Match previews

USOC final preview: Philadelphia Union vs Sporting Kansas City

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Sporting Kansas City
What: 2015 US Open Cup Final
Where: PPL Park
When: Wednesday, September 30 at 7 pm
Watch: ESPN2, Univision Deportes
Whistle: Ted Unkel; Linesmen: Ian Anderson, James Conlee; Fourth Official: Chris Penso

“Any time a club has a chance to win a championship, it helps propel that club into whatever the next evolution is.” — Peter Vermes to SI.com.

Peter Vermes’ Sporting Kansas City side is in the midst of a traditional evolutionary change. From a macro perspective, the team looks the same: Same shape, same key players that won the MLS Cup in 2013, same stubbornly progressive manager. But when the whistle blows, things look quite different. An intense pressure system transitions into a swift, vertical attack that eschews buildup in its quest to evoke terror.

Jim Curtin’s Philadelphia Union are watching glaciers roll over the land and wondering how to catalyze this whole evolution thing. The Union have made minor adjustments during Curtin’s tenure. But now, the addition of Tranquillo Barnetta and the sustained form of CJ Sapong have, for the first time since September of 2014, given the coaching staff the tools it needs to make bold, lasting strategic and tactical changes.

Thus, when these two teams meet at PPL Park and battle for the 2015 US Open Cup trophy, they will be looking to evolve in very different ways.

Different evolutions

Vermes has said that the 2012 US Open Cup validated his approach to building a sustainable winner. But the USOC win actually justified that approach; the validation came in 2013 when KC lifted the MLS Cup. Now, after they sold Uri Rosell and fell apart in the latter third of the 2014 season, Kansas City is seeking confirmation of their place among the MLS elite. “If we’re able to win this Open Cup, I’d venture to say that behind LA, in the last five years we’re probably the second-most successful team in MLS,” Benny Feilhaber told SI.com

Sporting will be without versatile midfielder Roger Espinoza for the final, and winger Krisztian Nemeth is unlikely to start. These absences make KC a much more limited offensive team. In September — with Espinoza missing — Kansas City has scored five goals in five games, but only three of those have come from open play (two from Dwyer and one from Nemeth).

In fact, since KC stunned Vancouver with four goals on August 15th, Dwyer has scored as many goals from open play (3) as the rest of the team combined. Add that Sporting has not scored in the first half in six straight games and you begin to see a team that is on the precipice of a full-blown attack problem.

But that is not entirely true. Kansas City may have problems scoring, but they continue to create good chances. The shape and movement of the team is good, they are simply creating fewer turnovers in good positions that allow them to — boom-boom-boom — quickly punish a retreating defense.

KC traps on the edges

KC traps on the edges (click to play)

Why the defensive issues?

Matt Besler remains a strong presence, but his partner, Kevin Ellis, has been inconsistent. His positioning is sound, but he tends to overcommit to using his body and can be turned by a strong striker (of which the Union have an abundance).

A large part of the problem has been a lack of protection for the back line. There are no poor defenders in back, but Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic are more known for their attacking prowess for a reason. But the issue is more acute in the middle than on the touchlines. Kansas City’s fullbacks get high up the pitch to draw midfielder attention and force the opposing fullbacks to deal with the wingers alone. (Although this is no longer the central tenet of KC’s attack, it remains an important part of how Peter Vermes’ team develops their offense: They spread the back line and attack its holes with quick-hitting throughballs.)

After a turnover, KC quickly threatens by playing the ball through channels.

After a turnover, KC quickly threatens by playing the ball through channels. (click to play)

With the fullbacks upfield, KC focuses on defense through attack. That is, they aggressively close down the ball when they lose it, particularly on the wings. The midfield trio is key in this rapid press because their movements must be coordinated. If one stays deep, sitting in front of the back line, the press has less manpower to effectively close down passing lanes. And thus far, Soni Mustivar tends to sit too deep.

The consequences manifest in two ways. First, as stated above, the press’s effectiveness is diminished. The deepest midfielder of the trio should be in a supporting role, but not sitting so deep as to allow a short pass to release the pressure. Second, the wings — the true targets of the press — are closed down too slowly. Normally, the deepest midfielder can rotate over into wide areas, with another midfielder chasing back and the third dropping central. If the deepest midfielder plays too conservatively, the wings quickly turn from trapping areas into soft spots, and KC’s narrow defense has to open itself up to attack by releasing a fullback to close down the ball. These problems have made Sporting vulnerable lately, and they indicate where the Union should focus their attacks.

If the Union's defensive line loses its shape, KC can quickly tear it apart. (click to play)

If the Union’s defensive line loses its shape, KC can quickly tear it apart. (click to play)

The Union attack will flow through Cristian Maidana, a player that thrives in the area that hockey fans call the half-wall. Near the top of the opposition’s final third, Maidana looks for space on the wing to create overloads and give himself time to pick out a pass behind the defense. Against Houston, Philly used Maidana to build play up the right, stretching the Dynamo vertically with Le Toux and bringing Barnetta into the center to fill the normally-vacant space that Vincent Nogueira is so loathe to occupy. And, finally, Philly was able to put bodies in passing lanes and move the ball out of pressure.

Maidana will look for similar holes in Kansas City’s defense. The problem will be finding him.

Union defensive passing

Philly’s back line has, to put it lightly, had some issues connecting passes this season. The fault is not entirely the back four’s since very predictable midfield movement has allowed teams to trap the Union and force long clearances. KC will undoubtedly be focusing on Ray Gaddis and Fabinho and seek to pressure them at all times. This will be nothing new, but the intensity and speed with which Kansas City executes the press will make it feel different.

The truth is that Philly may have to resort to the long ball to bypass KC’s press, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Sporting is lethal when they win the ball back in the opposing half. They can control a game when they force long balls, but that kind of dominance in possession has proved difficult to translate into good chances. Benny Feilhaber has been able to hit a breath mint in a snowstorm with his throughballs this year, but even he needs at least a minimally disrupted defense to pass through.

By going long the Union can ensure that turnovers put the ball in less dangerous areas. Yes, this is almost exactly the logic behind punting in American football; sometimes, regardless of sport, it really is a field position game.

Never forget how dangerous Dom Dwyer can be. This turn is ludicrously good. (click to play)

Never forget how dangerous Dom Dwyer can be. This turn is ludicrously good. (click to play)

Union press

Kansas City can squeeze the life out of an opponent with its press. The Union… cannot do that. In fact, a disjointed press that often created more gaps than it closed has driven for quite a few of the team’s defensive issues this season.

With that in mind, Philly must find their defensive shape quickly. Recovering shape is not simply about returning to the correct zones, it is also about moving as a unit, and this is the root of a solid defense. Expanding the notion of a defensive line moving as a unit to the entire team turns a good defense into one that can essentially control a game. Additionally, it simplifies the counterattack because players are consistently at similar angles to each other, removing extraneous thinking from transitions.

KC presses much further up the pitch than Philly.

KC presses much further up the pitch than Philly.

In their best matches this season, Philly has responded to teams that want to spread them out — think Portland — by holding a firm shape and moving as a unit. The focus in these matches will often be on the opponent, who ends up looking disorganized as they drop players deep to find space on the ball and leave nobody to link between the deep midfield line and the strikers. It can look passive because there is no exciting chase when a player attacks the ball carrier in their zone, but it is not. By moving as a team, a defense may not close down the first man on the ball as quickly as an aggressive press, but once a pass is played into the two banks of four that make up a solid defense, the receiver is quickly shuttered or forced to play back, and the defense reshapes.

It is a plan that requires extreme discipline because a good offense is trying to tear that shape apart, and moving ten human beings as one is extremely difficult, regardless of what those cocky synchronized swimmers may tell you. If the Union can do it, as they did successfully for long periods in last season’s USOC final, they will have a good chance to lift the club’s first cup.

Final notes
  • One of the most interesting aspects of Philly’s win over Houston was the way Tranquillo Barnetta moved in off the wing to fill central space. Given the aggressiveness of Sporting KC’s press, finding seams that allow Michael Lahoud and Vincent Nogueira to play the ball out of trouble without resorting to pushing the ball wide will allow Philly to neutralize the press and attack with numbers. Barnetta’s intelligence is key, and a player who was brought in to much fanfare can do this one, barely noticeable thing and change the nature of the match.
  • If Jon Kempin starts in goal for Sporting KC, Philly needs to follow up shots. In his last two matches against Orlando and Dallas, Kempin has shown a tendency to fumble bouncing balls.
  • The Union need to find ways to isolate CJ Sapong on Kevin Ellis. The KC centerback likes to get tight and use his low center of gravity to keep strikers at bay. Sapong has yet to meet a defender that can move him if he doesn’t want to be moved.
  • Jim Curtin has not announced his starting goalie. John McCarthy got the Union to this point but Andre Blake was a number one overall draft pick for a few good reasons (ridiculous talent, size, and agility). Blake has shown excellent control of his box in limited minutes. McCarthy has been a bit inconsistent but his shot stopping ability cannot be questioned. A coldly rational coach would start Blake. Is that the type of coach Curtin is?
USOC finalPrediction: Union 2-2 Sporting KC (extra time!)

This match has extra time written all over it. Two teams that tend to score in quick-hitting, counterattacking bursts but struggle defensively? A cup final that will likely start slowly as both defenses play safe to avoid That Big Mistake? The difference could come from KC’s set pieces. Benny Feilhaber is an excellent free kick specialist, and even without Ike Opara Sporting has shown the ability to turn corner kicks into chances.

If Kansas City comes out on top, the club will add one more trophy to its case and continue to build on an impressive recent history of success. If Philly triumphs, Jim Curtin earns himself a lot of breathing room after a season that has featured some of the strangest issues a head coach will ever face (the expensive goalie is a dud! Maurice Edu is too good at too many positions! We built the offense around a guy that can’t score! We need to trade one of only three fullbacks on the roster to make room for our big signing! We are going to sign a sporting director… soon! Rene Meulenstein gave us this report that tells us to… um… etc etc etc). On the field and off, the Union have been an operatic mess.

But they are back in a final and have a chance to reward the fans that have stuck by them through thin and thinner. The team captain said it as well as I ever could:

We have unbelievable fans, through the ups and downs of the past couple years, they’ve stuck by us, made these long, crazy road trips for us and they’ve always been there in full support. To reward them and show them their support isn’t going unrecognized. To give them a trophy would be an unbelievable way to show them how much we appreciate them.

And, as Peter Vermes said, a trophy can propel the Union to the next stage of their evolution. And that is what fans are counting on. Because the club has been in the current stage far too long.

“The hardest thing to do in our sport is to lift a trophy,” Jim Curtin recently said. 

In general, he’s right. But given the Union’s recent history, it may be even harder to turn that trophy into sustained success.

And that is what fans really want.

8 Comments

  1. Please start Blake. We need this Cup so badly.

    • You know all the KC players just saw Blake’s highlight reel from NE, including nearly saving a very well-taken penalty. If it comes to spot-kicks, I want Blake in there; at least one KC player will over-think and miss. Then if (when!) we win the Cup, heck, have McCarthy be the one who accepts the trophy.

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    A geological quibble, glaciers grind the land down under pressure so intense, and therefore hot, that they sometimescreate lakes underneath themselves lubricating their flow, they do not roll like floodwater. As I said, a quibble only.

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    A comment from student, me, to teacher, Adam Cann. Your explanation of SKC’s midfield triangle playing defense successfully, or not, made perfect sense – it flowed visually in my mind as I read it – because of the diagram you gave in yesterday’s analysis showing the three midfielders stacked on a zigzag in the central channel. Thank you.

  4. I just hope we win tonight. I cant even get work done today.

  5. Am I missing something or have you only made half a prediction Adam? Who’s going to actually win?!? No offense, but considering your game prediction track record, I hope you are picking SKC. 🙂

  6. Heading out to the game in a few.. LET’S GO!

  7. Isn’t it 5 international players only? Wenger over Vitoria?

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