Sporting Kansas City is first in the Eastern Conference and its 35 points are second-most in all of Major League Soccer. The key to SKC’s success is its defense. No team in the Eastern Conference has conceded fewer goals than Kansas City, and this is no one-season fluke. In both the 2012 and 2013 seasons, no team conceded fewer goals than SKC. It has also been in the top of MLS in expected goals conceded. Sporting Kansas City has been preventing opponents from getting shots off from dangerous areas, leading to entirely expected low goals conceded totals.
Sporting Kansas City’s defense works to prevent chances from the center of the 18-yard-box box, and it is more effective than any other MLS team’s in this regard. Among the top defensive teams in MLS, you might notice that D.C. United do not make the cut for this graph, despite just 20 goals conceded. The black and red has conceded 6.5 danger zone shot per match, among the highest totals in MLS. Its defensive effectiveness has been premised on very low opposition conversion rates, which is often a red flag. I will take a closer look at DC United in the next week.
But Sporting Kansas City does not depend on opposition conversion rates. Its defense cuts off opportunities before a shot can be attempted. The key for SKC, of course, is the high pressing defensive style instituted by manager Peter Vermes. We saw high pressing in abundance at the World Cup, with Chile playing the most exciting version of it, and Germany surely the most effective. The inventor of the modern high press, Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi, explained that its purpose was simple. With a high defensive line, you limit the amount of space in which the opposition can play, and then your team can more effectively prevent dangerous passes and force turnovers for transition opportunities.
The clearest statistical marker of a good pressing defense is opposition pass completion. With fewer easy passing opportunities available, teams confronting a high press tend to misplace passes far more often. Opposition pass completion rates show the degree to which SKC is playing a different game than anyone else in MLS. There is very little differentiation in opposition incomplete pass rates in MLS. For the vast majority of teams, they range from 19 to 22 percent. Except for Sporting Kansas City at a remarkable 26 percent.
The modern manager most associated with the high press, Marcelo Bielsa, has said that the defensive press is really an attacking strategy. Win possession quickly and you can attack at pace before the opposition defense has set itself. While SKC do pressure on turnovers of possession and win their share of breakaway chances, Vermes’s press is not as aggressive or attacking as the Bielsista version practiced by Chile at the World Cup. Instead, Vermes’s press focuses on preventing the opposition from completing dangerous passes much than it looks for takeaways and transition chances. It is in pass completion rate in the final third where Sporting Kansas City stands out most.
Vermes’s side forces about 44 percent of opposition passes into the attacking third from reaching their recipient. League average in MLS is around 36 percent. I think the numbers are even more striking in totals. All teams in MLS concede about 90 to 120 completed passes within their defensive third per match, except for SKC. Kansas City allows only about 64.
There are of course many ways to prevent goals. Atletico Madrid in La Liga this season showed how a low block and a deep, narrow defense can be as effective as any high press. But the continued success of Sporting Kansas City and its outlying defensive numbers suggest a true tactical advance that has the rest of MLS still playing catch-up.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.