As the MLS Cup Final crawls closes, coach-vs-coach, position-vs-position, and style-vs-style breakdowns are appearing. It was, however, a piece way back on November 25th by Grantland writer Graham Parker that began a two-week long journey into a tactical rabbit hole. The trigger was the description of this Cup final as a “referendum.”

The use of the word was inspired by a quote that Real Salt Lake general manager, Garth Lagerwey provided after the RSL – SKC match in July.  The most pointed piece of the statement was: “We want to keep the ball, we want to possess, we want to attack. Kansas City want to kick people, pressure you all over the field and try to rely on set pieces and turnovers to generate their chances… So I think the league has to decide do they want that kind of physical, rock’em-sock’em style, or do they want to play more of a passing, possession, beautiful game.”

Parker questions that claim at the end of his piece after concluding the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final against the Houston Dynamo demonstrated Sporting Kansas City’s creativity and he discarded the notion of a referendum. MLS does not exist in a vacuum free from other influences. This Cup Final is a clash of philosophies, specifically on defensive strategy and best route of attack, that can appeal to the neutrals. Since this is the preview piece for the MLS Cup Finals, long-winded explanations are justified. For your convenience the post is sectioned, so you can chose your path through this rabbit hole.

If you interesting in a counter claim to “rock’em-sock’em style” this section is for you!

While biting – Garth Lagerwey’s comments were also hypercritical seeing how Chris Wingert attempted to cripple Kei Kamara in the first 5’ of the July match.  Lagerway’s observation holds true in the context of the 2013 MLS season. Sporting leads the league in fouls committed, while Real finished in the bottom half. This saintly soccer that RSL plays is actually a recent occurrence. In 2012, RSL finished the regular season 4th in fouls committed and in 2011 they were 3rd; SKC was 3rd and 5th in those respective years. Ironical SKC climb to the top spot in fouls committed is primarily caused by a La Masia alum. Swapping Oriol Rosell (66 fouls in 2013) for Julio Cesar (32 fouls in 2012) counts for 34 of the 55-foul year-to-year increase. The decline by RSL is not as clear but the absence of Fabian Espindola 1.53 fouls per game and the Kyle Beckerman reducing his per game foul average nearly in half (1.9 to 1.0) are the best answers.

So RSL abandoning its roughen ways for the beautiful game and SKC finally embracing the dark arts brought us to this point? It is a convenient narrative but not as simple as it appears. “Kicking people” and “rock’em-sock’em” draws the most attention, “pressure you all over the field and try to rely on set pieces and turnovers to generate their chances” is the most telling of SKC style. The fouls are less about intimidation; more about tactics.   Fouls to slow the pace and allow recovery when a team beats the press. SKC is disciplined with their fouling, for Uri’s 66 fouls he’s only earned 10 yellow cards, and the team was called for a paltry single penalty kick.

Throw away the film from the Eastern Conference Final but keep all of the Western’s 

We should all forget the first leg at Houston even happened. MLS should just corrupt the video file so there is no evidence of the match. Not blaming the clubs involved, tired legs usually makes for terrible soccer.

If you’re looking for the second leg for some insight, there’s little to see. SKC proved they can play down the middle, Benny Feilhaber displayed signs of playmaking magic, and Dom Dwyer demonstrated the defensive intensity needed from a central forward in a high pressing scheme. But playing down the middle is RSL’s strength. The rule is to attack diamond midfields with width. SKC have the fullbacks and the playmaking wingers to do it. Tactically SKC’s best strength is RSL greatest weakest. It is further supported from a statistic in Simon Borg’s breakdown of the backlines where the RSL allows 14.4 crosses per game. Mind you RSL averages 56.5% possession per game this year. When SKC is in the attacking third there will be opportunities for whatever forward combo Peter Vermes employs.

The performance RSL gave in both playoff series was customary to what they produced for the majority of the season, only with the added wrinkle of Devon Sandoval. In the first leg versus the LA Galaxy, Jason Kreis implemented a 4-2-3-1 to provide extra protection against Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, and limit Junihno’s distribution in the center. The second leg featured wide service from Wingert to Sebastian Velasquez on the first goal, and a set piece goal assisted by Javi Morales to Chris Schuler. In the Western Conference Finals Sandoval emerged as a legitimate target man over powering the Portland Timbers less physical center backs. RSL earned a goal off a corner, turnover in Portland’s 3rd, a perfect counterattacking goal that featured a 30+ yard lead pass to a sprinting Findley, and a second corner headed in by Javi. The second leg in Portland, RSL absorbed waves of attacks from a desperate Timbers club. RSL’s defensive formation was a 4-3-1-2 with Luis Gil and Ned Grabavoy flanking Beckerman.  The only run of play goal for Portland in the conference finals was a header by Frederic Piquionne off a wide cross.

Location, Location, Location… Where you defend is as important as how

RSL and SKC finished the regular season first and second in possession, respectively. The teams organize differently in formation and defensive tactics. If you skipped the first section above, it said essentially that SKC’s physicality and high foul totals are products of tactical fouls when opponent beat the high press. When RSL concede possession, they organize with a bank of fours and counter from their own half.

Benjamin Baer on put together a chart detailing where the average position on the field each MLS club win possession. SKC’s average turnover occurs 37.76 yards away from their goal, best in the league. RSL is the middle of the pack in 9th, with 32.49 yards from their goal. It’s a risk-reward game for high pressing teams, at its best it can dismantle a possession side, similar to what Brazil did to Spain in the 2013 Confederates Cup Final.  At worse, the press can be broken with un-artful long balls that lead to break away goals.

SKC Turnovers Created 2nd Leg of Eastern Conference Finals

SKC Turnovers Created vs Houston 2nd Leg of Eastern Conference Finals

RSL Turnovers Created at LA - 1st Leg of Western Conference Semi-Finals

RSL Turnovers Created at LA – 1st Leg of Western Conference Semi-Finals

With Dwyer, Vermes found the center forward he wants to pressure defenders and keepers. Nick Rimando’s legendary ball handling ability can be a safety valve but one poor touch back can be fatal. Dwyer and CJ Sapong would not out muscle Schuler or Nat Borchers, but that’s not the point. SKC wants to force the poorer ball handlers on the field into having to make the right choice and the perfect pass several teams a game. Perhaps make Gil and Grabavoy track back to become an addition outlet and break the diamond form.

RSL has a combination of options up top. If RSL finds itself absorbing attacks, their best weapon is the threat of Javi Morales linking a through ball to Robbie Findley, over the top to Sandoval or to Álvaro Saborío sitting in a channel. It may limit Aurélien Collin or Seth Sinovic from venturing forward. One of the big questions will be if or when Uri or Paulo Nagamura will man mark Javi. Will Kreis allow Gil to take more of a playmaking role? If Vermes decides to mark Javi throughout the game will Feilhaber track back to act as a second pivot.

Bigger Elephant in the Arena? NYCFC or 24 and Cloudy

These are two items out of both squad’s control. Brian Straus from Sports Illustrated tweeted Monday that his sources says Jason Kreis is “almost 100%” in on NYCFC job. Kreis fired back on twitter and through interviews. Coach doth protest too much, methinks. Kreis can be annoyed but blame MLS for the extra week in between conference finals and the cup. We need content, to read, to write. Straus was doing his job and Kreis is trying to protect this team. Win or lose it’s a story with legs for both the coach carousel angle and Manchester City’s attempt at North America domination. But this will likely affect the game less than the weather.

Coldest MLS Cup in history. There has been a handful of games in the 40s: Toronto, Columbus, and New England. If the temperature hits 24F it will beat the previous record by 20 degrees.  Get ready for fast fields and hard-heavy balls. It’s might be SKC best defense against a Javi Morales free kick.


SKC 3 – RSL 2 Weather, Home Field and Vermes wins the chess match.

This week’s throw-ins:

My only objection with the MLS year-end awards is with the Best XI: Replace Omar Gonzales with Jamison Olave (Supporter Shield winners RBNY didn’t earn a single victory in his absence), move Mike Magee to midfield, dump Will Johnson (deserving but sorry) and add the GOLDEN BOOT WINNER! Camilo Sanvezzo to forward. Less egregious was Graham Zusi over Javi Morales, no RSL love.

After the Mike Magee MVP announcement @SoccerYankDan and I had a back and forth on twitter regarding the disappointment/embarrassment if the last two winners aren’t in Brazil. I can’t think of any other top league in the world where their POY is not a past or present fixture on their country’s national team. If Wondo and Magee don’t make it (that’s if Magee doesn’t join the Irish team) it’s a bigger embarrassment for the league than any ratings issue.

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