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NYCFC Tactics Time: How to defeat Sporting KC

Can the Boys in Blue can capture a first-ever win over the Wiz?

MLS: New York City FC at Sporting KC
Andrea Pirlo (left) looks to push upfield against Benny Feilhaber (right) while goalie Tim Melia (center) barks out orders
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

New York City FC resume their quest for a playoff bye this Wednesday, September 6th, when they take on Sporting Kansas City. If NYCFC fans are less optimistic heading into a weekday game than a second place team should be, it is with good reason. New York City haven’t taken a point from Sporting Kansas City in two tries, losing 0-1 at Yankee Stadium in 2015 and 3-1 on the road a year ago.

This is made even worse by the fact that eight stalwarts of the NYCFC squad will miss this game, either through injury (Ethan White, Mikey Lopez, Ronald Matarrita, Maxime Chanot) or international duty (David Villa, Alex Ring, Yangel Herrera, Rodney Wallace). On top of THAT, SKC has the best defense in MLS, only allowing 19 goals to this point, compared to NYCFC’s 35.

Taking points from this match will require a technical masterclass from head coach Patrick Vieira. It’s certainly daunting, but not impossible. The Boys in Blue just need to remember these few tactical tips that could swing the game in their favor.

  1. Line up like this:

4-3-3: Johnson; Sweat, Callens, Brillant, Allen; Pirlo; Moralez, McNamara; Lewis, Harrison; Okoli

Keeping the shape Vieira prefers to deploy, the best way to try and break down the SKC defense would be through an attacking formation. Wing-backs Ben Sweat and RJ Allen like to get forward and play the ball into the box, as evidenced by Sweat’s 6 assists and Allen making outrageous passes, like his brilliant ball to David Villa in Portland last year.

In midfield, Andrea Pirlo is likely to return the starting eleven. While his defensive deficiencies have been discussed ad infinitum, he will be playing against a Sporting side that lacks a dynamic attacker and prides itself on its defense. The offensively-minded Pirlo would be perfect against them. NYCFC’s diminutive playmaking genius Maxi Moralez returns to his usual spot, with the versatile Tommy McNamara playing beside him in his more natural attacking midfielder role.

Up top, Jonathan Lewis and Jack Harrison serve as the wingers. While far from the finished product, Lewis earns the starting nod over Khiry Shelton thanks to a recent hot streak, particularly his late winner against the Revolution two weeks back. Sean Okoli is the only other striker on the roster, so his inclusion at the center forward spot could be chalked up to consequence; however, Okoli has shown he can be an MLS-caliber striker if given creative freedom with the ball and consistent playing time.

2. Offensively, try to wear down Tim Melia and that SKC defense in the final third

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-San Jose Earthquakes at Sporting KC Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

There are several reasons Kansas City have been the stingiest team in the league, but the list begins with their elite goalie, Tim Melia. Melia hasn’t just been the best keeper in MLS this year; he’s been the best by a ridiculous margin. He currently leads MLS with a 78.7% save percentage, ahead of Bill Hamid’s 74.8%, and an average of 0.76 goals allowed per game, ahead of Alex Bono’s 1.05. Their back four features designated player and US men’s national team starter Graham Zusi, compatriot Matt Besler, and budding star Ike Opara, who has scored twice against NYCFC in two games. Though Zusi and Besler will not feature in this one, Opara and Seth Sinovic will be difficult enough on their own.

Breaking down Melia will take patience, flawless execution, and finishing. The front three, and Jack Harrison in particular, will have to shoulder more responsibility if New York City are to make a crack in SKC’s wall. Without the added benefit of spontaneous bursts of David Villa magic to aid them in this one, Harrison, Lewis, and Okoli will need to be on their A-game.

3. Defensively, force the ball out wide, away from Benny Feilhaber

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Sporting KC Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City’s attack leaves a lot to be desired. That said, they sport (no pun intended) one of the most creative and consistent players in MLS. Attacking midfielder Benny Feilhaber has totaled 17 goals and 28 assists over the 2015 and 2016 seasons. While his 2017 campaign hasn’t been as strong (5 goals, 3 assists in 20 games), Feilhaber is still the straw that stirs SKC’s proverbial drink. Having scored before against NYCFC, the good guys are fully aware of his technical prowess. Once the ball gets away from Feilhaber in the final third, particularly when their wingers have the ball, their attack fizzles out.

SKC have taken steps to fix this. DP signing Gerso Fernandes has been a very shrewd signing and decent left winger, while 20-year old Latif Blessing looks like he could be something special. At the moment, this attacking bunch isn’t going to be anything that MLS defenses are going to be up all night dreading, however.

Getting Feilhaber off of the ball and forcing their offense to operate through a winger who struggles with crossing and long passes and/or a 20 year old forward who is still more talent and projection than consistent offensive weapon will be essential if NYCFC want to avoid conceding and having to forge a comeback against this iron-forged defense.

4. Set Pieces! Defend them, and use them

MLS: New York City FC at Sporting KC Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the spring of 2015, plenty of NYCFC fans experienced that same sinking feeling I did when an incongruous-looking #93 jersey came charging into the box off of a Matt Besler throw in and slammed a thunderous header past Josh Saunders. That #93 was Ike Opara, now sporting the more traditional #3. Under the lights at Yankee Stadium that evening, he and Besler taught NYCFC a lesson in the importance of set pieces.

When facing a defensive team, or you yourself can’t score (both of which apply to Kansas City), a booming free kick or a nice chip into the box could be enough to separate the two sides and secure 3 points. Should Andrea Pirlo return to the fold as the designated free kick and corner taker, NYCFC’s ability to score from set pieces will be that much easier. Against a side giving up the fewest goals from open play in MLS, alternative scoring measures might be called for.

Defensively, set pieces have been killer for NYCFC this year. Kansas City’s offense has shown before that they can use set pieces to get the 1 goal they need before going on the defensive. More telling, New York City have given up 6 goals this year off of set pieces, which is simply not good enough for a team with MLS Cup ambitions. With Feilhaber striking the dead balls, it’s not a ridiculous possibility that he slips a nice one into the box and a stray head or right foot pushes it past Sean Johnson.

Sporting KC have proven to be a tough nut to crack, but NYCFC and its depleted squad have a path to snagging points from this game if they pocket Feilhaber, chip away at Melia and that back four, and win the set piece battle.

How do you see New York City lining up on Wednesday night? Who do you think needs to come up big in order to secure all three points? Leave a comment or blow us up on Twitter @hudsonriverblue.