Voices: Joseph Lowery

Four tactical trends that defined the 2022 MLS season


Well, that’s pretty much a wrap on 2022 – we won’t see any more MLS action until 2023. This year was filled with plenty of fun on-field moments, spanning from LAFC’s wild MLS Cup win to FC Cincinnati’s impressive improvement to Austin FC’s dramatic year-two turnaround.

This year was also filled with some fun stuff that people who nerd out on soccer (as I do) enjoy: tactical trends. Yes, I legitimately did just push my glasses up before writing that sentence.

To tie a bow on 2022, I’m taking us on a journey through a few trends that helped define this past MLS season. And hey, maybe in one way or another, they’ll define the 2023 season, too.

Possession dominance was all the rage

You might have noticed while watching CF Montréal pass their way through opposing presses all year. Or while watching the San Jose Earthquakes’ at-times-futile efforts to keep the ball at all costs in 2022: possessions were longer in MLS this year than in any of the last three years.

Per Second Spectrum, possessions were also wider, less direct and more pass-heavy in 2022 than they were in 2021 or 2020. That three-year timeframe, by the way, is as far back as Second Spectrum’s dataset goes. Here’s a look at the raw possession averages for each of the last few seasons:

  • 2022: 16.5 seconds, 4.6 passes, 0.266 directness and 29.1 meters wide
  • 2021: 15.8 seconds, 4.5 passes, 0.270 directness and 28.7 meters wide
  • 2020: 15.7 seconds, 4.5 passes, 0.267 directness and 28.4 meters wide

Teams were happy to keep the ball, even more so than in seasons past. According to Second Spectrum, five of the eight highest possession teams in the league over the last three years took the field in 2022. They were Atlanta United, the San Jose Earthquakes, CF Montréal, New York City FC and Austin FC.

It’s fun to watch teams try to keep the ball and create something with their possessions. Watching a ball-dominant team hum is one of the things I love most about this sport. However, 2022’s high-possession teams weren’t necessarily any better at creating opportunities to win games than their low-possession counterparts. As an example, San Jose and Austin were both in the bottom 10 in MLS based on expected goal differential (xGD), per American Soccer Analysis.

In soccer, there isn’t necessarily a positive correlation between possession percentage and winning. The Philadelphia Union finished with the second-best xGD in MLS last year while averaging the second-lowest possession percentage. The team that beat Philly in MLS Cup (LAFC) split the difference and averaged a middling 51% possession while finishing first in the league in xGD.

The lesson here? We’re still not sure how soccer is supposed to be played. Last year around this time, I wrote about the rise of aggressive passing. This year, I’ve essentially written this section about the decline of aggressive passing. At this point, there is no secret soccer tactical sauce that automatically leads to wins. Methodical possession might help you get there – or pressing and aggressive passing might get you there. Either way, it helps to have a stable of really good players across the width of the field.

Speaking of good players and width…

Where did all the wingers go?

Quick, name a dominant goalscoring winger who played in MLS last year.

Come on, what’s the holdup? Oh, that’s right. There really weren’t any dominant goalscoring wingers in MLS in 2022.

In fact, the league’s entire winger pool had a tough time. According to Second Spectrum, open-play goals per 90 minutes, open-play expected goals per 90 minutes and average shot quality were all down for wingers in 2022 compared to the two previous seasons. Wingers only averaged 0.36 open-play goals per 90 in 2022, compared to 0.41 in 2021 and 0.53 in 2020. The xG numbers mirror those goalscoring stats almost exactly. And while there wasn’t a drastic decrease in shot quality, wingers averaged 0.10 xG per shot last year, compared to 0.11 in 2021 and 2020.

There are a bunch of specific ways you can explain MLS’s lack of really dominant wingers. Carlos Vela is getting older. Toronto FC’s Italian stars didn’t get enough time to work their magic. Sporting Kansas City’s rough year in their 4-3-3 shape hurt their wingers.

But the biggest reason MLS lacked big-time production from wingers last year is teams don’t spend big on in-prime wide attackers. Atlanta United’s Luiz Araujo is the biggest exception here, paying then-Ligue 1 champions Lille a reported $10 million back in the summer of 2021. There are other examples, of course (think Vela, Federico Bernardeschi, Lorenzo Insigne), but I’d argue those wingers are slightly past their prime. Teams are also investing in young wingers from South America, so maybe a highly-rated import (think NYCFC’s Talles Magno or FC DallasAlan Velasco) will keep progressing to an elite level.

But when you look at the other biggest incoming transfers in league history, you see a handful of No. 9s. You see a bunch of No. 10s. And you see more than a few halfspace merchants who split the difference between winger and No. 10 (think Atlanta’s Thiago Almada or Orlando’s Facundo Torres). From watching games and looking at how teams construct their rosters, it’s clear most MLS decision-makers prefer to fill the center of their attack with stars first before filling in the wide areas with functional players.

Maybe if a team really wants to differentiate themselves in 2023, they’ll find a way to get a couple of pure wingers going.

Back fours are back

Talk about a rollercoaster ride.

2020 was a back-four-heavy year. 2021? Not so much. Teams loved the back three. D.C. United, CF Montréal, Seattle Sounders FC, LAFC… you name it, they were using three center backs. But even after giving center backs all that love in 2021, teams mostly went back to the four-man defense in 2022.

Per Second Spectrum, back-three usage went way, way down in 2022 compared to 2021. Teams averaged just 48.6 offensive possessions per game in a back three compared to 72.5 possessions in a back three in 2021. Unsurprisingly, the back four numbers went up as a result.

Don’t get me wrong, you still have your teams who wouldn’t touch a four-man backline last year: Vancouver Whitecaps almost exclusively used a back three, FC Cincinnati largely used a back three and CF Montréal and the Colorado Rapids were reliant on that shape, too. But it wasn’t all the rage like a season ago.

With so much managerial turnover and so much fluidity in the modern game, I would expect the formation numbers to continue flip-flopping over the next few years.

Inswingers on the rise

You might have a strong opinion about what kind of corner kick is best: either inswinging corner kicks or outswinging corner kicks. To lay the foundation here for folks who don’t have a hot corner kick take, an inswinger is a ball that bends in towards the goal from the corner flag. It would be taken by a left-footed player from the right corner or a right-footed player from the left corner. An outswinger? Well, that’s just the opposite.

I don’t know which of those you prefer, but I do know the data says inswinging corner kicks are a higher percentage scoring play (2.7%) than outswinging corner kicks (2.2%). With the ball already bending toward the goal on an inswinger, it doesn’t take quite as much to direct it into the back of the net as it does with an outswinger. Hence, the 0.5% difference.

That 0.5% might not seem like a massive number, but it could be the difference between winning the Supporters’ Shield and, uh, not doing that. Or between making and missing the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. So maybe, just maybe, teams are starting to realize inswinging corners create more value: according to Second Spectrum, teams took more inswingers and fewer outswingers per 90 minutes in 2022 than they did in either 2021 or 2020.

The rise of inswingers makes me think at least a handful of MLS teams started integrating that 2.7% data point into their set-piece routines. So, I’d expect teams to continue prioritizing inswingers over outswingers next year. 

Let’s not forget soccer is a cruel, variance-heavy game. Despite MLS teams getting (what I would call) smarter on corners in 2022, they scored fewer corner kick goals per 90 in 2022 than in either of the two previous years.

Maybe the inswingers will pay off in 2023.