Ahead of this weekend's game against Sporting Kansas City, we checked in with Ben Gartland of The Blue Testament to ask about SKC's plans for Villa, the team's offensive struggles and a scouting report on waffle aficionado Matt Besler and Kansas City Pizza Czar Graham Zusi:
Questions we asked The Blue Testament:
The closest analogy to David Villa that Sporting KC has faced this year was Bradley Wright-Phillips. What did the defense do BWP to keep him from getting any shots off? Will the strategy work against Villa or do you expect to try to contain him a different way?
In the opening match Sporting KC played with more of a defensive middle with a 4-2-3-1 with Benny Feilhaber and Roger Espinoza playing behind the three midfielders. This clogged the middle and forced the Red Bulls attack out wide which neutralized Wright-Phillips in the middle. This strategy won’t really be possible with Roger Espinoza on national team duty, and other midfield injuries will likely change up the way Sporting KC plays in the middle of the field. What I do expect them to do is to play a 4-3-3 with a defensive midfielder, box-to-box and then an attacking midfielder. More than likely it’ll be Benny Feilhaber playing as the defensive midfielder in the middle ahead of the back line, forming a little triad of defenders between him, Ike Opara and Matt Besler. Feilhaber could also be replaced with either Soni Mustivar or Servando Carrasco, but having the holding midfielder clogging the middle of the pitch and forcing the game wide seems to be the best strategy to try and neutralize Villa.
The SKC offense has struggled to date, but New York City FC has a brief history of letting struggling offenses get chances (see: Colorado Rapids and New England Revolution). How do you expect the offense to attack the NYCFC defensive unit that's most definitely a work in progress?
Sporting have had a lot of trouble building through the middle. With Benny Feilhaber having to play back in the defensive midfield, there really hasn’t been much service or distribution coming from anyone in the midfield so the only service has come through the wings. That’s fine when we have Graham Zusi on the wing, but not necessarily fine when Dom Dwyer does best as a striker played through the middle. These first few games, Dwyer has been isolated and that has been rendered ineffective. It all depends on how they form their midfield. If they go with Benny Feilhaber or Krisztian Nemeth (should he be back from injury) as a CAM then I see them attacking through the middle with Zusi and whoever plays on the left wing cutting in. If Feilhaber has to play back and they have two box-to-box midfielders ahead of him then Sporting is going to have to continue to attack through crosses and set pieces, which has not been effective at all.
Many New York City FC fans are new to MLS, but may have heard of Matt Besler and Graham Zusi due to their World Cup appearances. Can you give us a brief scouting report on where they fit in within the SKC system? Are they the same players that we saw in Brazil? Or do they fit different roles within SKC?
Besler and Zusi play very similar positions with Sporting KC as they do on the USMNT. Besler plays centerback, typically on the left-side of the pairing due his being left footed and is the anchor of the defense. His ability with positioning allows him to play a sweeper-type role while his partner is able to go out and attack the attackers leaving Besler to clean up the mess. That’s what made him and Aurelien Collin such a good duo since Collin is a bit reckless but Besler was able to position himself well and clean up behind him. It’s a similar philosophy with Ike Opara or whoever Besler’s partner is for each match. With Zusi he originally started as a center attacking midfielder but moved to the wing in 2013 and hasn’t moved back since. The only real difference is that he plays further up with Sporting KC in their 4-3-3 while Jurgen Klinsmann played him on the wing in a 4-4-2 diamond or a 4-2-3-1. He was still the primary form of offense on the side, but the positioning on how far up the field he is changes a bit.
Since we're new to the league and it's the only time the Sky Blues will face SKC, give us either a reason to dislike SKC or a funny anecdote from the team's history?
I’ll give you a couple of related anecdotes. Through 20 seasons, three names and three stadiums one thing has remained remarkably consistent: Bad commercials. Whether it was bad acting, odd premises or just plain weird ideas, bad commercials have been a staple of Sporting KC. I’ve included some links below (you can embed them if you want), hope you enjoy!
It’s Mojo Time — 2000
Besler wants Waffles — 2009
Zusi named Pizza Czar — 2015
DEF: Anibaba, Opara, Besler, Sinovic
MID: Carrasco, Nagamura, Feilhaber
FOR: Medranda, Dwyer, Zusi
Questions The Blue Testament asked us:
So far NYCFC has either seen its midfield and forwards connect such as in the New England match or a disconnect in the two away matches. How do you see Jason Kreis attempting to have them consistently connect both in this match against Sporting KC and throughout the season?
Against New England, the midfielders moved the ball much more vertically than they did against Orlando and Colorado. The result was a masterful game by David Villa, a goal by Patrick Mullins and some chances from Adam Nemec. Against Orlando, Villa was a bit of a nonfactor and against Colorado, he peppered the net with a few chances in the second half, but was mostly stranded up top.
In both the away matches, the team faced issues that they won’t have to deal with going forward. Against Orlando City, the team played together for the first time and the game at Colorado introduced the altitude and the first time zone changing flight. (For what it’s worth, I put more stock into the former than the latter regarding the Colorado game.)
In terms of personnel, the only difference in the midfield lineup over the three games was Mehdi Ballouchy earning the start on the right side in the season opener. Ballouchy was all over the pitch, which probably threw the unit’s balance off. In the subsequent games with Sebastian Velazquez, they’ve been spaced better, which should address at least one issue facing the mids. Against the Revolution, Velazquez showed potential to get up the wing and create. He brings a quickness that, ironically as we’ll get to in the third question here, would be more valuable on a bigger pitch. The issue for New York City is that Velazquez is doubtful for this weekend due a pulled groin.
If I’m Kreis, I give the midfielders at least a few more games to figure out how to connect with Villa, Adam Nemec, Khiry Shelton, Patrick Mullins, et al. The next three games include two home dates and a match two hours away in Philly. After that stretch of relative comfort, if the midfield and forwards still aren’t clicking consistently, then they’ve got an issue on their hands.
We all know the big names of David Villa and Mix Diskerud, who are some of the lesser-known players who have helped NYCFC get off to an undefeated start?
The most obvious one is goalkeeper Josh Saunders, who was the third player the team signed. Kreis clearly knew what he was getting when he signed Saunders, after the two teamed up in Real Salt Lake during Kreis’ tenure. The acquisition has proven to be one of the team’s savviest so far. Simply put, Saunders has saved New York City FC as the outfield players are figuring out how to play together. He’s conceded one goal in three games — and even the long goal was a bit flukey since it came on a deflection off Jeb Brovsky in the wall formation.
The backline has had some trouble to date and Saunders has bailed them out. New York City FC gave New England a handful of solid chances in the first half, but Saunders helped keep the ball out of the net with a save and positioning that forces shots off target and disrupted the Revs finishing. Against a Colorado Rapids team that hasn't scored a goal in an eternity, Saunders came up huge with seven saves.
He’s made 11 saves against one goal so far. The goalkeeper position was supposedly up for grabs before Ryan Meara was injured prior to the season. Based on Saunders’ run, it’s hard to imagine the job being open when Meara returns.
Based on a small sample size to be fair, does the smaller field dimension at Yankee Stadium have any significant impact on the game that we’d see in this match?
The field at Yankee Stadium looks worse on TV than it is in real life. It’s certainly smaller — 10 yards shorter and 5 narrower than Sporting Park — and the narrow dimensions will help neutralize teams with strong wings.
As you note, it’s a small sample size, but the narrow pitch could force the play into the middle of the field. The pass distribution chart against New England was more balanced across the width of the field than against Colorado and Orlando. In those two games away from Yankee Stadium, the passing drifted to the edges of the field.
The pitch could lessen the impact of Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza, both of whom would be an advantage for SKC otherwise. They’ll have less room to operate outside and the interior midfields and defenders for New York City can more easily support the defense on the wings.
Long term, we’ll have to see. Jason Kreis has said on the record that he doesn’t think the size of the pitch is an issue, but then again, what are his options when someone asks him about the small field? He’s not going to tip his hand or complain about it.
The size of the pitch is only one aspect of the playing surface that New York City and its opponents will have to deal with this season. The other is the condition of the grass once the Yankees start playing. Luckily for SKC, the turf conditions won’t come in to play this weekend as the Yankees are still in Florida.
GK: Josh Saunders
DEF: Jeb Brovsky - Chris Wingert - Jason Hernandez - Kwame Watson-Siriboe
MID: Andrew Jacobson - Mix Diskerud - Ned Grabavoy - Mehdi Ballouchy
FOR: David Villa - Patrick Mullins