Tactics Remain Unchanged for Sporting KC

Sporting’s possession-based tactics have brought them massive success
by Skylar Rolstad   |   Monday, March 03, 2014

State of SKC - column on Sporting KC (SKC) & the Kansas City soccer scene.

Over this offseason I’ve been brushing up on one of my favorite parts of soccer: tactical analysis and picking apart what managers change about their approaches to each match. It is this chess match that enables Chelsea and AC Milan to beat Barcelona despite having teams millions, perhaps billions, of dollars less expensive than their own.

MLS competition isn’t quite as intricate when it comes to X’s and O’s, but the last 3 seasons have seen a quick catch-up with the rest of the world’s modern tactics.

Sporting Kansas City is one of the first teams to be renowned for any kind of tactical innovation or dependency within the league. The rest of the league has quickly followed, to be fair, with Real Salt Lake playing a very similar game, Portland Timbers playing their own brand of team-encompassing, attacking soccer, and Dominic Kinnear’s Houston Dynamo playing a methodical balanced type of game.

The approach that Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes takes has received its fair share of both praise and criticism. Many wondered at the beginning of last season whether Sporting’s dedication to the 4-3-3 held them back from fulfilling all of their goalscoring potential. Of course, Vermes had the last laugh in December and showed that being stubborn can often be worthwhile when the blueprint finally comes to life. Now that we’ve seen that narrative come together over last season, it is important to understand how and why Sporting’s system works.

First of all, the most important piece of Sporting’s approach is defense. With 30 goals allowed, Sporting had the stingiest defense in the 2013 season. This is thanks to Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin, but also to the team’s incredible depth with players like Ike Opara (a starting center back for San Jose the year before). The other component is SKC’s fullbacks, who are notably just as important to the attack as to the defense.

Sporting often plays with a high backline. This is to catch players offside often, like Marco Di Vaio, who was shut down on 2 separate occasions at Sporting Park, although 1 resulted in a loss. Sporting’s 3 matchups with Montreal in 2013 were fun to pour over because Montreal’s quick counter-attack gave Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic lots of trouble getting back when in advanced positions.

Sinovic and Myers coming forward is one of the most obvious components to Sporting’s attacking tactics. They are a team that likes to use all of the field and play crosses often. But this facet of the game fails when losing the ball in the middle of the field. In a match at home against Colorado, Benny Feilhaber made a terribly ill-advised pass and Sporting was quickly exposed by Edson Buddle, who scored an incredible goal from long-range. When losing the ball in the attack, Sporting relies on a defensive midfielder, also known as a box-to-box player or regista, to win the ball and make pinpoint transition passes. This player for other teams is Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman, Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley, or Los Angeles’ Marcelo Sarvas. In 2013, this player for Sporting was Oriol Rosell and sometimes Paulo Nagamura. While they were downgrades from the previous Roger Espinoza, both players were exceptional offensively, which took away from defensive vulnerability to counter-attacks.

When Sporting does lose the ball, they defend as a team to win it back. This is another very evident piece of Sporting’s defensive tactics. Whenever losing the ball in the middle of the field, 2 or 3 players will immediately sprint to the player who has gained possession of it to win the ball back. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team used this, as well as a third or fourth defender ready to receive the ball and bring it back into possession of the Blaugrana. Due to MLS’ elevated physicality and the use of this, Sporting has earned a reputation for being a team of thugs. Personally I don’t believe this fits any of the players’ personalities whatsoever, but objectively Aurelien Collin is known to be brutal when fighting to win a 50/50 ball. Peterson Joseph is quite the casualty of this instruction, earning many red and yellow cards for reckless tackles besides occasionally being a wonderful defensive presence.

Offensively, Sporting has an attitude just as innovative, but this one receives more negative attention as it is often the reason for a loss. Sporting’s attacking players remember many a frustrating evening with north of 20 shots in 90 minutes resulting in a loss or draw.

Sporting’s offense often revolves around Graham Zusi. The 27-year-old American playmaker has been one of MLS’ best attackers in recent seasons. Most of the time Zusi is lining up as an attacking midfielder, but for many games played on the right wing. Benny Feilhaber did a great job of taking the weight off of Zusi’s shoulders in 2013, especially when congested schedules with SKC and the national team caused issues, and in turn made Sporting’s offense a lot less predictable.

The problem with Sporting KC’s attack has been that it is far too easy to sit back in a bunker and waste time against. With players like Kei Kamara, CJ Sapong, and Soony Saad featuring on the wings it is all too easy to rely on crosses and headers to win matches.

By adding Claudio Bieler, the team hoped to be able to hold up play in the middle more often and have a more clinical finisher in the middle. Bieler is an excellent player positionally and is exactly the clinical finisher that Sporting needs, but fell into a slump as a result of an inability to play the ball effectively through the middle during a stretch of the 2013 season. Nonetheless, Bieler was Sporting’s leading scorer with 10 goals. Dom Dwyer was found as a diamond in the rough halfway through the season and proved to be the energetic center forward to get the team through the postseason.

When watching Sporting move up the field with the ball, it is significant to understand how they create triangles and each player has two options to pass. While Sporting’s style of play can be compared in some ways to Barcelona’s famous system, it is foolish to compare each side by side. Sporting’s attack relies on a little more individual matchups. When Graham Zusi is playing on the wing and has a favorable matchup, Sporting is more likely to expose that and find a final ball across inside the box.

Sporting has always had issues with efficiency. Most losses are terrible letdowns, with more than 3 times the shots of the opposition yet less goals. This preseason we have seen Bieler featured at the attacking midfielder position. This could be a great adjustment to Sporting’s efficiency. With Feilhaber as a supporting player, Dwyer as a false 9, and Zusi on the wing, there is simply too many threats at Sporting’s disposal to not be able to create concise chances from the middle of the pitch.

If Vermes employs this on March 8 against Seattle, it could be an interesting dynamic facing Seattle’s defensive players like Osvaldo Alonso and newly-acquired Chad Marshall. Watch Sporting kick off the season on NBC Sports Network at 3 p.m. EST.

NEXT UP: March 8 – Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting Kansas City, CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Wash. 3 p.m. EST, NBCSN


Univ. of Kansas
Club Domestic:
Sporting KC
Club Foreign:
AC Milan
A student at the University of Kansas. He writes for the Sporting Kansas City club column for Soccer Newsday and is a regular at Sporting Park. His passion for soccer can best be described as unhealthy.