Tim Melia - Ike Opara - Standing in 2017
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After midsummer swoon, Sporting KC defense heats up, locks down in August

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sporting Kansas City’s “summer swoon” came early in 2018. In the past, the team’s attack was usually at fault, but this year it was a leaky backline that caused for plenty of concern.

After a winless July, KC have completed an unbeaten and unblemished August. SKC’s backline set a franchise record of four clean-sheet wins in a row in their 2-0 defeat of Minnesota United on the weekend.

“We have a defense-first mentality,” Graham Zusi said. “We pride ourselves on not giving up goals, and being very sound defensively.”

Sporting have littered the record books with their defensive numbers. Last year’s squad boasted a league low for goals against, and carried the MLS Defender (Ike Opara) and Goalkeeper of the Year (Tim Melia) recipients into the team this year.

While they’ve already eclipsed their goals-against record from 2017 with nine games to spare, they’ve also already equaled their clean sheet number from 2017. The reason for the higher goals-against number can be pointed to two separate stretches where the defense struggled.

Melia believes the backline has made fewer mistakes while in possession during this recent stretch of clean sheets.

“That’s our key to everything,” Melia said on Saturday. “We’ve been a little calmer on the ball. We’ve been more comfortable moving the ball from back to forward, and it’s allowed us to be in better spots defensively.”

While the backline as a whole might be feeling more comfortable, there are still some individual tweaks that have helped the SKC backline regain its form. Zusi has been one of the best attacking fullbacks in the league, second only to Miguel Almiron among all players for passes completed in the attacking half.

With his attacking prowess so prevalent, Zusi has been working to find that balance in a position within a system that calls for strong defense.

"Obviously my tendency is to get forward and help in the attack, but not every game calls for that,” Zusi said.

“I think if you look at our last few games, I’ve been a little more conservative in my movements forward,” he added. “I think the results kind of reflect that. We haven’t given up a goal in four games. It’s finding that good balance between providing some movements forward and knowing when to hold as well."