Opta Spotlight: Tactical lookahead to #HOUvSKC in leg one of the Eastern Conference Championship

Tactically, this isn’t likely to be a guessing game for two teams and two coaches intimately familiar with one another. To borrow a phrase from Denny Green, they are who we thought they were.

Sporting Kansas City would like nothing more than to fragment the game away from home, and head back to Sporting Park with a result that allows them the leeway – from both a tactical and personnel perspective – to commit fully to pressing the Dynamo. Houston, meanwhile, are banged up and running on fumes after a hectic two weeks, and would probably settle for a winner-take-all road match in the second leg themselves.

Boiled down, this game isn’t likely to be free-flowing, aesthetically-pleasing soccer, with the true decider postponed until Nov. 23.

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Stay in the right lane

The way forward for both teams is relatively simple.

If Houston are going to build another two-goal playoff lead against Sporting KC, that advantage is going to originate on the right flank. And if Sporting are going to leave BBVA Compass Stadium with a series’ lead, it will almost certainly be the same story.

Why? Two reasons: Oscar Boniek Garcia and Graham Zusi.

Brad Davis still has the household name and the league’s best left peg, but the Dynamo attack is built around Boniek’s guile and Kofi Sarkodie’s overlapping runs. To wit, the Honduran is the primary driver of chance creation in Houston (fourth in MLS in chances created from open play behind only Federico Higuain, Javier Morales and Robbie Keane).

Player CC from open play Minutes played
Federico Higuain 73 2,592
Javier Morales 66 2,281
Robbie Keane 52 1,980
Oscar Boniek Garcia 50 1,899
Ned Grabavoy 47 2,688

The right-sided duo also led the Dynamo in touches in the attacking third this season with (followed by Corey Ashe and Davis). There’s a reason why Houston feasted on David Carney against the Red Bulls – his weaknesses played directly into their strengths.

With the Dynamo struggling to create much of anything from the run of play against the Red Bulls in the second leg, Dominic Kinnear shuffled his formation to better suit Boniek. The move to a 4-5-1 allowed the Honduran to drift a bit farther infield, a move that eventually paid dividends when Omar Cummings pounced on a chance created by interplay between Boniek and Sarkodie.

But Sporting will have seen those numbers, too, and they also know the absence of Ashe, suspended for yellow-card accumulation, will mean more conservative play on left flank with Davis more likely to be isolated without his normal partner bombing down the sideline.

That means a busier than usual night for C.J. Sapong and Seth Sinovic on the left side of Sporting KC’s hybrid 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation, a defensive workload that shouldn’t be surprising nor outside their range of abilities. SKC have MLS’ best defense after all.

Of course, Davis and whoever plays on the Dynamo’s left side – likely Mike Chabala – will also have their hands full with Zusi, who is often the lone creative spark for Sporting Kansas City on the road, especially since we’re unlikely to see Claudio Bieler or Benny Feilhaber in Peter Vermes’ starting XI come Saturday afternoon.

But much more so than Boniek, Zusi is given the license to roam all over the field in search of the ball, and he’ll almost certainly have Oriol Rosell and Paolo Nagamura to provide cover, allowing him to pick and choose his spots.

More likely than not, those won’t come centrally, where Rico Clark and Warren Creavalle patrol to great effect. Instead, look for Zusi to shade right, with Chance Myers and whoever lines up at right forward (Jacob Peterson?) ready and willing to combine against a trio (Eric Brunner, Davis and Chabala) that’s not particularly familiar with one another.


The art of the tactical foul

Put it this way: Expect fouls and lots of them from Sporting, who’ve drawn a whistle 41 times over 180 minutes in Houston this season.

And as you can see in the graph below, which plots each of Sporting’s 25 infractions on Oct. 9’s scoreless draw in Houston, those fouls are likely to come in the midfield, breaking Houston’s rhythm before their attack has a chance to build.

In that match, Boniek was away on international duty, leaving Davis to absorb the brunt of SKC’s abuse (notice most of the fouls are clustered around Sporting’s right flank – Houston’s left). The Honduran will draw some of that attention this time around, but expect the visitors to continue to attempt to break up play high up the field in order to get numbers behind the ball.

If the Dynamo can combine quickly in those areas and avoid contact long enough to draw SKC out of their shape, they’ll find space to work with. If not, it’ll be a long, frustrating night as Houston pick themselves up off the turf and find an organized block ready to repel their probes.