MLS Playoffs 2018: Tactical Analysis

This match analysis was first featured on our dedicated MLS site, majorleaguesoccernews.com.

At the halfway stage of the MLS Cup play-off semis, this weekend’s action looks very exciting. From whether Columbus Crew can hold out against the Red Bulls to whether Seattle can bounce back against Portland.

However, the game I’ll be focusing on is Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake. The only teams currently drawing (1-1), this is possibly the best poised second leg. In this tactical analysis, I’ll examine the first leg between the sides and conclude who is in the better position going into the weekend.

Firstly, lets look at most people’s favourites, SKC.

Sporting Kansas City’s Press

With 67% of possession, SKC were in control for most of the game. However, despite so much possession, their best chances came when RSL had possession. This was because of their very effective pressing game. From the off, SKC’s hunger was clear and this was a theme throughout the game.

Here’s an example of that:

MLS Cup Real Salt Lake Sporting Kansas City Tactical Analysis
SKC’s starting position is great. Their forward players close the most dangerous passing lanes forcing RSL to pass into the traffic they’ve created.
MLS Cup Real Salt Lake Sporting Kansas City Tactical Analysis
To escape the traffic, RSL play the ball wide. However, the SKC attackers are able to corner the RSL fullback and force him backwards.
MLS Cup Real Salt Lake Sporting Kansas City Tactical Analysis
The SKC have now joined the press as RSL try to escape vertically. Outnumbering them, SKC are able to win the ball high up the pitch easily.

Setting traps like this worked wonders for SKC throughout the game. This allowed them to dictate the actions of RSL and even lead to their goal:

Real Salt Lake’s ‘Compactness’

Conceding the majority of possession, RSL had to be resolute off the ball. Following the game, head coach Mike Petke praised his side’s compactness. However, when we look at how RSL set up, their compactness was very selective.

Rather than being compact from the off, they became more compact as SKC transitioned up the pitch. Having to change their defensive depth so quickly allowed SKC to take advantage of that at some points during the game. We can see how below:

MLS Cup Real Salt Lake Sporting Kansas City Tactical Analysis
With RSL’s midfield so high up the pitch, this leaves a massive space for SKC attackers to occupy. The RSL midfield is killed by one pass which takes them all out of the game.
MLS Cup Real Salt Lake Sporting Kansas City Tactical Analysis
SKC move the ball quickly but RSL begin to close in on the ball carrier.
MLS Cup Real Salt Lake Sporting Kansas City Tactical Analysis
RSL did generally well as SKC entered the final third and were able to crowd them out. In this instance they do well to close off all the easy options and force a mistake.

Although this style ultimately worked, it seems that RSL could use it more effectively. Rather than becoming more compact after the midfield is beaten, having the midfield just in front of the back four could make life more difficult for SKC.

Real Salt Lake Will Struggle Without Albert Rusnak

As I touched on a few weeks ago, Albert Rusnak proved to be RSL’s difference maker. However, picking up a yellow card means he misses the second leg. This will be a huge miss as RSL don’t quite have another player with his creativity in the side.

His impressive creativity and technique were on show for his goal:

MLS Cup Real Salt Lake Sporting Kansas City Tactical Analysis
First off, Rusnak picks up a great position on the edge of the box. In open space, he isn’t detected but also has time to decide what to do when he gets the ball. He then executes a great flick into his teammate.
MLS Cup Real Salt Lake Sporting Kansas City Tactical Analysis
As the SKC defender bites he is able to burst into the vacated space for the return ball.
MLS Cup Real Salt Lake Sporting Kansas City Tactical Analysis
Rusnak’s quality is then showcased in his finish. Leaning back he’s able to get a perfect contact on the half-volley to send the ball into the top bin.

However, Rusnak’s importance doesn’t just come in the final third. A player who is constantly on the move, he is a great link between defence and attack. This can be seen in his heat map below. Despite lining up as a #10 he often comes very deep to get onto the ball which helps his team a great deal.

MLS Cup Real Salt Lake Sporting Kansas City Tactical Analysis
Albert Rusnak’s heat map vs SKC in the 1st leg of the MLS Cup semi-final.

Without this in the second leg, RSL could find it increasingly difficult to break up the pitch. Especially if they decide to defend as compactly as they did in the first leg. However, Petke will believe he can find a solution to this. Either way missing Rusnak, who has 11 goals and five MLS assists this season, will hurt.

Summary

On the balance of play, everything seems to be pointing to an SKC victory. They’ll have the home advantage on Sunday and the players they have at their disposal along with their gameplan puts them in a much greater position.

So for me, I’d be very surprised not to see SKC in the MLS Cup final. But anything can happen in football, so let’s see if RSL can defy the odds on Sunday.