Well, that went about as expected. Sporting KC are one of the strongest, if not the strongest, team in the Eastern Conference, and return almost their entire starting lineup from last year. Little wonder that they looked more fluid on the ball and in their movement than a United side that is still figuring itself out and integrating new pieces. Still, it’ll be a pretty pissed off United locker room knowing they were only minutes from a decent draw and a shut-out to boot.
What will rankle even more is that Ben Olsen has been harping incessantly on the need to improve on defensive set pieces. Where did they lose the game? Defensive set piece. It also looked to me that it was Woolard – who’s an adequate enough player, but not an MLS starter – who lost his mark, presenting an open header from the corner.
United played reasonably well from a defensive perspective, presenting KC with few good chances. That said, they created precious little of their own. Offensively, the lines were too static, with the fullbacks barely advancing past the center circle and neither the midfield or forwards checking deep to receive the ball. As a consequence, there were far too many hopeless long balls that KC’s back line gobbled up without much trouble.
One of the few exceptions where the lines blended was the neat interchange of passes worked by De Rosario and Pontius that sent the latter in for a decent try from the edge of the box that went wide. Decent chance. But the better chance was passed up. Salihi had made an excellent run into the space created when Pontius skipped passed one central defender, forcing the second to slide over into his path. Hard to blame Pontius for having a try at goal, but if he sees Salihi drifting into the box and touches it into his path, I think United go into the break up a goal.
Indeed, of the three DP-money guys on the United roster, I thought only Salihi actually looked the part. He was better on the ball than I expected with good close control, patience, and a bit of vision to boot. That said, he’s being paid the big bucks to stick the ball in the net, and the one solid look he had, he headed wide. It would have been a stretch to trouble the keeper at that range and from the angle Russell’s ball came in at, but Salihi got plenty of power, just not the direction. Neither De Rosario or Boskovic had much impact on the game.
I expected that Olsen would make an adjustment at the break to counter the central midfield three of KC that were controlling the possession game, likely by dropping De Rosario into a deeper role, a move that might have helped him find time on the ball given the close attentions the central defense of KC were paying to him. Instead, it looked like Salihi doing more of the coming deep, and through a combination with the wide men pinching in a bit and the fullbacks getting forward, the possession leveled off more.
That said, KC always looked the more likely, getting an increasing number of chances as their midfield and forwards applied high pressure, won possession, and broke quickly. KC hunted for the ball in packs and broke in the same manner, consequently having a number of passing options near at hand or breaking into space. United also began to surrender more and more set pieces in their own end, which looked to be leading to disaster before the knock-out blow came in stoppage time.
Still, the second half was better from United’s perspective. Pontius and Najar received the ball more on the wings and got after their defenders, though neither could find a decent cross. That has to be one of the first notes on the white board tomorrow. With a predator like Salihi in the box making smart runs and a wild card like De Rosario ready to turn a half-chance into gold, you’ve got to get your head up and be ready to deliver, and both of our wide men have a tendency to want too many touches. Likewise, the lines blended better as midfielders and forwards starting dropping off to find space and show for balls to feet.
As the half wore on, both sides dipped into their benches for changes. It was here that the balance tilted. Wolff for Boskovic netted little. Wolff brought energy and a bit more bite to central midfield, but he did little to connect the dots in possession. Cruz for Pontius again brought energy, and Pontius probably isn’t ready to go 90, but pushing Najar onto the left saw him constantly cutting inside and dribbling into blind alleys, while Cruz did little of note on the right. Santos was the most impressive of the subs, winning the aerial challenges that had been going KC’s way prior to his introduction, and showing in flashes the understanding he has with De Rosario.
But it was a KC change that proved fatal. Sapong’s athleticism and interchanging of positions with Kamara, another terrific athlete, created problems for United’s defense, leading to a number of fouls, more lost aerial challenges, and ultimately the sequence that killed the game. A lost mark, yet another ball lofted into the box, and finally Hamid was beaten after making a handful of decent saves. The lateness of the goal left little chance for reply.
United would have been a touch lucky to escape with a 0-0, but this was a close and hard-fought match. I think you saw that in how much the late winner obviously meant to the Sporting players. While United created little offensively, didn’t have many coherent passing sequences, and looked a step slower than KC, that’s to be somewhat expected as United still have to integrate a number of new players and didn’t have much consistency in their pre-season preparations. From the run of play, the defense looked mostly adequate, though I’d expect Dudar to supplant one of McDonald or Jakovic before too long, particularly given that his height and experience will do much to bolster their efforts against set pieces, a weakness that continues to haunt United.