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Sporting KC playoffs exit defined by substitutions

Editorial- Substitutions have been a common topic surrounding Sporting KC in 2021. Even when brought up to Peter Vermes in the form of questions from local media, he continually dismissed the subject. But in their final game of 2021, substitutes brought about the end of their MLS Cup dreams and defined the Sporting KC playoffs exit.

Sporting KC playoffs run ends in death by substitutes

Up 1-0 and needed to hold onto their lead for just under 20 minutes, Peter Vermes elected to take off Gadi Kinda in favor of stalwart, bulldog midfielder, Roger Espinoza. It was an obvious effort to sacrifice the smarts and unpredictability of Gadi Kinda in exchange for a more sound defensive approach. But the calculations were incorrect.

The moment Gadi Kinda left the field was near the same moment that Bobby Wood, RSL’s eventual hero, entered. It was a  moment that in hindsight signified the end of Sporting KC’s season. Kinda left, Wood came on, and then RSL scored the equalizer a minute later. Then roughly 15 minutes later, Wood touched home the winner.

Gadi Kinda had been the best player on the field for Sporting KC. He was aggressive, constantly causing problems for Salt Lake turning and burning most everyone who neared him with the ball. He earned the penalty kick with a great touch around Aaron Herrera drawing the late and clumsy kick out. He was the sing;e most creative attacking force that day for KC.

Russell and Salloi’s touches were limited, and it turned Kinda into “the guy,” to make things happen. He is the player Sporting needed on the field the most after RSL tied up the match. But Vermes and staff banked on winning a game 1-0 with that substitution. That was something they hadn’t done in the previous 17 times of asking. During the 2021 season (including playoffs), Sporting KC were 18-0-0 in games in which they scored more than one goal. They were winless in games where they only scored one goal.

They had to take off Pulido, too…

Losing Kinda in that moment wouldn’t have been so deadly if Sporting had a fully healthy Alan Pulido. They did not.

Pulido looked every bit like a player who hadn’t played more than 15 minutes in the past 3 months. He could drop deep and pick up the ball, and he was in the right spots. But Pulido was not ready to press as hard, and when he got into space there was no burst. It became very apparent by the 50th minute that he wasn’t much longer for the match.

Just a week earlier Khiry Shelton played the number 9 role for Sporting expertly. He was excellent at holdup play and his pace threatened the Vancouver backline differently. It opened up more space for a player like Kinda to operate between the midfield and defensive lines. In short, Shelton for Pulido looked like the most necessary sub to make at that point. When that goal for Anderson Julio went in, it felt like Sporting KC’s best hope was to get to extra-time or penalties.

But a minute earlier, Vermes opted to go defensive and bank on his team doing something it hadn’t shown it could do in 2021: win a game 1-0. While he could’ve never predicted that RSL would score a minute after, that was a large gamble of a sub that Vermes chose to make at that point in the match.

Subs with legitimate tactical purpose

Pablo Mastroeni, on the flip side, handled his substitutions to perfection. In the 58th minute, Anderson Julio entered the match and changed the game. Sporting had dominated the opening of the second half and looked destined to get that all so valuable second goal. Instead, they brought on Anderson Julio and Justen Meram. Meram’s attacking prowess was much more dangerous immediately, and Julio was that typical “burner” and field stretcher that Sporting KC’s backline has struggled with since 2018.

Mastroeni actually flipped the formation as well. RSL turned more into a 4-4-2, moving away from the 4-2-3-1 they started with. Two strikers pressed high, with two midfielders plugging the gaps up. Sporting KC’s midfield got lost and Real Salt Lake was able to mount more consistent pressure. Mastroeni used his subs to flip the script.

The long term sub-issue

Writer for The Blue Testament, the Sporting KC site affiliated with SB Nation, pulled together the substitution numbers for “The Wiz” in 2021, and unsurprisingly they were dead last in the league.

While the numbers are certainly pretty bleak, the game-by-game observation found very little in the way of substitutions made with the purpose of changing the game tactically. In turn, Sporting made subs either for tired legs, injuries or planned rehabilitation minutes. There was one very clear change to how Sporting was playing tactically at the time and it came in their 3-1 win against the Seattle Sounders, a game in which Vermes was not on the sideline for while he was battling COVID-19.

A self-inflicted death by subs

Vermes and his staff didn’t make many substitutions during the season and rarely rotated the squad during the most condensed schedule in league history. It was obvious towards the end of the season that players were out of gas when they went winless in their final three matches. An early postseason win against a wide-eyed Vancouver squad ended up being an aberration to a team that just seemed done.

One main factor appears to be the level of squad depth. Sporting KC was missing two players from their senior roster on Sunday, and yet still only had 3 playable substitution options, none of which changed the way Sporting KC played, nor provided much of an attacking spark. While many people have blamed Vermes for not making substitutions throughout the season and giving players an opportunity early, leading to him not trusting those players, that assertion doesn’t have much merit. If the players could perform, they would’ve done so. And in their limited opportunities, they didn’t show they could. In the end, Vermes just didn’t trust his depth options.

Now, Vermes also can’t publicly say “We don’t have enough squad depth” during the season. You can’t publicly throw players you might need under the bus. But at some point, Vermes lost his trust in the bench. And in the end, substitutions ended up being the defining moment of Sporting KC’s season in more ways than one.

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