- With the Major League Soccer All-Stars taking on their Liga MX counterparts on August 10, we’re putting a new twist on All-Star season by trying to build a real team out of the MLS squad
- How would MLS All-Star FC do in an actual 34-game MLS season? Let’s dive into each position group and create some tactics for this team in an attempt to find out
We sure love our All-Star games in American sports, don’t we?
You can make a strong argument that the Major League Soccer vs. Liga MX All-Star game format is the best of the bunch in the U.S., but the roster selection process is a total mess.
Legitimate MVP candidates like Brandon Vazquez, Daniel Gazdag, and Jose Cifuentes weren’t even selected for the initial MLS squad, though Vazquez was added later. Roster composition is also a major issue. This year’s MLS team has five strikers and five attacking midfielders selected to play two positions, while only three wingers and two central midfielders were picked to play what is normally four starting spots on an actual soccer team.
All of this thinking about All-Star season and questionable roster building methods has me wondering: how would this year’s MLS All-Star team do in a real, 34-game MLS season?
Let’s take a deeper look at our very own MLS All-Star FC, starting with each position group before we hit the tactics. As a heads up, I took some liberties in defining positions for some players because positions are fluid.
Alright, let’s do this.
- Taty Castellanos, NYCFC
- Jesus Ferreira, FC Dallas
- Chicharito, LA Galaxy
- Raul Ruidiaz, Seattle Sounders
- Hany Mukhtar, Nashville SC
- Brandon Vazquez, FC Cincinnati
Before Taty Castellanos left for La Liga, MLS All-Star FC had five strikers. Now that Brandon Vazquez has replaced Castellanos, it still has five strikers.
Let’s be honest: no team needs five center forwards, even if you are going to play with two up top.
It’s hard to see the sporting merits of including Chicharito (tied for 21st in MLS in goals) and Raul Ruidiaz (only played 10 games this season), when you have Jeremy Ebobisse available for selection. Vazquez joining the team is intriguing, though. It gives Hany Mukhtar legitimate competition as the starting No. 9: Vazquez has been scoring a boatload of goals and is very deserving of a USMNT look.
Mukhtar, who was Backheeled’s midseason player of the year, is an analytics darling and has a bunch of goals this season, too. With so many attacking midfielders on the roster, the counter-attacking style that Mukhtar excels in with Nashville makes him a natural fit for this team. He should get the first look at the starting striker role.
Jesus Ferriera is probably the third option off the bench, at least while Ruidiaz can’t go 90. He’s more active defensively than Chicharito, which is a huge advantage for this team.
Chicharito is a poacher and largely requires service to score goals, which could be an issue with the lack of depth out wide. It looks like Chicharito’s sitting next to me on the bench unless there’s an injury or we’re playing a game in the U.S. Open Cup. I might have to check with my cap guru to see if we could send him down to get minutes with MLS NEXT Pro All-Star FC.
- Carlos Vela, LAFC
- Jordan Morris, Seattle Sounders
- Paul Arriola, FC Dallas
MLS All-Star FC has three great wingers. The issue, however, is that there are only three of them.
Having more strikers (5) and attacking midfielders (5) than wingers is just poor roster building. It might be time for this club to look for a new general manager. Only having one true winger on the bench limits the intensity that you can expect offensively and defensively, especially when you need all three of these players to last the entire season. Because of how shallow this position group is, we’re losing out on some tactical possibilities, too.
Vela, Morris, and Arriola won’t be able to play the whole season, so some guys are going to have to play out of position at winger (hi, Taxi, you’re short and fast). This squad could definitely use a player like Santiago Rodriguez or Cristian Espinoza for depth.
- Taxiarchis Fountas, D.C. United
- Luciano Acosta, FC Cincinnati
- Sebastian Driussi, Austin FC
- Carles Gil, New England Revolution
- Emanuel Reynoso, Minnesota United
Our roster isn’t lacking for No. 10s, let’s just put it that way. MLS All-Star FC is basically forced to play with two attacking midfielders because they simply don’t have the depth at the No. 6 or No. 8 to play anything else.
Even with Fountas hypothetically being banished to the wing, there are a ton of options here.
Carles Gil and Emanuel Reynoso give this team incredible quality. Luciano Acosta gives them that extra sauce. Sebastian Driussi isn’t quite as dangerous when it comes to chance creation and ball progression, but he has real goal-scoring ability out of midfield.
As we build a starting 11, Reynoso and Acosta are my first choices to start because they’re both a little more active on the defensive side than Gil. That defensive workrate is a real consideration, since MLS All-Star FC is going to be playing with a single pivot most of the time. Gil and Driussi would be the passing and goal-scoring option off the bench, respectively.
But do you really want to be the manager that tells them they aren’t going to be starting?
- Darlington Nagbe, Columbus Crew
- Ilie Sanchez, LAFC
We’ve got ourselves a little problem here, folks.
With only two non-attacking midfielders in this team, MLS All-Star FC is running real low on central midfield depth and mobility. This team looks completely different if you swap out two of those No. 10s for two workhorses like Diego Chara and Cifuentes. Thanks to our general manager, who I’m beginning to suspect isn’t very good at their job, there’s no replacement if either Nagbe or Sanchez gets hurt.
Looks like this team is playing with a single pivot.
- Diego Palacios, LAFC
- Kai Wagner, Philadelphia Union
- Julian Araujo, LA Galaxy
- DeAndre Yedlin, Inter Miami
The fullbacks in the All-Star squad are going to be needed more for their defense than for their attacking quality. With two No. 10s likely playing in the halfspaces, the wingers will push wider, limiting the space for overlapping runs from the fullbacks.
In case of injury, Palacios and Araujo might get conscripted as emergency wingers or with a formation change to a three-man back line, the fullbacks can become wing backs.
- Alexander Callens, NYCFC
- Aaron Long, New York Red Bulls
- Kamal Miller, CF Montreal
- Walker Zimmerman, Nashville SC
While there are some issues with this team, it’s hard to find fault with this group of center backs. Callens might be the best defender in MLS this season and is a lock for the left side of the defensive line.
Either Long or Zimmerman will be a great right-footed compliment to Callens and all three could form a scary three-man backline. Miller isn’t in the same class as Callens, Long, and Zimmerman, but he gives a left-footed backup option for Callens and has experience playing in a back three.
- Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union
- Sean Johnson, NYCFC
- Dayne St. Clair, Minnesota United
For me, it’s a coin toss between Andre Blake and Sean Johnson for the starting keeper role.
It’s hard to criticize Minnesota United manager Adrian Heath for selecting his own goalkeeper, Dayne St. Clair, as the third option. You could make arguments for Dorde Petrovic, who has been stellar replacing Matt Turner at New England, or the best ball playing keeper in MLS, Brad Stuver, instead of St. Clair.
Just based on roster composition, playing a base formation with two No. 10s and a single pivot makes a lot of sense, so we’re going with a counter attacking 4-3-3.
In transition, MLS All-Star FC is going to be lethal. As the attacking midfielders push into the halfspaces, the wingers can go one-v-one against opposing fullbacks and either cut inside or drive the ball to the endline. Defensively, pressing isn’t this team’s strong suit: MLS All-Star FC is probably going to have to sit back in a mid-block to save some gas while they look to regain possession.
Now, in case it wasn’t already clear, this team will face a couple of tactical problems. The pitfall of playing with a single-pivot is that teams can target the areas behind the wingers and fullbacks if they push too far forward. If Sanchez or Nagbe can’t slide over quickly enough, an attacking player could have a one-v-one opportunity against one of the center backs. That’s one problem.
The lack of depth at winger creates another problem. If one or two of the wingers aren’t available for a given match day, you’re either going to have to play someone like Fountas or Ferreira at that spot or go with a 3-5-2.
We start to see some real problems if/when Sanchez and Nagbe are unavailable. With no other midfield options, this team has to go to a back three to shore up the defense. But I can’t really see something like a 3-4-3 with Acosta and Reynoso in the center being anything other than a complete disaster against any team that has a competent midfield.
Despite the weakness in defensive midfield and the lack of depth on the wing, the All-Star team would still be the odds-on favorite for the Supporters’ Shield. In this fictional world, the backline would be the best in the league while the attacking options feast on the rest of MLS.
If the Sanchez/Nagbe midfield duo stays healthy for the whole season, this team is an overwhelming favorite for the Shield. But if there’s a significant stretch where both are unavailable, those odds will plummet – just look at what happened to Seattle’s Shield chances after Joao Paulo tore his ACL.
Even if those players are healthy, teams are going to exploit MLS All-Star FC’s lack of defensive ability in midfield. It’s safe to say there are going to be a lot of 5-4 games.
Off the cuff, I’m giving this team a 60% chance to win the Supporters’ Shield. I’m a little less optimistic about their chances for MLS Cup, though. No matter how much talent a team has, if there’s a weakness that can be targeted, well-coached teams with a lot of fight in the midfield (like the Union, Red Bulls, LAFC, etc.) can exploit that weakness. And in a single match, anything can happen.
Finally, and most importantly, up the MLS All-Star FCs.