Warshaw: LAFC, Earthquakes offer diverging options for MLS in future

Wednesday night marked a clash of soccer ideas.

LAFC’s Bob Bradley and San Jose’s Matias Almeyda, two legends of coaching in North America (and beyond), view the sport differently.

It’s nearly impossible to distill their philosophies in anything less than an Encyclopedia volume, but for the sake of brevity...

  • Almeyda sets up a man-marking scheme that puts his players in position to, and requires them to, win individual duels.
  • Bradley has created the most layered, sophisticated team-centric system in league history.

The two styles share similarities, but at their core, they are different. When asked about San Jose’s style on Tuesday, Bradley told reporters, “In my way of seeing the game, no, that’s not the best way to develop players and that’s not the best way to develop teams." 

It was a personal opinion, followed up by a truth and the key statement in the press conference: "But the good news is this: I’m not right. I just have my ideas."

One of the key elements to remember about soccer is that a manager is not trying to pick the right way to play, he or she is trying to get everyone on the team moving in the same direction. A team that’s better drilled beats a team with a more logical plan.

Bradley and LAFC have won the clash this year, taking two wins from two in league play with a +9 goal differential, including Wednesday night’s 4-0 drubbing. But Almeyda has plenty of hardware to support his style -- four trophies in four years with Chivas Guadalajara in Liga MX, including the 2018 Concacaf Champions League.

Different strokes for different managers.

Both teams have taken the league by storm, in their own ways, this year. Here’s the question I’ve been sorting through: Which philosophy, Bradley’s or Almeyda’s, is more likely to catch hold for other teams? 

I’ll take this moment to provide a more direct opinion than Bradley could or would. His style, the same style popularized by Pep Guardiola, is the best way to play soccer. It’s popular to suggest that there isn’t a right way to go about the game. I disagree. There is an ideal, highest-ceiling option. It’s passing and pressing. A well-drilled passing and pressing team has the upper hand. 

A team that passes and presses can align every phase of the game so there is never a moment of vulnerability. Everything, from attacking to defending transitions to defending to attacking transitions, can fit together in a seamless plan. The style has a smaller margin for error, but if we are talking about what happens when two styles play to their best, passing and pressing like LAFC or Barcelona or Liverpool or Manchester City will win. 

That margin of error part is extremely important, though. If you try to pass and press and you don’t do it well, you leave yourself exposed. That’s how you get teams that lose 3-0 regularly. If you can’t teach every minor detail -- and I firmly believe that soccer is more heart surgery than art -- or you don’t have the players -- though I think the threshold is much lower than people think -- then you can be as bad as LAFC are good. 

FC Dallas, for example, are the closest thing to LAFC right now in terms of style of play. They are currently below the playoff line. Toronto FC would be another example. Their 2017 treble-winning team did a lot of what LAFC do now; they’ve stuck to the same principles and haven’t been above the playoff line in 18 months. 

This takes us to the second option: adopting Almeyda’s man-marking. 

I’m still figuring out my feelings about man-marking -- one friend and former pro texted me after LAFC’s game and asked, “How can anyone play man-to-man defense in modern day football?” -- but it has a record of success. Almeyda has won trophies with it, not to mention the levels Marcelo Bielsa has taken teams to with man-marking tendencies. You could also classify the New York Red Bulls’ pressing approach into a subcategory of man-marking, though not quite as extreme as Almeyda’s.

At the very least, man-marking offers two advantages: 

  • It’s still new and weird to play against. You catch teams unprepared.
  • It helps players get into the flow state because there is constant responsibility and movement. If soccer comes down to making plays, and making plays depends on being in the right frame of mind, then anything that gets players into the flow state is a good idea.

We’ve seen the first converts, too. The Colorado Rapids have used Almeyda’s man-marking system in their last two games. 

And why not? If you can’t play like LAFC, for whatever reason, then what’s your best choice? Is it to play a generic 4-3-3 and do the same thing as everyone else? Or is it better to zag? I’m a firm believer that not enough teams have a clear plan.

It’s hard to ignore that San Jose went 11-3-4 over an 18-game stretch with their zag.

Bradley and Almeyda go about the game differently, but they have a common bond. They have clear, decisive ways about how they want to play, and they pull everyone in that direction, their direction.

Both paths have histories of success; both paths have been seldom traveled in MLS. Which one is more likely to get more traction?

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