By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Nov 19, 2015) US Soccer Players – The 4-2-3-1 could very well be the tactical formation that wins a team MLS Cup this season. Three teams – New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew, and FC Dallas – use it. New York and Dallas have used it most successfully. The Red Bulls captured the Supporters’ Shield, while FC Dallas won the Western Conference after getting off to a strong start. While Major League Soccer was littered with 4-4-2 formations 20 years ago, teams across the league have grown tactically savvy over the past two decades as coaches and players have gotten better. The 4-2-3-1 evolved in the late 1990s – a variation of the 4-3-3 – and MLS clubs have learned in 2015 that it can be a formula for success.
Overall, a total of 11 out of 24 teams this season used the 4-2-3-1 this season. Although nearly half the teams in the league have used the formation with regularity, different levels of player talent present the effectiveness of these formations in different ways. New York, Columbus, and Dallas have a lot of other similarities (like young coaches and rosters punctuated by youth) and all of them appear to have a good shot at reaching this year’s final. The Los Angeles Galaxy won MLS Cup last year with a 4-4-2 formation, but that wasn’t good enough in 2015.
While we applaud the 4-2-3-1 formation for its success this season, tactics are more fluid than they have ever been. Sometimes the 4-2-3-1 becomes a 4-3-3 or even a 4-4-1-1 when a coach needs it.
While many lauded former Red Bulls coach Mike Petke’s tactical acumen and his 4-2-3-1, current coach Jesse Marsch has done similar things with the same formation. Marsch may have come in to revolutionize things, but in many ways he left off from where Petke started. But Marsch hopes to do better than the Supporters’ Shield and win the franchise its first MLS Cup. Under Marsch, the team likes to build up its attack from the back (it has the league’s best passing accuracy in its own half) and central defender Matt Miazga has proven key this season. The 20-year-old has displayed a great read for the game and is able to distribute the ball with the coolness and confidence of a veteran. In the middle, Dax McCarty (defensively) and Sacha Klejstan (offensively) – with Lloyd Sam on the right and Mike Grella on the left – have made this a strong attacking team as well. Striker Bradley Wright-Phillips has also had a fantastic season, despite the retirement of French superstar Thierry Henry, with his 17-goal season in 2015.
McCarty, during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, said Marsch has helped bring a winning mentality to the team and “its own identity.”
“That identity is that of a family and a team that’s all together and all for one,” he added.
While the team’s cohesive nature and high tempo offense has made for some fun games, opponents have been able to overcome that by playing a physical style against RBNY. The Red Bulls have suffered in games where opponents were aggressive. The physical brand of play has helped break up New York’s midfield play – something DC United tried and failed to do in the last round – but Columbus may be able to exploit that weakness in the conference finals.
Not many had the Crew going this far. However, Columbus has been able to get hot late in the regular season, something that carried over into the playoffs. Now, the Crew is hoping to win its first title since 2008, where it defeated the Red Bulls in the final. The Crew have a formidable midfield and offense and coach Greg Berhalter has stuck with the 4-2-3-1 all season. In the middle, Tony Tchani and Will Trapp are the link in this possession-oriented lineup with Argentine midfielder Federico Higuian and MVP candidate Kei Kamara, two players that are having a great season. This sort of offense has worked for the Crew before. In 2008, it won the title with a 4-4-1-1 that featured another Argentine, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, as the midfield maestro. This season, it’s all about Kamara. His speed, athleticism and accuracy make him extremely lethal up front.
FC Dallas, which faces the Portland Timbers in the conference finals, is a team that also has a chance to win MLS Cup. Under coach Oscar Pareja, the team switched from Schellas Hyndman’s 4-2-2 to the current 4-2-3-1 that sometimes transforms into a 4-3-3. As a result, the team has become stronger on the wings. FC Dallas’ specialty is in the 1v1 and passing accuracy. Fabian Castillo is very strong against opponents on a team where players love to dribble the ball. This is a squad where everyone plays defense when an opponent has the ball and pushes collectively to get forward Tesho Akindele the ball. FC Dallas has a roster that averages about 25 years in age, meaning that it could be a team to reckon with over the next few years.
The Timbers play a 4-3-3 and even a 4-4-2 at times. Portland could very well crash the 4-2-3-1 party in the coming weeks. The verdict is still out on whether 4-2-3-1 equals success in MLS this year.
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