Remember Brad Davis? It feels like so long ago since Davis departed his beloved Houston Dynamo, but he will return along with Sporting Kansas City this weekend to BBVA Compass Stadium.
He's been good in Kansas City, and his ability to create goals will be one of the things the Dynamo will have to contend with when they face Sporting on Saturday night. Here's how they can combat those things:
1. Possession in midfield
SKC's best player is Benny Feilhaber. He's a USMNT veteran with 41 caps and could have won the MLS MVP last season if not for Sebastian Giovinco. He is one of the best midfield creators in MLS and in the USMNT pool (although he won't be called up any time soon for obvious reasons).
One of the main reasons he has been so effective for SKC—especially this season—is his partnership with Roger Espinoza in central midfield, and their ability to play off each other's strengths.
Feilhaber can be categorized as a finesse player. He controls the ball in midfield and springs players forward in the attack, whether on the counter or when sitting deeper. The passes he makes to players like Dom Dwyer and Davis are crucial to Sporting's attack, as they get players in behind backlines and initiate chances on goal. He has the impressive ability to hit perfect balls from all over the field. Just look at this cross-field long ball he put on the money to Davis, who would end up earning a corner:
That's a really, really nice pass, and those are the kind of things Feilhaber does. Give him time and space, and he will burn you.
But teams have adapted to that. They have gotten better at closing him down and preventing him from finding those small pockets of space, and thus the attack stalled. Dwyer and other attackers didn't receive opportunities behind the backline nearly as often, stagnating chance-creation.
Espinoza is Sporting's answer to that. He is a hard-working, box-to-box midfielder who takes the ball away from opponents, provides a physical presence all over the field, and, most importantly, adds an extra distributor in attack when he pushes forward. While he isn't close to being on the same playmaking level as someone like Feilhaber, his textbook number-eight style of play gives SKC a crucial extra component to the midfield.
Teams are forced to accommodate for Espinoza's playmaking ability, taking players away from Feilhaber and giving him more room to make his passes. Also, he is able to win the ball higher up the field and get more numbers in attack, giving Sporting more space to work with and Feilhaber more room to work with.
The Honduran has become one of the league's best midfield destroyers. Unlike a pure number-six, he has the freedom to roam the field and intercept passes or tackle players off the ball, allowing him to exercise his willingness to hunt down the ball.
His defensive map against the LA Galaxy last week showed as much:
Those 12 defensive actions were as much or more than all but one other player, and that was center-back Matt Besler. He's a very active, high-pressing player, and he's the one who really facilitates Sporting in midfield.
When Espinoza joins the attack, he can be very dangerous, as mentioned above. At times, he will enter the final third and provide another facet for the offense, helping them pin the opponent deep in their defensive third.
Feilhaber and Espinoza are very dangerous when they get close to goal together. They are very active in that area:
The Dynamo have to stop those two, and the way to do that is by being safe in midfield and making sure not to give the ball away. That's something they've struggled with this season, but too many giveaways against this team will result in tough consequences.
Possession, discipline and a lack of turnovers in midfield are absolutely crucial for Houston in this game. Do that, and they will have Sporting's attack at least somewhat neutralized.
2. Block Brad
I'm sure you all remember what Brad Davis is capable of, right? His left foot is arguably the best in MLS, and he can do a variety of things with it.
There's, of course, set pieces. His in-swinging corners and picture-perfect free-kicks delivered right to the head of the targeted player are perhaps his greatest asset, and where he gets many of his assists from. There's also crosses, and other balls into the box he serves in. And, when he gets in from the right side, he can do things like this:
He's a very multi-dimensional player, and someone who can do a lot of damage. The Dynamo have to make sure they close him down and prevent him from getting any opportunities to send in threatening balls.
3. Defeat Dwyer
Sporting KC's one major weakness is a lack of goal-scoring outside of their big number-nine up front, Dom Dwyer.
After the departure of winger Krisztian Nemeth (ten goals last season) in the offseason, they have struggled to produce goals from players other than Dwyer. Davis is better at serving up goals rather than scoring them—despite his above score vs. LA—and no one else on the roster can play alongside Dwyer and put the ball in the net.
The Dynamo can take advantage of this by making sure they keep one or two players on the English forward at all times. If they do that, there is a good chance that they manage to hold down SKC's offense.