doyle-season-recap-SKC

That didn’t work as intended.

A GIF is worth a thousand words…

Ok, you can’t blame me for that GIF – a Sporting fan picked it out. And I think it’s actually kind of a great call, because while this season was painful for Sporting fans in so many ways (letting Ilie walk and then put up a Best XI-caliber season with LAFC is maybe not even in the top five), it actually ended with some hope given how promising summer signings Willy Agada and Erik Thommy have been, and the knock-on effect their additions has had for the rest of the roster.

Don’t get me wrong here: it hasn’t been great. Pain hurts. But I think Sporting might be through the worst of it?

Formation and tactics

It’s still Peter Vermes, so that means you’re still going to see a 4-3-3 with lots of possession and high pressing.

Except not as much as in years past on those last two bits. Sporting actually dipped below 50% possession on the season and have stayed there all year long, while as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, they were only the ninth-pressingest team in the league this year. Last year they were second, behind only the Energy Drink Soccer denizens of north Jersey.

I think this was mostly an injury-enforced adjustment on Vermes’ part, though he did talk last year about how he felt the need to change at least a few things.

Obviously the changes weren’t to the good, as for a good chunk of the season it looked like KC were en route to their worst record since 1999. And it's worth noting that during their excellent close to the season (which we're about to get into), Sporting were back up to around 55% possession or so.

As long as Vermes is there, I'm pretty sure their Plan A will be to have the ball.

Highlights

Unquestionably their best stretch has come over the past month, as a somewhat reconstructed side has gone 5W-1L-2D since the start of August, with credible wins over the Galaxy, Timbers, D.C. United, the Quakes and Minnesota United, a pair of road draws against Western Conference sides, and a wild-ass 4-3 loss at Austin that is maybe the most entertaining game in the league this year to this point.

I’m going to toss in the highlights from the most recent game in this stretch, a 4-1 destruction of the Loons in which Agada had a brace:

This was the night Sporting were officially eliminated, which is just the second time in 14 seasons under Vermes they've missed the playoffs. But they have been awesome, and they have been inflicting real misery upon all these teams in the West that are clawing desperately to get above (or stay above) the line. And they've got Seattle next! You think, maybe, Vermes & Sporting nation would like to be the ones to officially end Seattle's 13-year playoff run?

I sure do.

Look, this is just wildly impressive. Every year we see teams that are too far out of it just roll over and die over the final 10 games of the year. Sporting's doing the opposite, and while it's too late to save their season, it's not too late to ruin somebody else's. I admire that kind of vindictiveness in a team.

Lowlight

The five months leading up to this run were uniformly pretty bad. Obviously the season-ending knee injuries to Designated Players Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda were catalysts here, but even with them in the fold, I don’t think this Sporting side would’ve defended well enough to be a serious playoff contender.

That was laid entirely bare during a 7-2 loss at Portland in mid-May. Johnny Russell did not hold back afterwards.

”To concede six goals in one half of a game is … it’s not even embarrassing, it’s so far beyond that,” Russell said in the postgame. “It’s just a complete disgrace.”

Honestly though, I think the US Open Cup semifinal loss to Sacramento Republic, in which Sporting outshot their USL Championship hosts 31-13, but eventually lost on PKs, was even more crushing. That was absolutely rock bottom because honestly, I think if they'd won that game they would've won the Cup and earned its ensuing 2023 Concacaf Champions League spot.

Revelation

I love Willy Agada. I just love him. Look at this dude’s acceleration:

That is insane. He’s got that NOS.

Now look at this quote, when asked about his goalscoring:

“They’re cooking always,” Agada said about Sporting’s midfielders and wingers. “I’m just eating.”

Sporting’s recruitment has been more miss than hit over the past half-decade, and the 22-year-old Nigerian forward’s C.V. did not scream “instant success.” But he’s been spectacular since arriving from Hapoel Jerusalem in Israel.

And the best news for Sporting fans is the underlying numbers match up with the eye test. He’s not on some random hot streak – he’s finding the types of repeatable, high-level chances that make the best goalscorers. In other words, the advanced analytics love him every bit as much as I do.

Disappointment

  • Season-ending injuries to Pulido and Kinda.
  • Father Time caught up to Tim Melia in a big way.
  • Khiry Shelton’s finishing.
  • Regression to the mean for Russell and Daniel Salloi.
  • No major progress from their young guys.
  • Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza still having to play major minutes.
  • Not sure they have a single starting-caliber CB.
  • Ilie putting in a Best XI-caliber season with a conference foe.

I think you could credibly argue nothing went right for Sporting until Agada and Thommy came on the scene. Everything that could’ve been disappointing from February to July was, in fact, disappointing.

2023 Preview

Five Players to Build Around

  • Salloi (LW): Salloi’s regressed, but he’s still a very good winger in this league, and Sporting did well to re-sign him before he could hit the market as a free agent.
  • Agada (FW): Have I mentioned I’m really high on Willy Agada?
  • Thommy (CM): He’s not a true 10, but he’s skilled and smart about moving possession into high-value spots, and seems to have some defensive bite.
  • Remi Walter (CM/DM): He’s played a little bit more d-mid than I think Vermes expected, and the upshot is he’s finally starting to look pretty comfortable there.
  • Russell (RW): Long in the tooth, but still a productive leader – and a great candidate for the Ilsinho super-sub role in 2023 and beyond.

Offseason Priority

I could talk about how they probably need another starting-caliber winger, or how they really need to assess whether it’s worth bringing Pulido back at all – maybe a buyout, right? Or I could talk about the situation in goal, where John Pulskamp has struggled to replace the injured Melia, or how Kinda’s a question mark, or how neither fullback situation instills much confidence.

But the answer is center back. Andreu Fontas and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin are both injury-prone 30-somethings, and while both have had a good past few weeks, that’s an outlier when compared to their body of work over the past ~14 months or so.

It’s hard to imagine Sporting being appreciably better next year without getting those two spots right, so all their work this winter has to start there.

Part and parcel of that decision might be this next one: Do they bring Pulido back for his final year? He's played just 33 games and scored just 14 goals since his arrival ahead of the 2020 season, and if Agada's the first choice – which he absolutely has to be – then you're committed to using a DP slot on a back-up for 2023, because there really is no place besides center forward in Vermes' 4-3-3 for either guy.

A buy-out and reinvestment of that DP slot on an elite center back (not always the easiest thing to find, admittedly) makes quite a bit of sense from where I'm sitting.