Every little thing in the game of soccer is completely relevant to every other little thing in the game of soccer. For instance, when you lose a star player, (if you’re a supporter of a wealthy club, at least) your manager goes out and buys a replacement.** If you’re chasing down the league title, your closest competitor drops three points, you’re going to hit the field in your next game with extra vigor and desire to get one over on them and move one step closer to lifting the trophy at the end of the year.
** – Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has yet to figure this out after losing Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri before the start of the 2011-12 Premier League season; he’s going to want to get on with replacing Robin van Persie after he makes his big summer move to Manchester City or Real Madrid, now.
That’s not down to just the context of an entire season or even multiple. Everything little thing in the game of soccer is still completely relevant to every other little thing in the game of soccer, on an in-game basis, too. That’s why you should never blink while watching a soccer game. You kick me, I’m going to kick you back next chance I get. Your No. 10 slips a through ball to a blindingly quick forward behind our backline, we’re going to sit just a bit deeper next time down this end of the field.
Basically, it’s how Macaulay Culkin – even at the age of ten – could have been related back to Kevin Bacon thanks to Joe Pesci or Daniel Stern, somehow. Everything that happened in the last Sporting Kansas City game can, and will in this space, connect the dots from the broad strokes of a win, loss or draw, down to the finest of points. Even if that finest of points is the thickness of skin atop the bald head of Aurelien Collin. Somehow, we’ll get there. And so, we set off on this strange journey.
This will, with any luck, be something I key up one an every game basis, so do enjoy. We’ll call it “Six Degrees of Last Night’s Game“.
1. Possesion pays — when you do something with it
It’s awesome to have the ball the whole game and not let the other team have it. The possession statisics severely skew in your favor, but if you’re not creating anything of real danger, what’s the use? Sporting completely out-classed DC United in the midfield for the entirety of the 90 minutes, yet a 93rd minute winner from 2011 Rookie of the Year CJ Sapong was needed to break the deadlock and send the Eastern Conference favorites home with the full three points.
Numbers simply don’t lie; Sporting had nearly 57 percent of possession through the match, Roger Espinoza looked every bit capable of 2012 MLS Best 11 accolades (if that sounds familiar, it’s because it is), and Graham Zusi was more diligent and at times precise with his ball-play than his breakout 2011 season for which he brought home MLS Breakout Player of the Year honors.
Sporting completed 371 passes in the game (4th most among MLS teams on FirstKick weekend - New York Red Bulls, 483(!!!)*** Houston Dynamo, 423 and Real Salt Lake, 391). Espinoza was Sporting’s most frequent ball-winner with 16 ball recoveries (often characterized as 50/50 loose-balls), more than half of which were within five yards of the halfway line or in the opposing half. Somebody had to get Zusi the ball to distribute, and distribute he did. Zusi’s passing percentage was average (74 percent), but accuracy on set pieces throughout the night and quick, overlapping, one touch passing with Kei Kamara, Chance Myers on the right, Teal Bunbury, Sapong through the middle, and Bobby Convey on the left made Zusi easily the offensive catalyst for Sporting’s astronomical 1-goal output.
That said, Sporting were quite wasteful – perhaps just lacking mid-season sharpness – in the final third. The build-up and control of the game through the midfield kept Sporting in control all night, but either crosses need to find heads in the box, or Bunbury has to get behind the defense out and turns things into a track meet if they are to replicate their scoring prowess of 2011.
*** – By the way, how did all that possession and passes work out for New York? A 2-1 loss, only confirming possession pays — when you do something with it.
2. Speaking of ‘doing something with it’, Zusi’s new nickname is the Samurai
Seriously, I’m half-expecting him to come out on the training field Tuesday morning wielding a 50-inch metal sword, while Espinoza follows him out, shirtless with tiger claw marks on each pectoral, the two of them kicking really high (yeah, really), flanking a backflipping and corkscrew spinning CJ Sapong on either side like three modern-day (male) Charlie’s Angels. There’s more jokes there than I know what to do with; I’ll leave those to you all.
Tom Cruise once played a samurai in a movie and Tom Cruise is really famous, so there’s that. Tom Cruise was also featured on a scientology ridiculing episode of South Park. By proxy, Graham Zusi is the first MLS player (to the best of my knowledge, unless they did Beckham one time and I missed it) to appear as a 2-D hood-rat on Comedy Central.
If you still say the hair is not awesome, then you are not awesome.
3. 2011 MLS Most Valuable Player Dwayne De Rosario: Neutralized
Samurais have to be accurate with their massive swords or someone is going to lose arm or a head, and no one was more precise in 2011 than Dwayne De Rosario. He amassed 16 goals and 12 assists in splitting playing time between three different clubs. That was not to be the case, though on Saturday night.
Just as Sporting held De Rosario at bay in all three of his appearance against them in 2011 (one for New York, two for United), the central defense pairing of Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin pushed him well up the field with their high defensive line, causing De Rosario – playing as a roaming midfielder/forward just behind Hamdi Salihi – to spend much of the game around the center, just so he could get a touch on the ball. Honorable mention to Julio Cesar, who occupies that space right in front of Besler and Collin. In fact, the postgame chalkboards on MLSSoccer.com show that half of his successful passes were back towards his own goal. In summary, Besler and Collin are one of the very best partnerships in all of MLS; Olave and Borchers-esque.
You have to be able to shoot to score, and De Rosario was wholly prevented from doing so, getting off only a pair of shots in open play, both of which were blocked 30-plus yards from goal. You take away a dog’s leash and bone (De Ro loves to wind up and let it rip), you leave him no will to live (De Ro lives to score). Sadly, the movie Home Alone featured no family dog, which is of course the movie’s one major downfall. A nice Retriever would have done, don’t you think?
4. ”Everything goes through the flanks, you stretch them out and make them defend you one-on-one”
No question about it, that was Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes in the locker room before the first kickoff. Or, at least that’s what the players heard. For the first half hour, literally everything from Sporting was worked down the right side of attack, often starting with Zusi and ending near the sideline at the feet of Kamara and Myers. This saw only mediocre degrees of success, but that mostly due the fact that Bunbury is not the hulking target in the box of a Sapong or Kamara. Bunbury played 75 minutes and few headers were won. Sapong played 15 and the game-winner pinged off Sapong’s head. Purely coincidence.
Rarely does a midfielder – non Xavi division – have a game like Zusi did when he’s being bombarded and pelted from all angles by the guys in the different colored shirts. A lot of credit for Zusi’s performance should go to the gameplan of Vermes and execution of the wingers and fullbacks. Their ability to not only hold possession, but also string passes together, opened up acres of space through the middle.
Kamara and Myers combined for 89-of-118 (76 percent) down the right, while Bobby Convey and Seth Sinovic hit the same percentage at 78-of-102. Pose little threat in the wide areas, the fullbacks sag in just a bit, the midfield is stretched just a little less as well, and the time and space for Zusi and Espinoza as attackers (thus some important numbers – 7 key passes played into the final third – and ultimately, the impact) are all curtailed. Kamara and Convey-equals-way out wide-equals-good things once the timing and natural play kick in, I promise.
5. A solid debut for Bobby Convey
For all the discussion about Convey (of which there’s been plenty) – whether he’s still good enough, will his attitude be a problem, will he buy into the team – Convey succeeded in doing exactly what I believe he was acquired to do: provide intelligent width and service on the left side. Postgame heat maps indicate that Convey spent a large portion of his time along the sideline – something that Omar Bravo was unable to do in 2011 from the same position, something that caused massive clogging in and around the 18-yard box.
Quite simply, as stated above, give a workhorse like Sapong the proper space (and don’t drag extra defenders to him) to work in the center and he’ll make things happen, just as he did immediately upon his entrance in the 75th minute. Sure, Convey’s pace isn’t what it once was as a 20-year old leftback and winger that could blaze up and down the flanks for days, but the ability to hit a cross into the box, or swing in a left-footed free kick to compliment Zusi’s right-footed blasts (as he did early on with a great ball from 30 yards out along the right sideline) do nothing but bring an added dimension to the Sporting attack. Toss in a little ambidexterity with the right foot as well, and Convey is going to be a key player for Sporting KC in 2012, whether everyone likes it or not.
6. Never underestimate momma’s good cookin’
Behind every successful man is a strong woman whose strength far exceeds his successes. Getting back to his hometown of Manassas, Virginia for the weekend did CJ Sapong some good.
Rumor has it that momma Sapong cooks a mean okra soup, and that her soccer star baby absolutely loves it. The traveling 18 players, coaching and medical staff all converged upon the Sapong household in late October when Sporting took on the nation’s capitol’s team and clinched the first seed in the 2011 MLS Cup playoffs, thanks to a lone second half goal from Matt Besler.
The night before that game, on that late October night, it was Besler who helped himself to not only seconds, but thirds of the popular African dish from Sapong’s Ghanaian heritage. Not to be outdone in his own city this time around, guess who licked the pots and pans clean after dinner. Yup, it was CJ. He scored the winner in this one. Coincidence? Of course not. Now, you just wait and see what Kei Kamara does when Sporting take on Chivas USA on April 1, a day after family dinner at his mum’s house.