Armchair Analyst - 2015 Year That Was - 3 Number 10s
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Armchair Analyst: Three Things about ... MLS at the end of 2015

1. The formation of a shift

The funny thing is: It didn't happen overnight. It never does. But it still feels like it because of who took home the silverware.

What I'm talking about is, of course, MLS teams shifting away from the classic 4-4-2 as a default formation. In 2014, the Montreal Impact won the Canadian Championship playing in a 4-4-2; the Seattle Sounders won the Supporters' Shield and US Open Cup double in the 4-4-2; and the LA Galaxy polished off a run of three MLS Cups in four years playing yet another variation of the 4-4-2.

It didn't matter that most of the league had edged away from that formation, because the teams that dominated it were lining up with two forwards.

Fast forward a year, and here's how it went: The Vancouver Whitecaps won the Canadian Championship playing a 4-2-3-1; Sporting KC won the US Open Cup playing a 4-3-3; the New York Red Bulls played a 4-2-3-1 en route to their second Shield in three years; and the Portland Timbers morphed from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 down the strech, riding a solidification of the midfield and flank penetration to the franchise's first piece of significant hardware: the 2015 MLS Cup.

In all, 16 MLS teams played either the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 as their standard formation, and a tactical shift naturally followed. More creative input came from the central midfield, as the league's list of top chance creators shows:

Player Chances Created (inc. assists) Chances Created from Open Play Big Chance Created
Javier Morales 84 58 7
Sacha Kljestan 79 56 6
Cristian Maidana 79 51 4
Matias Perez Garcia 78 39 3
Federico Higuaín 76 49 7
Benny Feilhaber 70 48 10
Brad Davis 69 36 4
Darlington Nagbe 67 65 2
Diego Valeri 64 34 2
Sebastian Giovinco 62 44 8

Davis is the last of a hibernating breed, the playmaking wide midfielder. Giovinco is a pure second forward – not a midfielder nor a winger – and no one else at that spot even cracked the top 30 in chance creation.

A year ago, various attackers like Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Davis, Lloyd Sam, Robbie Keane and Obafemi Martins were all near the top of that list. This year, it's almost all No. 10s.

They're No. 10s of a different stripe, to be fair: Kljestan excels in the final third with his misdirect passes while Feilhaber sits deeper, sending in through balls; Maidana drifts wide to bend in crosses and Morales is a warlock who will not age until people start destroying horcruxes – new formation, new teammates, new defensive responsibilities? Doesn't matter, the dude's still gonna be among the league leaders in chances created. (I'm saving that as a macro for next year's article, and 2017's, and 2018's, etc. etc. ad infinitum.)

Simply put: If you didn't have some sort of a classic No. 10, one able to take strings of possession and develop creativity out of midfield, then you probably weren't going to compete with the league's best.

A year ago that wasn't true.

2. Shining the Shield

Kljestan was at the heart of the Red Bulls' run to the Supporters' Shield, their second such trophy in the last three years. He finished with 8 goals and 14 assists, leading the league in passes both attempted and completed in the final third.

Why does that matter? Because it explains how the Red Bulls played: pressing high and hard, relying upon the brains and fitness of their central midfield (Kljestan, Dax McCarty and Felipe) to smother opposing teams, refusing to let them build directly out of the back. That, in turn, allowed the backline to compress the field, which led to sequences of play like this:

Kljestan buried a goal moments later, capping a six-minute stretch during which Orlando City weren't able to cross the midfield stripe.

New York got goals from everyone in their front four, including 17 from forward Bradley Wright-Phillips.

The No. 2 team in the East, Columbus Crew SC, vanquished RBNY in the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs behind their own 4-2-3-1 and balanced attack. Led by Kei Kamara at center forward and wingers Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram, Crew SC gave No. 10 Federico Higuain free rein, with their fullbacks encouraged to overlap higher and harder than any pair in the league.

Out West, another 4-2-3-1 team, FC Dallas, posed the stiffest competition in the Shield hunt. Led by their own magical No. 10, Mauro Diaz, Dallas equaled New York's 60 points, but came up just short on goal differential.

The lack of an elite, BWP-class finisher was one of the big reasons for that. Another was that while Kljestan, Feilhaber and Higuain each logged over 2,700 minutes, Diaz was on the field for just under 2,000. When he played FCD were 14-5-5, and when he didn't they were 4-5-1.

Those types of margins are how trophies are won or lost.

3. To The Cup!

The team that beat Dallas in the playoffs were the West's No. 3 seeded team, the Portland Timbers. And as is customary in Portland, 2015 was weird.

How weird? Their 41 goals scored were the lowest total of any playoff team, and their +2 goal differential was worst in the conference. That number actually lived in the negative until a 4-1 victory over Colorado in the regular season finale – a win that broke a two-month-long home scoreless drought.

In the midst of that home streak, Portland naturally became a road juggernaut, going 4-0-1 in their final five away from Providence Park. They carried that form into the postseason, stomping Vancouver 2-0 at BC Place in the Western Conference Semifinals before taking a 2-2 draw out of Dallas in the second leg of the Conference Championship.

And then came the coup de grace: A 2-1 victory at MAPFRE Stadium over Columbus, making Portland the first team since the 2002 Galaxy to win the Cup in their opponent's house. The Timbers took a page out of New York's book, with high pressure leading to the first goal and a midfield turnover leading to the second.

What's Next?

I expect at least a couple of teams to experiment with variations on the 3-5-2 next year. Toronto FC in particular seem to have the personnel for it, and I could convince myself a reconstructed LA Galaxy might be headed in that direction as well. Bruce Arena's been married to the 4-4-2 for a long time, but he's been willing to play the 3-5-2 when necessary – such as during the 2002 World Cup knockout rounds against Mexico and Germany.

And let's remember that the 3-5-2 basically exists in order to swamp opposing No. 10s. In a league that's basically built around that position, it makes sense for someone to run against the grain, right?

We'll see if any brave souls among the ranks of MLS coaches feel the same way. We're putting a cap on the 2015 season here, but players report to training camp for 2016 in less than three weeks. The planning has, most certainly, already begun.

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