Armchair Analyst: Can Sporting Kansas City cope without Graham Zusi and Matt Besler?
This, from Montreal owner and president Joey Saputo, sums up the Impact's 2014 thus far:
Nos supporters méritent mieux. Il y aura des changements, je vous le garantis. Our fans deserve better. Changes will be coming, guaranteed.
— Joey Saputo (@JoeySaputo) May 10, 2014
They've been awful in any language, having won just two of their last 18 MLS games (including the infamous Halloween meltdown vs. Houston in the playoffs).
Of course, I come not to bury Montreal but to praise Sporting KC. They were worth every bit of that 3-0 win:
1. Replacing Graham Zusi
Sporting are about to go somewhere between five and eight games without their World Cup contingent - probably Graham Zusi and Matt Besler. Replacing either is hard. Replacing both is going to be a major test of this team's depth and ability to find other pieces.
The average fan probably thinks "set pieces and crossing" when they hear Zusi's name, and that's justifiable. He's prolific on both accounts, and while he can spray the ball, he's also capable of some spectacular stuff.
This makes it easy to overlook just how clever Zusi is at finding space in the attack, especially cutting in from the wing and combining with Sporting's equally clever midfielders. I'd argue his work there does more to unbalance any team than a rain of crosses.
Here's an example from the first half on Saturday:
Zusi instantly changes roles, and thanks to the vision of Benny Feilhaber - that is a superb pass, folks - Sporting's No. 8 is suddenly alive and well in Zone 14 with the defense at his mercy.
It didn't quite come off for Sporting on that sequence, but it would later on in the game. Only it wasn't Zusi cutting in to become a playmaker:
If Toni does this regularly enough, Sporting will be just fine without Zusi for the next six-to-eight weeks.
2. Replacing Matt Besler
Finding the right mix on the backline could be a bit trickier. Besler reads the game better than any central defender in MLS -- his ability to both step up into the play as well as drop back, becoming an ad hoc sweeper, gives Sporting a level of flexibility that most other teams lack. It also allows Aurelien Collin to run around like a madman, which is a defensive look no MLS team has really figured out how to deal with just yet.
There's also this:
Besler's long throw is an elite chance generation weapon, and has been since he came into the league. You're basically giving up a set piece any time you put the ball into touch vs. Sporting.
That's saved this team repeatedly over the years, as KC can struggle to get quality looks from the run of play. When that happens their default is to press up higher and harder, trying to force turnovers or, at the very least, panicked clearances. A lot of those panicked clearances become long throws.
That's where they're going to feel Besler's absence the most.
3. Possession With A Purpose
Over the last few years, KC have been at or near the top of the standings in raw possession. This has led to a lot of folks talking about what a possession team they are, and yadda yadda, all the other stuff that goes along with that particular conversation.
But they weren't really a "possession" team. They rarely used the ball to kill off a game, and rarely varied the tempo. Everything with Sporting happened at 1000 miles per hour.
They're at the heart of stuff like this:
Granted, this was against a pretty bad 10-man Montreal side, but that's still 55 consecutive completed passes. KC forced the Impact to chase for three straight minutes, wearing down a tired team instead of lumping the ball into the corners and trying to rain down half-chances.
That's different. So is this: Sporting have usually had more of the ball than their opponents since, let's say, early 2011, but they've often struggled to use that possession to create excellent chances. Too often long strings of passes have become hopeful crosses - not a bad strategy during the Kei Kamara/C.J. Sapong heyday, but less effective now.
You can see Feilhaber put Zusi into Zone 14 in the top GIF above. Here's Benny working in that area himself from last week:
And obviously that's Rosell with the secondary assist on the GIF of Dwyer's goal.
They'll be missing a lot with Zusi and Besler in Brazil - those guys are good. But so are the ones still left at Peter Vermes' disposal in KC.