By Joseph Lowery (@joeincleats)
Peter Vermes has his Sporting Kansas City squad working together and playing a beautiful attacking style of soccer. Wanting to play a brand based on possessing the ball and working it creatively into the attacking third, Vermes has had to form a roster capable of carrying out his vision. Last season, with center backs Ike Opara, Matt Besler and CDM Ilie Sanchez, SKC was known for being defensively dominant. In 2017, they only allowed 0.79 goals per game and 0.93 expected goals per game. Both of those numbers were good for first place in all of Major League Soccer. This year, the defensive numbers have slipped slightly; while Kansas City is still in the top three in terms of goals against per game, their expected number has increased to 1.45. Those statistics illustrate the shift in Vermes’ system from a defensive focus to an offensive one. With the offseason additions of Felipe Gutierrez and Yohan Croizet in midfield and Johnny Russell at right wing, Kansas City now has the fire power to play the brand Vermes wants.
SKC is third in Major League Soccer with 579.8 passes per game. They are also top of the league in pass completion percentage (83.3%) and expected pass completion percentage (80.9%). Committed to and capable of keeping the ball, Kansas City has the highest possession percentage in the Western Conference and is second in the league overall with 58.7% possession. The shooting numbers are encouraging as well. KC is in the top five in terms of goals per game (2.00), expected goals per game (1.89), and goal difference per game (0.92).
All of these statistics point to one thing: Sporting is executing their manager’s vision effectively and has become one of the most dominant offensive units in MLS.
Now that we’ve looked at some team numbers, we can ask an interesting question. Is there a specific player leading this productive offensive group? Russell has been a revelation out wide and Gutierrez has been brilliant, when healthy. But is there one guy truly at the forefront of SKC’s system? A deeper look into some player specific stats gives us an interesting answer: love him or hate him, Graham Zusi is SKC’s most pivotal player, at least in terms of buildup.
Many outside of Kansas City immediately dismiss Zusi as a productive MLS player because he wasn’t able to have much success at right back for the United States Men’s National Team. That biased argument is not particularly accurate; Zusi has been a well above average right back in the best back line in Major League Soccer since transitioning to defense. With that said, Zusi is not the most important player in this team because of his defense or his importance in the backline. In Vermes’ system, his players have the freedom to rotate in and out of space in different areas of the field. Out on the right side, Zusi, center mid Roger Espinoza, and Russell all have the freedom to rotate in their own vertical channels. If Russell is wide, the other two players take up space more centrally. If Zusi cuts in, Espinoza and Russell occupy more of the wide area.
It is all based on positional awareness and versatility. Who best embodies those two player traits? We’re back to Graham Zusi again. Because he has spent time at right wing, center mid, and now right back throughout his career, Zusi is the poster child for this type of system.
Let’s look at some stats that illustrate Zusi’s importance to Sporting Kansas City’s high-powered squad.
Graham Zusi leads his team in Touch% (individual touches divided by SKC’s total touches) with 11.9%. That number puts him ahead of SKC midfielders Ilie Sanchez and Espinoza, as well as center backs Ike Opara and Besler. Looking across the league among all players with 500 plus minutes, Zusi’s Touch% is higher than Diego Valeri, Sacha Kljestan, Federico Higuain, Alexander Ring, and Darwin Quintero. Zusi’s number is also good for second out of all right backs in Major League Soccer with at least 500 minutes played, just barely behind Toronto FC’s Auro (12.3%). As mentioned above, Zusi has the freedom to drift inside and get more involved in the buildup, and this stat clearly shows it.
Total Passes, Score:
Again speaking to the volume of touches that Zusi gets, he sits second in total passes with 883, just behind Philadelphia Union metronome Haris Medunjanin, Yes, that’s right: a right back has played the second most passes in Major League Soccer.