MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Sporting Kansas City ahead of tonight’s visit from New England

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  • League’s best defense needs to play like league’s best defense.

Kansas City gave up less than a goal-per-game this year (0.88 goals/game) and didn’t concede in 180 regular season minutes against New England, but in a 13-minute span of Saturday’s second half, Sporting conceded twice. The outburst ended a near-three month span where Kansas City had failed to concede multiple goals (last doing so on Aug. 3, vs. New York).

The first goal? Perhaps the team could have done something to stop it, but there was a degree of chaos and controversy to Andy Dorman’s opener that makes it hard to blame the defense. The second, however, came when Kansas City needed their defense to step up most, and after their midfield turned the ball over near the center line, nobody kicked up Kelyn Rowe until it was too late. The second-year pro lingered on the right while the Revolution moved toward Kansas City’s penalty area. Just when it seemed that Seth Sinovic was in position, Rowe created enough room to poke Lee Nguyen’s pass beyond Jimmy Nielsen.

Part of that is Kansas City’s want to release their fullbacks early, but it was also an issue with execution. Nobody stopped Juan Agudelo from pushing forward after the turnover. Nobody stepped to Lee Nguyen as the creator tried to find the right ball. A team with two defensive midfielders and two all-league caliber defenders may as well have been D.C. United.

Matt Besler seemed conscious of the problem in a mid-week radio interview, knowing the next mistake may be their season’s last.

“We cannot give up a goal on the counterattack because it puts us in the same position as last year, needing two just to tie,” Besler told Kansas City’s SportsRadio 810. “A lot of focus is going to be not allowing the counterattack goal, and if a couple of us focus on that and do our job, I’m confident in the rest of the guys that they’re going to be able to get a ton of chances and get goals.”

  • Using that midfield shield.

The postseason’s best example of the virtues of two defensive midfielders came in Los Angeles, where Jason Kreis’s use of Yordany Alvarez next to Kyle Beckerman kept the Galaxy counter at arm’s length for the first 60 minutes. In theory, if Kansas City’s guarding against counter attacks, their formation offers the same virtues, with Oriol Rosell and Lawrence Olum’s replacement (potentially Paolo Nagamura) sitting in front of the defense.1 But on Rowe’s Saturday goal, Olum allowed himself to be drawn toward Rosell, abandoning the space in front of Aurelien Collin, giving Lee Nguyen a place from which to create the goal.

So it’s not foolproof, but if Rosell and Nagamura do their jobs, fears of Nguyen and Rowe doing damage in transition should be mitigated, allowing Besler and Collin to track Agudelo while play’s slowed higher up the pitch. How they slow play, well, we’ll talk about that below, but if the defensive midfielders do their job, counters need not be as dangerous as Rowe’s was on Saturday.

Then again, if we see the return of Benny Feilhaber (and Kansas City doesn’t use two defensive midfielders), Besler’s right to be concerned about the counter.

  • It’s all about chances. It’s all about goals.

Sporting need two to avoid penalty kicks (one to tie), eminently possible but made more difficult by a New England team that’s capable of holding out. The Revolution kept 14 clean sheets this season and  notably went into shut down mode in the season finale at Columbus, scoring first then playing prevent to keep a clean sheet in Ohio.

That’s one concern for Kansas City. Others: Their goal scorers. Where they have depth (Teal Bunbury, C.J. Sapong, Dom Dwyer, … Claudio Bieler?) they lack the kind of quality you envision winning a one-on-one battles with Jose Goncalves. No, that’s not the only way to score goals, but it does illustrate Sporting’s problem. Graham Zusi can create as many chances as he wants in front of the line (and tonight, expect New England to be better about containing that), but unless somebody steps up to finish, it’s all for naught. Sporting’s left relying on penalty area chaos that finds the likes of Collin.

This isn’t the type of game Kansas City likes to play, but champions have to succeed outside their comfort zone. Sporting need to implement a plan that creates better chances. Instead of protecting a lead, they have to be able to hunt one, because tonight at Sporting Park, they may get a taste of their own medicine.

  • This is where style could hurt.

Beyond a want to sit on leads, one of Sporting’s distinct characteristics is their, umm, “strategic physicality”. Another way to read that: Fouls. They pulled away from the pack as the league’s most foul prone team, and while that tendency wasn’t in full effect on Saturday, the game did feature seven cards.

Here’s a problem for KC: What if the whistles aren’t going their way? What if the cards start flying early, Rosell, Nagamura,and Collin can’t take their usual liberties, and they’re left trying to keep New England on two without the ability to play to their strengths? All of a sudden, the likes to Agudelo, Rowe, and Nguyen are going to seem particularly quick.

Or, what happens if they keep picking up yellow cards? Those inevitable accumulation suspensions aren’t going to hurt them in the next round?

While we’re throwing out theories as to why Kansas City’s can’t translate regular season success into postseason glory, this is part of the picture. Maybe it’s not about total whistles and cards, but maybe it’s about a physical approach that’s much better suited to playing from ahead. And in the postseason, against better teams, you’re just more likely to fall behind.

  • Obligatory note about history.

About those postseason problems:

  • In 2010, Sporting finished first in the regular season, got by Colorado in the conference semifinals but lost at home to Houston in the East’s title game.
  • In 2011, Sporting finished first in the East and lost in the conference semifinals to Houston.
  • In 2012, they return home down 2-1 after leg one in New England.

It’s time to reverse the trend.

1 – Thanks to a reader’s comment, below, we were reminded (a.) we went too fast, and (b.) didn’t note Lawrence Olum’s injury. The man’s done for the season. Thanks to dreadpirate82 to picking up a mistake we should have caught before posting the story.

Ligue 1: Neymar sent off, Cavani saves PSG in draw with Marseille

AP Photo/Claude Paris
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ARIS (AP) Neymar was sent off shortly before Edinson Cavani rescued league leader Paris Saint-Germain with an injury-time free kick in a 2-2 draw at rival Marseille on Sunday.

Cavani won the foul after being knocked over by forward Bouna Sarr, and stepped up to curl the ball in off the underside of the crossbar with goalkeeper Steve Mandanda slightly slow to cover.

“It’s an important goal,” said Cavani, after netting his ninth of the campaign. “It was difficult to play here in a tough atmosphere.”

It was down to Cavani to take the free kick because Neymar, the world’s most expensive player when he joined from Barcelona for $260 million, was sent off after picking up a second yellow card in the 87th minute.

The Brazil striker reacted angrily to a cheap challenge from behind from Lucas Ocampos, and sent the Argentine winger tumbling to the ground at Stade Velodrome in retribution.

Shortly before, winger Florian Thauvin acrobatically volleyed home in the 78th minute from substitute Clinton Njie’s pass from the byline to put host Marseille ahead.

“You always have to make the run to the front post,” Thauvin said. “It was a great pass from him.”

Despite conceding the late goal, it was a confidence boost for Marseille after being routed 5-1 at home by PSG last season.

Marseille is fifth, four points behind second-place Monaco and eight behind PSG — which needed an injury-time goal to win 2-1 at Dijon in its previous league game.

“It’s bitterly disappointing, because we thought we’d done enough to win,” Mandanda said. “By the time I saw Cavani’s shot coming it was too late. But we should be happy and proud of our performance.”

PSG was heavy favorite, but Marseille twice took the lead.

Roared on by 60,000 home fans, Marseille scored in the 16th minute. Holding midfielder Luiz Gustavo was given too much room, and the former Bayern Munich midfielder advanced to hit a swerving 30-meter shot into the bottom left corner.

After Cavani missed a chance immediately after, Neymar collected a pass from midfielder Adrien Rabiot just inside the penalty area and drilled a low shot in off the right post in the 33rd.

There were no PSG fans present due to security concerns but Marseille fans clashed with riot police before the game.

La Liga: Asensio leads Madrid past Eibar; Atleti end slump

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Marco Asensio scored and helped force an own-goal to lead Real Madrid to a 3-0 win at home over Eibar in the Spanish league on Sunday.

The 21-year-old forward got Madrid going in the 18th minute when his well-placed cross meant for Sergio Ramos was headed into the net by Eibar defender Paulo Oliveira.

Asensio put the result beyond doubt 10 minutes later at the Santiago Bernabeu when he drove Francisco “Isco” Alarcon’s cross under goalkeeper Marco Dmitrovic.

Marcelo rounded off the victory in the 82nd after substitute Karim Benzema set him up.

Following a rocky start with only two wins in the first five rounds, Zinedine Zidane’s team has now won four straight in the league as it remained in third place. Barcelona leads by four points over Valencia, with Madrid another point behind.

“Not everything went perfectly, but we are happy for the win,” Zidane said. “It was important to get the three points and to score that many goals.”

The goal was Asensio’s fifth of the season, and his third in the league to go with two from the Spanish Super Cup.

Dmitrovic could have done more to keep out Asensio’s goal, but the Eibar `keeper also denied Isco and Cristiano Ronaldo their chances to add to the lead.


Atletico Madrid broke a four-game winless streak across all competitions after eking out a 1-0 win at Celta Vigo. Diego Simeone’s side is fourth – a point behind Real Madrid.

Striker Kevin Gameiro scored his first goal of the season in the 28th when he swept home a poor clearance of a corner kick by Celta’s Sergi Gomez.

The much-needed victory came after back-to-back draws in the league along with a 2-1 loss to Chelsea and a 0-0 draw at Qarabag in Azerbaijan in the Champions League.

Atletico did little more than cling to the advantage as Celta tried to equalize.

“They made us wait a long time to get this win, and that was why we worked as hard as we did today,” Simeone said. “The team showed that it can dig in, and that it doesn’t mind holding up in its area if it has to protect a result.”

Celta played with a large section of its Balaidos Stadium closed due to safety concerns regarding the structure of the stands. Club president Carlos Mourino said that Celta will refund the cost of the tickets for the seats that had to be left empty.

MLS: FCD really missed the playoffs; LA finish dead last

Photo credit: Houston Dynamo / Twitter: @HoustonDynamo
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FC Dallas 5-1 LA Galaxy

The standings: FC Dallas finish 7th in the West; LA Galaxy finish bottom of the West, and all of MLS

The game: It was too little, too late for FC Dallas, who on Sunday managed just their second win during the months of August, September and October. That’s a stretch of 15 games which saw last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners tumble out of the West’s playoff places and ultimately finish seventh, behind the San Jose Earthquakes on the wins tiebreaker. Roland Lamah scored twice on the day, to go with single tallies from Mauro Diaz, Matt Hedges and Michael Barrios. Oscar Pareja’s side began the season with treble aspirations for a second straight season (the Hoops also won the U.S. Open Cup in 2016), but will be watching this year’s playoffs from the comfort of their own couches. On the other hand, 2017 could have been worse — say, FCD could have been LA, who finished last in MLS for the first time ever. Sigi Schmid, should he remain in the job next season, has quite the rebuilding task on his hands. Let us not forget: LAFC arrive in March.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

2′ — Cian heads home an early opener Things started brightly for LA.

37′ — Lamah gets a lucky bounce, pulls FCD level — Right place, right time for Lamah, who’s endured quite the rough first season in MLS.

41′ — Hedges cleans up the mess, and it’s 2-1 — Clement Diop couldn’t hold on after making the initial save, and Matt Hedges was more than ready for the rebound.

49′ — Lamah makes it 3-1 — The rout has officially begun.

68′ — Barrios adds to LA’s misery with a fourth — LA’s 2017 season was over in May (maybe June, if we’re being kind). Every one of these defenders is on a beach right now.

73′ — Diaz makes it 5-1 from the spot — The season just will not end for LA.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Roland Lamah

Goalscorers: Cian (2′), Lamah (37′, 49′), Hedges (41′), Barrios (68′) Diaz (73′ – PK)


Houston Dynamo 3-0 Chicago Fire

The standings: Dynamo clinch the West’s 4-seed; Fire clinch the East’s 3-seed

The game: No one wanted to win the West, just like no one ever really wanted to claim a home game in the knockout round. In the end, the Houston Dynamo beat Sporting Kansas City to the 4-seed and the right to host the two sides’ opening-round game this week. Leonardo, Romell Quioto and Mauro Manotas bagged the goals for Wilmer Cabrera’s side which finishes the regular season unbeaten in its last six game (three wins). Chicago, recently resurgent, lose for just the second time in eight games, but in doing so fail to take advantage of New York City FC’s Decision Day draw with Columbus Crew SC. A win would have sent Chicago second in the East, allowing them a week’s rest and preparation before the start of the conference semifinals. Instead, they’ll host the New York Red Bulls this week.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

2′ — Leonardo heads home from a long throw — They don’t have to be pretty (especially on Decision Day), which is good, because this one was anything but.

68′ — Quioto goes it alone to make it 2-0 — At some point, someone should probably drag Quioto to the ground rather than let him carry the ball 40 yards into the penalty area. It never happened, and Richard Sanchez couldn’t make the save.

75′ — Manotas adds the insurance a few minutes later — Andrew Wenger’s cross found Manotas at the back post, and the finish was easy for the Colombian.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Leonardo

Goalscorers: Leonardo (2′), Quioto (68′), Manotas (75′)

MLS: Timbers beat Whitecaps to top West; RSL out, SKC fall to 5th

Photo credit: Portland Timbers / Twitter
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Portland Timbers 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps

The standings: Timbers clinch the West’s 1-seed; Whitecaps fall to West’s 3-seed

The game: For the entirety of the regular season, no one wanted to finish top of the Western Conference. That lasted until the final day of the season, as the Vancouver Whitecaps, who sat atop the West for the last two months, lost 2-1 to the Portland Timbers and fell all the way to the 3-seed (and the knockout round) on the back of the Seattle Sounders’ 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids. Kendall Waston put the visitors ahead on the half-hour mark, but Liam Ridgewell quickly equalized and Darren Mattocks came back to bite his old team with the game-winning goal in the 48th minute.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

29′ — Waston heads home from a free kick for 1-0 — Waston has had himself a pretty good month or so, turning into a regular goalscorer for Vancouver and helping Costa Rica clinch their place at the 2018 World Cup.

32′ — Ridgewell responds quickly, and it’s 1-1 — The initial shot was saved by David Ousted, but the rebound didn’t fall very far and Ridgewell was quick to pounce.

48′ — Mattocks beats his former club, makes it 2-1 — Vytautas Andriuskevicius (Vytas) cut the ball back for Mattocks, and the Jamaican picked out the 40 square inches that weren’t completely obscured at the near post.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Darren Mattocks

Goalscorers: Waston (29′), Ridgewell (32′), Mattocks (48′)


Real Salt Lake 2-1 Sporting Kansas City

The standings: Sporting KC clinch the West’s 5-seed; RSL finish 8th in the West

The game: On the bright side, RSL’s revival, which began after three games when Jeff Cassar was fired and Mike Petke was named the new boss, is complete. On the not-so-bright side, so is their season. Petke galvanized a young RSL side over the course of six months and turned them into legitimate playoff contenders, only to come up short on the final day of the regular season. Luis Silva and Brooks Lennon each bagged a goal in Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Sporting KC. Speaking of not-so-bright sides, Sporting’s regular season ends with three losses and two draws from their final five games. In that span, they went from competing for the West’s no. 1 spot, to something of an afterthought with a trip to the Houston Dynamo in the knockout round on tap.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

3′ — Silva slots past Dykstra for 1-0 — You could count the number of major mistakes made by Ike Opara this season on one hand, even after this early blunder.

41′ — Lennon gets two chances, makes it 2-0 — Silva drew the attention of four defenders and managed to move the ball wide to Lennon. Andrew Dykstra did well enough to make the initial save, but the rebound fell right back to Lennon, who left no doubt about it with his follow-up.

89′ — Opara heads home a free kick to the near post — Graham Zusi’s free kick was low and where only Opara could get to it. Opara’s header was low and where Nick Rimando couldn’t get to it.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Nick Rimando

Goalscorers: Silva (3′), Lennon (41′), Opara (89′)