Armchair Analyst: Tactical lookahead to #SKCvNE in the Eastern Conference Semifinals

What happened to Sporting KC's best-laid plans this year? They brought in Claudio Bieler, a striker in his prime with technical ability and impeccable crednetials, and he's barely played since July.

They brought in Benny Feilhaber, a former US national team attacking midfielder – again in his prime – of somewhat dubious credentials, though still loaded with skill and experience. This was supposed to be the year they added "la pausa" to the frenetic rain of half-chances that have consistently overcame opponents into submission since mid-2011, but if anything they are now more direct and more reliant on speed and brawn.

Well, at least one of those two acquisitions who were supposed to shape the new Sporting KC will get his shot at glory on Wednesday against New England (9 pm ET; MLS Live).

Let's start there:

Can Feilhaber actually unlock New England's defense?

If you're answering that question based purely on talent, then the answer is an obvious Yes. As one Western Conference exec told me, "Benny will get out of traffic and then hit a pass that other players don't even see."

And then he'll disappear.

Well, he's not going to be able to disappear on Wednesday, because he's most likely going to have to start and play close to 90 minutes. Sporting are suddenly threadbare in the midfield, which makes this the biggest 90 minutes of Feilhaber's club career.

To compound the pressure, he's likely to be joined in Sporting's midfield trio by another full-on attacker, Graham Zusi. The two have combined to good effect on occasion this season:

But more often, in the few times they've played together in the central midfield, they've left vulnerable gaps and put holding midfielder Uri Rosell in a situation where he either has to do the running of three men, or the fouling of four. Both are in Rosell's skillset, but in what is sure to be a chippy and very likely card-filled evening, you don't want to get your d-mid on an early yellow.

With that in mind, you'll note that even on the play above, Zusi is coming inside from a wing position. He and Feilhaber weren't sharing the middle on that particular day.

Tonight, they will be.

EDIT: Ok, late word has just come from some folks in Kansas City that Paulo Nagamura, who's played exactly 180 minutes since mid-June, is expected to start in central midfield along with Rosell and Feilhaber. That means Zusi will be on the wing.

It also means there will be less defensive pressure on Benny (provided Nagamura is anywhere close to his usual industrious self), but perhaps even more pressure on him in terms of setting and maintaining the tempo of the game.

Also, feel free to take a closer look at that .gif above, because it's a "best-case scenario" type of thing for Sporting tonight.

Reversing Sporting's possession dominance

The Revolution counterpunched their way to that 2-1 opening leg victory, finding little seams and gaps in which they could play some soccer and punish SKC for their ultra-aggressive defensive stance. Obviously the Kelyn Rowe goal – the eventual game-winner – was the highlight of that particular tactic, and was so pretty that it's worth looking at again:

New England are a skillful team, but also a very direct team. They don't waste much time dawdling, instead switching rapidly from a defensive posture to an attacking one. They skip the "possession" formalities almost entirely (think of them as the complete opposite of RSL, and if you think that would make for a fascinating MLS Cup final, then you'd be absolutely correct), preferring to get vertical.

But here's the thing: They get vertical through the middle. They just adore attacking with Rowe and Lee Nguyen – who provided the assist above – only bringing wingers Diego Fagundez and (most likely) Juan Agudelo into the play late (or not at all – Fagundez completed just five passes in the first leg).

That does put some onus on the fullbacks to support the attack, and while Andrew Farrell has been outstanding in that regard, left back Darrius Barnes, in for injury and matchup reasons, has left plenty to be desired.

Sometimes he pushed up too high:

That's Rowe tracking back into the space Barnes left behind him, and no that is not a recipe for New England succes.

And sometimes Barnes doesn't push up at all:

[Sad trombone.]

If Sporting can't find any luck at beating down the door – which will surely be "Plan A" – then they'll need to start possessing deeper and try to bring the Revs backline up the field a bit and find that space behind Barnes. It may even be smart to concede some possession, as Portland did in Seattle, in an effort to get their own fullbacks involved.

Bonus thought: Set pieces

As mentioned, Barnes is in there partially for matchup reasons as he's much better suited for battling C.J. Sapong on the back post than either Chris Tierney or Kevin Alston, both of whom are hurt and at a severe size disadvantage. And Sporting already have one set-piece goal this series anyway.

It may not be in their best-laid plans, but all that matters now is getting the win. When you're 90 minutes away from the end of what would officially be a "disappointing" season, the only good plan is the one that works.


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