaba is the pairing (which, to some, isn’t optimistic AT ALL).

Besides that option (or a sudden De Jong-to-CB switch), I can’t really see a better alternative.

Based on last night’s proceedings — and the animosity that always seems just under the surface of their games — I want to say Kansas City-New England.

Vermes is a very aggressive dude and he is constantly in the fourth official’s ear. Heaps (as he demonstrated a few times on Wednesday night) can be a bit petulant. (A bit.)

But my personal nightmare would probably be New England vs. Los Angeles. It would be a show of passive-aggressive sarcasm (both inward and outward) by two masters of the trade. I can deal with someone like Vermes shouting at me (even if it’s partially in English, Hungarian or Spanish or a mash-up of all three). I can’t deal with an experience that I imagine would feel like an awkward dinner in public with your wife and your girlfriend at the same time.*

*I don’t know this from personal experience, just the“The Other Woman” was on cable the other night. It’s.... not a good movie, but it was on while I was playing Football Manager.

For being a former New England Revolution player, I think Taylor Twellman was actually pretty fair during the game. He even went so far late in the game to call out Heaps for “taking his toys out of the sandbox” during his first-half pout.

Even though he’s the best midfielder in the league right now. Even though the case I laid out for him being an early season MVP candidate is still valid. Even though he had a MONSTER game as a two-way midfielder in a nationally-televised beatdown of the league’s hottest team... I’d be flabbergasted if Jurgen Klinsmann changes his mind on Benny.*

*He decided a few years ago Benny didn’t push the game enough and he hasn’t been called back since. However, Mix Diskerud will certainly be back and I really don’t have any idea what a Mix Diskerud is supposed to be now that I’ve seen him play in league games.

Maybe if he brought back the mustache, adopted a fake German accent and changed his name to Ben.

That probably still won’t work.

The show “Workaholics” ruined me forever on the “3 goggle” celebration. I won’t get into details — this is, at best, a PG-13 blog. However, if you don’t do both hands with the “3” symbol, then it has be a “3 monocle” in my mind.

As for the comparison to Curry, I dropped this one a few weeks ago on the Talkin’ Touches podcast, but Feilhaber’s NBA analog for me is Jimmy Butler.*

*Given Benny’s love for the Cleveland Cavaliers, he’d probably really dislike that comparison. Sorry.

Neither gets the big-time love that other guys who play his position get (Michael Bradley/Mauro Diaz/Kaka for Feilhaber and Dwyane Wade/James Harden/Kobe Bryant for Butler), but are actually not that far from their level.

Also: Feilhaber/Butler play both sides of the field/floor, tend to play every minute (or almost every minute) and even though both are full-grown adults retain the “y” at the end of their first names.

My other quick NBA comparisons: Pedro Morales = Chris Paul, Aurelien Collin = Tony Allen (but a tad less crazy) and Fabian Castillo = Russell Westbrook (but, not as consistent).

Thanks for the questions, as always.

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