Tactical Analysis

Brute Force, Little Skill on Display at MLS Cup Final

Sporting Kansas City defeated Real Salt Lake to take the MLS crown, but neither team played exciting soccer on the frozen field. ASN resident tactician breaks it down for you here.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
December 08, 2013
5:56 PM
KANSAS CITY, Kan.—The MLS Cup final featured plenty of spectacle, but very little about the actual soccer was impressive.

Conditions at Sporting Park were prohibitive, but Sporting Kansas City’s penalty win over Real Salt Lake will not be seen as a classic among fans who expect quality out of final matches.

The beginning of the match foreshadowed the attritional nature of its progression, as Lawrence Olum had to come on for Oriol Rosell in the eighth minute due to injury, making it the earliest substitution in league final history. From there, the major talking points were the number of fouls and whether Aurelien Collin should have even been on the field to score the equalizer or take his winning penalty after a possible second cautionable offense in the second half.

As a result of Rosell’s departure, RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman exerted Rosell’s usual tempo control in midfield, and Javier Morales found space to receive the ball more often. RSL tried to play on the floor more than the home team, combining through midfield on a couple occasions, but Sporting was content to knock the ball into the box whenever possible.

It may have been a missed opportunity for RSL, as Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen revealed after the game that he was playing with broken ribs. He moved very slowly on the frozen ground, looking clearly uncomfortable until the penalty shootout, which was his best section of the game.

Crosses, Crosses, Crosses

The brunt of Sporting’s pressure in the attacking half came from its crosses. Kansas City was far more effective on its cross attempts, completing 12 of 33, while Real Salt Lake only found its intended target once in 10 attempts. Of those 12 Sporting completions, nine led directly to shots.

RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando was up to the task on most occasions, but his defense allowed too many opportunities in behind. The most notable were C.J. Sapong’s off a free kick early in the second half that he skied over the bar, and Graham Zusi’s blast that Rimando leapt deftly to tip over in extra time.

Salt Lake weathered the storm in the first half and carved out quality chances on the break, mostly through the middle of the field. Luis Gil slipped Alvaro Saborio into the area with a short pass through the defense in the 32nd minute, but Nielsen was quick off his line for once to smother it.

Dom Dwyer was largely invisible on Saturday, as he could not find the space to get up for crosses as the target forward. He forced Rimando into two saves, but one was clearly offside on a Matt Besler throughball.

The jewel of created chances in the match was Kyle Beckerman’s no-look pass to Saborio on top of the penalty area that the Costa Rican turned and fired into the goal. But later in the half, Collin headed home a corner kick, executing on Kansas City’s propensity for moving the ball into the box.

Strange Free Kick

RSL’s one completed cross came on a Morales free kick in the 36th minute:

It was a strange piece of defending from Collin that left the rest of his teammates confused and called Nielsen to contest with three players on the chipped ball inside the six-yard box. Saborio got his head on it but could not nod it toward a gaping goal.

As Morales lined up the ball about 30 yards from goal, Sporting held a high line toward the top of the penalty area. If Morales shot from this distance, Nielsen should have had plenty of time to see it and stop it. However, remember that he played the whole game with broken ribs on his right side. Collin’s dash to cover the post on that side could have been due to that injury, hoping to prevent Nielsen from diving there. In any case, as Morales began his run, Collin sprinted back to the goal line, leaving the rest of his teammates on top of the penalty area.

Take a look at Nielsen’s positioning here. He covers half the goal, while Collin covers the half on his afflicted side. Of course, the Salt Lake players see that they can no longer be offside and charge into the six-yard box while Morales is still in his run-up to the ball.

Three of them get in behind without players following.

In the end, Morales’ service lacked quality. If he drove the ball instead of floating it, Nielsen would have had a harder time dealing with the players in his path. He could essentially shoot the ball on target at knee or chest height, looking for any sort of deflection.

Collin’s positioning makes him useless for dealing with aerial threats, essentially giving RSL a four-on-one (plus the goalkeeper) advantage in the six-yard area. The lack of offside should deter teams from putting players on the post in free-kick situations because it creates havoc for the goalkeeper, whose greatest advantage—hands—is nullified if he can’t see the ball.

Stuck in a Style

It’s not in Salt Lake’s nature to hit hopeful balls into the box, but had it adopted that strategy on Saturday, the result could have been different. With Nielsen hobbling around his goal area, it seemed any shot on target that wasn’t within half a step of him on either side would go in.

The decision to move to a longer game doesn’t mean whacking the ball long from all parts to get it into the box. A greater concentration of runners into the area and low, driven balls (especially cutback crosses) could have given Sporting major problems.

It’s the same reason recreational youth players find success when they hit the ball long over and over. With a useless goalkeeper, anything that forces him to make a tough decision magnifies the possibility of goals.

After the game, Morales offered no apologies for sticking to the same style.

“We don’t know to play another way,” he said. “We have that kind of player, we have that kind of idea. We believe in that soccer, so we have to keep doing it.”

At the same time, a little tactical adaptability could have seen RSL walking out of Sporting Park with its second MLS Cup. Forcing long balls and hoping for knockdowns because of a lack of ideas is one thing—it’s another to make a conscious decision to change based on what opponents present.

The Weather Factor

The game on Saturday could not have come at a better time, with discussions of MLS changing to a fall-to-spring calendar ramping up more than ever. MLS commissioner Don Garber still seemed determined to implement the change during his halftime interview with ESPN, saying, “it’s really not an if, it’s a when” it will happen.

But RSL’s performance, not to mention the brutal and borderline unbearable conditions for fans, exemplifies why it’s such a bad idea. Teams in warmer climates, such as Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and Portugal, traditionally play more tactically rich soccer than other nations where the mercury drops farther.

For the United States to progress in its level of play and lure more hardcore soccer fans to the league, the game has to be played in decent weather. Frozen fields don’t encourage free-flowing, attractive soccer; they promote brutal physical battles.

The teams that played on Saturday showed the difference weather makes:


The more passing-oriented RSL suffered as the weather got worse throughout the season, with both its possession percentage and passing accuracy dropping over time. Kansas City, on the other hand, continued at the same clip for much of the season.

Sporting played direct soccer the last couple seasons despite manager Peter Vermes’ supposed Spanish influence. The weather and field conditions on Saturday directly contributed to Kansas City’s victory, and RSL’s inability to play.

To attract more fans, MLS must encourage more play like RSL’s typical style and less like Kansas City’s. Otherwise, the large group of American soccer fans who watch the top leagues in Europe will continue to stay away.

Liviu Bird is ASN’s resident tactical expert. He also writes for SoccerWire.com and will be providing World Cup coverage from an American perspective for The London Telegraph. Follow him on Twitter.

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