Armchair Analyst: Tactical lookahead to #SKCvRSL in the 18th MLS Cup final

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The easy spin for this game will be one of “brute force vs. technique and style.” Sporting KC play the role of the brutes – they led the league in fouls committed by a mile in 2013, and haven’t finished lower than fifth since 2009.

RSL play the role of “technique and style,” since they’re always at or near the top of the league in possession, passing accuracy, chances created, and long, glowing stories written about how they play the game “the right way.”

But it’s the opposite of those easy, thoughtless narratives that will determine how the 18th edition of the MLS Cup plays out (4 pm ET; ESPN, UniMas, TSN2/RDS in Canada):

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Vermes

Or maybe it’s Dr. Vermes and Mr. Hyde? Regardless, the question for Sporting will be “are you aiming to control the game, or beat it into submission?”

Vermes has often, since he moved down to the sidelines, tended toward overly robust and physical lineups, ones that can overpower the opposition. And their repeated strong showings in the regular season prove exactly why that has been a good decision.

But Sporting can ball a bit, too, and in 2013 made an on-again, off-again commitment to playing fewer long balls, keeping it all on the ground, and attacking up the middle. They’re still capable of getting wide and whipping in some service, and nobody in the league has the fullbacks attack upfield as ferociously as Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic (this is a point we’ll be getting back to). “Attacking from wide” is still very much in Sporting’s arsenal, as it should be for all good teams:

It’s not the first thing in the arsenal, though, which is the big change. In 2012 Sporting bent in the third-most open play crosses in the league (more than cross-happy San Jose, even), with 564. Every time they hit a roadblock, they’d get it wide and hoof it to the back post. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In 2013 they showed more restraint, finishing in the bottom half of the table with 472 crosses from open play. And by being more selective, they bumped up their accuracy by half a percent (24.36, good for fifth in the league). It’s not a ton, but every little bit counts when there’s a trophy on the line.

They also proved to be more versatile, which is that “attacking up the middle” part I mentioned before. Benny Feilhaber has been the focal point for this, as was Vermes’ intent when he brought the mercurial midfielder to Sporting Park last winter. Feilhaber’s ability to provide the final ball – see the series-winner against Houston – has made it harder for defenses to account for the likes of Graham Zusi, C.J. Sapong, and Dom Dwyer.

It’s also made Sporting a very good possession team:

So much for “brute force,” right? Granted, "possession" is a stat that's fraught with both too much meaning and lack of meaning, and those numbers are puffed up by Vermes' reluctance through most of the season to rely upon Feilhaber on the road. And it's worth mentioning that Feilhaber's been known to disappear from entire swathes of the schedule.

Nonetheless, gone are the days when SKC’s only recourse was to hammer 30 balls to the back post and hope that one of their own guys would rise highest. Even the Dynamo -- masters at coaxing KC into playing direct, regressive soccer -- couldn't troll 'em into it.

Of course, Sporting can still do "loft it to the back post!" to get a result – which they did back in July, when they won 2-1 at Rio Tinto. SKC pinged in 21 crosses that day (including corners), and on the last of them, Ike Opara headed home the game-winner.

Can’t let Findley flare behind the overlap

Jason Kreis’ team is going to do what Jason Kreis’ teams always do: value the ball, try to build long strings of possession starting with Kyle Beckerman, and stretch you in weird ways.

I'm going to steal this graphic from this week's Central Winger column by Devin Pleuler. It's telling:

That's the number of passes in a possession that produces a shot at goal. RSL really, really take their time -- even when they smell blood.

Sporting KC are a little different, and it's because of how they use those overlapping fullbacks (which I outlined HERE on this week's Between the Lines). Houston exploited the attacking nature of Myers and Sinovic in the Eastern Conference Championship by having the wingers get wide early and stay there, then pinch into the area once they hit the final third. It caused a steady stream of isolation opportunities, as well as Boniek Garcia’s goal, the lone Dynamo tally of the round.

RSL will attack KC in those same spots, but do so by flaring the forwards outside instead of pushing the wide midfielders higher into the play. Robbie Findley – who was the man of the match when these teams met in the regular season despite his team’s loss – is particularly adept at slipping into the gap between an overlapping full back and a central defender, running diagonally onto a through ball and then making a play.

This is exactly what happened against Portland, who play a 4-3-3 similar to SKC’s, in the Western Conference Championship. With the Timbers’ left back pushed high, Findley got into the gap, got behind one central defender and found strike partner Devon Sandoval isolated in the box on Futty Danso for what ended up being a very pretty goal.

Beckerman and Javier Morales, as well as Luis Gil and Ned Grabavoy (or maybe Sebastian Velasquez) will try to hold the ball deep, suck the Sporting fullbacks up higher, and then hit Findley on exactly that run.

How RSL suddenly got tougher

The confidence to play like that starts a little deeper this year, and it’s largely thanks to the presence – and, finally, good health – of Chris Schuler.

Schuler’s goals have gotten most of the headlines this postseason, but it’s his “grunt work” defense that’s transformed RSL. They gave up 15 goals in his 16 regular season starts in 2013; in the 18 games he didn’t play, they conceded 26 times. That’s significant.

Stacking his individual numbers up against the other central defenders in this game (as well as Omar Gonzalez, who will serve as our control group) gives an idea of just how well-rounded and dominant Schuler is:

Player Tackle Success Duel Success Passing Accuracy Aerial Won Aerial Lost Interceptions Minutes
Chris Schuler 84 64.6 81.17 36 17 72 1,440
Matt Besler 82.93 62.39 80.22 74 44 60 2,070
Nat Borchers 81.25 64.48 87.55 67 44 57 2,520
Omar Gonzalez 80 64.32 78.55 90 42 79 2,368
Aurélien Collin 72.6 61.88 75.67 136 70 118 2,565

He also wins the highest percentage of duels, and has the second-best passing accuracy, and the most interceptions per 90, and only Gonzalez wins a higher percentage of aerials.The value of some of these stats is still up for debate – if you’re going to ground to tackle a lot, it might mean you’re out of position. But everybody has to make the occasional tackle, and Schuler, of this group (elite defenders, all), is consistently the best at doing so and winning the ball.

Schuler is, plain and simple, a beast. If you want to beat RSL, you first have to beat him physically.

That was supposed to be the script for Sporting in this one. But like I said at the top, those initial narratives are just a little too easy to be telling.

Expect Sporting KC to play pretty. Expect RSL to play tough. And expect this particular MLS Cup to come well-earned for whichever team is left standing in the cold, crisp Kansas City night.



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