Breakdown: Sporting Kansas City protects identity by staying sharp

Sporting Kansas City - as personified by bustling striker Dom Dwyer - understands its identity. The need to maintain makes it all the more important to respond when modest bumps occur along the way.

Jasen Vinlove/Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

FOXBOROUGH, MASS.

Sporting Kansas City worked tirelessly over the past few seasons to produce the sort of consistency and identity required to reach this point in its development. This team grasps how it wants to play and performs to a certain standard nearly every time it takes the field.

The toil produced a MLS Cup on home soil in December and prompted a steady start to the title defense this season. The greater ambitions in the CONCACAF Champions League fell by the wayside at Estadio Azul last month, but this group continues to place itself in a position to churn out results nevertheless.

Any momentary blip offers a chance to reaffirm the principles required to sustain the system in place. Take, for instance, the 2-0 defeat suffered at New England as an example of how to keep an ambitious side on course.

Sporting found itself in a position to depart Gillette Stadium with a positive result by adhering to those tried and true principles, but Aurélien Collin’s red card in the final 20 minutes exposed the early-season proclivity to concede in the late stages. Teal Bunbury and Lee Nguyen duly scored in second-half stoppage to lift the home side to victory and prompt the visitors to wonder how exactly their efficient display yielded a defeat.

THE QUEST FOR MORE

“It’s something that we’ve built up over the past few years,” Sporting midfielder Graham Zusi said about his side’s identity. “It’s something that – as far as we’re concerned – gets stronger and stronger. But those late lapses, they kill us. It’s the third time this year. We have to do something about it.”

The latest instance in the purported pattern followed Chad Barrett’s scrambled winner in the season-opening defeat at Seattle and Matt Hedges’ equalizer for FC Dallas a week later. There is no rhyme or reason to those goals, no line to draw between a bundled finish after an almighty scrum, a header from a free kick and a near-post effort off a deflected cross. But their existence provides a chance to reaffirm the tenets required to cut out those lapses and stop the goals from happening.

“If there was something to it, it’d be something that’d be obvious that we could fix,” Sporting defender Matt Besler said. “But the way the plays are, it’s a bounce here or there. I think it’s just a mentality. We have to be a team in the last five minutes that is on the other end of that stuff.”

In other words, it isn’t part of Sporting’s construct to bend in the late stages. The inherent components to a Sporting performance – good pressure on the ball in its 4-3-3 setup, latent desire to close the opponent down and win possession in good areas, methodical work once the ball is acquired (no team keeps a higher share of possession per match, according to Opta statistics) and relentless pursuit of the end product – do not include it.

Every match supplies an opportunity to reinforce those underpinnings and remove other issues designed to undermine them. It is how Sporting reached this point in the first place. And it is how this side will continue to march forward as it strives to meet its objectives in the future.

“We believe in consistency,” Besler said. “We believe in our system. We feel like – for the most part in every one of our matches – we’ve played to that system. If you look at the table, we’re in a good spot. It’s tough to give away points like we did tonight, but we have to move on to the next one. It’s part of the game.”

Five Points – Week 8

1. Teal Bunbury punishes his old side to get off the mark with his new one: Bunbury grasped the opportunity at hand when Diego Fagundez drifted out to the right flank. He knew the odds were probably against him, but he understood the need to place himself in the right position in case something odd happened.

“I just wanted to make a hard run,” Bunbury said. “The ball could be on the ground, it could be bouncing around. It happened to be in the right spot at the right time.”

It worked. Bunbury found himself in the perfect position to bundle home Fagundez’s deflected cross and set New England on course for a 2-0 victory at Gillette Stadium.

2. Sporting Kansas City isn’t the only top side worried about dropping points late: Sebastian Fernández fired home a screamer from distance to complete Vancouver’s second-half recovery in the 2-2 draw against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium. It marked the latest instance in a frustrating trend: RSL has now conceded three goals in winning positions after the 90th minute to throw away six points.

“I think it was the choices that we made on the ball,” Cassar told reporters after the match as he tried to explain the drop from a rampant first-half to a subpar second. “We had a two-goal lead, and we really needed to take care of the ball.  I thought we gave it away a little too cheaply.  We also got a little bit out of shape – giving up the ball away in poor areas, guys in different spots and not spots to defend properly. We’ll learn from it.”

The situation isn’t exactly dire, though. RSL ended the night as the league’s only unbeaten team (3-0-5) and extended its unbeaten run to 12 regular-season matches. Cassar is the first rookie coach to draw or win his first eight matches since 1996. All is perfectly fine on the Wasatch, but the desire to find fault helps to spur the team forward. RSL functions in a similar fashion to its MLS Cup adversary: it wants to maintain the same high standards and pursue the proper results to ensure modest setbacks do not transform into genuine causes for concern.

3. Columbus and New York serve up an affair for the neutrals at Crew Stadium: Both teams have distinguished themselves as purveyors of enterprising fare in the early stages of the campaign. This meeting certainly offered further justification for those encouraging signs with ample movement off the ball, neat sequences in possession and several gilt-edged chances created at either end in the 1-1 draw.

“It was a fun game,” Crew head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter told reporters after the game. “I think that’s exactly what we want to play and you don’t always get that, but there are times where the movement was great, passing between the lines and air opened up. It was an attractive game. I thought it was pretty good for the spectator.”

4. Seattle oozes confidence in its home romp over Colorado: Sigi Schmid’s side climbed to the top of MLS with a 4-1 win over the Rapids on Saturday afternoon. The manner of the victory – complete with another Clint Dempsey tour de force (two goals on the day, eight on the season), more tidy work from Obafemi Martins and a whole bushel of flicks and tricks across the board – should strike fear into the heart of any team with Sounders FC on the schedule over the next couple of weeks.

5. Portland’s resolute structure undermined by same fatal flaws: Timbers coach Caleb Porter organizes his team well and places his defenders in a position to perform. This group adheres to those teachings as a general rule, but it continues to suffer from its susceptibility to certain lingering concerns.

Houston exploited two of the three pervasive issues (set pieces are the other bugaboo) for its goal in the 1-1 draw at BBVA Compass Stadium: (1) Corey Ashe exploits the space behind the advanced Jack Jewsbury (or Alvas Powell, in other circumstances this season) to provide Brad Davis with a crossing opportunity behind the line and (2) Will Bruin punishes Pa Modou Kah for failing to track his run into the goal area or challenge earnestly in the air to prevent the simple headed finish.

Portland – as a unit – possessed the necessary pieces and the proper shape to cope with the threat. There were no overload situations in play here. There were no glaring advantages for Houston structurally. This goal resulted from direct, effective and intelligent attacking play from the Dynamo and momentary lapses from the Timbers in bad areas.

These sorts of sequences happen to every team from time to time, but the Timbers cannot afford to allow these particular errors to recur time and again. The margin for error simply isn’t wide enough to permit it at the moment.

BONUSFC Dallas endured a difficult night at RFK Stadium … : … but Mauro Diaz’s opener in D.C. United’s 4-1 victory over 10-man FCD deserves a second viewing.