Sporting KC attack at their best when Graham Zusi is pushed high up the pitch. But against the fast-breaking Portland Timbers, will he be more reserved in his play? The right-back’s positional balance will be critical.
Sporting Kansas City have a new wrinkle to previous seasons. Where in past years, Peter Vermes’ teams have always been defensive secure and difficult to play against but lacked a creativity and goalscoring threat, this season, they have added an attacking dimension to their play that makes them a completely different case.
The introduction and emergence of players such as Johnny Russell, Daniel Salloi and Diego Rubio have revolutionised Sporting KC’s attacking play.
KC look at their most potent, however, when right-back Graham Zusi gets involved in the play. The former midfielder is exceptionally adept in possession with great passing and vision to deliver dangerous crosses and smart, combination play when overlapping an in-cutting winger.
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Zusi played every single regular season match this year. He recorded two goals and seven assists. No defender had more. His offensive production is critical to this KC team and it has helped engineer a new side to this team. But when it comes to facing the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference Championships, there may have to be an adaptation of the manner in which Zusi plays.
The Timbers are an excellent counter-attacking team. Gio Savarese had to be convinced of the deep-lying style, starting out the season in a more possessional manner, but once he shifted to a strategy that perfectly fits the players he has available, the Timbers slowly began to come alive. A 15-game unbeaten in the middle of the season was proof of that. And now, in the playoffs, they are playing in the same counter-attacking manner, and with the same attacking threat.
Sebastian Blanco, who will veer out to the left flank that Zusi occupies, has been especially potent on the counter-attack with great speed and ruthless finishing. Similarly, Diego Valeri flourishes when he is afforded space to work his creative magic, while Jeremy Ebobisee is a good target man to play off.
This attacking triumvirate, allied with a defence that much prefers to play deep with compacted space in the midfield, could cause Vermes, an infamously defensive-minded coach, to shift his approach a little and adapt the position of Zusi in particular. The attacking productivity and wide outlet that Zusi provides is invaluable to KC’s play, but if he gets caught too far up the pitch, Portland will not waste time exploiting it.
It would not surprise me, therefore, to see Zusi position himself with a little more balance and awareness, pushing forward only when possession is secure, with caution and awareness, rather than any sort of reckless abandon.
Zusi is a wonderfully experienced player. As Vermes is a coach. And KC a team. But all will have to be acutely aware of the danger that the Timbers pose. If they aren’t, they will be punished.