Sporting KC Don’t Flunk The Flank, Tactically-Speaking

In this week’s MLS Soccer March to the Match podcast, the extraordinary amount of shot opportunities for Sporting KC was referenced.

Forward progress....

Cauldron favorite and midfielder Graham Zusi in particular is on a pace for almost 100 shots taken this season.

As a midfielder this is nothing short of outstanding. To our knowledge, a “true” midfielder has never led the league or come close to leading the league in shots.

That’s almost three shots per game.

It sounds pedestrian, but when you consider that his teammate Kei Kamara already has 28 (over 6 per game), in combination, it’s mesmerizing. (Note: CJ Sapong is in the top 20 in shots also!)

Now, shot volume is nothing new for Sporting KC. They led the league last year in shots taken with an average of almost 14.5 per game.

They’re on pace to straight obliterate that this year, with 688 or over 20 per game!

Again astounding and it deserves more press*. (*We will discuss a few negatives at the end of the piece as well.)

But the question is, what changed for Sporting KC this year to increase the shot count?

Beyond being on-form, how were they able to ratchet up the amount of shots per game.

And the answer lies in three tweaks to Peter Vermes system this year. And let’s just say–in a nod to Jonah Freedman who commented this week–it’s not your traditional 4-3-3. In fact, it’s really more of 3-2-3-2 in the attack with Chance Myers playing extremely high up the pitch. (That 3-2-3-2 is Sinovic-Besler-Collin, Espinosa-Cesar, Convey-Zusi-[FB - typically Myers], Sapong-Kamara).

• CJ Sapong fills the “right” role

Sporting KC selected Teal Bunbury as its hold-up player in Game One of the season in DC United, whether by design or because they want to keep Sapong fresh with Bunbury going on US Soccer duty.

Bunbury distribution in Week 1 (chart courtesy MLSSoccer.com)

The chart above shows Bunbury’s distribution.

It’s a bit over the map, with a lot of hold up particularly on the left flank.

Now contrast this with Sapong’s most recent work against Chivas USA and FC Dallas.

Sapong distribution against Chivas.

More compact and mostly on the right. In a nod, to Matt Doyle comments on the aforementioned podcast, “CJ Sapong is Brian McBride II and he’s dragging the defense everywhere and opening up Kei Kamara.”

Precisely.

Well, almost everywhere.

Sapong’s staying a little more tidy in the middle and keeping the flanks open for Kamara and Convey. (BTW, it’s very impressive to see Sapong move off the ball. While his touch can use work, Sapong not only takes angles, but he also initiates contact offball and move his defender out of position. Watch him this weekend.)

• Bobby Convey has been “anti-” his reputation.

Want to know why Vermes is the leading candidate for coach–and perhaps front office man–of the year.

Look no further that Convey. Some [looks in mirror, sighs] wondered if Vermes knew what he was doing bringing in the often me-first, petulant player to a strong locker room in the offseason.

Tactically, it’s paying dividends.

Last year, KC trotted out Omar Bravo primarily on the left flank. While coming off the corner added pressure to the defense it also opened up KC to being susceptible to counter attacks through the middle and–extremely key for the attack–it reduced width because with Kamara on the right and Bravo on the left it actually reduced the space that the fullbacks could advance to. (We’ll come back to that.)

This year, they’ve added Convey on the left–hat tip to Top Drawer Soccer’s Travis Clark who saw Convey’s deployment at “forward” in Vermes thinking early on.

Convey adds some valuable assets to the KC attack.

While Convey can get wide, he’s more deployed–unlike Bravo–in a withdrawn position. From this position, KC can elect to:

(a) Use Convey as the left-side attacking hub

(b) Use Convey’s excellent ability to provide service on the left to set up Kamara and Sapong around the posts

(c) Provide lead passes to Seth Sinovic overlapping on the flank.

(d) Stymie some counterattacks.

With Sinovic and Myers barreling down the flanks frequently it’s a lot of width and personnel for any defense to handle.

Which brings us to….

Square=midfield, Triangle=overlapping fullback, Circle=forward

• SKC don’t flunk the flanks

A little Mel Brooks reference for you there.

Barcelona is a team that people love to invoke for all types of analogies. TSG tries to avoid it, but we’ll use it here.

Chance Myers? Peter Vermes Dani Alves flanker. Let’s look–above–though with the ball on the other side.

With Convey tucking in more than flaring out in midfield and Zusi working off the right hash, it gives license and impetus for Sinovic on the left (pictured with the triangle above) and Chance Myers on the right (not pictured) to get ahead in the attack. Consequently, the opponent’s backline is spread out creating channels for Kamara and Sapong OR creating trailing opportunities for….

(*Note: Take a look at Myers heat charts on MLS Soccer. Myers is above the halfline for a majority of the game and hugs the endline ad nauseum.)

Straight out of Encino.

• Graham Zusi is driving a Lincoln Navigator…

That is, he’s got a lot of room to come forward and pick his spots and from his vantage point he’s got an excellent view of what the defense is doing.

Combine this with Zusi’s ability to shoot from three and it’s no wonder that Zusi is already the league’s assist leader.

Zusi (Encino Man here at TSG) is KC’s Russell Westbrook (more than Chris Paul).

Zusi isn’t hubbing or spreading the ball, he’s more getting the ball in advantageous positions and taking what the defense gives him (and being explosive).

Back off him and he’ll shoot or provide service. Step to and he’ll provide a penetrating assist.

Finally all this is made possible by the maturation of Roger Espinoza or the rich man’s Ricardo Clark. Espinoza covers so much ground that he gives Zusi and a tucked-in Convey the ability to attack at will. Espinoza (Barca again) is also very Puyol-like when faced with the opponent breaking against him and Convey and Zusi advanced–either he’ll get stuck-in and smack a jarring tackle on you or he’ll take a foul and hustle back.

And that’s how you go from 14 shots on goal per game in 2011 to over 20 in 2012.

Whatcha got Bruce Arena?

(*Note: We said we’d come back to the negative. Sporting KC is very untidy with the ball. They get a lot of shots, but these are more the result of a go-go-go mentality and they are not always the best opportunities. Despite their possession stats, this is more from winning the ball get quickly rather than true possession maintenance. A better possessing team–Real Salt Lake–will be an interesting match-up for where KC is in their….seasoning.)

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/06 at 12:58 PM

    If I’m Arena — I go with the following front 6 against KC

    Beckham-Juninho-Stephens
    Donovan (on right hash)
    Keane – Magee (or Buddle)

    I would use Becks dropping deep on the right (less troublesome flank) and I would have him try to hit Donovan in motion, Keane checking somewhere or Magee (or Buddle) sneaking behind the space vacated by Myers.

    I use Mike Stephens like SAF uses Ji-Sung-Park — to help the older Dunivant defend against the action of Kamara, Myers and Zusi on the right.

    Reply

    • I agree with all of this lol. I think you have to sit Buddle. Don’t know if anyone else remembers hearing this but, the game the Galaxy had before NE, Buddle didn’t start because of some strange fitness test he failed.(can’t remember the name but it sounded really expensive)…it was supposed to measure how your body recovers from extreme physical activity. Even after that long break before the NE game he played poorly and I believe the two things are related. I also think that Buddle and Keane like to occupy the same space…have both of them on the field they seem to cancel each other out.

      If you’re going to play Stephens out left as defensive cover, which I like, then it is good to have Magee as a withdrawn forward. He can make runs out on the left so the play isn’t completely unbalanced.

      Reply

  2. Posted by dude on 2012/04/06 at 1:07 PM

    As a DC fan, I’m very impressed with Espinoza, felt he was the player who hurt us most in the opener. I remember wishing DC had a higher draft pick when he entered the league, but he’s developed from dribbler to a ravenous #8. Wish he was American.

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/06 at 1:13 PM

      Agreed and agreed. I believe he played forward in college, then LB originally for KC. I also remember just how good he was in that DCU game. Goes side to side.

      Reply

  3. Posted by maxq on 2012/04/06 at 1:25 PM

    As a KC fan, I don’t think its any coincidence that we started playing better last season when Espinoza moved to the middle. …of course the 20 or so consecutive home games helped too…

    Reply

  4. Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/06 at 1:27 PM

    Quite a golden age for two-way, holding CMs. Beckerman and Alonso, Cronin and Espinoza, Taino when healthy. Adam Moffatt (he’ll get it going shortly).

    Reply

  5. Posted by dth on 2012/04/06 at 1:58 PM

    Also really impressive about Zusi: he’s had 12 key passes plus 5 assists in 321 minutes–so he creates about 4.7 chances per game. Pretty good stuff from him.

    Reply

    • Posted by dth on 2012/04/07 at 9:19 PM

      Your (semi-scientifically-derived) leaderboard after round 5:

      1. Zusi: 4.12 chances/game
      2. Landon Donovan: 3.33 chances/game
      3. Eric Alexander: 2.66 chances/game
      4. Javi Morales: 2.56 chances/game
      5. Sebastien Grazzini: 2.48 chances/game
      6. Gil 2.4 chances/game
      6. Kei Kamara: 2.4 chances/game

      Reply

  6. Posted by dth on 2012/04/06 at 2:00 PM

    by the by, I think the closer analogy for SKC is Mourinho’s Chelsea: both are bullying, go-go 4-3-3s.

    Reply

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