If the Union are going to defeat Sporting Kansas City and win the Open Cup Final they will need to find an answer for their opponent's high pressure defense. The high press is not a common tactic in MLS, but Sporting Kansas City and their 4-3-3 formation has been a club that consistently employs it under the direction of Peter Vermes. How the Union handle this defense will make all the difference come Wednesday night, and it looks like the combination of Tranquillo Barnetta and Fabinho will play a key role in the Union's success.
Sporting Kansas City's High Pressure In Pictures
A statistic that helps determine how much pressure a defense is putting on the opponent is passes per defensive action. Here is a chart of all the MLS teams this season and the level of defensive pressure in their attacking half. A lower number indicates more pressure as opponents attempt less passes before the team attempts a defensive action. Sporting KC is just trailing the New York Red Bulls for second in the league.
The Union not surprisingly are at the other end of the league, employing a fairly low defensive block. While this simple statistic helps directionally, a heat map of all defensive actions for each team can provide more insight, especially for Sporting Kansas City.
Note: Special thanks to @kevinminkus for these heat maps
Here you can easily see that the Union sit much deeper than Sporting Kansas City as many of their defensive actions happen inside their 18 yard box. Not only does Sporting Kansas City defend higher but notice that their pressure tends to happen out wide. There is very little red in the center of the pitch, meaning the play of the Union's wings and fullbacks will be vital.
Notice the red mark in Sporting KC's attacking half on the right hand side of their formation. That is clearly their preferred side for employing their pressure, and it's not just the play of a few key players. Certainly Graham Zusi is most commonly on the right side of the 4-3-3, but ten different players have made at least five defensive actions in that area of the field this season, including many by the defensive backs. The pressure will be squarely on Barnetta, Fabinho and even Maidana, who likes to drift wide, to manage that pressure and not allow the Union to get caught turning the ball in that area of the field.
The Union Should Do What They Do Best
Sporting Kansas City has been susceptible on the road this season as they carry just a 3-4-7 (W-D-L) record away from Sporting Park this season. Breaking their road games down further a pattern emerges that could give the Union a blueprint for how to approach the high press.
Sporting KC has employed very high pressure in six games that have resulted in two draws and four losses. Meanwhile, when they sit a little deeper they have a record of three wins, two draws and three losses. The opposite is true of SKC's opponent. They have found success in those games by sitting deeper against Sporting Kansas City.
Here you can see the battle waged between defensive lines of pressure. Where Sporting KC is pressing higher the opponent sits deeper and where Sporting KC sits back some, the opponent pushes higher. Opponents have been more successful sitting deeper. How have those teams reacted to the higher press in the wins?
The chart above looks at the pass types for Sporting KC's away opponents. Long passes and backward passes are indicative of a team playing direct, counter attacking soccer. In the six games where the home team has earn four wins and two draws teams play nearly 40% more long passes and a lower percentage of backward passes. Clearly the way past Sporting KC's defense is not to try to dribble or pass through it, but to send passes over the top of it.
Interestingly in those six games Sporting KC's passing indicates a more possession-oriented approach with more backwards passes and fewer long balls. Part of that is no doubt due to the fact that their opponents were sitting their defense back and allowing Sporting KC more possession.
Those that have followed the Union over the year know that they are playing their best when they sit deeper and make quick concise strikes on the counter. It appears the right strategy against Sporting KC is to do just that. Pay careful attention to how the Union are handling possession as they approach midfield. Are Nogueira or Edu sending balls deep or are they finding space through the middle of the field? The key to the game might this tactical approach.
If the Union play their game, they appear to match up well against Sporting Kansas City, but as all fans know it takes just one lapse, one bad call or one brilliant moment to change the face of a game. This is what makes a one-game Final so exciting - all the tactics and preparation get thrust into the mix of the finality of the moment. With that and the safe passage of Pope Francis through Philadelphia I'll leave with this final prayer: May the Union's passes be long, and the defense as tight as Jim Curtin's pants, and may the deflected ball bounce neatly to the feet of the Union players.
Special thanks to @KevinMinkus and the team at @AnalysisEvolved for the data in this article.