Sporting KC: Alan Pulido and the relentless high press

Sporting KC have conducted more presses than any team in MLS. Alan Pulido is the leading individual in presses also. SKC are on the rise once again.

Sporting Kansas City made a truly sensational start to the 2020 Major League Soccer season. It was a long time ago but Peter Vermes’ side had recovered from their 2019 slump while injecting an element of pace, tempo and physicality to quickly establish themselves as one of the premier teams in the entire league.

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SKC looked to play at intensity, with and without the ball. They passed crisply, accurately and directly, attacked with incision and purpose, playing passes into attacking areas quickly to exploit space on the counter-attack. But it is in defence where Sporting KC have been most impressive.

Rather than lean on their formerly excellent backline, SKC pushed up the pitch, made use of a more mobile front three and central midfield, and began to defend across the entirety of the pitch.

In fact, their change in approach has seen them become the highest-pressing team in the league. Second Spectrum define high presses as each time an individual defender moves aggressively to closely mark an offensive player with the ball or near a teammate with the ball in an attempt to win the ball near the front of the defence. SKC rank atop the league in this metric, and by some distance.

Over the two matches, Sporting KC have enacted 171 high presses. That they lead MLS is impressive in and of itself; that they are almost 50 clear of the next best is absolutely mindblowing. Vermes has blown a rocket up his players’ arses, and they are responding.

What is so successful and suffocating about the SKC press is that every single player executes it, especially lone centre-forward Alan Pulido.

When Sporting KC broke their transfer record to sign the Mexican, Vermes described Pulido in the following way:

“Coming from the Mexican league to Major League Soccer, the Mexican league is a very tough league to play in. He has always found a way to be dangerous no matter what team he’s playing on. He can play in a very physical match, you can play through him, and he has the ability to [deliver] the final pass. He has all of the qualities that we look for at the end of the day. His work ethic, competitiveness and qualities [as a player] all fit into what we’re looking for.”

That ‘work ethic’ has come to pass. No player in MLS has made more high presses than Pulido. Similarly, what is most impressive is the distance between Pulido and everyone else. He provided 76 high presses over the first two weeks. No other player had more than 60.

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Sporting KC, led by Pulido, then are a high-pressing machine. And so far, at least, it is working.