Editor's Note: Promoted to the Front Page for the excellent work using gifs to highlight tactical issues. Later today sidereal is taking a tactical look at the match too.
Saturday’s contest featured some very interesting tactical plotlines. I’ve highlighted the ones I found most intriguing below.
Sporting high pressure
A trademark feature of Peter Vermes’ Sporting Kansas City team is their use of defensive pressure high up the pitch. They did so against the Sounders and it was very effective, stopping the Sounders from building attacks from back to front. Dom Dwyer was crucial in this task, impressively chasing down the Sounder center backs. Jacob Peterson, while not very effective on the offensive end, brought plenty of energy to his side, as he tracked Yedlin well and put the backline under pressure. In the first half, the Sounders attacks were almost all results of the center backs playing long balls and attackers picking up the second ball.
Cooper drops into the midfield
With Sporting Kansas City lining up in their 4-3-3 and the Sounders in what appeared to be an empty bucket 4-4-2, a big concern coming into the game was the Sporks outnumbering the Sounders in midfield. Sigi Schmid tried to overcome this by dropping Kenny Cooper off the backline, giving him instructions to apply defensive pressure to Kansas City’s deepest midfielder, Lawrence Olum. Cooper did well to pressure Olum and cut off passing angles to him, preventing Kansas City from building attacks through him.
This plan had both pros and cons. It was an effective solution to preventing SKC’s build-up through the middle and limited their man advantage in the midfield. Having Cooper do the dirty work on defense kept our superstar DP forward’s legs fresh to focus on attacking. However, Cooper did not play as a true midfielder. When the Sounders had possession, he played the role of a target forward, providing an option for long balls out of the back. To prevent Obafemi from becoming isolated up top, he didn’t track Olum if Olum moved forward from his holding position. This created some moments where the Sounders’ midfield was outnumbered.
Zusi between the lines
Sporting Kansas City’s most dangerous attacks were the result of Graham Zusi finding space between the midfield and defense. For the most part, Zusi was tracked by Evans while Alonso marked Benny Feilhaber. Zusi found space several times early in the game when Evans had to shift right to cover for Yedlin’s attacking runs. Zusi also got free between the lines as a result of Cooper not fully tracking Olum, as seen in the gifs below.
Prior to the scene above, Cooper chased down a backpass to Kronberg and forced him to clear it long. Feilhaber picks up the clearance and passes to Besler. You can see that Alonso is tracking Feilhaber, leaving Evans with a tough decision. He could have stuck with Zusi and left Olum with time and space to pick a pass or carry the ball forward, but he decides to leave Zusi and apply pressure to Olum. As a result, Besler finds Zusi with oceans of space, and only Yedlin’s recovery speed prevents a SKC chance.
Here, Olum moves forward to be the target of a goal kick. Feilhaber drifts back to cover for him, with Alonso keeping an eye on him. Cooper doesn’t track Olum, and Evans decides to leave Zusi to challenge Olum in the air. The ball falls to Zusi, who is free to create a scoring chance. As Kyle Martino pointed out on the broadcast, Marshall has to choose between stepping to Zusi or sticking with Dwyer.
In his halftime interview, Sigi acknowledged that they were conceding too much space to Zusi and needed to make adjustments, saying, "We’ve got to make sure he doesn’t drift in behind our two central midfielders". That adjustment was switching Alonso's and Evans’s duties, so in the 2nd half Alonso tracked Zusi. Having the best defensive mid in the league track Zusi was effective enough, and he was far less influential in the 2nd half.
Enter Clint Dempsey
A significant tactical shift in this match occurred in the 57th minute when Clint Dempsey entered for Marco Pappa. The Sounders switched to a true 4-2-3-1, with Cooper moving right. Dempsey, who tracked back more often than Cooper, ensured the Sounders were no longer outnumbered in the center of the pitch. This also helped bottle up Zusi in the 2nd half.
The biggest tactical change that came from Dempsey’s introduction was the adjustment of Sporting’s defense. Worried about Dempsey attacking one-on-one against their second-string defensive mid, they dropped Zusi and Feilhaber back making sure they were in a position to harass Dempsey from behind if he received the ball between the lines. This led to a decreased amount of pressure put on the Seattle back six. This change is reflected in the passing stats of Seattle’s center backs, as they were now free to keep possession and build attacks from the back. Traore and Marshall combined for a 44% passing completion in the first 60 minutes and 85% in the last 30 (Dempsey subbed on in the 57th).
Take a look at how much defensive attention Dempsey commands, as all three Kansas City centermids look to pitch in against him:
One last tactical change that entered with Dempsey was in Oba’s play. Before Clint came on, Oba played off the shoulder of the last defender, always looking to run in behind on a through ball or flick-on from Cooper. With Dempsey, Oba dropped off the backline, and as Sigi said, they "were definitely looking for each other, looking to combine with each other". The interchange between these two has plenty of potential, as both are talented goalscorers and capable playmakers.
Opara for Feilhaber
Peter Vermes made a fatal, perplexing mistake when he subbed on Ike Opara for Benny Feilhaber. Opara lined up as the deepest central midfielder, a position he is not accustomed to.
On this play, he shows how uncomfortable in the open field. Alonso doesn't do anything particularly tricky, he just sort of runs in a straight line. Opara makes a poor decision when he opts to come forward to try to win the ball off Alonso. As the deepest midfielder, he should recognize the amount of space behind him and realize that Seattle has an immediate counterattack if he gets beat. Sporting ends up recovering well, but concedes the late winner anyways.
Sporting began as the better side, with their high pressure stymieing Seattle's attempts to build up play, and Olum's movement freeing up Zusi. Seattle responded well though, as Sigi's halftime adjustments limited Zusi's playmaking and the introduction of Clint Dempsey changed the game in Seattle's favor. Overall, a draw would have been a fair result, but Vermes made one crucial mistake that cost him two points.