At the beginning of each week, MLSsoccer.com and OPTA will highlight one aspect or trend from that weekend’s action using statistics and events during the match to explain what forces are at play and how they pertain to the big picture.
Sporting Kansas City are busy making history, mostly because they’re making holding onto the ball exceedingly difficult for their opponents.
Manager Peter Vermes’ team may be the league’s final unbeaten – and the first team since 1998 to start 5-0-0 – but the most impressive aspect of Sporting KC’s season thus far is the borderline ridiculous record they set this weekend for the most-ever consecutive minutes without allowing a shot on goal (245).
The most recent example of Kansas City’s propensity for stifling opposing attacks came on Saturday, as Sporting dispatched the LA Galaxy 1-0 by barely giving Bruce Arena’s team a glimpse of the net (four total attempts, none by Robbie Keane, Edson Buddle or Landon Donovan) and winning the possession battle 60-to-40 percent.
All in all, it was a match that provided a statistical window into the reasons why Vermes’ side has managed to allow one goal this season – on a direct free kick from Ricardo Villar no less – and just eight shots on frame. Sporting’s defensive record is nearly spotless for one simple reason: Their pressure doesn’t give opposing teams the time or space to combine in the attacking half of the field, especially the final third.
The Galaxy’s Mike Magee alluded to it following Saturday’s game, saying he couldn’t remember LA “connecting five passes in a row.”
And while that may not necessarily be true, Magee and his teammates were certainly held far below their season averages in passing accuracy (see table at right) and possession. While Kansas City generally left the visitors unmolested in their own half, they ratcheted up the pressure considerably once LA crossed the halfway line, cutting the Galaxy’s passing percentage by 15 percent from their season average and more than 20 percent in the final third.
When they couldn’t find teammates in advanced positions, LA found themselves routed into areas where they couldn’t truly trouble Sporting KC’s backline, resorting to lateral and back passes that left them too far from goal to do any real damage (see graphics below, successful passes on the left and unsuccessful passes on the right). And when the Galaxy gambled, looking for Robbie Keane or Edson Buddle, Kansas City was there to cut out the danger and counter with Kei Kamara and Graham Zusi.
Even more telling than a single game – as disruptive as Kansas City were against LA – is the fact that Sporting have done nearly the same thing to all their opponents this season.
While teams have little trouble possessing the ball in their own half, the territory on the other side of the halfway line is a no-passing zone, with accuracy dropping drastically from league and team averages (see chart).
The result is that teams simply don’t have the ball in areas where they can test goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, an assertion backed up by the fact that only New England (six) have put more than one shot on frame all season.
In a clear case of cause and effect, the dead zone for pass completion for opponents – the center of the field in the final third – is the territory occupied by Júlio César, the back point with the experience to anticipate play as well as superb ability in the air and in the tackle, as well as the combative Roger Espinoza.
With Zusi, Kamara, Bobby Convey, Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic routing the ball into wide areas and preventing service, Matt Besler and Aurélien Collin can focus on winning balls in the air, cleaning up the few that actually make it to them and putting in the occasional tackle when necessary.
And Nielsen? He's been booting the occasional goal kick, pulling down the rare cross that makes it into the area and generally twiddling his thumbs.
Of course, as unrelenting as Kansas City's pressure has been this season, they haven't seen a team like Real Salt Lake – the type of neat, possession oriented side that can exploit any hint of overcommitment. To boot, Jason Kreis' team will take the field at Livestrong Sporting Park next Saturday as the most accurate passing team in MLS – both in opponent's halves and in the attacking third.
Whether or not Kansas City can slow down RSL will go a long way toward determining whether this team is the clear early-season Supporters' Shield favorite, as many are already proposing. Before those conversations can really ramp up, however, Sporting must deal with MLS' only other 15-point team.
If they can do that, stay relatively healthy and maintain the fitness base needed to play their preferred style in the summer months, opposing sides are in for fits when it comes to creating even the most fleeting of scoring opportunities against the league's most unrelenting pressure.