KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Screwed into the wall that overlooks the player’s lounge in Sporting Kansas City’s training facility is a large whiteboard covered in magnets depicting Major League Soccer’s current standings.
Five games into the season, Sporting KC players don’t have to look far to see proof of their struggles so far, especially from a defensive perspective. Sporting sit in last place in the Eastern Conference on four points, largely because they’ve allowed a league-leading 2.40 goals per game.
“You get depressed when you look up there,” goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said. “Twelve goals in five games is, of course, not satisfactory. We’re going to work on that.”
In truth, the most frustrating part of Kansas City’s defensive issues so far is that they are mostly isolated to momentary lapses in concentration and tactical judgment, as opposed to lack of talent or physical ability.
Nielsen didn’t make a single save in a 3-2 loss to New England last weekend, and the Revs' three goals all came in situations that were certainly avoidable.
Marko Perovic’s opener resulted from a poor clearance, Shalrie Joseph later outmuscled Kei Kamara to head a free kick past Nielsen, and Zak Boggs was given far too much time to provide service from the flank late in the match to supply the winner. In the end, despite an overall performance that wasn’t nearly as bad as the result made it seem, three brief lapses ended cost Sporting the match.
“That’s one of the most frustrating parts about playing defense,” center back Matt Besler said. “You can play 85 minutes really well and something happens, whether it’s your fault or not, and then that 85 minutes kind of goes down the drain and everyone is looking at you like you’re the one that let in a goal. That’s the nature of the beast playing in this league and playing defense.”
Unfortunately for Sporting, they’ll face their most daunting task to date on Saturday, when they travel to Red Bull Arena to take on a Red Bull side full of confidence and overflowing with attacking options. (7:30 pm ET, Direct Kick and MatchDay Live)
New York have scored seven goals in their past two games and have used that explosiveness to vault to the top of the conference secure in the knowledge that they likely haven’t hit anywhere close to their peak. Kansas City know they can’t afford to give the likes of Thierry Henry, Dwayne De Rosario, Juan Agudelo, Luke Rodgers and a host of other capable attackers clear-cut scoring opportunities and come out unscathed.
To prevent that, Nielsen acknowledged that Sporting may need to back off their high-pressure style of play at times to prevent the Red Bulls from exploiting the open space in the middle of the field that other teams have found all too inviting.
“We just have to be better at managing the game,” said Nielsen. “When we can see that right now is not the moment for us, we can drop back all 11 and wait for them to come. Then we can be aggressive when they come. We can’t be stretched like we have been. That’s a great opportunity for the opponent to create some chances.”
Fortunately for manager Peter Vermes, Kansas City are finally close to full strength after a stretch of injuries, international call ups and red card suspensions handcuffed his selection options.
Aurelién Collin will be available for the match after having his red card rescinded this week, and only Luke Sassano, Omar Bravo and Konrad Warzycha are expected to miss out on the proceedings.
All indications are that Collin will get his second consecutive start alongside Besler in the middle, meaning the back line will be the consistent from game-to-game for the first time this season. That’s a key development for Vermes, who acknowledged his side was having trouble keeping the ball out of the back of the net but remained positive about its long-term potential.
“All of [our current issues] are fixable,” he said. “We have the players. It’s about getting the continuity in that group of guys playing on a regular basis and understanding everything we’re trying to do. Then it’s getting a little bit of luck, a reward for doing the right things.”