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Recap: Sporting Kansas City 3, New York City 1

Blues’ winning streak snapped in lacklustre road loss

MLS: New York City FC at Sporting KC Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

New York City got its four-game winning streak snapped in emphatic fashion tonight with a 3-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City. The game got off to a frenetic start with three goals scored inside the first 20 minutes, before the heat and the humidity slowed the game down.

Kansas City used relentless pressure to force the Blues into turnovers, then deprived New York City of possession throughout the entire game. That pressure also forced New York City into attempting long passes, instead of short passes and building possession from the back.

Manager Patrick Vieira played essentially the same lineup for the third time in seven days. His only real switch was playing left back Rónald Matarrita as a left winger in place of left midfielder Tommy McNamara. He switched right back RJ Allen over to the left, moved centre back Jason Hernandez to the right, but otherwise kept things the same.

It was a gamble, particularly with older players, after a tough game on rough artificial turf. It didn’t pay off. Past the 30-minute mark, the energy level of New York City’s players seemed to visibly drop, as the heat and especially the oppressive humidity took its toll on the Blues’ players. Time after time, New York City could only complete one or two passes before turning the ball over to SKC. In sum: the Blues’ overall possession percentage of 33.4 was their lowest ever since joining the league. They managed only four shots total.

Kansas City scored first, in the eighth minute. Jacob Peterson attempted a shot that cracked off the crossbar. Josh Saunders couldn’t tip it over, and all Benny Feilhaber had to do was just tap it into the wide open goal. As you watch the replay, look at Saunders’ positioning.

The thing that most people seem to miss about Josh Saunders is that his success as a goalkeeper is historically due to his athletic skills, not to his reading of the game or the positioning of opposing players or how the ball is being played. As age (he’s 35) and injuries erode those skills, Saunders hasn’t compensated for that decline by elevating his abilities in those other areas. It pains me to write that, but it’s true.

That, right there, is why you see Saunders, in that replay sequence, diving to the ground, then lunging desperately to the corner, before Feilhaber lightly taps the ball in. A keeper who’s better at reading the game and player positioning probably doesn’t give up that goal.

New York City collected themselves, however, and immediately went to the attack, trying to break the SKC press. Their efforts paid off in the 14th minute. As Kansas City lazily passed around the ball, Andrea Pirlo pounced on an Ike Opara ball. He then slipped the ball to David Villa, who drove down the middle before passing back to Pirlo. Pirlo then passed to Matarrita, who then crossed to Lampard. Lampard slotted home from eight yards out. It was his fourth goal in five games.

The game was tied at one apiece, and it looked like New York City were on their way to making a game of it.

But just like that, the Blues gave it away. Specifically, Saunders gave it away. It started with a Benny Feilhaber corner. He tried to swing the corner in, which then got cleared out by David Villa. It landed only as far as the foot of KC defender Jimmy Medranda, who bopped a shot past Saunders. It was a shot, though, that most keepers would’ve had no trouble saving.

Look at the replay. It’s not a hard shot at all. Saunders isn’t even screened. He sees Medranda taking the shot. He has all the time in the world to save the shot. He...simply fails to make the save. It’s embarrassingly bad goalkeeping.

Let’s pause a second. If you’re wondering why New York City’s defense is considered the weak point of the team, it’s probably because Saunders inspires no confidence at all in his backline. A goalkeeper has to save that shot. Period. Saunders can be as furious as he wants with himself, can pound the ground in disgust all he wants, but it’s all for naught after the fact. The sad fact is that we’ve seen that way too many times this season.

But he’s had three clean straight clean sheets! There’s shut outs and then there’s shut outs. There have been precious few games this season where it’s looked like Saunders was in control of the game, playing confidently. That’s probably why there’s such a roller-coaster feeling about watching Saunders in goal this season. Every highlight save is followed by two lowlight howlers and a roar of frustration.

What’s really vexing is that Saunders shouldn’t even be the starter. New York City had a chance to draft a quality young keeper in Zac MacMath in the expansion draft, but decided to draft and trade Sal Zizzo to the New York Red Bulls for the chance to loan Ryan Meara, who proceeded to have one undistinguished start against Chicago. That he’s the starter right now is probably due to the ordinariness of Eirik Johansen and Andre Rawls, which means that the Blues have to be looking for a new starting goalkeeper this offseason. Saunders cannot be the starting keeper next season. That he continues to be is a failure of the front office.

Back to Kansas City. Your team’s just tied the game. Giving up a goal — especially a goal like that — is a backbreaker. The game was effectively over at that point. You could see the team deflate visibly, the weariness become manifest.

Halftime came. Off went Matarrita, the player with the freshest legs. On came Tommy McNamara; presumably, the strategy was to overload the midfield. It didn’t work. In the 51st minute, Kansas City had a corner.

This was just an unholy mess. The corner comes in, the ball bounces around, but nobody’s attacking the ball. Finally, Jefferson Mena gets a touch on it, Villa spins, and clears it out. But it only gets as far as the top of the penalty area, where Feilhaber is there to flick it on to Ike Opara. Opara manages to get behind the Blues’ defense. Brillant tries tackling him, fouls him. Saunders tries blocking the ball, fails.

Opara scores. Kansas City, sharpie. A million fans cry offside! The goal shouldn’t have counted!

Not so fast. Look at referee Ismail Elfath’s arms here.

Raf Noboa y Rivera, HRB

He’s signalling advantage, because Opara got taken down by Brillant before scoring the goal. Had Opara missed, or Saunders saved, we would’ve seen a penalty kick attempt.

That was essentially the game. Patrick Mullins came on for Lampard, and Mikey Lopez for Hernandez, but neither had much of an impact. The game ended 3-1.

Where do we go from here? Between now and September 1st, New York City have only two home games: July 30th against the Colorado Rapids, and August 20th against the LA Galaxy. The July 24th Hudson River Derby game against the New York Red Bulls will be played in Harrison, NJ, but the team will be in New York City, so there’s that.

What’s worries me is Vieira’s lack of squad rotation. Contrary to the assertion that rotating players means that you’re “giving up” on some games and not others, squad rotation ensures that players are fresh throughout the season. With MLS’ exhausting travel and physical demands, player rotation isn’t a luxury or a concession — it’s a tactical and physiological necessity.

This isn’t surprising to me, but it is concerning. One of the things that consistently surprises Europeans making the switch to MLS is the sheer size of the United States. The longest road trip between Premier League teams next season will be between Sunderland and Bournemouth — a leisurely 350 miles by car. That’s a little less than the distance between New York City and Pittsburgh.

In contrast, New York City traveled to Foxborough, MA (202 miles) on Wednesday, then turned around and went to Kansas City four days later (1,189 miles), traveling a total of 1,391 miles -- the equivalent of traveling to Ghent, then onward to Grodno, in Belarus. Belarus! That’s a lot of miles.

Alexi Lalas kept asking if the New York City team we were seeing tonight was the “real” NYCFC. I think that’s the wrong question to ask. There’s no way to know on any given night whether we’re seeing the real version of any given team. To wit: which France team was the real France team - the one that beat Germany 2-0, or the one that lost to Portugal 1-0? The correct answer is both.

That’s the same answer here. The New York City team that lost to Kansas City tonight was the same New York City team that whipped the Red Bulls 2-0 and won four straight games. But it was an exhausted New York City team.

There’s 14 games left in the season. If the Blues are going to make the postseason, Vieira’s going to need to come up with a good rotation for the team. Otherwise, he’s going to risk his players coming up empty just when he needs them to perform at their peak. That matters if New York City isn’t just going to make the postseason, but find success within it.