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Are European Inspired Tactics Failing USL-1?

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.

adrianheath 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)

D065111053.jpgMLS 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.

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  1. Portero66

    July 31, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    The worst thing to happen to the Rhinos was getting a GM & a manager both who are English. The only truly talented & technical players we have are: menyonger, earls, ZeRoberto. The rest are past there prime English players who played conference league or a tier better. Tilley likes big strong lumps of wood, & many people here in Rochester are tired of British one route football. Additionally Tilley is an arrogant SOB , along with being truly a rude person. He is a typical Englishman who is in football, RIGID & UNABLE TO BE OPEN TO OTHER’S IDEAS.

    • rochester fan

      August 4, 2009 at 11:36 am

      The Rhinos have had an English GM and coach (Laurie Calloway the previous coach to Tilley is British as well) since 2002 so this is nothing knew. Your comment regarding this doesn’t really make sense since they didn’t just “get” Englishmen in these positions. As far as talented players goes the team is full of them are you forgetting veterans like John Ball (formerly MLS), Brent Sancho (World cup player for Trinidad and Tobago), Scot Vallow, Tiger Fitzpatrick and Andrew Gregor all of them could walk into any USL team and play. Not to mention the young talent that Tilley has cultivated in Tim Melia, Andrew Lorei and Danny Earls ( who is Irish but played for Aston Villa in the reserves so English style training reflecting the talent). Most of these players can play more than one position and this versatility sure helps when the Rhinos only have 20 players on the roster. Your comment regarding English players is just downright false since there are 3 players that are English; Darren Kenton 30 (has played for Champions League Teams in the UK), Chris Nurse 25 and Nano Short 24 hardly what you would call past their prime at those ages. In fact the “lumps of wood” you are talking about must be the american players?? perhaps at the next game you should go down to the field and tell them so. Your mentality of British football is definitely misunderstood as if you watch the EPL you would see the most exciting football in the world today since it has evolved and includes so many foreign players and coaches and influence has changed this image to combine many styles and it really is hard to comment that the EPL has a specific style. I would also like to add that I have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Tilley with my 10 year old daughter and he was very pleasant and chatted with us for a good 10 minutes. Your comment there is personal rather than aimed at any constructive critisism of his style of play which of course shows your lack of knowledge to really challenge or understand what is being discussed the point of your comment is to just be confrontational and rude which is what you accuse Tilley of being, Mr. Pot. Also your use of blanket stereotypes of the English in Football are just that….you could say about American’s in football they are LOUD, UNEDUCATED AND they think their way is best…of course we know that this is truly not the case as there are many examples of quite the opposite on both sides so stick to having common sense intelligent arguments Portero66. You are giving this article which is negative to the league the Rhinos play in compared to the MLS and you are just adding fuel to their fire and shame on you for that….the Rhinos have had one player this year already go to the MLS and this league is by no means an embarrasment to soccer. Support your Rhinos and if you have a beef with the coach have the guts to take it to his face but in public forums have the good sense to support your team in Rochester and all the hard work they do. As far as being open to ideas I am sure if you have the credentials that Tilley does (which I have seen quoted that he has more coaching licenses than any other coach in the USL and MLS from more than 3 countries) he would be open to hearing your ideas and I am sure that any coach of his stature would be in contact many other coaches discussing ideas about the game, players and of course tactics. In future before posting get your facts together instead of embarassing other Rochester natives.

  2. rochester fan

    July 28, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    Wow…this article certainly needs a reality check and some facts perhaps added to it. The writer obviously has never spoken to Coach Tilley to ask him what his “tactics” are or for that matter ever watched The Rhinos play. The fundamentals of being a good writer really require that you research what you are going to write about instead of just spouting uselss crap. I would suggest you have the guts to call the coach (Tilley) and speak to him you might actually find out some information to make yourself more credible. Funny enough Tilley in his 18 year career as a player was a STRIKER hard to imagine him not being an offense minded coach and as an intelligent coach he doesn’t play a specific style of play but strategically plays to the team he is playing against. Doesn’t take much to upset the MLS as they had done the week before with Colubus Crew, I believe last years MLS Champions. If this writer had a clue who any of the players on the team were he would know that this Rochester team has extremely versatile players since the USL 1 league requires coaches to be more savvy about each signing. Why on earth Americans seem to think that they have any say in tactics of this game is beyond me. The Europeans were playing this game more than 100 years before the MLS even exsisted….you don’t hear Europeans weighing in on the boring game of baseball and the tactics involved in it…they realize they didn’t invent the game and therefore don’t get an opinion or for that matter care. So, if you want to play the sport don’t mess with the real thing just appreciate that for once you arrogant americans don’t know it all.

  3. ashlee vance

    July 24, 2009 at 12:02 am

    >That’s why the average score of an MLS game may not be that much >higher than a USL-1 match.

    yes, one league is boring and defensive yet they both score more or less the same amount of goals.

    How many offensive leagues are there?
    And what usually wins games? High flying offense or negative defensive tactics like the italian teams use?

    Its about winning.

  4. bill

    July 23, 2009 at 11:34 am

    This post is a 180 degree flip from the regular USL- lauding posts. I don’t get it. One week the USL represents the best soccer in the US due to it’s talent that prefers USL over MLS. Now, it’s a struggling second tier league that can’t compete with MLS and has to revert to negative tactics because if the inferiority of it’s players. Make up your mind before you start writing. This stream of conscious style you have going on is just making your articles less and less legitimate. I’m sorry to be critical but it’s better to be consistant than to write an article everyday for the sake of doing do.

  5. jean-guy pepper

    July 23, 2009 at 11:34 am

    Toronto Fc has an English coach (Chirs Cummins) and plays a pass and move game with three up top. it hink it comes down to the skill level of the squad. Montreal made a great run last year using negative, defensive tactics and superior defensive organization, because they lacked bal moving skill.

  6. Yankeehooligan

    July 22, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    You also forgot Juan Carlos Osorio (who holds a UEFA license) and was an assistant at Man City. And what about Chris Cummins, who cut his managerial teeth at the youth level in England. He’s British (so it isn’t just Nicol). I think the issue with MLS is that there ISN’T a particular, Americanized style and that is why the games are so erratic in quality. It all depends on the club and the match up. Kansas City, for example, were known as a bunker, counter-attacking team for years under an American coach Bob Gansler (no British experience). To say that the USL-1 plays a certain style because more of their coaches were tenured across the pond really is an oversimplification of the multiple personality disorder that characterizes American soccer (at every level).

  7. Jason

    July 22, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    You fail to mention Gary Smith in your article. How would you classify him? I think the Rapids do a fair job of going forward, and they clearly have more attacking talent than defensive talent. Is this his Arsenal roots?

    • Kartik Krishnaiyer

      July 22, 2009 at 5:28 pm

      Yeah, forgot Gary Smith- my apologies. He’s attack minded and Rapids are great to watch.

  8. BC

    July 22, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Forgive me if I’m confused for a minute.

    We’ve seen the author repeatedly say that USL-1’s tactics are far superior to MLS tactics because of the superior coaches in USL-1 and the “Americanized” MLS. (I don’t want this to turn into another American v Eurosnob debate by all means, thank goodness we have hopefully moved past that).

    But now you claim that these same European tactics are failing the league? To me, this is a major inconsistency. I understand your point about the negative tactics not being fun to watch, but these are the same tactics and coaches that you have repeatedly claimed to be superior to MLS. Now suddenly the tactics and coaching styles of USL is a problem when compared to the more open style of MLS?

    Do we always have to sacrifice better tactics for a more watchable game? Or is there a way MLS can improve the quality of coaching/tactics or whatever and also keep the style of play appealing for fans? I’d appreciate your thoughts.

  9. Jammer

    July 22, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    About foreign coaches in the MLS, there is an interesting discussion of the topic in Spangler’s interview with Wahl at , the three questions from “In regards to American coaches”… to “How much of it is the handcuffs MLS places on their teams and how much of it is this often discussed idea that the American player is different.”

    It’s been said here before that the MLS regulations prevent European coaches from being successful. But coaches everywhere are limited in what players are available, the resources of the club, etc, they often have to come into situations without the perfect personnel, and I don’t understand which restrictions should cause great coaches to become poor ones.

    Players coached for years in one way may not respond well individually or as a group to another style. The interview discusses how American players expect more explanation and rapport with their coaches. Or, American players’ understanding of the game might be different, so you might need to spend more time or be more explicit on things you wouldn’t need to in Europe. And there is a different mix of athleticism and skill which could require different tactics.

    Foreign coaches’ success in USL1 seems to disprove the idea that coaching American players is different, and support the idea of a problem with MLS. But there could still be other reasons, for instance going into USL1 a foreign coach may see opposition tactics more similar to what he understands, and so respond better. Or perhaps the (slightly) lower level of competition gives him more time to adjust.

    I don’t know the answer here, I’m just trying to point out that there are many reasons that foreign coaches could fail in the US, so it’s not obvious to me that the handcuffs are the reason and is anyone able to explain it better?

  10. Shanks and Paisley

    July 22, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    Another embarrassing “article.

    [quote]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.[/quote]

    [quote]USL-1’s coaches cannot be faulted for employing these tactics vs MLS or FMF teams. [/quote]

    It’s the only example you used! Everyone who follows USL knows you don’t give a crap about our league and you sure as hell don’t know anything about the quality of play.

    [quote]That’s why the average score of an MLS game may not be that much higher than a USL-1 match.[/quote]

    Trying to dodge the obvious counter? 2009 season goals/game
    MLS: 2.5
    USL: 2.1

    And that with 4 of last season’s top 10 scorers retired (Chris Brown), sold (Alex Afonso) or moved to MLS (Le Toux, Kandji).

    Oh, but it’s all about how you read the attacking qualities of the game. From all that USL soccer you’re watching. This isn’t another MLS apologist’s attempt to rationalize another year of underachievement in the USOC.

    [quote]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? [/quote]

    Fair??? Is it fair? What kind of question is that?

    [quote]Thanks to the MLS salary cap, USL-1 gets useful leftovers and scraps. (Hopefully this changes next year with a decent CBA.)[/quote]

    Yes, hopefully we drain all of the talent out of the USL like the MLS already tried, and failed, to do with their piddling Reserve League.

    Utterly, utterly pathetic. I’ve seen better efforts on Big Soccer. Somehow your writing has progressively gotten more ill-informed.

  11. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    July 22, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks Mark…….some of these observations have developed as I have sat in the pressbox at Miami FC games not just in the crowd as in the past this season. I’ve actually done color now for a few games on USL Live and see these worrying tendencies. Berlin is right though……generally we’re negative with tactics in this country and I had always sensed foreign managers simply thought American players weren’t good enough to be trusted to attack regularly.

  12. Berlin

    July 22, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    While I appreciate the article, I’d like to point out that so called “negative tactics” are played at every level of every sport around the world. It’s called playing defensively and, not only does it work (e.g. Charleston, PR, and Rochester top USL-1), it ebbs and flows in cycles in every sport as the game evolves (just as the Tampa-2 slowly gives way to the Spread offense in throwball). Considering the USMNT has just recently discovered it can attack as well as defend, it’s not surprising that our domestic leagues reflect this same tendency.

  13. Mark

    July 22, 2009 at 2:17 pm


    I don’t know a lot about the USL but am more familiar with MLS. I attended the Miami FC vs. Portland Timbers game on Friday (the one in which Zinho was thrown out for throwing his shoe/sandal onto the pitch in frustration after Miami gave up a goal because they couldn’t organize a 2-man wall. I could clearly hear Schoeni call for “TWO!!!” from the middle of the stands but apparently it didn’t get him what he wanted. Anyway…). I was puzzled why the skillful Latino and Brazilian players were dribbling to the corners to send in poor crosses into the box to their shorter-than-Portland’s-defenders teammates who couldn’t get their heads to the ball. Attacking down the middle would have suited them better, I thought. After reading this I have a better idea why they didn’t do that.



  14. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    July 22, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    If the USSF wasn’t run by youth soccer orgs, we might see some show of cojones to push the top 4 tiers into a working relationship that further strengthens the game in our country

    Yup, and the voting formula isn’t changing anytime soon in the USSF. Very good point. A whole other issue is which youth soccer organizations hold power- those in suburban middle class areas tend to have more votes in those areas that are heavily latino for instance.

    I actually disagree with you on USL-2. It’s proven to be a more useful league for developing talent than USL-1. If you look at European rosters for players who once played in the US the breakdown is somewhat like this (I don’t want to get into specifics- I quickly estimated by going thru all the Yanks Abroad in Wikipedia and looking at where the played previously. My percentages could be slightly off, but they are not wildly off)

    MLS alone- 45%
    USL 1 alone 2%
    USL 2 alone 2%
    PDL alone- 25%
    USL-2 and MLS 7%
    USL 1 and MLS 2%
    PDL and MLS 15%
    PDL and USL-1 1%
    PDL and USL-2 1%

    Okay my numbers are rough and I could be way off, but basically 69% of players who go to Europe by my estimates play in MLS at sometime, while 42% against estimated play in the PDL at some point. USL-2 even has 10%. It is USL-1 which is higher on the pyramid than USL-2 and PDL that have the fewest players going to Europe at any point, with just about 5%. So from a development standpoint, the 2nd tier league is the least useful in the top 4 tiers. Now, of course player development cannot just be measure by who plays in Europe, but that was one quick way for me to compare.

  15. djmk

    July 22, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    i think this USL-1 and MLS comparison will end the moment Vancouver, Portland and eventually Montreal leave USL-1 for the MLS.

    and i agree with adam. teams should spend some more time developing talent.

  16. Adam Edg

    July 22, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Drew said it best – “If the USSF wasn’t run by youth soccer orgs, we might see some show of cojones to push the top 4 tiers into a working relationship that further strengthens the game in our country.”
    We need a cooperative pyramid. Promotion and relegation. Swap PR, Charleston, or Rochester with NY for a year and see how the teams evolve. Let teams own player rights, get rid of the stupid draft and allocation. The combine should be a place for overlooked talent to get a second chance to make an impression, but even that should go away. Make owners SCOUT and more importantly DEVELOP talent like every other soccer league in the world. The salary cap could still work, but the leagues owning the players cannot.

  17. Jammer

    July 22, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    So, European coaches are turned off by the rules associated with building the roster? They can’t rely on the GM to navigate the details of the trades?

  18. Drew_ROC

    July 22, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    PS Did you write this same article after the US/Brasil game?

  19. Drew_ROC

    July 22, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    WOW major break through here!!!! …lesser skilled teams play negative against more skilled teams? Whoddathunk?

    Just 5 years ago you’d be writing about a high scoring USL game, “USL1 Tactictal Naivety Failing the League”.

    Until USL games only matter as much as minor league baseball games, a result-first mentality will prevail. The US Soccer pyramid is much stronger than it was during the top heavy NASL days, but it certainly has some glaring flaws and weaknesses. A major issue is the disjointed nature of the leagues and the lack of real development leagues that consistently provide players to the top level. If the USSF wasn’t run by youth soccer orgs, we might see some show of cojones to push the top 4 tiers into a working relationship that further strengthens the game in our country. For now, USL1 and USL2 are just a wider net to lure a few more players into a professional soccer career. The leagues might provide 5-6 players for MLS each year, but there won’t ever be a steady flow of players developed to revamp MLS rosters each season. As that’s the case, the tactical decisions of USL coaches is really irrelevant to MLS and of the utmost importance to USL fans.

  20. quakesin2kNever

    July 22, 2009 at 11:45 am

    “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.”

    True, but journeymen can sometimes turn out to be great players. See Luca Toni. It happens in other sports too… David Ortiz was a journeyman in MLB for a long time before stepping to the next level in Boston.

  21. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    July 22, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Kristian, your Islanders have recently become the masters of the nill, nill. I like Clarke but he’s a typical British coach.

  22. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    July 22, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Rick 1977- good point. It’s the myriad of rules in MLS that turns foreign coaches away. They are easily dissuaded when told you don’t own your own players or you can trade a player for a future allocation. No foreign coach without some background in MLS has EVER been successful. Their are ZERO exceptions to this statement. None. I think most recently, the experience of Gullit after 19 brought him in, permanently soured some prospective coaches on MLS.

    If and when the CBA changes this could become a non issue and we’ll see some foreign coaches without MLS experience coach in the league.

  23. Rick1977

    July 22, 2009 at 10:46 am

    What do coaches get paid in USL1 v. MLS? I have no idea, but I’m guessing MLS coaches get paid more. If that’s the case, why are — according to you, taking your word for it — USL coaches “more experienced” as a group? Is the market for experienced coaches that dysfunctional in the USA or perhaps European experience doesn’t count for much in the MLS and owners (save 19 Entertainmnet!) recognize this?

  24. Kristian

    July 22, 2009 at 10:44 am

    You pretty much described Colin Clarke’s m.o. right there

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