New England Make the Right Adjustment, Columbus’s New Tactical Wrinkle, and More on MLS Week Four

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COLUMBIS, OH - MARCH 25: Justin Meram #9 of Columbus Crew SC celebrates scoring a goal in the first half of the game between the Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on March 25th 2017. (Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Minnesota United have allowed at least five goals in three of their first four games, including a 5-2 defeat on the road against New England on Saturday. While it is true that they were missing a number of players for various reasons, MNUFC have, for the moment, secured the title of “worst team in MLS” and it’s not really close. It’s disappointing, because their roster should not be that bad, and their roster-building method was respectable.

New England Make the Right Adjustment, Columbus’s New Tactical Wrinkle, and More on MLS Week Four

Where are the positives for them right now? Here are a few, some weaker than others:

  • Christian Ramirez is pretty good. He has two goals and an assist in 291 minutes of play so far this season, and has been, by far, their best player. Expect to see plenty more goals out of Ramirez, who has a Cyle Larin-like knack for pulling goals out of every final third possession.
  • So is Kevin Molino, and Johan Venegas, and, eventually, No. 1 draft pick Abu Danladi. There’s talent there; they just haven’t had the opportunities for various reasons.
  • They’ve played one game in a monsoon, another in a literal blizzard, and one without almost a majority of their regular starters. They also scored two goals and pulled a point out of a match in Colorado, something no MLS team has done since October 4th, 2015. Just as unrealistically impressive results are unsustainable, 5-1 losses in Antarctica aren’t either.
  • They have three DP slots available. At least one will almost certainly be used this summer. Just hope they scout better this time.

Adrian Heath has A LOT of problems to solve, and Minnesota have a long way to go until they are an acceptable MLS side. But it’s not all bad.

Here are some other thoughts on the (brief) MLS weekend:

New England find their triangle

New England’s 4-4-2 diamond formation, new this year, never found much of a rhythm over their first two matches despite the obvious talent. The primary reason was the tactical decision from manager Jay Heaps to play Juan Agudelo as a No. 10 and move Lee Nguyen forward next to Kei Kamara up top.

Agudelo is a striker, and Nguyen is a No. 10, which is why the switch didn’t work. Their best creator was put in a position he is unfamiliar with and one of their best goal-scorers was moved away from the goal. It never really made much sense.

Heaps recognized that on Saturday against Minnesota. In a free-flowing attacking system, Agudelo was allowed to move up top and Nguyen was able to go into midfield, and as we learned on Friday with the US national team, playing players in their correct positions pays off.

The trio combined for four goals en route to a thorough decimation of the visiting United. While it is important not to take too much away from this game (for reasons explained above), the switch will make the Revs considerably better assuming Heaps sticks with it.

Diego Fagundez, who also had a magnificent game, explained to New England Soccer Today after the game that he believed Agudelo is in fact a No. 9: “I think Juan’s really a number 9 and not a number 10 and then when you have Lee in there we can find more movement and the attack flows a little bit better,” Fagundez said.

In addition, Heaps confirmed the switch and laid out, in a nutshell, the tactical reasons for it.

“We did that by design just to get a little bit more for Lee underneath and we felt like there were going to be gaps in the midfield and I thought we had a really good first half,” said Heaps, per the website linked to above. “It put Juan in a really good position to score a couple goals.”

Nguyen did indeed find considerably more gaps in the places he likes to work. Allowed to have the ball underneath the strikers, he capitalized on the space opened by the strikers, rather than have to create the space himself. Thus, he had players to pass to:

With Nguyen able to play his best, Agudelo was as well. He scored two goals and was a nuisance all day for Minnesota’s backline, running the channels and playing off of Kamara’s expert hold-up play.

5-2 results aren’t sustainable, but the types of chances they created are. They face a tough test next week in Portland.

Columbus throw in a new tactical wrinkle

Earlier this season, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola invented a new position: the inverted full back. The inverted full back’s job is to pinch into the midfield while in secure possession to add numbers centrally and help to advance the ball forward, eventually joining the attack either on the overlap or as a secondary creator.

Gregg Berhalter, running his own possession-based squad, added the inverted full back to his tactical repertoire on Saturday, the first MLS manager to do so. Right back Harrison Afful, one of the better attacking full backs in the league, often stepped into midfield while the Columbus Crew were building out of the back.

What made it unique from Guardiola’s approach was that Afful would pinch well higher up the field, and would immediately act as a distributor to No. 10 Federico Higuain, who found tons of space to work as a direct result.

Here’s an example:

Afful to Higuain to Ethan Finlay, who had plenty of space to work before a nice tackle from Amobi Okugo. It worked all game, and the Crew managed to beat Portland 3-2 at home.

The Crew can do it in part because of defensive midfielder Wil Trapp. His tendency to drop deep between the center backs to help facilitate possession gives Columbus, effectively, a back-three, which then allows Afful the freedom to take up positions centrally. It’s a really clever idea from Berhalter.

This kind of tactical creativity is what will give you longevity in this league, and it will also give you success. Props to Berhalter doing it, and we’ll see how other MLS teams adjust to it.

Final thoughts

— This Tyler Adams kid is really good. The talk of US soccer recently has been the play of the New York Red Bulls’ 18-year old central midfielder Tyler Adams. He played alongside Felipe in the Red Bulls’ 0-0 draw with Real Salt Lake on Saturday, and was, um, pretty solid:

With Sean Davis right there with Adams in central midfield, Felipe is now officially an armchair-general-manager trade target.

— Fanendo Adi is also really good. Portland lost on Saturday, but it was not due to a lack of trying from Fanendo Adi, who continues to look more and more like a Premier League player with every ridiculous finish like this one.

Adi has long been mentioned as a prime sell-on target for the Timbers due to his big frame, soft feet, and exquisite goal-scoring ability. It was basically confirmed that Portland is thinking the same way when they traded up to draft Jeremy Ebobisse in January’s SuperDraft, and now they just wait for the right offer.

— Where are Real Salt Lake? RSL have one goal and two points in four games this season, and nobody other than backup goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel has looked particularly good.

Granted, they’ve faced some injury concerns — Justen Glad, Jordan Allen, Joao Plata, etc. — but they’ve basically sleepwalked through the first four weeks of the season. They didn’t even have the customary one week of glory after the firing of their manager, Jeff Cassar.

They’ve especially struggled to deal with the absence of winger Burrito Martinez, who got homesick and returned to Argentina in the offseason. His and Plata’s skillfulness on the wing was RSL’s entire game-plan last season, and without an element of that, they haven’t been able to create the same opportunities. Javier Morales replacement Albert Rusnak hasn’t done the job.

The solution should be to switch to a 4-4-2 and play Plata as a second forward. It would push Rusnak out of his preferred position in midfield, but it might be worth it if it allows their best player (Plata) to play his best position.

— The next USL-to-MLS player you haven’t heard of. Saturday’s USL opener between the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and New York Red Bulls II was a barnburner. It finished 3-3 at Pittsburgh’s Highmark Stadium, with the Hounds scoring three equalizers.

Two of their goals were netted by forward Corey Hertzog, who looks to have the MLS goods in him. The 26-year old Reading, Pennsylvania native scored 13 goals last season, good for third in the USL, and did this against NYRBII:

D.C. United d-mid Rob Vincent made the transition smoothly between the Riverhounds and MLS, so why not Hertzog?

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