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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.

MLS Snapshot: Colorado Rapids 1-1 FC Dallas (video)

COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 23: Marlon Hairston #94 of Colorado Rapids celebrates after scoring a first half goal past Chris Seitz #18 of FC Dallas during a game at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 23, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): In keeping with the the theme of “we never really learn anything in MLS, it just kind of happens,” both the Colorado Rapids or FC Dallas had the chance to make a massive statement in the two sides’ ongoing race for the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield (FCD entered Saturday’s clash at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park with a three-point lead), but they ultimately settled for a 1-1 draw, and we settle for “wait until next week, maybe we’ll actually learn something then.” At least the goals were great, though — Marlon Hairston opened the scoring by rounding the goalkeeper with traffic in all directions, and Victor Ulloa unleashed a rocket from well outside the penalty area to equalize late on. In that sense, the 90 minutes were befitting a first-versus-second matchup. The draw means the Rapids are unbeaten in their last 15 league games, but the LA Galaxy, who won away to the Portland Timbers and inched two points closer to the league’s elites, are ultimately the day’s biggest winners.

[ MORE: Previewing the rest of the MLS weekend ]

Three Four moments that mattered

26′ — Akindele goes inches wide of the far post — Quick, decisive movement around the penalty area is the only way to create that half-yard of space needed to fire a shot off.

33′ — Hairston breaks out, Zimmerman makes the dramatic block — Hairston was thisclose to having a one-on-one chance on goal, but Walker Zimmerman made a spectacular recovery run and an even better last-second sliding tackle to deflect Hairston’s shot narrowly wide of the post.

44′ — Hairston rounds Seitz to make it 1-0 — Composure, quickness, finesse. Hairston displayed it all on this goal, his second in as many games.

82′ — Ulloa unleashes a blast from 25 yards out f0r 1-1 — If not for the net on the goal, Ulloa’s strike might still be traveling at an ever-so-slightly upward trajectory for the rest of time.

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

Man of the match: Sam Cronin

Goalscorers: Hairston (44′), Ulloa (82′)

MLS Snapshots: Impact 5-1 Union | Toronto FC 4-1 DC United (video)

Didier Drogba
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): Look out, America, for the Canadians of Major League Soccer are here, and they mean business. Saturday night saw the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC thrash the Philadelphia Union (5-1) and D.C. United (4-1), two playoff-caliber teams in their own right, each at home, to move to within four and six points, respectively, of New York City FC, the current leaders of the Eastern Conference. The stars for the two sides? Would you believe me if I told you Sebastian Giovinco and Didier Drogba each scored a hat trick on the night? Of course you would, because they’re Giovinco and Drogba. At their best, it’s hard to argue any team in the East is better than either Montreal or Toronto. Here’s to 180 minutes of Drogba vs. Giovinco in the Eastern Conference finals.

[ MORE: Previewing the rest of the MLS weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

19′ — Silky smooth build-up ends with a Drogba tap-in — If you’re allowing Drogba chances that are this easy, good luck to you. The real story here, though, is the backheel by Piatti. A moment like this is enough to flip me into a second-assist advocate.

42′ — Drogba slots home a rebound for 2-0 — Unlucky carom on the rebound, but you’re really not doing a great job of “don’t give Drogba chances that are that easy,” Union defense.

52′ — Drogba gets his hat trick — The Union are really, really not doing a good job of making life even the least bit difficult for Drogba.

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

Man of the match: Didier Drogba

Goalscorers: Drogba (19′, 42′, 52′), Pontius (72′), Piatti (87′), Mancosu (90+1′)


Three moments that mattered

21′ — Giovinco ends his skid with a stunning free kick — It had been eight full games since Giovinco last scored a league goal for TFC, by far the longest such streak of his time in MLS. The wait was (almost) worth it. (WATCH HERE)

39′ — Giovinco does it again — What is there to say at this point? The angle is ridiculous. The power is ridiculous. The swerve is ridiculous. Giovinco is a ridiculous player. (WATCH HERE)

90+1′ — A hat trick for Seba — Not to be outdone, Giovinco bags his third of the night.

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

Man of the match: Sebastian Giovinco

Goalscorers: Giovinco (21′, 39′, 90+1′), Jeffrey (24′), Delgado (29′)

WATCH: Giovinco’s goal drought is over after a pair of stunning free kicks

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against Colorado Rapids during the first half of the MLS soccer game in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. (Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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Oh, how we have missed you, Sebastian Giovinco, scorer of amazingly beautiful, video game-like goals.

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If you can believe it, Toronto FC’s tiny superstar entered Saturday’s clash with D.C. United without a goal in any of his last eight league games. Six minutes before halftime, the drought was over after not one, but two “only Giovinco could do that” free kicks (videos below).

[ MORE: Previewing the rest of the MLS weekend ]

It was by far the longest such streak of Giovinco’s (brief) time in MLS, and at least he had the decency to make it worth our wait.

Scholes: Pogba “nowhere near worth” rumored Man United transfer fee

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 05:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United looks on during Paul Scholes' Testimonial Match between Manchester United and New York Cosmos at Old Trafford on August 5, 2011 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
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If a player is only worth what a club is willing to pay them, then aren’t they also worth a price at the top of the pay scale, as long as a club is willing to pay it?

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Manchester United legend Paul Scholes doesn’t think so, at least not in the case of Paul Pogba, the highly-sought Juventus (and former Man United, which he left for free) midfielder. Rumored to be the subject of $113-million bid by the Red Devils, Pogba’s footballing future remains a question, though an answer will have to be realized in the coming days and/or weeks, as the 2016-17 Premier League season kicks off 21 days from today.

That’s a price that, according to Scholes, should be reserved for “someone who is going to score 50 goals a season like Ronaldo or Messi” — quotes from the Guardian:

“He was a very talented young player, I played with him and I knew how good he was. He played for the first team maybe once or twice, but from my understanding he was asking for too much money [when he left in 2012].

“For his age, he was asking for far too much money, for a player who hasn’t played first-team football. OK, he has gone on to great things. I think certainly there has been a lot of improvement. He needed to improve if he is going to be a player worth £86m.”

While United may have to pay closer to [$131 million], Scholes added: “I just don’t think he is worth [$86 million]. For that sort of money, you want someone who is going to score 50 goals a season like Ronaldo or Messi. Pogba is nowhere worth that kind of money yet.

[ PRESEASON: PL clubs in action with opening day three weeks ago ]

On Scholes’ assertion that Pogba was asking “for far too much money”: United have finished 7th, 4th and 5th in the last three PL seasons, while in that same time Pogba has gone on to become on of the top five players in the world; meanwhile, none of the world’s 20 best (or is it 50?) players currently play for United. It would have been a risk to pay a 19-year-old with three first-team appearances like a seasoned veteran, to be sure, but so much of succeeding at the top level of the sport is down to hitting pay dirt on exactly that kind of calculated risk. If everyone plays it by the book, no one’s ever going to get ahead.

On Scholes’ obviously fear he may no longer be United’s greatest “Paul”: It’s OK, Scholesy, it’ll be terribly difficult to top in 10 years what you achieved in 18.