In his customary appearance on Sports Radio 810 WHB this week, Sporting Kansas City defender Graham Zusi was quick to compliment his team for a comprehensive 3-0 win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Sunday at Children’s Mercy Park.
Alan Pulido bagged a brace, Daniel Salloi scored his second goal of the season, and Zusi helped 2021 debutant Tim Melia to Sporting’s first clean sheet of the campaign in a dominant performance that vaulted Manager Peter Vermes’ men to third place in the Western Conference.
“From top to bottom, that was our best game of the season so far,” Zusi said. “It was so much about the start we had in that game. We came out on the front foot, created a chance in the first minute of the game, and that just set the tone for the rest of the day.
“We created a lot of chances like we have throughout the season, but this time we put them away. And on the defensive side, we got our first clean sheet of the season which is huge. We’ve been pushing that pretty hard and making sure we’re difficult to play against.”
Sporting racked up 27 shot attempts on Sunday, tied for the fourth-most in team history, and finished with a remarkable 91.6% passing accuracy. That clip was the fourth-highest in MLS history against a full-strength opponent that received zero red cards in the match.
Zusi was among the several Sporting players who distributed the ball cleanly, completing 52 of 56 passes and finishing with game-highs in chances created (three) and successful crosses (five).
“It’s not too surprising based on how the game went,” Zusi said of Sporting’s record-setting passing game. “We had so much of the ball and were very calculated, precise and patient with our passing,” Zusi said. “For the past couple of weeks in training, we’ve been hounding this point of getting back to being really good on the ball. That’s something we’ve been very good at in the past. When we are that good, this is how the games go. It seems easy; it looks easy. No part of that is easy, but because we’re doing those little things—busting your butt to (get open) for a player and show you want the ball—all of those details add up to making the game look simple.”
Vermes and Sporting entered the Vancouver match with a 2-2-1 record and six goals to show from their first five matches. Zusi said the team held a collective belief that although results had been up and down, Sporting was looking increasingly dangerous going forward and coming closer to fulfilling the vision Vermes has for the side.
“We don’t’ love looking into stats at our club because ultimately, it’s about winning,” Zusi said. “If you have 85% possession but don’t win, it doesn’t matter. We had possession, but more importantly we were creating these very high-quality scoring chances. In the past couple of games, they hadn’t been falling. Even in the Austin game, it turned out great but we had so many other chances.
“We went into Sunday knowing that what we were doing was working, and that last little piece was what needed to come around—putting the ball in the back of the net. It all just seemed to click in this game against Vancouver.”
Up next for Sporting is a compelling road game against the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday night at Avaya Stadium. Led by third-year head coach Matias Almeyda, San Jose boasts a truly unique style of play by deploying a man-marking high press on opponents.
The approach has yielded mixed results thus far, as the Earthquakes missed the playoffs in 2019 but returned to the postseason last fall, where they lost to Sporting in an unforgettable thriller at Children’s Mercy Park. The clubs played to a wild 3-3 draw before Melia saved all three San Jose penalty kicks in the shootout to send Sporting to the next round and eliminate the Quakes.
“It is an unorthodox style of play and something that can totally throw you off if you’re not prepared for it,” Zusi said of San Jose’s man-marking tactics. “This week of training will be a lot of prep work for it and our scout team will try to mimic San Jose as much as possible. But as far as we’re concerned, we can’t get away from what we do too much. If we keep the ball like we did against Vancouver and make that five yards of movement to get the ball to the next guy, that man-marking system can become extremely difficult for them.”
Saturday’s showdown at Avaya Stadium is slated for 9 p.m. CT with live coverage on Bally Sports Kansas City, Bally Sports Midwest, BallySports.com, the Bally Sports app, Sports Radio 810 WHB and La Grande 1340 AM.