Opta Spotlight: Kamara is MLS' dominant aerial presence
MLSsoccer.com continues to take a look back at the 2012 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with Toronto FC and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.
2012 record: 18-7-9 (63 points); 42 GF / 27 GA (+15 GD)
2012 Sporting Kansas City Average Position
As you can see, the six players tasked with the primary defensive duties for Sporting – Seth Sinovic (16), Matt Besler (5), Aurélien Collin (78), Chance Myers (7), Júlio César (55) and Roger Espinoza (15) – fall right into place in the space approaching the midfield line. It's no wonder why teams had such a hard time breaking down this unit: Their organization, under the guidance of assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin, was impeccable.
Ahead of those six, it's a bit murky. But that's mostly because of the versatility of Kei Kamara (23) and Graham Zusi (8). Kamara generally started games on the right flank, flip-flopping liberally with whoever manned the opposite forward position to keep opposing fullbacks guessing. That's why you see him in a central position, slightly shaded toward the right sideline. Zusi went back and forth between the midfield and outside forward positions, often tucking inside as a striker or playing farthest forward in the three-man midfield.
Expect Zusi to play almost exclusively as a wide forward in 2013, where Jurgen Klinsmann clearly favors him with the United States, as Benny Feilhaber plugs into his former stomping grounds in the midfield. Accounting for two string-pullers is a scary thought for opposing defenses, especially since they'll also be busy worrying about whoever starts in the middle of SKC's 4-3-3 among C.J. Sapong, newly signed Designated Player Claudio Bieler and Teal Bunbury (once he's fully recovered from knee surgery).
2012 Sporting Kansas City Passing Matrix (Download HERE)
Sporting KC's high-pressure system gets all the attention, but the real key to their success may be their versatility. Sure, they're experts at battering opponents into turning the ball over in dangerous positions, but they're also one of the best teams in MLS at playing out of the back.
Much of that comes down to 2012 Defender of the Year Besler (1,324 completed passes, best among center backs and ninth overall) and his Best XI partner Collin (1,082). Each can play short or long effectively, and they're buttressed by outside backs in Myers and Sinovic who are comfortable with the ball at their feet under pressure. That's rare, and the group's ability to connect with or bypass the midfield keeps teams from turning the tables on MLS' best defensive side.
And once they find the feet of Zusi and Kamara, that's often all she wrote. Zusi's 97 successful crosses is a massive number (the most in MLS, in fact), and although more than half came via set piece, he'll have myriad opportunities to aim for Sapong and Kamara in the run of play come 2013.
1) By re-signing Besler, Sporting KC set the stage for years of defensive success
I voted for the Sporting KC man for Defender of the Year, so feel free to take this one with a grain of salt. Any lingering sodium chloride should dissipate, though, as we run through the stats behind Besler's award-winning campaign.
He was fifth in MLS in CBI (combined clearances, blocks and interceptions) with 348, second only to Drew Moor in passing among center backs, tops in chances created by a central defender (18) and fourth in aerials won among defenders (75) and fifth in headed clearances (141). Want well-rounded but dominant? Besler personified that.
Among defenders playing at least 2,500 minutes, only 14 committed fewer fouls (26). And while some might call that disappointing – "I thought Besler was supposed to be an expert at reading the game?!" – I think it's a clear an indication that he's shed the "soft" label that dogged him early in his career. Like it or not, sometimes situations call for a play to be stopped or momentum snuffed out, and Besler no longer hesitates when he's got to make a decisive challenge.
2) Keeping hold of Kamara and Zusi could get increasingly difficult for SKC
With success comes interest, and with interest come offers for the players that fueled it.
Kamara has been the subject of phone calls to manager Peter Vermes' office for a few years now, but Kansas City has managed to hold onto arguably the league's most athletic player. He led MLS in aerial wins (171) by a huge margin, FC Dallas' Andrew Jacobsen was second with 116, and attempted shots (109). Now, there's certainly an element of scatter shot to his game – 11 goals from that output – but he negates any issues that may cause with an ability to set up his teammates (eight assists). Among forwards, Kamara was fourth in chances created (56), one behind both Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry and 23 behind striker-hybrid Landon Donovan.
Meanwhile, all Zusi did during 2012 was lead MLS in chances created (99) by 19, top the league charts in assists with 15, knock in five goals and solidify himself as a national team regular. This from a player that had just nine MLS starts following his first two seasons in the league. And with Sporting Kansas City reloading this offseason, expect the Maryland product to get better. That's a scary prospect for opponents, and one teams overseas will certainly be monitoring as well.
3) Jimmy Nielsen was the league's best fireman, if not the busiest
The Goalkeeper of the Year wasn't called into action often, least in MLS in fact, but he was almost always in the right place at the right time when his back four allowed someone to slip through the cracks.
Sporting KC led MLS in just about every defensive category related to shots: shots on target allowed (102), shots on target allowed within the 18-yard box (66), shots on target allowed outside the box (36) and total shots (256). So while it's true that Nielsen benefited from the league's best defense, the reason some detractors argued that Columbus' Andy Gruenebaum or Chivas USA's Dan Kennedy deserved the league honor, the Dane still came up big when it counted.
Sporting were third in MLS in save-to-shot ratio (74.04 percent) behind Columbus and Chicago, so not only did Nielsen command the league's best backline, he bailed them out nearly 75 percent of the time when asked. That's impressive and, along with his league-best 15 clean sheets, the reason why he ended the season with individual plaudits.
Random nugget: Sporting KC were second in MLS in long throws (312). New England finished first with 343.