Central Winger: Contrasting approaches to possession set to clash in MLS Cup
As this year's MLS Cup finalists show, being a "possession-oriented" and a "slow buildup" team are not mutually inclusive attributes. Being one does not necessarily make you the other by extension.
Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City are both, without a doubt, possession-oriented squads. With technical players such as Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber, it is no surprise that our MLS Cup finalists had the largest average shares of possession in the league; Salt Lake edging KC with averages of 56.5 and 55.0 percent apiece.
But, as different analysts have argued over the last few weeks, they are still incredibly different teams. We will show you how.
Below are the 2013 team averages for the number of passes in possessions that directly led to a shot at goal. Since most shots result from possessions that begin in the attacking half of the field and a majority evolve after just one or two passes, the league average sits at just 1.70 passes. Below the line, we find teams that are notoriously direct.
With hulking target forwards like the effervescent Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon, it is with no surprise that we find the San Jose Earthquakes with the shortest average buildup. Equally unsurprising, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake both sit above this line.
However, the difference between RSL and Sporting (and everyone else, frankly) is stunning. In comparison to SKC, Salt Lake attempt an average of 40 percent more passes in possessions that generate a shot at goal.
It's important to recognize that this is not necessarily a good or a bad thing and is much more an illustration of team style (just look at the average Supporters Shield-winning New York Red Bulls for an example). While both Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake prefer to have the lion's share of possession, the ways they go about using possession are decidedly different.
Below is a cumulative chart of shooting frequency as a function of the number of passes in a possession. Sporting take 68 percent of their shots from possessions that included one or less passes.
For comparison, Real Salt Lake's frequency is much less, only attempting 56 percent of their shots at the end of possessions including one or less passes. The rest of this chart can be interpreted similarly. For example, RSL attempt 81 percent of their shots from possessions that included four or fewer passes.
This chart makes the stylistic differences in possession between Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake painfully obvious. For a team that generally commands a majority of possession, it's exceptional to see SKC eclipsing the league average at any point on this chart. The area above the league average is home almost exclusively to teams that can't rely on carrying large swaths of possession.
On Saturday night, when push comes to shove, this inevitable showdown between the league's premier possession teams won't be decided by the amount of possession afforded to each side.
Instead, the match will sway upon which team can more effectively impose their style of possession. Will Salt Lake's trustworthy diamond midfield be able to patiently and meticulously ease the ball into dangerous attacking areas under the duress of Sporting's high-energy, high-line pressing style?
Only time – but not ball-possession time – will tell.