MLS is Back: Why great coaching is the key

MLS, Orlando City, Oscar Pareja (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
MLS, Orlando City, Oscar Pareja (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /

The MLS is Back Tournament is nearly at the end of the group stages. And thus far, there is one obvious lesson to learn: great coaching, and the absence of it, is key.

It has been a fascinating start to the MLS is Back Tournament. The group stages are nearing their end and there have been plenty of storylines to follow throughout the competition thus far. From the uniqueness of the competition in regards to the lack of the supporters in the stadium to the Major League Soccer bubble, there has been plenty to learn from these opening matches.

However, above all, there is one obvious consequence from the excellent and shocking performances that different teams have produced: great coaching is key.

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The three most surprising and positive stories from the opening few games all hail from excellent coaching impact. The Columbus Crew have been the best team in the tournament. Across their first two games, they scored six goals, conceded none, and comfortably sit atop a group that contains two Eastern Conference playoff teams, one which they dispatched comfortably.

Of course, the Crew have terrific talent, especially following the offseason acquisitions of Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan to substantially bolster the central midfield, but at the heart of their success has been the cohesiveness of the 4-2-3-1 system. From Nagbe dictating play at the base of the midfield to the fluidity of the offensive trio in behind Gyasi Zardes, the Crew have played with wonderful fluency and movement off the ball. They are in-sync with one another. That stems from excellent coaching.

They are not the only team to benefit from having a cohesive system, however. Matias Almeyda’s San Jose Earthquakes will top Group B with seven points from nine. They went unbeaten in their three games, and even in the lone game they failed to win, a 0-0 draw against the Seattle Sounders, they entirely dominated and deserved more than just a point.

The Earthquakes’ success also hails from the brilliance of the system and not the talent of the players. In fact, Almeyda is largely working with the same squad that produced a historically poor 2018 campaign before he arrived.

But through implementing a brilliant, unique man-to-man-marking scheme which, when in the defensive phase, has nine of the ten outfield players man-mark an opposing player, with one remaining spare to sweep up the space in deep areas, his team has improved markedly, so much so that they are now considered one of the favourites to go far in the competition.

Also consider the improvements that Oscar Pareja has immediately inspired at Orlando City. In his first season, he has brought consistency, defensive resilience, and structure to a team that has painfully lacked all three ever since their MLS inception in 2015.

The opposite conclusion can also be drawn from the early goings of the MLS is Back Tournament. As of writing, Atlanta United seem set to crash out of the competition after losing their opening two matches, the second of which was to an FC Cincinnati side that set records for their disastrous expansion season and were spanked 4-0 by the Crew earlier in the competition. Frank de Boer has one of the best squads in MLS, even without Josef Martinez. And yet, when considering the shape and system he has used, it is difficult to determine what his overarching philosophy is. Atlanta are a poorly coached team.

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The MLS is Back Tournament, then, has catapulted the great coaches to prominence and exposed those who cannot assemble a team. And so, as the knockout stages loom, look out for the great coaches of MLS. They are the ones who will put their teams in positions to win.