In the past month, Bayern Munich and Liverpool have won their league titles and European football is looking to calm down. In more important news, however, MLS has come back to the shores of American land. While the health issues having taken place during a pandemic that seems to worsen is certainly questionable, what isn’t questionable is the fight that will occur during the tournament. With only two games being played when the tournament was shut down, many clubs and players have had ample time to rest and scout their opponents.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll look at three such clubs that are returning to the tournament: FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders FC, and Nashville SC. We’ll look at their playing styles, strengths, and weaknesses through the lenses of statistics and tactics.
We’ll start this analysis by looking at FC Dallas who will look to have a positive performance under head coach Luchi Gonzalez.
Under Gonzalez, FC Dallas normally play a 4-2-3-1 and have a distinctive style of playing. Before we get into their tactics, let’s analyse their statistics in these metrics.
Here we see goals scored, shown in red, versus expected goals, shown in grey, for the team in each game week. The most important thing to notice here is that FC Dallas, during the last season, overperformed on their xG regularly. In all competitions, FC Dallas recorded an xG of 53.84 and ended up scoring 62 goals – a differential of 8.16 goals.
Admittedly – this came under Gonzalez’s first season and some turbulence was to be expected but for Dallas to overperform their expected metrics by such an amount is a testament to their attacking abilities.
Looking at PPDA – a metric that tells us how much a team presses or gets pressed – for each game week, we see that mostly, FC Dallas’ PPDAs are below 10. The lower the PPDA, the more pressing and, generally, the more energetic the team is. With Dallas’ young squad, Gonzalez wants his team to press and regain the ball more.
Looking at recoveries of the ball in the three sections of the pitch for each game week, Dallas show themselves to be efficient pressors of the ball. Most teams record recoveries in their own third, low recoveries, with the number dropping the higher up we go. However, as we see here, Dallas actually record similar amounts of recoveries in the midfield which is a testament to the low PPDA and Gonzalez’s general desire to get the ball back as quickly as possible.
With the statistical analysis out of the way, we’ll look at the tactics of Dallas.
Lining up in their 4-2-3-1, Dallas seek to build-up from the back as many possession-based teams. Their two full-backs push up with pivot lining up to progress the ball from the defence to the attack.
Here we see an example of their build-up. The two full-backs have pushed up and the centre-backs separate themselves from the middle to create width in the pitch. We see one member of the pivot between the centre-backs to help out in progression of the ball.
One thing that becomes immediately clear is that the boys from Dallas are very comfortable in possession. While the average league possession percentage is 46%, Dallas have an average possession percentage of 56% – a marked increase. Seeing that all players are very comfortable and technical with the ball, it means that oftentimes Dallas are able to get out of sticky situations with their football.
With their possession, Dallas’ main areas for attack are the wing areas. While Dallas use their buildup to break opponent’s lines, their main attacking forte lies in the wing areas.
In a 4-2-3-1, Dallas are able to put three players near the wings with one full-back, one central-defensive midfielder, and one attacking midfielder. This means that various times, Dallas are able to create numerical superiority on the wing flanks. There, their technicality comes into play as the side are able to compress the attack into small spaces and create space elsewhere.
Here is an example of Dallas’ aforementioned strategy. In this example, the full-back is on the touchline, the left attacking midfielder up ahead with the central defensive midfielder back to form a triangle. In doing so, they involve the opposition’s players in a narrow space which creates space ahead of them and in the centre – both of which can be exploited.
Complementing this numerical play near the wings are the nature of the defenders. The defenders of Dallas are hardly complacent. Rather, they are very fast in their progression and switching of possession from side to side. As soon as they get the ball, the centre-backs immediately look towards their full-backs.
Doing so creates one of Dallas’ favourite attacking routines where the centre-back will pass to the full-back. When the ball reaches the wing, the central-defensive midfielder and attacking-midfielder will collapse near for passing options. As soon as the full-back passes the ball, he will make an onward run behind the defence where he is greeted by a pass from his teammates.
Here we have an example where Dallas have created a triangle on the wings which has brought the opposition’s players closer together. This has created space between up ahead which Dallas seek to utilise and punish. In the following frames, the full-back passes to the central defensive midfielder who plays a forward pass into the space ahead.
In a few moves, Dallas have been able to disrupt the midfield lines and create space for them in the wings to attack.
When Dallas reach the final third on the wing-flanks, their favourite options are low crosses and cut-backs. On their left-hand side, Dallas have Ryan Hollingshead who I analysed among the other MLS full-backs and concluded that he is one of the best-attacking full-backs in the league. Regardless of full-backs, Dallas are very comfortable playing these low crosses and with their attack movement, can cause big problems for defences.
This ability to quickly exploit the wing flanks is one of Dallas’ strong points and the mannerisms which they apply near there are very fluid and can be dangerous if not dealt with properly.
This picture is a key example of how Dallas can punish teams quickly. Here, all three players are marked by an opposition player. However, some quick passing allows one of the players to turn their body which allows for a through-ball into the area.
When you give Dallas the space to attack, they are very precise. Here, the full-back needles a precise low cross to an arriving Dallas player who suddenly has a lot of space in the penalty area which is exactly what Dallas seek to derive from their attacks.
The wing combinations often open the centre up and with Dallas’ presence of central defensive midfielders nearby, Dallas can easily wiggle their way out and quickly spread the play out. Once their play spreads out, Dallas’ forwards are very active and fluid. Jesus Fereira, Michael Barrios, and Paxton Pomykal are the main linking figures in their attacks.
When either of the three gets the ball, the other two are very fast and intelligent to quickly either make runs or make short up-and-back routines that allow them to go past defences. While Fereira, Barrios, and Pomykal are the main men at the top, the linkup play up there is fluid and occurs off-centre.
In essence, these link-up plays don’t occur in the centre but often lean towards the half-space to left or right. The advantage of this is that when the attacking play starts happening, the opposition defence gets drawn inwards which leaves space for the bombarding full-backs. As we’ve discussed, Dallas are very good and incisive at crossing.
Here we see an example of their fluidity. Dallas constrict the left-hand side of the opposition’s defence with their trio of attackers which creates a gap in the defence. Here the forward quickly makes a blindside run into that space which is met by Barrios’ pass and Dallas almost score a goal without a fast and intelligent movement.
Here Fereira, the ‘7’, and Barrios come together to disrupt the opposition’s defence which creates space on the wings. With the full-back bombarding forward, Fereira recognises the pass and plays a lofted pass to unlock the opposition’s defence.
Looking at metrics, Dallas record 15.7 crosses per game compared to the league-average of 12.90. Looking deeper, Dallas record 4.97 deep completed crosses – crosses that put teammates within 20 metres of the goal – which is higher than the league average of 3.8. Clearly, Dallas are much better at crossing than most teams and they will hurt you.
That being said, there are weaknesses to Gonzalez’s team. The back-line is generally loose and is suspect to counters that catch them out of their transition from defence to attack. Another problem for Dallas is the space between their midfield and defence is often quite big. With their fast, passing football, the midfield often leaves their defenders open. Compounding this problem with the problem of counterattacking means that Dallas aren’t the best at stopping shots.
In this example, Dallas were caught out of their buildup and are under a counter-attack. In this case, the defence is sitting near the penalty area while the midfield is some distance away which allows the opposition to get a player right between the lines. Situations like this occur too many times when Dallas are under threat from counter-attacks.
After FC Dallas, we’ll move onto the MLS Champions of last year: Seattle Sounders. Under Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders have become a very tough team to play no matter what style you play.
Their squad profile and energy in their tactics means that the Sounders ensure that you work yourself to your absolute best to get wins. Before we get into the tactics, let’s have a look at the statistics.
Schmetzer is a big fan of a 4-2-3-1 as it allows him to nicely configure defence and attack and seeing how the Sounders play, more on that later, it also works in their favour to be a tough team.
In this analysis of goals, shown in red, and xG, shown in grey, for each game week, we say that Sounders repeatedly overperform on their xG. Most of the time, the Sounders either overperform or perform in line with their expected goals. However, a note of caution that this doesn’t mean that Sounders are amazing attacking-wise.
As you’ll see, they have many troughs recording 0 goals. What makes Sounders tough to play offensively is how they approach their attacks and scoring chances but more on that later.
Looking at their PPDA, we see a noticeable difference in relation to our previous team. While FC Dallas was on the more aggressive of things, we see that the Sounders are a bit more mixed. While they do normally play with a low PPDA – meaning less sitting back and being more proactive – they also have matches with very high PPDA – sitting back more and being less proactive.
This tells us that unlike other teams who adhere to one style, the Sounders are a team that is adaptable to teams and can change their tactics to suit their opponent.
While Dallas were great at recovering balls in the middle, Sounders take the pressing and recovering game to another level, recording, on average, 30 recoveries in the middle third. Their defensive recoveries are higher than normal with the Sounders recovering 34 times in the defensive third compared to the league average of 30.
In dissecting Sounders’ attack, they turn their 4-2-3-1 into a 3-5-2 with one of the full-backs, normally on the left-hand side, staying with the defence with the other full-back, usually the one on the right-hand side, going high up as a wing-back.
In this formation, the key to the attack lies in the positionings of the three midfielders and the lone striker – Raúl Ruidíaz. The midfielders supporting have specific and important roles. Normally the trio consists of Jordan Morris, Nicolás Lodeiro, and Cristian Roldan although the cast can change in rotation.
What is important is that the most advanced and central of the trio goes up and stays near Ruidiaz. The other two shift to the left and right half-spaces and always look to be the widest they can be in this space. Most often, one midfielder will be afforded the liberty to also shift to the wings. On the other side, the other midfielder will stay around the half-space so the full-back on his side can make overlapping runs.
Here is a prime example of the positioning of the midfielders. The left-hand side midfielder shifts to the wing as his side full-back has stayed with the defence. On the right-side, the other midfielder stays in the halfspace. This occupies the opposition full-back, shown in blue, which allows the full-back to make an overlapping run and get behind the lines.
These positions allow Sounders to pin opponents and widen pitch simultaneously which creates gaps in the spaces of the defence.
Integral to this play is Ruidiaz who acts in the same mould as Roberto Firmino of Liverpool FC. He regularly drops deep to help in attacking play while the midfielders beside use their halfspace positioning to run in behind defences and widen play. Additionally, since the Sounders play with a five-man defence at times, Ruidiaz becomes a trusty outlet who’ll run after every long ball, relentlessly press, and force errors.
Here Ruidiaz drops to the midfield level and immediately plays a cross-field pass to Morris. This ability for Ruidiaz to drop deep, help out in attacking play, and be a reliable outlet for long-balls makes him a very dangerous weapon for the Sounders. His nickname, ‘La Pulga’, stems from his ability to wriggle out of tight spaces, find his teammates, and then run on to the end of crosses.
Ruidiaz’s intensity and energy keep the Sounders’ attack going and sets the theme of how Sounders attack. They might not be a traditional possession team but they move the ball fast and all the players are constantly moving, consistently hunting down every aerial duel, and misplaced pass.
Here, the Sounders have just played a corner and normally, teams run back to get into shape. The Sounders realize that the ball has been played into an awkward position and immediately start pressing with the right-most player forcing most of the press.
Seattle immediately reap the rewards as they regain the ball high up and in a moment where the opposition was still setting for attack. The player finds Morris with a low cross and Seattle almost end up scoring a goal – a prime example of their intensity and energy.
Through the positioning and intensity, Sounders like to use various wing combinations to create space in the centre and the wings. With their high-energy midfielders and full-backs, Sounders look to exploit the wings to widen the pitch. This allows them to attack the centre at the same time they have their full-backs attack the wings.
Here we see a wing combination through the full-back, central defensive midfielder, and an attacking midfielder. The opposition has been brought inwards which has created space on the wings where the attacking midfielder can run into and progress the attack.
With their advantage of wings and midfielders, Sounders can pin defenders with their wide midfielders. This opens up the wings for the full-backs who can make precise and dangerous crosses. Ruidiaz’s presence in the centre can also pin defenders as he does have a reputation in the league and due to that, late runs can be made into the box to get on the end of cut-backs.
Just when you think the Sounders are tired, they have the ability to spring lightning fast counter-attacks. This second arsenal is exhausting for teams as it keeps them guessing as how they will attack.
Despite their great displays and a mentality that refuses to give up, Sounders have shown defensive deficiencies. When Sounders defend, they drop into a compact 5-3-2 – looking to limit spaces for the opposition. Like any good defence, it requires good communication with all the players.
At times, the Sounders leave spaces between the wing-back and the centre-back on one side due to how the Sounders like to attack with one and defend with the other. Due to the attacking personality of the full-back, the defensive structure isn’t always the best on his side and as such, smart teams can penetrate the sturdy defence.
Here is a prime example of the above scenario. The full-back on the left side is the more attacking one and isn’t in line as he should be. The midfielders don’t cover that space quite as well which allows the opposition to insert runners behind the defence.
However, on the whole, Sounders have a sturdy defence. The team had the 5th best defence in the Western Conference and the 8th best defence in the whole league so it’s always going to be hard for teams to get past the Sounders.
This year’s new team are Nashville SC who are continuing their team from the USL Championship last year. Nashville SC’s coach Gary Smith has previously coached the Colorado Rapids. Their performance in the MLS is something of a new territory however we can yield much of how they will play through their performance in the USL.
Normally, Nashville play a 4-4-1-1 under Smith going for a more traditional formation.
We’ll start by looking at the goals, in red, and xG, in grey, side of things. We can see that Nashville aren’t as prolific in front of goal as they have many games where they score zero goals or one goals. This doesn’t mean that they’re bad – rather they’re not the most goal-scoring team in the USL and will not be in the MLS.
Looking at their PPDA, one thing becomes clear – Nashville SC love to press. Their PPDA is the lowest out of the teams in this article which indicates that Nashvilla are a really proactive team and energetic team. They will consistently press you in efforts to get the ball back. As we’ll see later on, this approach helps them but also hurts them.
The message of their energetic team playing style is echoed in this graph of measuring recoveries as well. Just like the Sounders and Dallas, Nashville SC record really high midfield recoveries indicating that they really know how to press and and get the ball near the midfield.
With the statistics out of the way, let’s analysed tactics of the new MLS team.
If there is one thing that stands out for Nashville SC, it is their pressing intensity. Nashville really go out for the ball and try to get it as quickly. The structure behind the press is at times chaotic however there is not doubt that Nashville apply great pressure – especially in the final third. The team recorded 19 recoveries high up compared to the league average of 12.
This example is good scenario of Nashville’s high energy games. Here the opposition team are in the build-up phase and Nashville spot an error and pounce on it with 4 players surrounding the two players in order to get the ball.
In addition to this high energy gamestyle, Nashville’s main strategy for attacking seems to be using their wingers. In Nashville’s attacking structure, the wingers stay wide and this width provided by wingers is consistently used. As soon as Nashville get the ball, their first thought is to look towards the wingers and if they are not found, then Nashville use their full-backs and midfielders to pull the team inwards to find the wingers.
Here we see the frontline of Nashville where the wingers stay very wide. This wide positioning causes them to pin the full-backs and drag them away from the central defenders. By doing this, Nashville can create space in the centre from where they normally shoot. Here, the winger’s run has created a considerable gap between the defenders and late runners can come to fill it.
If they can’t find their wingers through passes like the example before, then Nashville will take their time to make the gaps appear. Here we see a diamond structure from Nashville which draws in the full-back and the supporting midfielder of the opposition. This creates space, shown in purple, ahead of the full-back but also beside as the supporting midfielder is also drawn.
With a few passes, Nashville can go behind the defence and look for cut-backs and the crosses.
Here’s a more refined example of why Nashville want to seek out their wingers and get them in 1v1s. These situations allow Nashville to pull the full-back out and introduced runners into the central space from which they have high chances of scoring.
For all their high energy games and wing usage, Nashville are weak in certain areas. Obviously, the MLS’ level is higher than that of USL but it is worth noting that Nashville had the best defence last year with only 26 goals conceded in 34 games. However, it’s worth looking at their weaknesses in lieu of how MLS teams might exploit them.
Nashville often defend in a 4-4-2 / 4-5-1 prioritizing blocking space in the midfield than blocking space in the defensive third. In doing so, some approaches from Nashville are lacking at times.
Oftentimes, Nashville leave big spaces in between their defenders due to how high their full-backs play. This high and attacking nature exposes them in areas where the midfielders aren’t close enough to help the full-back out.
In addition to them being vulnerable near the full-backs in their own defence, the excessive pressing and energy of Nashville often leaves gaps in their formation as some part of the team presses while the other doesn’t. As such, their powerful tool can also be their downfall as when they do get found out via pressing, they unravel fast.
In this tactical preview, we have covered two teams from Group B, FC Dallas and Seattle Sounders, and one team from Group A, Nashville SC. We’ve seen their attacking plans, their pressing styles, metrics, and defensive styles.
One thing is certain that the tournament will be a delight to watch as fresh teams with fresh players seek to battle out it from the beginning.