And then there were four. It's time to get hyped for the Conference Championships, with the first legs kicking off Sunday. This week, we continued to dive deep into New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City vs. Portland Timbers to see where each side can find an edge. With the help of columnists Matt Doyle and Bobby Warshaw, we parsed all facets of both clashes, one day at a time. Last week, we discussed the goalkeepers, defenders then midfielders. Yesterday we talked about the forwards and today we finish with coach/style.
The longest-tenured head coach in the league faces one of 2018's new faces in the Western Conference Championship.
Peter Vermes and Sporting Kansas City take on Gio Savarese and the Portland Timbers with differing styles to success: SKC controls possession while Portland is happy to play without the ball, sit deep and counter with Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco.
Vermes has shifted SKC into a possession-based offensive juggernaut, different from the recent years of pressing and defensive stability. This season, they held more possession than any team but NYCFC, averaging 56.32 percentt possession per game. They scored 65 goals, fourth-most in the league, though it came at the cost of conceding 11 more goals than last year, though it was still third-fewest in the leauge this season.
Portland, tried a bunch of different stuff this season before settling on the tried and true sit-deep-and-counter tactic that saw the club beat FC Dallas in the Knockout Round and outlast the Seattle Sounders in penalties last round.
Which manager and style do our experts give the edge to?
Vermes has an MLS Cup, a trio of U.S. Open Cups, and – finally – an end to a five-year playoff winless skid. He’s done just about everything there is to do domestically as an MLS coach and has his team playing the best-attacking ball they’ve literally ever played. SKC has the edge in the dugout.
But,“high-risk, high-reward” in the playoffs is usually a foolish way to approach games, even if SKC have the firepower to make it real, real good. As a neutral, I absolutely love it. They sure did look vulnerable against RSL, so, the Timbers have the edge on style, even if they have little to no tactical flexibility, because they do what they do very well. And over the past couple of years their northern neighbors have shown that you don’t have to play like Barcelona to make it pretty far into November.
I realize the category says coach/style, but I’m going to adjust that...
SKC have been great to watch, in all the ways Matt mentions, but Portland is probably the one team that can nullify what they do, as Matt notes. And when counterattacking meets possession, I tend to trust counterattacking more (sad truth of the sport).
I’m not sure what Peter Vermes can change at this point to overcome that. But I do think his veteran players — Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza, Matt Besler, Ike Opara, etc etc — will get a feel for the game and when their possession becomes more of a danger than an asset. I don’t expect SKC to hold back on their passing, but I do think veteran players understand the risky moments in a game, how to manage them, and when to avoid them. SKC’s leaders will be smart about how they go about the game and not give Portland the mistakes they need.