Eight minutes in. Or less.
Eight minutes in Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park, the Seattle Sounders went route one to lone striker Jordan Morris. If it wasn’t before then, Seattle’s plan to defeat hosts Sporting Kansas City became crystal clear in that moment. Morris’ speed and guile were a mismatch in favor of the Sounders. Moments after, Seattle left winger Leo Chu beat Sporting right back Graham Zusi down Sporting’s flank, inspiring more recognition, more head nodding. The despairing kind.
Also easily identifiable was Seattle’s shape.
The placing of two Sounders between the pressuring Agada and Sporting’s midfield block of five made it more possible for Seattle to find outlet passes to those two, and, when either of those received in-between the lines, for them to attract defensive pressure and pull Sporting out of their defensive midfield shape.
In addition, the next line of four Sounders in between Kansas City’s midfield and the backline was positioned smartly. The wide players stayed wide, near the touchline (the right winger is out of the above screenshot). With Sporting’s midfield block so narrow, Seattle could then find these wide players more readily. Furthermore, the four Sounders and lone striker Jordan Morris created three sets of triangles for Seattle to operate in the most dangerous zones on the pitch.
When Seattle broke through Kansas City’s midfield and played for their wide wingers, one being the speedy Chu and the other being Designated player Albert Rusnak, those two had their way with Sporting’s wide backs Zusi and Ben Sweat. Once Chu and Rusnak beat their marks either with speed or in combination, Kansas City’s center backs Robert Voloder and Andreu Fontas had to come to the rescue. Add in the fact that Zusi and Sweat were often caught up field after Sporting lost possession, all Morris had to do was channel his instincts – hitting dangerous space with pace – amidst little resistance. Isn’t purposeful design a thing of beauty?
And it worked on Seattle’s 1st goal.
Morris sees Chu beat Zusi off a combination and runs for the gut with only the lead footed Fontas to try and interfere as Voloder goes to cover (which he should have done more aggressively).
And the formula reiterated again, and again, and again. Final: SKC 1 – Seattle 4.
Seattle’s passing network for the match bears out the above:
Though in practice Seattle’s shape took on a different form owing to match conditions, observe how all 10 field players were closely connected. The result was effective and efficient ball movement via triangles and shorter passes where the ball did much of the work in exploiting Sporting’s weaknesses.
Here is Sporting Kansas City’s passing network:
Soccer is a simple game. In most moments, making the ball do the work is the way to success.
According to fbref.com, Sporting is 6th in MLS in number of carries (dribbles), while their total distance of carries is 2nd in MLS. However, Sporting has been dispossessed the 4th most in MLS as well. The ten teams that have been dispossessed the most are currently sitting in 7th through 13th in their respective 14 or 15-member conference.
Sporting has weaponized the long, diagonal switch from a wide or center back to the opposite winger to strong effect in particular instances – see the 2021 1st Round playoff win over Vancouver Whitecaps. However, it is clear that long passes (>30 yards) have the lowest rate of success. Sporting has played the most long passes in MLS so far in 2023 (and the 2nd most crosses). For medium passes (15 to 30 yards), Sporting has played the 6th most. For short passes (5-15 yards) – the type that are often used to combine and to take advantage of 3v1s, 2v1s, etc, and to gain strong xG chances – Sporting is 18th in the league.
A lot of carries, being dispossessed at a high clip, and not exactly a preponderance of short passes is inefficient play. The cumulative effect is Sporting’s attack is not fully connected, thus not performing as a cohesive, 10-man unit.