Sporting Kansas City v Montreal Impact

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

  • 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.

Klinsmann side-steps blame, calls USA-Mexico one of world’s best rivalries

Jurgen Klinsmann, USMNT
Leave a comment

The rivalry between the national soccer teams of the United States and Mexico is one of the fiercest and most unique of its kind in the world of sports. Anyone who’s participated in, or simply attended, a competitive fixture between the two sides will immediately attest to that.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Speaking to ahead of Saturday’s clash against Mexico at the Rose Bowl, it’s quite interesting to hear current USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann describe the rivalry from his point of view, both before and after having coached in it on a number of occasions.

Before we get to that, though, Klinsmann had a bit more blame side step regarding his side’s fourth-place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup, the USMNT’s worst-ever showing at the tournament for CONCACAF nations.

Q: What did you learn from this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, where you lost to Jamaica in the semi-finals?

A: There were so many things that happened in the tournament and decisions that were made that affected the outcome. It was difficult for the players to know what to expect. For Mexico and for Panama it was the same thing. The lesson is that you just have to roll with it and try to control the things you can.

What’s the no. 1 thing players can’t control? Who gets called into the team/plays in the games.

What was the no. 1 problem for the USMNT at this summer’s Gold Cup? Who got called up/played game after game despite performing very poorly. Ultimately, it’s what undid them in the semifinals and third-place game.

Just once — once — would it hurt Klinsmann to answer a question with an “I,” or “me,” or even “we?” The question was “What did you learn,” yet the answer always come back to “the players,” or “they,” or “them.” At this point, Klinsmann either believes he’s infallible, or he’s simply trying to see how many ridiculous statements he can get away with.

Q: You’ve been in the top US job for almost five years now and you’ve met Mexico many times. How would you define the rivalry between these countries on the pitch? Can you compare it with others you’ve experienced?

A: The USA-Mexico rivalry is one of the greats in world football. For me, it compares to Germany-Holland in terms of the intensity and emotion it brings out in the fans. As USA coach, it was a learning curve to understand how much this rivalry means to our fans. We had won some games against big nations, but the reaction from everyone to when we went down to [Estadio] Azteca and beat Mexico there for the first time was just amazing.

Q: What makes the rivalry unique?

A: What is unique is that there are so many Mexican-Americans living in the United States, so the rivalry crosses borders. We have seen many times in these last years that younger Mexican-Americans will wear a Mexico jersey to our game, and when we start doing well they take it off and have a U.S. jersey underneath! More and more they’re supporting us, and we hope to continue to win them over.

Klinsmann gets this one absolutely right. With the two countries situated right next to each other, the aforementioned immigration of so many Mexican soccer fans into the U.S., and the classic battles between the two sides over the years, USA-Mexico not only feels amazing to get one over on your rivals, but perhaps more than anything it’s avoiding that feeling of defeat, of embarrassment, of being taunted and haunted for days, weeks, months and sometimes years, that makes beating the old foe so satisfying.

Ozil, Coquelin: Arsenal can win the title this season

Mesut Ozil, Arsenal FC
Leave a comment

I suppose, in theory, that any Premier League club that fields a team could win the league title for a given season, so the above headline could have been written in reference to any one of 20 teams a few short weeks ago.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Fast forward eight rounds of fixtures to the present day, and it’s becoming clearer and clearer with every passing week that it’s a three-horse race — Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United, who currently sit 1-2-3 atop the league — for the 2015-16 Premier League title.

So — and stick with me for just a second — why not Arsenal? [The crowd gasps loudly] Arsenal midfielders Mesut Ozil and Francis Coquelin believe the Gunners have what it takes to win the title this year, so why doesn’t anyone else?

Ozil and Coquelin, on Arsenal’s progression to title contenders — quotes from the Guardian:

Ozil: “We have a great team with many world-class players. Our goal is to win the Premier League and I think that this season it’s possible to do it, if we all stay healthy. But the season is long.”

Ozil: “I didn’t expect [Bayern Munich] to beat Dortmund 5-1. Their recent results show they are simply in great shape … But our victory against Manchester United was a sign: when we play and want it 100 percent, then we can beat Bayern.

“We are playing at home. Although we have respect for them, we don’t have any fear. We know how to score goals against Bayern and we can be successful. It will be difficult – but we have the potential to beat any team.”

Coquelin: “We proved a lot of people wrong. Inside the dressing room we knew we could do good things this season. We knew we could be contenders, but obviously we have to be consistent.

“We are getting stronger against the big teams. We beat City last season, now United. It’s all about consistency. The league is getting tougher, so we need to be getting results every week … We knew we had to put it right after Olympiakos and that’s what we’ve done.”

Coquelin is absolutely right — no one expected Arsenal to throttle Man United the way they did on Sunday. The Gunners acquitted themselves quite well, though it should be mentioned that Louis Van Gaal set up United to fail miserably with the immobile midfield duo of Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger against a quick, dynamic Arsenal unit.

[ MORE: “Super computer” predicts final Premier League standings ]

That’s not meant to take anything away from Arsenal’s scintillating performance, because they did exactly what they should be doing against a poorly planned side — that’s not always been the case for Arsenal against top teams. The Gunners will play hosts to Man City on Dec. 19; perhaps we’ll better be able to dub them contenders or pretenders based their showing that day.