By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Apr 12, 2021) US Soccer Players – The start of a new MLS season brings with it plenty of questions and speculation. What a new season also brings with it is speculation over tactics and formations. How does a team win in MLS in 2021? That’s the question coaches are trying to unlock heading into Friday’s season opener.
In MLS, there’s another question that may be getting more play among technical staffs than you might think. How much does defending even matter? In a league that’s stereotyped for preferring offense over defense, that’s another question raised during preseason.
We know that teams like to spend on attacking players. After all, those are the guys who score goals and get the team plenty of attention. In a sport where stats are limited largely to goals and assists, signing a big-name defender doesn’t always translate into ticket and jersey sales. It’s no different in most of Europe and South America.
The 4-2-3-1 formation is the favorite of MLS head coaches the past few years. It’s a global trend, finding lots of adherents in MLS. The formation worked to great effect during the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs. Champions Columbus and runners-up Seattle both used that formation. With the right players, it makes sense in a league that prioritizes midfield play and offense.
Not everyone, however, plans to use the now-classic 4-2-3-1 and all clubs will switch to whatever the coach believes will give them an advantage. With that in mind, here’s a look at three tactics that could lead other coaches to reconsider their options this season.
Atlanta United FC (3-4-2-1)
Atlanta United pulled off quite an upset last week, beating Costa Rican club Alajuelense 1-0 away in the Concacaf Champions League. Atlanta did it with 10 men for most of the match while still in preseason mode. Becoming just the eighth MLS club since 2012 to win on the road in the Champions League is certainly something to build on.
Credit first-year coach Gabriel Heinze. The former Argentine international fielded a 3-4-2-1, prioritizing midfield play and the wings to generate offense. This is a team that’s already transformed from last season’s 12th-place finish.
The backline, anchored by Miles Robinson, played a strong pressing game and passed the ball with ease. That’s a glimpse of what’s to come in league play, creating plenty of space. In attack, Josef Martinez, recovering from injury, only played 20 minutes but he showed glimpses of his
Seattle Sounders FC (3-5-2)
Coach Brian Schmetzer may be the one to benefit most from the 4-2-3-1 in recent years. That doesn’t mean he’s tied to that specific formation. The potential loss of Jordan Morris in a move to Swansea City turned into recovering from injury. Both situations led Schmetzer to reconsider his tactics for this season.
That may end up being the introduction of a two-player striker system in a high-energy 3-5-2 system. Instead of a lone striker, we could see the Will Bruin and Fredy Montero tandem up front. Schmetzer has tried this out in preseason to some success. Bruin’s ability to maintain possession and set up Montero in the box is a different look for the Sounders.
Aiding the offense is attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro. His ability to unleash laser-sharp balls to both Bruin and Montero keeps Seattle in contention in the Western Conference. They could also be the most entertaining team in the league this year.
CF Montreal (5-2-3)
Aside from its new name, CF Montreal comes into 2021 largely as an old test for first-year coach Wilfried Nancy. This is a team where sustained success is always the question. Nancy has been with the Impact in various roles throughout the team’s MLS history. He knows better than anyone how things can go wrong. That only intensifies the pressure now that it’s him in the top job.
Nancy’s formation has the right balance of defense and offense. The space between the defense and midfield focuses on the speed of Victor Wanyama and Samuel Piette. Despite reinforcements that came in over the winter, Montreal remains a question mark heading into this season.
Expect several tactical formations over the course of the next few months. It’s a long season and much can happen to rosters in this age of COVID-19 protocols and player availability. The 4-2-3-1 might remain the default because most coaches have a firm grasp on what makes it work. Then again, experimentation could raise the bar in MLS this season.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Playing the Concacaf Champions League
- Preview: 2021 MLS season
- Austin FC’s expansion season
- Preview: USMNT U-23s Concacaf Olympic qualifying
Photo by Columbus Crew