clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sounders at Sporting KC: Three Questions

Seattle is back on the road Saturday (5:30 PM PT, MLS Season Pass — not free)

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

A rivalry of sorts has developed between Sporting Kansas City and the Seattle Sounders. Seattle is thrilled with the history of BBQ tears, the last minute winners. KC likes to unseat the upstart team from the Pacific Northwest. Similar to the Sounders, Sporting failed to make the playoffs in 2022. Unlike Seattle, it was their second time missing the postseason in four years.

Under Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders are 5-6-1, -1 when facing Peter Vermes in MLS play, but the Sounders own the series 12-10-4, +0.

Both teams will have diminished rosters. The Sounders are without six players due to international duty and one due to injury. Sporting has just one player away on international duty, but four are out and another three are questionable.

From No Other Pod, Jimmy answers Three Questions.

SaH: I’m still confused by a Peter Vermes team turning towards being a high-octane, high-tempo, light defense side late last year, with better defense so far in the early season. Explain this to me so I can understand.

NOP: Sporting KC under Peter Vermes has traditionally tried to play a high-press style of soccer that tries to force opponents into mistakes while keeping possession for long periods of time when they have the ball. Last year, with so many injuries to key attacking players to start the year, Sporting really wasn’t able to do either. When Peter finally got some offensive reinforcements during the summer window in Erik Thommy and Willy Agada, he was able to adapt and move toward more of the high-octane, high-tempo offensive style you reference. The German attacking midfielder Thommy brought a spark of creativity and some leadership to the midfield that desperately needed it with DP Gadi Kinda out for the year, and Willy Agada gave SKC an option at striker who wasn’t Khiry Shelton. Both players were able to adjust to the league relatively quickly and played a much more direct, vertical style of soccer than Sporting had been playing. The defense, however, continued to deal with injuries throughout the back half of last year, and long-time goalkeeper Tim Melia missed the last couple of months with an injury. Set pieces in particular were the bane of Sporting’s existence defensively. It seemed that defenders were confused on positioning and assignments, often leading to mental errors and ultimately costly goals.

The defense definitely seems to have settled into itself much better early in 2023, having given up only three goals through the first four games. (Two of those goals have come from costly Ben Sweat mental/positional errors at left back.) Andreu Fontas has paired nicely with U-22 CB Robert Voloder, who became the de facto starting partner for Fontas when Kortne Ford went down for the year with a preseason Achilles injury. Voloder played in just 12 games for Sporting last year, starting only seven, but he seems to have made great strides in the offseason in terms of confidence in his decision making and positioning along the back line. John Pulskamp has taken complete control of the starting goalkeeper position, and Remi Walter has stepped in niceley as a defensive midfielder while new signing Nemanja Radoja continues to get in game shape. Ultimately, it’s been a combination of consistency through the first four games and the faster development of young players like Voloder and Pulskamp that have led to the surprising defensive turnaround so far in 2023. If newly signed left back Tim Leibold can return from a hamstring injury suffered two weeks ago against Colorado, he will be a defensive upgrade over Ben Sweat and will cause more problems for Seattle down their right attacking side.

SaH: Seattle has a higher press than they have in previous years. Can the midfield three of Sporting manage possession when pressed?

NOP: The good news for Sporting KC is two of their three midfielders, Erik Thommy and Remi Walter, are very skilled with the ball at their feet. Roger Espinoza has been the third midfielder so far for Sporting due to injuries, and while he may not be as adept technically as Thommy and Walter, he still plays with the same high-intensity style that Sporting fans love and opposing fan bases hate. The midfield trio were able to functionally erase Portland’s new DP midfielder Evander from having an impact in the season opener and kept Galaxy midfielder Riqui Puig at bay without much difficulty. The trio should be able to cycle the ball around quickly and have dealt with the press well so far when asked to do so. However, this is not the speediest nor the most athletic of midfields Sporting have ever put out there, so if Seattle can force them into costly turnovers there will be a real opportunity for the Sounders to jump on those mistakes and grab some goals on the counter or in transition.

SaH: Which player will determine if KC makes it back to the playoffs?

NOP: This year, Sporting KC once again finds themselves with a number of key attacking players out early due to injury. Johnny Russell, Alan Pulido, and Gadi Kinda have all yet to make an appearance in 2023 (though they are all getting close, and Pulido may be available on Saturday). While Erik Thommy continues to be the creative spark in the midfield — he’s second in the league in key passes, behind only Thiago Almada, and second in the league in xPA per American Soccer Analysis — he’s not getting much attacking help around him. Willy Agada seems to be overthinking everything and not getting into the right spot at the right time the way he was in the last two months of 2022. Daniel Salloi is a capable player, but he isn’t much of an individual creator.

While having Pulido back would certainly help, getting Johnny Russell back is probably the single biggest thing this team needs right now. It may not be fair to say that his fitness and form alone will determine if KC makes it to the playoffs or not, but Erik Thommy simply does not have the creative help he needs out there, which is leading to limited goalscoring opportunities in the final third. Having a speedy, creative player like Russell, who can strike from distance, split defenders, or take the ball down to the endline before cutting it back or firing a shot on target, may be exactly what Kansas City needs to get the offensive train rolling. The good news for Sporting is that Russell was a full participant in training for parts of this week. He won’t be healthy enough to start against Seattle, and I’d be surprised if he makes an appearance this week, but his presence has definitely been missed early on for Sporting KC.

Check out No Other Pod’s previews over on Stitcher.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Sounder At Heart Weekly Roundup newsletter!

A twice weekly roundup of Seattle Sounders and OL Reign news from Sounder at Heart