Part 2 of a two-part series documenting reasons for Sporting Kansas City’s perfect start to the 2012 season and how it can be stopped. Read Part 1 here.
By Liviu Bird
When a team is on a roll, it seems unstoppable. Its tactics seem perfect, and outsiders think that team has found the perfect formula.
Truth is, Sporting Kansas City’s system is far from revolutionary, and it’s far from unbeatable.
Three teams have given Kansas City a scare so far this season: FC Dallas, Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake. Chivas and RSL’s systems were especially effective, resulting in narrow 1-0 defeats in Sporting’s early charge to the top of Major League Soccer.
The Chivas way: Disrupting the game’s rhythm
When Sporting visited Chivas on April Fool’s Day, it encountered a team coming off an ugly 1-0 win on the Wasatch Front. Chivas employed a similar strategy against Sporting, and it nearly worked twice in a row. Chivas’ tactic was to be as disruptive as possible.
A lot of Kansas City’s game is based on keeping the speed of play at a high tempo. As such, Sporting can be frustrated by opponents packing men behind the ball at every opportunity and taking their time when the ball goes out of play. Of course, this ends in a reliance on the counterattack for offense, and it’s not a pretty way to play soccer. Chivas has shown that it doesn’t care about playing pretty this year; it just cares about winning.
Being disruptive and slow is best used at Livestrong Sporting Park, where it’s difficult to play Kansas City straight-up and get a result — only twice in its short history have opponents gone into that stadium and come away with all three points.
The RSL way: Opening the field
The more attractive way to beat Sporting is to play a 4-3-3 and stretch the team out against its will. That’s what Real Salt Lake did in the last 15 minutes of its 1-0 loss at Kansas City on April 14.
RSL normally plays a 4-4-2 with a tight diamond in the midfield, but that plays into Sporting’s hands defensively. Sporting plays high-pressure on defense, and with so many people in the midfield, there is no space to play.
Look at where Jonny Steele can go with the ball. His only real option is to play a ball over the top.
If he turns and looks for an overlapping outside back on the strong side, Bobby Convey can just step to cut out the pass. If he tries to dribble, Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi will crush him.
When Paulo Araujo, Jr. went into the game for RSL, Jason Kreis’ team switched to a 4-3-3 with two attacking midfielders and a flat, compact forward line.
The compactness of the top three served two purposes: It prevented Sporting’s outside backs from going forward as freely because they had an extra forward to defend, and it allowed RSL’s own outside backs to get more involved. In some sense, switching to a 4-3-3 allowed Salt Lake to fight Sporting’s tactics with Sporting’s tactics.
Look at how the space opened up on the weak side for an outside back, and notice how much more room there is in the middle of the field. Kansas City was stretched and unable to provide high pressure all over the field.
Move the ball
If the Portland Timbers were to enact the Real Salt Lake method today, it would be successful if they took another page out of RSL’s book and let the ball do the work.
With gaping spaces in the midfield, ball movement is easier, and Sporting’s players would tire themselves out chasing the ball. Or perhaps they would drop and defend in a more disciplined manner. Then the game would become a chess match.
No team that Sporting has played so far (D.C., New England, Dallas, Chivas, Los Angeles, RSL and Vancouver) regularly plays a 4-3-3. Aside from the last 15 minutes against Salt Lake, Sporting hasn’t had to defend it yet.
Maybe it’s time for a team to push out of its 4-4-2 comfort zone and stretch Kansas City in the midfield as Salt Lake did. The result could be Sporting Kansas City’s first loss of the season.