Armchair Analyst: The tactical state of MLS heading into 2017

There is a subtle difference between the high press and the counter press. There is a pronounced difference between either of those two approaches and an overtly counterattacking team, and of course there's a difference between a counterattacking team and one that is purely based on the bunker.

Some teams that play the above styles will rate high in possession, and others will rate low. In 2016 the Red Bulls were near the bottom of the league in passes per possession – they scored a bare handful of goals that came off of build-ups comprising five or more passes – but were near the top of the league in terms of raw possession totals. They had more of the ball than their opponents for one reason or another (their high press was the reason more often than not) but their sequences of possession tended to be shorter.

But are they a possession team? Not really. Their chances aren't generated from having a ton of the ball and pulling teams apart, but rather from forcing turnover after turnover after turnover, and then playing directly to the attacking third.

"Playing direct" is often used as a euphemism for "booming the ball long for a target forward to knock down" but that's not at all appropriate to describe the Red Bulls, is it? "Playing direct" should mean "getting the ball into the attacking zone as quickly as possible, while maintaining as high a probability of turning this spell of possession into a clear-cut chance as possible." There's no dallying, few square or back-passes, and if the defense sends two guys at you, your job is to split them with a pass on the ground (and your teammate's job is to get in position to give you a target to complete that pass).

For New York that version of playing direct works. For other teams, like the 2012 Earthquakes, long balls and crosses were really a good idea. But those are now fewer and farther between, and the number of open play crosses in MLS has dropped 24 percent since the start of the decade.

It seems that having the ball matters, and in The Bronx there was a pure possession team that tried to take that sentiment to its logical extreme. NYCFC were the squad in MLS last year who most loved to build slowly from the back:

Team Passes Own Half Passes, Successful Own Half Passing Accuracy Own Half (%)
NYC 8301 7309 88.05
CLB 7594 6835 90.01
SEA 7431 6668 89.73
LA 6645 6008 90.41
TOR 6469 5684 87.87
ORL 6453 5714 88.55
COL 6411 5684 88.66
CHI 6129 5255 85.74
DAL 5960 5215 87.5
VAN 5889 5131 87.13
SKC 5873 5270 89.73
MTL 5768 5114 88.66
RSL 5768 5043 87.43
SJ 5405 4653 86.09
PHI 5372 4662 86.78
POR 5332 4703 88.2
NY 5171 4360 84.32
DC 5032 4209 83.64
NE 4904 4269 87.05
HOU 4868 4149 85.23

You're seeing that correctly: NYCFC completed more passes in their own half than all but two MLS teams even attempted last year. They'll probably come close to those numbers again, though my guess is that Minnesota United FC will give them a run for their money, based upon Adrian Heath's predilection toward stylish play and how they looked in the preseason.

Of course, both teams will also "press," though we need to be careful of how we use that term. "Pressure" is any collective team effort to proactively win the ball — it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the attacking half, right? Those great LA Galaxy groups from the first half of the decade were not high-pressure teams, nor were they necessarily possession teams, but they were exquisite at figuring out where they wanted to win the ball, forcing you to play into that particular blind alley, and then turning around and making a chance out of it.

Some teams, like the Red Bulls or Sporting KC, prefer the spots where they win the ball to be as high up the field as is reasonably possible. Others, like Bruce Arena's Galaxy (we'll see about Curt Onalfo's version soon enough), or like Gregg Berhalter's Columbus Crew SC, or Oscar Pareja's FC Dallas, or the Seattle Sounders of both Sigi Schmid and Brian Schmetzer, liked the win the ball a little deeper. It's more dangerous if you can send Ethan Finlay through on a 40-yard sprint into space than it is if you're trying to string together 10 passes around the box, right? Whereas for New England, it's probably a better bet to try to get guys like Lee Nguyen, Juan Agudelo et al to combine in the final third.

Players dictate systems, and systems can highlight the best qualities of players. It's a symbiotic thing that's often missed when talking about pure tactics. Xavi, for example, wasn't great under Frank Rijkaard. Under Pep Guardiola – whose system was both "high possession" and "high pressure" – he became the greatest midfielder in the history of the game (don't @ me). Both Barcelona and Spain have won a little bit since Xavi retired, but neither's quite been the same.

It feels like this cyclical understanding of tactical nuance is coming into play more and more in MLS, and that 2016 was a turning point. Tactics really did decide more games than ever before.

More teams playing different styles and different formations, with different defining players from different parts of the world made for a delightfully strange brew. In one game you could watch the Rapids wear down a visitor at altitude with 75 minutes of pragmatic destruction and 15 minutes of vicious counterattacking, and in the next you could watch Dallas counter-press their way to yet another multi-goal game with wingers who always attacked but rarely crossed.

I think that type of tactical diversity will get turned up to 11 in 2017. MLS looks different and feels different, and is far less homogenous than at any point in the past. The tactical state of MLS is "evolution," and it's going to make for a very, very compelling season to come.


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