By Coleman Larned (@thesoccerswell)
There are a multitude of tactical questions facing each remaining team in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Can New York's retooled wing-backs be relied on to defend capably? Can the Crew maintain a consistent attack with Federico Higuain's inconsistent performances? Can anything be done to stop Dallas' attack through Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo? And how will suspensions affect Portland's midfield? I'll examine each of these questions and provide a tactical preview of of the Conference Finals below.
New York Red Bulls
In his first year as head coach, Jesse Marsch entered the fold by implementing a new mindset and a new formation.
High-block defensive pressure defined the New York Red Bulls all season, aiming to force opposition turnovers in dangerous spaces and transition into high percentage chances on goal.
RBNY defended from the front, and the engine of was the midfield triangle. The sum of the Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins and Sasha Kljestan trio was the most complimentary and tactically balanced in MLS. Both McCarty and Felipe are able to shoulder possession and tempo duties, but McCarty, being the more tidy and commanding of the two, usually assumed that role.
Offensively, Felipe would structurally balance based on the other points of the triangle, aid in possession, and occasionally creep forward to participate offensively in the final third.
The connection from the middle to final third was Kljestan's responsibility, and he was what made it all tick. Most of the plaudits will go to McCarty, and such praise is well deserved, but Kljestan's lateral presence to form triangles of possession with either flank, ability to turn and drive at defenders, balance for a progressive McCarty or Felipe run, and willingness to apply smart defensive pressure within the system was crucial.
The two recent changes to the RBNY starting XI, different from what was the norm throughout the season, are Ronald Zubar and Sal Zizzo starting in the back four. Although both have seen time in the same positions during the regular season and now in the playoffs, it is not an ideal situation.
When teams have been effective against RBNY they've tended to exploit depth in deep flank spaces. Bombing on with wing-backs who overload the wings and cause RBNY's outside backs to make defensive marking decisions caused problems for 2015 Supporter's Shield winners. Although this is true, both Felipe and McCarty are weak in 1v1, man-marking scenarios. They both can defend in a system, and are aggressive and fit enough to maintain a presence in a high-block press, but if the opposition can place two high midfielders on them, they will struggle to deal with the responsibility.
Columbus Crew SC
Columbus Crew SC has an identity, but only until it reaches the final third.
Gregg Berhalter wants his side to possess the ball in the defensive and middle thirds, with one of his central midfielders to drop in between the central defenders to pick up the ball. As the ball progresses through the possessive phases, Higuain attempts to pivot and pick out deep, wide runs from the wide defenders or midfielders.
The Crew played the most crosses per game during the regular season because of their width from central possession, which draws the opposition narrow and opens diagonal lanes in behind.
Kei Kamara is obviously the key to Columbus's offensive production, but it's how he works as the endpoint of possession that effectively connects the team idea and shape.
Teams that consistently dominate possession, and intend to do so, frequently run into the issue of an 'offensive edge', or inability to finally breakdown a defensive shape that has been set up to concede possession.
Kamara, through the advantage of flank play and his ability to knock passes down for second ball opportunities, is the answer to such a problem for Columbus.
Two tactical issues arise when analyzing Columbus. The first being: will Higuain show up to play and demand the ball? Columbus is complete when the Argentinian is actively searching for the ball in between the opposition's defensive and midfield lines, and able to spin and distribute. The issue is that he's not always up for it, and disappears in games. The second: can Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp especially be vertically sharp and progressive in possession? Ball maintenance and creating open lanes for pressure relief is Trapp's specialty, but can he move the ball up the field when a defensive press is strangling his options?
A young, vibrant FC Dallas side has one of the best spines in MLS. Through Matt Hedges, Kellyn Acosta, Diaz and David Texeira there is industry, creativity, and quality, from which everything stems.
As injuries have sent key players in and out of the lineup all year, head coach Oscar Pareja has kept his faith in youth and homegrown talent. This youth is what makes his side a willing and unpredictable unit to defend.
Their intentions on both sides of the ball are well drilled, but opposing in style.
Offensively the hub is Diaz and he can create with the best of them. Able to not only beat players on the dribble by drawing them in 1v1 or even 1v2, but also his ability to determine weight of pass and advantageous spacing for his teammates is the best in MLS. Both Acosta and Victor Ulloa work tirelessly beneath to afford him space, as Acosta assumes box-to-box responsibilities and Ulloa sits in the hole to protect and distribute.
As tempo is dictated centrally, both wide midfielders tend to stay away to create isolation and proper internal spacing. As possession pivots with Diaz and finds its way wide, especially to Castillo, the wingers are encouraged to drive at defenders 1v1.
Defensively, FC Dallas is very compact and less free ranging. As the tip of the defensive shape, Texeira is expected to work hard to cut the field into half, or manageable divisions, by intentionally keeping the ball with one of the opposition's central defenders. Sometimes Diaz is expected to defend flatly with Texeira, wherein directionally forcing the opposition's possession is less important than the side's general compactness. In either system, Acosta and Ulloa flatten out, as Castillo and Michael Barrios recede into a flat four midfield line, just above the back four.
Due to FC Dallas' willingness to express themselves offensively to stretch the opposition, large gaps open up between the back four and the front six. In transition, Acosta is really the only player responsible for connecting the two phases, and can be exploited with counter attacks that overload middle third of the pitch, especially centrally.
The Portland Timbers had a tactically sporadic year, especially as of late.
Head coach Caleb Porter deployed a 4-2-3-1 for most of the year, using a double pivot for protection above his back four, while consistently interchanging players and roles within the higher three midfielders.
A structural change at the very end of the MLS regular season was the catalyst to winning the last five out of six games, and advancing in the playoffs.
The shift was to a 4-3-3, used to reintegrate Darlington Nagbe into the midfield and to utilize his ball retention and creativity in tight spaces. This was made possible by the new, positional discipline of Diego Chara, sitting in the hole as a holding, central midfielder. The change also allowed Diego Valeri to contribute in the final third, without tasking Nagbe with too much offensive responsibility.
Now that Valeri and Rodney Wallace have to sit out the first leg of the Western Conference finals because of yellow card accumulation, personnel adjustments are forced.
Lucas Melano will most likely replace Wallace on the left wing, giving Portland a viable attacking option, but also detracts from their defensive cover and work rate on the same flank.
The replacement for Valeri will most likely be either Jack Jewsbury or Will Johnson, and the selection of either will affect the formation. If Jewsbury is selected, Portland will undoubtedly play with a double pivot, with Jewsbury and Chara at the base of the midfield triangle and Nagbe at the tip. If Johnson is selected, there is a bit more flexibility, but the formation will likely be the same 4-3-3, with Johnson slotting in as a box-to-box midfielder and Nagbe pushing a bit higher into an attacking role.
Will Portland revert back to the 4-2-3-1, or just implement new players into their newly adopted 4-3-3? This is the biggest, tactical question of the MLS playoffs.