Observations from Sporting Kansas City’s season opening loss at Portland Timbers

Complain about the lineup. Complain about the new jersey, which wraps the Sporting Kansas City players in a clear hoops identity. Also complain about the 4-3-3 flank-centric attacking ethos that identifies Sporting Kansas City even more as Sporting Kansas City. Complain all you want, even to the point where you feel that Sporting are already shrouded in clouds of stagnation and mediocrity from the first game of the 2023 MLS season.

All it takes for cynicism is a moment of credibility. The millisecond Ben Sweat decided to keep the ball alive rather than give up a corner – despite being in front of the end line just outside his own penalty area – by turning inside and handing possession to the Timbers’ Juan Mosquera, fate clamped down on Kansas City. Mosquera’s subsequent goal in the 6th minute made it exponentially difficult for Kansas City to achieve a result, lent credence to the cynicism and stirred further negativity from fans and pundits alike on social media. (One can even imagine Sporting manager Peter Vermes, who certainly preaches about keeping the ball alive in most situations, at that moment lamenting head to toe, “That’s not what I meant.)

Monday night’s 1-0 loss at Portland Timbers (something that happened to 13 teams in the first week, nine of them away teams) had some key factors, some positives and, yes, some problems.

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Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese and his players must have been rubbing their hands like crazy after their early goal. They had Sporting on the bell. Not only did Sporting play on turf in the cold, wet conditions that the Timbers experience on a daily basis (or at least had done more leading up to the game), but now the Timbers organized the defense and their well-aimed tactics and physicality could take an opponent who was out of a trailing game status staggers, easier to mute.

Poke, pull a Brutus… whatever works

Portland’s Juan Mosquera isn’t stupid, he and the Timbers are smart. Mosquera’s shoulder kick from Sweat just before he got the ball in the 6th minute knocked Sporting’s left-back off balance and helped Sweat turn inside and put the ball in front of his own goal. But the Timbers’ physicality had only just begun.

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Dario Zuparic’s getting up from Sweat in the 14th minute and Diego Chara’s flick in the back from Sporting right winger Daniel Salloi a minute later revealed a trend. Both physical interventions – actually all three of them can be traced back to Mosquera – came just at the edge of the most dangerous area, the penalty area. The tactic was common throughout the game.

However, the main target was of course Sporting’s dynamic striker Willy Agada. Six-foot-tall, 205-pound central defender Zac McGraw and his partner, the 6-foot-1-inch, 185-pound Zuparic, jabbed, elbowed, tapped and towered over the 5-foot-9-inch, 165-pound Agada consistently.

McGraw’s leveling of Agada in the 33rd minute picked up Brutus vibes (or “Bluto”…whatever your boat floats) for Sporting’s Popeye, a Popeye that couldn’t quite match the can of spinach that night.

Partly due to physicality, Agada wasn’t Agada that night. The Nigerian’s contact in the confined space was gone, and his economy in the penalty area was impaired. Even the one shot he fired – the 91st-minute header – was difficult to place as Sporting’s co-Gold Boot winners had to fall back in the air a year ago to make contact.

But doubters be forewarned and fans be comforted, Agada needed 154 minutes in all competitions last season to get into the scoring zone after arriving in Kansas City.

A time warp

It might not have been an entirely new crease, but it was a more noticeable crease in Kansas City’s defense. When Portland had possession, Sporting set themselves up in a 4-4-2 formation, with Agada and Erik Thommy pressing in tandem up front and the two wingers (Salloi and Khiry Shelton) and the other two midfielders (Roger Espinoza and Remi Walter). ) form a four-wall behind.

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The setup suggested something deeper – a concerted effort to be more compact and defend together even when an opposing player found space. The Sporting defense put it bluntly: “We’re going to limit your options and force you to go where our boys are.” Those efforts had their most dramatic impact as a platform for Walter to shine in midfield.

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Aside from the 10th minute, when Portland’s Eryk Williamson was allowed to unabashedly ram Sporting’s midfielder in the stomach to create a chance that was eventually decided offside, Sporting’s protective midfield membrane was mostly impermeable.

Back to the Future

In addition to a small change, a crease can also mean a crease or a crease. Portland certainly found a crease in Sporting’s defense for the game-winner, made even more frustrating by the fact that Sweat kept the game on the side. The most enduring crease in Sporting’s armor, however, was back play.

Before the Timbers jumped to the top, Kansas City goaltender John Pulskamp, ​​21, saved them from an even earlier hole with two fantastic saves after 21-year-old right center defender Robert Voloder put Portland forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda in with a back pass on goal .

The game started in midfield, where Portland’s Brazilian DP attacker Evander acted.

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The screenshot above shows Evander – the man Sporting focused on unplugging all night and mostly did – receiving in the open space. The midfield is probably to blame for not covering the playmaker. The back line is outnumbered while the midfield retreats, causing Voloder (who originally headed for Evander) to drift back and cheat towards the numbers. However, I prefer my centre-backs to prioritize the most dangerous option, an aggressive attitude some might disagree with. Either way, Evander is free and able to survey the field over time.

After Fontas repels Evander’s entry pass for Niezgoda, KC’s Espinoza plays back for a forward Voloder.

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Left footed Voloder rotates his hips to receive with the outside of his left shoe and then heads back through to Pulskamp. “Receive with the downfield leg” is a football coaching mantra. It helps the player open their body and see the field so the best decisions can be made. Voloder’s clear preference for his left foot was a problem all fit. Invisible or poorly visible passes, the right passing game not quickly and deadlocked attacks from behind were often the result. Frankly, knowing that Vermes is a coach who looks for players who can get the ball off their feet quickly, I’m not sure what he sees in Voloder at the moment. In general, Voloder lacked confidence, perhaps due to being pushed into right centre-back.

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The German youth also had some good moments, like his defensive header over the head of a defender in the 57th minute. At times, however, playing the back line (and Pulskamp’s struggles with the ball at his feet and allowing a cross to hit the turf right in front of him) seemed more like a chilling nod to the past than a bright glimpse into the future.


The score six minutes into the game played firmly into Portland’s plan to eliminate Agada, play inside-out at Sporting’s broad backs and avoid getting hit from the flanks.

Still, Sporting had their macro and micro shine and some standout individual performances. Walter, as mentioned, Pulskamp in moments, and the consistently driven, consistently effective performance of Erik Thommy. Only the equally consistent performance from Timber’s goaltender David Bingham kept Thommy off the scorer’s list.

Thommy’s expected goals plus expected assists (xG+xA) of 0.47 were the highest on the night for both sides, as were Sporting’s xG, ball possession rate and number of shots and corners taken.

The underlying numbers liked Sporting, even if many fans and pundits didn’t.

But goals win games and victories are celebrated. The opening minutes and the resulting score did most to ruin Kansas City’s 2023 MLS season opener and sparked the most cynicism. Fair enough. But it’s also fair to say Sporting had promising energy.

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