There seems to be something missing with Sporting Kansas City

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Something’s wrong with Sporting Kansas City, which really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. In the offseason, the team lost Kei Kamara to Norwich City, Roger Espinoza to Wigan, and Julio Cesar to Toronto, and while Peter Vermes’ side had the talent to survive, the question was whether they could maintain the high standard they’ve met over the last two seasons.

Through four matches, the answer to that question has been a resounding no. The reigning Eastern Conference champions lost in Toronto on March 9 ahead of two matches which showed an inept team unable to craft decent chances in the final third. In 0-0 draws versus Chicago and at New England, Sporting has only eight shots on goal despite averaging 58.9 percent possession (even though the Revolution had the possession advantage on Saturday).

In fairness, players and coaches were quick to attribute Saturday’s result to the wind in Foxborough, and if Sporting’s disappointments were confined to 90 minutes, the match could be written off. But the team has struggled for all but 45 minutes over four games:  The second half of their opener at Philadelphia. Through the first half in Chester, KC made the Union look potent.

For better or worse, Vermes doesn’t appear to agree that Sporting’s struggling. Here’s what he said after Saturday’s 0-0:

“The weather was horrible and it was a miserable environment to play a game in, but the guys did an excellent job to get out of here with a shutout and a point,” Vermes told the Kansas City Star after the match. In their previous trip to Foxborough, Sporting had beat New England, 1-0.

Kansas City has one of the most talented teams in Major League Soccer, so any time they underperform over a four-game stretch, it’s time to start considering where they may be misfiring. That process may lead to the conclusion that everything’s find, but it’s best to go through it before the result start to catch up with you.

So here are possible factors:

  • Kei Kamara’s gone – The Sierra Leone international wasn’t that great of a finisher, but that may have been the only fault in his game. Physically able to win almost any battle, Kamara also had the athleticism to play wide. He provided a presence in defense and on set pieces. Sporting miss his outlet along the left as they come out of their end. They also miss his presence as a direct option as they fumble for ideas in the final third.
  • C.J. Sapong’s been marginalized – Claudio Bieler’s been fine, but forcing Vermes to find another role fo C.J. Sapong, his addition as been a net loss. At first, it looked like Sapong’s role would be off the bench, but in the last two matches, Sapong’s been back in the XI. Unfortunately, he’s been played wide, and while there’s hope the third year forward could develop into the outlet Kamara was, having him so far from goal eliminates the opportunity for this sometimes blunt attack to rely on a target man.
  • Formation dilemma? – Kansas City’s place atop the East has been fueled by a shift to a 4-3-3 formation, but the current personnel is being shoehorned into the approach, a process that’s producing curious deployments like Sapong out wide. The personnel is screaming for a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, with Graham Zusi supporting Bieler and Sapong while Feilhaber and Paulo Nagamura play ahead of Oriol Rosell. But instead of moving to this system, Vermes has stuck with a 4-3-3 that has forced Sapong wide and players like Bobby Convey and Soony Saad into the starting lineup. Perhaps there’s something Vermes sees in training that precludes the move, but reliant on a 4-3-3, Vermes is trying to force some square pegs into round holes.
  • Espinoza’s gone – It’s unclear how Espinoza’s departure contributes to Sporting’s problems executing in the final third, but it should be acknowledged: Sporting lost one of the best midfielders in Major League Soccer. One possible relation could be how Espinoza helped Sporting win the ball higher up the pitch, allowing his team to attack a team given less chance to settle into its defensive shape.

And there may be entirely different issues. Players could just be under-performing. Perhaps somebody is injured, but the club hasn’t let us know. Maybe this is just a funk.

Regardless, Kansas City has a problem. They’ve played 360 minutes of soccer this season, and they’ve only been good for about 45 of them.

Against a schedule that’s featured Philadelphia, Toronto, Chicago and New England, Sporting should be doing better.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.

Neymar makes history in PSG’s 8-0 thrashing of Dijon

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A pair of statements which are both true, and not at all mutually exclusive, if you allow logic and balance to prevail: 1) Neymar and his friends at Paris Saint-Germain are quite good at the soccer; 2) they aren’t challenged enough in Ligue 1.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Of course, they’ll be challenged plenty during the latter stages of the Champions League (they drew Real Madrid in the round of 16), but on a weekly basis, the level of competition in their domestic league isn’t of a high standard to indicate just how good they are. That’s the new debate with regard to PSG — it’s no longer, “Are they good? Maybe they’re just a big fish in a small pond.”

On Wednesday, led by Neymar, the most expensive transfer signing of all-time, Unai Emery’s side thrashed 10th-place Dijon to the tune of 8-0. As mentioned, Neymar did slightly more than just pull his own weight — four goals to go with a pair of assists; he lent a direct hand in six of the eight goals.

[ MORE: Chelsea survive Norwich in PKs, reach FA Cup 4th round ]

Even the statistical whizzes at Opta appear somewhat stumped by such an abundance of goals.

Anytime the keepers of stats toss out a “since we started collecting data,” be proud of your achievement. Be very, very proud.

FA Cup: Chelsea, Swansea into 4th rd; B’mouth ousted by Wigan

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Two more Premier League sides booked their place in the fourth round of the FA Cup, courtesy of third-round replays, on Wednesday, bringing the PL’s total representation to 14 clubs…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea 1-1 (5-3 PKs) Norwich City

Chelsea’s scoreless streak — for both themselves and opponents (three straight 0-0 draws across all competitions) — came to a merciful end on Wednesday, but not before surpassing the 300-minute mark. Michy Batshuayi — who, it must be said, struggled mightily in making just his third start (all in cup competitions) since mid-October — broke yet another scoreless deadlock in the 55th minute, ending the Blues’ scoreless run at 331 minutes.

With barely 30 seconds remaining in second-half stoppage time, 19-year-old left back Jamal Lewis brought the Canaries level with a thunderous header off the post.

Extra-time saw Chelsea reduced to 10, and then nine, men. Pedro was booked for diving just after the hour mark, and the Spaniard earned a second yellow card for a wild challenge in the 117th minute. Four minutes later, in second-half extra-time stoppage time, Alvaro Morata was booked for diving and proceeded to shout and gesticulate in the referee’s face. A second yellow was shown immediately.

Willy Caballero denied Nelson Oliveira on Norwich’s first attempt of the ensuing penalty shootout, giving the Blues the only cushion they’d need as Willian, David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta, N'Golo Kante and Eden Hazard all converted.

Chelsea will host Newcastle United in the fourth round on Sunday, Jan. 28.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Swansea City 2-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers

Swansea faced the greatest threat of a Cupset on Wednesday but managed to come out on top, knocking off runaway Championship leaders and champions-elect Wolves. The Swans went ahead through Jordan Ayew in the 11th minute before the prolific Diogo Jota, who’ll be in the PL one way or another next season, brought Wolves back to 1-1 in the 66th. Three minutes later, Wilfried Bony bagged the winner to see Carlos Carvalhal’s side through to the next round.

Swansea will visit League Two side Notts County, who knocked off Championship playoff hopefuls Brentford in the third round, on Saturday, Jan. 27.

Wigan Athletic 3-0 Bournemouth

Bournemouth sat 32 places above Wigan in the English football pyramid when Wednesday’s replay kicked off, and it matter not a single iota, as Paul Cook’s side hammered the Cherries at the DW Stadium. Sam Morsy, Dan Burn and Callum Elder bagged the goals for the League One leaders (three points clear after 26 of 46 rounds played). Wigan have alternated each of the last four seasons, finishing 23rd in the Championship and leading/winning League One. It’s been five years since the Latics were relegated from the PL, in the 2012-13 season.

Wigan will host West Ham United in the fourth round on Saturday, Jan. 27.