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Tactics Time: How to break through against Sporting Kansas City

Can NYCFC start the year off with three points?

MLS: Sporting KC at New York City FC
Alex Callens wins possession from Gerso during the teams’ clash in September 2017
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After three long months, MLS finally returns this weekend. For New York City FC, the return of league play offers the chance to wipe the slate clean and forget about playoff failures of yesteryear. The club will feature a vastly different squad this year, as grizzled veterans like Andrea Pirlo and young gems like Jack Harrison have left for greener pastures.

On top of the roster turnover that head coach Patrick Vieira has to deal with, the season’s first test comes against possibly the stingiest defense that MLS has to offer in Peter VermesSporting Kansas City. It won’t be easy, but here is how NYCFC can grab three points on the road Sunday to start off the 2018 campaign.

  1. Line up like this:

4-3-3: Johnson; Matarrita, Callens, Chanot, Tinnerholm; Herrera, Ring, Moralez; Medina, Tajouri; Villa

Bench: Stuver, Sweat, Hountondji, Abdul-Salaam, McNamara, Wallace, Lewis

Vieira should hold steady with the 4-3-3 formation that has proved fruitful during his time in MLS. In the back, a healthy Ronald Matarrita reclaims his starting left back spot. The center back duo of Alex Callens and Maxime Chanot has given Vieira no reason to remove them from the starting lineup. New signing Anton Tinnerholm gets the start at right back.

The midfield of Alex Ring, Yangel Herrera, and Maxi Moralez remains unchanged. Rodney Wallace got the bulk of the starts at left wing last season, but his extended goal drought and the arrival of new DP Jesus Medina move him to the bench. Another new signing gets the start at right wing, as Ismael Tajouri takes over Jack Harrison’s old spot. David Villa, as always, is the striker.

Tommy McNamara and Jonathan Lewis will be among the first subs off the bench. McNamara’s versatility and Lewis’ untapped potential will lead to their numbers being called quite often. New center back signing Cedric Hountondji played well in the preseason, but is relegated to the bench due to the current starting duo’s success. Jo Inge Berget’s quad injury means that NYCFC will go into this match with only one true striker.

2. With Benny Feilhaber gone, focus on Kansas City’s new signings.

MLS: Portland Timbers vs Sporting Kansas City
New DP Yohan Croizet was one of several signings SKC made in the wake of Feilhaber’s departure
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City attack used to be as one-dimensional as they come. It was Benny Feilhaber and 10 other players. Whenever Kansas City would have a run of poor form, it seemed as though Feilhaber was playing by himself; he single-handedly created almost all of their chances. In the wake of his departure for upstarts Los Angeles FC, SKC had a crisis on their hands. They went overboard in fixing this, signing two new DPs and several attackers.

Yohan Croizet was brought in from Belgian side KV Mechelen, where he provided 3 assists in 15 games during the 2017/18 league season. His role there was similar to that of Maxi Moralez’ for NYCFC. He can play several different midfield positions, orchestrate counterattacks, and pass the ball extremely well.

Felipe Gutierrez, a 27-year-old central midfielder, was plucked from La Liga outfit Real Betis. His is an accomplished international player, featuring in 35 games for the Chilean national team, scoring 4 times. He scored once in 14 appearances with Betis. Gutierrez’s ability to facilitate an attack, along with his skill as a defender, make him a perfect midfielder for Vermes.

Johnny Russell, while not a DP, is still an extremely talented winger. Signed from Championship team Derby County, Russell played in 23 games this past year in England, scoring 4 times while handing out 3 assists. He is also a Scottish international, capping on four occasions for his country. Russell brings with him pace, creativity, and versatility, all of which have been problematic for NYCFC in the past.

Feilhaber may be gone, but Kansas City have filled the void. They may score more often this season, and one or more of these new signings may play a major part in doing so. NYCFC need to clamp down with tenacious, physical defense if they want to stand a chance.

3. Win the possession battle.

MLS: Sporting KC at New York City FC
Tommy McNamara and the now departed Feilhaber battle for control
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

No team had possession of the ball more than Kansas City last season, pacing MLS by holding the ball at a 56 percent clip. However, right behind them at No. 4 with 53.7 percent possession was NYCFC. Both of these teams want to dominate possession, albeit for contrasting reasons. Vieira wants to get into his creative attacking sets, while Vermes looks to frustrate the opponent and prevent them from threatening Tim Melia in goal.

In these types of matches, winning possession and coming away with three points correlates strongly. In all three matches that the two teams have played, the winner won the possession battle. Even when SKC uncharacteristically scored 3 times in NYCFC’s only prior trip to Children’s Mercy Park, they dominated with 67 percent possession.

Conceding possession to Kansas City will also allow them to dictate the pace and style of the game. NYCFC need most of the ball if they want a positive result against a tough team in a very hostile environment.

4. Start fast. Whoever scores first may end up with the win.

MLS: Sporting KC at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Watching Sporting KC play soccer is like watching Army or Navy play football. They want to score early, maintain a slim lead, and then hold possession in the waning moments, savoring the fact that all the other team can do is helplessly watch as time bleeds away.

The 1-0 win has become synonymous with Kansas City and Peter Vermes. SKC won’t play “beautiful soccer,” nor will they score four or five goals in a game. Instead, they will play smart, execute their game plan, and show off their suffocating defense.

If NYCFC go down a goal early, it’ll be a tall task to come back against Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and the rest of the Kanas City defense — even with City’s wealth of attackers and attack-minded manager. NYCFC need to dictate the tempo of the game. If they play fast and ultra aggressive, they can force SKC out of their comfort zone. A goal or two early, by either side, may be enough to walk away from the first match of the year with three points in hand.

What do you think NYCFC will need to do to stop Kansas City this weekend? Let us know in the comments!