“Through others we become ourselves.” ― Lev S. Vygotsky
Every league in the world is a copycat league, to one extent or another, and that's no less true of MLS than it is of, say Liga MX or the Bundesliga or the J-League. What works wins, and what wins disseminates, and what disseminates becomes default.
Historically and globally that's how the 3-5-2 replaced the 4-3-3, and how the 4-4-2 replaced the 3-5-2, and how the 4-2-3-1 replaced the 4-4-2, and so on and so forth. It's how tiki-taka replaced the counterattack, and how high pressing replaced tiki-taka, and... well, whatever comes next. It's cyclical and sometimes it's proactive, sometimes it's reactive, sometimes it's disruptive.
Usually though, as I said at the top, it's imitative. So for about six-and-a-half seasons, beginning in 2010, almost nobody in MLS played a back five (or back three) with any regularity, and then in late summer of 2016 Greg Vanney decided to go to a 3-5-2 more or less full-time. Toronto FC made the playoffs and scored a million goals on the way to MLS Cup, then held Seattle without a shot on target once they got there. They played really good soccer on both sides of the ball mostly due to their talent, but also due to how their talent was arrayed.
Fast forward through the winter, and now we have back 3s and back 5s popping up all over the league. NYCFC played it basically from the start on Saturday, as did Chicago. Seattle did down the stretch. And Atlanta United compensated for the smothering pressure they faced from the Reds on Saturday afternoon by switching out of their lopsided 4-3-1-2 and into a 5-3-2 (or a 5-2-3, depending on how much you want to argue about Miguel Almiron's positioning and role).
Flood the box! Get runners in there if you're gonna make the high press work. pic.twitter.com/lDxA2Ghfoh— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) April 9, 2017
That's a marriage of formation and tactical approach and individual skill set and on-field opportunity, and it was fun as hell to watch.
Beyond the entertainment factor, that game (and this weekend as a whole) was an important marker to understand where MLS is heading formationally and tactically. TFC's zone of proximal development has opened up some new ideas on how to use old formations in the same way Peter Vermes' high-pressure, high-pressing 4-3-3 did way back in 2010, and as a result teams are finding their new selves.
Onto the rest of the weekend:
Add It Up
D.C. United haven't been able to recapture anything close to the attacking form that led them to last summer's magical run to the playoffs. Patrick Mullins is hurt, and Lucho Acosta is just getting up to speed, and Patrick Nyarko seems to have lost half a step – watch him close, and you'll see he isn't creating separation like he was late last year – and the central midfield can't string passes together, and the central defense was, for a minute, pretty close to a tire fire.
But then Ben Olsen reinserted Bobby Boswell into the starting lineup and they've won two straight 2-1 decisions, the latter of which came at RFK Stadium on Saturday against visiting NYCFC.
Correlation vs. Causality and all that, but in the 180 minutes Boswell's been on the field thus far United have been significantly harder to break down up the gut, regardless of who's playing at defensive midfield in front of the central pair (it was Marcelo Sarvas last week, and with him suspended it was veteran utility man Jared Jeffrey putting in a very respectable shift).
I also think it helped that D.C. played more of a 4-2-3-1 than the 4-1-4-1 that's become standard for them, and it definitely helped that they pulled fullbacks Nick DeLeon and Taylor Kemp in tight and conceded the flanks against NYCFC's 3-4-1-2. The Citizens took the bait and decided all that space meant they had to cross it a bunch...
NYCFC completed 15% of their crosses today, lowest all season #DCvNYC— Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus) April 8, 2017
Yeah, that didn't work out so great until the very end, when they shifted to a 3-3-4 and came pretty close to overwhelming United's backline just by throwing numbers forward. Desperation was/is the mother of invention in this particular case.
Regardless, I think D.C.'s approach to this game reflects the natural tension between process and results inherent to putting together a team. Boswell was on the bench to start the year in the first place because Sean Franklin – a better distributor of the ball, and more attack-minded player when in central defense – was preferred. And after an 0-2-1 start that saw zero goals scored, Olsen defended his decision by (correctly) citing the underlying numbers from that original 270 minutes of the year.
United, you see, had created plenty of chances. They'd done a half-decent job of limiting chances as well, save for a 4-0 obliteration at NYCFC in Week 2. They were mostly fine, and all this was reason to not panic, or be too reactive, or change too much.
And yet... results are needed. At some point you have to patch up the weak spots before you can build upon your strengths, and D.C.'s weakness in March was the middle of that backline. Six points later, and no one should expect Bobby Boswell to exit the starting XI any time soon.
This doesn't mean that United's quest to be a better version of their electrifying selves from last year has disappeared. I think they're still going to spend more time on the front foot than not, and they'll have to take the occasional 4-3 win. Getting there, however, is going to require a few games where they out-grind the opponent and a few more where they outfox the opponent.
It's a different part of the process than what they'd banked upon, but in the long run, is just as important.
Mike Petke stood on the sidelines on Saturday night during RSL's Battle of Hoth vs. the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps and coaxed a 3-0 win out of his side in his debut as RSL boss. It was a good win even if the conditions were less than perfect.
"Soccer goes out the window at a certain point," is what Petke said after the game. "Every pass is slowed up, it is like you are building a snowman when the snow is building on the ball and guys are slipping all over the place. You can’t really see through it so then it just comes down to who wants it more, I guess."
Nonetheless, there was still some stuff to take out of this one. First is that RSL's 4-3-3 under Petke played with Kyle Beckerman as more of a true, lone d-mid than he's been cast as over the last two years. And second is that "winger" Joao Plata was much more central than usual, allowing him the chance to combine with center forward Yura Movsisyan.
This is a network passing graph made using Opta data. Each circle represents the corresponding player's aggregate touch, and the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes exchanged between them.
Plata is No. 10, and Movsisyan is No. 14. They played together, they worked together, they combined with each other and with Rusnak in particular (No. 11, hidden behind Luke Mulholland's No. 19), and with better finishing they could've been up 3-0 at halftime.
It's dangerous to read too much into one outing in adverse conditions and against an opponent that was clearly out of gas following their weekday CCL exertions. But it's three points, a happy fan base and good feelings for the first time since August. Perhaps as with D.C., the results will inform the process and not vice versa.
A few more things to ponder...
9. The Impact have kinda quietly started this season winless in five following Friday night's 2-0 loss at the LA Galaxy. Between injuries, suspensions and the fact that four of the five have been away from home, I don't think it's time to blow things up. The core is still good, and youngster Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla has shown serious promise, and there's help on the way.
Two of the next three, and five of the next seven are at Stade Saputo. We'll have a better idea of what Montreal really are somewhere in the midst of that stretch.
8. Things have taken a decidedly more pronounced turn for the worse in Chester. The Union dropped their third straight, this one by 3-1 against the visiting Timbers, and they've conceded multiple goals in each of their last four outings.
With apologies to Haris Medunjanin – who delivers a lovely set piece – none of the offseason reinforcements have lived up to their billing. C.J. Sapong has been conjuring some outrageous stuff (most weeks this would have easily won Pass of the Week), but it hasn't been enough to pull this team out of their tailspin.
7. This isn't the Pass of the Week either, but I kind of want it to be:
Columbus's defensive spacing in midfield was a mess for the first 55 minutes of their 1-0 loss at Chicago. Things got better on that side of the ball once they brought one more attacking player on at the expense of one of the d-mids.
6. Usually there's a CCL Hangover, be it after a great victory or heartbreaking defeat. FC Dallas suffered the latter on Tuesday against Pachuca, but showed few ill effects in Saturday's 2-0 win over visiting Minnesota United.
#JaviMoralesForever by the way.
5. Here's one more that isn't the Pass of the Week, but I wanted to highlight it since Antonio Delamea has been very good for the Revs to start his MLS career:
New England came out in what is now, I think, their typical 4-4-2 diamond and did a really good job of limiting Houston's options to get out on the break, eventually taking home a 2-0 win. The Revs forced Houston to play rather than to run, and it was a good approach for the hosts.
Worth noting it's rookie fourth-rounder Joshua Smith rather than veteran import Benjamin Angoua who's won the job as Delamea's partner at center back. I've seen little to suggest Smith won't hold onto the job.
Still, a 1-1 home draw isn't a great result given their upcoming schedule. They've got Dallas visiting on Friday, then three straight on the road. Things could get ugly in a hurry for the Quakes if they're unable to figure out how to generate some consistent offense.
3. Face of the Week goes to Pablo Mastroeni, whose Rapids were run out by 3-1 in their trip to Sporting KC:
I kind of feel like Colorado's in line for an unexpected rebuild.
2. Jason Kreis brought the 4-4-2 diamond back because he loves us and wants us to be happy. It's a true diamond his team plays – lots of clockwise or counter-clockwise rotations out of midfield rather than the straight, north-south swaps we see out of a 4-3-1-2 – and they played it reasonably well in their 1-0 win over the Red Bulls on Sunday.
1. And finally, this is our Pass of the Week:
Doesn't get much prettier than that.