The Tactical Proactivity of each MLS Team / by Jared Young

By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)

The MLS playoff drama is peaking with all but a half dozen teams dreaming of postseason glory. All the teams have played their tactical cards by now and the chess matches from here on out should be very entertaining. It’s therefore high time to look at a model whose goal is to examine the very chess moves that teams are making and look for insights. The Proactivity Score (Pscore), an attempt to numerically represent a teams basic tactical approach, has been updated through August 27th and there are some interesting new trends. Here’s a chart of where teams stand:

pscore.png

As a quick refresher, the horizontal axis represented a range of passing types for a team. To the left are teams that are more direct in their passing with fewer passes in general and more verticality as they move up the pitch. To the right teams become more possession oriented, typically with shorter, more diagonal and backward passes. The vertical axis measures defensive intensity in the attacking half. The higher the team, the lower their defensive block. The higher the team the more prone they are to press an opponent.

The New York Red Bulls continue to stand on a island tactically. They are the most aggressive defensive team and the most direct team at the same time. This is generally difficult to pull off given the high work rate demanded of the players, but New York has maintained this intensity all season. There are notions (and some data) suggesting Chris Armas has the team playing less proactively. My score has them offensively about the same. From a verticality and distance point of view their passes are equal across coaches. Our own Kevin Minkus, however, has shown that New York has become more indirect in the final third, which adds a wrinkle to the narrative.

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Defensively the team has become ever so slightly more conservative. Their passes allowed per defensive action in the attacking half has increased to 22 from 17 under Armas. They still rank as one of the more intense defensive teams in the league, but lately they’ve been fitting in with NYCFC and Atlanta United in terms of defensive pressure. (More specifics on NYRB’s tactical changes are coming in a future ASA post by Cheuk Hei Ho. Stay tuned.)

Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City look like the most traditionally proactive teams in the league and that has been consistent all season. Vancouver and Colorado continue to be the most reactive teams in the league. Then there is that tactically uninteresting blob in the middle of the chart. It might appear those teams are lacking an identity, but perhaps they have a wide variety of styles and just happen to look average. Also take note of the Columbus Crew as I’ll deep dive them shortly.

To dig a little deeper on team’s identities I decided to take a look at the shifts in PScore when teams are home or away. It can be revealing to see which teams make dramatic shifts and which ones play a consistent game. Let’s start with the home teams. Notice the shift of the glob of teams moving down and to the right, as home teams tend to play more aggressively.

Pscore2.png

Generally the teams maintain their position with a few exceptions. Colorado and Vancouver move significantly to the lower right, indicating a more aggressive approach at home, leaving Portland alone as a deep lying team. Seattle, Philadelphia, FC Dallas and Columbus all emerge from the identity-less blob and reveal they might be a little more tactically flexible than those left behind.

Now let’s look at the teams when they are away. Notice the general shift to the upper left.

Portland bizarrely moves into the blob, away from the trend, while Columbus shows some interesting tactical shifts on the road and now stands alone. FC Dallas move to the other side of the blob showing they are quite different home and away, while Atlanta United continues to press on the road but become a significantly more direct team with the ball.

Here’s a look at the teams that shift the most offensively between home and away:

FC Dallas, Colorado and Atlanta United have the biggest shift offensively when at home. Meanwhile, New York City FC actually becomes more direct at home.

Here’s that same view on the defensive side.

Here we see that Columbus and San Jose tend to set up a lower block on the road, and while that’s typical their shift is the biggest. Again, Portland tends to go the other way and get more aggressive on the road.

Given Greg Berhalter is the subject of rumors he will be the next US Men’s National Team coach, let’s dig into the shift that Columbus makes and project into that potential future. The next chart looks at passes allowed per defensive action in the attacking half by game, home and away. I’ve added their opponents logo to highlight key matches.

While Columbus does sit deeper in general on the road, it’s not more than usual. They clearly pick their spots carefully when setting up a low block. Against the more possession oriented teams in the league they allow those teams to pass around the back. Games against Philadelphia, Seattle, NYCFC and Atlanta United are all games where there was very little defensive activity in the attacking half.

Meanwhile at home they are very consistently providing slightly above average pressure. The one outlier was when the New York Red Bulls came to town and Columbus went up 3-0 in the first 31 minutes, and it’s likely they played more conservatively while holding on for a 3-2 win. That or it could have been more respect paid to one of the best teams in the league.

Offensively Columbus is more indirect than average but doesn’t change their pace more than is usual. So it appears that it’s on the defensive side where Berhalter makes tactical adjustments rather than deploying more direct approaches. If you are rooting for Berhalter to be offered the National Team role it’s comforting to see he can handle that tactical flexibility. The US must go against CONCACAF minnows as well as the best teams in the world, and being able to set the defensive side of the ball up differently is a must. What may be of some concern is that the Crew have not shown the ability to press with the best in the league. That could very well be by design, but if you are looking for the next USMNT coach to implement a high press consistently he hasn’t shown that strength in his current job.

To be proactive or reactive: that is the question

If you’ve been reading this post for a few seasons you’ll remember I typically look at the value associated with being proactive (lower right) or reactive (upper left) on the chart. Due to Major League Soccer’s parity there aren’t many tactical outliers other than the handful of teams highlighted above. In leagues with greater disparity there is a greater divide between the proactive teams and the reactive ones, usually divided by financial ability or purely talent. But despite that difference, MLS shows similar traits as the other leagues. Teams that commit to reactive play tend to have more success than the blob in the middle, even with thinner wallets. Teams with the money tend to play proactively and also are the most successful teams.

This season the New York Red Bulls blow up that model quite frankly, and I don’t know where to put them. So I’m going to keep them on an island in this analysis. I picked the teams with a greater than 1.1 index as proactive teams and those with a less than 0.9 index as reactive teams. Here are the results.

Team PPG % in playoffs Average Team Salary (M)
New York Red Bulls 1.96 100% $7.7
Top 5 Proactive Index 1.75 100% $11.9
Middle 11 Teams 1.26 27% $11.3
Bottom 6 Proactive Index 1.24 33% $9.1

New York is doing it will less money and we shouldn’t lose sight of that achievement. The proactive teams are also performing well, but they also average more than $4 million more in salary than New York. The rest of the league is interesting. Being a reactive team has roughly the same success as the middle this season but while paying substantially less in salary. 

Even in MLS reactive play can keep teams alive during dream time in the season, but dollars coupled with proactive play have you among the league’s elite.