MLS Cup: Tactical Preview

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Most of the focus in the buildup to MLS Cup lingered on the apparent and substantive differences between the two teams.

It comes straight from the stock identities imposed for the ease of assessment and classification. Real Salt Lake cobbles together long sequences in possession with its vaunted 4-4-2 formation. Sporting Kansas City disrupts its opposition and wins the ball in good areas to spur the attack in its 4-3-3 setup.

Those observations are all well and good, but they fail to capture the nuances ahead in Saturday afternoon’s final. Both teams are complete, well-rounded outfits capable of operating at a high standard in several different ways. They have their strengths and their weaknesses like all outfits, but they perform proficiently in most departments.

By establishing an effective baseline in a variety of scenarios, RSL and Sporting navigated through the postseason and reached the final match of the campaign. They must now figure out how to dictate terms against an equally competent opponent and seize those rare moments when they can exploit the opposition to determine the outcome of a tense, tight affair.

1. Establishing the basic operating principles: The bitterly cold conditions, the potentially slippery surface and the significant stakes at hand require a return to fundamentals first and foremost. Both sides must avoid mistakes (particularly on set pieces, a strength and a worry on both ends) and maintain their composure for the duration of the affair. They must also grapple earnestly to ensure their potential advantages are not squandered for reasons solely within their dominion.

“It’ll definitely be a physical affair,” Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “For Kansas City, all 11 players play really hard and tough. That’s what we’re going to have to try and match. I’m expecting a really physical game.”

2. Breaking Sporting’s relentless pressure: Sporting manifests its robust approach to the game in two particular ways: it fouls intelligently to break up coherent movements through midfield and it presses earnestly to close down space and gain possession in good spots.

RSL must find a way to cope with Sporting’s inevitable desire to interrupt its usual cadence in possession. No MLS team is better than Sporting at stopping the other team from playing through the center of the park. The visitors must move the ball quickly and tidily in order to relieve the pressure, settle into their preferred rhythm and string together the sequences required to create chances from the run of play.

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Feilhaber finds his footing at the right time for Sporting KC

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Benny Feilhaber thrives when he discerns his role and finds his comfort level with it. It showed with the U.S. national team under Bob Bradley. It showed during his time in Denmark with Aarhus. And it shows now with Sporting Kansas City after a bumpy first season with the club.

Feilhaber said he spent the first half of the campaign trying to adjust to his surroundings and figure out how and where he fit into Peter Vermes’ plans. He allotted some time to make the transition from the more direct approach in New England during the second half of last season to the high-pressure, midfield-intensive system preferred in his new home. He did not bear the burden he carried with the Revs as a highly-touted, ill-fitting acquisition to strengthen the midfield, but he also did not possess the familiarity required to function consistently within his new surroundings, either.


“I definitely didn’t feel at ease at any time,” Feilhaber said before Sporting went through its paces on a frigid Thursday morning. “It was a lot about being as mentally prepared as I could because I didn’t fully get the system. It wasn’t second hand or second nature. There was a lot of thinking during games. I think it was noticeable. It was also something I expected, to take a little bit of time to get used to the system and get used to all of the players around here.”

It took until August for Feilhaber to entrench himself in the side again after rather intermittent usage during the middle third of the season. He started nine consecutive games before making way for the three of the final four fixtures and the first playoff game at New England. He returned to the lineup after Lawrence Olum picked up an injury and prompted Vermes to turn to Feilhaber for a more ambitious approach in central midfield to overturn the first-leg deficit.

The shift from a more conservative midfield three to a more balanced shape – Uri Rosell as the deep-lying conduit, Paulo Nagamura as the industrious, box-to-box plugger and Feilhaber as the technically gifted link with the front three – aligns with Feilhaber’s strengths and permits him to function as a valuable complementary piece. He isn’t expected the carry the load, with creative fulcrum Graham Zusi roving throughout the attacking half from his nominal berth on the right and the influential Nagamura around to reinforce the structure. He locates spaces and mines them efficiently without disrupting the cadence of his teammates. Every so often, he even tracks back into his own end to make a critical tackle or stick with a midfield runner.


“We’ve gone back to the middle ground,” Feilhaber said. “I’ve found my feet a little bit more. Now that I understand the system, it makes all the difference.”

Feilhaber’s contributions during the Eastern Conference championship against Houston – including two match-winning assists and one lung-busting run to snuff out a Dynamo counter – underscore his value. He embraces and understands the demands placed upon him. Now he just needs to meet them once again in order to help his side defeat Real Salt Lake and win MLS Cup on Saturday.

“I’ve settled in,” Feilhaber said. “Peter has given me a few more opportunities. I just have to do as well as I can with the opportunity. Going into the final, it’s the same thing.”

(Images courtesy: US Presswire)


MLS Conference Finals: Second Leg Previews

Scheduling complications left MLS to inject a two-week break into the normally congested postseason. The extended respite fell at a rather inopportune juncture for the four remaining sides and for the league itself. Any momentum – real, perceived or otherwise – dissipated with the protracted break.

It is down to all involved parties to generate the rhythm created during the early stages of the postseason ahead of this decisive weekend. The situation offers little room for error. The precarious state of both ties – Houston and Sporting Kansas City enter the return leg level after a scoreless draw, while Real Salt Lake visits Portland with a 4-2 aggregate lead – leaves just about any sequence of events on the table.

The final outcome rests upon how these sides react to their protracted layoff and shoulder the pressures inherent in these do-or-die situations. It is incumbent on these teams to discern the answers to the questions ahead – including the one key query outlined below – and secure their places in MLS Cup by Sunday night.

Sporting Kansas City – Houston (Saturday, 7:30p.m. ET – series tied 0-0 on aggregate)

Can Sporting keep its mental and tactical balance? Sporting will hope to dump the Dynamo out of the postseason at the third attempt in front of an expectant Sporting Park. The home side must change the dynamic from the last couple of playoff meetings – applying pressure from the start, permitting the frustration to distract when it does not yield results and watching the visitors break them on the counter – in order to complete the task. Comportment and discipline serve as the keys to success. Sporting must push earnestly without losing faith in its ability to garner results or its shape when it searches for goals. If Peter Vermes’ outfit can remember its core principles, then it could finally vanquish its playoff demons.

Portland – Real Salt Lake (Sunday, 9:00p.m. ET) – RSL leads series 4-2 on aggregate)

Can Portland reduce Kyle Beckerman’s influence on the game? Beckerman serves as the critical cog in RSL’s finely tuned possession engine. He always floats into the proper spots to provide an outlet and moves the ball quickly and efficiently. His tidy presence in front of the back four allows RSL to generate its cadence on the ball. In this fraught scenario, RSL must find its fluidity at different points in the game to maintain its control over the tie.

image Beckerman is the man who pulls the strings for RSL (Image: USA Today)

Portland must find a way to disrupt Beckerman’s ability to function as a conduit during those crucial sequences by closing down his time and space on the ball. If Beckerman cannot exert his usual influence on the proceedings, then RSL – and Javier Morales, in particular – will struggle to combine effectively, move higher up the field for extended stretches and relieve the tension created when the Timbers commit their usual numbers forward. And those operating principles could open the door for a great escape by the home side.


What we learned: MLS conference championships, 1st legs

Images: USA Today

Philosophical differences rose to the forefront as the Eastern and Western Conference championships kicked off this weekend. Pragmatism ruled in Houston. Idealism triumphed in Sandy. And the two matches adhered to those principles as they unfolded.

Houston and Sporting Kansas City leaned on the experience gained in their recent playoff meetings to guide them through this tricky first leg tie. They knew an error or two in the first leg could prove costly given the tattered state of play. And they pursued the match accordingly.

Real Salt Lake and Portland adopted a more ambitious deportment and chased after a result ardently. The endeavor ultimately benefited the home side and left the Timbers with considerable work ahead to turn the tie around in the second leg.

The two disparate approaches ensured some difference in the ties without settling either of them. There is work still left to do for all four teams. And now it is up to all four teams to devise the approach required to advance to MLS Cup in two weeks’ time.

Houston 0 – Sporting Kansas City 0 (second leg: Nov. 23 in Kansas City, Kan.)

Both teams scrap for level pegging: The previous two playoff encounters and the exhaustive toil in midweek inspired a note of caution ahead of the first leg. Both teams entered the tie willing enough to muddle through to keep their chances alive in the second leg. It showed in the approach (rugged as usual from both sides) and the execution (neither team topped 65 percent passing accuracy, according to Opta statistics) during this ugly affair. The final result left both sides relatively satisfied. Now the onus will fall upon both of them to recover over the next two weeks and stump up a bit more incisiveness ahead of the return match.

Real Salt Lake 4 – Portland 2 (second leg: Nov. 24 in Portland, Ore.)

RSL uses tempo and width to tear apart the Timbers: Credit the Claret-and-Cobalt for assessing the landscape in this test against the fatigued visitors and tailoring its game plan accordingly. The usually narrow and tidy work through midfield transformed into a more expansive gambit using the wide areas consistently. RSL bombarded the Timbers penalty area with crosses (14 in the first half, according to Opta statistics) and tried to play behind the line early and often (see: Devon Sandoval’s sweeping third on the counter shortly after halftime) with Robbie Findley a constant menace. Portland buckled under the pressure and succumbed to RSL’s sharp work in every department. The job isn’t done yet, but RSL’s astute work at home – and, most importantly, its assured and furious response to Will Johnson’s opener – offers a firm foothold ahead of the difficult second leg at JELD-WEN Field in a fortnight.


USA midfielder Graham Zusi deemed a saint by Mexican fans


(Image courtesy @SportingKC)

After the United States saved Mexico’s bacon in World Cup qualifying, the response south of the border was incredible.

When American consul Graham Zusi headed his stoppage-time goal into the back of the net, he became an international icon.

Hailed as a hero isn’t much of a surprise, but a saint? It seems like a bit much, but it’s the truth. During training with his club team, Sporting Kansas City, Mexico’s latest religious icon found himself showered with gifts.


(Image courtesy @SportingKC)

That’s right, a group of El Tri supporters anointed “Saint” Zusi on Thursday, complete with a massive sombrero.

The outpouring of gratitude has been an awesome bonus for the USMNT, but we’re still waiting to see if Panama has an opposite but equal reaction.


All to play for as race to MLS playoffs heats up


Image courtesy of Getty.

There are few certainties in the MLS playoff race heading into the final two weekends of the season. New York and Sporting Kansas City will take part. Several other teams will join them. A few more will miss out entirely.

Further verdicts remain difficult to draw. The compressed standings in both conferences create the possibility of widespread upheaval with one result going either way. There are likelihoods in play, but no firm guidelines to set forth with just a fortnight remaining.

At this stage of the campaign, favors fall upon teams willing to dispatch their business accordingly. There are few guarantees on the table right now, but this one is etched in stone: a pair of victories will improve your position substantially heading into the postseason.

New York, Sporting Kansas City, Houston jostle for top three seeds in the East


Remaining fixtures

RBNY: at Houston, vs. Chicago

SKC: vs. D.C. United, at Philadelphia

HOU: vs. New York, at D.C. United

New York holds a slim advantage in the race for top spot heading into the final two weeks, but a defeat in Houston on Sunday could break the race wide open. Sporting Kansas City could apply further pressure with a straightforward home victory over D.C. United on Friday. A couple of extra goals would help the cause: Sporting currently sits one goal behind the Red Bulls in the goals scored category, the second tiebreaker.

If Houston collect maximum points over the Red Bulls on Sunday, the Dynamo can maintain touching distance with the top two. The third seed — barring an outright collapse by either New York or Sporting — looks more likely given the Dynamo’s current points deficit and its disadvantage in both total wins (first tiebreaker) and goals scored.

Chicago, Montréal hold narrow edges in five-way battle for fourth and fifth spot


Remaining fixtures

MTL: vs. Philadelphia, at Toronto FC

CHI: vs. Toronto FC, at New York

PHL: at Montréal, vs. Sporting Kansas City

NE: vs. Columbus, at Columbus

CLB: at New England, vs. New England

The calculus for all five of these teams is fairly simple: win two games, then see what happens. If four of these five teams embark on a season ending tear (quite unlikely, indeed), then Montréal and Chicago will stand atop the heap.

It is difficult to envision Montréal rattling off two wins in a row at this stage given its recent form (see: the reserve-laden 1-0 defeat at LA Galaxy on Wednesday), but a favorable schedule – a home match against the goal-shy Union and a visit to TFC on the final day – and a strong position on tiebreakers at least gives the Impact a fighting chance. One win might even do it. Chicago fattened up on D.C. United and FC Dallas over the past couple of weeks to move into a promising position. Another victory over Toronto FC this weekend – combined with its superior wins total – leaves the Fire in reasonable stead.

Philadelphia likely needs a minimum of four points (and likely six) from its pair of difficult assignments to have a chance. New England essentially needs six points against the Crew given the state of play, though it could edge out the Fire or the Union on goals scored if four points somehow suffices for a fifth-place tie. Columbus needs two wins against the Revs and a whole lot of losses by everyone else to have a prayer.

Four teams in the mix for top three seeds out and one nasty door prize out West


Remaining fixtures

PDX: vs. Real Salt Lake, at Chivas USA

RSL: at Portland, vs. Chivas USA

LAG: vs. San Jose, at Seattle

SEA: at FC Dallas, vs. LA Galaxy

The top two sides in the Western Conference tangle at JELD-WEN Field on Saturday with an opportunity to stake a claim to the top seed. A draw should suffice for Portland with a visit to Chivas USA on the docket to end the season, but the Timbers’ iffy road form and their wins deficit provides plenty of incentive to take care of business at home and remove all doubt. RSL remains in good shape for the second seed even with a defeat: Jason Kreis’ side closes the season at home to Chivas USA in midweek (a likely victory) and possesses an edge on goals scored over the other two contenders if Portland finishes first.

LA Galaxy and Seattle look likely to qualify for the playoffs absent a total meltdown (and the Sounders sure are trying). Their ultimate playoff fate – two v. three in some order or four vs. five – hinges on the meeting at CenturyLink Park to conclude their respective seasons. Seattle will need to finish with more points (or wins) than any of its counterparts to avoid the goals scored tiebreaker. Any type of setback in Frisco on Saturday places Seattle in a must-win spot to avoid the fourth (or even fifth) seed heading into the final weekend of the season.

Colorado, Vancouver duel to the death as San Jose hopes for a chance to pounce


Remaining fixtures

COL: vs. Vancouver, at Vancouver

SJ: at LA Galaxy, vs. FC Dallas

VAN: at Colorado, vs. Colorado

Colorado scuffed away a chance to essentially secure its playoff destiny in the 1-0 defeat at San Jose last week. Now the Rapids confront a tricky home-and-home test with a Vancouver side in line to hop over them with four points over the two matches (based on the goals scored tiebreaker). The good news for Colorado: one victory would eliminate the Whitecaps, require the Earthquakes to win both games to qualify (due to San Jose’s vastly inferior goals scored record).

San Jose needs considerable help from the Whitecaps to claim the final playoff spot due to tiebreakers. One victory in two matches would suffice if Vancouver picks up exactly four points. More than likely, the Earthquakes will need at least four (if both Colorado-Vancouver matches in draws) and probably six (in a bid to edge out a Colorado side with four points gained or a Vancouver outfit with two wins) points to snatch an improbable postseason place.


Kei Kamara returns to KC, throws party at Chipotle

Kei Kamara earned himself plenty of new admirers during his loan spell at Premier League outfit Norwich City, but Kansas City is sure glad to have him back!

After Kamara’s loan deal ended this weekend, the striker celebrated his KC homecoming by throwing a party at Chipotle. The first 100 fans who showed up were treated to a free dinner and some quality time with Kei, who even handed out some free tickets to Sporting’s next game against Seattle Sounders.

And thus, the hashtag #ChipotlePartyWithKei was born: