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Fun with Formations in Major League Soccer

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What's the most popular formation in MLS? Which team experiments with formations the most? How do formations in MLS compare to other leagues? These answers and more!

One of the most popular formations in the game of soccer today is the 4-2-3-1 and it's very popular in Major League Soccer as well. But just how popular is it and what other formations are used? Whoscored.com tracks the starting formations for all games in their database which allows fans to form some interesting insights.

Thirteen different formations have been used at the start of games by MLS teams. Here's a breakdown of the percentage of shots taken league-wide by formation.

formation disn

Note: At the end of this article is an interactive graph where you can see this chart for each MLS team.

As you can see the 4-2-3-1 is easily the most popular formation, accounting for 56% of the shots in the league this year. The flat 4-4-2 and the 4-3-3 are the next most popular formations.

The team that has tinkered the most this season is Toronto FC, having tried seven different formations. Toronto has mostly used traditional 4-4-2 diamond and flat 4-4-2 formations but they're also one of just two teams to start with a three back formation. Montreal Impact and the New England Revolution are the only teams that have started every game with the same 4-2-3-1 formation.

formations by team

Here's the most popular formation formation by each MLS team

Team Most Common Formation
DC United 4-4-2
Seattle Sounders FC 4-4-2
L.A. Galaxy 4-4-2
Real Salt Lake 4-3-3
Sporting Kansas City 4-3-3
San Jose Earthquakes 4-3-3
Toronto FC 4-1-2-1-2
Montreal Impact 4-2-3-1
New England Rev. 4-2-3-1
Colorado Rapids 4-2-3-1
Columbus Crew 4-2-3-1
New York Red Bulls 4-2-3-1
Philadelphia Union 4-2-3-1
Portland Timbers 4-2-3-1
Vancouver Whitecaps 4-2-3-1
FC Dallas 4-2-3-1
Orlando City 4-2-3-1
New York City FC 4-2-3-1
Chicago Fire 4-4-1-1
Houston Dynamo 4-4-1-1

This may be a meaningless observation but teams that play a 4-4-2 (diamond or flat) or 4-3-3 formation are averaging 1.45 points per game this year while the other teams are averaging just 1.35 points per game.

So how does MLS's use of the 4-2-3-1 compare with the rest of the world's? The European leagues' data is compiled from their early results so far.

formation by league

Note: Bundesliga formation data not currently available on whoscored.com

MLS use of the formation is in line with the other big leagues around the world with the exception of Serie A, where the formation is hardly used. The most popular formation in the Italian top league is the 4-3-3 (26%) followed by a 3-5-2 (19%).

Here's an interactive chart to look at the distribution of shots by starting formation for each of the league's teams.