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MLS: New York Red Bulls at Sporting Kansas City

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To the flanks for Sporting Kansas City’s Pitch Pit at Houston Dynamo

73 yards of playground...

William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

The pitch at Houston Dynamo’s PNC Stadium is 73 yards wide. It’s time to get paint on your shoes, boys!

The flanking maneuver is a basic military tactic with several variations. Flanking entails attacking from one or more sides, at an angle to the enemy. There are three standard flanking maneuvers. The first is the ambush.

The second type is used during an attack, where a unit encounters an enemy defensive position. Upon receiving fire [defensive pressure] from the enemy, the unit commander may order a flank attack. A part of the attacking unit pins the enemy in place with suppressive fire [ball movement], preventing them from [reacting to a flank maneuver]. [After a switch of the ball], the flanking force then advances to the enemy flank and attacks them at close range.

The third form of flanking maneuvers is the double envelopment, which involves simultaneous flank attacks [runs with and without the ball] on both sides of the enemy. Double envelopment can only be performed by widening friendly units or formations or opening gaps between them which results in weakening the center... (edited from Wikipedia “Flanking Maneuver”)

LAFC’s Passing Network at Houston Dynamo
mlssoccer.com

Above is the passing network for Los Angeles Football Club from their 2-1 loss at Houston Dynamo on August 31, 2022. LAFC’s expected goals (xG) were 2.7, Houston’s 1.4. LAFC outshot Houston 19-10 with eight on target to Houston’s three. LAFC also won the possession battle 55-45%. Yes, that’s right, Houston won the match.

Seattle Sounders Passing Network v Houston Dynamo
mlssoccer.com

Just above is the passing network for Seattle Sounders from their 2-1 home victory over Houston last Sunday. Seattle’s xG were 2.3, Houston’s 0.5. Seattle outshot Houston 20-4 with four on target to Houston’s three. Seattle also won the possession battle 62.7-37.3%.

To get a better idea of how much more Seattle dominated Houston than LAFC did, one must know that Houston’s goal was off a close-range redirection of an average shot that came through traffic and that Seattle’s Nico Lodeiro failed to score a penalty kick for the first time in his Major League Soccer career.

What can much account for the larger xG, the larger shots taken difference, and the significantly wider possession edge for Seattle versus Houston? Sure, Seattle being at home was a difference. Yet, that fact ignores that both LAFC and Seattle pushed their outside backs wide and high up the field. The major difference is that Seattle played their backs wider and higher up the field and played less up the middle, using their most forward attackers very differently.

Why did Seattle employ this variation? From mlssoccer.com’s Matt Doyle, commenting on Seattle Sounders’ fullback Nouhou scoring last Sunday against Houston: “Watching [Nouhou] do that, and watching how badly the Dynamo struggled to deal with actual threatening play up both flanks, kind of laid bare how badly the Sounders need attacking contributions from their fullbacks (and how much [the Sounders] missed that all season long).”

Houston is defense-challenged when it comes to their flanks. Everyone in MLS knows Sporting Kansas City has two strong attacking wingers in Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell. Thus, in Saturday’s tilt at Houston’s PNC Stadium (7:08 kickoff), Sporting Kansas City should employ their strongest attacking wide backs to make life especially difficult for their hosts. Are they right back Graham Zusi and left back Ben Sweat? Or does the strongest attacking pairing involve right back Kayden Pierre or left back Logan Ndenbe in some variation?

Stats: SKC fullbacks

Stats Minutes DRB % KP Pass% GCA90 ProgP
Stats Minutes DRB % KP Pass% GCA90 ProgP
Logan Ndenbe 1752 51.6 13 83.1 0 98
Kayden Pierre 658 50 2 86.7 0.14 23
Ben Sweat 1083 35.3 5 78.9 0.17 25
Graham Zusi 1592 68.4 13 81.3 0.18 71
mlssoccer.com & fbref.com

The numbers in the chart above are more revealing than the drought-like production numbers for each wide back: Ndenbe 0 goals, 0 assists; Pierre 0,1; Sweat 0,2; and Zusi 1,2.

However, for an attacking back it is not always about production. To attract defenses and then play that killer interior pass or that killer switch of fields to where inferior numbers can be decimated, strong dribbling and passing skills are critical. Zusi’s successful dribbling attacks from right back tower over the rest, yet it is Ndenbe’s passing, somewhat surprisingly, from left back that wins out. The Belgian 22-year-old equals Zusi’s 13 key passes at the top of the foursome, is second behind right back Pierre in pass percentage, and far exceeds the others in progressive passes, defined per fbref.com as “completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent’s goal at least 10 yards from its furthest point in the last six passes, or any completed pass into the penalty area.”

Zusi at right back and Ndenbe at left back would be the best calls for attacking the Dynamo’s flanks. And the Goals added (+g) stat from americansocceranalysis.com backs that up with Zusi the only one of the four in the positive at +0.67 and Ndenbe at -0.29, compared to Pierre’s -0.43 and Sweat’s -0.97. However, Zusi is questionable for this match with a quad injury, as is Sweat with a nagging back ailment.

What personnel interim Houston Manager Kenny Bundy will roll out come Saturday night is unclear. Bundy only took over the team this past week from former Kansas City player and SKC II manager Paulo Nagamura. Learning how to defend well as a team does not happen in a week’s time.

Expect Sporting’s flank play amongst the wide backs and their companion wingers to create plenty of opportunities either for themselves or for the more central attackers. Kansas City is well equipped for battle. Now it is down to execution. Head wide, boys, head wide, and be fearless.

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