By Jason Davis
Sporting Kansas City doesn’t want you to get comfortable. They don’t want you to relax, to calmly knock the ball around, to have the luxury of time. They don’t want you to settle into the game. They want you to feel rushed, harried, and distracted, on both ends of the field, at every moment, for the full match. Sporting doesn’t so much want to beat you as they want to pester you to death. Over the course of a long 90 minutes, they want to ground you down into a gooey paste with their relentless effort in attack and defense, then use the paste to shine their fancy modern cleats. Preferably as part of one of their fun-loving goal celebrations.
It’s very possible Sporting Kansas City could be the new MLS, representing the next natural step along a linear line of tactical development. SKC’s up-and-down offense plus “90 minutes of hell” defensive intensity is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Right now, SKC is leading the pack, throwing up dust on which the rest of the league is currently choking. End the year with a trophy (or two) in heand, and they’ll just jump to the front of the queue as the new standard.
Even if Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis laments it at every turn. He’s not a fan.
“I think that it’s an overly physical style,” Kreis said to ESPN700 Sports Radio in Salt Lake City. “I think that it relies on being a very disruptive game. There’s not much rhythm to any game that you watch that they play in. I don’t feel like they create a ton of their own chances. I feel like they are picking up a lot of chances off of winning the ball in the opponent’s half of the field.”
For a long time Major League Soccer has been, tactically-speaking, a closed-shop. For the first decade and and a half or so, the league’s prevailing philosophy might best be termed “English style with American accents.” The average American soccer player’s leading attributes being the ability to run a lot and a willingness to ungracefully run into people, the league’s default tactical setting quickly became a staid, flat, traditional 4-4-2, with long balls and speed the most prominent attacking characteristics, and the clumsy bundling-over/crunching tackle the most prominent defensive ploy. It wasn’t so much a matter of MLS coaches consciously choosing to play that way as it was the talent on field consistently, and unwaveringly, reverting to that default setting no matter the stylistic intent.
The old saying about the leopard and his spots comes to mind, because while MLS coaches like to give lip-service to admirable ambitions like “attractive soccer” and “attack-minded soccer”, pulling them off is much, much, easier said than done. It takes significant commitment, and though MLS coaches have longer leashes than their managerial brethren in most of the world, teams just don’t put in the work or have the patience needed to make a coherent tactical scheme, as a matter of club identity, stick.
RSL appears to have managed it through careful personnel selections and a dogged adherence to the type of soccer General Manager Garth Lagerwey and Kreis envisioned, but not without complications, and with just an underdog MLS victory in 2009 (which, it could be argued, came before they morphed into the MLS standard for aesthetic soccer) to show for their efforts. The jury is still out on whether the Real way is an efficient way to build a winner, and no other team has followed RSL more than a few steps down the path.
The team Peter Vermes put together is a pragmatic as any that has ever won thanks to determination and athleticism. What’s different about Sporting Kansas City is the consideration put into exactly how the team plays; Vermes doesn’t just want the typical MLS approach, he wants the old MLS approach turned up to eleven and spiced with a decidedly impatient vibe. SKC took the old model, tweaked it (the move to a 4-3-3, dependent on destroyers in midfield who can push the ball ahead quickly to forwards who will move it just as quickly towards goal), ramped up the horsepower (consistently choosing speedy players to fit the scheme), and unleashed it on a unsuspecting league. It’s not often pretty and it doesn’t follow RSL’s lead towards an aesthetically pleasing passing game, but it’s certainly effective.
In other words, Sporting Kansas City represents a “New Pragmatism” in Major League Soccer. It’s too early to say that they have perfected it (they lost to lowly Portland 1-0 on the weekend), but for the most part the results thus far speak for themselves.
This development is interesting for a few reasons, most notably because it’s not taking place in a tactical vacuum. RSL stands as the obvious counter to the Sporting way. Kreis’s comments, specifically in regards to the chances Kansas City creates, circle back on themselves. They’re contradictory (Kreis says they don’t create “a ton of their own chances” then immediately outlines exactly how they create chances) because Kreis’s sensibilities are normalized to the ball-on-the-ground, possession game Real Salt Lake has come to embody (the word “own” is the key to understand his perspective–chances Sporting creates by forcing turnovers in their opponent’s half don’t count, apparently). Anything else, like SKC’s high-pressure, disruptive, physically-aggressive style on a level not customary even in MLS, is anathema to “good” soccer. The same debate going on in the wider football world, namely the value of pragmatic, opportunistic soccer when everyone should want to strive to be Barcelona, has made its way to MLS.
Sporting is winning, sure, but they’re not necessarily playing a game everyone wants to watch. Of course, playing a game everyone wants to watch was never at the top of organizational priorities for MLS clubs–until this Kreis-led RSL team came along. All that mattered was collecting enough points to make the playoffs, then hopefully catching a wave to ride through the random-ish post-season to a championship.
Parity creates a more balanced competition, giving every fan base a reasonable hope of success, but one of its more disappointing side effects is tactical homogeneity. The Vermes approach can either be viewed as a sort of “MLS+” style, implying a lack of true dedication towards an admirable end and not much of a step forward at all, or as a clever improvement that could predict the tactical future of a copycat league.
The latter would surely dismay not only Jason Kreis, but also the growing number of MLS-aware soccer fans who count themselves about the stylistic idealists. But as a matter of maximizing the available talent in a bid to win, Major League Soccer’s overriding concern for most of its history, it’s hard to argue with Sporting’s way.