MLS Focus: SKC's new-look attack is work in progress

Two teams that made significant offseason additions opened their 2018 MLS campaigns against each other, and the representatives of visitor New York City FC outshone their counterparts from Sporting Kansas City.

A goal by MLS debutant Jesus Medina clinched a 2-0 victory for NYCFC that handed the host as many home defeats as it accrued all of last season. (SKC was 10-1-6 at Children’s Mercy Park.)

Designated Players Felipe Gutierrez and Yohan Croziet, as well as winger Johnny Russell, got their first action for SKC, which outshot the visitor, 18-11, and despite improving after a shaky first half rarely tested NYCFC keeper Sean Johnson, who watched one SKC shot hit the crossbar and a Roger Espinoza header sail just wide of the post. The attack perked up after a pair of substitutions, including  starter Diego Rubio giving way to a lively Daniel Salloi.

“We didn’t play well the first half,” said defender and captain Matt Besler in a postgame interview. “I don’t know what it was, maybe we were almost too excited to get out there. We were a bit nervy there with some of our passes. Look, it's the first game and sometimes that stuff happens.

“The second half was much better. We settled down and started to play a little more like ourselves. We have to move on and get better from some of the mistakes that we made.”

The new DPs nearly combined for a spectacular goal just before the half-hour mark. Gutierrez jinked through the middle and played that most difficult chip – short-range, straight-ahead – for Croziet, who had arrowed for goal after dropping the ball back for Gutierrez.

Croziet’s 30-yard run found space between NYCFC’s centerbacks and though his awkward lunge got a piece of the chipped ball it rolled wide of the post. Yet the sequence showed a glimpse of what SKC lacked fin the final months of the 2017 season: a truly creative player to conjure up opportunities and a finisher to put them away.

The trade of Dom Dwyer to Orlando City in August stripped SKC of the latter element and as for the creativity, well, right back Graham Zusi led the team in assists with eight. Nobody else had more than the four contributed by Besler.

Relying on Goalkeeper of the Year Tim Melia and Defender of the Year Ike Opara did generate 10 shutouts and a league-fewest 29 goals allowed. SKC finished only four points out of first place in a very even Western Conference. Yet its 40 goals ranked fewer than any other playoff team except San Jose, which scored 39.

Croziet played only 57 minutes and was replaced by last year’s leading scorer, Gerso Fernandes, who netted just eight goals. Gutierrez and Russell went the full 90.

“In the second half, I thought our combination play in the attacking third was really good,” said head coach Peter Vermes. “I thought Johnny Russell had a very good game. He was very dangerous and gave us a lot of good looks at goal.”
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