Can anyone stop Sporting Kansas City?

Aurelien Collin and the Sporting Kansas City defense have not allowed a shot on goal in 245 minutes. Can they be broken down? Credit: John Rieger-US PRESSWIRE

(Note: Yes, I am aware this is not a Sporting Kansas City or LA Galaxy website. But when I heard that the two teams would be playing four hours away from where I live during the Chicago Fire's bye week, I jumped at the opportunity to cover it. Hope all of you enjoy it.)

There was a moment at the end of Sporting Kansas City's 1-0 victory over the L.A. Galaxy on Saturday afternoon that sort of summed it up:

In the 90th minute, KC midfielder Graham Zusi and striker Kei Kamara were playing a superb game of keepaway in one of the Galaxy’s corners. And the Galaxy, for the life of them, just could not get the ball back. Finally, LA midfielder Landon Donovan just kicked Kamara in the right foot while challenging for the ball and was handed the match’s only yellow card.

You could see that frustration starting to boil over for the reigning MLS Champion Galaxy. You could see the team led by former United States Men’s National Team head coach Bruce Arena along with other stars like Donovan, Robbie Keane and Edson Buddle just running out of answers to try and salvage something against this confident and well-rounded Sporting side.

Yes, the Galaxy were without some of their big guns. Some dude named David Beckham was not in the squad. Defender s Omar Gonzalez and Leonardo were out with injury. It was also Donovan’s first game back from injury.

But despite that, this Galaxy squad, on paper, still looks like an All-Star squad. So when at the end of the day on Saturday, they were left sitting in last place in the MLS Western Conference standings, there had to have been some head-scratching that post-game locker room.

"I’m pretty sure they’re not popping champagne in there," said a very frustrated Arena after the loss. "We have to work and get better, that’s all."

Arena was not looking to hit the panic button yet, but he cited some of the team’s injuries, especially the loss of Gonzalez, as a factor in the team’s early struggles.

"I think it would probably help having the best defender in the league, but we don’t have him," he said. "So that’s certainly not an excuse."

Arena did not mince words when describing Sporting Kansas City’s only goal of the match. In the 40th minute, winger Bobby Convey found an unmarked Kei Kamara on the left side of the six yard box. It couldn’t have been much easier for Kamara as he headed the ball into the right side of the net to give Sporting the 1-0 advantage. Kamara was able to break free from Galaxy defender Sean Franklin, who appeared to be caught ball-watching on the goal.

"He fell asleep on the play," said Arena on Franklin after the game. "Not a good play."

So while the Galaxy wait for some of their players to return and try to turn around what has been a disastrous title defense so far, the mood could not be much better for Sporting.

Head Coach Peter Vermes was impressed with how his team was able to grind out a tough win against the defending champs.

"Sometimes you get a goal and you’ve got to be able to defend the house and the guys have done that," said Vermes after the game. "That’s a good quality to have to know how to win games, scoring one goal and then being able to hold the lead because not everything is always going to fall in for you."

But Goalkeeper and Captain Jimmy Nielsen was easily able to point out the game’s biggest stat for the Galaxy:

"Shots on target, zero. In the whole game. Again. That’s pretty impressive," said the Danish goalie in what could have passed for an awesome James Bond villain line. "The guys in front of me are making my job very easy."

This is a club that is seeing the benefits of keeping basically the same squad together from one year to the next. (See Tweed’s piece on carryover minutes to see just how important this can be) They look comfortable playing with each other. They know how to switch positions during the game to throw off the defense without missing a beat.

In fact, the only player in the Starting XI on Saturday who wasn’t with the club was the man who got the winning assist, Bobby Convey. And it sure looks like he’s been able to fit in seamlessly with the club.

"There’s a little bit of pressure with me being the only new player, bringing me in to win the championship, but other than that, I don’t feel any pressure at all," said Convey. "If I don’t score or have any assists, it doesn’t matter because someone else will."

Sporting KC started out slowly last season in part because of not playing any home games until June 9 due to the construction of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. (Who was that stadium opener against, Tweed?) Since then though, the Club has been rock solid in part to the LSP atmosphere. The club have lost a grand total of three MLS home games (and one U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal match against Richmond Kickers) since the stadium opened.

Defender Matt Besler has seen the effect a great home atmosphere can have on a club.

"We’ve made it a really tough place for teams to come in and get points and we want to keep it that way," said the Kansas City, Mo. native. One of our goals this year is to have the best home record in the league."

Now Sporting has grabbed a maximum 15 points from their first five games. The last time a team started out this hot? Well, you’d have to go back to the inaugural 1996 MLS season when the Galaxy rattled up 9 straight non-overtime wins to start the season. (Remember when MLS used to not have ties?)

Strikers C.J. Sapong and Kei Kamara now have three goals apiece. So when a reporter asked Kamara which striker will end up with the most goals, he had a quick-witted response.

"Come on, man," said a smiling Kamara. "He’s my little brother."

Analysis

I was admittedly drinking the light blue Sporting kool-aid after watching the club formerly known as the Wizards comprehensively shut down the 2011 MLS Cup Champions. (I blame the awesome Sporting Kansas City Communications Department) But is this team simply destined to cakewalk to the 2012 crown? And more importantly for Chicago Fire fans, will the Men in Red be able to knock off this Sporting club on May 12 (my birthday, for those who care) at Toyota Park?

Well, let’s go a bit more in-depth to find out:

Possession

Sporting Kansas City made the Los Angeles Galaxy look totally outmatched in this category. In the first half, Sporting had a whopping 68.1% of the possession. After a shaky first 15 minute period from about the 5th minute to the 20th minute, the Wiz Kids began to turn up the pressure.

After Graham Zusi blasted the first shot of the match for Sporting high in the 19th minute, their attack improved dramatically. Defenders Aurelien Collin, Chance Myers and Julio Cesar followed up with attempts in the 21st, 24th and 25th minutes of the match. The fact that all three of those attempts came from defenders not only shows the versatility of this team, but also the fact that they were really pressing forward on the Galaxy.

Of those attempts, Myers’ was the best. Midfielder Roger Espinoza beat Galaxy defender Tommy Meyer on the left side of the box. Espinoza then delivered a low cross across the box that eventually landed at the feet of Myers. Myers took a shot from just right of the top of the box, and Galaxy goalie Josh Saunders had to dive to his left to make a diving one-handed save.

That possession and pressure eventually allowed Sporting to take the lead through Kamara’s header and subsequent "slow-motion" celebration in the 40th minute.

In the second half, the Galaxy resorted to more of a long-ball game that, on paper, makes it seem like they were more threatening. They upped their possession from a lousy 31.9% in the first half to 48.7% in the second half.

The real percentage to look at for the second-half through is "Duels won %". In the first half, the Galaxy led this category with 52.6%. In the second half though, that percentage drops dramatically to 33.3%. And it showed. Sporting was winning almost every ball in the air during the second half. The Galaxy midfield was almost completely shut down.

Galaxy Head Coach Bruce Arena didn’t like my question about the tactical shift after the game. Here’s his response:

"At the end of the game, that’s what you have to do. No one cares about making sure passes in the midfield at the end of the game when you’re chasing a game with ten minutes left. You’ve got to be pretty direct and get the ball in front of the goal, and I still don’t think we did a good job with that."

The Galaxy did have one opportunity in the 82nd minute. Former Fire striker Chad Barrett was played in from just left of the box, but he pulled his shot wide right. Looking back at though, substitute midfielder Marcelo Sarvas crossed a ball into the middle of the Sporting half. The ball deflected off Kamara and was flicked into the area for the substitute Barrett. Sure, broken plays can lead to goals, but I don’t think it was a direct result of the shift in tactics. That was really the only change LA had in the whole second half and they really looked like they would find the equalizer.

So how does a team stop what Sporting was able to do? And more importantly, how could a team like the Fire earn more possession than the Galaxy did?

Well, the first thing I’ll point out is that the Men in Red aren’t really capable of playing the long ball game even if they wanted to. Yes, they’ve used the 6-2 forward Orr Barouch as a late-game substitute before, but none of his MLS goals have been through the air. Oduro’s first goal off a header with the club only occurred a couple of weeks ago in the home opener against the Philadelphia Union. So the aerial aspect is a bit out of the equation at the moment.

The Fire’s greatest strength is in midfield. With Pavel Pardo in a more defensive role and Sebastien Grazzini choreographing the attack, the Fire are able to dominate the midfield in a way that allows for a normally solid defense to do their job and allow forwards like Oduro to have a number of opportunities throughout the match.

Barring there aren’t any major roster changes or injuries (knock on wood), the Fire have to rely on players like Pardo to control possession in the midfield against the likes of Espinoza and Zusi, and defenders like new addition Arne Friedrich (again, knocking on wood) are able to step in and slow down Kamara and Sapong,

It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly not impossible.

A potential chink in the defensive armor?

After Saturday’s win, Sporting have now gone 245 minutes without giving up a shot on goal. Read that again. That's not just not allowing a goal in 2 1/2 games, but not allowing a shot on goal in that time period. Needless to say, the center back pairing of Besler and Frenchman Aurelien Collin has been one of the best in the league.

Collin in particular stood out in part because of how he was able to render Galaxy forward Edson Buddle essentially ineffective. In both the 26th and 53rd minutes, Collin made a pair of perfect slide tackles on the former FC Ingolstadt striker.

After the match, Collin spoke about the tackles in a surprisingly depreciating manner:

"If you don’t have any other solution, you have to tackle, so maybe I was late, thankfully I made the tackle and got the ball, but if I could have been at a better place, I wouldn’t have to make a tackle," said Collin. "So it’s beautiful, it’s a technical move for a defender, but it’s the last choice, so I’m happy I took the ball away."

At first it didn’t really register as anything important, but later I started thinking a bit more about the Sporting defense.

In the 7th minute, Galaxy midfielder Juninho found Robbie Keane with a cross just past midfield. The KC back-line and Collin in particular were looking for the offside flag. The flag wasn’t raised and Keane was able to slowly move forward while waiting for midfielder Mike Magee to catch up. Keane eventually found Magee with a through ball on the left side of the box, and Magee’s shot nearly found the right corner of the net.

And on that 26th minute tackle, Collin was able to recover from being caught slightly out of possession to make a great sliding challenge on Buddle.

The Sporting back-line is good, but it’s not perfect. Edson Buddle is a very good striker, but he doesn’t have the speed or creativity of a player like, say, Dominic Oduro.

For a team like the Fire to create opportunities on offense against Sporting, they would have to create havoc early and often. They could not afford to let them get settled and control possession. To sum it up: Run Dominic Run!

Sporting have given up a grand total of one goal this season off a 25th minute Ricardo Villar free kick for FC Dallas back on March 25th. It’s going to be tough, but at some point, a team will score against them in open play. If I had to guess, it will be early in the match when the team is still settling in. (Now watch Real Salt Lake score in the 90th minute against a KC defense that is completely solid for the first 89 minutes next Saturday just to spite me)

An Inferiority Complex?

This will fall under the "Intangibles" category.

Last season, the Fire looked fairly dominant in disposing of Sporting KC 3-2 in their home opener. Former Sporting striker Omar Bravo picked up a red card, Marco Pappa scored on a dazzling run for the game winner, and Sporting looked like a very average side at best.

Just over two months later, in the grand opening of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, the Wiz were pumped up for the occasion. Perhaps too much so, as the goalkeeper Nielsen picked up a red card in the second half. Sporting were able to hang on for a 0-0 draw, but let the record show that they haven’t beat the Fire since the end of 2010. I don’t think I need to remind anyone how bad this team was back then.

But perhaps there’s a deeper reason that Sporting/Wizards have historically struggled against the Fire. I’m currently working on a more in-depth piece on the rivalry between the clubs (that should be ready prior to the May 12 encounter), but the main takeaway is that the Fire organization and supporters typically consider the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas (by virtue of that awful Brimstone Cup that should be thrown into a volcano) to be bigger rivals. Most Sporting supporters, on the other hand, appear to consider the Fire to be the #1 rival.

So it sort of creates an odd "big brother, little brother" relationship that the Fire naturally have an advantage in. The rivalry pressure doesn’t shine as brightly on the Fire as it does on Sporting. Perhaps if they had a more natural rival *cough*St. Louis*cough*, then that might change, but for the moment, they’re sort of stuck in that regard.

Conclusion

But the Fire and Sporting are similar in one very distinct way: They’ve both built clubs from the ground up. One of the problems MLS will always have when looking to attract talent from overseas is that they will more than likely want to play in New York or Los Angeles. So clubs like Chicago and Kansas City have to be more creative in terms of developing young talent and bringing in internationals who are truly a good fit for the team and not simply a brand name. Neither the Fire nor Sporting currently has a designated player, but they both have solid depth and chemistry that can’t simply be replicated by bringing in superstars. It appears increasingly likely that the Galaxy will have to start rebuilding to a certain extent at the end of this season due to the salary cup. Both Chicago and Kansas City don’t have those problems. And even though the New York Red Bulls are starting to win a few games, it’s been on the backs of their stars in Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper and not through building a club from the ground up. Now, which formula is more successful in MLS? Well, that might be a question for another time.

Overall, Saturday was a very good day for Sporting Kansas City. In front of an ESPN nationally-televised audience and in what many considered to be a potential MLS Cup preview, the boys in light blue rose to the occasion to knock off the defending champs. Will they be challenging for an MLS Cup in November? Possibly. But they still have a number of hurdles to climb and questions to be answered before then…and the Fire would sure love to be the ones standing in their way.

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