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Tactical Thinking: Rosell's influence grows in Sporting KC's midfield

10/25/2013 11:05 AM

10/25/2013 11:05 AM

No one is going to ever confuse Oriol Rosell and Roger Espinoza.

One has the rugged good looks of a hip barista and the beard to prove it; the other has a shifty, trickster's gleam in his eye and the

wild, rebellious hair to match . One has subtle grace on the field of Phil Collin's early work

; the other plays with the subtlety of Metallica's black album.

Uri was weaned in Barcelona's famed La Masia academy and covers the field in easily received and well-timed passes. Roger was developed in the American college system and covers every inch of the pitch with cleat marks.

Despite both being above-average central midfielders for Sporting Kansas City, the two seem to have little in common, right?

Or do they?

Let's play a blind stat challenge: Can you guess which line belongs to the guy who had a breakout year in 2012 and earned a contract with an English Premier League team and which belongs to the incumbent Sporting KC midfielder? (Don't look this up at MLSsoccer.com or WhoScored.com. It makes the game less fun.)

Player A: 62 fouls committed, 3 games per yellow card, 2 assists, 220 recoveries*, 5.3 Clearances/Interceptions per game, 22 key passes**, 23 shots. Player B: 47 fouls committed, 5.2 games per yellow card, 2 assists, 218 recoveries, 3.8 Clearances/Interceptions per game, 40 key passes, 35 shots. *-A key stat for central midfielders. It accounts for how many times in a game a player helped "recover" possession for his team.
**- This is a final pass or attempted shot/pass that leads to a failed scoring attempt. Graham Zusi is one of four MLS players who averages more than 3 of these a game, to give you an idea of what that means.

Tough to tell the difference, right?

Player A is obviously the more aggressive player -- the fouls are higher, cards more frequent. Player B is the more active player in the attacking half -- note he has twice as many key passes and more shots.

Which, logically, would seem to mean Espinoza is Player A and Rosell is Player B, right?

Of course, since I'm drawing out the suspense like this and structuring this story in an obtuse manner, obviously, the point I'm making is that stats and perception can be a bit misleading.

Uri is Player A. Espinoza is Player B.*

*Roger achieved his numbers in four fewer games. With four more games, he likely would've wound up with about five more fouls, a dozen more recoveries, a bigger lead in key passes and shots.

Which means, when you compare them statistically, Rosell has replicated a lot of what Kansas City lost when Espinoza left for Europe. (And, he's been far more aggressive. Rosell averages 2.1 fouls per game -- seventh most in the league. Basically, he fouls more than Aurelien Collin, 1.9 per game. Espinoza averaged about 1.4 fouls per game. "Red Card" Roger actually was only shown four red cards in his 113 MLS regular season games.)

The overall team numbers back this up too.

Kansas City are still very aggressive (leading the league in yellow cards AND fouls per game) and are slightly better at possessing the ball (55% in 2013, 52% in 2012). The defense -- something Espinoza got a lot of credit for helping last year -- also hasn't really dropped off that much. In 2012, Kansas City lead the league allowing just 27 goals all season. This season, Kansas City have allowed the fewest goals (29) in the league and, barring a catastrophic result on Saturday, will likely finish the season with the fewest allowed again. (Portland are next closest with 33 goals allowed.)

Of course, stats can only show so much of the picture. The difference is in

how

these two midfielders play.

Espinoza's style of play (best described as a rabid wolverine chasing a ball made of meat around the pitch) helped create scoring chances for Kansas City by forcing turnovers in the attacking half -- note the 41 key passes.

Rosell's style of play (like a poor man's version of Sergio Busquets without as much diving) helps Kansas City keep possession and spring attacking moves -- only Collin completes more long balls per game.

This is a piece of the reason that Kansas City hasn't pressed as highly (or as intensely) this year and, thus, created fewer counter attacks.

Espinoza was also a recovery machine. But Rosell is pretty good in his own right.

Recoveries can tell you a lot about a player's work rate, hustle and grit (and both players have both qualities -- Rosell is 10th this year in MLS with 220 recoveries, behind star vets like Patrice Bernier, Dax McCarty, Juninho and Osvaldo Alonso).

Espinoza gets his recoveries by not leaving any blade of grass on the field un-touched. Rosell gets his by getting himself into passing lanes -- his interception numbers are double Espinoza's -- and reading the game from his perch in the middle.*

*He's actually playing a modified version of the role Julio Cesar played last year as the anchor midfielder. However, what's interesting about Rosell -- and why it's worth comparing him to Espinoza -- is he also plays the destroyer role at the same time.

One of the biggest differences of course -- which is another piece of the reason Kansas City's style changed for the majority of this year -- is in the accuracy of the two as passers. During his years in the middle, Espinoza was always a part of Kansas City's build-up play. This year, Rosell has become the hub of KC's build-up play. Largely because he's the most accurate passer on the team, completing nearly 85 percent of his passes.* (He's the only KC player in the top 20 in passing success too.) Espinoza completed a respectable-but-average 73 percent of his passes.

*Of course, you might be thinking that Rosell's numbers are high because he does a fair amount of short, shuttling passes. Not completely true. While many of his almost 53 passes per game are of that variety, he completes 6.5 long balls a game. Only Montreal's Bernier (7.3), Portland's Will Johnson (7.3), Seattle's Alonso (6.7) and Collin (6.8) complete more long balls than Rosell. If you're counting at home, all four of those players are MLS All-Stars. Bernier and Alonso are the best two defensive midfielders in the league; Johnson isn't a slouch.

That Kansas City is more about control and possession this year than transition can't be laid entirely at the feet of Rosell vs. Espinoza.* The addition of Benny Feilhaber, the growth of Zusi and the lack of a truly dynamic wing presence much of the season without Kei Kamara forced a lot of that change. But it's definitely a key contributor. If you've got a defensive midfielder who can not only help you win back possession but also help keep it, it's hard to argue with playing a style that suits him.

*Kansas City's struggles to score at times have been a factor regardless of the central midfielders or style.

As the team chases a third-straight top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Rosell has been one of the team's key contributors. Only Jimmy Nielsen (33) and Seth Sinovic (31) have more appearances than the Spaniard (30). He's also been the constant in the middle: Feilhaber and Zusi have both spent time as the attacking midfielder. Paulo Nagamura has been hampered by injury. And Peterson Joseph and Lawrence Olum have been inconsistent performers (with 22 starts between them).

Only Rosell has been there, game in and game out. And he seems to be growing stronger as the season builds to its climax.

Against D.C. United last week, he completed 90 percent of his passes and recorded 14 recoveries. In the scoreless draw with Olimpia on Wednesday, Rosell completed 70 passes (only missing five times!) and recorded 10 interceptions and 8 recoveries.

In other words, he's been the consistent presence in the middle at just the precise time Kansas City needed that.*

*There are faults to his game, of course. His aggression and attempts to recover possession can often pull him out of position. As the anchor man, he's responsible for stopping counter attacks. That's been a weakness at times this season.

Here's the kicker, for me.

Uri turned 21 this year. He put up these numbers over 30 games in his first full season in Major League Soccer.

Espinoza was 26 when he turned in his breakout year. He'd spent four years in Kansas City learning the system and playing as a wing midfielder and full back before finding his home in the middle.

Rosell likely won't take over a game for Sporting KC in the playoffs, but it's hard to argue that he's not as vital to KC's MLS Cup dreams as anyone else. And he's really just beginning his career.

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