Armchair Analyst: Tactical lookahead to #SKCvHOU in the Eastern Conference Championship

In the second game of last year's Eastern Conference Semifinals, which Sporting KC came into trailing 2-0 on aggregate and came out of with another big sad chapter in Dominic Kinnear's book of big sad chapters, to which he adds new material every November, Sporting held the Houston Dynamo to a single cross from open play.

That, and they allowed the Dynamo less than 29 percent of possession on the day. That's really good.

Here's what Houston's successful passes in the final third looked like:

Of all the passes that Houston attempted in the final third on that day, only two kept them in the final third. And both were throw-ins. I don't think there was a more dominant defensive performance last season, or this.

The problem was down the other end. And that's where we'll start this tactical preview, as Sporting and Houston head to Kansas City scoreless.

  • #WatchThis: SKC-HOU, 7:30 pm ET; NBCSN, NBC LiveExtra, Univision Dep., TSN2/RDS2 in Canada

Will the Dynamo coax Sporting into half-chances?

This is Sporting's final third activity from that same game. Seriously:

First off: Bobby Boswell, Andre Hainault and Tally Hall all deserve some dap for their work. Hainault actually had more clearances than completed passes – 15 to 14. Boswell was close at 11 clearances to 14 completed passes. And Hall lived about six yards off his line, saving everything but one, catching what he could and barking directions at his defense.

Second off: The Dynamo would not mind, at all, if Sporting's final third map looked something like this after the game on Saturday night. They wouldn't want it to be as busy, but the idea here was to keep SKC to the fringes, let them generate half chances, and trust Hall to get the job done.

That's Sporting's weak spot. For all their talent (and they've got a ton, back to front) and all their final third quality (not as much, but still), they are weirdly susceptible to the worse angels of their nature. Which, in a word, is impatience.

SKC have a tendency to get frustrated, get it wide, and bomb in crosses by the score. And when they start doing that, they also start shooting on sight, leading to the fourth-lowest shot quality (for 2013) in all of MLS.

Check the column at the far right:

Team Expected Open Play Goals Total Open Play Goals Differential Shot Quality
New York Red Bulls 41.81 53 11.18 0.104
Montreal Impact 41.05 46 4.94 0.099
Houston Dynamo 44.17 37 -7.17 0.094
San Jose Earthquakes 40.97 32 -8.97 0.093
Philadelphia Union 41.87 42 0.12 0.091
Real Salt Lake 40.12 50 9.87 0.09
LA Galaxy 42.94 46 3.05 0.089
FC Dallas 38.09 43 4.9 0.089
New England Revolution 35.07 45 9.92 0.089
Seattle Sounders FC 36.22 36 -0.22 0.088
Portland Timbers 38.51 50 11.48 0.087
Chicago Fire 40.92 42 1.07 0.081
Vancouver Whitecaps 35.02 47 11.97 0.081
Colorado Rapids 36.93 40 3.06 0.08
Toronto FC 26.58 26 -0.58 0.077
Sporting Kansas City 37.3 42 4.69 0.075
Columbus Crew 35.38 35 -0.38 0.075
Chivas USA 22.32 27 4.67 0.07
D.C. United 27.83 19 -8.83 0.07

That's exactly what happened in this second leg game last year, when SKC drove in 31 open play crosses, and largely eschewed the patient build or top-of-the-box combination. They put up lots of bad shots, and Houston designed their defense to deal with exactly that.

Kinnear will have done the same this year, even though the Dynamo won't have a lead to protect. Sporting actually finished just mid-table in terms of open play crosses in 2013, but as the chart above emphasizes, they still lack patience near goal.


What can the Dynamo get out of central midfield?

After a midsummer stretch in which Houston went uncharacteristically soft, allowing far too much build-up through the middle, they made one big adjustment: Push Ricardo Clark higher up the pitch, allow him to disrupt and distribute almost as a real No. 8, and reap the benefits.

It led to plays like this:

And like this:

And – my favorite – like this:

I don't think anybody in either conference had as big an influence on the playoff race as Clark did. Once he moved to an advanced destroyer position, with Warren Creavalle cleaning up behind him, the Dynamo started to look like the team that's been to two straight MLS Cups.

And now he's hurt. He hasn't been ruled out for the game, and Kinnear is being coy about who'll play and who won't (of course). But Clark hasn't trained since before the first leg, when he came off "left leg" injury, and if you haven't played in two weeks, you're a big fat question mark. Even if he does play, nobody should reasonably expect 90 minutes, or anything close to full fitness.

Where does that leave Houston? The two most obvious choices are probably Boniek Garcia or Brad Davis sliding inside, since both are comfortable on the ball in tight quarters and both have the vision to do damage there. I mean, of that group, Clark is clearly the least threatening in the final third (above GIFs not withstanding).

That would leave Kinnear to bring on Andrew Driver for one of the wide spots, and while he's had moments of quality this year, Houston tend to struggle to hold onto the ball when he's out there – everything he does is vertical.

The other option is the one I'd choose, pairing Servando Carrasco with Creavalle in the central midfield for the extra coverage. Carrasco ain't Clark, but wins a ton of second balls, switches the field of play well, and he's been very, very good in patches this season. Plus – this is the big issue for me – he can allow both Boniek and Davis to get higher up field.

If Houston are going to generate chances, both those guys will need to be involved. Carrasco gives them that flexibility.


Two bonus thoughts:

First, Clark isn't the only one who's missed the last two weeks of training in Houston. Will Bruin struggled badly in the first half of the first leg, then was subbed for Cam Weaver at halftime as Kinnear went to a 4-3-3.

While the 4-3-3 didn't result in a goal, it did result in more possession, higher forays into the attacking end, and a few very good chances. It also pinned the Sporting fullbacks, preventing those killer overlaps:

Don't be surprised if Houston goes in that direction from the start.

Second, set pieces. I've been saying for two weeks that this one has the feel of a game that'll be decided in extra time on a restart. Aurelien Collin continues to be absolutely dominant attacking dead balls, and the Dynamo simply aren't as well equipped to deal with such a physical presence this year.