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Talking Tactics: Understanding diverging paths to victory, insurmountable obstacles as SKC host RSL

RSL, SKC reignite their passion for hating each other during the first match of the 2017 series this Saturday.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Sporting KC Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

After yet another disappointing home loss at the hands of the expansion side Atlanta United, Real Salt Lake travel to Children’s Mercy Park to reignite one of the biggest rivalries in MLS. Everyone knows that Sporting Kansas City cannot stand the Claret-and-Cobalt, and visa-versa, but this match could have implications later in the season, meaning RSL should really treat this as a possible six-point match.

Unlocking the best defense in the league

Saying Sporting has the best defense in the league is an understatement. The purely veteran back-line has only conceded three goals this year.

Three seems to be Kansas’ number as, somewhat ironically, their defenders play with three distinct traits, week in and week out:

First, every player on that side is instilled with the infamous Peter Vermes high-press. Part of their very fibers, Sporting’s defenders will chase the ball if they do not have it, when if they leave open space at the back.

To alleviate the possible predicaments that the high-press will have on a defense, their defenders play a high defensive line in hopes of catching the opposition in the offside trap. This too can be dangerous, leaving acres of space in-between the last defender and the goal-line.

Finally, to counter all open space on the pitch, the hosts are rather stingy with possession. Sporting likes to play with the ball at their feet, averaging 53.7 percent possession each match. In conjunction with an 80.7 pass completion rate, the hosts are among the leagues lowest when it comes to turnovers.

What to watch

Roughly conceding 0.42 goals per match, it is hard to argue that Kansas’ defense is not the best in the league, but let me go out on a limb here.

Maybe it is not that Sporting’s back-line is the best, but rather the midfield strangles opponents before they can get the ball into Kansas’ defensive third.

Sporting plays with two defensive midfielders in all but name. When you look at Ilie Sanchez and Roger Espinoza, their traits combine to make the perfect No. 6. They both contribute defensively, but unlike RSL’s center-midfield duo, they complement each other.

For example, Espinoza is extremely weak at holding on to the ball and likes to commit fouls often. Sanchez, on the other hand, is a midfield general, keeping possession and does not attempt many tackles. These complementary traits makes Sporting’s midfield partnership the second best in the league, only behind Portland’s Diego Chara and David Guzman.

These two players are pros at stopping No. 10s, as seen in both their draw with FC Dallas and their win over the Portland Timbers, but if Albert Rusnak has help, say a Luis Silva, to divvy up the workload with, RSL might possess the keys to unlocking Kansas’ defense - as well as allowing Kyle Beckerman to drop back into his preferred holding midfield role.

Without their midfielders screening the back-line, both Joao Plata and Brooks Lennon could find ways to operate in the space that Sporting leaves vacant so often.

Shots on . . . err . . . off target

For how much their defense has excelled, Sporting’s offense has struggled. Their attacking corps scores less than a goal a match, 0.86 to be exact, and their finishing has been atrocious. It seems as if Dom Dwyer has misplaced his shooting boots, while there are doubts if either Gerso Fernandes or Jimmy Medranda were ever issued any.

SKC are among the league’s elite when it comes to creating chances, both through individual skill and creating space for shots from distance, but they are at the bottom of the league when it comes to putting them in the back of the net. Given their scoring woes, it is surprising that Vermes keeps the first eleven so consistence.

More likely than not, Sporting will once again trot out Fernandes, Dwyer, and Medranda up-top and hope to break their string of bad-luck. But with no substantial changes, it seems like it is likely to continue.

What to watch

Once the bastion of goalkeeping in the MLS, Real’s goalkeepers have been the victim of what seem like countless errors for the last several weeks. Whether it is poor positioning or handling, RSL seem like they just cannot catch a break at the back.

Mike Petke will likely want to get back to basics, as he already shouldered the blame for any bad goalkeeping against Atlanta.

This would be as good a match as any for RSL’s defense to reset and get a clean-sheet. As a result, expect RSL to have a more defensive look to this match, being pragmatic in the attack, rather than going all in offensively.

Keys to the Match

1. Don’t let SKC dictate the pace of the match – Sporting feels most comfortable controlling possession, there RSL should not allow them too. The Claret-and-Cobalt should look to use their defenders as outlets as much as possible as they look to reset their attacks without conceding possession.

2. Shut down the left flank – With Graham Zusi occupying the right-back role, it only makes sense that SKC would trend towards attacking down that flank. RSL needs to play lock-down down the left, as Plata harries Zusi with his speed. With Zusi incognito in the match, Yura Movsisyan and Lennon might just be able to slip in on goal.

3. Being ok with taking a point – Successful clubs leave by the mantra of going for three at home and one on the road. Despite dropping all three last week, RSL should not approaching this match as a way to recuperate any lost points from prior matches. The Claret-and-Cobalt have already struggled against pressing teams so they need to be accepting of a draw on the road, especially against such a defensively strong Kansas City - but RSL can take heart in knowing their unbeaten streak against Sporting will extend to eight.

Expected Sporting Kansas City Lineup (4-3-3):

GK: Melia

DEF: Zusi, Opara, Besler, Sinovic

MID: Espinoza, Sanchez, Feilhaber

ATT: Fernandes, Dwyer, Medranda

Watch RSL take on Atlanta United on Saturday April 29th at 6:30 pm MDT on KMYU or listen to Bill Riley on ESPN 700.