Beyond the Box Score: Opponents like San Jose are finding life difficult versus Sporting KC

First things first: Benny Feilhaber’s 37th-minute wonder-strike, to be clear, was the highlight of Sporting Kansas City’s 2-1 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday evening at Children’s Mercy Park.

Feilhaber’s moment of magic was a prompt reminder of his ability to turn a match on its head, and indeed — the goal proved decisive in giving Sporting KC its first win of 2017. But more in Feilhaber in a minute.

Numbers across the board indicate that Peter Vermes’ men are off to one of the best defensive starts in club history. Sporting KC came agonizingly close to opening an MLS season with three straight clean sheets for the first time ever, and although Florian Jungwirth’s consolation goal in second-half stoppage time ended those hopes, statistics suggest Kansas City will be awfully hard to break down in 2017.

We begin with Tim Melia’s regular season shutout streak, which ended in the dying embers of Saturday’s match and actually dated back to last year. The Sporting KC goalkeeper went 456 minutes without conceding a goal, the longest streak of his career and the third-longest in club annals.

LONGEST SPORTING KC SHUTOUT STREAKS (REGULAR SEASON)

Player Minutes Start End
Tony Meola 681 04/19/00 05/27/00
Jimmy Nielsen 546 03/09/13 04/20/13
Tim Melia 456 10/01/16 03/18/17
Jimmy Nielsen 414 03/25/12 04/18/12
Jimmy Nielsen 412 09/27/13 10/26/13

As impressive as Melia’s run was, his spectacular intervention on Saturday actually came after his streak had been snapped. San Jose’s desperate bid for a last-gasp equalizer fell to the foot of Simon Dawkins, whose low drive through traffic was destined for the right corner of the net. Melia, however, produced an MLS Save of the Week nominee by leaping to fist the ball wide of goal and preserve three precious points for the hosts.

Examining Sporting KC’s clean defensive bill on a wider spectrum, we find that Melia partially has his teammates to thank for the strong start. Anchored by center backs Matt Besler and Ike Opara as well as holding midfielder Ilie, Sporting KC has faced a league-low 6.7 shots per game through three matches. This, of course, continues a trend that began when Vermes truly implemented Kansas City’s signature high-press, a defensive tactic designed to give opponents zero time on the ball and create turnovers in attacking positions.

As the table below illustrates, no team has faced fewer shots per game each season since 2012 than Sporting Kansas City.

SPORTING KC: SHOTS FACED PER GAME (REGULAR SEASON)

Year Shots MLS rank
2012 9.7 1st
2013 8.9 1st
2014 10.3 1st
2015 10.3 1st
2016 9.5 1st
2017 6.7 1st

The logic is easy to understand: the fewer shots you face, the fewer goals you concede. Sporting KC’s one goal allowed is tied for the fewest through the first three games of a season in team history, equaling marks set in 2004, 2010, 2012 and 2016.

“[Our defense] has been huge, and we are really organized,” Melia said postgame. “I think the tempo and play in the back is really good. We are keeping possession in the back, which is really important, and we are creating opportunities from the back. I think moving forward throughout the season, we can continue to build off that and get better and better at it. If so, it can yield some positive results throughout the season.”

And now, as promised, we revisit Feilhaber’s masterful first-half bomb that brought a sold-out Children’s Mercy Park crowd to its feet. It was the midfielder’s 25th regular season goal in Sporting KC colors, making him the team’s 11th player to reach the 25-goal milestone.

“Even with the two goals, we could have scored a few more as well,” Feilhaber said after the match. “I think we played well. We obviously dominated the majority of the game and created some really good chances. The goals are eventually always going to come. Today we got two and we probably could have had five.”

SPORTING KC'S 25-GOAL CLUB (REGULAR SEASON)

Player Goals Games
Preki 71 218
Dom Dwyer 52 116
Davy Arnaud 43 240
Josh Wolff 43 144
Chris Klein 39 200
Kei Kamara 38 113
Mo Johnston 31 149
Scott Sealy 28 88
Vitalis Takawira 28 103
Graham Zusi 26 197
Benny Feilhaber 25 123
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