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MLS: Style of Play Evolving Each Year

MLS offers physicality and technique in equal parts, but neither can be considered the elite level comparatively with the rest of the world.

Fabian Castillo

Major League Soccer is a league ever on the rise. Its measurable growth has seen the league expand into new markets, attract top quality players, and become a league of choice for U.S. internationals.

With the introduction of more and more technically gifted players, the league has seen a sort of shift in style. Where once pure speed and physicality dominated, there is now an added level of quality, especially in midfield, that has forced teams to be more adaptable as they face off against sides with stronger passing games.

Traditionally, Major League Soccer has been described as a “physical” league. The style of play that the league is most often associated with is a fast-paced, hard-tackling one, built around raw athletes rather than tactical, technical, football-savvy minds. The speed of play is a big determining factor to the league’s overall style; compared with the likes of the Italian Serie A, MLS is a blisteringly quick league, whereas in Italy, the game takes on a slower, more methodical approach.

You don’t have to look too hard to find examples of the difference; take, for instance, the speed at which defenders close down on players in possession of the ball in MLS and in Serie A. In Italy, players who gain possession often have roughly 5-10 seconds with the ball at their feet, longer if they should so choose; in MLS, those numbers are halved, with defenders or defensive-minded midfielders closing down on players with possession almost instantly.

This is mostly a result of parity and a dash of fear; players, specifically defenders, in MLS make up for a lack of technical savvy with raw athleticism. The result is often a more grueling defensive strategy that requires much more awareness, anticipation, and pure energy consumption. In Europe, the onus isn’t so much on the defenders to step in immediately as it is for the player in possession to make a mistake and give the ball away, come too close to a target, over or under hit a cross or a pass, or fail one-on-one against a defender.

This makes the general shape and rigidity of the back four much more important; teams like Chelsea or Bayern Munich rely on the individual physical talents of their defenders working in tandem with the vision and creativity needed to perform defensive maneuvers, such as the offside trap.

MLS has slowly but effectively improved in this regard; teams that once amalgamated various defensive parts are now building back fours that function as one cohesive unit. Aided, often, with defensive midfielders like Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, or Osvaldo Alonso, these defensive lines are working together better and better with each passing season.

Offensively, the league continues lacking in two areas though; there remain few wingers of any true danger in MLS, and attacking midfielders are also at somewhat of a premium. The latter trend has changed rapidly, with the introduction of Kaká, Sebastian Giovinco, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and various South American players like Pedro Morales in Vancouver, and slowly, teams are shifting to accommodate these second strikers in 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 shapes.

But it is the first weakness that MLS teams have yet to address. Apart from Landon Donovan, the league has seen very few successful, high-quality wingers. Nor has the league seemingly gone after high quality wingers, and, for that matter, haven’t really been linked with them either; whereas the rumors of players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Didier Drogba, etc. are seemingly always playing out during transfer seasons, one does not often hear players like Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery or other wide players in the same way.

The “best” wingers in MLS right now include players like Fabian Castillo, David Accam and U.S. international Graham Zusi. His teammate for the national team, DeAndre Yedlin, was another top prospect but has moved on to Tottenham Hotspur. The Montreal Impact invested in Ignacio Piatti, a left midfielder/winger by trade, and he instantly provided the team with a lift in their offensive movement.

More teams will follow in this trend in the coming seasons, too. It’s not to say there aren’t established wide players in the league. Guys like Brad Davis at Houston and Darlington Nagbe for Portland have been around for a few years now. But, this position is not addressed with nearly the urgency as is displayed when picking up, say, centre forwards or central midfielders.

Part of the reason for this is because the teams in the league doesn’t really go after central forwards that rely on service out wide, so much as these clubs look for transitions up the core. It’s why players like Bradley Wright-Phillips, Robbie Keane, or Dom Dwyer succeed; the service they receive is varied, yes, but largely comes from connecting build up play rather than a swooping overhead cross that they head home or tap in.

Essentially, what MLS now has is a league style somewhere in the middle, where physicality and technique are important in equal parts, but where neither can be considered the elite level comparatively with the rest of the world. As the global game changes, too, MLS teams will also grow and change, but gone are the days, it seems, of sloppy football. Now is the era where we might just see a bit of magic on the field in MLS.

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