Monday, August 08, 2016

Could Sporting Learn Something From Portland Yesterday?

The title is a loaded question, because there is plenty that Sporting Kansas City can learn from the game yesterday against the Portland Timbers, but there is one specific thing that I want to focus on. Sporting's offense again struggled in a road game, recording just three shots on goal against a team playing without its starting center backs and playing almost 30 minutes with a man advantage (failing to record a single shot on goal during the time up a man). The 3-0 loss was their 10 straight on the road without a win and third straight road loss. In those 10 games, Kansas City has scored just a single goal.

The one thing that I specifically want to focus on in the game was Portland's formation. For most of this season, Portland has played a 4-5-1/4-3-3 hybrid, similar to what Kansas City plays. Diego Valeri would be at the point of the midfield with Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Melano usually out wide behind Fanendo Adi. Behind the trio is the pairing of Diego Chara and either Ben Zemanski or Jack Jewsbury. In the past this lineup has allowed for Portland's speed on the wings to really help them get forward. Yesterday though Portland abandoned their traditional formation in favor of a standard 4-4-2 formation with two central midfielders and two wingers. As I was listening to the game on the radio (running late, missed the first five minutes on television) Taylor Twellman mentioned that Caleb Porter had mentioned how while Jack McInerney partnering Adi may not have given them the strongest midfield, he had made the change to get his finishers on the field for the game. Now granted, much of that plan was shot by the 12th minute red card to Diego Chara, but Portland basically stayed with the four man midfield after the red card with McInerney dropping deeper. What the formation did is that it put Valeri out on the wing where he was able to get himself more space isolated away from Kansas City's three central midfielders of Roger Espinoza, Benny Feilhaber, and Soni Mustivar. Going against Kansas City's outside back he was able to float around more when he didn't have the ball. On the opposite wing Nagbe gave the Timbers an option on both wings to be a threat going forward and playing balls for Adi (and McInerney if the red card hadn't occurred).

Meanwhile Kansas City again threw out the wing pairing of Connor Hallisey and Jacob Peterson, a pairing that's not exactly going to cause any dread for the opposing wingbacks. Hallisey had another rough game, one game after looking stronger against Portland, Hallisey looked lost and not sure what to do with the ball a lot of times when he received it. When KC was up a man it seemed like Portland was dictating play for Kansas City to go through Hallisey, trying to force the second year pro to be the one to beat them. On the other wing, Peterson has been in some fine form, but has been a "squad" player his entire career, a guy that can give you a good shift out there; help the team out, but in the end isn't going to be very impressive. These are Kansas City's starting wingers at the moment with Graham Zusi, Brad Davis, and Justin Mapp all still recovering from injury.

With this current situation with the wing, the thought again turns to changing the formation. It's been a popular talking point for a while now among Kansas City fans, going away from the 4-3-3 that Peter Vermes has been true to since he took over the club back in 2009. He's worked to build rosters year in and year out that can play in that formation, that can work the way he wants that formation to work. This year though Kansas City isn't really getting that second goal scorer from the wing that Vermes has always seemed to have in the past. From CJ Sapong, to Kei Kamara, to Krisztian Nemeth, it seems that KC has always had a secondary scoring threat on the wing (minus 2014 when Dom Dwyer carried the Kansas City offense himself). In the current crop of wingers on the team though there really isn't that goal scorer, Davis, Hallisey, Mapp, and Zusi are all pure wingers that are going to look to go wide first and shoot second. The closest KC has is Peterson who has a career high of four goals in a league season and just 19 league goals over his 10 year career.

The answer it would seem with this group of wingers that Kansas City needs to play with two forwards on the field, adding Chilean Diego Rubio to the starting 11. Against Portland down a goal, Vermes put Rubio and Dwyer on the field together for the first time all season in the 78th minute. The introduction of Rubio led to a very good spell of play by Kansas City and some of their better chances late in the game when they had two forwards and were really pushing the game looking for an equalizer. Considering that this may well be only the second time that Dwyer has had a partner up top since he became the regular starter (Dwyer and Claudio Bieler were only on the field together for one to two games during Bieler's tenure), it's not something that Vermes really attempts to do much.

Let's ignore for a second the improbability of Vermes changing formations to a 4-3-3 (it's his stubbornness to change formations that has caused me to laugh off any ideas of changing formations over the last few years) and take a look at exactly how that lineup would look. For that I point you directly to Portland's lineup yesterday. Their normally attacking midfielder, Valeri (Benny Feilhaber) was on one wing with Nagbe (Peterson until Zusi is ready to start) on the other.  Behind those two and central, basically creating an "empty bucket" midfield would be Espinoza and Mustivar. Then you have your box-to-box and your stay at home defensive midfielder both on the field. Espinoza gets the freedom to roam the same way Chara has with Jewsbury on the field. That would allow Sporting to get Rubio on the field with Dwyer to try to boost the offense. It would also be something different to throw at opposing teams that are used to seeing Vermes consistently throw out the same time.

With everyone healthy, it would also allow Kansas City to do something with Hallisey to try and boost his confidence. Hallisey has shown flashes at times on the field, but many times has looked like he's a step slow or just lacking for confidence. A switch in formation (that would see Feilhaber spending time on one wing) would put less reliance on needing him to regularly contribute and allow Kansas City to loan him to Swope Park where he could look to build up his confidence.

There are some draw backs to this formation (beside the fact that I don't think Vermes would do it). The change in formation would see Kansas City give up a lot in the middle of the field. So much of Kansas City's play involves controlling the middle of the field, keeping the other team moving the ball there looking for a turnover. Switching from the three man to a two man central midfield would see Kansas City conceding more ground in the middle and would see a drop in possession, probably not in the 72% to 28% variety that KC had on Portland yesterday, but the formation change would also need to come with a philosophy change when that formation is played. KC would likely need to change the way that they high press if they were to run with this formation, the midfield isn't going to have the same bite, especially when they would play against teams who still employ the three man center midfield (which is quite a few).

Another issue would be on the bench where Kansas City would be back to where they were last year in terms of bench depth; they'd have no one on the bench to really give a spark in terms of goal scoring. Sure Davis and Mapp have scored their fair share, and a healthy Zusi would allow Peterson to be a sub off the bench, but in a tie game or losing, the hope that maybe a goal would be found on the bench really wouldn't exist, similar to the 2015 season.

While I don't expect any change in Vermes' strategy to come, having a formation that he trusts to throw out could be very beneficial to the team. Kansas City threw out the 3-4-3 at times in a game earlier this season to some decent success; it caused issues for the LA Galaxy to adjust to after expecting the traditional 4-3-3. Doing something out of the box to catch an opposing team off guard would be a good way to change the team's fortunes on the road.


Anonymous said...

Hallisey has to go. I don't care what formation we play, but Hallisey is one of the worst guys I've seen in a Sporting kit who gets as many minutes as he does. It's pathetic.

Unknown said...

I'd like to see 3-5-2 Besler-Opara-Coehlo/Medranda-Espinoza-Mustivar-Feilhaber-Abdul Salaam/Rubio-Dwyer ... could put Zusi in or Myers for Abdul Salaam. Also Davis and Peterson possible at wings or forward. Still have Olum and Nagamura also for Defender or Midfield. Not counting on Mapp for anything.

Ky said...