There’s a ton of parity in MLS, but you wouldn’t have known it watching Saturday night’s Sporting Kansas City – Montreal Impact game. The defending champions took on one of the league’s worst teams and the result was an unsurprising 4-0 victory for SKC. But it could have been a much different game if Marco Di Vaio had buried one of his two open looks in the first half and if Sporting hadn’t made a key halftime adjustment.
Montreal Sits Deep, Looks to Counter
Montreal’s game plan was obvious from the minute the lineups came out. Frank Klopas changed from last week’s 4-1-3-2 to a much more defensive-minded 4-4-1-1 and opted to start Collen Warner, a natural holding midfielder, on the wing instead of the more offensive-minded Andres Romero. The Impact sat 10 behind the ball, set the line of confrontation deep inside its own half and looked to draw Sporting in before attempting to spring Marco Di Vaio behind Kansas City’s high line.
It worked in the first half. Sporting patiently worked the ball from side to side but couldn’t break down Montreal’s disciplined defense. The Impact looked dangerous on the counter and should have taken the lead in the 14th minute, but Aurelien Collin’s goal line clearance kept the game scoreless. The second half was a different story after Justin Mapp came off at halftime and Sporting made one key adjustment.
Lawrence Olum’s Positioning
Speaking of that key adjustment; Peter Vermes addressed Montreal’s counterattack after the game:
“It wasn’t the fact we were too high up the field,” he said. “The problem was Felipe was the one who was actually finding the space and every time they won the ball they were releasing it to him. That’s the change we made at halftime, the fact that we closed that down.”
Closing down Felipe was directly related to Olum’s positioning in the second half vs. the first half. Vermes again:
“The second half he [Olum] had a very good game because he was a lot more disciplined. Sometimes when your team has the ball a lot you can get a little bit excited and start getting out of your position. He did a little bit of that in the first half. I thought that was causing us a little problem with the counter attack.”
With Montreal sitting so deep, Olum was getting farther forward in the first half than we’re used to seeing from Sporting’s d-mid position. SKC loves to push its outside backs high in possession meaning it’s crucial for the defensive mid to stay deep and play almost as a third center back at times. If he gets too high it leaves huge gaps on the counter, which is exactly what happened on Montreal’s best chance of the night.
This is from the sequence right before Montreal’s chance on the counter. Note how high and shaded to the right Olum is (above).
Benny Feilhaber plays the ball into Graham Zusi who is immediately closed down by three Impact defenders and loses possession. Seth Sinovic is caught high up the field and has no chance at putting pressure on Justin Mapp.
Mapp plays a perfect ball to beat Besler and release Felipe into space. That barely-visible figure above the score box is Olum, caught high up the pitch. With Besler beaten and Olum out of the play, Felipe and Di Vaio get a 2-on-1 with Collin.
Fortunately for SKC, Eric Kronberg narrows the angle to force a pass and Collin is well positioned to clear the ball off the line. Give Olum credit for hustling back and possibly bothering Di Vaio on the shot, but that desperation defending never happens if he’s well positioned in the first place.
Dom Dwyer’s Big Night
Whenever Dwyer plays you know exactly what you’re getting. He makes runs into the channels to pull defenders out of position and open space for other players. He holds the ball up well. He wins a ton of fouls. And even if you can’t count on him to finish every chance, he’s going to get into goal-scoring positions every game because of his smart runs.
Against Montreal Dwyer was a beast. He won nine fouls, all in Montreal’s half and had a hand in three of the four goals. On Collin’s strike from outside the box, Dwyer fights off three Montreal defenders in the box to keep the ball alive and prevent a clearance. On the third goal (Dwyer’s first of the night) he wins the initial free kick and then makes a smart, well-timed run into the box to finish off Jacob Peterson’s cross. The fourth goal is equally impressive as Dwyer somehow gets in-between Montreal’s center backs and manages to direct a header on target while falling backward.
Vermes’ called Dwyer “A pain in the ass for their defenders” after the game. Around the 70th minute I was ready to write about Dwyer’s excellent performance despite once again failing to score. Then he went and bagged a brace in 12 minutes to turn a comfortable win into a blowout. I’ll say in conclusion: Claudio Bieler should get used to the bench if Dwyer keeps playing this well.