Talkin’ Tactics: Sporting KC’s stingy defense limits chances, and Gerso’s vertical threat

There are three unbeaten teams left in MLS — the 2016 MLS Cup runners-up (Toronto FC), the 2016 Supporters’ Shield winners (FC Dallas), and Sporting Kansas City. 

There are also two teams that have allowed just two goals on the season — Dallas and Kansas City. 

There’s only one team that hasn’t allowed a first-half goal (or, for that matter, in 450 minutes of regular time) — you guessed it, Kansas City.

It’s not all been smooth sailing, of course. The lack of a consistent scoring threat against teams who don’t open up the game (D.C., Dallas and Toronto) is somewhat alarming. Gerso opening his account against Colorado and a surprise goal from Seth Sinovic certainly help — but Dom Dwyer will need a steady supply of threats in and around the box to help open up space for him to get to work. 

You are allowed to feel a little bit of anxiety (but just a little bit) that Tim Melia’s incredible shot-stopping ability could be tested if asked to perform that feat more than once per game. 

Likewise, you can at least ponder internally why Dwyer can still seem marooned on his island this year — despite recent tactical changes to alleviate that problem. 

But, overall, if you’re complaining about an undefeated team with a couple of 0-0 draws (including ones against the two other undefeated teams), then you’re probably splitting hairs at this point of the season. 

Let’s dig into some trends five games into the 2017 season. 

A stable structure

Looking over some of the key numbers through five games, and one thing stands out — most of them track with last year’s average. 

2016 (34 games): 14.1 shots/game, 53.3% possession, 78% passing success, 1.2 goals/game, 12 aerial duels/game, 9.5 shots allowed/game, 456 passes/game and 19.1 tackles/game

2017 (5 games): 14.2 shots/game, 53.5% possession, 80.3% passing success, 1 goal/game, 13.6 aerial duels/game, 8.2 shots allowed/game, 513 passes/game and 18 tackles per game. 

For the most part, some of the baseline stats for chance creation, build-up and defensive success are extremely similar. However, there are three that stand out so far — and there’s a player (or group of players) involved on the defensive end that has helped guide that improvement.

1. Aerial Duels Won/Game

When healthy, Ike Opara is one of the best examples of an ideal MLS center back — fast, strong, tall and reads the game well. The kind of defender that coaches dream about. Big and strong enough to battle guys like Fanendo Adi (this weekend), fast enough to cancel out speedy attackers like Marlon Hairston, and smart enough to pick his battles ahead of the defensive line to help recover possession. 

He’s been healthy through five games and his leaping ability (2.6 duels won per game) gives Kansas City an advantage against teams looking to connect over the top this year. 

2. Shots Allowed/Game

But Opara isn’t just having an aerial effect for KC’s defense. The defense thus far has improved on last year’s league-leading (lowest) shot-allowing defense. 

Peter Vermes has typically opted for a center back pairing that features one aggressor and one organizer — with Matt Besler almost always best-cast in the organizer role, a guy who sets the defensive line and sweeps up mistakes. Opara in his current form is the perfect partner. 

Letting Opara corral and contain guys like Kevin Doyle and Dominic Badji (as he did for 90-plus minutes last Sunday) allows Besler to focus on his main role of keeping the opponent from building play into the box. Colorado had just 7 touches in Kansas City’s penalty area — two of those are the Doyle penalty kick in stoppage time, and the foul that led to it. The defense allowed 8 shots — just three on target — the entire game. 

Keeping the 18-yard box clear is vital for a goalkeeper like Tim Melia. He’s an incredible shot-stopper, case in point this save from Colorado’s only truly dangerous spell of play and shot in the six-yard box: 

If Melia can see the action and has space to either react or charge out (he’s super aggressive that way), chances are he’s going to make the play. He’s good for one save like that one every game, it seems. Relying on him to make that save 4-5 a game is a losing proposition. Which is why it’s so vital that Opara-Besler (Sinovic plays a big part, too) stops teams before they get to the penalty area.

While this is a bit of a broken play against FC Dallas, you can see some of the principles in play that allow KC to mitigate shots:

Dallas has a pretty open counter going here, but Opara and Besler do a nice job of funneling Cristian Colman to the center and blocking the option to lay it off to the side. Besler doesn’t quite make a game-saving tackle, but he nicks enough of the ball cleanly — and, most importantly, far enough outside of the box — to give the fast-rushing Melia time to clear the danger. 

3. Completed Passes/Game

This one basically comes down to Ilie Sanchez. Before the season started, Vermes called him “Uri Rosell 2.0.” If you remember back when I ran The Full 90 blog for The Kansas City Star, you’ll know that that description was enough to make Ilie my favorite player on the roster, site unseen. 

He’s delivered the goods so far. While he’s not nearly the interception threat that Uri was, his ability to set tempo with short passes has allowed KC to not just control possession this year — but better control the game. 

With little resistance agains the Rapids, Ilie (and Roger Espinoza) both completed 90 percent of their passes. On the season, Kansas City average 67 more short passes per game this year. Short passes aren’t always sexy passes that lead to goal, but they are the easiest way to move the ball around a press or a bunkered defense. 

Goodbye, crosses? Hello, verticality?

Another area that has evolved drastically from last year — and previous years under Vermes — is Kansas City growing less reliant on crosses to create attacking chances. For a team that has prided itself (and its formation) on the ability to create width (and stretch teams horizontally), getting narrow is a fairly bold move. But it’s one that makes sense. 

Narrowing the attack has two purposes — besides getting rid of the often-inaccurate and possession- or movement-killing cross. It makes Sporting KC a much more vertical threat (something that, as Matthew Doyle writes, is taking over the league) and it puts players nearer to Dwyer in the attack.

Playing horizontally (which often becomes KC passing the ball around the bunker instead of through it), allows a defense to stay home and not take radical chances. It also keeps two center backs around Dwyer (perhaps you've heard of "Dwyer Island"). 

Last year, KC attempted about 19 crosses per game. Over the first two games, KC attempted 38 crosses. Then Vermes moved off-season signing Gerso Fernandes to the right wing, where he’s more prone to cut in on his much better left foot. Out left, Gerso attempted 12 crosses in the first two games — with a paltry one accurate cross. 

On the right side? He’s at times been a destabilizing force isolated against a slower center back or left back. 

Food for thought going forward: Gerso on the right wing has played just 90 minutes with Benny Feilhaber (who naturally pushes to the right-hand side).