Chelsea's valiant performance at Barcelona showed the importance of organization at the highest rungs of the game. The point isn't lost on MLS clubs.
There are all too few similarities between the upper echelons of European club football and MLS, but one home truth always rises to the fore from time to time to connect the two disciplines.
Organization still matters.
Chelsea's improbable 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou on Tuesday to seal a berth in the UEFA Champions League final proved it once again. Roberto Di Matteo's side confronted Barcelona on its home ground with few, if any observers, expecting the visitors to find some way to progress even after their narrow first leg victory at Stamford Bridge.
John Terry's first-half dismissal amplified those fears and placed 10-man Chelsea in the unenviable position of trying to see out the second half without conceding. They managed to hold the 2-1 scoreline from halftime with some help from the home side (Lionel Messi's missed spot kick and a general lack of sharpness in the final third) and a significant amount of resolve and snatch the clinching goal through Fernando Torres in the late stages.
Every accomplishment on the day stemmed from Chelsea's ability and desire to comprehend and keep their shape. Barcelona scored twice during the period between Terry's sending off and the halftime whistle, but Chelsea shored up its shape in the second half – Didier Drobga dropped onto the left side of midfield as part of a 4-5-0 setup that often had six or more players strung across the back line before the end – and snuffed out chances by tightly packing the defensive third.
All of the usual caveats and complaints about defensive and negative football surely apply to that gutsy effort, but the lessons from it still hold even when applied to MLS.
It should come as little surprise that pragmatism often outranks idealism within the MLS ranks. The modest amount of resources deployed by most teams creates an incentive to operate with caution and diligence rather than ambition and quality. Skill players, unfortunately, are all too short in supply (hence why MLS now acts so ardently to protect them) to make an expansive brief practicable in most cases, while the list of sides powered to MLS glory by a firm defensive foundation and a measured attacking approach remains a fairly lengthy one.
The best sides devise a system and implement it with ruthlessness. Los Angeles rode its defensive strength – not its Designated Players, though they certainly helped – to MLS Cup glory last season. Real Salt Lake stands out as the primary domestic purveyor of the beautiful game, but a steely defensive shape underpins its loftier goals in possession as a concession to the realities of the league. Sporting Kansas City allies its high pressure and high tempo approach with a robust defensive deportment to create turnovers and slice through opposing sides in possession. San Jose combined a defensive reorganization and an overall strengthening of the squad with Chris Wondolowski's goals to spark its current run of form. Seattle boasts the best defensive record in the league to date with its consistent 4-4-2 setup, while Houston grinds out road results due to its defensive strength (including four center backs on the rearguard at times) and its willingness to eschew the finer points when required.
Problems often start when teams express ambition and falter in their efforts to implement it. Toronto FC's struggles with an expansive approach are well documented. New York's inconsistent form starts with its inability to prevent opposing sides from scoring on a regular basis. Other aspirational sides like Chivas USA (more so in the past than now, but the point stands) and FC Dallas stumble when they miss a key piece or two here and there or tinker too much with the options already in place. Such efforts are lauded by an American audience trying to relegate the use of empty buckets to the cellar somewhere, but they often fall somewhat short of the mark for whatever reason.
In the end, the primary question weighed by MLS coaches isn't altogether dissimilar to the situation faced by Di Matteo at halftime at the Camp Nou: what is the best way to produce the desired result? Much to the chagrin of observers waiting for a more ambitious and technical approach across the board, the answer in domestic play more often reflects the principles Chelsea displayed in the second half – commitment and organization – than the neat play Barcelona employed in defeat. It isn't the compelling and enticing solution most seek, but – as Chelsea improbably showed – you can still get to the final with it anyways.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.