Major League Soccer is well into its 2020 Playoff phase as teams compete for the right to be named MLS Cup champions. In the Eastern conference, many have been surprised by the New England Revolution’s push through the playoffs as they won a play-in game in the dying moments before soundly defeating Supporters Shield winners and number one overall seed Philadelphia Union away from home. Orlando City SC, led by ex-Manchester United star Nani, also advanced as they defeated New York City FC in stunning fashion thanks to a penalty shootout that caught eyes all around the world for its drama. These two sides met in an Eastern Conference Semifinal to determine who would advance into the Eastern Conference Final with a chance to reach MLS Cup 2020.
This tactical analysis will analyze both the tactics of the New England Revolution and the tactics of Orlando City SC. This analysis also includes an evaluation on the effectiveness of these tactics. In addition, it will analyze which tactics played a key role in New England completing yet another upset as they defeated Orlando City 3-1 on the road and advanced to the Eastern Conference Final.
Lineups and formations
New England Revolution, who are led by former US Men’s National Team coach Bruce Arena, have figured out what lineup best suits them and they have stuck with it thus far through the playoffs. This lineup features Matt Turner in goal, with DeJuan Jones, Henry Kessler, Andrew Farrell and Tajon Buchanan in front of him. The Revolution midfield is made up of Matt Polster, Scott Caldwell and Argentine playmaker Goustavo Bou in central areas. The wide midfield is occupied by MLS veteran Teal Bunbury and Carlos Gil, while Adam Buksa is the lone striker.
The home side and heavily favored Orlando City faced some difficult lineup challenges after their matchup with New York City FC. Manager Oscar Pareja was tasked with the responsibility of replacing both goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and Outside Back Ruan who were both sent off against NYCFC. Pareja opted for Brian Rowe to replace Gallese in goal, as well as choosing Kamal Miller to replace Ruan. In addition to Miller, Kyle Smith, Antonio Carlos and Robin Jannson made up the Orlando back line. The central midfield was made up of Junior Urso, Oriol Rosell and Mauricio Pereira, who added plenty of knockout competition experience thanks to his time with FC Krasnodar and their ventures in the UEFA Champions League. Chris Mueller and Nani provided the width in midfield while recent US National Team call up Daryl Dike was the lone striker for the Lions.
Orlando City’s Build Up Shape
Under Pareja, Orlando City have achieved the best campaign in their short history thus far in 2020. A large part of that is due to their style of play that has enabled them to dominate possession and frustrate opponents. Orlando City have quickly adopted his playing style that he has employed at FC Dallas, Colorado Rapids and Tijuana previously. Pareja almost exclusively employs a 4-2-3-1 formation as discussed previously, and implores his sides to attempt to keep possession and counter-press in order to wear down opponents. They are able to do so thanks in large part to their intricate build-up shape that allows for them to not only dominate possession but also create space for key players to operate in.
In this match, Pareja effectively manipulated the right side of both his and his opposition’s shape. While in possession, Orlando typically moulded into a 3-5-2 in order to progress the ball forward and create opportunities. Instead of dropping a holding midfielder in between wide-spreading centre-backs to create a back three, Pareja shifted his backline and asked Kyle Smith (right outside back) to push higher up the field to allow Muller (right winger) the opportunity to shift inside and occupy half-spaces, as well as try to create numerical overloads for his side. A few examples of this can be seen below.
As mentioned, this often created numerical overloads in the center of the field and the chance for Orlando to occupy half spaces in the attacking third. In addition to the obvious attacking advantages that overloads provide, it also allowed for Orlando to effectively counterpress and attempt to quickly regain possession. As these overloads were often created around the ball, Orlando was free to apply pressure upon their loss of possession without having to be worried about a lack of defensive cover behind them. This allows Orlando to dominate possession in this match at a 61% clip.
In addition to the counterpressing benefits of this shape, Pareja and Orlando were also able to affect New England’s shape and limit their attacking options. Specifically, the movement of Smith higher up the field and Mueller inside impacted both of the left sided wide players in New England’s shape. Firstly, left winger Teal Bunbury was forced to retreat into a much deeper defensive position than is commonplace for a left winger in today’s game. It also often caused New England left back DeJuan Jones to follow Mueller inside so as to maintain a numerical advantage in the center of defense. If this movement between Bunbury and Jones did not happen, then New England would run the risk of Dike and Mueller creating a 2v2 against their central defenders. A good example of this is below.
As shown above the movement of Bunbury and Jones was effective defensively, it enabled Orlando to pin New England deep in their half as both the left winger and left back were not in positions to quickly launch counterattacks. It also limited Bunbury’s ability to attack even when New England were in possession as he often had large amounts of space to cover before taking up an effective attacking position.
Orlando City was effective in implementing this shape and forcing New England to adjust to them defensively. Despite this, they were largely unable to create good attacking chances against New England’s defense. This was due in large part to Orlando’s inability to access the central spaces of the field in attacking areas. Orlando had to settle for crosses and long diagonal balls to break down New England’s defense. While their only goal came from a situation caused by an effective diagonal ball, Orlando were not set up to attack in this manner and struggled to create opportunities with this strategy. New England were able to force Orlando to rely on crosses and diagonal balls thanks to a tactical nuance that we will discuss next.
New England Revolution’s Pressing Trap in Wide Areas
As mentioned, New England and manager Bruce Arena were able to devise a defensive scheme that allowed them to both frustrate Orlando City as well as prevent Orlando from accessing key central areas of the field and exploiting their numerical overloads. New England did this by making a concerted effort to force the ball into wide areas and keep it there. In doing so, it allowed New England to prevent Orlando from playing centrally as well as allowing New England to launch counterattacks from these wide areas.
New England was able to set up this pressing trap in two ways. Firstly, New England asked their striker Adam Buskas and their most advanced central playmaker, Gustavo Bou to help shepherd the ball into wide areas. Buskas and Bou did this with an effective use of their cover shadow once a member of the Orlando midfield or back three began advancing the ball on one side. Once this had begun to happen, Bou or Buskas would apply pressure while curving their run to set up a cover shadow that ensured the ball could only be progressed up that side. Below is a good example of Bou employing this cover shadow.
Once the ball had been advanced, New England was intent on keeping the ball wide. New England’s midfielders and defenders would often take up a position that allowed Orlando to progress the ball in the wide channel but did not allow for the ball to be moved centrally. New England were able to do this thanks to the pace their outside backs possess.
In addition, when the ball was played into central areas, the New England midfielders applied pressure that did not allow for the Orlando player receiving to turn and look to play to the other side. Instead, this Orlando player was forced to play in the same wide channel which allowed for New England to apply pressure where the majority of their defense had already shifted and slowly trap Orlando in these areas. A good example of this is below.
In addition to the obvious defensive benefits, this also allowed for New England to launch counterattacks from the wide areas when they won the ball. Thanks to their ability to move numbers into these wide areas, it allowed the players around the ball to quickly combine before launching forward. In addition, this allows New England to utilize the pace of their outside backs Jones and Buchanan as they are both immediately involved in the attack upon winning possession of the ball in wide areas. In fact, New England’s second goal came from Buchanan and Carles Gil teaming up to dispossess Nani in a wide channel before each bombed forward to create a chance ultimately finished off by Bou. You can see the emphasis of New England placed on winning the ball in wide areas below.
New England Revolution’s Build Up Shape
Despite only maintaining possession of the ball at a 39% clip, New England’s shape in possession is worth analyzing as it shows where they place emphasis while in possession and provides insight into how they have scored 7 goals in three games in the MLS Playoffs.
Similar to Orlando, New England often looked to employ a 3-5-2 shape in possession. However, the Revolution chose to achieve this back three shape by dropping a central midfielder in between the two centerbacks splitting wide. In this match, both Scott Caldwell and Matt Polster dropped between the centerbacks at times, this decision was usually made by who was closest to the back line and therefore the most efficient option to achieve this shape quickly. A good example of this shape is below.
Arena and his staff use this shape for two reasons. Firstly, it allows for the Revolution to get some of their best passers in Caldwell, Polster, Farrell and Kessler on the ball often. In addition and perhaps more importantly, it allows the Revolution to push their outside backs higher up the field without giving up defensive cover. In this match and the entirety of the playoffs, Arena has chosen both Jones and Buchanan at outside back to enable his side to most effectively use this shape. In fact, both Jones and Buchanan played as wide attackers in college before joining New England and possess all of the speed and attacking prowess of someone in that position. This is best exemplified by Buchanan’s contributions in the playoffs as he has one goal in addition to drawing a penalty and creating the second goal in this match. Good examples of both Buchanan and Jones joining the attack in advanced positions can be seen below.
This shape also allows for New England’s more creative central players to roam inside and find space to attack. Namely, Charles Gil and Goustavo Bou are the main beneficiaries of this shape as they both are given the freedom to roam inside and pick up the ball in dangerous areas. This also allows for New England to create numerical advantages in the central areas of the field which can be dangerous in attack.
In addition to the movement of Bou and Gil, this shape also allows Teal Bunbury to push higher up the field and provide support for the lone striker in Adam Buksa. This additional player in the New England front line is important as it helps occupy the opponents back line in order to create space for the likes of Gil and Bou as well as providing an additional central target for Jones and Buchanan to whip balls into.
While the Revolution struggled to keep hold of the ball in this match, the attacking shape they employed was effective in how they were able to present a threat to Orlando City.
This match was one of particular intrigue as two well known managers went toe to toe for a chance to play in the Eastern Conference Final. In the end, Arena and the Revolution were able to more effectively execute their game plan as they were able to use their pressing trap and pace on the outside to both frustrate Orlando as well as create opportunities for themselves. Orlando’s build up shape enabled them to dominate possession and at times control the game. However, their inability to penetrate in key areas prevented them from creating a multitude of goal scoring opportunities.
With their victory, New England advance to play the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference Final. Orlando have now begun their offseason and will look to improve on an impressive first campaign under Oscar Pareja.