Back in the summer of 2014, in Brazil at the World Cup, Costa Rica unleashed a vicious, lane-clogging 5-4-1 on the tournament and rode it all the way to the quarterfinals. They were ahead of the tactical curve, and because of it they probably overperformed their baseline talent.
At that point, just three years ago, few teams outside of Serie A or Liga MX ever used back 3s or back 5s in meaningful games, and nowhere was that more true than in MLS. There were 19 teams in MLS that season, and 19 teams played a back four. Of those, 16 played a 4-2-3-1.
But obviously, people noticed Costa Rica's success, and they saw some of the fun things Antonio Conte had done with Juventus, and how Pep Guardiola had first Barcelona and then Bayern Munich flipping from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3. And they remembered the great German and Argentinean teams of the 1980s and 1990s, and Brazil in 2002. And first really slowly, and then pretty quickly, back 3s and back 5s crept back into the world's game.
And that's become as true here as anywhere else. Toronto FC really started the rush last season, with their 3-5-2, and over the last couple of months we've seen Columbus (3-4-2-1), San Jose (3-5-2), Montreal (5-4-1), New York (3-3-3-1) and even Colorado (I thiiiiiink that was a 3-4-3 for the last 25 minutes of their game this weekend) jump into the fray.
It's made MLS games, as a whole, look different than they used to, and just this weekend I counted nine different formations across 11 games. Bear in mind that formations aren't tactics – you can play beautiful, possession-based soccer in a 4-4-2 if you've got the right guys for it, and you can play ugly as sin in a 3-4-2-1 if that's what you're aiming for. Players make the game, not numbers.
But formations do give you a baseline, bedrock positional understanding from which to build, and they matter quite a bit. Wingbacks are generally used to neutralize wingers, forwards floating off the frontline into the half-spaces to become playmakers confound teams with lone d-mids, target forwards can wreck havoc on a central defensive pairing rather than a triumvirate, and so on and so forth.
We're seeing more of these tactical approaches and adjustments on a weekly basis in MLS, now. It's made for better, more nuanced and more fun soccer from my point of view.
That was apparent on a wild Wednesday night of action, recapped a little bit HERE, and during the weekend's full slate as well. Let's dive in:
It's too early to call Columbus's switch a raging success, but Crew SC have now played that 3-4-2-1 in two straight games, and won two straight games by 1-0 scorelines. Neither was against one of the more monstrous teams in the league – Philadelphia, whom Columbus beat on Saturday, were missing their entire frontline and a goalkeeper who's been having a pretty good month – but a "zero" of any sort is good for a Crew SC defense that's struggled all season long. Gregg Berhalter has to be happy with that and may, at some point, actually smile.
This network passing graph, made using Opta data, gives us an idea of their shape:
Each number represents the location of the corresponding player's aggregate touch, while the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes exchanged. It's not perfectly representative – Justin Meram, No. 9, was actually one of the two playmakers rather than a center forward – but it does present a pretty good idea of how things looks.
The biggest strength of this formation so far for Columbus is that it allows both wingbacks, Harrison Afful (No. 25) and Jukka Raitala (No. 2) to get forward at will, but still have three center backs rock steady in defense. In that sense it is a more conservative formation.
In central midfield, however, it is a more daring formation. Wil Trapp (No. 20) is left to do his defensive work on an island, and yes this definitely does feel like a big test for the club's captain. Trapp has struggled defensively this year as teams have been able to exploit his lack of physicality and pace. Putting him in this situation means that he will have three guys behind him if that happens, but it also means he's got to be able to win the first ball more often and more definitively.
Through 180 minutes it's mostly worked. But as with every other formation, remember that it's the players that make it work.
“It’s certainly different than how we’ve been under Gregg for the last three years, so it’s taken a little time to adjust to,” Trapp told our own Andrew King after the game.. “But the center backs have done a really good job, and everyone else is slowly finding a way to make it work. It definitely shores up things in the back.”
Those center backs, led by rookies Alex Crognale and Lalas Abubakar and bolstered by a very good game for oft-maligned DP Jonathan Mensah on Saturday, really are the guys who've made this thing hold tight. Their mobility, and ability to pop off the line, step into midfield and make a play, means that Trapp hasn't been stranded and overwhelmed, and that teams haven't been able to build through the most dangerous parts of the pitch. Combine it with their ability to get back and track runs through the lines (not that either Minnesota or Philly made many of those, to be honest), and that's how you post back-to-back shutouts.
It's not a ton to go on, but those six points were desperately needed – Columbus are just two points ahead of Orlando City for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
And it turns out they may have hit upon something that keeps them there.
No team has drafted more indifferently over the years than the Portland Timbers. Their very first MLS SuperDraft pick, Darlington Nagbe, was a raging success. Since then, the most successful pick they've had was maybe George Fochive? Or two-thirds of a good season from Andrew Jean-Baptiste?
The Timbers annually put up zeroes in the draft. Franchise-wide, the feeling is that there are other, better places to find answers, and that's apparent in the boxscore contributions they've gotten from their picks over the years. Since Jean-Baptiste (a top 10 pick in 2012), they've not selected one guy who's scored an MLS goal. The vast majority haven't even played an MLS minute.
Thus it was some blend of irony, poetic justice and raw, unvarnished coincidence that Portland's season was perhaps saved on Sunday by their top 2017 SuperDraft pick, forward Jeremy Ebobisse. The Timbers entered the game having won just twice in their last 13 matches, and with a roster depleted by injury, international call-up and – in the case of starting center forward Fanendo Adi – suspension.
Ebobisse took his chance. He had a goal and an assist in Portland's 2-1 win at Vancouver, a gut-punch of a result for a 'Caps team surely kicking themselves for this opportunity missed.
Ebobisse was wonderful in his 78 minutes, the clear Man of the Match. Here, have a taste:
That gives a pretty good idea of his vision. He also got a poacher's goal, did some good hold-up work, and most importantly was able to push the Vancouver backline deeper by making hard runs directly into the A gap between the central defenders.
Adi, who is a great hold-up man and a reliable target in the 18, doesn't do much of that. He checks to the ball, which often compresses the space in which guys like Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri work. The Portland attack should be a beautiful dance, but too often it's a slog with all the parts moving reactively instead of in unison.
Obviously it'd be foolish to call Ebobisse a savior. It's just 78 very good minutes at this point, and while his runs were dangerous in the first half he was a little too flat-footed in the second. I wanted to see him create even more danger off the ball.
But what he brought to the Timbers was a bit of daylight and a lot of fresh air. It means they can look at the standings, see they're in fourth place and – for now at least – exhale.
A few more things to ponder...
10. While other teams have found a measure of defensive stability courtesy of their back 3/back 5 alignments, the Quakes had a miserable week. They lost 5-1 at New York on Wednesday, then 3-0 at Seattle on Sunday night. Victor Bernardez and Andres Imperiale both had a heap of trouble covering the required amount of ground to do the job.
Chris Leitch, whose team has been hyper-aggressive and attacking, might have to make a concession to the realities of his roster and have his wingbacks play deeper. The 3-5-2 should probably become a 5-3-2.
9. Ebobisse, Crognale and Abubakar weren't the only rookies to have a nice weekend, as Jonathan Lewis picked up an assist and was mostly very good in New York City FC's short-handed, 2-1 win over visiting Chicago. You can see he knows where to find the game and isn't afraid to hit the last pass, but his runs aren't quite right:
8. Following Saturday's 3-0 win over Minnesota, RBNY have now won three straight road games, have a better record at this point than last year's team (which won the East), are into the semifinals of the US Open Cup for the first time since 2003, and are 10-5-2 with a +8 goal differential across all competitions since mid-April.
They don't pass the eye test quite as convincingly as last year's team did at this point, but Jesse Marsch has clearly figured out a good chunk of what he needed to.
7. Houston finally got their first road win of the year, going to RFK and taking a 3-1 result away from D.C. United. Alex, who had four assists in his MLS career entering this season, had three in the game and now has 10 on the year.
6. New England conjured a "keep hope alive!"-style 4-3 win over visiting LA on Saturday at Foxborough. The Revs are eight points off the final playoff spot in the East and can't stop anybody defensively, so they'll probably have to keep putting more 4s on the board.
5. Atlanta badly missed Josef Martinez in a mostly stagnant trip to Orlando City, but got a Héctor Villalba golazo to beat the reeling Purple Lions 1-0 on Friday night. It's the first time all season OCSC have been below the playoff line, and it has to be gut wrenching for them to feel like they wasted one of Kaká's most energetic displays of the season.
The Reds were shorthanded, and their remaining schedule means they're still probably the Supporters' Shield favorites. But if they miss out on that particular prize by a point or two, they will look back at this game and know that this is where silverware was lost.
3. Mike Petke stole the headlines with his awesome-to-the-max postgame press conference following RSL's 1-1 draw against visiting Sporting KC on Saturday, but I'm feeling the need to give some dap to 19-year-old Homegrown left back Danilo Acosta. Twice this week the converted midfielder strode forward off the backline, into his old position, and hit a game-changing through-ball:
Having a fullback step up and do that changes the way teams can defend against you, and that makes this our Pass of the Week. Hell of a finish from Luis Silva, too.
2. Following Saturday's 2-1 win at Montreal, FC Dallas have now won three straight, are atop the Western Conference, and are up to third in the league in points per game. They did it this time without Matt Hedges, Kellyn Acosta or Mauro Diaz, but they did have low-key Best XI candidate Maxi Urruti and – all together now – Cristian Colman!
The Paraguayan DP finally broke his duck, tapping in at the back post after an outrageous Urruti cross and then running onto and controlling a long-ball before hurdling Montreal 'keeper Evan Bush and firing home.
Colman's movement was excellent, as it always is, and he finally found chances he couldn't flub or shoot directly into the 'keeper. Sometimes that's exactly what a striker needs in order to get going and find their form, and if that's the case here – if Colman is going to start being dangerous, and Urruti is going to keep playing like this, and Diaz, Acosta and Hedges are all going to be back in a minute – Dallas are going to be big, bad and scary for the rest of the season.
1. And finally, our Face of the Week: