The Struggle is Real(ish)

MLS is nearing the quarter point in it’s long and grueling season. Now is the awkward time where it may be too early to overreact to the good or bad things we are seeing on the pitch, but we can also start to see trends developing. The Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake have gotten off to surprisingly hot starts this season after dismal seasons a year ago. Chris Wondolowski’s 7 goals scored so far makes him on pace to break his own record for goals scored in a season. Seattle Sounders games average only 1.5 goals scored between both teams. A mark that low hasn’t been achieved over the course of the season since Chivas USA was in the league in 2014.

It’s still early to hit the panic button on Sporting Kansas City’s struggles to score goals over the last few weeks. In their last three games, they’ve outplayed FC Dallas in a 2-1 loss, they’ve felt ill-effects of Jair Marrufo in a 1-0 loss to San Jose, and they outplayed a 10-man Vancouver Whitecaps team in a 1-1 draw. Seriously though, MLS admitted Jair Marrufo had a bad game by retroactively punishing San Jose players for uncalled fouls committed against SKC.

Given that Sporting’s struggles with the finishing touch in the final third may be a complete non-issue by summertime, we can still look at some numbers to see what could be becoming a trend. Compared to the rest of the league, SKC is in the top 3 in crosses per game.

Team Games Played Crosses per game Corners per game Shots per game
HOUSTON DYNAMO 7 15.3 4.1 4.7
SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC 7 14.6 6.0 4.7
SPORTING KANSAS CITY 9 14.2 5.2 3.9
NEW YORK RED BULLS 8 13.8 6.6 5.6
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION 9 12.4 4.1 4.4
LOS ANGELES GALAXY 7 12.1 4.7 5.7
COLUMBUS CREW SC 7 12.1 7.6 4.6
ORLANDO CITY SC 7 10.9 6.4 5.1
NEW YORK CITY FC 8 10.8 6.0 5.8
D.C. UNITED 8 10.6 4.6 5.3

The high number of crosses per game are not equating to shots on goal at the same rate as the rest of the league, with only 3 teams taking fewer shots per game then SKC. Two of those teams (Toronto FC and San Jose Eathquakes) have the best goal scorers in the league (Sebastian Giovinco and Chris Wondolowski), and Toronto play with their striker at the top of their formation and work to distribute the ball to him through the middle of the field.

Sporting’s style of play lends itself to playing with width and creating opportunities with fullbacks getting involved in the attack with overlapping runs down the sideline.This heatmap below shows where SKC’s touches were from their game this week against Vancouver Whitecaps.

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Sporting rarely found themselves in the 18 yard box in front of the goal with the ball. In the attacking third, many of their touches were made in the corners of the field. Sporting played 29 crosses in this game, compared to the Whitecaps 13. From the match summary on www.whoscored.com, SKC’s strength’s were that they “stole the ball often from the opposition,” and they “were effective at creating goalscoring opportunities from the flanks.” They had 10 goal scoring opportunities compared to 5 for Vancouver. In only one of their matches this season have they conceded more scoring opportunities than they have created.* SKC are creating chances, they are just unable to turn them into goals.

*In a very poorly played 2-1 loss at home against Real Salt Lake, SKC created 10 chances to RSL’s 15.

It is positive that regressing to the mean works in SKC’s favor if they keep creating opportunities. If they continue creating at the same rate they currently are, while turing chances into goals closer to league average, they will find themselves in good shape.

Although the trend of heavily relying on crosses seems great when they are coming off the feet of Graham Zusi and Brad Davis,  it seems less promising when the majority of the time the crosses are directed at 5’9” Dom Dwyer while he is surrounded by multiple center backs. Sporting have a number of dangerous creative weapons with 2015 MVP finalist Benny Fielhaber and Honduran World Cup veteran Roger Espinoza, and firing cross after cross negates their ability to use their vision to find Dwyer with a dangerous through ball.

It will be interesting to see if SKC are able to get more bodies in the box to receive crosses if they continue to be as heavily reliant upon them as they have been throughout the first nine games of the season. Sporting’s midfielders are talented enough to continue to create chances. The question will be whether or not Dom Dwyer remains on an island to score all of the goals himself.

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