MLS Cup: Preview & Pick: Didn’t See This One Coming…

Different angle for a TSG preview here.

Today, we publish a discussion with Sporting KC assistant coach John Pascarella. Pascarella is responsible for much of the technical preparation and tactical work for the Livestronglies. He and head coach Peter Vermes played club ball together and KC front office media man Josh Wisenhunt comments Pascarella is revered by the team, especially goalkeeper Jimmy Neilsen (Pascarella has a big hand in training the goalkeepers during practice.)

The reason we sought out John? His wife was responsible for the CJ Sapong draft pick. Actually, let’s wait on that for a minute.

The real reason?

The MLS Cup final thesis that is percolating over here at the TSG Hall of Justice?

Well, just take a look at our first question…

TSG: Okay, John, here’s why I wanted to get in touch.

I want to pick the Dynamo as my MLS Cup victor.

Here’s the reasoning I have in my head.

Sporting KC attacked the Dynamo with three very quick, very adept forwards who got a decent amount of service and they didn’t score. Now, here you’ve got LA with an older–despite what John Harkes says–Robbie Keane coming off two international games, Mike Magee and “some other guy” because Chad Barrett is out.

If Houston held KC to a goose egg, why can’t they do the same with LA?

Why shouldn’t I pick Houston?

Coach Pascarella

John: Well, to be honest with you, I think it’s a pretty good pick.

I think the game is going to be a toss-up. I just think that what the Dynamo are very, very good at is getting a team to play their style of game, their tempo of a game–which is what happened against us.

And once that happens they are very good at playing that game. It’s not a bad game or an ugly game of soccer. But it’s a very physical brand of soccer.

Ching doing work up top...

They knock the ball around well. They play to their strength which is Chinger [Brian Ching] up top obviously. Davis’s service has been strong, but of course he may not play, but they’ve got other guys.

Their team is very experienced. If they get you playing at their tempo, their team is very strong…and then they end up being very dangerous in attack that way.

You know your pick is not a bad one. It would be hard to go against it.

TSG: Ok, I get they control the game. But how did you guys attempt to speed it up, open it up–which I imagine was the strategy–and how did you not find your way through? What did you try to tweak during the game or try to solve to change that tempo?

John: Well, what we did was play into their hands by trying to play too direct.

If we had played a little bit more on the floor and if we would have connected through the midfield we would have had more success.

Where I think we were naive is that we tried to bypass the midfield and play direct to the forwards and I think that their back four handled that very very well that day and, to be fair, I think they handle that type of pressure very very well in general.

We would have been, in my opinion and the coaching staff’s opinion, more successful if we had kept the ball on the floor and tried to play through them rather than go by air.

TSG: So in getting to LA, if you shut down Beckham with [Corey] Ashe or Danny Cruz–or, wait, do you almost want to let that happen because now if you’re Beckham you’re knocking the ball into a bunch of trees and that’s not going to be successful?

John: You know what, I think if Beckham is given time to serve, I think he’s very accurate with his service–that’s a different story from what we were trying to do or what we ended up doing. Our forwards had to chase the ball a little more.

However, I do think his strength can also be negated by their strength–because the Dynamo are good at dealing with those balls in the air and then countering off of them.

I kind of see those two things negating each other.

Magee, automatic...

TSG: Mike Magee against the big guys…Boswell, Hainault, Cameron…does he score on Sunday?

John: You know what, even with those guys, it’s hard to bet against him. He’s been in great form and has been in great form down the stretch run. I don’t see why he wouldn’t score a goal.

I actually see a game–and this doesn’t happen often so maybe I’m going out on a limb–I could see a final where it ends up 3-2 instead of 1-0 and I can see Magee getting one of those goals.

TSG: So if it’s 3-2 does that favor either team–that would seem to play into the Galaxy’s strengths, no? Can the Dynamo hang?

John: I think it’s a game they can hang in. I think they have enough firepower. I think they have enough courage to stick with their convictions and see them through, to stay with their game plan.

I think the game can go either way–there’s nothing I see from either team to think a high scoring line favors one team or the other

For all of neutrals, that would be a great game to watch.

TSG: Surely. Is there a specific match-up that is important to watch in this one or is it just team dynamics versus team dynamics?

John: I think it’s pretty even and Houston is pretty dynamic. They’ve played some 4-3-3 this year, although I think they stick to their strengths and play in a 4-4-2 and I think Bruce will do the same with LA. So the formations cancel each other out.

And then it’s service from Beckham and how Houston deals with it and then vice versa how do the Galaxy deal with Houston’s set pieces–so that’s the simply the key.

TSG: Thanks John, just for our audience here so they get some perspective, you spend the games up in the press box looking down at the field for Sporting KC. Obviously you can see positioning better, but else does that vantage point bring?

John: It’s just a better vantage point in general. You can see the shape of the teams much better. You can see individual match-ups and how each player is reacting to the other. You can see positioning.

Is one striker continually going against the back four or is it two? Is the team trying to play with three up or just appearing that way?

I’ll use us as an example. We play a 4-3-3 typically, but sometimes, if the two wide players aren’t as aggressive as they should be it becomes a 4-5-1 with them in the midfield. It’s very easy for me to see that up top as oppose to down on the sideline and then relay what’s happening down to the field.

I generally spend the first half of each game up there, looking at all the match-ups, looking at dead ball situations.

How’s our set pieces? Are we doing the right things?

Sapong, courtesy Mrs. Pascarella...

TSG: Okay, let’s end with this. It’s been a banner year for Sporting KC in their new digs and a big part of that has been the play of CJ Sapong. As I understand it, you were responsible for that pick on draft day this year. How’d you know CJ would have a great year?

John: Well, first of all, it would be absolutely wrong for me to say that I’m responsible for that pick.

First, CJ is the one responsible. He’s the one with all the talent. It was our entire coaching staff and most [coaching staffs] were aware of him.

For the coaches that weren’t aware of him, they became very aware of him during the combine.

TSG: Yeah, yeah…but word around KC is that it was was your pick. I understand that is true. You were the champion for him.

John: Well, no.

First, he has the qualities that we look for in our attacking players. The advantage is I got to see CJ a lot of him during his early years of his college (James Madison) because he grew up in Northern Virginia area where I met my wife.

I was coaching a U-20  team and my team would compete versus his U-20 team and him when he wasn’t in school. So I got a chance to watch the kid develop.

Obviously when I took the job here, I knew where he was in school and I continued to follow him.

The fact that he went to a smaller school probably kept him off the radar of most MLS teams. I knew where he was, continued to track him, so I probably had a little bit of a leg up.

TSG: Ok, so it’s actually fair to say that your wife is responsible for CJ being in KC?

John: Yeah, she’s probably the one that the organization needs to thank more than anyone else.

TSG: So did he get a car or something for the award and did that come your way–have you seen any of the spoils of him winning the award?

John: You know we haven’t seen anything or gotten any invitations . But as I said at the beginning, it’s his talent that earned him the recognition and hopefully he continues to use it as springboard for wherever he plays, hopefully for long time here in Kansas City if that’s the case.

TSG: Thanks Coach. Enjoyed the time and review of the Finals game. Enjoy the match Sunday.

The Walkaway

TSG will probably walk away head in shame–online-speaking–on Sunday.

We’re going with the Dynamo here. Maybe it’s a trendy pick, maybe it’s just the underdog thing and being able to say, “I told you so.”

This will be a very even affair in our opinion, with or without Brad Davis–who is not expected to play.

As John said above, Houston’s backline is very strong in air. If you add to a likely combination of Danny Cruz and Corey Ashe on the wings–those are two players with the ability–though they’ll both have to prove the diligence–to get on David Beckham in a hurry before he outlets up the field.

The Galaxy destroyed RSL when they got space for their forwards to work–when there was isolation for Robbie Keane on a hobbled Jamison Olave.

That won’t happen in this game–especially if Ashe and Cruz find Beckham in a hurry and either deny him the ball or force it backwards.

While the Dynamo’s strength in central midfield will trouble the slight Juninho, it also opens up an opportunity for the great Landon Donovan that he’ll need to capitalize on. As John said above, KC would have been more successful playing it on the floor so pinging the ball to Donovan for him to navigate the central midfield on foot and by pass may be critical if Houston wide middies are collapsing on Beckham.

The loss of Chad Barrett is actually a big one. Barrett may be negligent in front of the goal, but he’s very adept at running at defenders and taking heat of Keane and Beckham.

In his absence, Donovan will need to step up to force the issue with the Dynamo backline.


• Big match-up between Geoff Cameron and Robbie Keane. The former can put himself with a mammoth pushpin on the map; the latter can state that he’s still a top global striker.

• The Magee-Hainault match-up should be interesting as well. The Dynamo like to get Hainault forward while the Galaxy like to sneak Magee in behind.

• No player can make a bigger name for himself than Danny Cruz in this one. Cruz is often on the periphery of the national team discussion–very on the periphery–and he could deal his name into larger discussions by being influential on Sunday.

• Will the lack of repetitions between Luiz Camargo and Adam Moffatt compromise them in a game where communication in the midfield will need to be at a premium?


12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by teamusaampsoccergk on 2011/11/17 at 11:55 PM

    Love your insight, analogies, and straight to the point commentary! Keep up the great work my friend! I’ll be reading……


  2. Posted by Matt Mathai on 2011/11/17 at 11:56 PM

    The Dynamo has boon my pick since the two teams were known. Here’s what I think. They should be able to stay organized and move up and down the field without losing shape.If they can deny service and track runners LA will be toothless. Davis is a big loss, so I’m curious to see what they do to compensate.

    It’ll be a close game and a pretty nasty physical one. LA will win going away if it becomes an open, beautiful game.

    1-0 or 2-1 Houston.


  3. Posted by Kevin on 2011/11/18 at 3:29 AM

    My biggest thing really has always been that Houston has been able to control the game no motter the opponent. That’s been emphasized all season and that can be found in the possession stat, but now that Camargo is at attacking midfield, the team can actually create with all that possession. I think the matchup of the night will be Moffat vs Beckham. Ashe (or Clark) and Cruz will be instructed to stay wide and, if I’m correct, Moffat will be the one responsible for shutting down Beckham. This leaves Donovan with the match up against Ashe (Donovan on right?). Donovan will try to exploit the space behind Moffat who will be preoccupied with Becks because beating Ashe on speed is not an option. Ashe will have to make his decision on when to let him go to Boswell who will act as stopper to Camerons sweeper. If Houston can keep this attack at bay like this than they will control the tempo starting with Cameron out of the back to Moffat and outside mids. For LA they need to reduce Carr’s quick movement somehow to minimize the quick Houston passing game. Maybe they’ll try the offsides trap but just one poor offsides trap could easily result in a goal. Carr is an X factor that should be recognized maybe not for goal scoring prowess, but the inclusion of Carr has meant even quicker passing from Houston and much more through ball attempts from Camargo.


    • Posted by Kevin on 2011/11/18 at 7:43 PM

      Another point would be with all the emphasis going on that side of the pitch, can Dunivant sneak in and make something happen against Hainault, who likely wont worry about pushing very far into the attack. For LA they have, I’m assuming DeLa Garza next to Gonzales, DeLa Garza to compete with Carr. As far as CBs go DeLa Garza’s pretty mobile and won’t be bothered too much by Carr’s speed. Nice matchups allover the place as both team will deploy, in essence a similar system.


  4. Posted by SamT on 2011/11/18 at 5:25 AM

    Great interview. Interesting to hear a professional talk about wanting to see the game from high up.

    I can imagine an iPad app for Pascarella so he wouldn’t need to spend the first half up in the top seats during the match. All you’d need is a web enabled camera hung from a cable above the field and some wireless bandwidth in the stadium. v1 of the app could be a streamed video. v1.1 could include an ability to rewind the last 30 sec and rewatch — then switch back to live action if you want. v2 could include an ability to mark segments so you can go back and review when convenient — or share with the team at half time, or a sub about to go in.

    Seems like a decent programmer with expertise in video playback could put something like this together fairly easily. (Important caveat, however, is that my knowledge as a user far exceeds my knowledge as a programmer, which basically runs out after “great interview” above.)


  5. Posted by Bode on 2011/11/18 at 9:03 AM

    Not sure if everyone has seen this, but I thought the TSG community would enjoy this article:


  6. I’ll be rooting for a good game and the asteroid.


  7. What I am really looking for is who the Galaxy pair up top with Keane. My thinking is they can go in two completely different directions, and who they pick is going to tell you what their game plan against the Dynamo is.

    It will probably either be Cristman or Cardozo. If they slot Cristman in then it’s business as usual. He’ll play the same role as Barrett, going up against the back four trying to create space for Keane. But if they play Cardozo then they are definitely looking to keep the ball on the deck. The problem with that is Cardozo is a tiny dude and at times you can see the physicality of MLS really puts a damper on his game. Houston is even more physical than most teams, but I say why play to their strengths? Throwing Cristman in there seemingly is exactly what Houston would want.

    My prediction? A typical Arena strategy…don’t stray from what got you here: Cristman gets the start to wear down the back four and Cardozo comes in for an early sub and is the difference maker creating a late goal for Keane.

    1-0 Galaxy…


  8. Posted by Soccernst on 2011/11/18 at 9:13 PM

    You guys always get to the heart, and have some fun along the way. Interviews are the best part of TSG, and I would love to read more. Nicely done.


  9. Posted by Kay20 on 2011/11/18 at 10:27 PM

    I agree with the last poster. I would prefer that Cardozo be in the starting XI, but I see Arena going the “safe” route.

    Why Cardozo? Similar to what The Shin Guardian is pointing out, I would like the Galaxy to win this game on possession and the strength of the passing game in their midfield. Frankly, as we saw with the Rapids, Cardozo can pass and dribble circles around most guys. He’s very good on the ball. He does get shoved over a lot – but a lot of those shoves end up generating set pieces for David Beckham, so not too shabby. I would much rather have Cardozo in to keep the ball on the ground and give LA another outlet.

    If LA can keep the ball on the ground, I predict a win for them. If not, could get ugly. I don’t want to see longball unless Keane or LD are on the receiving end of it.

    I think this will be a tense first half with the two teams feeling one another out, then all hell breaks loose in half two when Bruce finally subs Cristman.

    Finally, I hope LD has a good game. It’s been some time coming in recent weeks. He’s due.

    With Becks and LD wanting this bad, I don’t know if LA can be stopped. Yes, Houston is good at set pieces, but if LA can control the game and keep their passing fluidity through midfield (which is why I want Cardozo), Houston will get limited chances. To me, this game is decided in the middle.

    LA 2-1 Houston.


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