Over the last decade, American soccer has grown by leaps and bounds. From the first A-list celebrity signing of David Beckham (straight off a La Liga title) to the recent pool of young South American talent flooding the league, there is no denying that the league has done as much as possible to distance itself from the stereotypes that came with American soccer.
Despite the influx of young talent and former European stars, the league has its many flaws that can easily be exploited if handled correctly. In this tactical analysis, we provide a scout report that will go through every side of the game on the pitch but also off it in order to truly understand the key ingredients of a successful MLS side.
The market and filling out a roster
A common misunderstanding by outsiders is that the MLS does not have talent. While in some aspects this may be correct i.e. when comparing the league to Europe’s finest, for the most part, it really is a silly claim. Players such as Miguel Almirón, Carlos Vela, Ezequiel Barco, and Josef Martínez prove that the league has players who have made it in Europe or are at least young enough to make the switch in the near future. But, out of the four players highlighted, all of them are attackers. And this is the pitfall of the league. Attacking talent is all over the league but the defensive reinforcements to match that attacking talent are nowhere to be found.
When fees of ten million plus are being spent on attackers, there is always going to be a large disparity in quality compared to defenders, many of whom are homegrown. With one quick glance at Atlanta United’s most valuable XI for the 2020 season, it becomes quite clear where the money is being spent. Ezequiel Barco, Josef Martínez, and Pity Martínez’s total market value combined is nearly 30 million more than the entire backline and goalkeeper together. This model of building a solid foundation is completely flawed on paper and yet Atlanta won the MLS Cup in only their second year of being in the league. This poses many questions but the most pressing one is: Does defense even matter?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is not as much as the attack or even midfield, but it is also the Achilles heel of many teams that fall short. The LA Galaxy of 2019 were spearheaded by attacking talent like Zlatan Ibrahimović and Cristian Pavón, who together helped the Galaxy score a total of 58 goals in 34 games, which was tied for the third most goals scored by any team in the league. However, the team’s major problems are represented through the horrendous 59 goals conceded in the same 34 games. This puts them near the bottom of the league.
While there have been historically good defences in the league, the money spent to construct those backlines is considerably less than the combined fee of the one or two designated players signed as attackers. Taking a step back, it becomes quite clear that in order to progress as a league, teams need to at least attempt to match the ambition they show for attackers in the market with the ambition at getting in high-quality defenders. It is simply no coincidence that of the last five winners of the regular season, three of those teams had conceded the least goals in the league.
Signing attackers may draw in large crowds and excite the fans, but to win the MLS the first priority revolves around building a stable backline. There does not need to be flashy designated players at the back, but a team constructed of ex-college players and past USL talents that clearly lack the technical skills of a modern-day defender will not cut it in American soccer anymore.
On the pitch
After putting together a well-balanced side that is maybe headlined by two or three superstars, it is important to implement a system that gets the most out of those stars and hides the weaknesses of the many squad players that come with an MLS roster. It is undeniable that many of the best MLS sides were able to do this by putting out unstoppable attacks that could simply outscore the opposition. But, the Seattle Sounders 2016 and 2019 MLS Cup triumphs show that sometimes defence does actually win championships.
In the former season, Seattle had just made the playoffs after firing head coach Sigi Schmid and replacing him with assistant Brian Schmetzer. The team were extremely average in every sense. The entire offense relied on attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro and a raw Jordan Morris. Looking at the statistics, of the mere eight goals scored in the playoffs, six had come from those two. In the 2016 final, where the game ended 0-0, Seattle had only taken three shots in open play compared to the nineteen shots taken by Toronto.
Fortunately, Seattle were prolific at the back and expertly handled Toronto’s pressure despite little support from the attack. Allowing just three goals and recording three shutouts in five playoff matches, the defense won Seattle their first-ever MLS Cup. They were able to do this by utilising numbers. Their thought process was if every opposition attacker was marked by at least one man, then they would have enough confidence in their individual defensive abilities to take in the constant pressure.
This is seen in the image below. Every Seattle defender had marked a man until the opportunity to step up and pressure the ball arose. They frequently deployed a 4-2-3-1 system where the two defensive midfielders would literally play on the toes of their own centre-backs. The line of engagement, therefore, was extremely low but goalkeeper Stefan Frei was well capable of saving such a high intake of shots.
While Seattle’s approach in 2016 won them a title, this was a clear abnormality to how most winning teams would play. The majority of successful teams in the 2010 era were built around an extremely well put together midfield. Possession has never been a priority for any MLS side but the LA Galaxy under Bruce Arena changed the mentality of the league.
While teams like Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, and the New York Red bulls consistently controlled possession from season to season, those three only combined to win one MLS Cup in ten years. The classic 4-4-2 that these teams used clearly did two things: it ensured that they could control possession in most of their games and it also enabled them to slow the tempo down. The latter goes completely against what Bruce Arena did with his Galaxy side.
Arena’s most common formation was actually a 4-4-2 on paper, but the way he altered it is what differed the Galaxy from any other team in the league. As previously stated, the MLS is all about using strengths and hiding weaknesses. In the Galaxy’s case, they had three of the most lethal attackers in the league headlined by Tottenham legend Robbie Keane, Gyasi Zardes, and Landon Donovan. Combined, the trio scored 50 of the team’s 69 goals.
Next, they hid their weaknesses. Their backline was full of experience, led by MLS legend Omar Gonzalez. But all four of the defenders clearly lacked the pace needed to defend faster players. This is reflected in the team’s vulnerability to conceding from attacks down the wings. To combat this, the Galaxy inverted a fullback when in possession. This created an extra man in the midfield to help keep the ball as well as encourage the right midfielder to drop back when possession was lost.
As seen in the image below, Donovan would shift over to the middle to play as a 10 at the top of a midfield diamond. This diamond was in a sense, revolutionary as it consisted of a right-back, two centre midfielders, and a left midfielder. Dominating the midfield became a necessity for teams who were serious about contending for silverware. The MLS was always a physical league and Arena utilized overloads to compensate for his players’ lack of physicality but exceptional technical abilities.
Lastly, the MLS would not be the MLS without the attacking side of the game. Americans want high-tempo football and that’s reflected in the league. It would be unjust to talk about attacking cores without mentioning Los Angeles FC’s ridiculous 2019 form.
In 34 games, Bob Bradley’s side equalled the MLS record for most goals scored in a season by putting 85 goals in the back of the net. A truly remarkable feat the could have only been achieved with the big-name designated players that the MLS so loves. Carlos Vela came into the league as that big signing next to Zlatan Ibrahimović, the only difference being Vela was seven years younger and in the peak of his career.
Vela lived up to the hype and set a league record after scoring 34 goals in 2019. He also chipped in with 15 assists, not too shabby. Other than the deadly left foot and European experience that Vela possessed, LAFC’s system probably didn’t hurt Vela either. Without a recognised striker, Vela was afforded space to drift in and operate between the gaps, as seen on the right.
The presence of Diego Rossi, a young Uruguayan forward who was shifted all over the front line, enabled Vela to consistently link up and play in front of his quicker counterpart. Vela was at his best when cutting onto his left from the right flank. This became such a commonality and yet not one defender could stop Vela from getting the ball back onto his left foot. As shown to the right, one mazy run from LAFC’s right-back drew two defenders in and allowed Vela the space to receive the ball and get his foot across to finish the chance. LAFC were able to thrive without a target man because the players they did have up front were so quick-thinking and fluid in their movement that defences could not communicate quick enough in their marking. While LAFC had a solid defense and conceded a league-low 37 goals in their record-breaking season, it was the offense who separated the team from the rest of the pack.
This analysis has shown that there is no one right way to tell if a team would dominate the MLS, especially as the league diversifies and more talent flows in. There are undoubtedly trends in what great teams of the past did and the players they targeted but this new age of the league is exciting because of the flexibility in styles.
In the next few years, there will be teams that rely heavily on their defence, and teams that lean on their midfield, and also teams that are extremely attack heavy. The beauty of this is that all of these teams could end up being successful in their own right. The future of the MLS is bright and even for a neutral, it is undeniable that the league is yet to see its best days.