FC Kansas City entered 2017 with high hopes. With both Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux returning from pregnancy, the biggest problem with the 2016 squad—a lack of goals—looked settled. And for the first hour, everything seemed to be going according to plan. But from the moment Rodriguez went down with an ACL injury, KC’s 2017 success was put in doubt.
There are few players in the league more crucial to their team’s chances than Rodriguez, whose ability to play the central striker in a front three was the linchpin of the team’s whole setup. Without her, the goals have dried up as Vlatko Andonovski has struggled to pull together the pieces into a viable lineup.
The problem isn’t necessarily a lack of attacking talent. While Sydney Leroux does not seem fully back to match fitness after her own return from pregnancy, she’s looked lively enough. And although Shea Groom missed this weekend’s match against Sky Blue due to a rib injury, she should be back soon. The deeper problem, though, is that for all that Leroux and Groom are excellent strikers, both do better in a supporting role, as a slashing attacker arriving from the wings or from a deeper-lying position. Without a player like Rodriguez to lead the line, neither will flourish to their full potential.
This problem is compounded by a deep weakness in the midfield, with Mandy Laddish out for the first several months due to injury and Erica Tymrak either injured or out-of-favor. Those absences combine to produce an enormous hole in the attacking spine.
A forced return to the 4-2-3-1
The weakness in the central midfield wouldn’t have been a huge problem if KC could play in their preferred 4-3-3—which uses Rodriguez as the fulcrum of buildup through the center, while pushing much of the attacking movement out toward the wingers and fullbacks. But having lost that player who could link the lines, Andonovski moved back to last year’s 4-2-3-1 against Sky Blue this weekend.
— FC Kansas City (@FCKansasCity) April 30, 2017
The shift makes sense, particularly given the absence of Groom and the return of Desiree Scott. Anticipating a lack of goals, Vlatko wisely chose to bolster the midfield, deploying Scott and LaBonta to disrupt play and hold possession against the press. Using two holding players would also help to fill gaps and prevent the defense from being broken apart by Sky Blue’s fluid attacking structure (with Kelley O’Hara’s movement producing constant micro-tactical shifts throughout the match).
And it basically worked. Sky Blue found little space in the final third, and were mostly stifled on the night. For all the possession they held, there were very few genuinely dangerous attacking moves.
But the move didn’t come without costs. And the problem with their 4-2-3-1 is as simple as it is unsolvable: Sydney Leroux simply isn’t well-utilized as a lone forward. Her best qualities are her slashing runs, her physicality, and her intelligent movement off the ball. In those departments, she is world class. But with her back to goal, attempting to link up with an understaffed attacking midfield behind her, not so much. She certainly put in the work last night, but just isn’t a consistent enough player to really excel in the role.
And while the two holding midfielders both performed well, the same can’t be said about the attacking trio. On the right, Katie Bowen was good at times, demonstrating an awareness of space and anticipation of movement, but looked a bit sluggish in transition. The quality is there, but she’ll need more support around her. In the center, Maegan Kelly did her best but simply looked outclassed. She is a useful player, but simply doesn’t have enough skill on the ball to orchestrate the central midfield of a playoff hopeful. And on the left, Brittany Ratcliffe was tireless and aggressive and managed to get behind the defense a few times in nice slashing runs. But (as with Kelly) the final quality was simply a cut below what is needed to sustain a viable attack from such a short-staffed unit.
Both Kelly and Ratcliffe are good players and certainly can contribute for KC this season in supporting roles. But neither made the initial roster—each being added only a few days before the season to cover for injuries—and there’s a reason for that. That also means that (in just the third week of the season) fully 50% of KC’s attacking quartet started the season off the roster. That’s not a recipe for many goals.
Sky Blue’s weak backline, and KC’s difficulties exploiting it
With Christie Pearce out, the oldest player in Sky Blue’s back five Sunday night was Erica Skroski, who just turned 23 and was being played out of position as a center back. While there is enormous talent there, it’s also a unit that was ripe for exploitation. And in fact, under modest pressure, they lost the ball far more often than Christy Holly will have liked to see (including a misplaced pass from Sheridan that Ratcliffe pounced on and sent forward to Leroux who put the ball in the net—only to be called offside). But given their setup, and the need to keep numbers back in defense, KC simply couldn’t afford to press aggressively.
Moreover, given Leroux’s limitations in transition, they also found little success in quick transitional counterattacks—another missed opportunity.
Still, KC’s attack wasn’t completely helpless. They seem to have diagnosed two other potential weaknesses in the Sky Blue defense and targeted them aggressively.
First, a tendency to get drawn forward and lose defensive structure. Mandy Freeman in particular likes to step forward to close down the ball, creating space behind her into which an attacker can run to receive a through ball or dinked pass over the top. With Pearce, or a player of her quality, on the backline, that space might have been less exploitable, but Skroski has several decades less experience and (understandably) failed to provide cover in every case. And KC certainly sought to attack this vulnerability. Leroux earned herself a golden chance in the opening minutes this way, but failed to get her foot through it, and her shot was easily saved. Then in the 36th minute, a lovely through ball from Kelly found an onrushing Ratcliffe who bundled her shot straight at the keeper.
Second, a lack of strength in the air. It’s not that Sky Blue is weak in this department, but they did suffer a few minor communication breakdowns and missed clearances—precisely the sort of thing you’d expect from a young defense. Christina Gibbons, in particular, delivered a few excellent crosses, one of which Ratcliffe put into the net only to have it (perhaps incorrectly) ruled offside, and another in the 42nd minute that Leroux just missed converting. And on a late corner, Sauerbrunn was left unmarked at the back post and almost scored.
So, on the one hand, there were some positives for Kansas City. They were held scoreless, yes, but they did put the ball in the net twice (even if neither counted) and produced a half dozen other good chances. On the other hand, they won’t face many defenses this year as inexperienced as Sky Blue’s on Sunday, and for all the chances they created, none of them produced a goal.
Is the 4-2-3-1 hopeless?
So what does this mean? Should KC abandon the 4-2-3-1? Not necessarily. After all, it does come with real advantages, and Leroux isn’t terrible in the role by any means. It’s certainly not her best usage, but she is talented enough to convert a limited set of chances into goals at a reasonable rate.
Moreover, once Groom returns, that might allow for a slightly more effective variation, bringing Bowen into the center in place of Kelly, and letting Groom rampage down the right flank. And once Laddish is back (and if Tymrak ever comes back into favor), they’ll have other decent options for that central role—allowing some additional flexibility.
Still, even at its best, given the available personnel the 4-2-3-1 will remain a basically conservative option: stifle the game, produce a few chances, and hope for a 1-0 victory. But against the stronger attacking teams in the league, that may not be enough, so they’ll need to consider other options.
One alternative would be to move to a 4-4-2 diamond, with Leroux and Groom as forwards, bringing the midfield in more tightly, and relying on the fullbacks for width. And over the course of the season, that might be their best setup. Gibbons has shown flashes of her excellent attacking qualities at left back (see the discussion of her crosses above) but has also looked raw in defense and prone to getting pulled out of position. So for now, it would probably be a mistake to put too many of the attacking eggs in her basket.
Given the solidity of their defense—with arguably the best back five in the league—and the ability to deploy two high-quality disruptors in the holding midfield role, FC Kansas City is going to be tough to beat this year. But if they can’t find a way to restore some voltage in the attack, they’ll find it difficult to score enough to really challenge for the playoffs.