The Full 90

MLS Cup Tactical Preview: The important battles to watch

Updated: 2013-12-07T05:16:03Z

Charles Gooch

The Kansas City Star

A lot has been written about the MLS Cup. Seriously. Just counting us here at the newspaper, we've covered nearly every base: The front office, the fans, the coach, the opponent, the weather, the captain and the matchup.

What else could possibly be left?

Well, putting the tactical three-round prize fight that's coming our way under the microscope. Here are the three biggest tactical bouts to watch.

Round 1: Chance Myers/Seth Sinovic vs. Tony Beltran/Chris Wingert

Salt Lake's midfield is very narrow, with "wide" midfielders Luis Gil and either Sebastian Velasquez or Ned Grabavoy tucking in to the middle of the field behind playmaker Javier Morales. Kyle Beckerman doesn't stray too far from his defensive midfield spot. The two forwards (Alvaro Saborio or Devon Sandoval with Robbie Findley) play off each other at the top.

Kansas City's "wide" forwards — Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong — are deployed further up the pitch and are also prone to tucking inside to play off striker Dom Dwyer. Kansas City's three midfielders (Benny Feilhaber, Paulo Nagamura and Oriol Rosell) interchange a lot (against Houston, Nagamura had the most advanced average position) but don't spend a lot of time on either flank.

That's 12 players (16 with the central defenders) all trying to inhabit the middle of the pitch.

Which leaves a lot room out wide for marauding runs by the fullbacks. And all four like to maraud — the average position for each these playoffs is around the midfield line.

Why will this matter? An advanced fullback is a huge bonus for teams trying to create numerical advantages to circulate the ball. Which, oddly enough, is the modus operandi for both these teams.

The team that controls the flanks will likely be the team that controls the flow of the game. (Also: Which coach will adjust his team to adapt to the other? My money is on Jason Kreis.)

Round 2: Javier Morales vs. Graham Zusi

Or, which playmaker can carve out the space needed to operate and create chances.

Morales runs the attack in the traditional #10 attacking midfielder spot. He's the architect for this team, dictating the direction and intensity of Salt Lake's possession-based attack. He's also bloody brilliant at bending a pass into the path of a runner, like he did to create RLS's third goal against Portland.

It will be a big test for the defense to stay aware of Morales and keep him out of dangerous places.

Zusi is a different beast. He isn't Kansas City's sole architect (Nagamura and Feilhaber both share the responsibility), but he is Kansas City's best architect. And, when he comes off the flanks as a wide forward, he brings a different dimension to the game. He's an adept crosser (led the league in accurate crosses per game with nearly 3) and nifty dribbler if he stays wide, and he's a threat to score (six goals this year) if cuts inside. He's also developing some surprising aerial skills and vision, seen here as he creates space for Sinovic before flicking the ball into his path.*

*Remember what I said about Round 1? Overlapping run by a marauding fullback.

The knock on Zusi the last few matches? He doesn't have a single shot on target.

Round 3: Diamonds vs. Triangles

Salt Lake’s preferred formation (a 4-4-2 with the midfielders packed in tight in the shape of a diamond) is designed to control the ball in the middle of the park and move the ball around the beleaguered defense/midfield. Salt Lake rarely is out-possessed in a match, ever.

The diamond is a formation that provides support for the attack (Beckerman shields the movement of the attacking players) and balance for the defense (the wide midfielders can chip in to help break up play). It's hard to overrun this midfield, but it is susceptible to teams that can be effective with the ball out wide. (Again, see Round 1.)

Kansas City’s preferred formation (4-3-3 with the three midfielders constantly re-arranging themselves into different triangles) is designed to place pressure higher up the field to control the ball in the attacking half and harass the beleaguered defense/midfield into making mistakes. Kansas City is rarely out-possessed in a match at Sporting Park.

The triangle gives KC an extra centralized midfielder and, especially with Nagamura, the freedom for each player to swap roles. It's hard to overrun this midfield and, for most of this season, teams have tried to bypass the midfield when playing at Sporting Park. (It's part of the bunkering strategy Peter Vermes likes to rail on.)

The teams used these different approaches to achieve a very similar goal: Ball control. On the season, these were the two best possession teams in the league.

The team that can impose its geometrical philosophy on the other will likely be the team that finds space for its architect AND gets the fullbacks involved in the attack.

Who will win this battle? Who the hell knows. Who the hell knows who will win any of the three battles. That's why it's such a fascinating tactical matchup.

Prediction

Guts or brains? My brains say this is a tight game that will go to penalty kicks. My guts are absolutely on board with a win for Kansas City.

Let's go with the guts and damn the torpedoes: 2-1 Sporting KC.

Match Day Hype Song

While scouring my brain, I had about 100 songs flash up as potential songs for Saturday as I listened to my entire Spotify library on random. Nothing hit me quite as hard as when I stumbled across southern sludge-rockers Kylesa covering Pink Floyd's "Set Controls for the Heart of Sun."

It's a very moving song that churns its way to a crushing climax. (It was listened to about 7 times while writing this.) Plus, we'll all probably wish we were a lot closer to the sun around halftime.

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