Football tactics are subject to a considerable amount of confusion among fans. The distinction between offensive and defensive formations, the roles for various positions within different types of formations, and the way they limit or enhance creativity are often misunderstood. To some degree, as long as players are comfortable within the formation, the distinction between formations has less of an impact on the result than the players playing.
The Union deployed the 4-5-1 poorly against DC United. The reason was because the formation was unfamilliar. The midfielders, particularly the deeper laying central midfielders, did not really have a feel for each other's responsibilities, and this often lead to United's players having too much time on the ball. Offensively, the players were similarly unfamilliar with how to exploit space, and the unconventional nature of DC's defense only complicated that problem for the Union. However, with a full offseason to train and work with the formation, the Union should be able to employ a 4-5-1 to much greater effect.
A 4-5-1 that can switch into a 4-3-3 on offense has quite a few potential advantages for the Union. For one, it is a better fit for the players currently on the Union's roster. Second, there are roles in the 4-5-1 that would cover the weaknesses of some of the Union's talented but flawed players. Third, and most importantly, switching to a 4-5-1 would be the easiest way for the Union to inject some much needed creativity into the squad. The 4-5-1 is also an increasingly popular formation around the world, in a large part because it is best suited to the modern game. The 4-5-1 benefits players in good condition, a relative strength of the Union, and also best suited to countering defenses capable of marking a solitary central playmaker out of the game.
Making the most out of the talent already on the roster is going to be important for the Union. Though the Union will have some cap room and two first round draft picks, there are quite a few holes that need to be filled. Though the first round picks could give the Union some quality long term options, but rookies can rarely be counted on for more than depth or as late game substitutes on good teams. Additionally, while the Union will have some cap room, there are enough holes that the team will have to use its resources judiciously to contend. Fortunately, the 4-5-1 is a good mix for the players currently on the Union. For one, the wide midfielders will cut in to create space outside for fullbacks to exploit, something that suits both Sheanon Williams and Fabinho as well. The Union also have players capable of stocking the wide midfield roles, as long as the player has a good workrate, forwards (like LeToux) or classic trequartistas fit well as wide midfielders.
A 4-5-1 also allows the Union to get the most out of both Michael Farfan and Brian Carroll. Michael Farfan is most comfortable when he is able to move across the field, either starting wide and coming inside or starting centrally and fanning out. Farfan's movement did not work well in the 4-4-2 the Union employed for most of 2013, as he would often end up clogging the middle and being out of position should the other team seek to counter quickly. However, the fluidity between the three advanced midfielders would allow Farfan the movement he needs to thrive. Brian Carroll would also benefit from a 4-5-1 as well. Though Carroll retains a great sense of defensive positioning and continues to be a sturdy tackler, he has never been the most ambitious passer. Now with his workrate declining as he ages, Carroll is no longer well suited to play centrally without a box to box partner. Though one of the three central midfielders would be playing a more advanced role, Carroll would have a box to box partner capable of linking the offense and defense while providing late runs into the box. In turn, Carroll would do what he does best, shielding the defense with his superior understanding of where to be, a role that is particularly important given the way that the Union give their fullbacks the license to surge up the field.
But most importantly, the Union will benefit creatively from a switch to a 4-5-1. The 4-5-1 allows the Union to get two playmakers on the field at the same time, with one being a central attacking midfielder (CAM) with more limited defensive responsibilities. In the modern game of football, it is decreasingly the case that no position is without defensive responsibilities, but the defensive responsibilities of the CAM in a 4-5-1 are comparable to that of a striker in a 4-4-2. Finding capable playmakers is difficult in MLS, and finding ones that can put in an honest shift in defense is even harder. The 4-5-1 allows a team to put a central attacker in the game with severe defensive limitations, even if that player is more of a creator than a finisher. A 4-5-1 would be the best way that a player like Roger Torres could see the field without throwing the defense off balance.
In order to better reflect what the Union lineup could look like in a 4-5-1, I offer the following starting XI. I have used multiple players both to show where players would best fit and to indicate that the Union have solid depth at a position. I also highlight areas where the Union could greatly benefit from a new signing in order to make the 4-5-1 work.
LAM: Marfan/ Hernandez/ McLaughlin
CAM: New Signing (or Torres)/ Leo Fernandez/ Yann Ekra
RAM: LeToux/ Hoppenot/Cruz
CM: New Signing (or Zach Pfeffer?)/ Daniel/ Lahoud (Okugo would be a good fit for the role if he didn't play CB)
LWB: Fabinho / Andling
LCB: Okugo/ New Signing
RCB: Parke /New Signing
RWB: Williams/ Gaddis
I have left Kleberson off the list because I assume he is gone at the end of the season. I also left off players that I do not think have done enough to warrant returning to the club. Also, I have made the depth chart based on where players are best suited, but if you wanted bot Jack McInerney and Conor Casey on the field at the same time, either McInerney or Casey could fit in a wide midfield role though neither would be ideally suited for the position because of the defensive responsibilities.
While I would like to see the Union get a better box to box midfielder and a better option as a central attacker (or a wide attacker who would shift Marfan in) in addition to some defensive depth, the Union seem well suited to take advantage of a 4-5-1. With an offseason's worth of preparation, some shrewd moves and a good draft, the switch to the 4-5-1 can facilitate the Union's push towards the club's first trophy.