Talking Tactics: How MLS stacks up vs. Manchester United

Tactics: Manchester United

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Mighty Manchester United are on the docket for three MLS clubs over the next few weeks. As the famed Red Devils are early in preseason training, they will be neither razor-sharp nor fully fit.

Still, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men don’t need to reach their highest gear to pose grave danger to the unprepared or the uninspired — we all saw Manchester United drop the hammer on a team of MLS All-Stars last year.

New England are up first, Wednesday at Gillette Stadium. Here’s how all three MLS sides might best deal with the giants from Old Trafford.

New England (Wednesday, 8 pm ET, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes)

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If we’re being honest, the Revolution are having trouble keeping the ball against MLS clubs right now. Combine the present pox with United’s famous pressing game and, well, things could get ugly in a hurry.

New England coach Steve Nicol wants to play a possession game, but maybe the direct approach is better for this one.

No, lobbing balls Route 1-style toward Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, United’s world-class center backs, is hardly a sure recipe for success. But there is simply too much risk in the Revs’ holding possession in the back and through the midfield.

Painful as it surely is to right back Kevin Alston, remember it was his giveaway in the early seconds of last year’s All-Star thumping in Houston that started the spiral in United’s eventual 5-2 win.

True, this will be United at their most physically vulnerable, a side yet to gather its game legs. So while it might be tempting to exploit the timing through the tenets of “pass and move,” wearing out the visitors by making the chase the ball, that’s just not the way.

Besides, a direct approach will help keep New England fullbacks home, which would minimize Man. United’s counterattack opportunities — they do that as well as anyone in the world.

On the other side, tracking newcomer Ashley Young on the wing seems especially prudent. Obviously, every attacker for the Manchester giants poses danger. But Wayne Rooney and others have little to prove in a preseason friendly, whereas Young will be out to impress his new boss.

Young can patrol either wing or even play behind a striker. Whoever finds himself matched against the former Aston Villa man will want to dedicate themselves to proper starting positions on defense and attack as afterthought.

Seattle Sounders (July 20, 10 pm ET)

Sigi Schmid’s team probably has the best chance at success right now with a midfield that’s balanced and operating at high rev.

Plus, the midfield diamond in vogue now at CenturyLink Field is not something Ferguson & Co. see very often; most EPL sides are devoted a straight four across the midfield in a more orthodox 4-4-2. (If you’re really being picky, you might call Seattle’s formation a 4-1-3-2, which makes it a “jawed” diamond.)

Sometimes a diamond can get too narrow, which poses two problems. It leaves the wings vulnerable to counterattacks that start out wide (Hello, Nani!), and it can mitigate any numerical advantage in central areas because things get too congested. So, Seattle’s Álvaro Fernández on the left and Mauro Rosales on the right must pay particular attention to their spacing.

The other critical element is Fredy Montero, who roams as a second striker. Basically he needs to be the lively and mobile presence seen Sunday in Portland (a huge 3-2 win for Seattle). Montero hit for two goals, but his larger body of work told a bigger story.

He bounced around with energy and intent, looking to make the extra run, focused on continually improving his position relative to the sequence. In other words, he did what Rooney does all the time, helping to make the game a little easier for his teammates through committed movement.

Defensively, it’s about Osvaldo Alonso’s screening. He really is having such a brilliant campaign, and the Sounders’ little pit bull should be able to disrupt the passing into United’s forwards, which can bring Rooney further away from goal in search of the game.  

Chicago Fire (July 23, 5 pm ET, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes)

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This is the psychologically vulnerable spot for the visitors, just four nights before the high-profile test against the MLS All-Stars. Remember, Kansas City ambushed Manchester United last year in this same position, so the opportunity for a memorable night at Soldier Field exists.

Interim coach Frank Klopas has restored some defensive order to the Fire. The attack is suffering greatly, but that’s OK for this one; defensive shape and attention can keep Chicago in the fight while looking to spring the speedy Dominic Oduro or Patrick Nyarko on counterattack opportunities.

No MLS team can match United’s talent. On the other hand, United may not have a player as fast as Oduro. Marco Pappa, the Fire’s top attacker, is playing centrally in a 4-2-3-1 setup now. He doesn’t look completely comfortable, but he can potentially rattle United by shifting his thinking just a little and looking to be more of a playmaker, intent on quickly releasing Oduro and Nyarko into good spaces.

Defensively, holding midfielders Logan Pause and Daniel Paladini will have a lot to deal with, matching Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs or whomever Fergusons assigns centrally. And like all three MLS clubs, they’ll have to quickly identify how Manchester is lining up.

Ferguson is a fiddler with his tactics, often preferring a 4-4-2 for league matches but sometimes altering into more of a 4-4-1-1. For matches on the continent, he frequently prefers some alignment of three forwards, so he’ll probably want to rehearse the different looks at some point of the preseason tour.

Just like fullbacks in other matches, the Fire defenders along the outside will want to check their attacking instincts. Gonzalo Segares is one who enjoys roaming forward; the veteran left back will have plenty to deal with defensively, not only with containing Nani or whoever plays on the right, but also tucking inside to help with Rooney and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who probably will have joined the tour by then.