Thursday, October 31, 2013

Seattle vs. Portland playoff preview

The dream match-up has been locked in. Seattle vs. Portland. Sigi vs. Porter. These are two sides who have a plethora of tactical options available to them, so I'm highlighting a few of the big ones in the build up for the Cascadia clash in the playoffs. The graphic is just my best guess at how the teams will line up.

Will Evans line up at right mid or right back?
This is the most important question from Seattle's side of the ball. When Yedlin had to be subbed off at half due to injury, Brad Evans was shifted to right back. This was the preferred option of just bringing on Zach Scott because of Deshorn Brown’s pace. Rodney Wallace isn’t nearly as quick as Brown, so I expect to see Scott start at right back if Yedlin isn’t good to go. 

Seattle’s new 4-3-1-2 is built around the attacking trio holding the ball up to allow the deeper midfielders to get forward into the attack. Evans is one of the best trailing runners in the league and Burch simply doesn’t have the acumen to make the proper runs while in semi-transition (we saw this last night on a breakaway in the second half where a simple diagonal run toward goal would have seen him 1v1 with Irwin, but he instead ran away to hide out on the left wing where he is comfortable.) If the Sounders are going to mount anything in attack, Evans has to be in the midfield, whether that means Yedlin is fit or Scott plays right back doesn’t matter.

Will Chara and Johnson sit a bit deeper to mark Dempsey out of the game?
The tactical and formation switch of Seattle is a clear message that the playmaking is on Dempsey’s shoulders as Rosales rides the pine. Dempsey was able to collect the ball all over the field against Colorado and bring other players into the attack while pulling the defenders out of their defensive shape. Portland has already shown the willingness to track Dempsey wherever he may roam as demonstrated by the tackle that separated his shoulder on the sideline last time these teams met. They’ll have to do the same again or Dempsey will exert his will on the game like was saw against the Timbers last time before the injury.
However, tracking Dempsey as he tries to find space means there will be space for Seattle’s deeper midfielders to make runs forward. Evans/Burch and Moffat will have to exploit the space left by Johnson and Chara tracking Deuce. Eddie Johnson and Lamar Neagle will have to realize their runs need to be timed off of Evans and Moffat collecting the ball, not Dempsey.

Will Portland’s wide forwards be able to pinch the field on defense?
A huge part of Portland’s success this season is the defensive responsibilities and execution of their wide forwards. They have played very wide and cut off the passing lanes to other teams’ wide players and forcing their opponents to play through the middle or send long balls (see the first half of the game vs. Colorado on 9/20 for an example of this in effect). In MLS, the trend has been for playmakers to play wide, so this tactic has cut off the supply to their opponents’ most dangerous threats. Seattle has elected to shift things central under Sigi’s new formation. The closest approximation to this attacking style is RSL, who have scored 7 goals over 3 games. However, Seattle are also more willing (and successful) than RSL to send long-balls into the corners for their forwards to chase. 

Additionally, Portland tries to cut the field in half on defense and trap their opponents to one side of the field. Seattle will have to either try to work in these tight spaces or they will have to try to open up through the middle and switch the point of attack. Seattle’s midfield plays very narrow with all 4 midfielders essentially playing as a center mid. They should have the opportunity to combine between them until they can release a fullback breaking forward or find a ball in behind Portland’s back line.

Will Portland’s outside backs get into the attack or sit deeper?
This is the follow up to the previous point. Last night against Colorado, Seattle clearly demonstrated they have no qualms about trying to catch a defender out by playing through the air for Johnson and Neagle to run onto in the corner. Harrington and Jewsbury will have to choose to get into the attack, which may be necessary for them to break Seattle’s defensive 8, or risk getting beat over the top.

Will Seattle’s narrow 3 defensive midfielders neutralize Valeri and Nagbe?
If Porter instructs his outside backs to play deep, that allows Moffat and Evans to stay pinched narrow and eliminate passing angles into Valeri and also clog the space that Nagbe likes to drift in to. Sigi Schmid doesn’t give much defensive responsibility to his forwards, which means Portland will have a bit of a staging area to build their attacks and find their attackers.

If Valeri and Nagbe are denied the ball, Portland’s attack won’t amount to much and they may end up just holding possession in the middle third without any penetration. This would put a lot of onus of collecting the ball on whoever ends up playing the striker for Portland.

Who will play striker for Portland?
This is probably the biggest question from Portland’s side of the ball. They have three very different options to play up top. They have Ryan Johnson, who has subpar finishing, but can try to get in behind Seattle’s outside backs when they venture forward. They have Piquionne who is their best option for hold up play while still being able to match up physically with Hurtado and Traore. They have Valencia who is more technically sound, but still has questionable decision making in a possession-based system. And finally, they have Urruti, who likes to drop into the midfield to collect the ball and distribute from there. 

Urruti may end up being the most dangerous option as Seattle’s center back pairing of Traore and Hurtado have had a lot of trouble this season staying connected when the forwards are dropping in to collect the ball. Traore in particular is willing to step very high to follow the forward and Hurtado (and subsequently Yedlin) often lags to slide over to fill the gap. A prime example of this is Kekutah Mannah’s second goal against Seattle. This leaves a lot of space for someone like Valeri or Nagbe to run into and run onto the ball to be 1v1 with the keeper.

Which coach will get it right?
Sigi has shown himself to be rather un-flexible tactically (I’m sure he’s terrible at yoga too) inside of games during his time in Seattle. Caleb Porter has shown himself to be able to make astute tactical changes, especially at half time. I’ll hazard a guess that Seattle’s new system will thrive early in the game as Evans and Moffat are able to find space between Portland’s fullbacks and wingers. I’ll also hazard a guess that Portland will make adjustments at half time to hold possession for longer spells. Ultimately, Seattle is the home team and has to get the result at home so they will go for it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Seattle Sounders vs. Real Sealt Lake - 09/06/2013

This is the matchup I always look forward to most in the league. Both teams try to play attacking soccer and neither team is overly physical (except against Morales in this one). It often brings out some high quality games from both teams on both sides of the ball. There’s plenty of talent on both teams and solid role-players to complement their teammates. Unfortunately, Saborio was out and Dempsey and EJ were on the bench after returning from their national-team triumph.

Final score: Seattle 2 - RSL 0

Seattle’s forwards check deep to receive the ball and beat RSL’s pressure

The big story of the first half was Obafemi Martins and Lamar Neagle both checking back into the midfield to receive the ball from Seattle’s defensive third. Beckerman wasn’t able to cut off the angles to both forwards and the center backs for RSL could only hope to keep Seattle’s forwards facing their own goal.
This allowed Seattle to completely bypass half of RSL’s team and put them ahead of the ball on defense with a single pass – not a good thing for a defense. Seattle then sent their wide men streaming forward to exploit the space left by RSL’s wide midfielders would pinch in to pressure the ball. Seattle’s second goal is a perfect example of these points where Seattle’s forwards check back, RSL’s midfielder pinches in, and Seattle exploits the space on the wing.

Morales marked (and mauled) out of the game

From the start of the game, Seattle basically played to force someone other than Morales (and to a lesser extent, Plata) to beat them. Osvaldo Alonso and Andy Rose took it in shifts to always make sure Morales was pressured by two people any time the ball was played to him. Seattle’s holding mids chased him around the field, making sure he didn’t have time to pick out his passes. Even when he would drift wide to the side the ball was on, one, or often both, of Seattle’s defensive midfielders would go with him. That left a huge hole in front of Seattle’s defenders that RSL could have exploited, but failed to send the weak side midfielder or Beckerman high enough into that space to be dangerous.

Seattle basically dared Gil, Grabavoy, and Findley to try to beat their defenders 1v1 as Seattle paid close attention to Plata and Morales. RSL’s wide midfielders aren’t known for their speed or exceptional dribbling skills to take people on, and Seattle’s outside backs were able to not only stop them, but also win the ball and play out from the back for the vast majority of the match.

Seattle finds easy outlets wide

RSL’s diamond midfield tends to play very narrow. That means there is usually some space out wide for their opponent’s midfielders to collect the ball and start attacks. Seattle was able to immediately relieve pressure after winning the ball by finding easy outlets to wide midfielders, in addition to their forwards checking deep to receive the ball as highlighted above. Having two outlets for Seattle was a problem for RSL during the first half. Seattle was able to easily and quickly transition from defense to attack and let Obafemi Martins welcome Carlos Salcedo to the league by losing him on counter-attacks on multiple occasions. 

RSL switch to 4-3-3

Credit to Jason Kreis for recognizing that Seattle’s success on the wings was due in large part to their success in finding the feet of the forwards checking back to collect the ball and cause RSL’s defense to be pulled out of shape. He decided to switch formations to a 4-3-3 to push Grabavoy central and help Beckerman limit the service to Neagle and Martins in between the defensive and midfield lines. Switching from four midfielders to three was Kreis basically saying, “fine, we’ll concede the space to your wide players to make sure we can maintain our shape.” The tactic worked as Seattle was unable to find Neagle and Martins as first options. Seattle were still able to utilize their wide midfielders as outlets, but a player is far less dangerous with the ball out there than where Seattle’s forwards were collecting the ball in the first half. Sure, Seattle’s wide mids were able to find more time on the ball out there following outlets from the defense, but at least RSL was able to transition to defense and get men behind the ball – something they weren’t able to do consistently in the first half.

A side benefit of switching to 4-3-3 was having another man in the attack. This caused Seattle to change two things offensively. The first is the outside backs couldn’t get forward as often or as far. RSL’s outside backs were no longer regularly facing 2v1 or 3v2 situations. The second is Andy Rose wasn’t able to get forward into the attack as often and provide support or a late run into the box on counter attacks.


In the end, Seattle’s defenders were just individually better than RSL’s attackers on the day and prevented RSL from digging themselves out of the hole Seattle dug for them in the first half. Seattle’s movement up top in the first half was the key point to this game and RSL’s formation switch at halftime was too late, as the damage was already done.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Seattle Sounders vs. FC Dallas 08/03/2013

It’s been a while. I’ve been busy developing curriculum for my club and all the things that come with my new position as director of coaching for the summer rec season. But, I’ve found some time this week to look at the tactics of one game: Seattle vs. Dallas.

Seattle’s speed beats Dallas’ too-high line

Dallas didn’t play the highest line that I’ve seen against Seattle, but it was high enough for Seattle’s forwards to get in behind. Given the speed of both Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins, you’d think Schellas Hyndman would know not to give Seattle the opportunity to let them try to collect a ball running at pace at goal. There have been several other times a team has played a high line against the Sounders and Seattle has simply demolished it (most notably against Toronto in 2012). Seattle didn’t abuse the high line of Dallas, just used it often enough to mix up the method of attack.

Seattle’s second goal, by Eddie Johnson, was a perfect example of a-step-too-slow Dallas backline getting caught too far up field with their defensive midfielders sitting too deep and essentially right on top of the backline. First, there was a routine turnover and distribution to a central midfielder – nothing unusual at all. What happened from here was two key things. First, Dallas’ midfielders drop off the ball and leave Brad Evans completely in control of the situation. Ferreira does absolutely nothing but lazily jog and Jacobson drops deep when he should step up and force Evans to do something – anything – so he can’t pick his pass. At the time of the turnover, Watson was practically playing as a center-back for some reason unknown to me and was too far away from Evans to apply pressure. 

Second, Eddie Johnson shows Brad Evans which run he’s going to make by positioning his body sideways to signal for a through-ball. EJ’s body positioning as soon as the ball is passed to Evans is something subtle that most people will miss as a key component to the speed of Evans’ decision. Evans’ drops a perfectly weighted ball over the top so EJ could get there and force Fernandez to make a decision to risk coming out or hope to make a save. He chooses to hold on his six (probably the wrong choice as he had a chance to beat EJ to the ball) and EJ slots it home.

Seattle’s fluid movement in attack

The problems for Dallas’ defensive midfield pairing weren’t just on EJ’s goal. The movement of Seattle’s attacking five (at times attacking eight) gave Dallas fits all night. Lamar Neagle and Mauro Rosales both tucked far inside throughout the night, especially when the ball was wide on the other side of the field. Martins and Johnson were both dropping deep at times to collect the ball. Brad Evans and occasionally Osvaldo Alonso were making runs through the middle. All of this resulted in Seattle actually having more players in the area of the field where Dallas’s two holding mids sat and zero Sounders players originally lined up in the 4-4-2 empty-bucket that Seattle plays. The movement between all of those players was absolutely brilliant and the understanding of positioning was surprisingly good considering how few minutes they have all played together.

Not only were Seattle creating and exploiting space through the middle of the field by virtue of players moving out of their lineup position, but they were also creating space on the wings by doing so. This meant both Yedlin and Gonzalez were able to push up into the attack with acres of space ahead of them. This was probably Gonzalez’s most-attacking game and Yedlin’s least-attacking game so far this season. I’m not sure if it was Sigi or Yedlin that recognized it, but Castillo got the better of Yedlin a couple times early. After that, it seemed like Yedlin was more reluctant to get forward than usual. 

Ferreira unable to impact the game

It’s no secret that Dallas’s offense tends to play only as well as Ferreira plays. And Ferraira just didn’t have an impact on this game. Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans were able to successfully keep Ferreira under control and deny him the time and space to operate as efficiently as he normally does. In fact, Ferreira’s heat map shows very few touches in the attacking half and in the middle of the field. (For more information about this phenomenon, check out Matt Doyle’s between the lines series about playmakers). The majority of his touches were on the left as the closest thing Dallas found to success was combination between Castillo and Ferreira. Ferreira had 12 unsuccessful passes and was tackled and lost the ball 14 times. Both of those stats are much higher than normal for Ferreira. Seattle effectively broke up Ferreira’s rhythm and didn’t allow Dallas to hold possession. This presented a problem because Dallas’ wingers were forced to play some defense as Seattle’s attack and movement was very positive with the Sounders’ outside backs getting forward often.

Ianni frees up Traore

Admittedly, this one is far more my own opinion than all the other stuff I wrote so far. Patrick Ianni is the best center-back partner for Djimi Traore. Djimi is a bit of a flair defender (is that even a thing outside of Brazil?) and likes to roam a bit outside of the center of the defensive line. Other partners in the past haven’t had the skill-set and positional sense to set Traore free. Hurtado is also a roaming center-back and the two of them together often just found themselves out of position. Scott holds his position a bit more, but he isn’t nearly as good as Ianni at defending while running back toward his own goal. Ianni is good at picking the correct angle of approach and is a solid last-ditch tackler. 

In this particular game with Gonzalez getting forward so often, Traore had to shift left to cover some attacks coming down the left side. Ianni was capable of marking Perez in the middle while still providing proper covering positions for Traore’s forays wide.

Dallas’ half-time sub

Hyndman realized his side was struggling and that something had to change tactically. He decided to take of Watson, who just didn’t know how to work with either the centerbacks or with Jacobson, and bring on Mauro Diaz. Diaz played much further up the field and allowed for Ferreira and Perez to have an additional body to pass to in the attack, something they were sorely missing in the first half. However, this also solidified the defense a bit more as Jacobson now had full responsibility of patrolling the midfield. He couldn’t rely on someone else and just applied the pressure in his area when it needed to be applied (unlike what happened on EJ’s goal). Seattle didn’t mount much threat in the second half, but that is partially attributable to Sigi slowly deciding to drop off a bit and protect the lead.


Seattle’s speed up top is going to punish high defensive lines unless the defense is playing a high-pressure system designed to eliminate time to make good, quick passes forward. Watson and Jacobson simply had no idea how to deal with Seattle’s off-ball movement and will continue to struggle against teams like Portland and RSL with lots of moving parts. Where the heck is Clint Dempsey going to fit into a Seattle attack that seems to finally have an understanding of each other?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Chivas USA vs. Vancouver Whitecaps - 3/30/2013

If you had to follow just one story this off-season and through March, it should have been the transformation at Chivas USA. They shipped out almost everyone and brought in an entire new cast of characters, the largest being El Chelis. He promised open, attacking soccer and has delivered thus far.

Chivas midfielders join the attack
Chivas plays a 3-1-4-2 with lots of moving parts. The band of four are all box-to-box and the Chivas USA midfield attack is based on them breaking forward to join the attack. Before Agudelo's injury substitution, he would drop to receive the ball from the defensive third and lay it off to an oncoming midfielder. Chivas would quickly end up with six in the attack with several overlapping runs and enough lateral movement to pull Vancouver's midfielders out of position to open space for a teammate. The off-ball movement and understanding between the Rojiblancos is very good for a team that has been together for such a short time.

Chivas midfielders join the defense
During the first half, Vancouver didn't make much out of their attack, so Chivas' defensive structure wasn't tested as much as it could have been. On the few times Vancouver attempted to build possession, the Chivas midfielders would drop into the defensive line and create five in the back. Minda dropped into a third center-back role while the far-side midfielder would drop into the back-line as an outside back.  The original outside defender would push wide and provide cover for the ball-side midfielder to provide pressure on the ball. 

When Vancouver countered quickly, the gaps in Chivas' defense showed. Unfortunately for Vancouver, their first touch and passing selection let them down and squandered any chances they should have created. The rate of Vancouver turnovers helped keep their midfielders pinned deep and stranded the attacking three to try to penetrate against Chivas' defending four plus the four box-to-box midfielders transitioning into defense. Chivas players also weren't afraid to take tactical fouls high up the field to disrupt several potential Vancouver attacks.

On the rare occasions that Vancouver held possession, Chivas would shift their entire team to the side the ball was on. All 11 goats were on one side of the field but the Whitecaps weren't able to quickly switch the field because Chivas players were immediately pressuring the ball. Again, Vancouver did themselves no favors with their poor first touch and lack of passing precision.

Vancouver makes second-half changes
What Vancouver was doing in the first half clearly wasn't working. Martin Rennie had the guts to make two early second-half substitutions and change the tactics his side employed.  Kenny Miller and Eric Hurtado came on for Camilo and Koffie while Kabayashi switched into a central role. This gave Vancouver four attacking players, plus Reo-Coker started getting into the attack quicker. The simple numbers game was now even with Chivas' defensive unit and they started to find each other in seams and create problems for Chivas on the break. Just seven minutes after Rennie made his changes, Vancouver scores a brilliant team goal: Miller nets a rebound after Hurtado's initial shot is parried by Kennedy. This type of counter-attack was open against Chivas all night, but this was one of the few times that Vancouver could successfully move the ball and hit their teammates in stride.

The introduction of additional speed in Hurtado and some simple movement by Kobayashi and Reo-Coker between the lines made the second half much closer than the first.

Final score: Chivas 2 - Vancouver 1
Although the statsheet says Vancouver had the better of  this game - winning possession and dominated shots taken - the scoreline reflected the actual course of the game. Chivas' chances were simply better than Vancouver's and they did it with a much more attractive style of soccer.

I was definitely wary of the Chivas transformation - and I'm not entirely sold on it yet - but I think they might be the most entertaining team to watch on the field. It's widely accepted that Chelis is the most entertaining in the press. If it weren't for another lackluster attendance, I'd almost be ready to call the transformation a success. However, until those attendance numbers strengthen or they're a clear playoff team, I will withhold a definite answer and stick with a cautiously-optimistic outlook.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Montreal vs. New York - 03/23/2013

This was an extremely interesting and insightful game about the tactics of these two respective sides. Both sides played almost exactly as we would have expected: Montreal defending deep and hitting on the counter and New York pressing higher and dominating possession.

Montreal Defend Deep
This shouldn't surprise anyone at this point. This season Montreal are sitting extremely deep, absorbing pressure from their opponents and hitting quickly on the counter. Most announcers and pundits are calling Montreal's formation a 4-1-4-1, but in practice it is a 4-4-1-1. There were several times where Montreal were defending with 10 behind the ball and Di Vaio left alone up top. They are organized and disciplined enough to only concede half-chances (New York's most dangerous opportunities were from Juninho set pieces played into the box).

L'Impact's line of confrontation wasn't that abnormal for MLS sides - applying initial pressure near the midfield line. However, as New York penetrated Montreal's initial line of midfield defenders, they all continued to drop deeper to eliminate the amount of time New York had on the ball in the middle. New York had plenty of shots, but the majority of them were speculative.

New York Press High
Since Montreal was conceding so much space, it makes sense for New York to press high up the field since they had so many players forward already. There were many instances where the Red Bulls had multiple players pressing Montreal around their 18-yard box. A few times they won the ball that high up the field, but were unable to create anything with the high-won possession. I don't think I've seen another team press as high up the field this season as New York did in this game.

Montreal Counters
New York's high pressure meant that there was plenty of space between the lines for Montreal midfielders to run into, receive the ball and relieve the pressure from the backline. The relative speed of transition for the two teams is what allowed Montreal to create most of their chances. Montreal has very clearly been instructed to get forward as quickly as possible when they win possession. Most often, they would play the ball wide to one of the outside midfielders who would then play it back centrally. When that ball back into the middle was played is when Di Vaio would start his curling or diagonal run in behind Holgersson and Pearce. If the initial outlet wide wasn't there, Montreal simply thumped the ball forward and attempted to win the second ball before trying to slot Di Vaio through. This is exactly how they scored the lone goal in the game with a brilliant one-touch through ball by Bernier.

Aside from quick counter attacks, Montreal really didn't have much of anything going forward. They were content to continue to defend deep, protect their one-goal lead, and take whatever opportunity they could to try to find a seam to play Di Vaio through. He had a couple other chances where he could have done better or was caught just offside, but his runs wreaked havoc on New York's back-line despite him being the only Montreal player they had to worry about all night.

Juninho Controls New York's Attack
New York had the bulk of possession in this game, as was conceded by Montreal. Most of that possession even happened in Montreal's half. Juninho was clearly the one pulling the strings. He would drop deep to collect the ball (and had no defensive responsibilities to speak of) and distribute the ball wide. Espindola and Luyindula took turns dropping between Montreal's lines to collect the ball and would, again, distribute the ball wide. When New York had the ball wide in the attacking third, Juninho made many 40-yard runs toward the top of the box, but New York simply wasn't able to play to his feet at an appropriate time for him to create a chance for someone else. His off-ball movement (or complete lack thereof at appropriate times) showed the cunning of the wily veteran that he is. I look forward to see if he is able to link up with Titi and think that could be a dangerous combination.

There were plenty of times, especially in the first half, where Juninho was clearly frustrated. He was clearly trying to direct the play, but his teammates were making decisions Juninho didn't like. That is another story-line to follow for New York this season: will Juninho start mailing it in or will he continue to put in knowledgeable performances like the one against Montreal?

Late-game Changes
Brandon Barklage rightfully picked up a second yellow and was sent off about half-way through the second half. However, Montreal was still content to sit deep and try to take a chance on the counter. Granted, Montreal did seem to create better comparative numbers in attack after New York went down to ten, but they simply could not time their runs and passes properly and squandered several opportunities they should have taken to put the game away. Both teams used several subs without any significant tactical changes and the game continued exactly the way it had during the first 70-80 minutes.

Final score: Montreal 1 - New York 0
New York dominated possession, but Montreal dictated how this game was played. This has been the trend in all of Montreal's games this season and here they sit atop the table with maximum points. The only thing New York looked poor in was tracking the runs of Di Vaio. Aside from that, they played a good game and on another day could have won this match. On the other hand, Montreal could have done better on their counters and could have bagged two or three.

Montreal has officially joined my surprisingly small list of teams who have a clear style of play. It isn't my preferred style, but at least it is a clear and definite style, which demands some respect.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Philadelphia vs. Kansas City - 03/02/2013

First kick has finally happened! We get the opportunity in a meaningful game to see just what style and formation teams hope to play this season and who earned the right to be a starter. As with all MLS off-seasons, there were plenty of personnel changes which might result in tactical changes. Both of these teams lost and/or added big pieces in the winter months and look to start the season right. The defining tactical note in this game is the level of Philadelphia's pressure. The tighter and quicker they pressed when Kansas City had the ball, the better the Union were.

Final Score: Philadelphia 1 : Kansas City 3

Early Philadelphia Pressing
The first 25 minutes of this game were completely dominated by Philadelphia. They were pressing high and their midfielders were closing down every pass made into the midfield. Kansas City were absolutely frazzled by the lack of time they had on the ball in all parts of the field and struggled to string together more than one or two passes. Philadelphia's central three were rotating fantastically to create pressure/cover situations to allow teammates to try to win the ball without fear of conceding too much space if they got beat.

Philly would win the ball early and often high up the pitch and immediately look to play the ball forward. Generally, they found success playing over the top to Le Toux, creating several dangerous chances. The first goal happened exactly the way the entire first portion of the game went - a sloppy touch in the middle third by an SKC player near two Union players with a fantastic early ball in behind the SKC defenders to Le Toux with a beautiful first touch and quick strike to open the season.

On that goal, last season's defender of the year, Matt Besler, completely loses Le Toux to give him the space needed to receive that ball. This actually happened several times and many of Philly's chances in the first half happened because of positioning mistakes by Besler. Several times he was pulled too far from the middle, allowing space for Philly's attackers to move into. He also struggled to find the line of the rest of the defensive unit early in the game and kept players onside a few times. Unfortunately for the Philly, they weren't able to capitalize again on SKC's shaky early start.

Zusi Tucks Inside
Though Zusi doesn't deserve credit for creating the first goal for Sporting, he comes very far towards the center during Convey's run down the sideline. Zusi's inside drift put him in the right position to finish a rebound back into the middle. The announcers are crediting the change in momentum of this game to this goal. However, the actual change in momentum happened about 10 minute prior when Zusi started seeking the ball.

To start the game, Graham Zusi stayed wide and SKC struggled to hold possession under Philly's pressure. About half way through the first half, Zusi starts to come inside to collect the ball instead of waiting to receive it out wide. This allowed Sporting to start to link together periods of possession and recycle the ball from side to side. Philly's early pressure was no longer as effective because of the ball-seeking movement and precise passing of Zusi. A side effect of Kansas City holding the ball better was that Philly wasn't springing their attacks as early and stopped playing as many balls over-the top for Le Toux.

Throughout the rest of the game, Zusi's desire to be involved shaped how well SKC controlled the ball, possession, and the game itself. SKC began having possession further up the pitch with combination play through the midfield and generally looked more dangerous.

Second-Half Pressure by SKC
At half-time, the teams basically switched their defensive pressure strategies. Philly started allowing SKC players more time to collect the ball and dropped their line of confrontation deeper. Kansas City started pressing harder when Philly made passes in the midfield and pushed their line of confrontation a bit higher. This was the key talking point in the off-season for SKC: would they bey able to maintain the same high-pressure system without the impressive workrate of Kamara and Espinoza. The second half of this game showed that they can still find success using the high-pressure system, though it is just a single half and not a large enough sample to definitely say they will be able to press as effectively as last season.

Philly was no-longer winning the midfield battle. SKC midfielders weren't allowing Philly the platform to send early balls to Le Toux as they immediately worked to close down the Philly player with the ball. Since the main plan from Philly was route one to Le Toux, they struggled to create offensive penetration. Philly's attacking substitutes did them no favors as the rest of their players' legs grew tired and were unable to challenge Sporting's quick ground-passing game. SKC had an even easier time of possession in the midfield and were able to successfully control the tempo of the game after their second goal.

These teams both look similar to how they did last season, despite personnel changes.  Kansas City was eventually able to cope with Philly's pressure and they hope they can just write it off as early-season jitters. Philly might feel dissatisfied with dominating the entire first period of the game yet not getting an end result, but they have some positive to take away. They were effective when pressuring and Le Toux's off-ball movement was creating space for other players to move into. At this point, I think it's likely that SKC will be vying for top of the Eastern Conference while Philly will have to battle for a playoff slot.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Portland Vs. Seattle - February 5 - Preseason Friendly

I find it kind of strange that bitter rivals would schedule a preseason friendly against each other. This isn’t the first time these two teams have faced off when it counts for nothing but a bit of pride, and it didn’t stop a couple hard tackles in the spirit of this Cascadia matchup. Keep in mind that this was a preseason match and the players generally looked like they were still trying to find their rhythm and individual touch.  

So far this preseason, Caleb Porter’s revolution in Portland looks exactly like most people expected it to – lots of combination play in the middle with a high-pressure defense. This was Seattle’s first pre-season match, but without wholesale changes to players or coaches, the same general strategy should be expected out of the Sounders. This game was played in three stages all based around wholesale changes to almost the entire squad of one of the teams.

Both teams came out in the general formations they are expected to play this season: Portland in a 4-2-3-1 and Seattle in a 4-4-2 with two deep center-mids. This first half of the game was mostly first-choice players for Portland and a mix of first-choice and first-subs for Seattle, as both were missing some players to national duty.

The main talking point in the first half was the positioning of Mauro Rosales, Darlington Nagbe, and Khalif Alhassan. All three wingers drifted centrally so we essentially had seven players trying to find the ball in the same space. This effectively eliminated time on the ball for the most creative players for both teams, making it difficult to link anything through the middle.

With Rosales drifting high and inside on the offensive side of the ball, it created space on the left of Portland’s middle third in transition. Strangely, this space was not exploited by Nagbe who struggled to find the game all day, but rather by Michael Harrington. Portland was able to find Harrington both in transition and on switches after circulating the ball to the right side of the field. Harrington wasn’t really able to do anything with all the space afforded to him aside from a couple poor crosses (and good central defending by Seattle) and generally playing too slowly to exploit the Sounders’ defense all sucking over to the same side of the field.  

The other result from having so many players central was that Seattle chose to play long balls to the forwards or rely on Zakuani to beat players 1v1 on the left. This should be nothing new to Sounders fans as that style of play is how they played in most matches last season. The only difference was that last season the left mid tended to drift more central while Rosales was the creative player out wide. The tactic wasn’t successful in this game as Portland’s backs are big and athletic enough to muscle Ochoa and the diminutive Estrada while the ball was in the air.

Portland’s line of confrontation was also a key point in this half. Their line of confrontation was about 20 yards inside Seattle’s half, which is much higher than almost everyone else in MLS played last season (notable exception of Kansas City). Portland was able to unsettle Seattle’s defenders with the high pressure and didn’t allow them to pick out the forwards with accurate long-balls. Seattle’s line of confrontation was around the midfield line, pretty typical for MLS teams. This gave Portland’s defenders a staging area to collect the ball and find a midfielder’s feet without worrying about much pressure from Seattle. This allowed Portland the platform to start or continue their quick, short passing game and dominate possession. Seattle’s defense remained organized through the middle and forced Portland’s attacks to come from crosses which were dealt with by Seattle’s center backs well enough.

Seattle's line-change

 Portland ran out the same line-up in the second half while Seattle did a line-change and brought in a bunch of guys just trying to make the squad. The difference in quality of touch and decision making was apparent right away. Portland kept good possession for the bulk of this period in or near their attacking third, playing Porter’s desired style of short passes on the ground until someone picks their spot for penetration. Seattle was defending in two deep banks of four while their two forwards were strangely putting pressure on Portland’s back line. This created a big space for Portland’s midfielders to work in and circulate the ball from side to side. This ultimately led to a corner kick that resulted in a broken play and Seattle’s inability to clear the ball outside the 18 gave Portland a few shots on goal before finally putting one away.

Portland's line-change

At this point, Portland made a line-change of their own and brought us into the final stage of the game where most players will be spot-starters and substitutes at best.  Estrada came back on for Meloto but played left mid while Burch shifted to left back and Remick switched to holding center mid. The play was sloppy and more about hustle than skill. 

Portland employed the same tactics they had all game with short passes, high pressure, and wingers cutting inside. Seattle, however, were able to find much more joy in this period than the prior two. The Sounders’ outside midfielders stayed much wider and allowed a bit more space to combine with the central midfielders. Sodade and Bowen started winning some of the longballs out of the back. The outside backs started getting forward into the attack and creating 2v1 and 3v2 situations along the wings for quick and simple combination play to beat Portland’s defenders. Unfortunately, Seattle's positive play in this final period rarely resulted in possession in a dangerous area.


Ultimately, this was a preseason game and it looked like a preseason game. Seattle rarely was able to get anything going offensively due to Portland's numbers advantage in midfield and their high line of confrontation. Portland experienced some decent combination play in the middle of the field but their final ball was lacking and allowed Seattle's defensive unit to easily clear the danger. The players' preseason form caused a lot of sloppy touches which made this an ugly game to watch.