Becoming one: Sporting Kansas City’s defense focused

I’m a bit of a runaway at the Friday night indoor soccer games that I attend. When defending up front or in midfield, I often tailor my approach to pushing opposing ball carriers into my teammates. And I appreciate those who recognize the importance of defense organization. At my first pickup game this winter after a break, someone on my team turned to a teammate and said, “Look how good it is when we work together.”

The Sporting Kansas City defense has always worked together. The effectiveness of that defense has often not been high over the past six seasons, to say the least. The facts and some of the causes have been laid out in the related articles listed below and in others.

But so far, Sporting 2023’s defense is a different beast.

“[The key] Everyone is focused on doing their job and helping and defending as a team,” left center back Andreu Fontas said after Kansas City’s practice Tuesday at the Compass Minerals National Performance Center.

One goal allowed, including two shutouts, was the result. Sporting Kansas City is one of only five MLS teams with that honor in three games (Nashville SC is yet to concede).

Even with a small sample size, numbers don’t lie. Statistics sometimes lie (and manipulate), but they always provide context.

Sporting KC Defensive Stats ’23

category SKC allowed MLS rank/29 (1st = best)
category SKC allowed MLS rank/29 (1st = best)
key passes 23 14
1/3* 82 14
PPA** 10 1
CrsPA*** 2 1
Progressive Passes # 102 14
PrgCarries## 46 16
Shot creation actions 52 11
Target CA 2 7
*completed passes coming in 1/3 near the goal
**exists until 18
***full sharps in 18
#move the ball 10 yards from the furthest point in the last 6 or in 18
##same as above for carries/dribbles

Manager Peter Vermes coordinated his side into a 4-4-2 as home sides Portland Timbers (1-0 loss to KC) and Colorado Rapids (a goalless draw) held possession and built from behind in Sporting’s first two games . For last Saturday’s home game (a goalless draw), Vermes opted for a 4-5-1 to reassure Los Angeles Galaxy and Barcelona-born midfielder Riqui Puig.

Both setups create a wall behind the duel or the lone striker designed to clog the middle of the field.

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Shredding the field is nothing new in tactics. However, when applied in different parts of the field, the execution required and the effects are different. A lot of teams from high school through (okay, sometimes even those U-6 teams) excel at packing players in and near their own 18-yard box to defend them. Squeezing the field in midfield into a narrow 36-yard rectangle (like the screenshot above) and making it effective is a much grander operation.

“They are smart players who sometimes wait a little longer so we know where we stand [positionally]’ Fontas said of the midfielders in front of him. “We are very compact and try to reinforce the line a lot and keep the gaps between the lines as short as possible. They are [also] does a very good job of covering those balls in between.

“The Galaxy loves to play [passes between the lines] where players can rotate in that position. [Then] It gives you exposure as a backline and we did a great job [preventing that]’ Fontas continued. “Roger, for example, approached Riqui so well and didn’t allow him to turn and play balls which are very dangerous. And Remi stayed closer to us and covered so much ground and covered a lot of balls that were potentially dangerous for the defence.

Recognizing the need and jumping into the tactic leads to intentional, active execution. Perhaps even more important is seeing your teammates turn the ideas into action. The action then becomes a movement.

In a 27-second masterclass from 18:48 to 19:15 in the first half on Saturday, Sporting pressured the ball carrier who edged towards midfield while covering all runners and staying connected. With no options and no space, the Galaxy was repeatedly forced backwards during a 12-pass sequence. Khiry Shelton, Roger Espinoza, then Daniel Salloi pressed left to right before Erik Thommy forced a negative pass. Salloi, Thommy and Willy Agada then teamed up to force another. A penetrating pass was pushed back by Remi Walter in midfield before Shelton, Graham Zusi and Espinoza broke a right approach, again forcing Galaxy into the negative.

Whether you play sports, play chess, or are in the military, defense is organization, attack is disruptive chaos. But an organized defense that disrupts is the best defense.

“We are tactically good[ly]. We’re also good physically,” said de facto defensive midfielder Remi Walter. “We win a lot of fights in midfield and at the back.”

Closer means better (read sooner to pay off) and smarter tackles, not ones of desperation, that take place in better places to counterattack from – further up in midfield or on the wing. Perhaps that’s why Sporting currently leads MLS in 1/3 pass and progressive pass counts, according to Almost as important when it comes to dominating a game, Sporting can use more brute force in those tackles because they are in a better position now. Watch Tim Leibold’s legal tackle bring The Galaxy’s Mark Delgado to his knees in the 34th minute.

“We have to keep going like this because it’s much, much better than last year. We don’t have the mistakes like last year,” Walter suspected, but emphasized the importance of continuous communication. “Everyone, if we have to say something to someone on the field, we have to do that [say it]. It’s our job. I have done a lot [of communicating] during the [Galaxy] Game ’cause I’m in the middle I can say something to Roger or Erik because Erik forgets a few things. I have to concentrate [controlling the game].”

Sporting Kansas City is known for a flank attack, with the wide backs pushing high onto the field to combine with wide or pinched wingers. In such an attacking system, the space at Kansas City’s end behind the full-backs becomes fertile ground for counterattacks.

“[The wingers] have to be defensive and understand that they have to help the team defensively,” Walter said. “They did well in the first three games, so we don’t concede any goals.”

In fact, the wingers are at least half the midfield block behind the front two or the only forward at the pressure point. But in 2023, defense deep on the flanks in Sporting’s end has improved dramatically.

When the Galaxy go on break in the 34th minute by bringing the ball in and then out on the right wing, Sporting have six to seven players covering space and runners to limit options. On LA’s right wing, left-back Tim Leibold runs from behind towards the ball carrier, while Walter’s position delays progress.

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The big deal? Sporting’s central defenders are not stretched towards the ball. The result – Leibold’s tackle and a Galaxy throw-in played backwards and another fruitless long passing sequence that ended with Sporting stealing and hitting Galaxy with a 2-on-1 break.

Even if a broad back is hit on the outside, a teammate or Pulskamp came to the rescue. Even if a tick got in the box, someone took responsibility for deleting it. Although “together” is a key mantra for collective action, “together” also catalyzes individual achievement.

Sporting’s status of allowing the fewest completed passes and completed crosses into the 18-yard box – at the crucial time – is evidence enough of responsibility being taken as a group and individuals excelling. Even two of the youngest on the pitch.

“[Twenty-one-year old Goalkeeper] John [Pulskamp} is doing an amazing job, when they do break us, of making amazing saves,” lauded Fontas. “We have to keep growing and getting better in that [defensive] aspect because that gives us points.”

Centre-back Robert Voloder, a sophomore playing for an unfamiliar right centre-back, has grown in his three games. So much so that his greatest strengths come to the fore: “His athleticism and physicality come into play in the games,” commented head coach Peter Vermes.

However, as they are sometimes at the mercy of a ball moving faster than them, the midfield is breached. Central defenders Voloder and Fontas as well as outside defenders Leibold and Zusi must be strong. I asked Vermes what the back four does when the midfield line is breached to prevent or obliterate danger.

“They delay and allow the other guys to recover without exposing themselves,” Vermes explained. “They close the gaps with the other team, so now they have to take a long-range shot or try to pass if they don’t want to and we win those balls back in the end.”

Vermes’ enthusiasm for developing his back line was evident. “The back four becomes one. They move really well not only from north to south but [also] East to West which really helps the team put pressure on the ball. The fact that they form a unit when they move and there are no gaps between them is really important.”

It’s clear that Vermes and his staff have provided their players with the guidance and inspiration they need to thrive as a defensive unit in 2023. It takes all of the above plus planning to bring about change. It takes more than the traditional mantra of “don’t switch off” to sustain results over an entire season.

Early payout is often a motivator. The next three games at FC Dallas (4 goals in 3 games), home at Seattle Sounders (6 in 3) and away at Philadelphia Union (5 in 3) will provide tough tests. If the defense mostly comes through with flying colors – not black and blue – chances are Sporting’s strong defense will stay here and not be an outlier.

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