- Jason Kuenle

As the US talent pool has developed, the league’s ability to attracted foreign players has increased, and the league generally has matured, the diversity of formations and tactics in MLS has grown. Successful tactics hinge on two primary factors: 1) the individual skills of a team’s players and 2) the tactics and skills of your opponent. In other words, soccer tactics is a chess match; you can make moves with your pieces, but to be effective, those moves need to take advantage of the openings being offered by your opponent. While I hope to analyze how opponent tactics and skills affect MLS formations throughout the summer, the more straightforward analysis is on the chess pieces themselves.

The relative cheapness of US talent is caused by a host of factors including MLS’ single entity structure, European foreign player limits, and the US not having a mother nation that has an expedited passport process for nationals of former colonies. These factor, combined with a limited number of foreign slots, create a dynamic that places a premium on using foreign talent to fill holes in US development. This allows an analysis of MLS players to be a approximate reflection on US player development. The first part of this analysis looks at where managers have most often looked for talent outside of the US to fill out their first team rosters.

MLS First Choice Players and National Origin
PositionNumberDomestic*US DevelopedForeignPercent
* Domestic includes Canadians playing in Canada and all US nationals

There are many difficulties in creating the list that underlies this chart (i.e. should a player be classified as a center mid or a defensive mid or who is first choice for San Jose right now), but I don’t believe that there is any systematic bias that brings the results into serious question. Not surprisingly, this chart reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the national team pool; depth on the right and in more defensive midfield positions, left midfield covered well by inverting a right footed midfielder, reasonable depth, though in transition, at centerback. Also, there is a noticeable lack of strikers, attacking midfielders (either in a No. 10 role or as a more attacking box-to-box midfielder), and left backs. It underscores that MLS coaches know the limitations of the domestic player pool and have done a reasonable job augmenting it.

With every team in MLS playing a two centerback system, it is perhaps easiest to explore the use of players as chess pieces there. Tangible examples of combinations possible can be seen in the pairings of Marshall-James, Ream-Marquez, and Borchers-Olave. In functionality, the Marshall-James pairing in function reminds me of the Marshall-O’Rourke pairing in the Crew’s double winning 2008 season. O’Rourke and James fill similar roles, with their strength in covering space balancing well with Marshall’s marking and aerial abilities. The combination of Ream and Marquez are likely the best passing centerback combo in league history. The quality of their deliveries helps create the fluid attacking style that Hans Backe has put together in New York. The aerial prowess of Olave and Borchers protects RSL from crosses played from wide spaces, the tactical area of weakness when playing a diamond midfield. These are all examples of how, on a most basic level, pieces work together.

The above examples intentionally use a domestic-international pairing. It, in part, highlights a lack of diversity in the US central defender player pool. While anecdote does not equal data, looking at Americans in MLS who played centerback throughout college gives us an idea about the development of domestic talent. By grouping these centerbacks in age ranges, we can compare the play style diversity of each age range. The below chart is approximately in order from oldest to youngest.

Age RangePlayers
28+Gregg Berhalter, Jimmy Conrad, Eddie Robinson, Jay DeMerit, Danny Califf, Cory Gibbs, Nat Borchers, Jeff Parke, Bobby Boswell, Scott Palguta
27-24Ryan Cochrane, Jason Hernandez, Ty Harden, Drew Moor, Steve Purdy, Bobby Burling, Chad Marshall, Greg Janicki, Eric Brunner, David Horst, Raushawn McKenzie, Matt Besler, Darrius Barnes
23-19Sean Alvarado, Kwame-Watson-Siriboe, Michael Holody, Chris Sculer, Tim Ream, A.J. DeLaGarza, Ike Opara, A.J. Soares, Omar Gonzalez, Jalil Anibaba, Ethan White, Sacir Hot

The 28+ crowd consists of a fairly uniform type of player; a bigger, stronger centerback who is good in the air and a solid interior defender. In the 25-28 range, you continue to see that model of defenders in Brunner, Marshall, and Janicki, but you all see the emergence of a “utility” defender. These defenders, like Moor, Besler, and Hernandez, while primarily centerbacks, have some positional flexibility allowing them to move more easily into side back or defensive midfielder roles. Within this same age range, the “utility” role also developed in the reverse as players like Marvell Wynne (age 25), Heath Pearce (26), and before he left the league Jonathan Bornstein (26) all moved in from the side, while players like Danny O’Rourke (27), Geoff Cameron (25), Brandon McDonald (25), Patrick Ianni (25), and George John (24) have moved back to central defense either temporarily or permanently. This should not be overly surprising as the earlier chart demonstrated that the US over produces defensive midfielders and right backs.

However, in the 19-23 age range, the central defenders more naturally reflect the diversity required of different tactical systems. While there is still the prototypical back of the 28+ crowd, in a back like Omar Gonzalez, the diversity of the younger backs means getting solid delivery out of the back, no longer a team to move a Geoff Cameron-type from the midfield, they can instead choose Tim Ream and not have to trade defensive training and experience for passing proficiency. A team looking for more speed in its central defensive pairing, no longer needs to pull in a Marvell Wynne-type player from the wing, but can choose Ike Opara or A.J. DeLaGarza.

Again, this is all anecdotal, but if what is occurring in the center back position also occurs throughout the field, it seems likely that MLS coaches will have an increasingly diverse set of players on which to draw on, especially taken in combination with the growing international stature of MLS. Hopefully, this increases the diversity of play, the diversity of systems that coaches are comfortable with implementing, and the development of unique styles of play within MLS. The process of having our domestic pool produce the full array of chess pieces is the gateway to formation flexibility both for MLS and ultimately for the USMNT.
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