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.

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