Sometimes, a championship rematch fails to live up to the hype.
That wasn't really the case between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. These teams didn't like each other very much back in December and they didn't really play like they had a lot of love for each otherlast Saturday night
It was a physical match all around between two "diametrically opposed" styles. The game featured twenty fouls, four yellow cards, one red and one "should've been" red (we'll gif in a minute). There was also an absolutely stellar performance by a goalkeeper (Real Salt Lake's Jeff Attinella) and a dominant performance by a team defense (Kansas City's first-choice back four were impeccable).
It was also wildly entertaining. All it was missing, really, was goals.
Sometimes, a game can't have everything.
In defense of a defensive struggle
Ninety minutes and no goals? Are you serious? Not a single goal?
I get that there is/should be a little frustration. People pay to see goals. I get that. But can't there be a little bit of room to appreciate some good defensive work? Just a bit?
Well, get ready, cause I'm about to unravel 1,200 words about it.**Quick note: If you don't like a lot of hot defense talk, you might sit this one out. I mean, what else am I going to spend time writing about after a 0-0 draw?
There are a few solid center back pairings in MLS. I think we saw the best of the best last Saturday night — Aurelien Collin/Matt Besler and Nat Borchers/Chris Schuler are 1A and 1B in my mind.
On Saturday, Besler/Collin put on the sort of display that has become commonplace for the league's best defense two years running. Basically, they intercepted/cleared/blocked/tackled everything away before it could lead to a dangerous situation in the box. It might have been one of the best games I've ever seen Besler play in terms of his command of the back line and composure on the ball.
For Salt Lake, the whole defense was under an intense amount of pressure, thanks to Kansas City controlling possession, pummeling Attinella with shots and generally pushing the game into RSL's penalty box. Borchers/Schuler responded with a composed and calm performance, which included a cold-as-ice clearance off the line late in the second half from Borchers.
I continue to be impressed by Schuler's development as a top-line defender. He's not just a big, athletic guy. He can read the game and has good recovery speed. Salt Lake let go of Jamison Olave at the beginning of last year and Schuler has really made that job his own with almost no let off.
Goals win soccer games and people pay to see goals. But: Defense wins championships. These four were major reasons why their teams reached the MLS Cup final last year. All four are major reasons their teams are again MLS Cup contenders this year.
Nat Borchers knows kung fu
Don't know about you guys, but that looks a little bit like a late kick on Claudio Bieler. Especially when isolated as a never-ending loop. He got a yellow card for that.**For the last five minutes of the game, Borchers and Bieler fouled each other about 15 times a piece. That's an exaggeration, of course, but their prolonged spat led to each picking up a yellow card for a foul on the other.
The adjustment game
For the first eight minutes of the second half, Kansas City was in control. Graham Zusi was a man on fire, Dom Dwyer was an absolute menace. The left side of RSL's defense was wide open. A goal was imminent. Had to be.
KC even got about this close.
However, RSL boss Jeff Cassar made a really smart substitution: Luke Mulholland for Luis Gil.
Gil was basically a non-factor this game. Mulholland, however, made an immediate impact helping thwart the movement of Seth Sinovic and Zusi down the left. The English midfielder (and former Tampa Bay Rowdie) isn't an exceptional technical player (like Gil), but he wasn't afraid to stick a boot in on a tackle and break up play. Which is exactly what RSL needed to tighten the game and relieve pressure on the defense.
The left flank was for all intents and purposes, closed for business after that move.
Hey, get back here
Oriol Rosell is starting to make this "appearing in a slightly goofy gif" a regular occurrence.
Keep it out of the box
On Saturday night, Salt Lake managed just four shots on Eric Kronberg, only one on target. Why?
Kansas City's first choice defense is extremely good at keeping action out of the penalty box. How good?
That's the combined defensive actions of Collin, Besler, Chance Myers, Sinovic and Rosell. Only eight of those actions happened in the box — all clearances, all played out of trouble without allowing a second chance.
Compare KC's chalkboard above with that of RSL's group of Borchers, Schuler, Abdoulie Mansally, Rich Balchan and Kyle Beckerman.
That's a lot of defending deep.
Kansas City is able to keep teams out of the box thanks to a combination of a high defensive line, immediate ball pressure on the forwards, the excellent positional sense of Besler/Collin and the recovery speed of both Sinovic and Myers.
When teams are able to beat Kansas City, it's because they can create second chances in the box or find gaps in KC's high line.* On Saturday, there were no second chances and there were no gaps.*Kansas City's four league goals allowed: rebound off scramble, header from a set piece and two penalty kicks.
Collapsing the diamond
In theory, RSL should've had a numerical advantage in midfield — a four-man diamond versus Kansas City's three-man triangle. However, KC were able to cope with that by compressing the field with pressure from the high line by the center backs and backwards pressure from the forwards. This collapsed the diamond, leaving it flat. This left Salt Lake struggling to generate attacking thrust from its short-pass possession game.
Sinovic continues to be amazing
I was going to write about how great Sinovic was. Again. But, since we try to tackle topics in this space that have been passed over, I'll let someone else handle this one.Here you go.
The space behind
When Sporting KC looks back over the tape of this game, they'll rue that they couldn't exploit the space behind Mansally more effectively. It was there all game. Myers, returning from injury for his first MLS start, certainly saw it.
Too bad KC couldn't turn either of those excellent through balls into a real chance. Also: That's an aspect of Myers' game that KC should definitely look for in games to come.
Has Collin changed?
Last year, Collin led all of Major League Soccer with 13 yellow cards. He also was in the top ten for most fouls committed with 54.
But this year? He's been shown just one yellow card. In fact, he's played the last 373 minutes without picking up his second yellow. What's more, he has picked up just five fouls this season. Only one of those has come since the opening game in Seattle, and that was against Salt Lake. It broke Collin's three-game streak without a foul.
Has he turned a new foul-free leaf? The sample size is a little small to make that determination, but the days of the aggressive tackle-first and complain to the ref about it later seem to be over.
Toni Dovale made his MLS debut for Sporting KC. It wasn't a heroic debut or anything -- he was only on the field for 10 minutes. But there was one pass. It was just one pass, but it was a tantalizing through ball that left me wanting to see more.