The Full 90

Ask The Full 90: Is Sporting KC’s defense slow?

Colorado’s Dillon Serna (left) and Sporting Kansas City’s Connor Hallisey during a game earlier this month.
Colorado’s Dillon Serna (left) and Sporting Kansas City’s Connor Hallisey during a game earlier this month. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Let’s start with this: MLS commissioner Don Garber said on Thursday that the league is interested in putting a live-streamed game on social media in the future.

Why is that important? Well, consider this: MLS isn’t exactly setting the world on fire with its ESPN/FS1/UniMas TV deal. Matches typically bring in between 200,000 and 300,000 viewers on average, which is fine by MLS standards but miniscule even when compared to smaller sports programming that is similar in scope. (There’s also the fact that cable subscriptions continue to fall at a historic rate).

The league’s target audience, Garber says, are millennials and those younger, and their primary screen is their smart phone. With Twitter pushing over 1.3 billion registered users and Facebook’s 1.59 billion active users, Garber’s assessment is spot-on.

So, instead of hoping younger fans discover the league on their own on TV, why not bring the league to them where they most spend their time? This seems like a no-brainer, and it’s something other leagues are also looking into.

I’d love to hear your opinion on bringing the league to social media. In the meantime, we’ve got a blog to get to, so let’s get to it. As always, thanks for your questions, and for reading:

I think it’s likelier that fans have created a fallacy over the last five years or so that says because Sporting KC has been so good defensively, they must be fast. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

What’s actually made the defense function at such a high level since 2011 has been two parts positioning and an astute understanding of the system and roles each player must play to be successful. Really, they’re one and the same. When you’re rarely caught out of position, and thus able to defend speedy wingers, your athleticism (or lack thereof) gets disguised by your tactical awareness.

I liken it to the current San Antonio Spurs team. The Spurs are one of the least athletic teams in the NBA playoffs this year. They’re not very fast, and their roster actually features three of the oldest players still in the league. Yet they’re the favorite to knock-off the hot-shooting Warriors.

How can this be? Well, first look at the Spurs’ system. It’s “boring” to some, and even some Spurs fans pull their own hair out when the team refuses to try anything else, but it’s consistent. Spurs players understand their role in the system, almost like it’s in their DNA. They know what they need to do to be successful and, in turn, make the player(s) next to them successful in their role(s). It’s a never-ending cycle — one that can certainly be exploited, but has produced results over a long period of time.

I view Sporting KC is in the same vein as the Spurs. Under Peter Vermes, Sporting KC has been unabashedly a high-press team out of the 4-3-3. It doesn’t matter the opponent or who’s in the 18 that day, fans can expect the same thing game in and game out. That can be frustrating, but the results tend to speak for itself.

I know this answer has gone beyond just the defense, so I’ll try and reel it back in. Over the last half decade, Sporting KC’s defense has never featured speed. Guys like Chance Myers, Seth Sinovic and Matt Besler aren’t the most athletic players, but they’re tremendously gifted in their ability to read the game react to it accordingly.

Now, when that awareness goes bad, as it did on FC Dallas’ opening goal, the lack of speed or athleticism is glaring. There’s also the fact that so much of what Sporting KC does defensively hinges on the defensive midfielder, which is where the club has had its most problems over the last two games. I don’t see it being a concern moving forward, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

If you ask Vermes that question, he’ll tell you it’s too early to get worked up over a two-game losing streak. He’ll then go on to say that’s no excuse for the amateur mistakes his side has been plagued by during the skid.

“These are mistakes that are being made at lower levels — not at the professional level,” Vermes said earlier this week. “And they need to take responsibility for them. You can’t just sweep it under the rug. You’ve got to talk about it, and we’ve done that. Those things can’t happen.

“Mistakes happen, but when they happen like they are, that’s something different. That’s a lack of fighting spirit. It’s a lack of attention to detail, concentration, focus — all of these things.”

The losing streak has sparked added intensity at training, which can never be a bad thing. But it’s good to remember that more often than not, a club’s postseason fate isn’t decided until August and September. The LA Galaxy was in the cellar of the Western Conference in the early parts of 2015 before making a run toward the top half of the standings.

That said, four of Sporting KC’s next five are on the road, and the lone home match is against the aforementioned Galaxy, who recently found their stride in a 4-1 trouncing of the Houston Dynamo. That tough stretch could leave the club in a bad place heading into a busy summer, where three or four players will be with their respective national teams.

I wrote about this last Wednesday following the loss to the Rapids, when Lawrence Olum gifted the visitors a goal off a bad turnover. He’s surprisingly struggled since taking over for the injured Soni Mustivar. I say surprisingly since the system hasn’t changed from his first stint with the club.

As I alluded to earlier, so much of what Sporting KC does is centered on the Olum’s position. The high-press style lends itself to leaving space between the midfield and backline. It’s Olum’s job, then, to squash those chances before the opponent has a chance to totally build-up their attack. Early on, the problem was Olum getting caught too far up the field to react. Lately, however, he’s been plagued by some careless mistakes.

The good news is that Olum is a seasoned professional. He won’t struggle this much all season. And for now, he’s the best option Sporting KC has. Benny Feilhaber doesn’t do Sporting KC much good playing deep in the midfield with no other true attacking options playing ahead of him. Jordi Quintilla could become that piece, but that’s not a definite answer as of now.

Because Quintilla hasn’t shown much interest in defending early on this season. He’s also had as many silly turnovers as Olum, which won’t improve the team at that position. I love the confidence Quintilla displays on the ball. It basically radiates from him. But I think there’s a better chance Sporting KC makes a move for another defensive midfielder than there is Quintilla actually slotting into there.

It dwindles down to two things:

1) It’s highly unlikely we see Sporting KC toss out the 4-3-3 in favor of a two-striker set-up in the 4-4-2. That’s not the club’s DNA under Vermes, and I don’t think it’s going to be anytime soon. Diego Rubio was always going to be a backup to Dom Dwyer. His status as a young DP — emphasis on DP — just leads some to believe he has to get playing time or Sporting KC isn’t getting its money’s worth. However, I do think there’s value in switching tactics in-game, which is what Vermes did against FC Dallas by subbing on Rubio.

2) Rubio probably isn’t as good of a complementary piece at winger as Krisztian Nemeth was last season. Rubio is built eerily similar to Dwyer. He’s smaller but has those broad shoulders that make him strong as a bull. Nemeth was a lengthier striker with the build and skill-set of a winger. It made for an easier transition, even if it wasn’t the position he ultimately wanted to be in moving forward.

That’s an appropriate assessment. I think Connor Hallisey has greatly improved from last season, but he’s still too passive within 20 yards of goal. Then again, I think there are three or four guys who are gun-shy within that range. Instead of always trying to get the ball into the box for a cross, I’d like to see Sporting KC rip some shots off from 20 to 30 yards. You know, try and make something happen. Sort of like the Rapids did last week, or Dwyer did against Vancouver Whitecaps FC earlier in the year.

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