Nashville SC

Sporting KC preview: Q&A with Daniel Sperry

I caught up with Daniel Sperry, who covers Sporting KC for and various other outlets, to get the latest on one of the top teams in the West. Follow him on Twitter to see all the latest of his work.

For Club and Country: The line about Sporting Kansas City for several years has been, ‘if they’d just open up the pocketbook for a major star.’ Alan Pulido is probably that guy, so how has he affected the way SKC plays? Are there aspects that will continue even in his temporary absence?

Daniel Sperry: I think the addition of Alan Pulido improves this team in nearly every facet of the game. For one, Pulido’s an excellent finisher. Sporting KC have had many forwards in the last few years be able to get themselves into the positions that Pulido is in, few have had half of the finishing ability. I know analytics at times will eliminate the idea of “finishing” as a real trait, but watch Alan Pulido get into the same positions that Khiry Shelton does, and Alan will simply score more goals. Back to my original point, Pulido also improves this team defensively.

Pulido’s understanding of where to be, and that the work doesn’t stop when he loses the ball not only adds a defensive leadership from the front, but it puts pressure on teams. When he’s up top, along with Khiry Shelton and Johnny Russell, they’re tenacious in chasing the ball back and forcing teams to give up the ball.

Throw in his playmaking and hold-up abilities, Pulido is the complete forward, in one person/package, that Sporting KC have yet to possess. He does all the defensive work, he can drop in as a false nine during the buildup, and he finishes his chances. For a long time, Sporting KC have had to choose which type of forward they play with those other qualities coming at the expensive of the one they chose. Those days are pretty much over when Pulido is on the field. 

FCAC: Gianluca Busio is sort of a polarizing player (particularly among USMNT fans), in that major European clubs seem to want to sign him, but the casual observer doesn’t always see ‘it factor’ in him. What does he do that is so important to SKC?

DS: I think it’s partially because you’ve been hearing about Gianluca Busio as a prospect since he was 14 years old. People think the moment he’s signed to a Home Grown deal it’s because he’s ready to play, but reality is that he just turned 18 in April. Pomykal didn’t become a first-choice player for Dallas until last year at 19. In Sporting KC’s game against Houston, Busio notched as many assists as Pomykal has in his career with Dallas. Busio has played a little over 3000 career minutes at the age of 18. He’s produced five goals and six assists in MLS.

What Busio does best doesn’t really translate to viral highlights, which is what usually ends up creating the buzz. Busio understands the rhythm of the game at the level you’d expect from an experienced midfielder, but he’s 18. He gets when it’s time to push, time to be safe, and where to be to help retain possession. Just go back and watch Alan Pulido’s second goal last week. His positioning in the midfield opened himself up to the pass from Espinoza, and he had to play that ball to Pulido right then and there, and at that location for the scoring chance to come off. Pulido’s finish is class, but the ability to recognize when and where that ball needed to be, then execute is everything you need to know about Busio. And if those who aren’t high on him are reading, a reminder for you: He just barely turned 18.

FCAC: The defense has been exceptional this year. Who have been the key performers in the backline?

DS: While the goals against total for Sporting KC is one of the better ones in the Western Conference, I would argue that the Sporting KC backline has not been exceptional. They have been so at times, but the consistency hasn’t been there at times. Surprisingly one of the worst culprits of that are club legend and captain Matt Besler. But he has been injured as of late and is just getting back to training. 

Stand out performers on the backline have actually been Roberto Punčec, and Winston Reid, who will very likely be the CB pairing on Sunday. Reid has been a rock at the back, displaying what you would expect of a defender who spent a considerable amount of time playing in the Premier League. Punčec though has surprised people as he came out of nowhere in the offseason and has been a very adept defender in the transitional phases of the game. He plays a little higher up, and is not afraid to carry the ball into the midfield in possession as well. I have another who has played well I’d like to highlight but I’ll save him for an answer in the later question.

FCAC: It’s been a somewhat down year statistically for Tim Melia in spite of the team’s overall defensive success (as much as “middle of the pack” can be a down year for anyone – which just speaks to his high overall standards). Is that more a function of bad luck, or is the star keeper actually not performing up to his typical level?

DS: I would chalk this up to bad luck. Melia has been fine. One thing that hurts him is how easy some of the goals scored against him have been, and they haven’t been his fault. I understand GA-xG is technically supposed to account for that, but to the eye test there have been very few goals this year where I thought Tim Melia was the one at fault, or that he should be better. Mostly, his backline has hung him out to dry numerous times this season, specifically in low xG situations like a cross and header in the box.

He has made a few timing mistakes, see his red card at MLS is Back (soft IMO), and the penalty he gave up Wednesday. But he did make up for it, and has saved four of his last five penalty kicks against. I think the biggest difference now for Sporting KC is that the chances that the backline is giving up compared to teams in the past are clear cut, meaning Melia can’t do too much about them. 

FCAC: Who are some of the unsung heroes on this team? (Vermes squads always seem to have a lot of them)

DS: First one off the top of my head has been Amadou Dia. He was with Sporting KC in the past, but went to Phoenix Rising in USL. He was signed back this offseason and he has just been excellent since he filled in for Luis Martins. Honestly, he’s played better than the former Benfica left-back and deserves a chance to own the starting role there. His 1v1 defending is great, and he is really picking up the timing and placement of his runs in the attacking phase.

The other is Gerso Fernandes, who has been an off/on starter. Gerso frustrates a lot of Sporting fans because he’s not the most adept finisher, and he always seems to find himself in scoring situations with the final product lacking. But he is so darn good at creating chances for others. For those who have played a total of 600 minutes in mls this season, Gerso’s xA/96 is 6th in the league. In total, he is tied for the team lead in assists in half the minutes played of the people he is tied with. When he’s on the field, he makes things happen, but the bulk of his play has come without the expert finishing of Pulido on the field. I suspect that will eventually change when Pulido returns for the final four or five games.

FCAC: Finally, any specific predictions for the game, including a final score if you’re comfortable giving one?

DS: I’m not sold on a final score because Nashville have been solid defensively. But if you asked me to take the over/under on goals scored on Sunday, I’d be smashing the under. Sporting KC don’t look as dangerous without Pulido, and Nashville don’t look dangerous period. Recently, Sporting have played a little more compact and defensive, losing the possession battle the last two games. 

However, they’re getting the results so I have to wonder if that sticks. Look for Sporting KC to be slightly more on the front foot in this match though since they’re at home. If I were to bet on any team to win, it would be Sporting just for that fact. Prediction? 2-1 Sporting KC.

Many thanks again to Daniel for his expertise. “Check him out!”
Socially distant Peter Vermes photo courtesy Major League Soccer

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