A couple things still stick out about Saturday's Crew loss to Sporting Kansas City. It is clear that the better team won. Sporting is a well drilled team that has been together for years and it showed in their execution. Beyond that, it seemed as if the technical staff was slow to react to the problems that the visitors presented.
The first problem cropped up nearly immediately. Federico Higuain has been carrying injuries throughout the late season stretch, but has been pushing through and putting in some very good performances. On Saturday he picked up an early hip injury that he struggled to overcome. Head Coach Brian Bliss alluded to it in his post game comments.
We saw something happen to him early in the first half, we shouted to him, he said he was fine, he'd take off in a sprint and cast any doubt away. We asked him again at halftime how was, he said I'm good to go but my guess is he was carrying something because he kept putting his hand to hip flexor/hip pointer, wherever and certainly something was hampering him.
Higuain played 90 minutes, had 95 Opta events and was 24 of 35 passing. Those numbers are terrible for Higuain who regularly has twice as many passes. His five key passes were all from set pieces. There was nothing from the run of play. He was a shell of himself. Sporting did an excellent job of shackling him, but he also was visibly hampered by his injury.
It took grit to make it to halftime and to leave him out there for an additional 45 minutes was an exercise in diminishing returns. A hampered Higuain can't drift into space, find the seams, and hit the defense splitting pass. He was reduced to a dead ball specialist.
The other problem relates to Sporting Kansas City's formation. They play in a 4-3-3 with a very well drilled midfield triangle. Even though two members of the trio were backups, there was no dip in form. Peterson Joseph and Lawrence Olum shut down Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp as they looking to control the tempo. The only stretches where the Crew built fluidity was when Bernardo Anor cut centrally to cut KC's numerical advantage.
Higuain would normally drop deeper to help, but he was already hampered in his movements, leaving Tchani and Trapp to battle Olum, Joseph, and Graham Zusi alone. Kansas City could break up the slow buildups that the Crew tried.
The Crew staff had a couple options. With Higuain struggling, he could have been lifted. This would give Bliss a chance to change formation. Replacing Higuain with Finley would allow the Crew to match up with Sporting's 4-3-3. Anor showed he was adept at playing underneath the strikers and Dominic Oduro and Jairo Arrieta would have someone to play off of in Finley.
The other option that the team ultimately did try would be to widen the field and bypass Sporting Kansas City's attempts to play narrow. Ben Speas provided a nice change of pace and true width to a team that needed it. The 4-3-3 as KC plays it struggles against width.
These changes may or may not have turned the game, but the basic two banks of four that Bliss initially turned out struggled mightily against a well drilled Sporting team that was prepared for the threat that Higuain and Trapp present to opposing teams. Without the two central creators able to work their magic, the Crew were struggling to find plan B.