Sounders at Sporting KC: Three Questions

A rivalry of sorts has developed between Sporting Kansas City and the Seattle Sounders. Seattle is thrilled with the history of the BBQ Tears, the last minute winners. KC likes to edge out the up-and-coming Pacific Northwest team. Much like the Sounders, Sporting didn’t make the playoffs in 2022. Unlike Seattle, they missed the postseason for the second time in four years.

Under Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders are 5-6-1, -1 when they face Peter Vermes in the MLS game, but the Sounders own the series 12-10-4, +0.

Both teams will have reduced rosters. The Sounders are without six players due to international duty and one through injury. Sporting only have one player on international duty but four are absent and another three are in doubt.

From no other pod, Jimmy answers three questions.

Saw: I’m still confused by a Peter Vermes team that turned late last year into a high-octane, fast-paced, lightweight defensive team with better early-season defense to date. Explain that to me so I can understand.

NOP: Sporting KC under Peter Vermes traditionally tries to play a high-press football that tries to force the opponent to make mistakes while maintaining possession for a long time. Last year, with so many injuries to key attacking players early in the year, Sporting really wasn’t able to do that either. When Peter finally got some offensive reinforcements during the summer window with Erik Thommy and Willy Agada, he was able to adapt and move more of the high-octane, fast offensive style you’re referring to. German attacking midfielder Thommy brought a spark of creativity and some leadership to the midfield, which it badly needed with DP Gadi Kinda out for the year, and Willy Agada gave SKC an option on a forward who wasn’t Khiry Shelton. Both players settled into the league relatively quickly and played a much more direct, vertical style of football than Sporting. However, the defense continued to struggle with injuries throughout the back half of last year and longtime goalkeeper Tim Melia has missed the last few months through injury. Standard situations in particular were defensively the curse of Sporting’s existence. It seemed that the defenders were confused about line-ups and assignments, often resulting in mental errors and ultimately costly goals.

The defense definitely seems to have settled in much better at the start of 2023, having conceded just three goals in their first four games. (Two of those goals came from Ben Sweat’s costly mental/positional error at left-back.) Andreu Fontas has teamed up well with U-22 CB Robert Voloder, who became the de facto Starting partner for Fontas when Kortne Ford was out for the year with an Achilles injury in preseason. Voloder only played 12 games for Sporting last year and started just seven, but he seems to have made big strides in the off-season in terms of confidence in his decision-making and positioning down the back line. John Pulskamp has completely taken over the starting position as goalkeeper, Remi Walter has filled in well as a defensive midfielder, while new signing Nemanja Radoja continues to form. Ultimately, it was a combination of consistency in the first four games and the faster development of young players like Voloder and Pulskamp that led to the surprising defensive turn in 2023. With a newly signed left-back, Tim Leibold can return after suffering a hamstring injury suffered against Colorado two weeks ago, he will be a defensive upgrade over Ben Sweat and pose more problems down the attacking right for Seattle.

Saw: Seattle has higher press than in previous years. Can Sporting’s midfield three master possession under pressure?

NOP: The good news for Sporting KC is that two of the three midfielders, Erik Thommy and Remi Walter, are very skilled with the ball on their feet. Roger Espinoza has been the third midfielder for Sporting to date through injury and while he may not be as technically adept as Thommy and Walter, he still plays with the same high-intensity style that Sporting fans love and opposing fan bases hate. The midfield trio were able to practically knock Portland’s new DP midfielder Evander out of the way in the season opener and keep Galaxy midfielder Riqui Puig at bay without much difficulty. The trio should be able to cycle the ball around quickly and have so far handled the press well when asked to do so. However, this isn’t the fastest nor the most athletic midfielder Sporting has ever come out with. So if Seattle can force them into costly turnovers, the Sounders have a real opportunity to capitalize on those mistakes and score some goals on the counterattack or in transition.

Saw: Which player will decide if KC makes it back to the playoffs?

NOP: Also this year Sporting KC has to miss some important offensive players early due to injuries. Johnny Russell, Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda are all yet to perform in 2023 (although they are all approaching and Pulido may be available on Saturday). While Erik Thommy continues to be the creative spark in midfield – he’s second in the league in key passes, only behind Thiago Almada, and second in the league in xPA according to American Soccer Analysis – he doesn’t get much attacking help around. Willy Agada seems to be overthinking everything and not in the right place at the right time like he has been for the last two months of 2022. Daniel Salloi is a capable player, but he’s not a great individual creator.

Having Pulido back would certainly help, but getting Johnny Russell back is probably the biggest thing this team needs right now. It might not be fair to say that fitness and form alone will determine whether or not KC makes the playoffs, but Erik Thommy just doesn’t have the creative help he needs out there, resulting in limited scoring chances in the finals third. Having a quick, creative player like Russell who can strike from distance, split defenders or take the ball to the end line before clipping it back or putting a shot on target might be just what Kansas City needs to to get an offensive train rolling. The good news for Sporting is that Russell has been a full training participant for parts of this week. He won’t be healthy enough to face Seattle and I’d be surprised if he shows up this week, but his presence was definitely missed early on for Sporting KC.

Check out the previews of No Other Pod on Stitcher.

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