In his tactical lookahead, our man Andrew Wiebe promised us that this one would not be pretty. Wiebs was right.
The first half was particularly egregious. These teams both completed over 75 percent of their passes during the regular season; in the opening 45 minutes today, neither even reached 60 percent. That's brutal.
Here was the general sentiment at the final whistle:
Merciful end to this one. Tired legs showed today. Tms take 2 wks off before return leg. Not that there's any momentum to worry about losing— Darrell Lovell (@DarrellLovell) November 9, 2013
So in short, this 0-0 draw was pretty much everything we've come to expect from Houston vs. Sporting KC in the playoffs.
Let's start right there:
1. We will tackle you here there and everywhere
Neither Brad Davis nor Benny Feilhaber is known for their defensive chops. But in the playoffs, with these two teams, everybody tracks and everybody tackles:
That's maybe the sequence that best evoked the attitude of both teams on the day (and credit to 'em -- you never want to lose a playoff game for lack of commitment. No danger of that one today).
2. The long throw-in becomes the primary attacking weapon
This was a popular topic on Twitter. Let's watch the maestros at work.
First, Matt Besler for Sporting:
That's a freaking rocket.
Now Mike Chabala for Houston:
Notice how he catapults himself off the signboard? That's veteran know-how, kids. Somewhere a single tear trickles down Rory Delap's cheek.
I don't blame these teams at all for utilizing the long throw, since Houston's field is slightly larger than a postage stamp and both teams had such trouble building from the run of play. These visiualizations from Opta's Devin Pleuler shows just how reliable the long throw was:
That's six box entries each. If I had to guess, I'd say that this is the leading contender for "How will the series ultimately be decided?" Tally Hall, in particular, struggled with Besler's throws, which won't have gone unnoticed.
3. Houston can play without Rico Clark
Clark's been one of his team's two best players down the stretch, and has largely carried that over into the playoffs. When he went down midway through the first half, there was good reason for Houston fans to worry.
But give Dominic Kinnear some credit: He shifted his team to a 4-3-3, made one halftime change, and ended up fixing his team's attacking shape while, in the process, reducing SKC's substantial overlapping threat.
First, about that overlapping threat. Here's an early play where Graham Zusi tucks inside, and Chance Myers pushes waaay up high:
Myers only got that high again once, as his passing chart from the last 60 minutes shows:
That's significant because Chabala could concentrate solely on Zusi instead of having his attentions split. Simplifying the game was key in that regard for Houston's defense.
Andrew Driver's presence on the left side of Houston's 4-3-3 is why Myers was pinned. You can't bomb forward in such a choppy game if there's someone whose primary job is to get into the space you leave behind you. It would have been irresponsible in any context, but especially on the road in a home-and-home.
The other reason the 4-3-3 worked was the insertion of Cam Weaver for Will Bruin. Weaver can't finish, but he battled physically (he was brutal out there) and is a much, much better reader of the game and passer of the ball than he's given credit for.
Playing directly to him eliminated some of the choppiness, and allowed Houston's attackers to push a bit higher into the attack:
Houston's Attackers -- First Half
Houston's Attackers -- Second Half
I wouldn't be at all shocked to see both Weaver and the 4-3-3 from the start next time, regardless of the health/fitness of Clark and Will Bruin. It's not like the drop-off in finishing ability from Bruin to Weaver has been precipitous this year, and I think it'll be key for Houston to figure out how to get players forward and slow down the inevitable Sporting onslaught.
More of the same, maybe? Both teams badly need the two weeks off, and both teams are capable of playing something more technical than the schoolyard soccer we saw on Saturday.
But pragmatism wins in November. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- and on the scoreboard.