5
Dec

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.

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“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.

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“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)

25
Nov

Breakdown of the MLS Conference Finals

imageKansas City earned home field for MLS Cup 2013 (Image: USA Today)

Nineteen teams clubs started the season with a dream of lifting MLS Cup. Only two teams can fulfill that objective when the final takes place on Dec. 7.

Both of them earned their spots in that one-off encounter with their displays this season and their performances this weekend. Sporting Kansas City earned the right to host the league’s showpiece fixture by dispatching its playoff demons against Houston on Saturday. Real Salt Lake secured its trip to Sporting Park on Sunday with a professional victory at Portland.

The holiday-enforced interlude provides plenty of time for both sides to recover from their exertions at the weekend and start their preparations for the task ahead. The end is in sight after a long campaign. Now it is just a matter of determining which side can write the perfect conclusion.

Sporting Kansas City 2 – Houston 1 (Sporting wins series 2-1 on aggregate)

Midfield balance shifted in Sporting’s favor: Houston entered the second leg at Sporting Park without the injured Ricardo Clark (left knee sprain) to cover his usual ground in central midfield. Clark’s absence forced Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear to alter his usual shape to inject an extra man into central midfield. The adjustment could not stop Sporting from exploiting the spaces usually covered by Clark, though. Benny Feilhaber and Graham Zusi carved out openings with their incessant movement and eventually found a way to use that space profitably. Feilhaber’s work on the winner – including a free run through midfield and a neat clip through the line for Dom Dwyer – highlighted the Dynamo’s limitations on the night and sent Sporting through to MLS Cup on home soil.

Portland 0 – Real Salt Lake 1 (RSL wins series 5-2 on aggregate)

Real Salt Lake dictates terms, quells Timbers: RSL submitted a ruthlessly professional performance by forcing the home side into difficult areas and funneling the play into areas where it could thrive. Portland sent cross after cross – the high, hanging kind, not the low, tempting sort usually preferred – for Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler to clear dutifully because it could not suss out room for its usual combination play in and through the line. It found itself exposed at the back by RSL’s willingness to employ the width of the field on the break to avoid the Timbers’ usually influential midfield three. The emphasis on stretching the play horizontally (plus a poor turnover) created the game’s only goal. RSL saw out the game and the tie from there by adhering to its strengths and showing Portland how to march through a playoff match on home soil.

imageRSL are headed to their second-ever MLS Cup after winning in 2009.

23
Nov

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.

11
Nov

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.

9
Nov

MLS Cup Playoffs: Previewing the Conference finals

imageAfter squeaking past New England, a date with the Dynamo beckons for Sporting KC (Images: USA Today)

The achievement of advancing to the MLS conference championship comes with a significant caveat: there isn’t any time to relish it.

MLS found itself bound by an awkwardly placed FIFA date in the middle of November when it compiled its playoff schedule. Those strictures – complete with potential international duties for for some players next weekend – forced the league to compress the schedule to play the second leg of the conference semifinals in midweek and the first leg of the conference championships at the weekend.

The rather peculiar nature of this tie – compressed time frame at the start, yet two weeks between the first leg and the second leg – could naturally prompt some caution by all four sides still involved. Three of these four sides enter this fray after playing 120 minutes just a few days ago. Houston, in particular, must figure out a way to manage its fifth match in two weeks against a Sporting side capable of exerting high pressure from the start.

At this stage, the fundamental objective involves keeping the tie in play after the first leg to benefit from the fortnight off to recover. Other priorities – including the key questions outlined below and the prospect of taking a commanding first leg lead – fall a bit lower in the pecking order with a MLS Cup berth on the line during the third weekend in November.

Houston – Sporting Kansas City (Saturday, 2:30p.m. ET)

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Is there a way for Sporting to exploit Corey Ashe’s absence?: Ashe received a one-match ban for caution accumulation when he picked up his second yellow card of the postseason at New York on Wednesday. His absence leaves Houston short on the left side (Mike Chabala offers the most likely replacement in a straight swap) and offers Sporting with a potential avenue to exploit. Sporting prefers to focus on its defensive duties away from home (and Ashe’s missing influence on the overlap with Brad Davis certainly helps here), but Ashe’s omission could entice some adjustments in Sporting’s midfield. Look for the industrious Graham Zusi to drift over to that side of the field to probe for space and use that channel to create room through the middle and provide service into the penalty area.

One other point worth noting with Ashe out: the onus will fall on Boniek Garcia and Kofi Sarkodie to bear most of the attacking burden on the right side. Garcia’s ability to tuck inside with Sarkodie on the overlap – plus Davis’ willingness to pinch on the far side when he does so – creates structural issues for Sporting defensively. If the Honduran international can locate the ball on a regular basis without suffering the inevitable foul in the middle third, then he could present significant problems for the normally resolute Sporting rearguard.

Real Salt Lake – Portland (Sunday, 9:00p.m. ET)

imageCan Robbie Findley pull apart the Timbers’ defensive shape?: Findley must fill the role once inhabited by former RSL forward Fabián Espíndola and use his time on the field to create operating room for others. Findley’s ability to dart behind the line and peel off into wider areas poses matchup problems for a Timbers side with a dearth of pace and tactical discipline in central defense and a desire to push its fullbacks forward to support the attack. Javier Morales will do his part by sliding out to the left to avoid Diego Chara and Will Johnson, but Findley must provide similar runs on the right to break apart the Timbers’ rearguard. It is then down to the supporting cast to deliver service into the penalty area with the Timbers stretched and Álvaro Saborío (if recovered from the hip flexor knock aggravated on Thursday night) or a midfield runner or two (see: Sebastián Velásquez’s opener against LA Galaxy) to benefit from the chaos created.

7
Nov

Portland vs Seattle. Here. We. Go.

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We all love our rivalry games. El Clasico. El Superclasico. Manchester derby. Bayern-Dortmund. Roma-Lazio. Boca-River.

In North America, the best we have is in the Pacific Northwest: Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders. And tonight, for one last time this season, they will battle. This time it’s in the playoffs, with a spot in the conference final on the line. Not only that, but it’s Portland’s first-ever MLS playoff match at home, and they hold a one-goal lead heading into this second leg. Are you getting the shakes just thinking about it?

With so much at stake, it would be amiss to not get you pumped up with an awesome super-fan video. This short film gives an inside look into the Timbers Army, and what goes into making their famous tifos. It also follows a group of 1500 die-hards to a rivalry match in Seattle, one of the loudest places on Earth. It really captures the intensity and importance of the rivalry, and there couldn’t be a better appetizer to tonight’s match!

7
Nov

Columbus Crew roll dice with Gregg Berhalter hiring

Columbus investor Anthony Precourt purchased the Crew in July with a grand vision for his new club. He found himself in the market for a new coach by September. He wanted to use this opportunity to continue the cultural and the structural evolution he commenced when he took charge.

Precourt and club president Mark McCullers searched far and wide for the man to lead this charge. They discussed the opening with the cognoscenti of American soccer — US Soccer president Sunil Gulati and CEO Dan Flynn, former US Soccer secretary general Hank Steinbrecher included — and former Crew stars Guillermo Barros Schelotto (a candidate), Brad Friedel (also a candidate) and Brian McBride. They started with a broad list and whittled it down. And then they made their emphatic decision.

The two men extolled the virtues of former US international defender Gregg Berhalter when they named him head coach and sporting director on Wednesday. They lauded his desire to construct this club brick-by-analytical-brick. They noted the need for cohesive and consistent procedures to foster success year after year. They tasked him with the burden of two jobs and the responsibility of performing both of them well.

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Former USA and LA Galaxy standout Gregg Berhalter will manage the Crew next season (Image: German Alegria/MLS).

“We talked a lot about different structures,” Precourt said during a conference call. “The structure needed to match the person’s skill set. I feel just overwhelmingly confident that Gregg was the man to handle both. He has a soccer mind. When you talk to him, you just see he has the perspective of a sporting director and a head coach. I think it’s efficient in terms of making decisions. It creates a sense of accountability.”

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6
Nov

MLS Cup Playoffs Preview: Conference semifinals 2nd legs

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – New England coach Jay Heaps captured the fraught nature of the toil ahead over the next two days as he assessed the Revolution’s situation ahead of the season-defining visit to Sporting Kansas City tonight.

“There’s a lot of work (ahead),” Heaps said earlier this week after his side claimed a 2-1 victory in the first leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal tie on Saturday. “These are playoff scenarios in MLS: you have to be ready for halftime, basically. It’s just a long halftime. It’s a tough task. We have a couple of days to prepare. We’ll go in there ready.”

The entire season for eight teams boils down to the second half of a two-game, aggregate goals series. Each of the four semifinals – yes, even Portland up 2-1 heading into a second leg at JELD-WEN Field – hangs firmly in the balance after the first half. The job isn’t done yet, though. And the way these teams see out the second half will determine the composition of the final four when the last of these conference semifinal ties winds to a close on Friday morning.

New York – Houston (Wednesday, 8:00p.m. – tied 2-2 on aggregate)

How – if at all – will Houston adjust to Jamison Olave’s absence?
New York must take the field without its defensive leader after he procured a red card for his rash lunge on Omar Cummings during the first leg.  The corresponding alterations – Markus Holgersson into the middle, Brandon Barklage to fill the void at right back – appear relatively straightforward from the Red Bulls’ point of view. Houston’s amended approach remains a bit more uncertain, though. The most straightforward play involves dropping Giles Barnes or Will Bruin and injecting a bit of pace, but the Dynamo – tried and true in the postseason – could find other ways to exploit the deficiencies without altering its personnel group.

New England – Sporting Kansas City (Wednesday, 9:00p.m. – New England leads 2-1 on aggregate)

Can Sporting Kansas City muster the necessary sharpness in front of goal?
The question isn’t whether Sporting will produce the chance or two required to pull this tie level. The home side will enjoy enough of the ball and send enough numbers forward to threaten at some point. Whether this group can finally break through when presented with the requisite opportunity remains uncertain. If Sporting fails to find its equalizer in due course, then its ambition could prove its undoing with the Revs more than capable of absorbing the pressure with its stout defensive shape and exploiting the resulting space with tidy work on the counter.

Real Salt Lake – LA Galaxy (Thursday, 9:00p.m. – LA Galaxy leads 1-0 on aggregate)

Will Real Salt Lake find a way to translate its possession into goals?
Big matches at Rio Tinto Stadium often unfold along the same, frustrating lines for the home side: plenty of the ball, not enough incisiveness. The infuriating recent history provides further incentive to start well and place the Galaxy under the sword from the outset. The desire to rectify past ills comes with a caveat, though: RSL must carefully monitor where it concedes possession in order to prevent the visitors from dashing through midfield or exploiting the additional space ceded on the edge by penalty area with the return to the 4-4-2 diamond setup.

Portland – Seattle (Thursday, 11:00p.m. – Portland leads 2-1 on aggregate)

How often will Seattle place Clint Dempsey in a position to change this series?
Dempsey posed a constant threat in the first leg without converting in front of goal. Any improbable revival effort – and it is decidedly against the odds given Portland’s formidable home record and its ability to see out these sorts of matches with its work in possession – hinges on whether Dempsey can turn those openings into a more tangible end product. Seattle paid Dempsey handsomely to deliver in these sorts of spots. The formation and the team selection must provide him with the latitude to do so.

4
Nov

MLS Cup Playoffs: What we learned from Conference Semifinal 1st legs

imageImages: USA Today

LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena summed up the tenuous state of the MLS Conference Semifinal ties in his typically succinct way on Sunday night.

“I’d rather be the team ahead,” Arena told reporters after his side claimed a 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake in Carson, Calif. “These are always difficult matches. All the games in the league are all competitive going into the second game. It’s going to be difficult. Obviously, having the one goal is a real plus, but it’s going to take a heck of an effort in the next 90 minutes.”

It took plenty of energy to even reach the halfway point in these series, truth be told. All eight teams enter midweek with genuine hopes of booking a place in the final four, but they must heed the lessons learned from a nervy weekend in order to claim it:

New England 2 – Sporting Kansas City 1

Precision provides Revolution with a foothold: New England ceded possession by design (38 percent accrued on the night, according to Opta statistics) in this first leg in a bid to draw Sporting out and exploit the ensuing space. Sporting, for the most part, resisted those urges and retained its shape superbly, but two lapses – one iffy clearance, one instance of poor closing through midfield – invited the Revs to attack swiftly. The tidiness displayed in those sequences – particularly the sumptuous second rounded off by Kelyn Rowe’s outside of the foot finish – punished Sporting for its modest letdowns. If the Revs can produce similarly neat combination play as Sporting eventually commits numbers into the attack on Wednesday night, then they could book a place in the Eastern Conference championship.

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2
Nov

MLS Cup Playoffs: Conference Semifinals Preview

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Consider the Knockout Round games in midweek as a modest appetizer for the entertainment to come this weekend. The path toward MLS Cup commences in earnest at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night as the final eight sides prepare for the first leg of the conference semifinals.

Each of the four ties possesses the same governing principles (two-legged, aggregate goal series with the potential tiebreakers of two 15-minute extra time periods and penalty kicks after the second leg) and turns on different particulars.

The outcomes will not hinge on the results this weekend, but the answer to one specific question could provide a telling glimpse about the result in the first match and the eventual winner of the tie in midweek:

New England – Sporting Kansas City (Saturday, 8:00p.m. ET)

Can New England find a way to break quickly?

Sporting Kansas City commits numbers into the attack for two reasons: it needs the extra bodies to pose problems and it wants to win the ball high up the field when the opposition wins possession. Those structural concessions create ample room to counter, particularly when Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic foray forward to provide width. There are a couple of ways to exploit the holes – quick inside-out passes through the middle back into the vacated space, long vertical balls down the side line – yet Sporting does a particularly good job of preventing opposing teams from pursuing those avenues by breaking up the play and closing down quickly. New England must find a way to move concisely and neatly enough out of the back to avoid those issues and spark their usually tidy work through the middle of the park.

Seattle – Portland (Saturday, 10:00p.m.)

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Is it really a matter of three versus two in central midfield?

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