Darren Tilley’s Rochester Rhinos will not repeat their feat of 1999. The US Open Cup Final will feature two MLS teams and two coaches who are part of the US system. USL-1 with its British flavored football and coaches who tend to promote defensive tactics have been eliminated from the tournament.
While MLS has one British coach, Steve Nicol that plays a clear tactical style that would come from the old country, USL-1 has five British or Scandinavian coaches in an eleven team league. This brings a negative, but disciplined tactical style to the league. While these coaches tend to have more experience than their MLS counter parts (Vancouver Whitecaps coach Teitur Thordarson for example has managed SK Brann, and the Estonian National Team, while Adrian Heath of Austin has managed Stoke City and Burnley), USL-1 clubs cannot win the critical matches in either the Canadian or US domestic cup competitions. (Vancouver was certainly unlucky this year with TFC’s outburst against Montreal).
Since the USL-1 coaches who are not British tend to take their cue from those who are you see the two top flights of American football look completely different from a style of play standpoint.
Yesterday, at the Maryland Sportsplex, you saw the clear difference between positive American management and negative tactics employed by Tilley, the Rochester manager. Tilley a long time veteran of the lower divisions in England, also played in the A-League for the Rhinos when they won the 1999 Open Cup.
Tilley’s Rhinos bunkered deep for much of the game last night, allowing DC to maintain possession. By some accounts, Rochester was unlucky as the officials made what has been described as a poor call in the penalty area and did not issue a booking for a rash challenge against a Rochester player. DC won 2-1 and now will face Seattle in the final.
But the point is negative tactics, which we see over and over again not only when USL teams play MLS or FMF teams in competition, but in their own league.
USL-1 sides get a lot of scraps, and left overs from MLS. Some of these left overs tend to be better than what is left in MLS thanks to a salary cap that squeezes guys in the middle of a payroll while keeping developmental players in the league.
Long term, this is a good thing for the US system because the developmental guys may actually bloom into national team prospects for the USA, while the mid range guys fit the category of journeymen players.
But in the short term this makes well organized USL-1 sides extremely competitive with MLS. But is it good for the game? Is it fair to have MLS teams that tend to play an exciting, helter skelter style in the league, face these sorts of bunkered and compact sides? What does it truly accomplish?
USL-1’s coaches cannot be faulted for employing these tactics vs MLS or FMF teams. We see it in the league often, and given the talent disparity between MLS and USL (not as wide as some may claim, but it is certainly there) coaches employ it at the Open Cup also. But why does league play in USL resemble the tactical plan of Hull or Stoke in the Premier League? (Kiwi coach Gavin Wilkinson in Portland is welcome exception: The Timbers play an open style but sometimes struggle to open up bunkered opposition. Miami is coached by Brazilian World Cup winner Zinho, who has a possesion oriented style that often struggles against the tactical setup of the European oriented tactics of other USL-1 sides)
MLS is a wide open league, where goals are often scored after the 80th minute. Part of this owes itself to the skill of the players which are miles ahead of the tactics employed by Americanized coaches. But another part of this is the attacking intent of many of the recent wave of American coaches: Dom Kinnear, Curt Onalfo, Dennis Hamlet and Jason Kreis show more attacking intent than their immediate predecessors in each of the jobs they currently hold.
At the same time USL-1 is a very tactical league. Teams appear well organized when watching, with clear lines of four deployed behind the ball. Scoring tends to be more at a premium in the second flight, thanks to a lower skill level of attacking player and better tactical savvy from the managers. When a team does break down an opponent, scoring tends to come in bunches. That’s why the average score of an MLS game may not be that much higher than a USL-1 match. But the game in MLS is much freer flowing and attack minded.
This is the exact opposite of the situation in England where scoring is more prevalent in the second flight, and bunkering defensive tactics are more popular in the top flight.
But is this really a good thing for USL-1? In reviewing the game plans of the two most traditional USL-1 sides on American soil, you have to wonder if they ever really want to play football. Charleston and Rochester both employ a negative tactical setup even in league matches. Scoring a single goal, especially for Charleston sometimes means the game is over and you might as well go home.
USL-2 and the PDL tend to be more open with their play. I truthfully haven’t taken the time to observe the management style in those leagues carefully enough to determine why three of the four top tiers of American football play differently than the second tier.
We’ve seen a lot of nonsense spewed comparing MLS to USL-1 in the last year. Some fans think USL-1 is better which it is not. Some fans think MLS is far superior which it is not. The truth lies in the middle: MLS is a better league top to bottom with elite star players at top which USL does not have. Thanks to the MLS salary cap, USL-1 gets useful leftovers and scraps. (Hopefully this changes next year with a decent CBA.)
But in comparing the two leagues, the most obvious difference isn’t talent but style. Tactics and mentality do matter in football. MLS is a more attacking oriented league. USL-1 is a more tactically organized league with several coaches who have in the past managed in Europe. As European football save the brilliant Bundesliga becomes less and less attractive, USL-1 follows suit.