Major League Soccer is a fascinating league to watch, presenting a strange, unique brand of football which has both its very clear strengths and weaknesses openly on display. Graced by world-renown names and stars of former years, the technical, attacking quality of the MLS is at a really high level, and yet is faced off against a defensive and goalkeeping core still seemingly in its developmental infancy.
Match after match, MLS supporters watch as the technically-gifted forwards and creative players of the league run rings round defenders often struggling with some of the more basic elements of top level football. Positioning and tactical defending seems yet to become properly rooted into MLS defences, and as such there is almost always an abundance of space and opportunity for the opposition attackers.
Goalkeepers too seem yet to embrace the more dominant, commanding role that they have undertaken around much of the footballing world – particularly in Europe. Too often in MLS football, the man between the sticks seems glued to the goal line.
A goalkeeper charging from his line, rising high above his defenders and claiming a cross is an iconic image of good defending in football, and a sight which often puts his defenders at greater ease.
For the American top flight, that seems to very rarely happen. Instead, it’s almost a desperate, wait-and-see situation whereby they remain steadfast between their sticks, simply waiting to frantically bat away any incoming efforts on goal.
That’s not the way the game needs to be played if the United States wants to continue its meteoric rise up through the global footballing standings. It’s not a style that you see in top leagues in Europe and beyond, and for good reason – it’s simply poor goalkeeping.
It invites on pressure, and does little to help their defenders – who in the MLS are facing a crisis all of their own.
Positioning is certainly the most egregious of the problems with MLS defending of present. Tactical intelligence is something that not every footballer or coach naturally has, but it is something that should be aspired to learn. Knowing and identifying early where the danger is going to be coming from is a necessary skill in forming a potent defence. Players must be proactive in their defending, rather than reactionary.
Take one of the top defenders in the world right now, Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk. The Dutchman is a top defender technically and physically, no doubt, but one of his greatest strengths is his understanding of the game. It is what sets him apart and onto that next level, the brain in his head as important as his right foot. There is a reason he has such remarkable statistics surrounding being dribbled past and beaten as a defender – they’re so low because he is aware enough ahead of time to position himself in such a way that attackers simply can’t get past him.
Now, MLS defenders aren’t suddenly going to become a league of van Dijks overnight simply if they tighten up their positional game, but they would dramatically improve.
Currently, the MLS is a favoured destination for soon-to-be- retiring and older stars from Europe, particularly attacking players and forwards, and there is good reason for this. Back in their European leagues, these players can no longer cut it at the highest level because their physicality is waning and so they are unable to get past the opposition defences to do what it is they’re paid; score and create goals.
Their technical abilities haven’t disappeared, however.
Therefore, the MLS is the perfect opportunity to appear more capable at a decent standard of football than elsewhere. With the greater abundance of space on the pitch, and having their own tactical, positional knowledge from years battling European defences where such elements mattered far greater, they can fashion opportunity after opportunity despite their depleting physical abilities. In essence, they do well not because of their own talents but the shortcomings of their opponents.
That will continue unless the MLS strives to help improve it’s defenders. If it wants to shake the image of European football’s retirement home, it must do so soon.