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.

Kane scores early and late, England narrowly top Tunisia

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England’s 2018 World Cup debut began brilliantly, then appeared headed for a disappointingly familiar outcome, but was ultimately saved by Harry Kane who scored both goals in the Three Lions’ 2-1 victory over Tunisia in Volgograd on Monday.

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England came sprinting out of the starting blocks — so quickly they nearly took flight — and taking an early lead through Harry Kane in the 11th minute (WATCH HERE). John Stones‘ header was spectacularly saved by Mouez Hassen, but Kane was in the right place at the right time and swept home the rebound for his first World Cup goal (on his World Cup debut).

The opening half-hour was all England, with the likes of Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling cutting through the Tunisian midfield and defense with very little resistance and creating a half-dozen golden scoring chances. Unfortunately for Gareth Southgate‘s side, they couldn’t capitalize, and they were made to pay for it.

Kyle Walker caught Fakhreddine Ben Youssef with a raised arm as an innocuous cross came into the box, prompting referee Wilmar Roldan to blow his whistle and point to the penalty spot immediately. Ferjani Sassi stepped up and converted, just out of reach of Jordan Pickford, who perhaps got a fingertip on the ball (WATCH HERE), to make it 1-1 and negate an otherwise dominant first-half performance by England. It would be Tunisia’s only shot on goal for the game.

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England’s best chance to re-establish a lead came during a six-yard-box scramble just seconds before halftime. Alli’s header hit the crossbar and Stones badly scuffed — nearly whiffed — on the follow-up. Kane was dragged to the ground during the rest of the commotion, to no interest of Roldan.

It took far longer than anyone back home in England would have liked, but Kane grabbed the winner in the 91st minute, heading home from acres of space at the back post. Jordan Henderson got the first crack at heading the corner kick, but it was blocked and bound high into the air. Somehow, some way, Kane was unmarked and snuck his redirect just inside the post.

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Up next for England is a meeting with Panama on Sunday, a day after Tunisia take on Belgium, who thrashed the Panamanians, 3-0, on Monday.

VIDEO: Tunisia equalizes on controversial penalty kick

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England centerback Kyle Walker put his arm up to halt the forward progress of Fakhreddine Ben Youssef. Unfortunately for Walker, Ben Youssef was in the box and Walker’s elbow caught Ben Youssef’s face.

Referee Wilmar Roldan quickly whistled for a penalty kick and despite the protests from a half-dozen of England players and a check from the VAR, the called stood. Ferjani Sassi’stepped up to the spot and found the lower-left corner, just barely beating Jordan Pickford to tie the game in the 35th minute.

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How will England respond?

VIDEO: Captain Kane puts England on the board early

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It may be the easiest goal-scoring opportunity Harry Kane‘s ever had in an international competition, and he finished it as easy as you’d like.

Kane side-footed home after Tunisia goalkeeper Mouez Hassen made a terrific save on John Stone’s header off a corner, but the save was directed right into a wide-open Kane who was standing ready inside the six yard box. The 11th minute goal will surely settle some of the Three Lions’ nerves as they open their World Cup bid in Russia.

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After slow start, Belgium takes care of business against feisty Panama

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All it took was one goal to bring Belgium to life.

Following a frustrating first 45 minutes, in which Belgium put a pair of shots into the side netting and forced saves from Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, Dries Mertens 47th minute goal opened the floodgates, as Belgium went on to defeat Panama, 3-0, Monday afternoon in Sochi.

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But Panama never made it easy for the Belgians. From the opening whistle the CONCACAF nation showed its incredible spirit, chasing down Belgium all across the field and making life incredibly difficult for Belgium attackers Romelu Lukaku, Mertens and Eden Hazard. Hazard was hacked down all over the field, and while he did earn fouls and a few yellow cards were issued to Panamanian players, it was enough to get in Hazard’s head.

Two minutes into the second half, everything changed. A wonderstrike from Mertens opened the game, and forced Panama to attack and try and tie the match, which gave Hazard, de Bruyne and Lukaku more space to operate.

In the heat and humidity of the Sochi summer, Panama’s veteran defense began to tire, allowing de Bruyne the space to deliver a terrific assist to Lukaku in the box, putting Belgium up 2-0 in the 69th minute.

 

Six minutes later, Lukaku was put through on the break, chipping over Penedo to confirm the victory.

With the win, Belgium moves to the top of Group G. Up next for Belgium is Tunisia on Saturday, while Panama takes on England on Sunday.