No one really remembers when a comeback comes up short. The winning team sighs, survives and takes the points; its fans relish the glory. The losing team licks their wounds and talks platitudes about effort; its fans hug tightly to the concept of what could've been.
Which is what many probably have done/are doing in the wake of Sporting Kansas City's 3-2 loss to Chicago this weekend.
Sure the Sportings battled back from a 2-goal deficit, down a man for 60 minutes to just about pull even and rescue points. But they still lost.
It's like if, at the end "Karate Kid," Daniel-san whiffed the crane kick, Johnny swept the leg and Cobra Kai won the All-Valley Karate Championship.
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It was a moral victory for Ralph Macchio to get that far in the All-Valley tournament, but there isn't a trophy for a moral victory.* Just a loss. But that's OK, you can learn a lot from a loss. Or, at least, that's what the cliche says.
Let's start with KC's recent history of comebacks.
Down 2, how does KC do?
How successful are KC at rallying from a 2-goal deficit? Well, not very. In 44 games under head coach Peter Vermes, Sporting Kansas City have fallen to a 2-goal deficit 13 times.
In more than half of those games (7), they went on to lose by a 2-goal margin. (The worst defeat a 4-1 pasting by Real Salt Lake last May.) In the other six, they staged a rally (by which I mean they scored at least a goal after surrendering the second goal): Four of those rallies came up short, KC salvaged a draw in one and fought back to win just once.*
Those numbers are interesting, but not instructive, because they can cut any way you want them too. The team has only trailed by 2 goals or more at some point in a game less than 30 percent of time under Vermes. But KC only rallied to earn points 15 percent of the time they trailed by 2 goals or more.
They rarely get blown out, but when they do they struggle to come from behind to earn points.
Is the glass half full? Or is the glass shattered in pieces on the floor with orange juice every where?
Probably depends on your outlook.
How KC almost came back against Chicago
With an under-manned squad (literally, they only brought 17 players to the game when 18 is the limit) decimated by injury and international absences, Sporting Kansas City managed to find enough about them to dominate possession (54%-46%) and put almost as many shots on goal (6-7) as Chicago. This, despite going down a designated player in the 30th minute and trailing by two goals at halftime.
Coming out of the half, Vermes made one very obvious tactical decision: He brought on striker Teal Bunbury for holding midfielder Craig Rocastle. This did more than just bring the team's best available attacker into the game, it sent a life-line to rookie CJ Sapong who was left swimming against the current after Omar Bravo's ejection.
Sapong's best quality is his ability to win aerial challenges and bring other players into the play. He's a linking forward (and the stats back this up, he was tied for the team lead with 44 received balls). But you can't link nobody, which was exactly what Sapong did for the last 15 minutes of the first half.
With Bunbury alongside him, KC were able to push Chicago's three-man back-line into their penalty box and defend very deeply. This, in turn, allowed Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza and Stephane Auvray to intercept attempted clearances which helped KC retain possession to re-cycle an attack.
The other tactical maneuver by Vermes was to not drastically alter the way the team was playing. The team showed a high-line of pressure before the red and maintained it after. They pressed the ball and pressed the passing lanes (netting 124 interceptions, led by Besler with 27).
It was because of the high line that Bunbury was able to intercept an errant back pass to get the second goal.
In the end, KC fell short because it lacked width and imagination. (Oh, and they absolutely fell asleep letting Marco Pappa slice them up for the Fire's third and final goal. Why didn't Espinoza just tackle him, we'll never know.) Since imagination is very hard to quantify, let's instead focus on width. The team attempted 10 crosses for the game and were forced to abandon the very wide three-forward formation Vermes perfers for a much more narrow 4-3-2.
Without the normal forward push of fullbacks Michael Harrington (injured) and Roger Espinoza (pushed inside for this game), the service from the wide areas was very insufficient. Chance Myers (rightback) attempted just one cross into the box while Scott Lorenz (leftback) only two; both combined to put just five balls into the penalty area. For comparison, Davy Arnaud made 8 penalty-area entries himself.Note: I don't have the numbers available for Harrington and Espinoza from last year, but I'm fairly certain they averaged more than three crosses and five penalty-area entries.
So, Sporting KC whiffed on the crane kick to knock Chicago out and earn points. Instead, they'll have to settle for the moral victory of knowing they almost came back from two-goals down with a depleted squad.
Unfortunately, not even Major League Soccer has a column on its table for moral victories.
Random Assorted Stats of Interest
• Sporting Kansas City completed 77.9% of its passes against Chicago.
• KC bested Chicago in possession (54%-46%), passes (307-225), passing completion (77.9%-70.2%), crosses (10-8) and penalty area entries (30-17).
• Stephane Auvray completed an astonishing 92% of his passes. He attempted the second-most passes on the afternoon (37). Davy Arnaud attempted 39 passes with an 85% completion rate.
• The worst passer on the day was Milos Stojcev, who completed just 56%. He attempted 36.
• In 30 minutes of play, Omar Bravo recieved only 11 passes and attempted just 2 of his own.
• Davy Arnaud and CJ Sapong received the most balls on the day, with 44 passes coming their way.
• Chance Myers (!) led all players in headers won (14). • KC did some build-up from the back: Matt Besler (12) and Roger Espinoza (10) led the team in final-third entries. (That's fancy talk for completed passes into the attacking third of the field.)
• Pressure! KC completed 42 tackles and intercepted 124 passes. Besler intercepted 27 times.Tactical Thinking is a weekly examination of what went right/wrong with Sporting Kansas City from a tactical/statistical/analytical perspective.