Talking Tactics: Breaking down playoff teams

Formations, personnel will make or break each team's hopes

Landon Donovan DL

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Kansas City’s weekend loss has officially set the playoff field. Over the next week, MLSsoccer.com will publish quick synopses of how each team arranges itself tactically and a few words about why it works. (Feel free to clip and save.)

First, let's take a look at the four seeded teams — those that will finish first and second in their respective conferences. Next week we'll handle the rest.

Hint: The 4-4-2 will dominate the postseason, with two slight dissenters.

LA Galaxy: Personnel options aplenty

As far back as a decade ago, some soccer insiders began regarding the diamond-shaped midfield as passé. Never mind that Dominic Kinnear won two league titles using a midfield diamond, and that Real Salt Lake won using a diamond as the basic shape (even if it was just a loose starting point for Jason Kreis’ side).

Galaxy manager Bruce Arena loves his diamond, too. In his case, the basic shape is less predictable because he has abundant options. David Beckham has mostly played along the right but also in the middle. Brazilian midfielder Juninho has generally been on top of the diamond, but lined up once as a defensive anchor.

And there’s the weekly Landon Donovan decision: Where to station MLS’ reigning MVP? Last weekend it was as a withdrawn striker, tucked in behind Edson Buddle. But he’s mostly been a wide midfielder this year.

If a looming first-round matchup with Seattle comes true, would Donovan still be on the outside, where he would have to spend significant energy chasing the Sounders’ fleet wingers?

Real Salt Lake: A formless midfield that works

Kreis’ arrangement is a loosey-goosey 4-4-2. And it works.

The starting points look like this (moving clockwise): Kyle Beckerman sits deep, Will Johnson lines up left, Javier Morales rides the top of the diamond and Andy Williams or Ned Grabavoy sets up right. Johnson and the right-sider swing inside at will (but always with attention to offensive spacing). So possession becomes a weapon and, for opponents, locating the runners becomes problematic.

Johnson has jumped forward for goals this year and Grabavoy did the same last week, inserting himself into more goalscoring positions and notching a match-winner for his efforts. Fullbacks capable of attacking and forwards with a variety of skill sets all add up to lots of pressure on defenses.

New York Red Bulls: The value of the deep-lying playmaker

Manager Hans Backe hasn’t settled on the best way to use his three-headed attack monster (Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry and Mehdi Ballouchy). If he sticks with his 4-4-2, as expected, one of the three may be on the bench. Everything else looks settled, assuming good health for Rafa Márquez.

Márquez has become the MLS standard-bearer at deep-lying playmaker, helped greatly by the richness of the targets around him. Dane Richards’ speed on the right, Joel Lindpere’s energy and industry on the left, Henry’s ability to spot the early balls out of midfield and Ángel’s shrewd target play makes it all work.

So, the opponent that cuts off supply into Márquez will leave rookie Tony Tchani to pull the Red Bull strings—and that’s asking a lot. You can bet San Jose Earthquakes manager Frank Yallop is watching a little Red Bulls video this week; those teams are currently matched in the first round, although that could change based on results this week.

Columbus: Still a work in progress

Not much has changed around this team since Columbus won it all in 2008. It’s still a 4-4-1-1 system that revolves around Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s free role behind a striker.

But lately a stronger presence is missing from a second central midfielder alongside Brian Carroll. Adam Moffat’s effectiveness is way down, and Kevin Burns hasn’t shown himself to be quite up to the task yet. This creates a missing link into Schelotto.

So the Crew are limping to the finish line. Six weeks ago they were talking “Supporters’ Shield” on the banks of the Scioto River. Now they probably won’t even finish tops in the East.

Manager Robert Warzycha has options. Utility knife Eddie Gaven could play inside while attack-specialist Emmanuel Ekpo mans the outside. Robbie Rogers’ recent return along the left makes that possible.

Warzycha could deploy a 3-5-2 to get an extra midfielder as he did last Saturday in Toronto. Then again, he needed a goalkeeper to rescue the afternoon with a late equalizer, so maybe that’s not the best way forward.

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