Do you want to see your local soccer club stop slipping further down the loss column? Are you fed up with seeing Sporting Kansas City dwelling in the MLS cellar? Are you tired of watching opponents find acres of space and passing lanes in front of Sporting Kansas City's back line? Do you long for the days when Birahim Diop was listed as a defensive midfielder but actually stuck to playing center forward? Do you miss the sight of dreadlocks whipping in the wind on match days?
Well, you're not alone. But there's one man that can help. One man who can step into the breach and help drag this team back into respectability. One man who can clean up this midfield and get it back to the high-pressure system that makes Sporting Kansas City not only entertaining but also effective.
That man is Stephane Auvray. They need him in the lineup all of the time... and they need him to play up to his potential.**Note: The author cannot guarantee that Stephane Auvray on his own can single-handedly fix everything that's wrong with Sporting Kansas City. Especially since Auvray will likely miss a month during the Gold Cup captaining Guadeloupe.
This message is brought to you by the Committee That Wants Stephane Auvray To Play Defensive Midfield For Sporting Kansas City and is Willing To Resort to Goofy Satire to Make His Point.
A hole in the middle of the park
The midfield trio has been a source of concern and tinkering so far in 2011 -- six players have cracked the starting lineup in the middle this year, with only Davy Arnaud appearing in every game. (Diop has started at defensive midfielder three times, Auvray twice and Craig Rocastle once.)
With a high-pressure system (which KC still employs), it's incumbent to have a midfielder who can win back possession (without drastically altering the flow of the game) and get the ball back into attack (usually in one seamless motion). To make matters more nervy, he is also the first line of defense and needs to keep the opponents from running with the ball directly at the backline.
It's a job that requires presence of mind, a high soccer IQ, recovery speed and positional awareness. A bit of fearless-ness and panache wouldn't hurt too much either.
Those are the qualities that Auvray showcased last season (before he wilted in the summer heat and struggled with a knee injury). They are also the qualities that led the team to make him the fourth-highest paid player on the team.
Yet, six games into the season, he's only seen the field for 217 minutes (four appearances, only two starts).
For much of the season, his spot was given over to Birahim Diop.
With three games of evidence (none of them wins) to back me up, it's safe to say that, while Birahim Diop is a lot of things*, he isn't the answer for this team at defensive midfielder. His skills: He's a big body with a decent shot and a ton of flexibility. But he doesn't win the ball particularly well and he doesn't create transition because he goes to the ground to tackle.*I came here not to bury Diop, but to argue only that he's out of position. As he showed last year, he's a very reliable and sturdy center forward.
In Vancouver, the Whitecaps were able to exploit Diop's lack of positional sense to spring the counter-attacks that brought them back from a 3-0 deficit. He, like many on the team, was completely ineffective against Columbus. And, against New England, his biggest contribution was issuing the shove that got Aurelien Collin ejected. (MLS would overturn Collin's suspension and instead suspend Diop for one game.)
It seems as if -- whether the suspension to Diop forced manager Peter Vermes' hand or not -- Auvray is back in the picture after three games out of the lineup.
Against the New York Red Bulls two weeks ago, Vermes inverted his midfield triangle, moving from a 4-1-2-3 (or 4-1-2-2-1 if you're anal retentive about it) into a 4-2-1-3 (or 4-2-1-2-1) with Arnaud moving back into his own half alongside Auvray (who was making his first start since March). This gave the side two players to cover the middle and made Arnaud a box-to-box midfielder.
The design of this formation is to attack with width and choke off the middle. Which worked in that game.
In the second half, KC owned the middle of the park against a superior-on-paper group of midfielders. Arnaud -- who seemed much more comfortable alongside Auvray and Graham Zusi than he had with Diop and Milos Stojcev -- teamed with Auvray to throw a blanket from touchline-to-touchline at Red Bull Stadium.
One of Auvray's traits -- and why I feel he compliments a guy like Arnaud so well -- is that he can create turnovers without going to the ground. This allows him to, yes, move the ball into attack much quicker. Since OPTA doesn't give out the numbers for turnovers created, I'm forced to use a less reliable metric: Random Observations By Quasi-Analytical Blogger (or, ROBQAB -- pronounced raabcab).Against the New York Red Bulls, Auvray forced 11 turnovers in the first half alone. My rough count had him at 19 for the game. He did this through a variety of deflections, interceptions and tackles. Nearly all of them performed without leaving his feet.
Even in defeat, it was the best KC's pressure (both offensively and defensively) has looked all season. I don't believe it's a coincidence that Auvray played a larger role.** (It's worth noting while I'm praising his good qualities that, even though Dwayne De Rosario did his best Al Pacino impersonation and over-acted the hell out of it, Auvray shouldn't have even put his hands near De Rosario in the box. He was bailed out by Rafael Marquez's terrible penalty kick.)**While I think Vermes' decision to pair Arnaud and Auvray worked well against New York, I don't think it's a long-term solution. Arnaud is too offensive minded to stay rooted in a defensive-minded role for 90 minutes. Which only means Auvray is going to have to reach his peak form and maintain it.
This doesn't mean that I think Auvray is the sole savior that will lead KC like Moses out of this funk. No, there are multiple issues that just one man can't solve. The team needs: Omar Bravo back, the road trip to end, Ryan Smith fully fit, Aurelien Collin and Julio Cesar to gel, Michael Harrington to get back to his old self and Teal Bunbury to stop shooting on sight.
But, having said all of that, if Auvray can get back into the form he showed last year and can become entrenched as the team's midfield engine, KC can get back to creating pressure instead of absorbing it.
The success of the team and this nation depends on it! (Note: The success of the nation doesn't depend on it.)
Tactical Thinking is a semi-regular column analyzing Sporting Kansas City.
Of course, much of this column was written in the immediate wake of the New York game. Since then, Auvray had his nose broken during a scrimmage with the KC Brass. Of course. He's listed as probable on the injury report and I've heard he's being fitted for a mask. He'll play and the mask will only add to his legend.