Question submitted by Brian M.: “Tactically speaking, who is the best manager in MLS at the moment?”
Hey, thanks for the question, Brian! This is a tough one to answer for a couple of reasons. First, how do you define “tactics”? When we use the term tactics in soccer, we’re usually using it as a catch-all for anything from a team’s identity, to a strategy for a specific game, to an individual adjustment that a team makes during a game to tip the balance in their favor.
Basically, tactics ends up meaning anything related to strategy or game planning. I don’t think that should always be the case, but let’s just go with it for now.
Here’s the other reason that I think answering this question is so difficult: I don’t think there are that many super strategically oriented coaches in MLS right now.
There are some, sure, and we’ll talk about them in a minute. But go take a look at the Supporters’ Shield rankings. If we’re looking for the best tactical manager in MLS, we should be looking for ones near the top of the Shield race, right? LAFC have a tactical identity under Steve Cherundolo. They press high, they recover the ball in the attacking half, and they thrive in transition. But a bunch of those tactical pillars were built by Bob Bradley before Cherundolo even got to Los Angeles.
A couple of spots down in the Shield standings, the New York Red Bulls are in a similar position. Gerhard Struber didn’t invent the Red Bull way. He’s not doing anything all that mind-blowing with this particular Red Bulls team, although they have been even more Red Bull than most of the other Red Bulls that have Red Bulled in the past. Then there’s Jim Curtin and the Union, who also do the Red Bull thing but they’re different because they do that thing in Philadelphia instead of New Jersey. Then there’s New York City FC and Nick Cushing, who play a standard 4-2-3-1 that Cushing inherited from Ronny Deila.
In MLS this year, the league’s elite teams are defined by talent much more than they are by tactical innovation. Tactics aren’t absent – each one of those teams I mentioned up above has a style of play – but they aren’t telling the story of the Supporters’ Shield race in quite the same way that they have at other times in the last few years.
This is my long, winding way of saying: I’m not sure that there is one manager who stands head and shoulders above the rest for being tactically detailed. Or for nailing individual game plans every week. Or for getting their subs right on a regular basis.
Curtin does deserve a ton of credit for adapting to the Red Bull model so well over the last few years. If my back is to the wall, he’s probably my answer to this question. Or he’s my answer to the question of “which MLS manager is best positioned up for success at a European club”. I’m not sure how different those two questions are, really.
I do want to give a special shoutout to Josh Wolff, Wilfried Nancy, Nico Estevez, and Pat Noonan. Those are all coaches who have their teams in the playoff hunt (or in the Shield hunt, in Austin’s case!) and who have developed real tactical identities over the last year or two. Austin possess. Montreal possess. Dallas do some pressing and some possessing. Cincy are Red Bulls 3.0. Those coaches and their teams all make MLS better.
But is there one tactical genius in MLS who’s blowing everyone else out of the water in 2022? No. I don’t think so.
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