Sporting Kansas City, unbreached in five games, takes on LA Galaxy, who have let in six goals after the 80 minute mark over the past seven matches.CARSON, Calif. – Sporting Kansas City has not conceded a goal in five games. Jimmy Nielsen hasn't let a shot past him in 519 minutes. The run includes three wins on the trot and two goalless draws.
What goes into a streak like that?
"A lot of work," Paulo Nagamura told Goal.com. "It's not only our goalkeeper or back four. It's a whole team effort."
The onus on any team facing the Eastern Conference leader is to break the streak. Next up to try is two-time reigning MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy.
SKC beat the New York Red Bulls, 1-0, in New Jersey on Wednesday. On Thursday, Sporting KC made the six-hour flight to Southern California to take on the Galaxy this Saturday.
Nagamura, who still owns a house in the Los Angeles area, pointed out that, for Sporting KC, defense starts with the forward line, as soon as the ball is lost. LA is well aware of Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes' high-press philosophy.
"They're a very athletic bunch, guys that are going to press our backs when we have the ball," A.J. DeLaGarza said. "They turn you over."
The frenzied approach works. Nielsen has only had to make six saves over the past five games, three of which came against New York. Teams struggle to create chances against Sporting KC, let alone score.
Pumping balls up from deep rarely works, as DeLaGarza noted, because of the prowess of SKC's center back pairing of Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler, a combined 12-foot-2.
"They play well when [opposition] forwards have their back to goal. That's when they can really get into them," DeLaGarza said. "That's when Collin and Besler are at their best, so we've got to make sure to get the ball into them and go at them one-on-one."
Or, as Jack McBean, the 18-year-old striker likely charged with jostling for aerial balls with the duo, put it: "They're both big, physical guys who like to come through you or come hard into you."
Collin shrugs when asked about the team's strength in the air.
"We're good when the striker is back of our goal, but we're good too when he's coming to us," the French defender told Goal.com. "We try to be focused on every ball, on every play."
In contrast to the hyper-alert Kansas City defense, concentration has plagued the Galaxy back line lately. Los Angeles has conceded eight goals in the last seven games, six of which came after the 80 minute mark.
"I think we're lacking concentration at the end of games," Landon Donovan said. "A lot of that falls on us older guys' shoulders. We've got to do a better job leading."
LA Galaxy have conceded four goals in the final 10 minutes of the last three games, all of them loses. Two defeats came against Monterrey, which eliminated LA from the CONCACAF Champions League at the semifinal stage. Last week the Galaxy lost for the first time in the 2013 MLS season, a 1-0 defeat to FC Dallas.
"We know it's unacceptable," DeLaGarza said.
The defender, who will likely slide back into the center against Kansas City after playing right back frequently this season, thinks sharper finishing could help alleviate the problem.
"If we finish our chances, we'll be fine," DeLaGarza said. "We'll be able to have our group in front of the ball and set. Right now we're 0-0 in the games in the 80th minute and we're still stretched out and that's when we're getting caught."
Another key for the Galaxy – especially 5-foot-9 DeLaGarza – will be winning balls in the air. Leonardo, 6-foot-2, is suspended.
"They put in tons of crosses, so this is a game where we have to be always keeping our heads on a swivel," U.S. international defender Omar Gonzalez said.
In 2011, Los Angeles bested the league with 28 goals-against in 34 league games. Kansas City went one better last year, conceding only 27 times in the regular season. Now, with five clean sheets in seven, the club is on the way to a similarly stingy year.
"We want to keep it that way, because we know when we don't concede a goal, we don't lose," Collin said.
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