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Five More Thoughts on Sporting KC’s Playoff Win Over The Vancouver Whitecaps

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A deeper look into the game’s tactics and surprise heroes.

SOCCER: NOV 20 MLS Cup Playoffs - Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Sporting Kansas City Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The first two days of the 2021 MLS Cup playoff games are in the books and it seemed like a good time to drop a few observations about Sporting KC’s satisfying win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday night at Children's Mercy Park.

1. The Unusual Suspects

If I would have told you before the game that Khiry Shelton and Graham Zusi would both end the game with a goal and assist I think the skepticism would have been significant. That skepticism would not have been without merit, it was Zusi’s first goal of the season and only his sixth assist. But it was not just the fact that Zusi got them it was how he got them that was the most impressive thing. His assist comes off a great hustle to receive a switch then impressively he is able to beat the defense by not hitting the expected curler behind but rather cutting the ball back to the penalty spot for a surging Khiry (we will come back to him in a second). But Zusi was just warming up for his truly stunning rifled shot in the 58th minute.

As for Khiry he played a fantastic first half where receives the aforementioned Zusi ball and has a smart and classy redirect into the far corner. Add on top of that a very aware header back into the box to set up Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and he may silence a few haters that question his lack of soccer IQ (*this writer sheepishly raises his hand*).

2. O’ captain! My captain! Where art thou?

Despite the excellent play of the Zusi and Khriy there was one man noticeably struggling on the field and that was SKC’s esteemed captain Johnny Russell. Johnny seemed to continually find himself either being ignored by his teammates for passes or failing to display the same kind of clinical play that he did during the end of the regular season. He was visibly frustrated about it throughout the game though and Johnny is one of the few players who I believe actually plays better when he is angry. So I suspect we see him come out swinging on Saturday versus Real Salt Lake or the Seattle Sounders, depending on Tuesday’s results.

3. This was or was not vintage SKC depending on how you look at it.

Note: For this section, I am going to be referring to the game stats page on MLSSoccer.com quite a bit so it is worth pulling it up to follow along.

What do I mean by those contradictory statements? SKC has a few things they are known for: hitting long diagonal balls, high possession, and recently fast and effective counterattacking play. Let's dig into two of those specifically: the diagonal balls and the possession.

Vintage: Diagonal Balls

We saw SKC pin back Vancouver with the diagonal balls, and Zusi seemed to constantly find a streaking Salloi or Khiry making runs. You could argue that it was not just diagonals though as the team played many long balls for the pacey front line of SKC to give chase to which gave fits to the backline of the Whitecaps all night. As an aside, I don't understand how any team that watches game tape on SKC is willing to concede the diagonals. It has been the bread and butter of SKC for a couple of years now and is lethal when paired with the wingers we currently have.

Not Vintage: Possession

Sporting KC usually plays up the wing then back into the midfield or vice versa, they then recycle the ball waiting for a chance to open up the opposition. However, the midfield was notably absent in this game, and play flowed almost exclusively along with the wings completely bypassing the midfield. The passing charts on the stats page listed above show that SKC was stretching the field horizontally and playing to create the passing triangles of the fullback, winger, and the respective number 8 assigned to that half of the field.

As you might expect this limited the ability to recycle the ball thus leading to lower possession as evidenced by Vancouver ending up with a dominant 63% of possession. And if you are thinking that was only after SKC is up two goals, the possessions graphs shows that large swathes of the first half were also strongly in Vancouver's favor.

Another factor contributing to SKC’s low possession stats was that they were much quicker to dump the ball upfield when under pressure at the back than many other games where SKC has played from the back with reckless levels of stubbornness.

4. Update on Alan Pulido

I think it's fair to say that many of us were hoping for either a start or at least some substitute minutes for Alan Pulido tonight. The fact that we did not see him could be could have been chalked up to a few things:

  1. He was still hurt and Peter Vermes was playing coy about it. Vermes has been known to do this in the past so it would not have been a big surprise if this was the case.
  2. Vermes was gonna Vermes and be unwilling to sub in general. I promised myself that I would not write about subs generally for this game but you can guess my thoughts on this if you have read any of my earlier articles.
  3. The bizarro world possibility that Alan Pulido was going to be sold this offseason and PV is keeping him on the bench to not lose his selling piece. But let’s be honest this possibility is extremely unlikely, right? ...right?!?!??!? (*The writer slowly curls in on himself becoming a shell of a man mumbling about how SKC are a good #9 away from becoming an MLS dynasty*)

Fortunately for us, we were not left to wonder too much because PV addressed this in the post-game press conference:

“I was actually bringing him in at halftime, but the fact that we went up 2-1 at halftime, it allowed me to pull back,” said Vermes. “Then we went up 3-1. It made no sense for me to put him on the field. He’s ready to go. I was going to put him in during the second half but I felt like it was better to not try and push him for 60 but he definitely had 45 minutes in him no problem. It really helps out a lot, winning the way we did and not having to bring him on is tremendous. Now we can build him up for another so many days and he’s going to feel good. He feels good right now but it’s just more time which is great.”

Personally, I would still have liked to see him for 15 minutes or so at the end to build some chemistry with the team, although PV makes it sound like there still would have been some risk so not playing him is probably the right decision.

5. Those scary aerial moments

This game was not without a few scary moments that boys in blue would do well to remember in their revelry. The first came in the 62nd minute where Andy Rose wins a free header off a free-kick. The second is in the 69th minute off of another crossed ball into the box that Brian White heads on with minimal pressure despite multiple Sporting players around him. This is all too common for SKC who constantly lose their markers in the box in lofted ball situations. This team has to either get better in the air or figure out how to limit those situations because Tim Melia can only bail this team out so many times.

In conclusion

SKC looked good and I feel more confident after this win about their ability to go to what most likely will be Seattle and get a win on Saturday against what will be a much less rested team. I will be curious to see if the tactical adjustments made for this game persist or if we see a return to a more possession-oriented approach for the next game. As always leave me a comment with your thoughts and I will try to respond.