Sporting KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen must have felt like a man alone on an island Saturday night against Vancouver Whitecaps.
By now we have all undoubtedly had plenty of time to re-live Sporting Kansas City's meltdown at Vancouver Whitecaps last Saturday. You know, that game where Sporting KC were up 3-0 halfway through the second half, but somehow managed to come away with only a 3-3 draw. No doubt it hurt that night, the next day and even Monday morning as everybody went back to the "real world."
Wednesday night's US Open Cup victory in stoppage time against Houston Dynamo went a long way to erasing the nightmare from fans' minds, but the fact remains that it happened, and there is no quick fix solution at the ready moving forward. The defense was absolute crap in that game, and let me tell you, it wasn't just for the final 18 minutes of the game when the three Vancouver goals were scored. It was a recurring theme from the opening whistle to the very last.
For the first time in 2011, Michael Harrington, Julio Cesar Santos, Matt Besler and Roger Espinoza - SKC head coach Peter Vermes' first choice backline all started the same game. Many figured the defensive woes of games one and two would soon vanish with all preferred starters in the starting lineup. Wrong. The team's best player in 2010, Harrington, had a painful to watch first half that I thought made him the worst player on the field for 45 minutes. Until I watched Santos more closely.
Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen was an absolute hero on the night, providing top drawer saves time and time again when his backline broke down and left him hanging high and dry. It's no wonder he's got two nominations for MLS Save of the Week with as many chances he was given to be spectacular. Want something encouraging? The best defender in the first half was, without question, the supposed weakest link of the defense.
So, just to prove to everyone that it wasn't just a last minute breakdown (and point out which players had the most dreadful of performances), and that Nielsen did in fact perform something heroic for much of the night, I present to you every defensive error from the entire 90 minutes...
2' - It starts early; really early. Harrington's second touch of the game gifts the ball back to to Vancouver. Forward Kei Kamara throws the ball into play to the feet of Harrington, whose first touch lets him down a bit and the ball gets a half step away, allowing a Whitecaps plays to muscle him off the ball immediately. Play heads the other way in possession of Vancouver.
On the counter with ball at midfield, rookie forward C.J. Sapong stops just long enough in his tracking back and covering of leftback Roger Espinoza, who has just gone to ground to win a challenge, to allow the Vancouver attacker space to get behind him and receive the through ball near the endline. Cross is played towards forward Atiba Harris in the box, but Santos heads away cleanly. One mistake builds on another and Sporting almost concede early.
4' - Sanots holds the ball momentarily near the right sideline, attempts to switch the field with a cross-field ball, but waits a tick too long and hits Harris 10 yards away. The ball falls helplessly to Vancouver in the center circle with two men ahead and three more at the midfield line already moving forward. Sapong tracks back well this time and forces a bad pass, which forces the recipient to play the ball out of bounds.
13' - Ball is played from the midfield line all the way down the sideline to about 10 yards from the endline. Santos and Harris each give chase with Santos getting there first. As he's shown so far this season, he is light on the ball and extremely smooth. This gets him shoved to the ground (probably a foul, in fairness) by Harris, who picks up possession and starts running straight at the box with the ball. Santos quickly gets to his feet and comes in with a perfectly timed slide tackle from the side, knocking the ball to Harrington. Lackadaisical.
After a brief KC possession, later in the minute Santos goes in soft on a challenge on Harris, who is receiving the ball on the ground, back to goal, near the center circle. Harris is unfazed by the challenge and turns to goal with the ball. He plays the ball one man wide in the midfield. Espinoza has a man 10 yards wider than himself on the left side of defense, but chooses to leave him alone out there. Former Wizard rightback Jonathan Leathers makes an overlapping run from the back and catches Sapong once again napping on his defensive duties and beats him by steps to the ball near the box. Television announce Sasha Victorine vehemently points this out. Leathers' cross is booted out by Besler. Bad minute, each side of the defense being hit once.
14' - Ball is played from Vancouver's box by defender all the way through to Harris over the top, who is once again going one on one with Santos. The Brazilian defender starts out a couple yards ahead and on direct line with the ball. Harris beats him to it anyway and turns Santos inside-out, allowing ample space for a cross to the back post which is just inches from being connected with. Harris 2, Santos 0.
16' - Besler is again the one cleaning up the mess; this time it's Espinoza's wrongdoing. Besler takes a foot to the face from Camilo for Espinoza's sins after clearing the ball out of the box. Strong first 15 from Besler.
Later in the minute, Santos is once again lazy with the ball, playing the ball to Besler first touch and leaving Besler with a lot of work to do. He can do nothing more than boot it away, which he does successful. Does Julio not like Matt or something?
22' - Harrington brings the ball down from a Besler clearance in the middle of two Whitecaps players. He does very well to chest the ball to ground, then work his way out of the pseudo-cul de sac, but takes one touch too many running with the ball and it's picked up by a third Vancouver player, defender Alain Rochat, already moving full speed towards KC's end. Rochat's early cross into the box is too tall for Harris, who found himself in about 8 yards of space betewen Besler and Espinoza near the penalty spot. If the ball in is better, Nielsen has serious work to do.
23' - Birahim Diop, playing his first ever game with KC as a holding midfielder, dribbles around too much with the ball inside the center circle.Vancouver wins the ball and has half a dozen players moving forward immediately. The ball is played wide on the left side of the defense. Inexplicably, Esinoza is stationed about 6 yards in front of the rest of the backline out on the left. A Whitecap plays a ball right around him to Harris, who is once again all alone in yards of space. He runs to the endline and cuts in. Fortunately Camilo's touch lets him down and the ball is cleared.
28' - About 8 seconds after the KC attack was foiled (ample time to get back into the defensive half), Espinoza is again caught a few yards in front of the rest of defense and guess who, Harris gets in behind him. Lucky for KC, the ball played to him is well too far in front and goes out for a goal kick. Roger was beaten again, though.
Later in the minute, it's now Espinoza and Besler caught too far forward on the left. A great ball over the top down the left defensive sideline to Camilo finds the Brazilian forward just feet from the endline. A stepover and roll this way and he's made his countryman Santos look a fool inside the box, cutting out a full two yards of space to rip a shot on Nielsen's goal, forcing the big Danish keeper to make a leaping, top of the frame save. Santos offered little roadblock to Camilo.
29' - The resulting corner kick is taken, cleared to the edge of the box, but the final necessary boot clear from midfielder Milos Stojcev whiffs and the ball falls Vancouver defender Blake Wagner, who rips a first time shot back into the box, forcing Nielsen to make another difficult save.
33' - If I were to tell you a defender was going to get run to the endline and beat for speed, then get caught with his feet in dry cement at said endline and turned back inside and let Camilo waltz right back into the box, whom would you guess that defender was? If you guessed Santos, you would be right, because that's exactly what just happened. Again. Shot after cross cleared away by Besler. Again. I think Matt doesn't like Julio now.
It's later on in the minute, and Atiba Harris is a big, strong man. He shrugs Besler, who is having a great game so far, off like nothing and turns with the ball at the top of the box. One of the harder hit balls of the season ensues, but Nielsen once again makes a body-parallel-to-the-ground save. Sensing a theme oncoming?
36' - In my opinion, it's Diop now jogging back in defense that lets Camilo run straight at the backline unimpeded, forcing Santos to come out and challenge 10 yards from the box. When he goes to ground and loses out on the ball, everybody is done for. Besler steps up, Espinoza slides inside to cover him, but that just leaves defender Wes Knight all by his lonesome at the corner of the box. Camilo slides it out to him, and he immediately returns it first time to Camilo just right of the penalty spot. A low side-swipe on the ball connects perfectly and Nielsen has to get down in a hurry to deflect then pounce on the spilled rebound. Domino effect.
45' - The last few minutes of the half are actually rather uneventful, and allow Nielsen a chance to exist in much deserved peace. KC forward Teal Bunbury blasts a left-footed shot just wide of goal in the beginning of the minute, then his effort two minutes later from 20 yards out finds the back of the net to give Sporting the 1-0 lead, when in all reality, they absolutely deserve to be down a goal, still. Still don't believe it was an all-game trend?
Then let's do the second half, too...