Matt Besler

Peter Vermes' System and His Favorite Son by Joseph Lowery

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 mid-season acquisition 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.

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Sporting Kansas City 2017 Season Preview by Jason Poon

The 2016 campaign for Sporting Kansas City ended on a .500 note (13-13-8), but it was not a team that went through the season that picked up wins, losses or draws on a consistent basis. It was a campaign that saw the team enjoy the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and everything in between. 

Sporting roared at the start of the season, picking up four wins out of five, seemingly ready to put behind the demons of that gut wrenching penalty playoff loss to Portland in 2014. But after flying out of the gates, SKC immediately washed away those gains by picking up just one win in the next 11 matches. SKC would limp into the playoffs as the fifth seed, only to be knocked out by the eventual MLS Cup winners (again) on a late header from Seattle Sounders' forward Nelson Valdez.

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2016 ASA PREVIEW: SPORTING KANSAS CITY by Kevin Minkus

During a span lasting from late April to mid-August, Sporting Kansas City picked up 31 points over 15 games. That tremendous run was highlighted by a 4-0 thrashing of FC Dallas and a gripping 4-3 result over Vancouver. During that stretch, SKC did it all. They put up four goal games. They eked out 1-0 nail biters. They created chances from the middle of the park. They created opportunities from the wings. They looked like a complete team. Sporting KC's form during that stretch is the stuff Supporters' Shields are built on (and the stuff their phenomenal Open Cup run actually was built on).

After a 5-0 home loss to San Jose on August 19th, though, that form began to crumble. The team lost seven of their last 12 games, on their way to a sixth place finish in the West and an exit in the knockout round after a heartbreaking penalty kick loss to eventual champions Portland.

The question is, which Sporting Kansas City side should we expect in 2016? The team that looked like true MLS Cup contenders, or the good, but not great, side we saw at the end of the season?

The answer, like with many questions (“What is the best Muppets movie?” being an obvious exception) probably lies somewhere in the middle of the two options. Using the simple, though by no means definitive, metric of performance relative to expected goals (G – xG), suggests Sporting Kansas City's true form may have been worse than they looked from April to mid-August, and better than they looked from mid-August through October. During the aforementioned 15 game run of mostly impressive performances, SKC over-performed their expected goals by eight goals. This over-performance came from converting a high (though not necessarily unsustainable) 16% of shots into goals. During the mostly dismal stretch of 12 games at the end of the season, they underperformed their expected goals by about five. They converted only 8% of their shots into goals over that part of the season.

This rough analysis, then, suggests Sporting Kansas City last season were neither true championship contenders, nor a side that should've struggled to make the playoffs. Intuitively, that feels about right. Do they have the pieces to make that ascension in 2016?

A look at the roster after the jump.

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USMNT World Cup Qualifying Review: Klinsmann Stays Afloat by Jared Young

World Cup qualifying review: USMNT rebounds in opening weekend
The USMNT opened World Cup qualification for Russia with two solid, if unspectacular performances. They started with their easiest match of this round with a 6-1 home win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The second match was the most challenging, a road game against Trinidad and Tobago, and resulted in a 0-0 draw. The goalless result in a non-friendly was the first for the United States since their World Cup game against Germany last summer, a run of nine games. It was their seventh clean sheet overall in that same time.

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US Autopsy - World Cup 2014 by Matt Hartley

By Matt Hartley (@Libero_Or_Death)

Well the transfer rumors coming off the back of the United States’ World Cup are ending in a depressingly familiar half-exciting, half-exasperating muddle. A steady flow of rumors about foreign suitors for Matt Besler ended with the revelation that he could choose between the damned (Fulham) and barely spared (Sunderland). Little wonder that being a one-club legend in Kansas City was more appealing.

We can still salivate over where DeAndre Yedlin might end up, and while that is a totally valid use of your day, he will be more of a project for clubs like Roma or Lyon than an immediate contender for playing time. Just because the US went further than England doesn’t make Yedlin better than Glen Johnson, does it? Anyways, a few interesting statistical tidbits:

Goalkeeper

Howard - sure, he made a record-setting 16 saves against Belgium, but his best was the recovery to save from Eder after he misjudged Nani’s shot. That kept the score at 1-0, allowing the US to take advantage of their best 90 minutes of soccer and get the result that would see the US out of the group.

The most incongruous stat for Howard was his distribution distance of 30 meters. This was the second shortest among teams that made it out of the group stages, but was that part of the US game plan? While Jozy Altidore’s absence affected the ability to play long, if Klinsmann had instructed his players to build from the back, it didn’t quite come off, as the United States was 8th out of the 16 second round teams in passes completed per game. Things broke down too quickly when the US had the ball, leading to a rather high amount of chances for the opposition.

Center Backs

Thankfully, the US centerbacks were pretty adept at protecting the castle. In examining how the centerbacks did, CBI (Clearances+Blocks+Interceptions) nicely conveys how busy our defenders were, and we’ll look at that stat in its per90 form.

Besler - I wrote a World Cup preview piece for Paste in which I posited that due to having the most secure spot on the backline, Besler would have to be the rock for the US. He finished with a very respectable 13.83 CBIp90, good for fourth in the tournament. In fact, finishing ahead of him was…

Omar Gonzalez, emerging from what seemed to be a long-term demotion to rack up a  15.07 CBIp90 rating, coming from an outstanding 12.14 clearances per 90. The US was certainly relying on Omar to dominate as they conceded the flanks and allowed crosses to rain in.

The third primary center back for the US, Geoff Cameron, was 11th overall for CBIp90 with 12.60. Spending time in midfield as well, Cameron is well on his way to using that versatility to become the American Phil Neville.

Main thing to touch on:

Looking at the top 20 defenders by the CBI metric, there aren’t a lot of big names there. Medel has a good background, Vlaar at Villa, Cameron at Stoke, Nigeria’s Omueruo is on the books at Chelsea, and a couple of guys in Ligue 1. Hell, there are four current MLSers in the top 20 CBIper90 rankings. If the US really wants players to move to “big” clubs, then the national team will need to start producing more performances that aren’t backs-to-the-wall, man-the-pumps nonsense. Matt Besler had a really damn solid World Cup, and his options were the 14-20 slots from the Premier League. It’s certainly a chicken and egg situation, but it makes you hope that Juventus will come in for Erik Palmer Brown so that we can see some US players grow into regular slots at teams that seriously compete for the Champions League.

Fullbacks

This can be the hardest position to judge in the game, I think. You’ve got to be all things to all people at fullback, and that can make the position difficult to analyze. For the US there seemed to be a fairly clear hierarchy going into the tournament:

    1. Fabian Johnson, the best player for all 10 outfield positions

    2. DaMarcus Beasley, well, we like him better than Chandler

    3. Timothy Chandler, the source for a million overstated concerns about   German-Americans’ Americaness

    4. DeAndre Yedlin, there for the experience.

Of course, Beasley played solid two-way ball, Johnson was a useful offensive tool while on the field, and Yedlin became one of the breakout players of the tourney. Since the United States played a very narrow midfield for large swaths of the tournament, offensive contributions from the fullbacks were always going to be vital to our success. Looking at key passes, Fabian Johnson ended up with a .90 KPp90, which was 36th among defenders, placing him behind such noted playmakers at Vincent Kompany, and oh holy crap, DeAndre Yedlin.

That’s right, our little roadrunner, with his limited minutes, contributed a very nice 2.27 KPp90, good for fourth among Squawka’s defenders, and that’s right, one place ahead of Glen Johnson. Sign him up, Brendan!

Midfield

This was the part of the field where the United States’ struggles seemed rather stark. The US ended up with 326.5 completed passes per game, which put them smack in the middle of the 32 team field, and above Brazil, Costa Rica, and Colombia. But looking at things a little more closely, the United States played in its own half 34% of the time, more than any other country, and 22% in the opposition’s half, fourth worst in the entire tournament.

Looking at individuals, Michael Bradley came in for a lot of criticism, but despite playing mostly in a new role further up the field, he managed to complete more passes per 90 (47.77) than Luka Modric (46.00), Sami Khedira (45.36), and Steven Gerrard (44.09). Sadly, this involvement didn’t translate into chance creation, as Bradley finished with 0.67 KPp90, somewhere in the 139-160 range overall. Sure, there’s where Ronaldo finished, but so did Gary Cahill.

Jermaine Jones did everything, winning 65% of his aerial duels, 54% of his take ons, and running a very competitive race for the USMNT’s “Holy crap, I can’t believe that went in” award.  Alejandro Bedoya and Brad Davis weren’t statistically significant, while Kyle Beckerman finished 14th among midfielders in the CBIp90 metric. Graham Zusi provided two assists, but otherwise seemed very forgettable. There just wasn’t a lot to hang our hat on offensively.

In Closing

The United States failed to make the transition to a more progressive style of play this World Cup, but the US did show that they can defend fairly well. Klinsmann’s challenge will be to integrate more players comfortable with keeping and moving the ball through midfield to ally with a decent defense and a serviceable striker corps. There’s a lot of potential in the pool to meld into a strong corps for Russia 2018. I’d expect Fabian Johnson to become a full-time midfielder in the future, and see extended run-outs given to players like Julian Green, Joe Gyau, and Will Trapp. Future columns will look at the players who are making a strong case for the national team, starting with September’s friendly in Prague against the Czech Republic

5 Reasons Why You Should Watch Major League Soccer by Harrison Crow

So you’re excited about the US Men’s National team breaking through the group stage? It may even be that you find yourself liking this whole soccer thing. That’s not surprising; most Americans you talk to that follow soccer, including myself, have had that specific moment that sealed commitment, a moment often from a past World Cup. Whether that be the 2002 World Cup run in South Korea or the 2010 heart break against Ghana that brought you to the “beautiful game," because of the placement that soccer has in the standings of American culture, it’s just common to have these iconic moments associated with the sport. The thing that distinguishes people like us from the rest of the excited US supporters across the nation during this time is that, once the World Cup tournament concludes, we'll still want more.

Well, fear not because there is a serious and thriving league here in the US. If you are or have ever been called a ‘Euro snob’, then you can probably stop reading now. You’re going to argue and just generally disagree with most everything I have to say. So what’s the point? I’m not trolling you and it’s great that you like soccer in Europe. But we’re to talk to these new recruits about soccer in the United States. So here we go. Here are five reasons and examples about soccer in the US, and why you should follow it after the World Cup.

 

1)   Soccer in the United States is actually good.

Once upon a time Major League Soccer was viewed as a retirement league. A place where aged stars came for one last pay day once they were out of their prime. It was viewed as such simply because it was exactly that. It wasn’t that long ago, and because of that there some pretty common misconceptions about MLS.

“It used to be that just CONCACAF [The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football] internationals and retirees came here. In 2014 Brazilians, Spaniards, Englishmen (that just miss out), Australians, Persians (Iran), and Irish all play in MLS, and they also play roles for their home countries in the World Cup, or are of World Cup quality.”

Look, most people that don’t like MLS likely have not watched more than a couple of games; which is silly considering they base all their opinions on those few games. It would be like me basing the entirety of the NBA on a Cleveland and New Orleans games or New Jersey and Phoenix. Neither of which are what we would call riveting match-ups.

The quality of MLS is improving every year. If you believe MLS still to be a ‘retirement league’ or a ‘first division with watered down depth’ you haven’t really invested any time in getting your facts straight. Truth is most people are forming opinions based on a small sample size from years ago.

Looking at numbers produced by Dave Clark and the statistician known by the handle Sidereal, one finds strong indicators that MLS has just continued to improved over the last few years. The league is gaining traction to being near par with some quality European soccer leagues.

2) MLS is on the verge of getting even better and it starts with increased wages.

“Although not often addressed, there's no question that achieving that vision will require increasing MLS player salaries to attract more top players. It's just a question of how fast, and the salaries may need to increase much sooner than 2022.”

“…”

“What could the future MLS look like? Or what would it need to look like for the Don Garber to see his vision meet reality? Let's build the reality. Let's assume by 2022 the MLS will pay their players 50% of total revenues, in line with the current Bundesliga level. MLS won't need to reach revenues of the Bundesliga to be considered a top league in the world, but they will need to be close to be paying quality players closer to market rate. Let's assume that MLS can achieve Don's dream by reaching Ligue 1 revenues but paying Bundesliga salaries. Finally, let's assume that Ligue 1 revenues grow at a modest 4% per year until 2022.”

“…”

“The target MLS revenue growth of 16% is very aggressive but Don Garber has a good amount of low hanging fruit to pick. The new rumored TV deal is for about $100M in 2015 and would increase the 2012 revenues (the basis for these numbers) by nearly 15%. The next TV deal might fetch the same 15% growth or more. MLS has also announced a five-team expansion plan which will bring at least 26% growth as the teams come on. Without doing much, MLS can get almost a third of the way to the goal according to my calculations.”

Okay, I pray that Jared will forgive me for lifting so many of his brilliant words from his article. Go read the whole piece because it’s great. Unfortunately it’s a bit of an involved article, and I just wanted to frame a great thought from his head.

The United States first division is growing, and growing at a substantial rate. That is due to the injection of money and the fact they can start paying players what their worth. This brings in more players from all over the place that can use the league as not just a place to end their career, but really to start it.

A new Collective Bargaining Agreement will be negotiated this year after the season is over. I get that most of us sports fan are sick of labor talks and news of player strikes. I read you loud and clear. The thing that makes this different is simply that the league gets better with increase salary caps for clubs and the increase of minimum player wages. I don’t want there to be a work stoppage, but with the increased revenue from the TV deal that MLS just signed, they owe it to the players and fans to further the cause of soccer in this country.

 

3a) It’s not just about overpaying old guys to get eyeballs, MLS is acquiring young and exciting talent…

The main example you could probably point to for young guys coming into the league is Fredy Montero. Montero has transitioned over the last 18 months from one of the MLS top scorers to being a perennial talent in Portugal. Montero, who spent four very good seasons in Seattle, had the opportunity to make mistakes in a league that pushed his abilities enough even four years ago.

Montero’s arrival was followed by an influx of young international talent.

Darlington Nagbe, for example, is an international and former collegiate star at the University of Akron. He has been a critical piece for the Portland Timbers, is one of the most creative and eccentric talents in all of MLS.

Fabian Castillo, the Columbian winger with plenty of technical prowess, passed up opportunities in Europe for a stable playing environment and a chance for consistent playing time in Dallas.

Deshorn Brown is a high-end prototypical speedster from Jamaica. In his first season with the Colorado Rapids, he lead his club in goals scored and took them to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

For every Montero, however, there will always be a player that just doesn’t work out. The examples are many. In spite of that, MLS has begun the reverse transition from retirement league to what many would call a feeder league. While many, if not most, would not purpose to spend the prime of their careers in MLS (see point: 3b), they can still make a fine career for themselves and good wages because of how the league has grown to reward these players.

More and more young players are coming here in the vein of Montero, now viewing the US as an opportunity to get on the radar of European scouts and develop a pathway to launch a more lucrative career while still having stability and having the chance to prove them in a physical league.

“The increased visibility in M.L.S. is attractive to the players, who also benefit from the league’s financial stability compared with some leagues in their home countries.” (Leander Schaerlaeckens, NY Times)

It’s true that MLS still has more players retire at the end of the year from soccer than will transfer out of its league, but the players that are being transferred out are going to better and better clubs.

 

3b) ...and some of that league talent is even in its prime.

As I said, there aren’t many who look at MLS and think “gosh, I could have a good living in the US in the prime of my career." However there are a few where the stars lined up perfectly and they've chosen to play in America rather than going abroad with their talents. Such examples are:

Diego Valeri, the creative midfielder from Argentina, has been a force since arriving in Portland. And teamed with their young budding star, Nagbe, they're a spectacular pair just to watch.

Juninho, the Brazilian, is often glossed over in terms of the whole league, but his consistency in LA and his ability to play both ways centrally is fantastic. He could be earning much more abroad but the allure of being on an iconic franchise and coached by one of the best US coaches in the business, Bruce Arena, keeps him in LA... for now.

Osvaldo Alonso is a unique case. His heroic escape from Cuba and passport situation limit his options abroad, but believe me... he has them. Yet, he loves Seattle and MLS. He's easily a top-3 midfielder in the entire league and still has a couple prime seasons left in the tank.

Matt Besler, the Sporting KC and USMNT centerback has had chances to go abroad, and yet here he is in his prime. This has happened by way of MLS introducing retention funds to pay for... well, people whom they define as worthy of using it. His salary relative to the cap has been kept manageable because of those funds and he loves playing in Kansas City. He's possibly and probably the best defender in MLS.

 

4) It’s not just about foreign talent; we have a thriving league to grow future US national team talent.

Players like Shane O’Neil (Colorado), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Benji Joya (Chicago) and DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle) are just a few names that play significant roles on their MLS clubs, and they still can't drink legally in this country. You could almost have thrown Will Trapp (Columbus) on this list too, but he busted the beer-drinking landmark at the beginning of the year.

All four have been featured in U-23 matches gearing up for the Olympics, just two short years away, and all look to be prominent members of future World Cup teams. There are others worth mentioning also, but the point here is that MLS is starting to become a facilitator of growing US talent. That’s important.

That doesn’t even highlight players such as Gyasi Zardes or Jack McInerney, who are both big-time names in the league and may not qualify as members of the Olympic roster. It also doesn’t include 19-year old striking sensation Diego Fagundez, who just graduated from high school two weeks ago and just entered his fourth season as a member of the New England Revolution. Sadly enough, he is still technically not a US citizen…yet.

 

5)  There is parity, and possibly more so here than in any other relevant league in the world.

“The three factors above were weighted equally and assigned a standard deviation (either + or -) for each league and each metric. Add them up and MLS is indeed the most competitive league in this 15-league sample. Interestingly, Brazil was not far behind. Of course, there are multiple ways one can measure parity and competitiveness, and this is just one of many approaches.”  - Alex Olshansky

 

“This consistency, when combined with MLS’s overall lower variation, results in a lower proportion of the MLS’s points variation resulting from actual talent differences. The overall impact is that MLS table results are nearly a 50/50 split between talent and luck.” - Zach Slaton

Everyone hates the Yankees and yet wants to be them. It’s one of the greatest catch-22’s in sports. We all hate the winner---unless, of course, it’s us. MLS has developed a single entity program that just doesn’t lend itself to helping clubs that win, but it helps those that do not. In fact it’s worse to finish middle of the pack in the league than to finish at the back.

The league subsidies the salary cap of certain teams based on the order in which the teams finished. Teams towards the bottom get certain stipend (called allocation money) that assists in pay down contracts for cap purposes. Teams at the top also are awarded this money as a means of deepening the team for international competition in CONCACAF Champions League. This enables them to compete against the Mexican League teams that often tend to be superior in talent depth.

This all creates an environment on a yearly basis that creates volatility in casting predictions and makes the whole process rather difficult. A team can be good and have bad luck (see: LA Galaxy) or it can be mediocre with good luck (see: Real Salt Lake, according to Matthias), or it can have best of both worlds (see: Seattle Sounders). The beauty is that teams are never that far out of it, and never that far ahead.

The team that serve as the best example of this anything-can-happen league is DC United. Our readers had predicted prior to the season that they would miss the play-offs and would be generally sit near the bottom. In fact 15% thought they would end up dead last, opposed to the less than 1% that thought they would win the conference. Currently sitting nearly halfway through the season, they are in good position to fight for that very chance. And last year, this is the same club that nearly set all types of records for being anemic and generally pathetic in their overall performance.

There are few, if any, instances in which you can point to a club going from worst to best in a single season. The 1990 Atlanta Braves come to mind for me, but thinking abroad in the world of soccer, that seems improbable if not all together impossible. In MLS, it's a yearly event.

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These are just a few reasons on why you should turn your attention to Major League Soccer after the World Cup. I'm sure others could add to this list, and generally speaking I know I missed things that others would include. But in talking with so many people down here in the South, I felt compelled to at least try to provide a this motivation to get involved in a dynamic league right here in the United States.