Will Sporting KC's high press system hand them an advantage over Real Salt Lake in MLS Cup?
One of the main staples of Sporting Kansas City’s game plan against Real Salt Lake in MLS Cup on Saturday will involve pressing RSL high up the pitch to win the ball back. For Sporting Kansas City, winning the ball higher up the pitch gives them a better chance of converting that possession into a goal. With data courtesy of Opta, we can now see how this separates Sporting Kansas City from all other teams in MLS.
The data discussed averages out where on the field teams win possession throughout the course of a game. When looking at all 34 games for each team during the regular season, the sample size is large enough to draw some conclusions.
Throughout the course of 2013, SKC won possession 37.76 yards from their own goal on average. This was the highest up the field among any team in the league and by a wide margin. The Galaxy were second in terms of this statistic, winning the ball 35.44 yards from their own goal on average. The difference between first and second place is roughly the same difference between fourth (Columbus) and 18th (FC Dallas) place, making it easy to see that SKC were in a class all by themselves when it comes to the high press.
On the other side of the field Real Salt Lake gained possession of the ball, on average, 32.49 yards from their own goal, over five yards further back than their MLS Cup opponents. This placed them ninth in MLS 2013, between San Jose and Colorado. While winning the ball higher up the field does not necessarily spell success, it is interesting to see how teams with the high press and low press fared in 2013:
This difference only increases when considering where the game will be played. When playing at home SKC won possession 40.08 yards from their own goal – a difference of 4.64 yards between their home and road form. On the road in 2013, RSL won possession 31.52 yards up the field. This difference of almost 9 yards should be evident on Saturday.
One other thing to keep an eye on is the difference between SKC’s possession-winning line in losses as opposed to victories. Like most MLS teams, SKC wins the ball further up the field in losses than in wins or draws. This can be a result of teams pressing higher after going down or teams pressing too high to start games and getting beat in behind. In SKC’s case, they gain possession 2.49 yards further up the field in losses than in wins. This is the sixth-biggest difference among all teams in terms of wins and losses.
RSL will be looking to exploit the areas SKC leaves open with the high pressure. However, if SKC get their way RSL might be flustered enough by the high press that they will not be able to do that. We may now have an idea of where the game will be won and lost, but the only way to know for sure is by watching on Saturday afternoon.