This question was submitted by Jonathan F.
Thanks for the question, Jonathan. When I first started seriously following MLS in the mid-2010s, the league’s tactics were incredibly boring. Every team in the league played the same vanilla 4-2-3-1.
While you can attribute a lot of the league’s improvement over the last five to seven years to an increase in player quality, we also now have teams with unique styles that aren’t carbon copies of each other.
The Philadelphia Union was one of these boring teams until they hired Ernest Tanner from RB Salzburg as their sporting director and started using the 4-4-2 diamond that they’ve become synonymous with over the last couple of seasons. Tanner’s take on the Red Bull gegenpress has turned the Union into one of MLS’s most distinct teams: they play direct, attacking football, they press with a high line, and they have built their system on the back of academy kids.
Entering MLS, FC Cincinnati built a beautiful soccer-specific stadium and had an owner willing to spend cash to improve the roster, but they lacked organizational cohesion. The team had a style akin to how people usually feel after eating Skyline chili. But all of that has changed since the team hired both Chris Albright as sporting director and Pat Noonan as head coach from the Union over the offseason. This year, the team has began to transform from Wooden Spoon contenders to what looks like an Eastern Conference playoff team.
It’s been obvious that Noonan has been trying to implement a style very similar to his former club. That said, Cincinnati hasn’t really been utilizing the 4-4-2 diamond as a key part of their success. The only game when we saw the diamond was in the first game of the season where the Orange and Blue were beaten by Austin FC 5-0.
After that beatdown, Noonan opted to drop one of the diamond midfielders for a center back to create a more solid 3-4-1-2. The key tactical difference is that the double pivot in the 3-4-1-2 creates a less dynamic midfield compared to the 4-4-2 diamond. In Philly’s diamond, the central shuttling midfielders that play in front of defensive midfielder Jose Martinez have the flexibility to move out wide. In the 3-4-1-2, the burden of providing width falls to Cincinnati’s wingbacks. Playing out wide has been a focal point of FCC’s attack: they’re 3rd in the league in open-play crosses completed in the 18-yard box according to FBref.
What has been very Unionesque for Cincinnati is their emphasis on direct play and counterpressing. Both clubs hate possession, with Philadelphia last in MLS at 38.4% and Cincinnati fifth from the bottom at 43.7%. Instead, the two squads emphasize the counterpress and seek direct play in transition. Both teams are ranked only behind the New York Red Bulls in terms of defensive pressures.
I think it’s safe to say that Noonan has tried to implement a very similar style to the Union at Cincinnati, just without the 4-4-2. I imagine that the goal will eventually be to implement the diamond, but it may take a couple of transfer windows to get there.