The Most Popular Formations in MLS [Quick Take]

Similar to our prior overview of The Most Popular Formations in Europe’s Top 5 Leagues (2020-2021 season), we now look at the most popular formations in MLS during the 2021 season (up until the time of writing – early September 2021). With most sides over two-thirds of the way through the regular season, it’s prime time to find form and compete for a playoff spot. And while preparation for success is managed differently by all, settling on a formation (or at least a general style of play) is a great sign that a team has found its collective identity. As such, final tallies for the season will undoubtedly change, but here are the numbers as they stand… 

#1: 4-2-3-1

The 4-2-3-1 may well be the most popular setup in world football at the moment and MLS soccer is no exception to the trend. In total, the 4-2-3-1 was employed league-wide twice as often as any other formation, and was the preferred lineup of over half the teams in the league. This observation held true geographically, with both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference advertising the 4-2-3-1’s merits on a consistent basis. 

Most used by: Columbus, Toronto, Dallas

#2: 4-3-3

The distinction between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 is probably obnoxious for some, as a side’s dynamic positioning during matchplay may actually alternate between the two with regularity. Nevertheless, for the sake of formality, the 4-3-3 is delineated from the 4-2-3-1 here as the second most popular formation in MLS. Interestingly, this lineup was far more likely (over fives times!) to be seen in matches involving Western Conference teams. 

Most used by: Kansas City, Houston, Los Angeles 

#3: 3-4-2-1

A relatively distant third (or fourth, depending on how you tally up the 4-4-2 as discussed below), the 3-4-2-1 is the most popular back-three system in MLS, featuring about as often as all other “3-” formations (mostly 3-5-2 variants, FYI). Of note and in contrast to the 4-3-3, three-back systems were more commonly utilized by Eastern Conference teams. Geographical coincidences or tactical trends? Makes you wonder… 

Most used by: DC, Colorado, Seattle, 

#4: 4-4-2

When combined with other 4-4-2 variants (i.e. 4-4-1-1 [pictured], 4-3-1-2, 4-1-2-1-2), the 4-4-2 category would, in fact, jump over the 3-4-2-1 as the third most popular system in MLS, which is perhaps more of a nod to the formation’s versatility than any stylistic preference specific to the league. Also, Philadelphia aside, most other teams employed a 4-4-2 subtype alongside at least one other formation in this list, rather than as a predominant preference. 

Most used by: Philadelphia, Vancouver, New England

Team Formation Reference: footballcritic.com


So there it is! The most popular formations in MLS for the 2021 season as of September. Be sure to check out more from Jeremy Barnes, including the Most Popular Formations in Europe’s Top 5 Leagues (2020-21). Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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