I was convinced that this game would be irredeemably ugly, and for 45 minutes I was absolutely right. It was a dogfight.
The second half was significantly prettier. That doesn't mean it was "pretty," per se. But there was, at the very least, some real, honest-to-goodness soccer out there. And it happened because Jay Heaps moved Juan Agudelo around.
That's where we'll start for the three things we learned from New England's 2-1 win over Sporting KC on Saturday night:
1. Shifting Agudelo out of the scrum gave New England lanes
The Revs were hopeless in the first half, and consensus among my coworkers was that they'd be lucky to register a single shot on goal. They had nothing even close to a good look in the first 45.
Rather than make wholesale tactical changes, Heaps simply swapped Agudelo and Dmitri Imbongo. Agudelo, the superior soccer player, shifted out wide to the right, where he would have room to play actual soccer. Imbongo, the superior physical presence, shifted inside to occupy the ultra-physical Sporting KC central defense.
Agudelo ended up playing a role in both New England goals. Here's the first:
That flicked header he won is notable for two points: First, it was the first time Agudelo and Kelyn Rowe had connected at all (they had zero completed passes to each other in either direction at that point); and second, Agudelo won it in the air against Seth Sinovic.
Not Matt Besler or Aurelien Collin.
Yes, it came on the end of a broken play, but getting Agudelo matched up on a fullback in that spot on the field is going to lead to good things for New England.
2. Sporting get punished with overpursuit on defense
Sporting have taken the high press to pretty great extremes over the last couple of years, always trying to overload defensively and force those turnovers. It's a good tactic, as their place in the table since 2011 indicates.
But those "overload and pursue" instincts aren't always such a good idea, and a patient player punish you.
Watch how many KC defenders go to Lee Nguyen with the ball, and how many more go with Agudelo's unselfish diagonal run. It leaves the back door open for Kelyn Rowe:
Sinovic could (and should) have done more to get that covered, and it took a very clever outside-of-the-boot finish from Rowe to get it done.
Nonetheless, this is a team breakdown as much as it is an individual one.
3. Taking Zusi out of the run of play
Graham Zusi had one sublime, brilliant moment -- his 40-yard chip that put Teal Bunbury in 1-v-1 in the first half. It came from near the midfield stripe.
The Revs weren't in a hurry to pressure him at that spot, instead trusting to their shape and doing everything they could to deny him useful touches in the final third.
Here's his passes in the attacking zone, completed and not:
In all honesty, 2-1 is not a bad result for either team. Sporting have a very, very good home field advantage, and plenty of weapons to turn to (some of whom were on the bench, and some of whom were not).
The Revs, though, they got something else. Not just the win, but the confidence that they won't be outfought, and they won't be outcoached.
Pressure's on KC.