How Much Difference Did Kei Kamara Make To Sporting Kansas City?

I spent some time this week riding a few planes and doing my cross-country travel thing with the family. That means a lot of distractions, which in turn leads to time reading nerdy books and listening to podcasts. I’m not sure if it was just that the Sporting KC machine was on full crisis mode or what. I happened to catch 4 different podcasts (including our own…btw what a job Drew & Matty did without me, huh? Proves I’m expendable…)  talking about Sporting and their lack of ability to facilitate a goal in the Champions League at home. Obviously that’s a big deal, in part because they look to be one of the teams that will proceed on to the quarter finals next spring and continue to represent MLS.

But despite them sitting pretty in the CCL and third (using points per game) in the table for the Supporter Shield, a couple of podcasts basically forecasted that they would fall a part without a “proven scorer” now that Kei Kamara has departed. Now, I have to say that I’ve been mildly impressed with them as a team, and their pack of forwards—featuring Claudio Bieler, Soony Saad, CJ Sapong and the recently returned Dominic Dwyer—make for an interesting four-some. That isn’t including Teal Bunbury who made his return to the club after being out for a year-long rehab with a torn ACL.

My immediate reaction two weeks ago was to question the transfer the deadline deal and transfer of Kamara three weeks ago. I spent a day putting some thoughts together and then second-guessed myself that I was maybe naive. They’ve got quite a few weapons, and the added play of Benny Feilhaber—who admittedly I’ve never been a fan of—stepping into the void left by the departure of a six-foot, three-inch winger from Sierra Leone has been big. Their string of results (9 points in 3 games) made me think I was being silly.

Then today, while on the road from Atlanta, a thought crossed my mind and I decided that I would take a closer look at the numbers. I collected shot data for the matches Kamara participated in (and to the minute he was subbed in) as well as the games Sporting played without him, and I built myself a nifty little spreadsheet.

Now, before I throw these numbers at you, there is the need for a little asterisk to all this work. I’m sure it’s already understood, but if not, let me make it clear: these numbers are very vague and there is still quiet a bit of noise involved. How much, I’m not sure. It’s just important to recognize the difficulty of trying to measure what a team does with and without a single player, and extract the difference. I would love to quantify everything, but everything is currently unavailable. This is a very simple method in a very small sample size of a context.

To the numbers!

With Kei Kamara…

Total Minutes 1026
KP RATIO 1.940
Goals per 90 1.930
Goals Allowed per 90 1.316
Points Per Match 1.67

And then again… only without him.

without Kamara
Total Minutes 1584
KP RATIO 1.793
Goals per 90 1.193
Goals Allowed per 90 0.739
Points Per Match 1.63

You can see pretty the numbers plainly that the are overwhelmingly in the favor of Sporting being a better team with Kamara. And I don’t think anyone would argue against it. However, the difference between the two teams should be questioned as it’s possible the numbers are a result of the different system in which coach Peter Vermes implements with Kamara opposed to how he configures the team without his former star forward. I think the big stat that stands out to me is the number of goals allowed per 90 without Kamara in the starting XI. Which is pretty crazy, considering that the club actually surrenders less shots with Kamara in the line-up: 6.7 with vs. 7.4 without. This is what leads me to believe that A) the team plays a different style without him and B) that it may not be sustainable.

I wasn’t on the crazy train with thinking that Sporting has all these problems and is going to eventually fall apart. I’m still cautious enough that I’m still waiting to see if they’ll make a move towards the Supporters Shield with their remaining 5 matches in the season. Their shot ratio, even without Kamara, would still be best in all of MLS. So it’s hard to simply throw crazy statements that this team is that much worse without him.

The bigger issue at hand for me is that Sporting was a force with Kamara. Without him, they’re simply another good team in league filled with good teams. Both are sets of clubs (with and without Kamara) that are capable of winning silverware. That said, this really leads you to question why Vermes would sell off such a significant difference-maker overseas with a real shot at making a run for multiple cups at this point in the season.