Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis

Sporting Kansas City qualified from the Western Conference with the highest points to the playoffs. Therefore, Peter Vermes’ men came with confidence to the semi-finals against Real Salt Lake. However, Mike Petke’s side did not give up in advance. The first match finished in a draw, but in the second leg, SKC won the clash with a strong performance and advanced to the finals.

Line-ups and initial strategies

Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake MLS Playoff Analysis

Often a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a reactive manner, relies on massive, man-oriented defences and quick counter-attacks. Whilst a 4-3-3 formation operates with a possession-based style. This match with our teams’ style as well.

However, Real Salt Lake utilised a 4-1-4-1 system rather than a 4-2-3-1. The manner in which they played stayed the same though. Thus, SKC was able to dominate the game. When they were in possession, Gutierrez and Espinoza move forward, took a high position around the halfspaces. The lone holding midfielder, Illie, stayed deeper in order to help them build-up attacks and protect the space. Salloi and Russel also maintained a high position, but in a wider area, mostly they hugged the touchline. Although once SKC reached the opponent’s half, the fullbacks pushed forward, therefore Salloi and Russel often moved infield to give space for the fullbacks. The wingers’ primary role was to run in depth, but when Rubio moved out of his position – for example, dropped for the ball – they tried to cut inside.

SKC’s pressing scheme

In a pressing phase, SKC aimed to force the opponent into a wider area and trapping them in the flank. Forcing them to long balls or even giving up the ball. Below, Rubio presses the ball-carrier centre-back in order to close down the ball on one side of the pitch. While the ball-near #8 is responsible for marking the deepest midfielder. When the ball moves to the flanks, the wingers would press the fullbacks. This resulted in hard circumstances where RSL struggled to progress. This would force them to long. In this situation, Rubio used a backwards press tactic once the centre-back bypassed him, which puts more pressure on the ball-carrier.
Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake MLS Playoff Analysis

Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake MLS Playoff Analysis

Issues with RSL’s pressing

The hosts started with a deeper position, pressing around the halfway line, but this was not intended to disrupt the opponent’s ball circulation. Instead of maintaining a narrow position. Usually, the wingers met with the fullbacks, whilst the midfielders covered Gutierrez and Espinoza. They formed a 4-1-4-1 shape, however, Kreilach often moved alongside Silva. When Kreilach was marking the deepest midfielder, Silva was pressing the ball-carrier centre-back or vice versa.

Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake MLS Playoff Analysis

The basic idea was to protect the centre (mark the players in the midfield and block the passing routes), thus the opponent had no other option than using volleys or passing wide. When the ball moved to the wing, RSL’s defence shifted, thus the midfield or the further area was inaccessible. Thus the opponent was forced into risky passes and when they lost the ball, RSL had the opportunity to counter-attack.

Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake MLS Playoff Analysis

In the beginning, this tactic worked very well. Even some promising counter-attacks occurred. However, SKC found a way to breakthrough. They looked to regain possession until they saw the open passing lane while the opponent was shifting to one side to another. Or using other tactical methods to bypass the opponent’s press.

Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake MLS Playoff Analysis

In the situation above, Opara could not pass immediately to the free man (Illie) in the centre. He had to come around to reach the free teammate. For this goal, he used the nearby marked teammate to transfer the ball to Illie. So, when the marked teammate got the ball, he immediately laid it off to Illie.

Nevertheless, around the first goal, both teams tried to progress quickly, which resulted in a kind of transition game. Both sides found more space, but they did lose the ball quickly. However, the biggest issue with the visitors’ pressing tactic was, whilst the four forward players participated in pressing, SKC used six players in the deep build-up. Therefore, SKC always found two free players which allowed them to move the ball and progress even if the visitors tried to press higher.

Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake MLS Playoff Analysis

Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake MLS Playoff Analysis

A flaw in RSL’s defence

Most of the goals that SKC scored in this match occurred from the centre which indicates that Mike Petke’s side had bigger problems in their defensive setup. Let’s see closely the most interesting ones.

Firstly, before the opening goal, RSL closed the way down in front of the home side with tight marking. However, a huge space became abandoned due to the man-to-man marking. Therefore, when Zusi beat his man on the right wing, he found big space to penetrate ahead of him.

Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake MLS Playoff Analysis

Also, the positioning of RSL’s defence was really poor in this situation. Both CB’s moved out of position to mark the opponent on the wing, whilst Lennon stayed in position. It resulted in a huge gap between the CB’s and Lennon and this was the space where SKC found and attacked.

Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake MLS Playoff Analysis

Furthermore, there was a similar situation before the second goal. Again, the gap between the lines where SKC could penetrate, then the gap between the right centre-back and the right back.

Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake MLS Playoff Analysis

Conclusion

I have rarely seen these kinds of flaws in any defences, especially in the middle of the defence. Real Salt Lake had to pay a lot for these mistakes. Whilst Sporting KC showed great abilities, mostly in attacking phase, they are now definitely a strong candidate for the MLS Cup. However, they still have a task to do, namely beating Portland in the next round.


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