By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Mar 13, 2023) US Soccer Players – If there’s a common trend when looking at MLS clubs finding success early in the 2023 season, it could be the two tactical formations already standing out. The 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 have proven to be part of the formula in both conferences so far. It is obviously very early, in addition to the small sample size. Formations are largely based on a coach’s experience, philosophy, and past record. It is also heavily influenced by the players at their disposal at any given time.
Having put all those caveats outs there, four teams are good examples of what we’re already seeing. Seattle and Inter Miami are off to a strong start. Both have relied heavily on the 4-2-3-1. Then there’s LAFC and its 4-3-3. New club St Louis City is using both the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3.
In 2022, there was a shift in MLS. Possession mattered a lot more than in the last few years. Teams appeared focused on passing more. Add to that the return of back fours when three in the back was a trend in 2021, and you see some of the conditions that have influenced these latest tactical adjustments.
One of the teams that used a back three in recent years but shifted to four was Seattle. The Sounders have gone through some ups, mostly, and downs the last few years. For example, they won the Concacaf Champions League last year but failed to make the MLS Cup Playoffs. Coach Brian Schmetzer has adapted depending on the players available. Throughout the 2021 season, Schmetzer used a 3-5-2 formation with two wing backs to create a high-pressing game. The players used their speed to cover space, resulting in a very offensive-minded side.
Cristian Roldan marshaled Seattle’s five-man midfield. If adapting has been Seattle’s strength, you can see that in what’s happening this season. Roldan is no longer in the midfield. Instead, he’s on the right wing in a more offensive position, with Nicolas Lodeiro now running the midfield.
Last year, the Sounders won the CCL using a 4-2-3-1 formation, using Heber to help build up plays and Lodeiro to dish off assists. With Roldan on the wing, Albert Rusnak, playing directly behind Roldan, has been key. The Slovakian international is a talented midfielder who helps generate offense. For example, his passing percentage averaged 88.7 in 2021 and 88.1 in 2022. This season, after three games, Rusnak is at 91.4%.
“MLS is a funny thing. You go through phases, you want to ride the momentum,” Roldan told reporters last week following a training session. “You have to ride the highs as long as possible, so, that’s our goal.”
Seattle opened the season 2-0, beating the Colorado Rapids 4-0 and Real Salt Lake 2-0. This past Saturday, the Sounders lost 1-0 on the road to FC Cincinnati. What did Seattle in wasn’t their formation but turnovers after holding 52% of the possession. Cincinnati also employed tactical fouling to break up plays, and Seattle could do little to overcome it given Heber’s absence. But Seattle will likely be fine over the long run. Despite last season’s issues in MLS, this is a team that has the players needed to succeed.
Another team also off to a 2-1 start after losing 1-0 on the road to NYCFC on Saturday is Inter Miami. A pair of 2-0 victories against Montreal CF and the Philadelphia Union had put Inter off to a strong start. Coach Phil Neville plays a similar style to the one employed by the Sounders. He had alternated between the 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 last season and on possession. This season, Neville appears to be all in on the 4-2-3-1, resulting in a stronger defense and more goals.
Against NYCFC, the Inter Miami defense, under more pressure, struggled. At the other end of the field, the offense generated wasn’t enough to get them a goal. Inter Miami had more possession with 57% and more passes overall but fewer chances at goal. Inter midfielder Gregore subbed out in the 73rd with an injury. He’s a key part of his club’s buildup play.
Meanwhile, defending MLS champion Los Angeles FC is a team that has relied on a back four under coach Steve Cherundolo. He prefers a 4-3-3 with a compact midfield. The USMNT’s Kellyn Acosta, who plays on the left side, is one of the league’s best midfielders. The team’s attacking options, headlined by Carlos Vela, again make LAFC one of the strongest teams this season.
LAFC’s competitiveness is no surprise, but St Louis City’s dream start certainly is. Under coach Bradley Carnell, the team is 3-0. Carnell has alternated between the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. Both lineups focus on defending, featuring a compact midfield that leaves opponents with little space to do much. St Louis is also getting goals from striker Eduard Lowen, who has three so far.
Overall, St Louis has scored eight times, more than any other team in the league. It’s easy to say, but goals and win streaks equal success in any league. With LAFC the gold standard, St Louis City has done a great job embracing what works for the defending champions.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of the new book “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event.”