MLS Tactical Analysis: Sporting Kansas City vs Vancouver Whitecaps 6:0


Sporting Kansas City

  1. Melia / 8. Zusi, 22, Amor, 5. Besler, 94. Medranda / 17. Espinoza, 6. Ilie, 10. Croizet / 7. Russell, 14. Shelton, 20. Salloi

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

  1. Marinovic / 18. Aja, 4. Waston, 17. De Jong / 6. Juarez, 8. Martins, 66. Davies / 29. Reyna / 9. Blondell, 20. Shea

Kansas City’s impressive offensive structure and Vancouver’s suicidal tactical change decided the outcome of the game.

Kansas City’s offensive structure

Kansas City lined up in a 4-3-3. Vancouver intended to sit deep; they didn’t want to press high and confront Kansas City’s build-up so that the host could transition into their preferred attacking structure; Kansas City attacked in a 2-3-4-1. Their fullbacks didn’t usually attack the flanks. Instead, Graham Zusi and Jimmy Medranda played as the inverted fullbacks. They tucked inside and stayed on the same line as Ilie to form a three-man midfield. Johnny Russell, Roger Espinoza, Yohan Croizet, and Daniel Salloi positioned behind Khiry Shelton.


The offensive structure allowed Kansas City to dominate the possession; they had a 3-2 setup in the central midfield. It provided them with a 5 vs. 4 advantage over Vancouver in the middle. It had multiple triangular passing lanes between the players and prevented Vancouver from closing them out. The central midfielders positioned in two layers and made it difficult for the visitor to break through during the transition; the host could initiate multiple waves of counter-pressing against the loose ball. Vancouver needed to deal with two tides of tackles when they regained the possession.

With an excellent control of the possession in the middle, Kansas City could gauge the best channels to attack. The wingers hogged the sidelines. The host could always find a pass receiver on the flank and stretched Vancouver’s defense.

Kansas City were patient. They kept circulating the ball across the field to probe for Vancouver’s weak point. Everyone was in the proper position to attack.

Kansas City’s movement and positional exchange

Kansas City capitalized their excellent offensive structure with rote movement and positional exchange.

Vancouver paid close attention to defend the center because Kansas City had a potent offensive midfield; Ilie has an exceptional passing range and can always place penetrative passes. Espinoza and Croizet are technically gifted and can dribble past the defenders in the 1 vs. 1 situations. Vancouver wanted to sit deep to contain them, so Kansas City found more space on the flank.

Kansas City attacked the visitor with a wave of positional exchanges. It started on the flank and gradually opened Vancouver’s defense in the middle. The winger would initiate a positional exchange no matter where he positioned. When Johnny Russell dropped to the midfield, Shelton would move into that space. Shelton’s movement then created another space in the middle for Salloi or Espinoza to attack. If Russell moved toward the byline on the flank, he would lure a central defender, usually Marcel de Jong, away from the defensive position. Zusi or Espinoza could then move into the box unmarked:

Most Kansas City’s players had great technique and made their positional exchanges unpredictable and dangerous. The fullbacks, the side central midfielders, and the forwards could create and convert chances when given space. They could do each other’s job; Espinoza and Croizet could make the initial entry pass in the first layer midfield with Ilie, or they could move inside the box to shoot. Zusi and Medranda could surge down the flank and cross, instead of circulating the ball in the midfield. Moreover, Salloi and Russell kept switching their left / right wing positions during the game. With a stable structure, Peter Vermes generated variability by allowing the players to positional exchange when they saw fit. Asides from the two center backs and Ilie, anyone can play in any position. The rote movement and exchange overwhelmed Vancouver’s defense.

Vancouver’s disastrous defense

Carl Robinson’s decision to change to a 3-5-2 (or a 3-4-1-2) turned into a disaster for Vancouver.

Vancouver didn’t know how to defend with a back three. The center back didn’t provide cover for his teammate who moved out of the position. The 3-5-2 and its variant only have one wing back guarding each flank. The area behind him is a weak point; it is in the middle of the wingback and the side center back. The players need to communicate to ensure someone is covering it. If the side center back moves out of his position to defend this area, the middle center back or midfielder needs to cover him. Vancouver had a problem managing these defensive movements in this game.

The distance between de Jong and Kendall Waston was too large. When de Jong moved out of his position to defend the flank, Waston didn’t always follow and couldn’t cover the area left by de Jong. Waston didn’t know he needed to move outside of his position; Vancouver had a back three setup but a back four mentality; in a back four, the distance between the defenders is smaller than that of a back three. De Jong is the fullback. Waston doesn’t need to travel a substantial distance to cover his teammate.

In this game, Waston had the same mindset as he was playing in the back four. He didn’t realize he needed to travel an extra distance to cover de Jong. The communication between de Jong and Waston looked particularly vulnerable because Kansas City’s focused attacking the right flank with Russell.

Vancouver’s central midfield also didn’t provide sufficient defensive support to the defenders. When the host attacked on one side, they overloaded Vancouver’s central defense with Shelton and the winger from the ball-far side to occupy the center backs. Kansas City could initiate the second wave of overloading from the midfield. Felipe and Ali Ghazal didn’t follow these players. Moreover, when Waston or de Jong moved out of their position, Felipe never covered them.

The visitor’s wingbacks also struggled in the defensive phase. They didn’t engage the advancing Kansas City’s ball handlers early enough and allowed too much freedom for the attackers.

Jose Aja ducked too close in the middle. For four seconds, Efrain Juarez could only retreat but not apply any pressure to Russell because no one was covering the vast area behind him. If Aja had stayed wider, he would have been able to support Juarez, and the Mexican would have engaged Russell before he reached within the shooting distance.

Vancouver’s central defense became vulnerable when Kansas City’s midfielders overloaded the box area. Juarez needed to help the center backs and couldn’t confront Medranda early enough. The Columbian had the freedom to do whatever he wanted.

Vancouver’s 3-5-2 wouldn’t have held up against any offense, let alone one that features an impressive structure and creative movements. The game was finished when the visitor went down to nine men.

Kansas City have been unbeaten for seven games. They and Los Angeles FC are the most impressive teams in the Western Conference. The offense has been top notched, but Kansas City should start fixing its midfield defense; Espinoza and Croizet are too aggressive to tackle the ball and Ilie isn’t great in defense. The midfield is too fragile to protect the defenders.

Vancouver have lost three consecutive games. Robinson’s team looks overwhelmed. He needs to figure out his best lineup and strategy ASAP.

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