Every viable MLS Cup contender can point to a particular ability or tendency to justify its postseason credentials.
Some of those characteristics (the attacking menace posed by New York and Seattle and the set piece prowess boasted by Houston and Los Angeles) reveal themselves easily. Other traits (the deep wells of self-belief required to fuel those late-match revivals in San Jose or the influence of Real Salt Lake's possession-oriented approach on a match) require more introspection.
And one of those strengths – Sporting Kansas City's ability to exert high pressure in its 4-3-3 setup – could prove more effective than all of them if deployed properly.
The most recent proof in this particular case rises from an otherwise mundane 1-1 draw between Sporting and New York at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park Sunday night. Neither side hit top form in the nationally-televised encounter, but Sporting's ability to disrupt the Red Bulls on the ball provided a take-away point worth keeping ahead of the two further meetings between the Eastern Conference heavyweights prior to the end of the campaign.
New York boss Hans Backe did his side few favors by disrupting his starting XI yet again (and Wilman Conde isn't a left back, rest assured), but those changes do not explain entirely why the Red Bulls completed just 71.4 percent of their passes, maintained just 39.4 percent of the possession and mustered no efforts on target during the encounter, according to Opta statistics.
(Note: Now seems like a fair time to interject that Dax McCarty should have put an effort on frame to snatch all three points in the late stages, but the reasons behind that particular foray receive a more thorough inspection later in this piece.)
Much of the credit for New York's inadequacy on the night falls to a Sporting group capable of disrupting the opposition with the tenacity to apply proper pressure at any spot on the field. Sporting manager Peter Vermes recently noted that his side has had to alter its approach somewhat – primarily by changing what Vermes calls the line of confrontation – to accommodate for fatigue during the course of the season. The tweaks do sometimes allow opposing defenders more time and space to distribute, but they do not necessarily negatively impact how Sporing constructs its shape or limit its overall effectiveness.
By and large, every player in the Sporting starting XI knows when and where to close down the opposition. The pressure isn't always uniform – note the higher pressure on Conde and the sometimes rickety Red Bulls rearguard on Sunday night to prevent easy passes to retain possession, for instance – throughout the side, but it does pop up when required. Mostly, the tactics serve as a means of disrupting sides that tend to thrive on keeping the ball and unsettling groups that struggle to do so.
Vermes aided those endeavors ahead of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup triumph (and revived the idea over the past two matches) when he pushed Graham Zusi onto the right flank and slotted Júlio César back into his central midfield role. Paulo Nagamura's return to fitness and form allowed Vermes to nudge the out-of-form César to the bench earlier in the summer. The break did the Brazilian utility player some good. César's recall for the Open Cup final freed Zusi to find his way out of the muck in central midfield and formed a combative midfield trio with Nagamura and Roger Espinoza.
All three of those midfielders thrive on pestering the opposition. César sits deeper to allow Espinoza and Nagamura to scamper about and scour the real estate usually afforded to opposing players. The combination removes some of the creativity from midfield, but it stiffens up the overall shape considerably without detracting too much from the work in possession. Nagamura underscored the effectiveness of this particular approach by managing to draw a booking on the peripheral Tim Cahill out by the sideline late in the first half through sheer industry.
This particular setup should also give Zusi more freedom to influence matters from the run of play and prosper when Sporting wins possession higher up the field. The creative midfielder often found matters a bit too congested in the center of the park for his liking as opponents focused on limiting his effectiveness. A wider berth likely reduces his numbers of touches in exchange for more space to propel the attack forward. Kei Kamara switches flanks often enough to provide Zusi with the latitude to find the game if he doesn't receive the required service. Zusi has struggled at points during the summer, but he still remains the best hope of turning the match given the absence of a pure finisher within the group. If this transition hands him more opportunities to turn the match, then Sporting should ultimately benefit from the move on a more global scale.
The caveat to this particular setup – and, to be fair, similar liabilities hinder all of the other MLS Cup contenders with their strengths as well – occurs when Sporting displays a lack of positional discipline or fails to turn those turnovers into goals. As McCarty and Sèbastien Le Toux showed in the late stages of last night's draw, Sporting often chases the game a bit too ardently for its own good and leaves spaces exposed at the back when it does not polish off opportunities earlier in the match. A touch more composure throughout the team would certainly help to shore up the concerns, but it seems a little late in the day for that particular quality to magically emerge in a team that does well enough as it is.
It remains somewhat uncertain whether Sporting will avoid those potential pitfalls to banish that home defeat to Houston in the Eastern Conference final from memory by lifting MLS Cup. There are plenty of perilous obstacles in the way. What remains crystal clear is that this particular group possesses a unique capability to unsettle opponents with its pressure. In the usually fickle MLS denouement, it is a quality that could ultimately tip the scales in its favor by Dec. 1.
Five Points – Week 23
1. Heavy legs lead to fireworks: More than a few coaches around the league discussed the potential impact of fixture congestion this week, and the matches this weekend reflected perhaps their worst fears at the defensive end. MLS sides managed to score 32 times in nine matches over the weekend. The most jarring part of those figures: it includes a dour scoreless draw between Philadelphia and Real Salt Lake on Friday night.
There isn't a direct causal link between the increased number of matches on the docket for many MLS teams and the higher goal haul (though some will surely try to construct one), but the noticeable uptick of elementary mistakes and mental errors this weekend offers some tangible evidence that the two issues may not be entirely unrelated, either.
(Note: Give credit where credit is due: the attacking players did a wonderful job of taking advantage of the additional opportunities and the extra moments provided by defenders this weekend. Both free kicks by Federico Higuaín in Columbus' frenetic 4-3 victory over New England and the fine team goal constructed by San Jose to open the Earthquakes' 4-1 victory over Colorado warrant particular mention here.)
2. A timely dose of pragmatism from the great entertainers...: Real Salt Lake usually provides decent entertainment value for the neutral from week to week with its possession-oriented 4-4-2 diamond setup. Not in Friday night's dull 0-0 draw at Philadelphia. RSL boss Jason Kreis tweaked the status quo by adding an extra man in midfield (4-5-1) and omitting the out-of-form Fabián Espíndola from the squad entirely. Kreis assessed the fixture congestion facing his side due to CONCACAF Champions League commitments (a problem that directly influenced several clubs this weekend) and the poor run of three straight defeats and set out his side to battle instead of captivate. The alterations blunted the impact of Jamison Olave's continued absence with a hamstring strain (RSL is 1-8-3 in its past 12 matches without Olave, according to Elias Stats Bureau) and secured a much needed point at PPL Park.
(Note: Another positive from the affair for RSL: Chris Schuler's return to the bench. Schuler hasn't featured in league play since May 12 as he coped with a stress response in his left foot. His arrival -- and Olave's impending return -- restores the natural pecking order in central defense and shores up the rearguard in time for the postseason push.)
3. ...and a playoff contender all but concedes a difficult road match against its closest chaser: D.C. United coach Ben Olsen did not hide his intentions ahead of Saturday's 3-0 defeat at Montréal. Branko Bošković, Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Pontius started the match on the bench (and Nick DeLeon watched from the hotel after coming down sick) with United mired in a stretch of five matches over two weeks. United just didn't cope well without those key figures at Stade Saputo. Marco Di Vaio scored far too easily after 24 minutes from a neat Patrice Bernier through ball and the Impact comfortably managed the rest of the affair to notch a fifth straight win.
Instead of chalking up this particular match as the cost of doing business during a hectic period for several MLS teams, United – like far too many MLS sides in recent weeks – cited a couple of refereeing decisions (Emiliano Dudar expressed displeasure about the penalty kick awarded after he needlessly bundled over Collen Warner early in the second half to prompt the second goal) and the fixture list in the post-match reckoning instead. It's tough to blame United for its reasonable carping in this particular instance, but it'd be nice if United – and every other team in MLS, for that matter – just got on with matters for a change.
4. Dane Richards adds context to New York-Vancouver swap by sealing Burnley move: The speedy Jamaican international winger will bring his time in MLS to a close in January when he makes a free transfer move to English Championship side Burnley. The timing of the move reinforces the rationale behind the recent high-profile swap involving Richards and Sèbastien Le Toux: both sides wanted to bolster their short-term prospects with the long-term futures of each player perhaps laying elsewhere. Le Toux's contract also expires at the end of the season and his price tag (Le Toux said he asked the Union for a $400,000/year extension during the winter, according to an article in the Daily Times [Delaware County, Penn.] in January) could prove too rich for the Red Bulls to meet during the winter. Neither player has quite exerted the impact expected for his new side as of yet, but the amount of harm to either team appears minimal given the context of the situation.
(Note: Richards' move to Burnley looks like a sideways move at first glance, but the increased financial terms on offer in the Championship make this move a net win for the winger. The average salary for a non-DP player in MLS falls just south of $100,000, according to some thorough tabulations by Liviu Bird over at the Boot Room Blog. Richards will comfortably beat that average by hauling home $181,500 in guaranteed compensation this season, according to documents provided by the MLS Players Union in August. Those numbers, however, pale in comparison to the compensation in the Championship. The average player in the Championship during the 2009-2010 season made 4,059 pounds per week (approximately $6,414 per week at current exchange rates) and 211,068 pounds per year (approximately $333,571 per year at current exchange rates) before bonuses (a fairly significant addendum considering the generosity of English clubs in this department and the paltry MLS bonus structure). Even with the higher tax rates on earnings in the United Kingdom, Richards likely stands to double his current pay by making a move to join a new club in a league of a comparable standard to MLS. With those sorts of numbers in the mix, it is an easy decision to make in the end.)
5. Fine margins give Los Angeles a second straight home win: One yellow card here (a booking to Todd Dunivant when he perhaps should have seen red for denying Fabián Castillo on a potential goalscoring opportunity after 11 minutes) and a couple of FCD defensive lapses there (on the goals by Juninho and Dunivant) separated the teams on Sunday night. Neither side offered much in an affair that lacked sharpness, but the Galaxy – as this group tends to do – churned through the slog to claim a 2-0 victory and move three points clear of the Whitecaps in the battle for fourth place in the Western Conference.
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