The MLS entered it’s final matchday, aka “decision day”, with a clash between FC Dallas and Sporting KC. After analysis, we see that FC Dallas employed aggressive attacking tactics directed at weak points within the Sporting KC team. Meanwhile, Sporting KC were unable to create much attacking threat and remained stagnant through a majority of the match.
In the end, FC Dallas punched their ticket to the playoffs with a resounding 6-0 win. This tactical analysis will examine exactly how it happened.
Line up and team notes
FC Dallas entered the day knowing that their playoff qualification hopes were fully within their control. Win and they were in. Dallas would be looking to break their run of poor form in September. Dallas managed only two points throughout the month and scored one goal while giving up eight. They were also without up and coming homegrown youth product Paxton Pomykal due to injury.
Sporting KC had already been eliminated from playoff contention and found themselves with an opportunity to give starts to four homegrown players. This marked the first time in club history that four homegrown players were listed in the starting XI.
FC Dallas deployed in a typical 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 (defending). Sporting KC lined up in their usual 4-3-3 (attacking) formation.
Cannon and Hollingshead underlap
Throughout the match, FC Dallas created goals in a variety of different ways. A main pillar of the attacking tactics that helped create these goals came from the movements of the outside backs. Reggie Cannon and Ryan Hollingshead often pushed forward in attack through underlaps to attack gaps in the Sporting KC backline.
In attack, Dallas would push their wingers out wide to provide width, and force the SKC defensive line to lose its compactness. Simultaneously the striker, Zdeněk Ondrášek would stay high and directly in the middle of the pitch to keep the SKC centre-backs occupied. By keeping the centre-backs pinned and the outside backs focusing on the wingers, a gap was created in between the outside-backs and the centre-backs.
As this attacking structure was implemented, FC Dallas kept their central midfielders in the middle of the pitch. This helped the home team to maintain a strong central defensive presence in case of a turnover. With two centre-backs and three midfielders maintaining a block in the centre of the field, Cannon and Hollingshead were given license to move forward in attack.
The objective of Cannon and Hollingshead’s runs was the gaps between the SKC outside-backs and centre-backs. We saw this movement play out many times throughout the match and subsequently, we saw many chances created.
In the 68th minute, we saw an attacking underlap lead directly to a goal. Right-winger Michael Barrios had positioned himself wide in the attacking third. Ondrášek maintained a central position to keep the SKC centre-back from sliding horizontally. As a ball was played to Barrios on the right flank, Cannon immediately moved into the gap between SKC left-back and centre-back.
Barrios quickly passed the ball into space for Cannon to run onto. This allowed Cannon to receive the ball with enough time to get his head up and find Ondrášek, who was now moving into space in the centre of the box. Cannon slid in a well-placed low cross for Ondrášek to tap into the goal.
Through using the front three to pin back the defensive line of SKC, Dallas was able to create gaps for their advancing outside backs to penetrate. This penetration created a constant threat to SKC and an eventual goal.
SKC stagnant attack
Sporting KC had far less possession throughout the match with a total of 38%. In the moments that SKC did maintain possession in the attacking half, there was little movement off the ball to create platforms to create goals. Although SKC did create a coherent structure, there was little rotation or movement to create and exploit space within the Dallas defensive block.
Dallas chose to deploy a man-marking scheme for players near the ball when out of possession. This allowed each ball-near player to individually negate an SKC passing option and shut down the SKC attack at that moment.
Theoretically, when an opponent man-marks out of possession, an attacking team can use off the ball movements and rotations to unbalance and disorganise the defensive block. This comes from the attacking players knowing that they have the initiative in each 1v1 situation. For example: If an attacking midfielder moves out wide, an opponent will follow, and this will create space for a teammate to receive.
Off the ball movements and rotations can allow an attacking team to disorganise the defensive block as that attacking team sees fit. To do this though, the team in possession must be coordinated and time their movements well. Sporting KC, for most of the game, offered very little off the ball movement to manipulate the man-marking Dallas Block.
Below, we see that SKC has played the ball to the left flank. Near the ball carrier, we see five SKC players who are maintaining the team attacking structure. With this structure, SKC are providing width through the winger, depth with high attackers, and central access through midfielders.
Although Sporting have a fairly good attacking structure set up, Dallas have man-marked all nearby passing options. At this point, if SKC players had shifted to create space for nearby teammates to receive the ball in or rotated positions, they might have been able to disorganise the FC Dallas block.
Unfortunately for Sporting, the off the ball players remained fairly stationary and waited for the ball to come to them, despite being marked.
Later, in a similar moment (below), we can once again see the SKC attacking players being marked out as playable options (blue circles). A massive gap has formed between the Dallas defensive and midfield lines (orange circle).
Once again, no SKC player makes a movement to receive in the massive open space or to create space for a nearby teammate
In possession, Sporting KC consistently lacked off the ball movement. This lack of movement played directly into the hands of the man-marking FC Dallas defensive block.
Dallas target Sporting homegrowns
Seeing as Sporting KC were already eliminated from playoff contention before kickoff, manager Peter Vermes was in a position to allow a few homegrown youth products the chance to start. Felipe Hernández, Gianluca Busio, Jaylin Lindsey and Dániel Sallói were given the opportunity to make an impression with the first team. As we can see in the line-up, three of these players lined up on the SKC left side.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that Dallas made the right side a target for a large number of their attacking progressions.
When progressing the ball through the middle third, FC Dallas would push Cannon higher up the touchline and have two central midfielders drift over to create a temporary diamond shape. This not only gave Dallas numerical superiority at that moment but also qualitative superiority. Qualitative superiority can be explained as when a player or players are better than their direct opponent(s).
Often we saw Dallas look to move the ball to the right side to create an advantageous player vs player situation.
In the twenty-seventh minute, we saw a perfect example of this tactic play out. Dallas’ centre-back Matt Hedges possessed the ball and moved forward with little to no pressure. As Hedges moved forward Cannon moved as wide as possible and stayed ahead of Hedges to provide a wide passing option. As this occurred, Santiago Mosquera and Bryan Acosta drifted nearby as well to create a temporary diamond.
Within this diamond Dallas isolated Busio and Sallói. This created not only a 4v2 overload for Dallas, but also a moment in which Dallas had four players who can be considered far more experienced and skilful than Busio and Sallói. Dallas easily played through the midfield line and progressed to the attacking third.
This situation played out many times throughout the game. By playing the ball towards a group of young and inexperienced homegrown starters, Dallas were able to easily progress through the midfield into the attacking third. This is reflected by the fact that 40% of Dallas’ attacks were attempted down the right side of the field.
By the time the final whistle rang out, it was clear that FC Dallas had earned the final spot in the western conference playoffs. Dallas will look to maintain the momentum created from the match and progress past a first-round matchup with the Seattle Sounders. Sporting KC enters the offseason with plenty to improve but also hold a potentially bright future with youth products ready to fully break into the first team.
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