As another attempt sputtered in the visitors’ final third late in the game on Sunday, Brad Davis lifted his hands toward the brisk Kansas City night sky as a look of disgust overtook his face.
For the fourth time in 10 matches, spanning 157 minutes overall, Sporting Kansas City found itself with a man advantage after the L.A. Galaxy’s Ashley Cole was shown a red card following a pair of yellows within 14 seconds of each other. But for the third time in that stretch, the club was unable to come away with a goal.
Even more troubling:
“I’m not concerned,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said after the 1-1 draw on Sunday night. “Whenever you’re a man up, the team winds up just really bunkering down, and in their mentality they become galvanized. They become a wall. A lot of times I’d rather play 11v11 as opposed to 10v11, because it winds up being a really difficult proposition for a team trying to break them down. They just sit back even more and more, and it’s hard to get anything through there.
“We had shots on goal. I don’t know how somebody wants to recognize or calculate those from a statistical perspective, but we had great movement in and around the box. Our chances were there, we didn’t give them anything. But at the end of the day, we didn’t score. That’s the thing we have to make sure that we do. But you can’t take away how well we played and how much we dominated.”
That much is true. Sporting KC was the aggressor for most of the night, and it showed on the final stat sheet, as the home side held a substantial advantage in total shots (17 to 4) and possession (66 percent).
But stats can be deceiving. That much is also true, and Sporting KC has a few years worth of results to prove it. The club has always struggled to counter teams who come in, bunker and hope to score off the counter. Recall the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals for instance, when Sporting KC scored one goal across two legs on 33 shots and were eventually eliminated. The opponent in that series, the Houston Dynamo, managed 13 shots in those two games, including just three in the second leg, but were effective in sitting back and waiting for their chances off the counter.
When the Galaxy went down a man with 20 minutes remaining in the match on Sunday, they employed a tactical bunker that was no different to what Houston did in that series, or what teams have done since then at Children’s Mercy Park. Five players manned the backline, clearing out every piece of service with next to no desire to turn it into any sort of attack.
In past years, Sporting KC could counter that bunkering “tactic” with skill or height. Krisztian Nemeth demanded attention out wide as a playmaker who did more than simply send in crosses. Going even further back, Kei Kamara, at 6-foot-3, could rise up and head in crosses at the forward position.
But without those pieces, teams can overplay the cross without fear of getting beat out wide or over the top. The results are easy to see. On Sunday, Sporting KC had a nice spell in the L.A. final third, but passing the ball sideline to sideline proved ineffective in pulling the Galaxy from their bunker to create space to attack in.
“I think you have to find the balance of trying to play and spread them out, and also try and serve the ball into the box and put some pressure on them,” captain Matt Besler said. “I think if you just start serving the ball into the box, you’re not making them work or run. You want to try and get the ball on the ground and make them run. That spreads them out, and then you’re able to find those pockets (of space).”
“I think we have to be more clinical as a team. As a team, I think we need to put a lot of emphasis and concentration into the final product. Some nights it happens like this, and other nights the ball goes into the back of the net three of four times when you play like this.”
Vermes doesn’t foresee the struggle continuing much longer, indicating that perhaps Sporting KC is pressing too much when playing up a man.
“Maybe we can cut some balls back to the top of the box. Maybe we can find more runners,” he added. “I thought we found more tonight than we did last week. But outside of that, I think we’re doing more than enough to get something.”
With more than two-thirds of the season still to be played, this isn’t quite a full-blown tactical or personnel issue. At the time being, it’s a troubling trend with an answer that currently eludes Sporting KC.
“I don’t think there’s much you can change,” midfielder Roger Espinoza said. “We just have to be better.”