Postseason Preview: Sporting Kansas City / by Harrison Crow

@harrison_crow

SKC in the ASA Era; A Prologue

Spoiler alert: Over the course of the last eight seasons, from 2011 to 2018, we’ve collected shot data. We have a lot of spreadsheets. And if you asked me for one specific thing, one stat that stood out among those very large “csv” files, pertaining to Sporting Kansas City, I’d tell you this; Peter Vermes and his teams have a +88 expected goal differential dating back to 2011, not only the highest in Major League Soccer during that span but also the highest by almost 30 goals.

Sure, if you flip the ratio to “per game” both Atlanta and Los Angeles Football Club surpass KC. But the point isn’t that they’ve been really good for two years. It’s that SKC has been “really good” for the last eight seasons. It’s not just that they’re a good team or they recently started being good. It’s the longevity they’ve brought and the consistency to being above their peer organizations which stands out above all.

The Road So Far: 2018 Summarized

2018 has been yet another solid year for Sporting Kansas City. Lead in the attack by not one but a committee of capable and intimidating figures and then backed on defense by yet another solid season with the trio of Tim Melia, Ike Opara and Matt Besler, they’ve been another dominant force in Major League Soccer and possibly the best team in the Western Conference.

The team suffered a tough opening day loss against NYC at home but they regrouped and came out gangbusters the rest of March with ten points over their next four games. They even ran it for a total of seven unbeaten games. They ran into a tough Revolution games on the road which ended the streak but then they rattled off another seven games without a loss. This all without their new talisman Felipe Gutierrez who suffered a knee injury and was sideline for a couple months plus an additional month at the World Cup with Chile.

Their run from March until end of June with a single loss put them at 32 total points, second best in Major League Soccer to only Atlanta and their 34 over that span and speaks to their overall talent as a team. Additionally, while rarely considered an attacking juggernaut, they even ranked second in expected goals lead by a committee of Daniel Salloi, Johnny Russell and Khiry Shelton.

But as they ended June and headed towards July they hit their roughest patch of the season. A five game skid across with back-to-back losses on the road against Montreal and Real Salt Lake followed by a draw at home against Toronto and then another set of back-to-back losses in New York against the Red Bulls and then again at home against FC Dallas. But despite a goal differential of minus six across five games the team had a mere expected goal differential of -0.19 pointing to some still positive performances.

The team got back to their winning ways to start August and even ran off 387 scoreless minutes while posting four straight shutouts against Houston, LAFC, Portland and then Minnesota and have collected 14 points through their last eight games of the season.

The team sits at 59 total points on the season going into the last week of the season. They have the best shot at finishing the top in the Western Conference and with an expected goal differential ranked third best in MLS, they’re one of the most dangerous teams in the Western Conference.

The Attack

Sporting Kansas City has built one of the most unusual yet efficient attacks in recent MLS history. In terms of what they’ve done via expected goals, this year - contrary to the past, has been about increasing both quantity and quality.

It’s true, SKC doesn’t have “THE” one guy but instead they have many. Since 2015, there have been six teams with more than 60 points. All but one of them have had multiple individuals with over 10 expected goals shot. That team, FC Dallas in 2015, had four guys with over four expected goals The next team with the highest point total to not have double digit expected goals shot takers, the 2016 Colorado Rapids with 58 points, had three different individuals over four expected goals.

Sporting Kansas City has had eight different individuals compile more than four total expected goals through the attack in 2018. The eight unique contributors to the attack (in order of xG rank) Johnny Russell, Daniel Salloi, Ilie Sanchez, Gerso Fernandes, Khiry Shelton, Yohan Croizet, Felipe Gutierrez and Ike Opara.

The specific addition of Johnny Russell has been a huge addition out on the wing and finally gives Sporting Kansas City a winger that has flash but also couples it with a healthy dose of substance.

His ability to cut in on the wings and combine with short, quick passes to create space for either himself or his teammates has been huge at times but he’s not afraid to beat defenders 1v1 either. He’s done it 56 times this season, good for 15th in MLS and 7th among wingers. One of the very few good (or in this case, great) additions from England’s division two.

The Striker Ordeal

This year has been another year of “what are we doing at the striker position” for fans of SKC. Will it be Khiry Shelton, Diego Rubio or Krisztian Nemeth? According to formations numbers SKC have even used Sallói and Yohan Croizet in various stabs at the striker position this season.

Khiry Shelton, is a bit bland. He doesn’t immediately do anything to really stand out from the crowd. He doesn’t take a lot of shots. He’s not a great passer or even anything more than solid in hold up play. But the sum of his parts and the passive things that he does make a good option up top. He does all the dirty work that Vermes asks and makes the runs needed to help open up space.

Diego Rubio cuts an interesting figure. He’s not always been great but we’ve seen flashes of something more on a number of occasions. That’s been Rubio over his 800 minutes this season scoring eight goals on just 30 shots and not even producing four expected goals. His energy is great and his passing and shot attempts per 96 are both better than Shelton but his over performance of 14 goals through 38 games is probably a bit of a false flag.

Rubio might be the best guy for job at present but his inconsistency seems to be worrisome for the organizational leadership and it has seemed to, at least in some small part, inspired the move to rescue Krisztian Nemeth from New England in the second half of the season.

Speaking of Krisztian Nemeth.

Nemeth is interesting because he’s risen to the occasion in times past and has given SKC fans plenty of happy memories, but holistically, his larger body of work isn’t anything to speak of.

Across his 3000 plus minutes of play time from 2015, 2017 and 2018 he’s put together 11.5 expected goals. Compare that to Rubio and his near 2400 minutes over the last few seasons and 11 flat expected goals and it’s a pretty good heat between the two. Nemeth probably makes up a bit more ground in most minds for those past happy moments in 2014 and a little bit of attitude and flair he adds too pushing him past Rubio.

It remains a bit of mystery who will line-up in the number nine spot for Vermes come playoff time. Looking back over the course of the last month and a half and you have Rubio and Nemeth each getting equitable starts but with the return of Shelton from his injury has him back in the line-up too. It’ll most likely come down to match-ups but how that’s interpreted right now is anyone’s guess.

The Midfield: The Best of Mr. Nobody

Kansas City doesn’t have much in the way of high priced stars or big names and the signings of Felipe Gutierrez and Yohan Croizet didn’t exactly make waves across the soccer world.

Croizet has been, admittedly, underwhelming as a designated player and the early gifs of his less stylish moments on the field were an eyesore but he’s come along to be a decent contributor for Peter Vermes and a good off the bench option as well.

The midfield is the engine and grit behind SKC and Roger Espinoza is the engineer. While Ille Sanchez will get most of the time on the ball Roger Espinoza is doing the little things both on the ball and off to help orchestrate the attack and then defensive formation when teams counter.

Both Sanchez and Espinoza at times are a bit redundant with neither being the classic destroyer which SKC built their teams around from 2011-2014. They’ve still got bite, which we’ve come to expect from a Peter Vermes team, but it’s a different kind.

They still press but do so in order to force a bad pass or to make decision rather than immediately win back possession like counter pressing teams. They’ll still foul, stop the counter and even at times play some mind games but this is a more mature and disciplined version of previous Vermes sides.

Last year we saw the midfield sit back a bit more, help supplement the defense a bit and absorb the counter at times. They were a little less involved in the creation of shots and it made sense with a bit of an aging core. The addition of Felipe Gutierrez has brought more energy to the midfield and with it more attention in the attack.

Both Croizet and Gutierrez have brought with them the bravado to take daring, low leverage shots while still having the ability to play that final pass either in transition or in the final third. In years prior that was largely only on Benny Feilhaber. This year, that’s Espinoza more often than not, playing that role while giving Gutierrez the ability to get forward and supplement the attack.

With a solid four options in a engine room of three position Peter Vermes is in a healthy spot going forward and in to the semi-conference playoff round.

The Spectacular Defense

Defender of the Year candidate, Graham Zusi, moved to right back last year. The experiment itself had been teased over the last few months of the 2016 season and by 2017 . You could have probably put me solidly in the camp that A) didn’t really care and B) didn’t think it would be a very good move. I was--and if you felt the same way, you too were--completely wrong.

My good friend and podcast mate, Ian, layed out a spectacular and convincing argument for why Zusi should be the defensive player of the year in 2018 but if you take it a bit further and just focus on the defense--which is where I’ve seen some push back, here are some numbers to crunch on:

He’s above average 1v1, winning of 55% of his challenges compared to the league average 45%. He had seven shots blocked good for 16th out of 46 starting full backs. He had a defensive action once every 80 passes, which isn’t a measure of quality but tells us how busy he is on the pitch (in the same tier as Julian Gressel and Reggie Cannon).

He may not be the best lock down defensive player when it comes to preventing the other team from creating opportunities but when you add in the fact he controls the majority of the ball for one of the most possession heavy teams in MLS, has shown to be one of the most effective passers in MLS both in possession and in the attack and he’s still able to score goals in addition to very good and perhaps great defense he gives you, he’s simply the best player at a defensive position this season.

But not to be out done. The team still has it’s hearty defensive duo of Matt Besler and Ike Opara in the defensive center combining for 42 blocks this season. Assuming the league wide shot leverage (.109, average probability of a shot) that’s worth a little over 4 expected goals saved this season between the two. A very good year contributing to the team ranking of 8th in Blocked Shots Against% in MLS.

On the other side of the house they’re still rocking things with Opara second among centerbacks in the league with xG+xA (5.8) but also Besler continues to be effective within the possession game adding to their tally, 10 key passes and 1 xA.

Lastly, it’s easy to forget about Seth Sinvoc because he’s the quiet less spectacular but still steady piece that completes arguably the best defensive backline in the Western Conference. The team itself sits 5th in MLS in expected goals against but is first among teams in the West. Sinvoic adds a little bit of everything while not being a victim of any specific flaws. Sinvoic won’t win you a game, but he very likely won’t lose one for you either, which among MLS left backs is high praise.

How it all Comes Together

Peter Vermes became a fan of the 4-3-3 when he took over as head coach and has rarely abandoned it in his eight seasons in charge, but the various responsibilities within the 4-3-3 vary.

Their defensive actions don’t stand out, mostly because they have such a large percentage of the ball making it hard to create events on pace with other teams. But if you were to account for passes made against them and ratio that to their defensive actions recorded you find, while they’re not a “high” press team, they create one defensive action (DFA) per 10.354 passes, and in the same breath as New England and Salt Lake both of which have shown aggressive pressing tendencies.

Once the team has the ball and is transitioning into the attack they’ve been especially reliant upon Ille Sanchez, Graham Zusi, and Matt Besler in possession acting as the point guards in enabling and transitioning the defense into the attack.

Once in the final third the bulk of the touches go to the right side of the field as both Graham Zusi and Johnny Russell lead the team in passes in the final third. Interestingly enough though it’s Roger Espinoza who acts as the central pivot from right to left should those opportunities stagnate and they need to circulate. However, they primarily look to combination play, one-two-quick passes to draw in defenders and open up space behind. When that isn’t an option they are quick to find pockets of space needed for shot opportunities.

I love Kansas City because they’re unafraid of taking low leverage shots at volume. If they unable to penetrate tough defensive teams they’re more than willing to take what they’re given and try to create something from nothing. Sometimes it seems rather unspectacular and it may even be frustrating as it often leads to nothing, but teams in the modern game hate giving up shots, period. If you continue to take low leverage shots it’s going to garner attention and more often than not a defender is going to go out of his way to start challenging those opportunities creating space to be taken advantage of... eventually.

It’s admittedly a bit of a high risk gamble and of the six games they’ve been shut out this year all but one of them they had at least double digit shot counts. That being said they’ve posted 8 games with three or more goals more than any of the past three years. Their expected goals (59.1) higher than it’s been at any time in our data set.

This is a team that can control the ball for large parts of the game, lock you down, and prevent you from getting into high leverage opportunities on defense and has numerous ways it can knock you out of a game on the attack.

How Far Does This Track Go?

Finally freed of a knockout round match, SKC has the opportunity to host a two-legged series and has all the pieces to make it a challenging contest against any opponent they line-up against in the Western Conference. If you were to assume the most likely of scenarios plays out as expect that would very possibly be either Seattle, Portland, L.A. Galaxy or in the most unlikely scenario possible Sale Lake. Should SKC dispatch their opponent in the Conference Semifinals, they’ll be faced with the fall out of Dallas, LA, Seattle or Portland in the Conference Finals.

Considering there really isn’t a “home field advantage” to the MLS Cup tournament, aside from hosting the final, Sporting is going to be have to continue to play well on the road, which they have this year.

Against MLS Cup favorites, Atlanta United, they won on the road but not without a bit of controversy. A goal, just five minutes into the game, by Josef Martinez was denied by VAR after being ruled offside on the play and then 20 minutes later, still in the first half, Brad Guzan was shown a red card for the “denial of a goal scoring opportunity”. Both teams had plenty of opportunities throughout the game and SKC didn’t finally pull away until Daniel Salloi scored in the ‘67 minute.

Much like against Atlanta, Kansas City played New York on the road and did so resolutely. The game was close with each team looking to pull away at different times until Marc Rzatkowski put his second of the game behind Tim Melia to help put the Red Bulls ahead permanently.

In the end, Kansas City has a weave of varied strengths which often help support the very few flaws inherent in their system and personnel. They’re a strong team that is well drilled and has shown its ability to compete against the best teams in MLS. Presently 538 has them the most likely team out of the Western Conference to win MLS Cup and compared to years prior it’s a much easier path forward to that end goal.