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Revisiting Sporting KC vs MNUFC: Shapes, Tactics and The End of a Season

A free-flowing front four ruins another playoff run.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Sporting Kansas City Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

Editor: The following is the first story from our newest writer, Tyler Kinshella. Tyler previously went by TomPaine22 in our comments section but I made him change it for writing (boo!!) for professionalism. If you are also interested in writing for us you can always get started with a Fan Post or reach out to me directly in the Masthead above. — Chad C Smith

Now that we’ve had some time to breathe from both exits (the playoffs, Matt Besler) I thought it fair to revisit the final game of the season. The conference semifinal showed a lot of the weaknesses Sporting Kansas City exhibited all year, and some of their tactical choices really put the boys in blue on blast.

First, the xG (expected goals) versus game state chart illustrates the dominant opening 25 minutes from Sporting, and then the 12 minutes that doomed a season, followed by the lack of impactful subs and rotations on the bench.

You can see the three really obvious states of this game, and they are consistent problems fans and astute followers have been pointing out all year. Honestly, this graphic begs three questions of this game (and of the season as a whole). First, why couldn’t Sporting put teams away with their early dominance on the ball? Second, how did opponents adjust as the game settled. Finally, why Sporting couldn’t seem to make a comeback.

Early Dominance

The first 25 minutes of the Minnesota United game had all the hallmarks of a strong SKC start. That Sporting KC arrow at .38 xG in the 18th-ish minute (in the above graphic) is the Puncec header that this graph can’t believe wasn’t a goal either. Minnesota couldn’t get out of its own half and repeatedly lost the ball when they did advance it farther than the halfway line. Sporting’s press was withering, but much of this futility relates to head coach Adrian Heath’s turn to a false 9 in the playoffs.

Side note: the term “false 9” gets casually tossed around but essentially we have Pep Guardiola to thank for using Messi as a CF for this innovation. Messi’s gravity as a playmaker forced opposing defenses into uncomfortable shape adjustments which left acres of space for wingers to run in behind. When you use a false 9 with Messi good things happen; when you use Gadi Kinda... not so much. It also is no longer only CMs used there, but traditional CFs are asked to play similar roles now as well. Klopp uses Firmino in this way and Pulido also does a solid interpretation of this tactic.

Heath is not known as a tactical innovator by any means, but shifting Robin Lod to the CF role opened up tons of space for Molino and Reynoso especially. (Good for Heath, but he was backed into this choice by Luis Amarilla’s injury, the trade of Toye, and the meh-ness of Aaron Schoenfeld). Bad news for Sporting as the movement of the front four of MNUFC would lead to a quick change in fortunes for both sides.

MNUFC’s Adjustments

Minnesota trots out in a pretty standard 4-2-3-1 shape to open games. They don’t deviate often from this solid defensive platform, and it served them well. A couple of key signings this year (notably Emanuel Reynoso, less so Amarilla) really set off their attack, even without Ike Opara to anchor the defense. MNUFC regularly attacks only with four, and the fifth member to join in the attack is right back Romain Metanire. We will revisit his contributions on the second goal shortly.

All teams in modern soccer are more or less trying to end up in a 3-2-2-3 shape in attack. How they rotate into this shape is the difference. For Minnesota, it’s the two CBs and LB Gasper at the base, 2 DMs in Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus, and the front five are fluid with Reynoso comfortable anywhere, Finlay, Lod and Molino free to interchange, and Metanire doing his best prime Graham Zusi interpretation popping up on the flank or in the middle of the pitch.

The danger of a false 9 is there is nowhere to dump the ball for hold up play (hence the lack of outlet from the early SKC press), but the benefit is the ease in which it creates overloads. Overloading happens when an attacking team has even numbers with the defense or, even better, outnumbers the defense in a wide area. The first goal demonstrates this tactic perfectly, and watch Jaylin Lindsey get burned by the uncertainty created.

Notice Lindsey steps up as if to challenge on the ball and then is cut out of the play by the dummy run from Molino. If Lindsey doesn’t step but holds the line, that pass isn’t on or at the very least he hasn’t compromised SKC’s defensive shape. He’s not the only one at fault; Ilie has been dragged over by the run of Molino which has left Reynoso wide open in a pocket of space. This situation is the danger of the single pivot, and especially one as unathletic as Ilie. MNUFC’s fluid movement has left a huge hole right in front of SKC’s haphazardly organized and relatively unathletic center back pairing, which is duly punished. 1-0 Minnesota and Sporting look stunned.

The second goal provides a fun wrinkle of what MNUFC try to do. Metanire had been injured towards the end of the season but the team was pumped to have him back in the lineup. It makes sense, as he operates as one of their possession outlets. Much like Sporting back with Zusi and Sinovic, MNUFC play a relatively defensive LB in Gasper and a creative RB in Metanire. SKC had done well to keep a lid on him (thanks Gerso, and CMs for preventing the pass out wide) but by the time the second goal rolled around Metanire was running wild on the right flank and cutting inside with little resistance. Watch his pass and movement on the second goal.

The pressure doesn’t arrive in the middle on time, which allows for Metanire to receive the ball with pace. He charges up the middle of the pitch, plays square, and continues his run through the middle. A short interchange with Reynoso who’s drifted out wide right, and a lovely dinked ball over the top from Reynoso finds a just barely onside Molino, who awkwardly but comfortably slots the ball home.

By occupying the space that Reynoso has recently vacated to drift out wide, Metanire suddenly put SKC’s defense under a lot of stress. Either the CBs need to communicate if one will step or not (dangerous, since MNUFC has just created an overload on the right flank) or one of the other CMs need to rotate down into Ilie’s position. I think Vermes’ prefers this defensive rotation, but alas, it never came on this goal.

Digression: one of my complaints with Ilie is his lack of usage of the dark arts of the DM. He can end dangerous sequences like these ones with a foul that walks the line of yellow cards. Take the foul here, slow the play down, and reset the defense. I’d much rather have a few more set pieces to defend than playmakers with the ball at their feet driving at goal.

At this point, a third goal felt inevitable as Minnesota grew in confidence. Their transition moments were ruthless, their front four or five movement was confounding SKC’s backline, and they kept the pressure up with a set piece.

Zonal marking here from Sporting, and MNUFC exposed its weakness. Dibassy has a free run onto the ball and absolutely thunders over Winston Reid to put the ball in the net. You’d like to see the former Premier League defender do better, but zonal marking has its limitations. Bang, 3-0. Game over, season over.

Wherefore art thou, Impact Subs?

The rest of the game was a pu pu platter of Sporting efforts to get back into the game. No discernible halftime adjustments, so subs became the driving force of change. A goal never came, and Sporting’s season petered out with a hiss of dying embers on a chilly fall fire. This trend became an unfortunate habit of Sporting’s - giving up late goals to drop points.

I think this section will expand as the off-season goes on, but a personal preference of mine is a DP Left Winger. It’s a lot of resources used in attack (DPs = CF, CM, LW in this case) and it could, maybe should, be a young DP like Rossi or Rodriguez from LAFC, but I think it would help the attack. Gerso is a great sub off the bench or a nice rotation starter, but nothing more than that. Which is great! The league is getting better and SKC needs to keep up with the evolving firepower.

Other Random Observations

  • Busio was mediocre in this game. He really struggled against the organized and physical DMs. Not sure if Kinda would’ve done better, but his pace and ball control would’ve at least given them fits.
  • Dia was fine, Lindsey was fine, but as The Blue Testament’s Robert Rusert noted, they both made small errors that added up over time. I won’t be upset if they are the starters next year but I don’t know if I’m thrilled (let’s be real here, it’ll almost certainly be Zusi).
  • Question for the offseason apparently - is the Reid-Puncec partnership good enough to get it done? Roberto Puncec had a rough playoffs and Reid looked so slow, but both were adjusting to new countries, leagues and teams. I’m willing to give a pass.

End Note

That’s all for now! I hope to do more articles like these in the future, with an emphasis on tactics and shape of the other teams and how that matches up with Sporting on a week to week basis. Thanks for reading!