A Tactical Analysis of Sporting KC vs SJ Earthquakes

There was a clear storyline heading into Saturday’s Sporting Kansas City – San Jose game. Both teams were coming off different, yet equaling morale-crushing, midweek defeats in the CONCACAF Champions League. How each team would rebound from its respective loss was at the forefront of the conversation, but fitness levels were also worth monitoring after five games in 15 days for Sporting and four games in 12 days for San Jose. Dom Dwyer’s spot kick decided the game, but Sporting found many more opportunities against the ‘Quakes’ injury-riddled defense.

Sporting Attacks Cato
San Jose has been banged up, especially in defense. Clarance Goodson was healthy enough to start and Victor Bernardez, who missed the midweek game due to suspension, both returned, giving the ‘Quakes their starting center back duo. But San Jose was so thin at outside back that Cordell Cato, normally a right midfielder, started his third straight game in defense.

“I don’t necessarily know if we were picking on [Cato],” Vermes said after the game. “But once you find a weakness you start to go after it. If you find an opportunity where you’re having some success I always tell the guys we gotta keep going with it.”

It certainly seems Sporting found that weakness on San Jose’s right and it was down that flank they decided to attack. Here’s the combined Opta chalkboard for left-back Seth Sinovic and left-winger Graham Zusi.


Seth Sinovic – Graham Zusi heat map (Opta)

With Dom Dwyer his usual, energetic self running the channels, Sporting was frequently able to create overloads down the left and it led to opportunities like Sal Zizzo’s penalty shot in the 31st minute. Ultimately the pressure didn’t lead to a goal, but it’s another example of how versatile Zusi is and how much trouble Sporting can cause with its overlapping fullbacks.

Speaking of Zusi…

“The Floating Graham Zusi”
During the playoffs last year Kyle Martino coined the phrase “the floating Graham Zusi” to describe the midfielder’s penchant for popping up in different spots all over the field. Against San Jose Zusi was at it again. He started on the left and helped create the overloads discussed earlier. He also repeatedly made smart runs into the space created when Cato was caught too far forward and dragged defenders out of position with his outside-in runs. His ability to find space showed in the 25th minute when he ghosted into the box and was unlucky not to open the scoring.

Around the 27 minute mark, Zizzo switched wings to the left and Zusi dropped into midfield. Sporting already had a three-on-two midfield advantage, with Zusi tucking in that became four-on-two. It allowed SKC to dominate possession and take control of the game after San Jose had started positively.

The other part of Zusi’s excellent performance was his set-piece delivery. He consistently put the ball into dangerous spots and Sporting threatened off almost every attacking free kick. The eventual game-winning goal was created when San Jose struggled to deal with Zusi’s corner kick and Lenhart was forced to bat away the lose ball with his hand, leading to the penalty call.

San Jose Goes Direct, but Sporting Wins the Aerial Battle
It’s no secret how San Jose likes to play. They win the ball and look to go wide and get crosses in or they go direct to Steven Lenhart and look for chances off his flick-ons. Sporting’s centerback pairing of Ike Opara and Aurelien Collin did a tremendous job of winning headers and bumping Lenhart around while conceding just three fouls between them. They also did a tremendous job clearing San Jose’s set piece opportunities.

“I think a lot of it started with our positioning,” Opara said. “Finding a way to win that first ball and with our midfielders and outside backs winning that second ball, I think that was key for us tonight.”

Recoveries, Interceptions and Clearances by Opara and Collin.

Aurelien Collin - Ike Opara heat map (Opta)

Aurelien Collin – Ike Opara heat map (Opta)

The only blemish came in the 71st minute when Goodson won a header in the box and Lenhart was able to tee up Chris Wondolowski for a chance he finishes nine out of ten times. It was a rare mishap in an otherwise masterful performance from the Sporting defense.

No Goonie Magic for San Jose
The ‘Quakes have developed a well-deserved reputation for salvaging games with ridiculously late goals. Vermes acknowledged post-game he stressed to his team they had to stay focused until the final whistle. Both goals Sporting had conceded in MLS play came after the 89th minute so when Mark Watson brought on Alan Gordon and San Jose started to get desperate, there was a sense a goal could be coming. But Opara and Collin’s continued aerial dominance meant Gordon was a non-factor and CJ Sapong did a tremendous job of helping kill off the game after being subbed on. Going forward it’s a positive sign that Sporting was able to correct the issues from the first two MLS games.

By Anders Aarhus aka @SportsViking our CoMO correspondent:

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