Peter Nowak, Philadelphia Union
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Talking Tactics: Three new coaches, three takes on the 4-4-2

So now we know. We had hunches and suspicions about how three particular debuting managers would align their sides prior to MLS opening weekend—but you never really know until you know. You know?

New York’s Hans Backe and Chicago’s Carlos de los Cobos were new managers to MLS. We’ve seen Peter Nowak’s handiwork before at D.C. United, but now he pulls strings at expansion Philly, which is clearly a whole new jar of Cheez Whiz. (Nowak, in particular, approached his selections of personnel and tactics with a “State Secret” level of caution.)

In preseason, Backe had shown himself to be a 4-4-2 guy, and sure enough, Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Joel Lindpere were central in a “straight line” four-man midfield.

Across the field, de los Cobos opted for a diamond midfield. Logan Pause screened the defense while Peter Lowry, and later, Baggio Husidic, worked closer to the strikers. So much for innovation.

Nowak also went with a 4-4-2. Here, it wasn’t the alignment but the choice of personnel within that alignment that drew attention—and reminded everyone that it’s more about players than tactical deployment.

Philly started Michael Orozco and Danny Mwanga in the middle. Orozco is a defender, inserted awkwardly and surprisingly into a central midfield role. Mwanga is a forward, inserted awkwardly and surprisingly into the same. All of Mwanga’s scorer’s instincts, all that size, skill and athleticism seemed wasted on a player clearly not comfortable with the 360-degree bustle encircling him in his first pro game.

Regardless, Philadelphia’s shape and personnel were never going to matter so long as Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso was lurking. The Sounders’ little fireball of a defensive midfield destroyer was all over the place, back to his early 20009 best. So Mwanga and Orozco, stationed centrally opposite Alonso and Brad Evans, were at a loss from the word “go.”

Notes from the Chalkboard:

San Jose manager Frank Yallop made a great adjustment at halftime, removing one his brainy little skill saws in the middle of the park in favor of a sledge hammer. Brazilian Andre Luiz and Argentine Javier Robles started centrally in Yallop’s 4-4-2. But they were being out-worked and pretty much out-everythinged by Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson, who was stationed nominally wide left but worked inside liberally. So Robles came off for Brandon McDonald, who added considerable steel and effectiveness.

Problem was, San Jose already trailed by two goals at that point.

It will be interesting to watch Collins John and Brian McBride play in tandem in Chicago—though de los Cobos has said he’s not sure if he’ll do it. The pair partnered formerly at Fulham, but the reality is they might cancel each other out. John likes receiving service with his back to goal and the ball at his feet—a classic target man. If a defender is crawling up his shirt from behind, well, he seems OK with that. And we know this because he spent significant portions of his MLS debut (as a sub) reminding his Chicago teammates through word and gesture. McBride, of course, is also a classic target presence. So, de los Cobos either must find a way to blend their similar skills or stick with Patrick Nyarko in the big-man-little-man combo he started with against New York.

Geoff Cameron’s first run-out as a central midfielder? Eh. He never really found the game, although he did finally pinpoint a couple of moments after the intermission to stretch those long legs and run at FC Dallas’ defense.

Remember all the talk of Landon Donovan finally gaining a settled role? For LA late last year, for Everton in the winter and for Bob Bradley’s national team, Donovan has recently spent his time out wide on the left. It has worked brilliantly. So in the Galaxy’s 2010 MLS opener he was … yep, at striker. Donovan partnered Edson Buddle at forward while Eddie Lewis lined up on the left and Mike Magee on the right. Go figure.

Backe wants his fullbacks getting forward, adding pressure through extra numbers. Roy Miller listened. And how. He pushed forward liberally, overlapping left midfielder Danleigh Borman. And Chicago midfielder Julio Martinez never made Miller pay for it. Say what you will about former Fire attacker Cuauhtemoc Blanco, but he’s the kind of player who would have noticed and exploited Miller’s risky bravado.

Rapids boss Gary Smith provided the week’s surprise, inserting Marvell Wynne into the center of Colorado’s defense, alongside Drew Moor. This meant Kosuke Kimura kept his spot on the right for now. Wynne looked good, using that trademark recovery speed to atone for occasional slipups. (Although Wynne was lucky not to concede an early penalty kick when he ran down—literally—Chivas USA’s Maykel Galindo.)