Chalkboard (Dec. 5, 2016)
Rudy Calderon / MLSsoccer.com

Tactical Look: Looking back at the tactical identities for all 20 teams

As clubs begin to execute their plans for 2017, it's important to look back at how each team played over the course of the regular season to understand what their tactical identity was this season and what it may look like in the future.

Here’s a snapshot:

Chicago Fire

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1 on road, 4-4-2 at home
STYLE: Exploit wide spaces with speed
Chicago’s last place finish in the Eastern Conference might be an initial cause for pessimism, but they have a talented coach in Veljko Paunovic, and he appears to have a vision for his team going into the next season. In handing extensive minutes to rookies Jonathan Campbell and Brandon Vincent, Paunovic has given himself a base to build from in the back. Further forward, the team will need to choose (or sign) the forwards that will help increase the scoring, but David Accam is a premier MLS talent who can slot into numerous systems and numerous positions, giving Paunovic some flexibility with how he will arrange his front six next year.

Colorado Rapids

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
STYLE: Defend deep, fight hard
Unlike many other MLS teams that played a 4-2-3-1, the Rapids often played without a traditional No. 10, using Jermaine Jones or Kevin Doyle in that spot, though Dillon Powers did a more than credible job when asked to. Colorado almost always kept five (and sometimes six) players behind the ball and rarely risked overlapping attacks from the fullbacks, particularly after their 5-1 loss at NYCFC in July. Coach Pablo Mastroeni cultivated a mentality that ensured they were one of the hardest teams to break down in the league this year, with underrated contributors like Sam Cronin, Micheal Azira and Axel Sjoberg proving formidable players in key areas of the field.

Columbus Crew SC

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
STYLE: Fly up the flanks, rely on brilliance in the middle
The Gregg Berhalter 4-2-3-1, which often released both fullbacks and relied on individual and collective excellence from the front four, failed to replicate the highs of 2015 this season. Team chemistry issues apart, Columbus will worry that little variation in terms of system or style in the last three seasons and the aging of Federico Higuain means that the decline might not be temporary. The stagnation of Crew SC might best be summed up by their last three games, in which they faced three different Eastern Conference opponents. All three of those teams used different systems at the start of the game, and they conceded nine goals and went winless across the three matches. That said, if Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram and Higuain can all return to their 2015 form, Crew SC can be optimistic about playing the Berhalter way in 2017.

D.C. United

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-1-4-1
STYLE: Adaptation... After acquisitions
2016 saw a flurry of midseason acquisitions increase DC’s attack tremendously. In the 11 regular season games Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam started together, D.C. averaged 2.7 goals and 2.0 points per game (1.0 goals and 1.3 points per game in the 23 matches that one or both did not start in). Ben Olsen has long had a reputation for betting on battlers over technicians but the growing influence (and permanent acquisition) of Luciano Acosta indicates Olsen evolved with the D.C. roster this year. Although United listed their system as a 4-1-4-1, the average positioning of their midfielders often indicated that Acosta was deployed as a No. 10 in front of two more defensive-minded midfielders. Regardless of the numbers used to describe how D.C. played in the latter half of the year, it was attractive soccer, and an impressive display of flexible coaching from Olsen.

FC Dallas

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
STYLE: Dynamic through Diaz, deadly on the flanks
FC Dallas had a remarkable season, with their quest for a treble derailed only at the very end by an injury to Mauro Diaz. When Diaz played, the team ran a 4-2-3-1 with him having the proverbial "keys to the car." When he went missing, Dallas had some success with a 4-4-2. Although they won two trophies, the season was marked by a 3-0 Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoff loss in Seattle that featured a back three or five and a lot of confusion. Regardless of how Dallas lined up, stellar central midfield play from Carlos Gruezo, Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa allowed the rest of the team to thrive. Although Dallas used flexible pieces and were able to change how they played throughout the year, they also had 13 players make 25 or more appearances, the most of any MLS team in 2016.

Houston Dynamo

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
STYLE: Conservative in the back, careful up front
The Dynamo opened the season under Owen Coyle looking like they were going to be a high-scoring, high-conceding thrill ride. Then the goals started to dry up and, after Coyle left, interim boss Wade Barrett was in charge of a much different team. Down the stretch, the Dynamo played with a back four and a lone forward, often emerging star Mauro Manotas. The midfield configuration appeared to depend on the context of the opposition and the game conditions. After the switch to Barrett, the Dynamo conceded the fifth-fewest goals per game in the regular season, underlining Barrett’s priority of making Houston “difficult to play against.”

LA Galaxy

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
STYLE: Set the table for dos Santos
Bruce Arena, in his own unmistakable style, did a very underrated job juggling a revolving cast of players, and big names who might have been a little past their sell-by date. By the end of the year, Arena had settled on building the team around Giovani dos Santos, in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Given that the Galaxy picked up Nigel de Jong and Jeff Larentowicz in the offseason to go with Steven Gerrard, who would’ve thought that Sebastien Lletget would be one of the best deep-lying midfielders in the Western Conference down the stretch?

Montreal Impact

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-3-3
STYLE: Concede possession, counter lethally
The Impact started strongly without Didier Drogba, struggled mightily with him in the middle of the year, and then slowly increased in standing when he was phased out at the end. They settled on a 4-3-3 that depends on Ignacio Piatti to carry the attack on the break, and the savviness of Patrice Bernier, Hernan Bernadello and Marco Donadel to protect the backline. Dropping Drogba was far from the only big call Mauro Biello made in 2016, and his surprise decision to play Bernier as a No. 10 in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship is a further indicator that the Impact are in good hands.

New England Revolution

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-4-2
STYLE: Diamond takes hold in disappointing season
The Revs' season is defined by the gamble they took to add Kei Kamara to their young and talented squad, in a bid to turn around a slow start and help take the group over the hump. This caused problems for head coach Jay Heaps in selection and system, as he struggled to get the most out of Kamara and Lee Nguyen, whose games appear to contrast a little bit. In the end, he settled on a 4-4-2 system that sometimes took a diamond shape. New England conceded the sixth-most goals and scored the sixth-fewest, but Heaps’ decision to switch off the 4-2-3-1 that had served them so well in previous years also saw the renaissance of Juan Agudelo, pairing with Kamara.

New York City FC

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-3-3
STYLE: Build out of the back... At all costs
NYCFC built a contending team out of the ashes of the 7-0 loss to the Red Bulls that featured Andoni Iraola surprisingly recast as a No. 6, a patient possession game, and a 4-3-3 that relied on exciting young players for width and David Villa for goals. Some of Patrick Vieira’s consistency in selection went out the window in the last couple of weeks as he tinkered with a back three and changed goalkeepers. Regardless, as long as Andrea Pirlo is on board, expect Vieira to try and play out of the back and give the Italian as much time on the ball as possible, while minimizing the defensive expectations for him. Vieira guided NYCFC to within six points of the Supporters' Shield in his first year, and all indications are that MLS is witnessing the emergence of a coaching force.

New York Red Bulls

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
STYLE: High press, high octane
The Red Bulls opened the season in crisis, struggling to replace Matt Miazga before setting a franchise-record unbeaten streak. Through it all, they stuck by their high pressure, 4-2-3-1 system that allows for superior numbers in midfield and lots of combination play, but also leaves the team susceptible to breaks, particularly down the flanks. The next phase of the Jesse Marsch and Ali Curtis era appears to be integrating even more of academy players into a first team that appears poised to be MLS contenders for the foreseeable future. If they want to return to the top of the Supporters' Shield standings next year, they will need to figure out how to keep their well-earned leads.

Orlando City SC

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
STYLE: Change the only constant for Lions
Following the coaching switch to Jason Kreis, Orlando City appeared to use the rest of the season as a chance to test a myriad of personnel combinations and systems to see what he had to work with. Kreis seemed to prefer a 4-2-3-1 with an attacking midfield trio of Kaká, Kevin Molino and Matias Perez Garcia, but Orlando only had six players make 25 or more appearances this year, tied for the fewest of any team in the league. By the end of the year, Kreis indicated that he had an idea of what he wants going forward, which should probably frighten the rest of the league.

Philadelphia Union

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
STYLE: Deep-lying mids the focal point in 4-2-3-1
The Union were a pleasant surprise in 2016, reaching the playoffs despite Maurice Edu failing to make a single appearance. They used a 4-2-3-1 that saw Vincent Nogueira and Alejandro Bedoya as key players in the deep-lying midfield role, though never together. The Union’s hot start was based on C.J. Sapong providing a platform for a plethora of creative players in the line of three, but that seemed to break down towards the end of the year as the Union went from averaging 1.75 goals in their first 24 games to only one goal per game in their last 11. Head coach Jim Curtin is a big believer in the character of his squad, and the Union will be even more formidable next season if they can pair Edu and Bedoya together in midfield.

Portland Timbers

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
STYLE: Nagbe out wide, injuries in back derail defending champs
The Timbers became the third MLS Cup Champions to fail to make the playoffs the year after winning the title. The goalkeeper and center back trio of Liam Ridgewell, Nat Borchers and Adam Kwarasey that was so impressive last year played together for all of one game this year, and the Timbers conceded the second-most goals in the franchise's MLS history. Further forward, Caleb Porter employed the same 4-2-3-1 system as last year’s championship team used, but played Darlington Nagbe out wide and Jack Jewsbury in the heart of midfield, despite Nagbe emerging as an elite player in last year’s playoffs in a central role. The writing was on the wall early this year, as Porter lamented a lack of pressing and possession.

Real Salt Lake

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
STYLE: Front four reliant 4-2-3-1
RSL started the season looking like one of the best teams in the league playing a front six that included Javier Morales, Sunny, Joao Plata, Yura Movsisyan and "Burrito" Martinez. In their first 15 games, RSL averaged 1.8 goals per outing, while their last 20 matches saw that number halved down to 0.9. Jeff Cassar used a 4-2-3-1 system this year, and when the front four weren’t firing, it was tough for the Claret and Cobalt. Cassar will have another year to lead the team, and if he can get the attack back on track, RSL should contend again in the West.

San Jose Earthquakes

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-4-2
STYLE: Defensive identity hampers attack
Dom Kinnear’s second season in charge of the Quakes did not quite go as planned. Regardless of whatever system San Jose used, they did not get enough production out of their attacking players ,and the team averaged 12.0 shots per game, the third-lowest total in the league. San Jose’s decision to ship out creative force Matias Perez Garcia for defensive midfielder Darwin Ceren despite already having Fatai Alashe and Anibal Godoy available sums up the lack of attacking intent in the Bay Area this year.

Seattle Sounders

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
STYLE: Alonso disrupts, Lodeiro delivers
The Sounders season is firmly divided into the time before the arrival Nicolas Lodeiro and after. They employed a 4-2-3-1 system with Lodeiro primarily playing as the No. 10, but occasionally drifting wide. Either way, the team played through him, and he led the squad with 88.5 touches per 90 minutes after his arrival. Further back, Osvaldo Alonso’s consistent competitiveness allowed the fullbacks to get forward and down the stretch the triumvirate of the Alonso, Chad Marshall and Roman Torres at center back became very hard to break down. With Jordan Morris proving to be a consistent goalscorer, and Brian Schmetzer’s steady hand proving very effective, the Sounders were able to overcome Clint Dempsey’s absence and qualify for their first MLS Cup.

Sporting KC

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-3-3
STYLE: Long on pressure, short on goals
Sporting struggled to score early on, averaging just 0.88 goals through their first 16 games, but were able to correct the problem, averaging 1.47 the rest of the way. However they were blanked in two of their final three matches of 2016, including their playoff loss to Seattle. Sporting’s high energy 4-3-3 saw them tie for the league lead in shots but score only 42 goals, the fourth-lowest total in MLS. With selection issues further back in the team, Sporting’s third consecutive Knockout Round exit could lead to large-scale changes going into 2017.

Toronto FC

PREFERRED FORMATION: 3-5-2
STYLE: Wing backs, center mids free up DP attackers
Toronto appears to play the way they do to get the most out of their star assets in Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Back threes are coming back en vogue in the global game and the Reds putting five players in the midfield gives Altidore and Giovinco unpredictable support in attack, while three center backs also negates the fact that they don’t have a standout partner at the heart of their defense for Drew Moor. Head coach Greg Vanney has engineered a fantastic turnaround in Toronto, and on top of great big-picture management, his ability to recognize that Toronto’s personnel were a great fit for a back three means that this might only be the beginning north of the border.

Vancouver Whitecaps

PREFERRED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
STYLE: No Number 9 dooms 'Caps
The Whitecaps' failure to make the playoffs and progress with their young squad was one of the major disappointments of the 2016 season. They employed the same 4-2-3-1 formation they had in years past, and the failures appeared to stem from a lack of goals from the No. 9 position, as no striker scored more than two goals. The regression of key players through the spine, such as Pedro Morales and Kendall Waston, did not help either. The system is not broken, but figuring out a way to get more numbers forward might be on the offseason agenda.

Matt Pavlich is a youth soccer coach in the New York City area who holds a NSCAA Advanced National badge. He is currently working with Asphalt Green Soccer Club on the girls side, and Martin Luther King high school on the boys side. He has worked for Opta since 2011, primarily focusing on MLS. He also played varsity soccer for Vassar College.

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