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Tactical breakdown: What will decide Western Conference Semifinals? | MLSSoccer.com

Tactical breakdown: What will decide Western Conference Semifinals? | MLSSoccer.com

The Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs are about to get wild, people. After a goal-filled Round One, we’re sprinting headfirst into two single-elimination Western Conference Semifinals on Nov. 26.

Let’s break down both clashes and decipher who could reach the Western Conference Final on Dec. 2.

Houston’s approach

  • Attacking shape: 3-4-3
  • Defensive shape: 4-4-2

Ben Olsen has almost always had a reputation as something of a pragmatist. As a result, when he became the Houston Dynamo’s manager last November, many folks (myself included) assumed we’d see a lot of mid-blocks and transition play. Now, we have seen plenty of those principles from the Dynamo, especially away from home. But at Shell Energy Stadium? They’ve been a ball-dominant team.

Houston will shift left back Franco Escobar to the left-sided center back spot, build out of a back three, and let their central midfielders combine, play short passes on the floor, and create chances.

It’s not perfect – the Dynamo’s wide attackers and their striker spot can improve – but it’s a ton of fun.

SKC’s approach

  • Attacking shape: 4-3-3
  • Defensive shape: 4-3-3/4-4-2

We know what Peter Vermes wants to do, don’t we? He defaults to an expansive 4-3-3 possession shape, asking his team to build through midfield, shift the opposing defense from one side to the other, and eventually find a winger one-on-one against an opposing fullback. Defensively, they’re fairly conservative, but Kansas City will counter-press to maintain possession in the final third.

When Vermes’ team is healthy, as they’ve mostly been since May, they’re among the best in MLS at imposing themselves on their opponents. Progressing past San Jose in the Wild Card round and upsetting the West’s top seed in St. Louis CITY SC shows Kansas City are a true threat.

Houston’s X-factor: Coco Carrasquilla

With Artur and Héctor Herrera occupying the two deepest midfield positions in Olsen’s possession structure, Panamanian international Coco Carrasquilla has moved into the right halfspace when the Dynamo have possession. From that slightly wider role, he could change the game on Sunday. Because SKC tend to stack numbers in central areas, Carrasquilla’s ability to drop in late to add either a numerical or dynamic advantage has the potential to give Houston a boost.

In a game where both teams will want the ball, any small advantage is key.

SKCs X-factor: Nemanja Radoja

Just like Carrasquilla isn’t the Dynamo’s best player (that honor goes to Herrera), Nemanja Radoja isn’t Sporting KC’s best player (that honor goes to Alan Pulido). But his positioning and timing when SKC have the ball in the final third could make or break things for Vermes’ team.

Even playing away from home, SKC will have plenty of the ball. When they push forward, Houston will be ready to pounce, win possession, and break in behind. Savvy rest defense and well-timed tackles from Radoja at the base of midfield could help eliminate the Dynamo’s transition game before it ever really starts. It could also help cover for injured starting left back Logan Ndenbe.

Decided by: Who has more urgency in the attack

The temptation for possession-centric teams is always to take a beat too long on the ball before moving it along. While that temptation likely decreases in the playoffs as urgency intensifies, it’s still lurking in the background. With both of these teams comfortable winning games by using the ball, the team that takes quicker, more efficient touches will have an edge.

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Seattle’s approach

  • Attacking shape: 3-4-3
  • Defensive shape: 4-4-2

Brian Schmetzer doesn’t reinvent the tactical wheel. He’s never even been tempted to do that in Seattle, mostly because he’s never needed to. With elite players in every line of the field, Schmetzer feels comfortable letting his players dictate the chance creation approach and using a 4-4-2 press and mid-block to deny opportunities.

The Sounders often do a simple possession rotation to shift Nouhou from left back in defense to left center back when they have the ball. But that rotation doesn’t have a huge impact on the kinds of passes and attacks they end up stringing together.

LAFC’s approach

  • Attacking shape: 4-3-3
  • Defensive shape: 4-3-3

It’s gone under the radar because LAFC have a bunch of fun players that do fun things, but Steve Cherundolo is much closer to the Schmetzer side of coaching than to, say, the Peter Vermes side of things. Cherundolo doesn’t seem to interfere with his players all that much on the attacking side. They play a lot of straightforward, simple passes and don’t pull out too many complex patterns in the final third.

Instead, they try to find joy in transition. Only the New York Red Bulls created more shots from high-pressing moments than LAFC this year, according to Opta.

Seattle’s X-factor: João Paulo

Even at 32, João Paulo is a force to be reckoned with in MLS.

He played arguably the pass of Round One in Seattle’s Match 3 against FC Dallas, bypassing six opposing defenders to play Albert Rusnák into the box for the Sounders’ go-ahead goal.

The Brazilian is always active in the heart of Seattle’s defensive shape. If he can couple that defensive work with a handful of incisive key passes, the Sounders should feel good about their chances.

LAFC’s X-factor: Dénis Bouanga

I’m not going to overthink this one. Dénis Bouanga won this year’s Golden Boot presented by Audi award and he was great out on the left wing in LAFC’s Round One series win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Along with the Crew’s Cucho Hernández, you won’t find a more dangerous goalscorer in the postseason field.

With his elite dribbling ability, Bouanga will give Alex Roldan fits on the right side of Seattle’s backline. How far Roldan pushes forward – and how Yeimar Gomez Andrade deals with Bouanga when LAFC counter while he’s on the right side of their temporary back-three – could define this game.

Decided by: Who generates more transitions

Neither Seattle nor LAFC love to break teams down with the ball. Both Seattle and LAFC are at their best when the game is moving fast and vertically. With that in mind, the team that can manufacture more transition opportunities for their stars to run at opposing defenders will have an edge.

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