Nearly 30 percent of MLS teams played their first regular-season game under a new head coach this past weekend.
On Saturday, CF Montréal’s Wilfried Nancy and Toronto FC’s Chris Armas faced off in their first Canadian Classique. Later in the day, it was Gabriel Heinze taking charge of Atlanta United in MLS play for the first time. Then Josh Wolff’s Austin FC took on LAFC, Gerhard Struber’s New York Red Bulls matched up with Sporting Kansas City, and Hernan Losada’s D.C. United beat New York City FC. Finally, the last two teams with new managers battled on Sunday with Greg Vanney’s LA Galaxy besting Phil Neville’s Inter Miami CF.
What did those eight teams with new coaches try to accomplish on the field last weekend? And, taken with a big grain of salt, what could we see from them for the rest of the year? Let's talk about it.
Wilfried Nancy’s CF Montréal showed clear ideas on both sides of the ball in their 4-2 win over Toronto FC. Though they lost the xG battle, Montréal showed some nice looks out of a 3-4-1-2/3-5-2 possession shape and used Djordje Mihailovic as a hybrid number 10/left central midfielder. With Mihailovic drifting between Toronto’s defensive lines in the space behind Michael Bradley, CF Montréal registered the third-longest possessions and the widest possessions across the league in Week 1, according to Second Spectrum.
Defensively, Mihailovic often stepped high up the field and defended as the striker in a 5-2-3, flanked by Mason Toye and Romell Quioto. After an impressive result in his first game, Nancy’s tactical building blocks are visible – and there’s reason to expect to see many of the same offensive and defensive principles from Montréal going forward.
Although Toronto are dealing with a host of injuries and absences, we’ve still got a window into what Chris Armas is trying to build with his new team. Between Concacaf Champions League and Week 1 in MLS, it’s become clear that Armas is comfortable rolling out a narrow 4-4-2 that emphasizes pressing.
TFC registered more pressures in the middle third (237) than any other team in Week 1, all while racking up the fourth-most pressures in the final third (89). As Toronto’s squad nears full strength, it’s likely that some of their attacking methodology will change to fit their returning personnel, like Alejandro Pozuelo, Jozy Altidore and Ayo Akinola. But for now, Armas’ hallmark is his pressing, particularly in the middle third.
The Gabriel Heinze Era is just beginning, but early signs point to Atlanta United being a possession team in 2021. Yes, Atlanta’s only two opponents this year – Alajuelense and Orlando City SC – have both taken up defensive postures, but it’s clear that Heinze loves the ball. In Week 1, Atlanta built up and possessed in a 4-2-4/4-2-3-1 shape and had the second-longest possessions, the fourth-most passes per possession and the second-widest possessions across the league.
What’s that, you say? Those sound like statistics that Frank de Boer would be proud of? You’re not wrong. Despite controlling the ball, Atlanta United didn’t put the ball in the back of the net. Um, okay, now the De Boer parallels are getting uncomfortable. Look, I’m just the messenger. There's so, so, so much time for Heinze to help Atlanta become something more than just the sum of their passes.
Austin came out and lost their first MLS game 2-0 to LAFC. It certainly wasn't the result that Josh Wolff and company were looking for. That said, I think the actual result for Austin FC was far less important than the fact that they looked tactically coherent (and aggressive) against one of the strongest teams in the league.
Austin built from the back, even under LAFC’s pressure, moved the ball forward patiently and pressed. Wolff’s team started more possessions in their defensive third (62) than any team in Week 1 and, at times, their ball circulation made mincemeat out of LAFC’s high press.
Much like Bob Bradley's LAFC and Gregg Berhalter's US men's national team, Austin defended in a narrow 4-3-3 shape that tried to deny the opposition access into midfield. While Austin FC struggled to create chances in the final third, Wolff’s principles of play were on display in their season-opener.
Gerhard Struber’s New York Red Bulls looked a lot like what you would expect Gerhard Struber’s New York Red Bulls to look like. In their 2-1 loss to Sporting, they played a 4-4-2 diamond, pressed and played quickly in possession. I have three key stats that I think effectively summarize the beginning of Struber’s first full year in charge:
- They registered the third-most pressures in MLS in Week 1 with 352
- Their possessions only lasted 18.6 seconds, which was the shortest in the league by more than two seconds
- They attempted the most forward passes with 226
Though their narrow defensive shape was exposed on Daniel Salloi’s go-ahead goal, RBNY looked decidedly RBNY-ish over the weekend. Expect to see more of that in the coming weeks.
Hernan Losada must be a secret Red Bull drinker or something, because D.C. United pressed a lot without the ball and played very, very direct with the ball against NYCFC. In their 2-1 win, D.C. attempted the fewest combined backwards and square passes in the league (121) and registered the most pressures (367) out of their 3-4-3/5-4-1 shape. In terms of chance creation, D.C. created more shots from crosses (5) than any other attacking method and created higher quality shots from counterattacks (nearly 0.15 xG per shot) than any other attacking method.
With Audi Field three yards shorter this year than last year and his players' body fat percentages dropping by the second, it looks like Losada wants to emphasize defensive pressure and offensive transition moments.
No team passed the ball as much or for as long as Greg Vanney’s Galaxy did in their 3-2 win over Inter Miami on Sunday. Vanney started out with his team possessing in a lopsided 3-2-5 shape that emphasized flexibility while filling all five of the field’s vertical channels.
The Galaxy’s issue was that they didn’t create enough attacking sequences like the one above. Ultimately, a change to a 4-4-2 helped LA deal with Miami’s aggressive center backs. It seems extremely unlikely that the 4-4-2 will be Vanney's Plan A over the course of this season, but it could be his Plan B.
With the potential exception of Robbie Robinson starting on the left wing, Phil Neville’s lineup and tactical approach were both fairly predictable against the Galaxy. They defended in a 4-4-2 with Gregore and Blaise Matuidi anchoring the midfield; both were in the 96th percentile of defensive pressures in Week 1.
In possession, Miami attacked in a 4-2-3-1 with Gonzalo Higuain occasionally dropping deep to help Miami move the ball forward. This clip, with Higuain essentially playing the role of a distributing, box-arriving central midfielder, is something I can get behind.
Sometimes predictable doesn't mean bad. Sometimes it means logical. It feels like Neville has found a pretty logical on-field recipe to start the 2021 season.