MLS Cup 2021: A Tactical Preview

Another year of MLS Cup is upon us. And in true MLS fashion both the finalists — Portland Timbers and NYCFC — were No. 4 seeds heading into the playoffs.

Here, let’s talk about some formational differences between the two squads and how patterns of play might shape up on Saturday.

The 4-2-3-1

Both sets of managers prefer some variation of the 4-2-3-1, but the similarities stop there. On a basic level, NYCFC play much narrower, with the fullbacks adding both the defensive and attacking width for the team. Meanwhile, Portland’s “wide midfielders” play more like high and wide wingers, offering support around the corners of the opposing penalty area, as opposed to NYCFC’s who supplement midfield creativity.

New York’s Jesus Medina in particular enjoys drifting into the center so that the right fullback has plenty of space the play with down the flank.

New York City FC and the Portland Timbers play for the MLS Cup on Saturday

On the Portland side of this, much of their more direct patterns of play utilize diverse runs from the striker and two wide midfielders. Typically, the ball will play into the channel to the midfielder, they will bring it down and move it centrally where the mirrored player on the opposite has cut in, and the striker has spun out into the channel.

Y. Chara and Mora’s Rotation

Due to New York’s more confined midfield approach, Yimmi Chara and Felipe Mora will most likely rely on rotation between themselves in order to create confusion.

Chara and Mora are both good at taking turns drifting out wide left, freeing up space for the two deeper midfielders to press, and to allow the left-sided midfielder to come all the way in across the penalty area.

Another point of that rotational area includes — of course — Sebastian Blanco, who can peel off into the diagonal space in times that Chara and Mora are swapping positions. All this will create a lot of pressure particularly on New York’s Alexander Callens, who may need additional help from one of the two midfielders behind Maxi Moralez.

The tempo will be established early on as to whether New York bunkers into that field positioning in order to combat that triangular creativity, or if Portland manager Giovanni Savarese will focus on dedicating efforts to exploit that space.

Moralez’s Positioning

New York’s Maxi Moralez is used to going up against two deep-lying midfielders in games. Although he has struggled when the pairing both play as No. 6s. Portland’s Cristhian Paredes is much less conservative than his partner Diego Chara, but Savarese has the opportunity to muffle Moralez’s attacking ability if he can get a composed Parades on Saturday.

If Moralez is forced to come deeper to get the ball, that can kill the speed at which New York can attack, but it also means Portland are ultimately forfeiting the midfield. The key advantage in the midfield here will fall on which team can play a higher defensive line and pin the other team back the quickest.

The first quarter of an hour should give a solid notion as to which team is willing to commit to that winning principle first.

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