Editorial (June 28, 2019)- The Sporting KC attack has helped separate them from the rest of the Western Conference in 2018, thanks in large part to a more aggressive approach in the attack. A commitment from Sporting KC to make their possession purposeful has turned them into one of the better attacking sides in the league, something that seemed out of reach last season. We’re going to take a look at three telling signs that show the attack is here to stay.
Three Signs that the Sporting KC Attack Is Here to Stay
The Sporting Kansas City attack is on a club historic pace in 2018. They’ve only hit 50 goals in a season once in club history, which is 2011, Peter Vermes’ first full season in charge. They’ve never done better than that. At their current pace, which is just under two goals a game average, Sporting KC would score 65 goals in 34 matches. So what’s going into it? Let’s take a quick look at some expected goals numbers, courtesy of American Soccer Analysis.
What does Expected Goals say about the Sporting KC attack?
Expected Goals, or xG, is a stat that is still somewhat controversial. Like every statistic in any sport, it’s not a “tell-all” and still has flaws. However, it’s something that, for a larger sample size, is hard to not take a look at.
So far, in 2018, Sporting KC sit second in the xGF (expected goals for) rankings (29.3), just .04 underneath Atlanta United, who have played one more game. They’ve scored two more than what they’re “expected goals” say. Usually, that’s a sign of having good finishers. Let’s jump back to last season.
In 2017, Sporting KC posted a team xG of 49.1 and underperformed that by a solid nine goals. That’s normally a sign of bad finishing. But the question begs whether or not they’re just creating more chances, or more dangerous chances. The answer is actually both.
Shoot Your (better) Shot, With Accuracy
Sporting KC were second in the league in shots in 2017, with 517 shots taken in their 34 matches, averaging 15.2 per game. They’re on pace to break that by 120 shots taken, as they average 18.75 per game. Even further, their xG per game is sitting at 1.94. In 2017 it was the third worst in the league at a paltry 1.15 xG per game. So clearly, not only are they taking more shots at goal in 2017, they’re taking them from much more dangerous areas.
Of course, getting their shots off from much more dangerous areas will help, but if you can’t convert them, then what’s the point? In 2017 their conversion rate was just at 7%. In 2018 their conversion rate is at just over 10%. An increase in shots, an increase in shots from dangerous positions, and an increase in conversion rates all major factors in what Sporting KC have done to put themselves on a club record pace for goals. So is it that simple that they’ve upgraded the attacking front three or four? Or is there something more too it? Let’s take a look at a few games for comparison
Importance of Zone 14
Here is what we’re looking at: Sporting KC aren’t doing things a whole lot differently. People are just being more dangerous with the ball. Let’s examine the distribution charts. Here is the first one:
This distribution and shot chart, courtesy of MLSSoccer.com, for Sporting KC in a 1-1 draw against Minnesota United last season shows a quite telling thing. A majority of their penetrative passes were not successful. Passes into, and from Zone 14 were virtually nonexistent.
A brief explanation of the zones is that the field is divided into 18 zones, 9 spaces per half. Zone 14 is regarded as the most dangerous attacking zone for a team. Zone 14 is the area just outside of the penalty area. For a more in depth explanation, check out this article from Spielverlagerung.
Now, here is the distribution chart for their 4-1 win against Minnesota United at the beginning of June, also courtesy of MLSSoccer.com.
One, look at all the touches and successful passes into Zone 14 and 17 (the central space in the penalty area). In this match, they made 4 Key Passes, two assists, and a goal from “Zone 14” Just in general, you can see the amount of successful passes into, and out of Zone 14 into zones 16-18. Most unsuccessful passes were crosses that came in after Minnesota United was down a man and bunkered in trying to score a goal.
In 2017, their issues stemmed from conservative decisions, or bad decisions within Zone 14 and not enough dangerous players with the ball in that area of the field. Now, they’ve added more dangerous players out wide, and more importantly at the number 10 spot. Right now, they’re doing just fine making plays in and out of Zone 14. What’s more incredible is that it’s all come together without Felipe Gutierrez, arguably their best player.
So what’s the main reason behind the revitalized Sporting KC attack? It’s not an entirely new approach. It’s an elevated level in ability within the front four our five players, as well as the soccer IQ to make it all happen, and to do it with efficiency as well. They’re simply more aggressive in the final third, and have the quality to execute consistently with those elevated levels of aggression when it comes to the attack.
That’s a good thing for a team who is as defensively sound as Sporting. The combination of those two is exactly what has vaulted them into the “favorites” conversation for an MLS Cup run. But the defense is nothing new. It’s simply all about the attack for them now, and they’ve clearly elevated their game in a sustainable way.