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Words About Shapes: MLS #3 - Sporting KC vs. Chicago

Will tactics matter for two teams in transition?

Stay the course? Tinker? Only Frank knows ...
Stay the course? Tinker? Only Frank knows ...
Jonathan Daniel

It is hard to overemphasize how little we know about the mind of Frank Klopas. This is generally true for any name we insert in that sentence, of course, but for Fire supporters the mind of Frank is particularly a conundrum. We have seen him lead our team for going on two years now; we have seen the jubilant Frank and the dour Frank, the incensed Frank and the thoughtful Frank. We have seen Frank tinker and fiddle with the roster, adding Uruguayans, subtracting Uruguayans. We have seen the game-day rosters, the drawings of the shapes the team plans to adopt. But all our evidence is just evidence; none of it indicates we have the slightest clue how Frank thinks about the game.

Take, for instance, Saturday's game in Kansas City. The Fire have stumbled badly out of the gate, with injuries devastating the defense and some kind of lassitude coloring their work with the ball; the constant changeover of personnel argues for tactical continuity, the thought being that the team-organism can only take so much change at once. On the other hand, Sporting KC play a tactic (the 4-3-3) that offers significant difficulties for Chicago's 4-4-2, as discussed earlier in this space.

Which way will Frank go? Will he stay the course, or will he tinker? Here's some things to look for on Saturday that could tip the gaffer's hand.

The case for continuity

As bad as Stephen Kinney has been to this point, he (at least) is a man who has built a career in soccer as a defensive player. Kinney's midweek injury, combined with Arne Friedrich's back-to-Germany hamstring and Captain Pause's knee problems, leave the Fire with the backline depth of a Sunday beer league team. Word is that Wells Thompson - a career winger - has worked at right back all week. The first defender off the bench is likely to be Hunter Jumper, who has impressed Frank so greatly in practice that he has not yet made the gameday 18 this season.

Which is, in so many words, the argument against further tinkering. Players need to learn each other and the tactic. Since the 'each other' component keeps changing, the tactic must (the thought goes) necessarily remain unchanged. There is also some concern that our problems supercede the tactical; that, for example, tactics matter little when the team's best players are playing like garbage. When your attackers combine with opponents more than teammates, the shape isn't going to matter much.*

For these reasons, I think we are in for a 4-4-2 vs. 4-3-3 battle on Saturday. If this were a friendly, it would be fascinating; the fact that we are putting points on the line makes me queasy. Here's some things I'll be looking for as I reach for the Maalox.

Problem areas: Possession

Like Chicago, Kansas City is a team attempting a transition, although theirs is in style, not shape. In years past, Sporting were notable largely for their incredibly quick tempo and their manic, balls-to-the-wall pressing style; this year, sticking with the 4-3-3, they have gone to a lower-tempo, pass-heavy possession style. The wings were formerly physical freaks like Kei Kamara; now a cerebral playmaker like Graham Zusi lines up there. Screening the defense once fell to a leg-breaker like Julio Cesar; now Oriol Rosell plays there, sacrificing steel for satin.

I've pointed out the problems a two-man central midfield can have against three men in the middle, and this tendency could be made worse by the very possession-oriented nature of their midfield (and the very craptastic form of our duo, potentially). If KC is able to use their advantage in the middle to rest with the ball, forcing the Fire to chase, we could be in for a very long afternoon.

I'll be looking at how the Fire react to losing possession - do we fall back into two banks of four and let them keep the ball, or do we press hard? Pressing, while proactive and therefore satisfying, could seriously expose our shaky back line, especially with KC's extra man in the middle providing a simple out-ball.

Problem areas: High pressure

In years past under Peter Vermes, Kansas City has been one of the most aggressive pressing teams in the world. This season's more sedate pace is a work in progress, though, and most of this roster has at least a year of "90 minutes of hell" under their belt - it is possible that, against a young, injury-wracked back line, KC harkens back to its recent past and tries to press the Fire right out of the game.

This is another area where the two-man center of midfield offers a significant disadvantage: No free out-ball. If the front three for KC are pressing hard, and the center of midfield steps forward in sync, Chicago's defenders will have to find a more difficult pass under pressure. If our defenders are scrambling away from pressure, constantly using Sean Johnson as an outlet, or hammering aimless balls upfield, the pressure is getting to us. I'll be watching how the midfield responds to a defender in trouble - if Lindpere and Larentowicz are getting marked out in this situation, we have a problem.

Problem areas: Creators on the wing

Last year's KC was robust but predictable; if you could handle the pressure, keep turnovers to a minimum, and keep a man near Zusi, they weren't going to score many goals. This year, though, Zusi starts on the right wing, with tremendous freedom to roam about and find space. On the other wing, Bobby Convey offers some of the same dynamism, albeit without Zusi's subtler touches. Opposite these players, we place Gonzo Segares and Thompson - neither a shutdown defender, and each expected to aid the attack when possible.

If Zusi is getting a huge number of touches on Segares' wing, we are in trouble, in both general and specific terms. Generally, 'Zusi getting touches' is a shorthand description of the KC offense working as planned. His is the mind at the center of their movement. Specifically, the hardest run to learn to cover as a fullback is the back-post run from the weak side - which, in our terms, means Convey vs. Thompson, or career-winger-playing-wing vs. career-winger-trying-to-play-defense.

Hopeful signs: Over/under game

One of the selling points of Sherjill MacDonald Chicago Fire DP is this: He's a target man who is not a tree-stump; the guy can run a bit. This should present an interesting possibility, should Kansas City come out pressing hard. Typically, a team wants to be as compact, back-to-front, as possible. This compresses the space in which one's opponent may play. For this reason, teams that press very high up the pitch must adopt a correspondingly high defensive line or run the risk of providing a simple outlet from the pressure.

If Sporting is pressing the Fire backline hard, look to see if MacDonald can get behind the last defender and onto a leading ball. KC's centerback combination is very solid with the ball in front of them, but not incredibly fast in a straight line. If they step high, Sherjill MacDonald Chicago Fire DP must make them pay with intelligent, well-timed runs and (please, dear gods, please) precise finishing.

If they don't step high, or if Sherjill MacDonald Chicago Fire DP gets free a couple times and discourages them, then it's Chris Rolfe time - his quest for space will take him in front of the backline. We will need to see markedly improved touch and thought from Chris for this to matter, but his history indicates that these tools are somewhere in his bag of tricks.

Hopeful signs: Wing combinations

Unless KC is protecting a lead, the basic shapes (high-pressing 4-3-3 vs. flat 4-4-2) promise us a bit of space in the midfield wing area. It is vital the Fire use this space to combine and put pressure on Sporting's wing defenders, who offer a good bit going forward but can be exploited in combination.

I'll be watching to see if we can turn a potential weakness to a strength here. Thompson may not be known as a defender, but the prospect of he and Patrick Nyarko working in combination against Seth Sinovic is a happy one; the Segares/Duka combo on the left could find similar joy against Chance Myers. If the Fire are able to use movement and touches along the wing to get behind KC's fullbacks, we have the potential to create good chances without miraculous individual effort.

* In my opinion, it is only recently - say, the last 5 years or so - that most MLS teams have been good enough to exhibit significant tactical variation. Other old-timers swear the league was better in the 90s; I remember differently. I have seen a lot of kick and chase in the last 15 years.