Sporting KC came out with defensive dominance to start the season. They rose to the top of the West with four goals scored and just one goal surrendered after three games. But then Real Salt Lake came to town and things changed. The counter attacking play of the Utah dwellers was able to pip points from Kansas City.
A stomping of the New York Red Bulls later and Sporting found themselves up against another Western rival, the Colorado Rapids. Much like Real Salt Lake, while KC was able to control the game, they fell victim to the counter attack and lost to it.
Any time there is a recurring theme, there is a need to examine what it is about the team that could be allowing this recurring theme to keep, well, recurring.
It could be easy to point to Matt Besler’s absence and say that is the reason for the counter-attack susceptibility. But that isn’t necessarily accurate when there is another problem staring us right in the face.
Sporting KC use the traditional 4-3-3. They have a fantastic cast of midfielders, but the stability of the 4-3-3 is up for question. For instance, check out Sporting KC’s heat maps from the losses to Colorado and Real Salt Lake, two games that they will feel like they should have won. The only collection of heat that we can find in either one is out wide. That is interesting, seeing as how counter attacks coming from the center are the most dangerous. Again, some of that could fall on Besler’s absence, but I have another proposition.
Consider the win against Vancouver. Sporting KC employed the stable 4-2-3-1 formation and the heatmap depicts a very different story. The highest areas of heat form a protective barrier in front of the goal box. It’s no surprise that KC won this game, only surrendering a goal to a penalty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kansas City controlled the same amount of possession in the Real Salt Lake, Colorado, and Vancouver matches. Only against Vancouver that counter attack was shoved aside.
The 4-2-3-1 plays into Sporting KC’s strengths – their midfield. They have the personnel to use this approach, they just haven’t. By letting a combination of Olum, Mustivar and Espinoza (choose two, any two) fill the two spots at the base of the midfield, suddenly they have a wall before their back line that can slow any counter attacks while the team regroups.
As it stands, Esspinoza is forced to play wide, when he should have a more central role on the team, given his defensive prowess and work ethic.
They can then allow Benny Feilhaber to occupy the vital No. 10 role and keep Zusi and Hallisey out wide to support Dom Dwyer in the middle. The extra level of stability has already been proven and with how many available midfielders KC has, they can run this formation with so many different combinations of players.
A team that controls as much possession as Kansas City does should not be dropping points. They just need a little added stability.