With seven teams across MLS playing under head coaches who are either new to the league or new to their club, we’re seeing plenty of different on-field approaches in 2022. Last week, we looked at the three new coaches out West – Steve Cherundolo at LAFC, Nico Estevez at FC Dallas and Paulo Nagamura in Houston – to learn how their teams are playing and what they’re asking their stars to do.
This week, we’re looking at the teams with new coaches in the East: Ezra Hendrickson’s Chicago Fire FC, Pat Noonan’s FC Cincinnati, Bob Bradley’s Toronto FC and Miguel Angel Ramirez’s Charlotte FC. What principles and styles are those managers implementing? And how are they using their star player(s)?
We’re only four weeks into the 2022 season, but we can still learn plenty about what’s going on with those teams. Let’s get started.
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2022 manager: Ezra Hendrickson
Last stop: Columbus Crew (assistant)
After Chicago finished no higher than eighth in the Eastern Conference standings in any of the last four years, Ezra Hendrickson’s job with the Fire is pretty clear: steady the ship. The Fire’s underlying numbers weren’t as bad as their 12th-place finish in the East last year indicated, but still, there was clearly room for improvement. To improve Chicago’s results, Hendrickson has set up his team with a safe, logical approach through four games in 2022.
Instead of me explaining the main pieces of that approach, I’m just going to let Hendrickson explain it.
“I like the pressure we’re putting on them, in the midfield especially,” the manager said at halftime of his team’s 3-1 win over Sporting Kansas City last Saturday. “We were able to win the ball and then go on the counter-attack.”
Playing out of a fairly standard 4-2-3-1 shape, Chicago don’t spend much time pressing high up the field – they’re 25th in MLS in pressures in the final third this year. Instead of stepping high, they’ll defend in a 4-4-2 block and compress space deeper downfield. When they have the ball, the Fire are smack-dab in the middle of the pack in terms of possession percentage. They’re not opposed to keeping it, but they certainly look to attack quickly.
Whether they’re attacking in transition or through more established possession, Xherdan Shaqiri is the guy for Chicago. Playing as a No. 10, Shaqiri pulls almost all of the Fire’s strings in the attack. Through four games, the Swiss attacker is fifth among attacking midfielders in total touches and is tied for second in MLS in passes leading to a shot in open play.
There are very, very few players in MLS who can rival Shaqiri’s combination of vision and technical ability. Chicago will get plenty more shot-creating passes from the Swiss international as the season goes on:
Lowery: Xherdan Shaqiri
With a straightforward 4-2-3-1 shape, a safe defensive approach, and a star attacking midfielder, Hendrickson isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel in Chicago. For the Fire, that’s probably a good thing – and a major driver behind their undefeated start (2W-0L-2D record).
2022 manager: Pat Noonan
Last stop: Philadelphia Union (assistant)
Coming over from the Philadelphia Union, Pat Noonan has transferred some of the Union’s tactical principles to his new squad. The season is young, but Cincinnati are much more inclined to press and attack vertically in transition this season than they were at almost any point last season.
According to American Soccer Analysis, FC Cincinnati are the third most vertical passing team in MLS this year, averaging 8.6 forward yards per completed pass (up from 5.9 forward yards in 2021). The only two teams ahead of Cincinnati? The New York Red Bulls and, you guessed it, the Union.
Defensively, Noonan has upped his team’s pressing game. In 2021, Cincinnati averaged 51 pressures in the final third per 90 minutes. This year, Cincinnati are up to 63 final third pressures per 90 minutes, which puts them 11th in the league. That’s a big jump.
Two stars in the attack for Cincy?
Noonan, who started the year by playing a 4-4-2 diamond before switching to a 3-4-1-2 shape, has certainly made progress with his new team – and it definitely doesn’t hurt that he has one of the best attacking midfielders and an emerging goalscorer at his disposal.
Luciano Acosta leads MLS in open-play passes that have led to a shot through the first four weeks of the season and is in the 98th percentile for expected assists. With Acosta’s creativity and work between the lines, and Brandon Vazquez’s movement in and around the box, Cincinnati have a dangerous pair of attackers.
Lowery: Luciano Acosta and Brandon Vazquez
The 23-year-old American striker leads the league in open-play goals (4) and open-play xG (2.5) so far this year. He’s been truly dangerous in the attack for Cincinnati and has shown great patience and timing inside the 18-yard box, as you can see on these goals against Inter Miami CF:
Brandon Vázquez brace for FC Cincinnati vs. Inter Miami
It’s too early to say that FC Cincinnati are fixed, but there are positive signs from the beginning of the Pat Noonan era.
2022 manager: Bob Bradley
Last stop: LAFC
Bob Bradley brought a lot of LAFC with him to Toronto. After a disastrous 2021 for TFC, when they finished 13th in the East and lacked a discernible on-field identity, Bradley is drilling some definable principles into his new team.
Unlike last year, Toronto want to have the ball. To start 2022, Bradley’s squad is sixth in the league in possession with 55.8%, up more than 6% from 2021. With that possession, Toronto target the left and right sides of the box – called the optimal assist zones because, well, they’re good spots to get the ball into that, then allow you to play one more pass to create shots inside the box. Bradley’s LAFC targeted those zones too, finishing fourth in MLS in attempted passes from those spaces in 2021 and first in 2020.
Toronto FC have the seventh-most attempted passes from those assist zones of any team in MLS, with 7.8 per 90, and they have scored multiple goals with sequences that include a pass from those outside channels of the box. The first one came in a 1-1 draw in Week 1 against FC Dallas…
GOAL: Jonathan Osorio, Toronto FC - 45th minute
GOAL: Jonathan Osorio, Toronto FC - 53rd minute
Bradley’s offensive approach is clear: Get the ball into high-value attacking spaces and flood the box with runners.
The Insigne boost
They’ve shown some nice things, especially out of a 3-4-3 shape, but Toronto haven’t been consistently dangerous in the attack. Not yet, at least. That could change once Lorenzo Insigne arrives from Napoli in the summer.
Insigne, who loves to occupy the half-space on the left wing, will give Bradley another level of attacking quality and should help diversify his new team’s attack. Adding the Italian forward’s devastating ability to cut inside from the left and get the ball on his right foot to the vertical, line-stretching runs made by TFC’s left outside defender could give opposing defenses headaches.
Until Insigne arrives, expect to see Toronto continue their efforts in possession.
2022 manager: Miguel Angel Ramirez
Last stop: Internacional (Brazil)
It’s been a bumpy ride for Charlotte FC, but their first four games have provided a glimpse into what Miguel Angel Ramirez is trying to do with MLS’s newest expansion team. With a developing roster, Ramirez has probably been forced into more early pragmatism than he would’ve liked, but Charlotte have shown flashes of some lovely attacking play this season.
But it’s not all about precise attacking play for Charlotte. Ramirez’s team is also willing to absorb pressure defensively and then attack in transition. In their first-ever MLS win, a 3-1 victory over the New England Revolution on Saturday, Charlotte FC played out of a 4-4-2 diamond and ceded a decent amount of possession to the Revs.
In truth, we probably haven’t seen anything close to the finished product from Ramirez’s Charlotte team. As their roster evolves (DP winger Kamil Jozwiak hasn’t debuted yet) and the team has more time to adapt to Ramirez’s tactical approach, I would expect to see more consistent offensive positioning. But there are building blocks.
Swiderski leading the line
DP striker Karol Swiderski certainly looks like one of those building blocks. After scoring Charlotte’s first MLS home goal, Swiderski will be a notable figure for Charlotte fans for a long time – and right now, he’s a critical piece of Ramirez’s team. With two goals already this season and some dangerous off-ball work in the box, the Polish international looks like he’s adapting well to MLS.
A hard step to lose a center back before fading back a yard or two to create separation? That’s a savvy move, and that’s exactly what Swiderski does in this clip:
Lowery: Karol Swiderski
The sample size is small, but Swiderski’s movement and timing inside the box make it clear why they splashed a reported $5 million transfer fee to get him from Greece’s PAOK.