Sporting KC and Broader Major League Soccer Thoughts for 3/1/2023
New Season, New TV Deal, Unfortunately Familiar Sporting KC Result
I’ve had such a whirlwind last few days that I didn’t really stop to appreciate that the Sporting Kansas City season has begun. I was going to miss the first match because I was at a concert (The Beths at Thalia Hall in beautiful Chicago, Illinois), but since it’s been moved to Monday night, I’m watching it live on my TV right now! I’m going to get to watch this team for the rest of the year! That’s until sometime in the fall! Every weekend, every Saturday night, as well as some Wednesday nights and other scattered weekend afternoons, there’s going to be Sporting Kansas City soccer! That is such a wonderful feeling – Even if they lose a lot of games, I’ll be able to see them. This is a privilege that I have been certain to take time to appreciate ever since that mid-March surprise cessation of three years ago. This paragraph is my statement of appreciation for the return of Sporting Kansas City, as well as Major League Soccer as a whole.
I got to see a good amount of the first weekend of MLS from the place where I stayed in Chicago. It was refreshingly easy to log in to Apple TV on a television that is not my own and, without a second of thought put towards the regional blackout restrictions of the area (though the Fire were off this weekend), pull up the full slate of Major League Soccer matches and get to watching. The twenty minutes or so of in-game presentation of Nashville-NYCFC that I got to see left me impressed. The camera quality is the most obviously improved thing, at least compared to the uneven stuff we’d seen from the patchwork of local stations over the past few years, and even compared to what we’d seen from ESPN and Fox Sports as of recent. If they can get the picture quality right, there’s a lot of other stuff that I’ll tolerate. There were a few moments in the studio post-game and pre-game shows that put me off a little, but they were primarily the sorts of awkward silences and hosts stepping on one another’s lines that tend to come with groups of presenters that haven’t worked together very much yet.
I will not be glued to the MLS 360 show after what I saw. Partially, this is just a realization that what I enjoy about NFL Redzone does not map immediately on to soccer. I enjoy CBS’s Golazo Show for Europa League and UEFA Champions League coverage, but I also don’t care very much about the results of those games and don’t know about many of the teams playing, so it’s more or less a compilation of cool goals by anonymous players to me. The commercial breaks proved overwhelming and the ratio of studio commentary to match broadcast commentary could’ve been flipped, but even at its best, I figure that I’d prefer to watch a good match broadcast fully rather than hopping between them in that way. I’m critical here, but I’m trying to keep in mind that this was made under a relative time-crunch and I expected for things to run much more roughly. The broadcast product is already at a higher level of quality than I’m used to with MLS, and I expect that it will improve. One recommendation that I heard on The Allocation Disorder podcast today, which I think I’ll heed, is using the 360 Show as a secondary window alongside a main game in a primary window. This will necessitate the Two Television Setup, which has its pitfalls, but I’m willing to try it out this weekend.
The only full match I was able to watch this weekend was my own team’s.
I was disappointed, unsurprised, but unfazed by the result in Portland on Monday evening. It presented little catharsis and there’s no way to say “I think our team played better than the result shows” in a way that doesn’t sound like a coping mechanism, and you’ll probably see that statement repeated many times regarding this match if you go read analyses of it, so I’m not going to explicate that here. What I’m most interested in for this first week, having not seen the team in any competitive match in several months, is any new information that I felt I learned about the team. This is probably how I’ll frame posts like these –
The Remi Walter Conundrum Continues
Most I’ve seen seem to attribute the Timbers’ goal to Ben Sweat making a risky move to keep the ball in play rather than clearing it out for a corner kick, then inadvertently keeping Juan Mosquera onside when Yimmi Chara played it back to him, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the wrong takeaway, but Remi Walter’s tendency to overpursue in defense showed itself in this play as well. I really, really like Remi Walter, and I feel that when he plays as a progressing midfielder, he’s among the best in MLS and maybe the best (or at least most important) player on Sporting Kansas City. As a defensive midfielder, he’s quite good, but prone to mistakes like this one. There were moments in this match where his high-pace pursuit of loose balls near midfield and in our attacking half created chances in the attack out of nearly nothing. He’s not as pragmatic defensively as I’d want a good central defensive midfielder to be, and that goal is exemplary of that (though I agree with most that the main issue on that goal was Sweat’s).
I think what I’m getting at here is that I want to see Remi where Roger Espinoza started this match, and I hope we get some games of a Radoja-Walter-Thommy midfield sometime soon. Injuries rendered that impossible on Monday, unfortunately. I suppose that’s not new information that I learned, but it’s old information that was further set in stone
Thommy’s Got The Bends
Erik Thommy is taking corners this season from both sides, and I found myself so impressed by the English he was able to get on them. This team hasn’t been as dangerous on set-pieces as they were in the early 2010s over the past few years, but we got a couple of close chances off of Thommy’s services from the corner flag on Monday night which fell just ahead of Khiry Shelton and Andreu Fontas, each of which would’ve been in the net with just a touch from the head. These chances were what left me so measured today, more disappointed than bitter, as it felt like we were about a step or two timed differently from that match finishing 1-1 at the very least.
Khiry’s Role and Sporting KC’s Most Interesting Player
I feel that a team’s most valuable player and most interesting player are very different things. I won’t have a player I consider the most interesting this year until I have a larger sample size, but I’ve come into this year very curious about Khiry Shelton’s role on this team, and I was fascinated by the performance he put in on Monday evening. I’ll admit that I expected not to see Khiry come back for 2023 after the difficult season he had in 2022 as the starting striker, and now that there are three center-forwards on the roster (Agada, Pulido, and Afrifra), I wasn’t sure what he’d end up doing.
The best role for Khiry Shelton, in my mind, was the role he got to briefly fulfill in the Summer of 2021, when Alan Pulido was starting, and Khiry was brought in during the 80th minute of matches in which we held leads in order to press the opposition’s center backs during times of desperation. My favorite Shelton moment since his return to SKC was the sealing goal he scored against the Galaxy during this period. He gets so much criticism, and he really was not an effective player when he played as the starting striker last season, but he has a role on this team that he can play well when put in the position to do so. Last night, he filled in on the right wing for Johnny Russell, and I felt that he almost had a really good game. He put himself in good positions, he put in a really good ground cross to Erik Thommy that nearly became an assist, and he put a lot of good effort into pressuring their defenders when they had possession, but he struggled in front of the goal. I’ll give a lot of credit to Portland’s defense, particularly Mosquera and the young American center back Zac McGraw, who made nothing easy for our guys in front of the goal, but that was a frustrating performance from Khiry, who did a lot well but still struggled with the most important responsibilities put on him as a forward.
Shortly, my other most interesting players from the match that I haven’t discussed yet:
John Pulskamp made a few great saves, though the one that got through is gonna haunt him. He’s grown so much over the past two years, I’m a bit surprised that he got the start over Melia, but based on the highlights of his shot-stopping in this match, I think he’ll cement himself as the goalkeeper of the present and future for Sporting Kansas City this season.
Ben Sweat fascinates me as well – He had his bad moment early on, but showed up well enough defensively after that and given the amount of one-on-one defending he had to do against Yimmi Chara and later Santiago Moreno due to how much pressure was put on Evander by our central defensive players, I felt that he held his own relatively well. He spent so much time playing so far forward, though, much of it in the spaces where Daniel Salloi would’ve been better equipped to either take on defenders or make key passes. Graham Zusi spent a lot of time forward as well, and actually had the most touches of any Sporting player Monday evening, but I felt like I heard Ben Sweat’s name in key moments far more than I expected out of him, in manners both positive and negative.
Robert Voloder is in such a tough spot. I expected for him to step up from last year a bit, up from the fourth to third-choice CB, but he’s been thrust into a starting role so suddenly. It’s coming from a place of low expectations, but outside of that early mistaken back-pass, I must say I was fairly pleased by his performance. Statistically, he comes across well, leading the team in clearances and keeping Jaroslaw Niezgoda basically anonymous. I will be curious to see how he looks against Darren Yapi of Colorado, who seems to be in a similar situation to Voloder, an unexpected starter in Diego Rubio’s absence, and I will be… probably more anxious to see how he looks against Jovelic and Chicharito with the Galaxy at the home opener.
I don’t leave this match feeling all that much different about Sporting KC this year. With so many key players injured for this match, it’s hard to draw any conclusions, and until the frequency of near-misses in goal-scoring becomes a match-over-match recurring phenomenon, I will hold off on being too worried about it. Regardless, I’m happy to have had the opportunity to see them play, and I’m very excited to continue doing so, be it for wins or losses or draws that feel like wins or draws that feel like losses or draws that feel like draws, throughout the rest of the year.
The first weekend is very, very rarely fully microcosmic in Major League Soccer. Remember last year that our first weekend saw Austin score five goals and give up none (which they continued to do) but we also saw Cincinnati give up five goals and score none (which they didn’t continue to do). With that, Toronto and Chicago looked very solid and Dom Dwyer scored a goal, none of which became consistent trends during the 2022 season. It’s not all going to pan out the way we think it will after week one.
The paradox here is that, since it’s the only weekend of soccer we’ll have in retrospect for the next few days we are forced to ponder: Which Week 1 performance will prove microcosmic? When the year finishes, which week-one match can we look back at and find reflective of the way that the two participants’ full seasons panned out?
My (potentially self-destructive) temptation is to say that Austin and St. Louis’s matchup will be this way — So many breaks went Austin’s way in 2022 (their overperformance against their expected goals number was astounding to the point that it has me nearly inclined to turn away from the entire concept of analytical statistics in soccer) that I’m worried for their sake that this year will consist of awful break after awful break the way that their first match did. Much in the same way, if St. Louis is going to win games with a relatively under-resourced roster, it will be through… well, getting breaks to go their way, or at least getting weird stuff akin to the Kipp Keller back-pass to Jared Stroud to happen again.
I also feel like Vancouver and Real Salt Lake played their roles perfectly on Saturday. Vancouver looked really good in chance creation for much of the match, ended up scoring, but Brian White’s finishing issues from last year reared themselves again. Salt Lake didn’t particularly wow anyone with panache, but they took advantage of half-opportunities and somehow ended up with more goals than the Whitecaps, which by the rules of the game is a win. I feel like we’ll say that about Salt Lake all season long — it wasn’t pretty, but they came out on top.
Regarding Posts of This Sort
So this will be the final MLS post on the Things What I Wrote feed. I have purchased a domain and I will set up the Substack to go with it this afternoon, but I have to pay a fee for it and I’m on a public computer writing this right now and don’t want to put my payment information in… I’ll have an update about that when it’s ready, which should be by the weekend.