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Warshaw: What's wrong with the Sporting Kansas City defense?

In 2017, Sporting Kansas City had the best defense in the league. They conceded just 29 goals across 34 games; treble winners Toronto FC were a distant second, at 37.

In 2018, through Week 4, Sporting have conceded the most goals in the league: nine goals in four games. That comes on a cumulative 9.51 expected goals against – nearly three times last season's mark at the same checkpoint (3.51). It’s a stark contrast, especially considering they're rolling out the same goalkeeper, back four, and defensive midfielders.

I’m not really sure what's changed. I don’t think anyone does. Or, anyone outside the SKC locker room, at least. No single element sticks out as glaringly … wrong, except that reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Tim Melia keeps pulling the ball out of his net. There are variables we can’t know without being around the team every day: Maybe one of the defenders is carrying a slight injury; maybe they are trying to make slight tweaks and work through growing pains; maybe they aren’t stressed about it at all, as head coach Peter Vermes alluded to after Week 3 when speaking with the Kansas City Star:

“I’m not worried about it. We can work on the things and correct them, and they’re not major concerns. We’re three games in. We’re in a good place.”

And he might be right – Kansas City simply might not need to worry. It’s only a four-game sample size and Sporting still lead the Western Conference. While they’ve given up the joint most goals (with D.C. United), they’ve also scored the most goals, at nine.

The hoopla might just be a product of Sporting’s past successes. Their 2017 marked the league's lowest total in five years, when … Sporting KC conceded just 27 in 2012. While it’s important to understand the context of this year's SKC team, it would also be wrong to ignore their defensive misgivings.

Let's break down how the goals against them happened, then look at the potential causes and the potential ways to address each (I won’t say fix, because you can’t control the final product, only the process.) Note that some of the nine goals allowed fall into several of the buckets:

  • 7 came when SKC had numbers behind the ball and the defensive shape was set
    • The other 2 came on counters in transition
  • 7 came from a pass or cross from wide areas toward the box
  • 5 came when the opposing player making the pass or cross toward the goal area did not have pressure on him
  • 3 came when the ball made it through the front portion of the goal within reach of the first defender
  • 4 came in the play after an opposing midfielder could pick up his head without pressure

From the data, I see three patterns and three potential issues.

The weirdest line is the first one: Sporting had numbers behind the ball on 7 of the 9 goals they conceded. As logic would expect, it’s harder to score on an organized eight defenders than it is to break through a scrambling few. Or it should be. (Sure, the goals could have been a product of literally perfect attacking, but in analyzing your defense, you’re rarely going to say “the other team did everything perfectly” and remain status quo.)

On one hand, this shows SKC are striking a nice balance between attacking and defending; they’ve scored the most goals in the league without sending numbers forward recklessly.  It’s much harder to fix the balance of a team than it is to make slight tactical adjustments within a larger scheme.

On the other hand, when you have eight outfield players behind the ball, you can be pretty unorganized and still not give up goals, as long as you compete. Consequently, the issue might be a lack of focus. Perhaps SKC has heard the label of “amazing defense” enough times that they think it’s simply who they are and not something they worked their butts off for. All the perfect adjustments in the world don’t mean anything if you don’t fight to win headers. And to these eyes, SKC have lost a lot of those scrappy headers and second balls.

Down the list, we see seven of the nine goals have come from service via wide areas. Some from crosses nearer the sideline, and some from passes that originate wide of the goal and travel toward the center.

It’s natural to see this after noting the volume of bulk defending. When a team has retreated into defensive shape, the attacking team will attempt to attack the wide areas. This generally wouldn’t bother SKC. Center backs Matt Besler and Ike Opara are traditionally strong on crosses. Here’s where tweaking on the training field could be an option.

On crosses wide of the 6-yard box, the ball-side center back needs to take the front zone and prevent crosses directly across the goal mouth; the weak-side center back generally needs to find and mark the first runner; the weak-side outside back and defensive midfielders need to take the next wave of runners. None of it’s easy, but it’s fairly formulaic. It’s something you can identify and work on with clear purpose.

The most predictable ailment, but also the hardest to address is a lack of pressure on the pass that opens the field. Sporting added a major piece in the offseason in Designated Player signing Felipe Gutierrez. The Chilean international has moved straight into the lineup in central midfield. He’s a different player than the guy he replaced, Benny Feilhaber. With Feilhaber, Sporting had a clear role distribution in midfield. Ilie Sanchez sat deepest, Roger Espinoza played box-to-box, and Feilhaber brought the creativity from the most advanced position. But while Gutierrez has contributed four goals in as many games, he’s more industrious and combative than Feilhaber. His presence changes both the dynamics and the roles.

As I watch SKC games and break down tapes, I can’t pinpoint any issues with rotation or balance in the midfield. There doesn’t appear to be anything specifically wrong. At the same time, they’ve given up nine goals in four games, so there’s something awry. It would be natural to have growing pains when inserting a new key piece into a primary role on the field: Who pressures the ball at what points? When do we step as a team and when we do we hold? As the group starts to decipher these decisions on the fly, they appear to be a step late in decisive moments. Most defending occurs prior to the back four, and SKC’s defensive woes might be growing pains in the midfield. Perhaps there isn’t something to fix that time won’t take care of.

There's not one clear problem to fix for Sporting’s defense. But there are clear patterns – goals conceded while in their defensive set and goals conceded from wide areas. Maybe they're fixable. We may not know for a while. Until then – and I can’t believe I’m about to say this – it’ll be up to SKC’s electric offense to carry the burden.