Here are three takeaways from the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs Round One game, where the hosts showed their quality as the No. 3 seed.
It’s impossible to talk about this game without mentioning the performance of Sporting KC right back Graham Zusi. Even if he hadn’t scored a second-half banger, the 35-year-old rolling back the clock was something to behold.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him be this effective in a game in all the time I’ve watched him. That’s a big statement for me to make, but this is a player I know quite well since we were both picked in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and I’ve followed his career from a close enough distance. He was simply sensational tonight, even assisting on Khiry Shelton’s opener.
“The ability for him to get on the backside of that first goal was unreal,” SKC sporting director and manager Peter Vermes said afterward. “Great ball, not easy to do, then a tremendous finish by [Shelton]. Then his goal was spectacular. It's kind of like the one he scored on the south side coming in with his left foot. This was a little different. It just overpowered the goalkeeper. Him, the rest of the team, they were locked in.”
Positionally he was excellent down the right flank, and defensively he barely put a foot wrong. The amount of pinpoint accurate switches he hit to Daniel Salloi was a big reason why Sporting pinned the Whitecaps back and created so many problems in the final third. And of course, he capped off his impressive night with the fabulous strike from outside the box.
You need your most important and most experienced players to be at their very best in the playoffs, and Sporting KC got that and then some from Zusi.
“First game of the playoffs is always kind of a tricky one,” Zusi said post-game. “The energy is just so high, the games can be a bit hectic. I thought we were very smart in our play tonight, didn't try to force playing out of the back initially. And then our guys up top, when we did play long, were fantastic in their hold-up play and allowed the rest of us to come up and help them as well. Just a very solid, smart performance from the boys.”
As well as needing big performances from your big players, it doesn’t hurt to get it tactically right either – and that’s exactly what Vermes did.
The most obvious weapon they utilized was cross-field diagonal passes, especially from right to left – from Zusi to Salloi. Aside from getting one of their most dangerous players on the ball, it pulled the three Vancouver center backs out into the wide areas where center backs don’t normally like to be.
“We had the same kind of opportunities in the game that we played at their place, especially from Zusi's side, from right to left,” Vermes said. “We felt a lot of diagonal balls were going to be a part of the game.
“And then the other is you could see in the first half, especially the amount of times that we played very direct and Khiry did a tremendous job today running into space, holding balls up – he was just a nuisance for their back three. They had a really difficult time with his movement off the ball and then his athleticism into those spaces was just tremendous.”
That’s not to say that Sporting didn’t mix it up; they did and impressed along the way. At times Salloi took a more inside-left role, which put him closer to Shelton and allowed for more combinations between the midfielders on the front line.
In recent years, Sporting have been one of the better passing and possession sides in MLS, but they mostly ditched that patient strategy for a slightly more direct approach that paid off. Despite having just 37.3% of the ball in this matchup, they still generated twice as many shots (12-6) as the Whitecaps and got the goals they needed.
SKC knew those like Ryan Gauld and Brian White would bring danger, but all that got past goalkeeper Tim Melia was a first-half penalty kick from Cristian Dajome. They lulled Vancouver forward, then pounced and proved opportunistic.
“It was two things,” Vermes said. “One is we played a little more direct and the other thing too is that we allowed them to try to make the game. It's not easy when you have to make the game and try to break a team down. We know that all too well, and so I thought our guys were really organized defensively and it caused them some issues and it put us on the counter quite a few times.”
Not enough can be said about the job interim manager Vanni Sartini has done since stepping into Vancouver’s hot seat. He took a struggling side and led them to a playoff game where they were beaten by the better team.
In regards to this Round One game, Vermes got the better of him tactically. Yes, they were missing some key guys, but not starting Erik Godoy backfired because they didn’t look as solid defensively as they have for most of Sartini’s tenure. They were too slow to adapt to Salloi’s positioning and the ease with which Sporting found him as an outlet.
With that said, it’s impossible not to observe that Vancouver are on the right track and Sartini is the man to lead them forward. He’s hitting all the right notes off the field and most of them on it as well – he said all the right things post-game.
“I'm proud of the players, I'm proud of the guys that helped me so the staff, the technical staff, the performance staff, the medical staff, because I think that we've put so much effort in that that we showed to everyone that we didn't come here because of a fluke,” Sartini said. “That’s our spot and hopefully for the organization it means that it's a starting point for next year.”