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Major League Soccer: Who had the best of the tactical battles in the opening exchanges?

It’s still early days in the MLS but after the first rounds of matches, it’s notable for some very cagey games and for the fact that all of the sides who have played two games, only FC Dallas has a 100% record of two wins from two.

New boys New York City aren’t, as yet, missing their midfield general Frank Lampard as they sit on top of the early table but as the campaign wears on, the former England international will be vital for his goals and possibly for bringing the best out of the man who sits in front of him at the head of the attack.

Isolated David Villa

It might well be the issue that proves key to NYCFC’s first season as an MLS team. How do you create chances for David Villa? So far the striker has been largely isolated since donning the blue shirt, but he has shown if you do get the supply to him, he will score. His one goal, from just two shots, represents the fact that Spain’s top scorer is as sharp as ever. In the first game against NYRB however he looked frustrated at the lack of service, and inability to get support.

Against New England he still had to do it all on his own, turning in a trademark run from the left before cutting in, playing a one-two and then finishing in typically cool fashion. Villa needs more bodies around him, but given the number of new faces in the team, it could well take time. It’s a 4-4-2 system currently being employed, and both ends of the field it looks to have issues. Behind the ball the team looks open with just two bodies in the centre of midfield, and little support for the full-backs. Mix Diskerud in the double midfield pivot has been playing well however, but it’s a position he still needs to grow more into and begin to dominate opponents’ midfields within.

Lampard’s duties with Manchester City will now run into the end of May after a much publicised and controversial switch to the Etihad. Could his arrival be the key to unlocking Villa’s potential?

The American Guardiola

Caleb Porter has indeed been compared to Pep Guardiola in the sense of how he likes his teams to be set up, retain possession, and be patient. However, it seems this season Porter will take his Portland Timbers team down a more direct route. The 2-2 with LA Galaxy showed this, as both goals came via those means. A counter attack, relying upon pace and power, then a long ball, flung forward down the throat of Galaxy’s defence. It’s an interesting change, and one that should be watched across the course of the season.

Things will get even more interesting when Diego Valeri returns. Porter prefers a 4-2-3-1 when he’s fit, but when not, it’s a more traditional 4-4-2. With such limitations in the squad, Porter clearly feels there is no one to substitute directly for Valeri. Having these alternate plans could well help the Timbers down the road, as they at times, become extremely predictable and lethargic with the ball.

Wingers and full-backs taking precedence.

Despite being seen as a retirement league by many, MLS has been blessed in recent years with some fine athletes. The likes of DeAndre Yedlin prove this, and given his high energy displays Spurs saw it fit to sign the electric full back and make him understudy to Kyle Walker at White Hart Lane. Therefore, it’s no surprise to see lots of wide play over the opening two weekends. Wingers are still prominent in play, and rather than cut inside the aim is to make pitches as wide as possible. Full-backs too are encouraged to join the attack, and offer overlaps. 4-3-3 is an especially intriguing system for this, but too few are using it currently, perhaps concerned with the defensive side of the formation. Speed, power and general physical prowess are integral to MLS, not just slow 30-something players using their time to wind down their careers. This is a developing league designed to make the US a major force in World soccer and not a retirement home for those looking for one last big pay check.

Tactics still an uncharted area

For the most part however the opening game rounds have brought little surprise in terms of innovation, or even alternative, compared with the league in previous years. However, this is a new era of MLS, and if it did happen, then this would be the time. The difficulty is with so many new franchises coming into play, plus the hard overhaul of players, it’s difficult to get continuity with systems or individuals. New York City FC were indeed guilty of this, and in a major part, it’s not their fault.

4-4-2 remains the favoured system, with some variations morphing into a 4-2-3-1. A higher influx of European talent, plus managerial arrivals from the continent, could well bring about change too. For now however the tried and tested methods remain pertinent in MLS, though it is interesting to see the likes of Caleb Porter aiming to prove innovation can take place.

Meanwhile, although players such as Lampard and Gerrard are considered veterans in their own country, their experience will prove invaluable in making this a better league all round.

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