Armchair Analyst: A long look back on the year that was in MLS

One of the very first columns I wrote for this website, about seven years ago now, was about the preponderance of counterattacking teams in the league. Just about everyone played some version of a low-block 4-4-2 reliant upon devastating speed, multiple ball-winners in central midfield, and playmakers shunted to the flanks.

Even the teams that had what I would consider to be a "traditional" No. 10 tended to use those guys more as second forwards rather than game-controlling geniuses. David Ferreira, who won the 2010 MVP with FC Dallas, comes to mind.

The one team that really stuck out for doing things differently was Real Salt Lake, who played a diamond midfield with a single d-mid, a No. 10 behind two forwards, and were much more about methodical chance-building than open-field dynamism. Much digital ink was justifiably spilled in lauding RSL for daring to be different, and even though they won just one trophy (the 2009 MLS Cup), I think it's fair to say that era's Claret-and-Cobalt will be long remembered and appreciated by aesthetes and die-hards.

By 2013, things had changed in MLS. That was the year the 4-4-2 was mostly overtaken by the 4-2-3-1 and a little bit of the 4-3-3. Counterattacking was still mostly the order of the day, but Sporting KC won MLS Cup that season by relying on counterpressure, while a whole new generation of true No. 10s found themselves in the spotlight.

Coaches are copy cats, and guess what? By 2015, 17 of the 20 teams in MLS were playing in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, most with No. 10s, and almost all of them had some form of counterpressure in their locker (though only one -- the Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls -- pressed as high and hard as Sporting).

Those were two very different stylistic eras, but were still marked by "most teams doing mostly a lot of the same stuff, or at least moving the same tactical direction" with only the occasional outlier. The herd was the herd.

That brings us to the 2016 season, which is now in the books, and to me felt like a significant turn away from the somewhat monochromatic recent past of MLS. If 2013 represented a re-centering of league formations and tactics away from that low-block 4-4-2, then 2016 represented a de-centering.

One MLS Cup finalist played a mid-block 4-2-3-1 with their No. 10 on the wing, and the other played a high-pressure 3-5-2 with true wingbacks. The Supporters' Shield-winning Western Conference leaders played a mid-block 4-2-3-1 with a true enganche casting his sorcery from the middle of the field and springing fleet-footed wingers into space for a team that almost never crossed, while the Eastern Conference leaders played as frenetic and suffocating a high pressure system this league has ever seen out of a high-block 4-2-3-1, and once again crossed the ball a ton.

On that side of the Hudson the attitude is "six seconds or less" and the new global axiom of "the gegenpress is the best playmaker" held sway. Across the river, the attitude was "build from the back" and the old global axiom of "let the ball do the work" that informed just about everything. Those two teams with such vastly different approaches were separated by 20 miles, one goal, three points, and one place in the standings. They were third and fourth overall in possession, and yet one attempted 3000 more passes in their own defensive third than the other.

A look at their stats and formations would have suggested very similar teams, but the reality is they couldn't have been more different.

Further down I-95 and you had a team that flipped formations from what was mostly a bunker-and-destroy 4-4-2 to a get-out-and-run 4-1-4-1 mid-season, and in so doing went from one the league's lowest-scoring team to its highest. Drive nine hours north of that and you'll find a classic, MLS-style counterattacking playoff juggernaut... except this juggernaut played out of a 4-3-3 instead of a 4-4-2.

And in an era in which goalscoring is consistently increasing, the Rocky Mountains housed one of the best by-the-numbers defensive teams in league history, who shocked everyone by staying in the Shield hunt until the final weekend of the year.

MLS was different in 2016, folks. The league has always been better than most have given it credit for, though one of the constant criticisms I fully agree with is that the tactics from one team to the next have often been too cookie cutter and predictable. As recently as October of last year I'd make jokes with my colleagues about watching eight different versions of two 4-2-3-1 teams attacking each other on a given weekend, but it was simply not the case this year. Many more teams had distinct identities, and many more coaches had the courage to change their approaches -- formations, tactics, personnel -- when things weren't working.

The herd has started to scatter, but have done so with purpose.

I think it was a tipping point. I think MLS is about to get more interesting and not just in "hey, anybody can beat anybody!" and "wow, we suddenly have an influx of academy kids!" ways. Those will still be the bedrock changes that define the next decade, but we saw more "this is a really interesting tactical chess match" games this past year than we had in the last four seasons combined.

That should continue apace for the 2017, and hopefully in the seasons to follow. And it's, I think the lasting legacy of this 2016 season.


Moving on... you've seen all the official awards for 2016, so I'm not going to double up. Instead it's time for my own personal awards season:

• Player of the Year: Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

I factor in the regular season, the playoffs and domestic cup competitions into my voting. And while Giovinco wasn't as prolific in 2016 as he was in 2015, he was still the best player in the league for the vast majority of the season. He also led TFC to the Canadian Championship (which included one of the most dramatic endings in North American soccer history) and an appearance in MLS Cup (tho he didn't really show up for that one himself, did he?).

Other arguments I'll listen to: Sacha Kljestan, Nicolas Lodeiro, David Villa, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mauro Diaz

• Young Player of the Year: Kellyn Acosta, FC Dallas

There are plenty of other good arguments to be made here, including one for Acosta's own teammate, Carlos Gruezo. But Acosta was a constant in the Dallas lineup, usually providing box-to-box terrorism but also playing a little bit as a true d-mid, some on the left wing, and once or twice as a playmaker (that last bit didn't work out so well but he still finished the year with 2g/5a).

More to the point: He was a key cog for a team that won the Shield/US Open Cup double, and was arguably the best starter in the league at his position.

For clarity: I consider anyone born on January 1, 1994 or afterward to have been a young player this year.

Other arguments I'll listen to: Gruezo, Cyle Larin, Jordan Morris

• D-mid of the Year: Sam Cronin, Colorado Rapids

For sheer March-to-November consistency and excellence, Cronin gets the nod. I will grant you that at their best any of Michael Bradley, Ozzie Alonso, or Dax McCarty have higher ceilings (and I'm sure there will be Dallas, Vancouver and Portland fans chiming in here, too), but none of those guys were as consistent over the course of the season as Cronin.

The Rapids don't get the national spotlight as often as other clubs, so few people can appreciate just how much Cronin was doing for that team on a weekly basis. He was the main way to shuttle the ball forward, the organizer that protected the backline, and an occasionally decisive presence in the final third.

Other arguments I'll listen to: Bradley, Alonso, McCarty

• Fullback of the Year: Saad Abdul-Salaam, Sporting KC

Nobody in MLS asks more of their fullbacks than Sporting, and SAS (do we call him that?) over-delivered in just his second season as a pro. His six assists tied for the league lead among fullbacks, and he was the one constant on a SKC backline that saw an ungodly amount of personnel turnover in a tumultuous year.

And here's the thing: They needed him to get forward and provide attacking width since their wingers were so punchless. He did so at an All-Star level, and should get an invite to a USMNT camp this year.

Other arguments I'll listen to: Justin Morrow, Keegan Rosenberry, Joevin Jones, Ronald Matarrita

• Breakout Player of the Year: Walker Ziimmerman, FC Dallas

After three seasons plagued by injury and inconsistency, Zimmerman grew into a full-time starter at age 23 on the league's best team, and as part of the league's best central defense. His ability in the air is arguably tops in MLS, but what everyone seems to underestimate is just how quick he is stepping off that backline and into the midfield to break up plays. Zimmerman reads the game extremely well, and in Oscar Pareja's system has a ton of leeway to not just stop plays, but make them.

He needs to continue to refine his touch and passing, both of which are merely functional at this point. But given his improvement curve I think big things should be expected.

Other arguments I'll listen to: Abdul-Salaam, Patrick Mullins, Cristian Roldan

• Acquisition of the Year: Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle Sounders

There were a lot of very good newcomers this season, and a few great trades. But there was only one new arrival who led his team to an MLS Cup title, and in so doing potentially changed the way an entire league does business.

Other arguments I'll listen to: None, really. But props to LA for bringing in Jelle Van Damme and to D.C. for some great work at the trade deadline

• Best Coaching Adjustment of the Year: The Death of Benny Ball

All due respect to Greg Vanney for the late-season switch to the 3-5-2, and to Mauro Biello for dropping Didier Drogba en route to a pure counterattacking stance, but I can't ever remember a makeover as stunning as what Ben Olsen and D.C. United pulled off after a couple of mid-season trades.

D.C. were the league's most boring team up through the middle of July. They were the most exciting from the end of July onward, and it's not just because they were scoring more goals. Rather, it was a commitment to letting attackers like Luciano Acosta, Patrick Nyarko and Lloyd Sam have complete positional freedom, and to getting fullbacks Taylor Kemp and Nick DeLeon forward as often as possible on the overlap.

It was fun and it was unexpected, and it has D.C. fans all kinds of hyped for next year.

Other arguments I'll listen to: Vanney, Biello, Brian Schmetzer


Best XI and Beyond

As usual I have a different take on this year's Best XI than the official one. Here's my First XI, Second XI and Third XI for 2016:

FIRST XI

GK: Andre Blake
RB: Saad Abdul-Salaam
CB: Matt Hedges
CB: Jelle Van Damme
LB: Justin Morrow
DM: Sam Cronin
CM: Sacha Kljestan
CM: Mauro Diaz
FW: Sebastian Giovinco
CF: David Villa
FW: Ignacio Piatti

SECOND XI

GK: Stefan Frei
RB: Keegan Rosenberry
CB: Drew Moor
CB: Aurelien Collin
LB: Joevin Jones
DM: Michael Bradley
CM: Kellyn Acosta
WM: Joao Plata
AM: Giovani Dos Santos
WM: Justin Meram
CF: Bradley Wright-Phillips

THIRD XI

GK: Jake Gleeson
RB: Eric Miller
CB: Walker Zimmerman
CB: Chad Marshall
LB: Ronald Matarrita
DM: Osvaldo Alonso
CM: Benny Feilhaber
CM: Diego Valeri
FW: Chris Pontius
FW: Dom Dwyer
FW: Kevin Molino

A few quick notes on the above:

  • Putting together a squad that could function together matters to me when I make these teams. I cheated a little bit by having both Kljestan and Diaz -- each plays as a No. 10 for their team -- in the same midfield, but I'm absolutely certain that group could figure out how to work together
  • I also cheated a bit by having a front three with Giovinco on the wing, when in reality he's much more of a second forward
  • Guys who came in at mid-season didn't get as much consideration, which meant no Lodeiro, Matteo Mancosu, Roman Torres, Tim Howard or Armando Cooper consideration. And guys who only spent half a season at their best spot (Sebastian Lletget) were too hard to make an argument for
  • The hardest cuts were McCarty, Axel SjobergJordan Morris, and Jozy Altidore
  • Altidore was the best player in the league from August to December
  • Winning matters. Only four of my Best XXXIII missed the playoffs 

And now I've had my say. Go ahead and have yours in the comments section below, and I'll try to pop in occasionally over the next few days for a good, old-fashioned holiday argument.

Series: 
Topics: