Sporting KC had big expectations heading into this season. They were the ultra-fit, ultra-physical 4-3-3 buzzsaw that was going to contend for the US Open Cup (again), the Supporters' Shield (again), and – this time – an MLS Cup as well. And they were going to do it with style.
The New England Revolution had no expectations when 2013 kicked off. They were a mis-matched collection of talented young players who were, at best, two years away. That's what the conventional wisdom said.
Sporting have come close to making good on those expectations. New England, meanwhile, have blown theirs out of the water.
Here are a pair of tactical points to keep an eye on in Saturday's Eastern Conference Semifinals opener (8 pm ET; NBCSN, RDS2 in Canada):
Can the Revs stretch the Kansas City engine?
Here are the network passing diagrams for the two Sporting KC matches against New England this season.
In the second game, with the compact formation and the heavier passing connections, SKC won 3-0. In this match Kei Kamara twice isolated Kevin Alston on an ally-oop and posterized him with two booming headers into the back of the net.
Conversely, the first match ended in a 0-0 draw when the Revs stretched SKC's central midfielders apart, strangling their distribution to a pair of very isolated strikers. If New England wants to mitigate the Kansas City attack, they must pry their opponent's midfield apart.
The question becomes, who can do that? Andy Dorman (or Scott Caldwell) will sit in a role too deep to disrupt in a position more focused on shielding the back four, so the responsibility of midfield disruption will fall to Keyln Rowe and Lee Nguyen. Neither came into the season with that kind of reputation, but either – or both – will have to do the job on Saturday.
New England went with two defensive midfielders in the second half against Columbus to preserve the playoff clinching win, by the way. Don't expect to see that from the opening whistle tomorrow, because the midfield needs to be anchored higher up the pitch.
Can SKC exploit the wings without losing the midfield?
The New England Revolution had the least open-play crosses during this year's regular season. The flowing "keep-it-on-the-deck" New England style has been focused mostly on combination play through the center of the park, but has left the flanks as a relative afterthought. After Kamara found and exploited so much space on the wings of Sporting Park against the Revs, it will be no surprise if Sporting put a premium on channeling down the flanks.
They don't do that as much as they used to, by the way. After hitting the third-most crosses in the league in 2012, they were squarely in the middle of the pack for 2013:
|Team||Open Crosses||Open Crosses - Accuracy|
|San Jose Earthquakes||589||20.37|
|New York Red Bulls||522||25.48|
|Seattle Sounders FC||514||24.12|
|Sporting Kansas City||472||24.36|
|Real Salt Lake||390||19.23|
|New England Revolution||306||22.22|
So a delicate balance needs to be struck for Sporting KC to attack the flanks without falling victim to the metronome of the New England central midfield. This will likely require hybrid players like Graham Zusi to pinch into the center to help alleviate numerical imbalances.
Keep an eye on Zusi's position during transition. If he's being found outside and constantly forced to pinch inward, the Revs are in good shape. If, instead, he can be found starting inside but constantly receiving the ball in space on the flanks, SKC are likely finding some very dangerous space to exploit.