It wasn't pretty, but Sporting KC in good position after tough battle in Houston

11/11/2013 6:17 PM

11/11/2013 6:17 PM

You can't win a two-game aggregate series in the first match. However, you can certainly lose it.

In this same exact situation a year ago, Sporting Kansas City was trailing the Houston Dynamo 2-0 after the first leg, having been burned by pressing too much chasing a goal on the road.

Not this year. This time around, it was boring. It wasn't pretty. Aesthetics don't really matter, though. This was all about positioning for the second leg.

"It was an absolute battle," Peter Vermes said after the match. "It's good to get out with no goals scored against. Getting a clean sheet here which is not an easy thing to do here against this team."

“Satisfying isn’t the right word,” forward Graham Zusi said. “What we did was put ourselves in a good position.”

After Saturday's 0-0 draw in Houston, Kansas City is in the driver's seat in the Eastern Conference Finals with 90 minutes (and more if the score is tied) on the pitch at Sporting Park to earn a spot in the MLS Cup Final. (That match, on Nov. 23 at 6:30 p.m., sold out in 24 hours last week. Only standing room only tickets remain.)

The second leg will have to wait a week while Major League Soccer observes a pesky FIFA International break from Nov. 11-19. These set of fixtures will determine the last teams to qualify for the World Cup. The United States men's national team — already qualified for the 2014 World Cup — will travel to Europe for two friendlies: Nov. 15 against Scotland (in Glasgow) and Nov. 19 against Austria (in Vienna).

Three Thoughts on the First Leg

1. Boy, do I hate long-throw soccer.

Because of the very, very narrow field at BBVA Compass Stadium (at 70 yards wide, it's the most narrow in the league), the throw in becomes a massive weapon. Earlier this year, the only goal KC scored in Houston (in a 1-0 win in May) came off a long throw.

The majority of the good chances on Saturday seemed to come from either Matt Besler or Mike Chabala hurling the ball ingot he box.

I get it. Use the weapons you've got. Besler has turned his high-velocity flat throw into a vital tool for Kansas City. But it makes for extremely boring soccer, as it goes against a lot of the nature of the game — you know, a sport based on speed where using your hands is considered illegal!

It felt like watching Stoke City take on Stoke City. A punishment only made worse by the game being nationally televised on NBC. (As opposed to the thrilling Real Salt Lake-Portland match on Sunday.)

2. Peter Vermes had a plan and it worked.

This wasn't the game for Claudio Bieler or Soony Saad. It wasn't really the game for Benny Feilhaber — but, without any other options in midfield, the attacking midfielder was thrust into the game.*

*He did well, for what it's worth.

Bieler, Saad and Feilhaber represent Kansas City's Plan A: Keep the ball, open up the attack, circulate the ball, create vertical chances and press the game higher up the pitch.

Plan B is much more simple: Bash and smash. Don't worry about possession stats. Stringing together passes isn't a requirement. Instead, it's all about choking the middle of the park, defending deep and tackling hard. Vermes used this plan because, as Houston have shown him up close and personally several times now, it works in the playoffs.

Jacob Peterson, Paulo Nagamura and Teal Bunbury represent this plan. I get why many fans on Twitter roll their eyes when Peterson/Bunbury are in the lineup. While they don't give KC a potent scoring threat (case in point, both scuffed great chances in Houston), both have important roles to play.

Bunbury establishes the line of confrontation for the press, using his mobility to disrupt the defenders from building out of the back.

Peterson is deployed more like a defensive winger (his average position according to WhoScored.com was almost straddling the center line) helping Seth Sinovic keep Oscar Boniek Garcia in check.

The Dynamo are an unbalanced attack, leaning toward Garcia's side nearly half the time (49 percent of the action on Saturday). Peterson's tracking back helped limit Garcia's impact. Despite the reliance on his side he created just three shots and zero key passes.

NOTE: I totally get why Bunbury and Peterson are often criticized in these situations. I'm not here to defend either player. I'm just telling you why they played and why it worked. Not every situation in soccer is deemed an attacking situation. And not every coach is willing to sacrifice defensive stability for attacking initiative on the road. Playing Claudio Bieler would've been a nightmare, he would've been isolated to the point of being invisible. As for Soony Saad, he's just not defensively aware enough to be trusted in that scenario.

The good news? There's a very good chance that Plan B soccer won't show up again unless Kansas City is protecting a lead. And, in that case, I'm sure everyone will be just fine with it.

3. The Paulo Nagamura Appreciation Society is now accepting new members.

During the season — especially the later parts — the experienced midfielder has been recovering from a pesky ankle injury. The last two games, it's become obvious that he's been the missing link in this lineup.

He's the only two-way midfielder in the regular rotation. The guy with the defensive skills to help KC recover possession (13 recoveries in the last two games) and the offensive acumen to help create chances (two key passes isn't a high number, but it's more than New England attackers Diego Fagundez and Juan Agudelo mustered these playoffs combined).

For much of this season, Vermes has replaced Nagamura in the lineup with either Lawrence Olum (straight defensive midfielder with limited passing range) or Peterson Joseph (destroying midfielder with attacking tendencies). Neither has been an excellent fit — though Olum played particularly well down the stretch before breaking his leg in the first match against the Revs.

Nagamura is the only guy on the roster who can do both jobs

and

allow Oriol Rosell to play his position.*

*When Olum starts, Rosell is pushed higher up the field. When Joseph plays, Rosell is dropped deeper. Rosell is best when he's allowed to shuffle between those positions. It's a far more balanced midfield that way.

The most impressive thing, however, is that Nagamura just played 187 minutes of soccer in four days after not playing any meaningful minutes since September 7th. On Wednesday, he wasn't supposed to go more than 60 minutes. Instead, he went 97.

In all, he played 19 games this season for KC. In the last 10 matches he's played Kansas City went 5-1-4. The only loss was 2-1 against Montreal in June.

He isn't flashy, but, with him in the lineup, Kansas City plays effective, winning soccer.

The Paulo Nagamura Appreciation Society will meet the second Tuesday of every month. Donations are strongly encouraged.

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