Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
Who: Philadelphia Union at Sporting Kansas City
What: Regular season game
Where: Sporting Park., Kansas City, Kansas, USA
When: 8:30 pm, Wednesday, May 14
Watch: CSN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick
Referee: Ricardo Salazar; Linesmen: George Gansner, Ian Anderson; Fourth official: Baldomero Toledo
Sporting Kansas City is the best team in the Eastern Conference.
That is both a compliment to the MLS Cup champions and a criticism of the rest of the flawed teams below them in the table. KC has taken the mantle of “Most Predictable Team” from the Houston Dynamo, and like the Dynamo before them they have flourished.
After Saturday’s win over Philadelphia, DC United’s Jeff Parke said the Union were predictable. Same word, completely different implications.
Predictability and creativity
Many of history’s most creative minds grounded themselves in banal daily routines. Invention and surprise often arise not from scattershot meanderings, but from an established rhythm that allows the mind to wander. Imagine a house. You may want your house to look interesting, exciting, and unique, but if the builders came to you and said, “We are going to play it by ear with the materials we use for the foundation of your little home here,” you would have serious reservations.
In much the same way, Sporting Kansas City’s predictability is in their foundation. There are spaces on the field they want to exploit, and there are certain players they want in those spaces. As long as they are achieving those fundamental ends, KC believes their skill players can express themselves to the best of their ability. One would have a difficult time arguing that Dom Dwyer is the most out-and-out talented striker on a Sporting roster that includes Claudio Bieler and CJ Sapong. But Dwyer plays a remarkably consistent game, and his role in the team is not to create, but to push the defense deep and finish. In soccer, the best individuals rarely beat the best team.
Philadelphia has the equation reversed. It can take a nuanced run or a slick Cruyff turn from Vincent Nogueira just to find enough space to look up and start an attack. Without a clear, well-rehearsed plan to get the ball into dangerous positions, the Union expend so much energy and creativity just figuring out how to get the ball out of the back. At times, there is palpable relief around PPL Park when the home team is simply able to get the ball into the final third without making it look like an uphill climb the whole way.
And few minds will be blown when it is noted that all the creativity it takes to get upfield gives way to an alarming predictability in the final third.
What is more difficult to discern is the motivation that drives Philadelphia to settle for empty-box crosses and one-vs-two dribbling attacks. After all, the Union are nothing if not a team of elite athletes. Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger (award-worthy turn against DC aside) are more persistent than technical. Vincent Nogueira covers more ground than clothes in an undergrad dorm, Danny Cruz is on a mission to get pinballs renamed Cruzes, and Brian Carroll covers for everyone. So how come everybody stops moving in the final third?
At this point it seems to be a combination of no plan plus a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy. The lack of a plan becomes apparent when you watch strikers making cutting runs into the box from 22 yards out when Nogueira has the ball 35-40 yards away. These are not, generally, bad runs. But the idea that you should be going directly towards goal from those positions is, against MLS’s big heavies at center back, mildly ludicrous. Additionally, everybody in the league — and at this point, it really is almost everybody — knows that the Union want, nay, need, to get behind the back line to be successful. They don’t appear to know how to pass through a defense.
How will this show up against KC?
As noted above, Kansas City is predictable in how they build. They will counterattack quickly by bringing their excellent fullbacks high to spread the defense and create passing lanes for Benny Feilhaber and Graham Zusi. Both players like to dribble at the defense to give time for the fullbacks to join the play.
When Kansas City can’t counterattack — and the Union should be sitting deep enough tomorrow to prevent most counters — they look to spread the field out. Zusi and either Sal Zizzo or one of the fullbacks stay very wide, and Oriol Rosell moves between the lines to either receive a pass from the back or draw defenders away so Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin can play the ball out of the back. Sporting’s big advantage is that they can start an attack without going through Rosell thanks to their central defenders’ passing range.
The KC buildup is exemplified by their first goal in the 2-0 win against Columbus on May 4. The Crew sat back to prevent Rosell from getting involved. But in order to mark Nagamura and Feilhaber, the midfield got narrow, leaving Zusi open on the far flank. Besler puts the ball across field to Zusi, who can run at the defense before Wil Trapp recovers. This gives space on the wing to Chance Myers, who is happy to gallop into the play and put in a low cross that pinballs around until Jacob Peterson zings it home.
Much like Perry Kitchen for DC United, Rosell will sit at home and cover for the players that get upfield for Kansas City. Unlike Kitchen, Rosell is much more likely to play like Brian Carroll and zip out to the wing to close space on a counterattack. While Kitchen and DC will give up the wide space and invite a cross, Kansas City would prefer to keep the ball in front of them since they struggle a bit more to win the second ball after clearances, meaning they end up inviting extra pressure. Rosell presses wide, and Besler and Collin stay reasonably high and challenge up the backs of any runners, giving up a foul if necessary.
What to do when you can’t do much on offense
New England only scored on KC on April 26, KC’s last loss, after Collin was sent off, but their approach to the entire match offers the best example of how a less talented team can keep up with Sporting. The Revs realized two things that most teams don’t fully understand: 1) Sporting changes for nobody, and 2) You’ve gotta find the fullbacks.
Sporting are stubborn. They want to do things their way: Fullbacks high, in to Rosell or Feilhaber, out to the wings, dribble at the defense, lots of movement, boom-boom-boom. And hey — it often works.
But this means that there are reliable spaces to exploit for a team that adapts to KC. New England sent newly minted winger Teal Bunbury into the space behind Seth Sinovic all day, giving Lee Nguyen a consistent outlet when the Revs won the ball. Bunbury stayed high enough to find space but didn’t go near the central defenders. When Rosell came over to close him down, Bunbury found the ever-mobile Nguyen in space. Nagamura and Feilhaber don’t have the positional sense of Rosell, so when he vacated the middle, Nguyen had a lot more freedom to operate.
The Union can use this same strategy, but it requires two things they haven’t shown this season: Patience and speed in transition. Patience meaning the outlet winger has to be smart and pick out a good pass, and speed in transition meaning someone — anyone! — has to get up and join the play when the middle opens up. It should not be a striker checking back (who then has to turn); it should be a mifielder moving forward.
So that winger? The one who is playing the Bunbury role? It should not be someone that has played this season. It should be Pedro Ribeiro, or Cristhian Hernandez. Or somebody who can bring a spark to the Union. What’s the worst that could happen? The Union… don’t score? What a surprise.
Finding the fullbacks
This is equally important for the Union. Tracking runners is always important, but it is absolutely necessary against KC. Their whole system is predicated on getting overloads that force defenses to back off and give Zusi and Feilhaber space to create. If those fullbacks are tracked, the overload isn’t there, and the defender on the ball doesn’t have to hedge his bets.
Prediction: Sporting KC 2-0 Union
The Union have to score at some point, and they had a pair of good chances in the latter 45 against DC. But given how poorly they’ve played, and how good KC is at home, it will likely take another Brad Evans-style own goal to get Philly on the scoresheet.
Philly should be more focused on a solid defensive effort. The goal against DC was the kind of tally that highlights a lack of organization that simply should not exist at this point in the season. Then again, what do you expect when you choose defensive positions by what appears to be a random drawing.
Note that the lineup below excludes Brian Carroll since his health is up in the air. And it includes Maidana despite the fact that he won’t find the fullbacks as outlined above. Who else can play that role? Wenger? Cruz?