When news arrived that Houston had traded Morgan Brian to Chicago, it immediately inspired speculation about the motivations for the deal. Was Brian the rumored national teamer that might be headed to Lyon? Was this simply Houston’s effort to get something out of the player before she departed for foreign shores? If so, and given her lingering health issues, would she even play for Chicago? But we’ve now heard that Brian plans to stay in the States and that she’s ready to suit up this weekend.
So, while there is certainly some interesting reporting to be done about how this all went down, this is a tactics column, and we’re going to jump right over the ‘how did we get here’ part and take a look at how Brian might be used now that she’s joined the Red Stars.
The most likely scenario: a 4-4-2 diamond
Early in this season, there were some rumblings that Chicago wanted to work on their tactical flexibility. And in the first few games, we even saw glimpses of it. But as the season has progressed, they have settled quite firmly back into coach Rory Dames’ preferred approach: the 4-4-2 diamond. This setup looks to back the center of the pitch, relying mostly on fullbacks for depth. It’s generally very compact, and while Chicago has shown flashes of higher-level ball control, they often seem less concerned with holding possession and more interested in quick, direct attacks.
In its most successful iteration, the diamond has featured Ertz in the holding role, with Colaprico on the left, DiBernardo in the 10, and Huerta on the right. And the arrival of Yuki Nagasoto seemed like it could be the final piece of the puzzle—giving them another player with elite technical skills to pair with Press.
However, in recent weeks some of the luster has come off this basic setup. Despite a wealth of quality midfielders, they’ve had a difficult time producing much; generating tons of opportunities, but very few good ones. Meanwhile, the forwards have drifted further and further back, hoping to revitalize the attack, but taking themselves further out of scoring range in the process. It’s all been a bit stagnant.
It also hasn’t helped that the injury bug has bit a few times—forcing some reallocations between the backline and midfield, and some last minute substitutions.
So … if we assume that Dames is likely to stick with his preferred setup, the question is where Brian will fit into the mix. And it’s actually a difficult question to answer, given the impressive versatility of many of these players. If DiBernardo has to miss another week, Brian could easily replace her in the attacking midfield role. If Ertz is needed at center back, Brian could easily take over the holding role. And while no one would mistake Brian for a winger, the whole point of the diamond is to allow the ‘wide’ midfielders to pinch in. Just as Colaprico has thrived on the left this year, Brian could easily take over the right.
But, if we assume a full strength side in Chicago’s traditional diamond, this is probably the most likely deployment of resources. While Ertz has been excellent in the midfield, it was a luxury that depended on strong performances from Naughton and Johnson in the back. As they’ve begun to falter, the arrival of Brian might be the trigger to move Ertz back.
Ultimately, it’s a question of what Dames believes the team’s main problem to be. Because there are plenty of minor variants available here, all of which are slightly better or worse in small ways. Brian and Colaprico could swap, as could Huerta and Nagasoto. Alternatively, Brian could take over the attacking midfield role, pushing DiBernardo to the right (where she played much of last year), with Ertz staying at the bottom of the diamond.
The problem with all these approaches, however, is that they don’t really resolve the underlying problems. Now, that may not be necessary. After all, Chicago were flying high a month ago using this system, so maybe simply adding another elite player into the mix will be enough to achieve a reset. But if Dames sees the rot as going a bit deeper, Brian’s arrival opens up a broad new realm of tactical possibilities.
Pushing the attack higher with a back three
With Brian now joining the team, Chicago probably has the strongest midfield of any team in the league, with a wealth of top-level talent, who all excel on both sides of the ball. Dani Colaprico is one of the best holding midfielders in the US pool but is arguably only the third best of this group.
The ‘problem’ is that for all their depth here, Chicago simply doesn’t have much width. With a back four, that’s addressed by asking the fullbacks to run like crazy. But that’s been hit or miss and creates serious exposure risks at the back. A back three resolves this problem by pressing the fullbacks up to become wingbacks and allowing the central trio free reign to control play through the middle.
This is one possible setup, which deploys Huerta as a wingback. It’s a bit risky, but Huerta is potentially interesting in that role, and it gives Chicago a much firmer grip over the midfield. An alternative would be to swap Gilliland in for Huerta, which offers a bit more defensive solidity but a bit less attacking flair.
But the heart of this approach is the space it creates for Brian, Colaprico, and DiBernardo to operate freely in the central midfield. Bringing Brian into the mix, in particular, is a huge upgrade given her comfort and vision with the ball in tight spaces. She isn’t quite the wrecking ball defensively that Ertz has been—though she is shockingly good at occupying space and managing play—but she makes up for it with smoothness in possession and the ability to organize play through the middle.
There are obviously pluses and minuses to every approach, and the back three is no different. But it offers a lot of advantages to a team overloaded with talented central players who need a bit more support from the wings. And it also offers a lot to a team with several world class attackers, which nevertheless has consistently struggled (for several years now) to actually find the back of the net.
So, there is a real case for making a change here. But, as with all tactical conversations, it’s important not to overstate the differences. While the back three might seem like a major shift, it’s actually not that far away from the 4-4-2 diamond discussed above. In effect, the back three pushes Ertz back from her holding role, while pushing two fullbacks up into the midfield. The result is a much wider attacking line, which prevents opponents from collapsing into the center to suffocate the passing game. It is an approach that can be exposed by speed on the wings, but the extra body in the backline does a lot to limit the damage here.
Indeed, one of the big advantages of exploring your tactical options is the ability it gives you to shift things mid-game to exploit opportunities as they arise. And here, the versatility of the Chicago players becomes absolutely deadly.
With the right players, a 3-4-1-2 can switch fairly seamlessly into an aggressive, attacking 4-3-3. All you have to do is drop Short into the backline and push Huerta forward into the front.
Alternatively, you can capitalize on the wealth of talent in the holding midfield role by loading up the central midfield and shifting to a 4-2-3-1.
The key point here is simply: Chicago has options. It remains to be seen how many of those options they employ, and some may work out better than others. But at a bare minimum, they ought to at least be exploring the possibilities.
How far can the diamond take them?
In the end, Dames doesn’t seem likely to make any major tactical moves, at least not in the short term. But he should seriously consider it. Chicago has been very good for three years now but has consistently stumbled once everything was on the line. That may be nerves, bad luck, or just happenstance. But it also likely has something to do with their stagnant style of play. The diamond is a solid setup and can be very successful on its day. But it’s very constrained and doesn’t give your star players many chances to seize the game by the reins and do something special.
With the additions of Brian and Nagasoto, Chicago is now bursting at the seams with top level attacking talent, and they have a rock solid support system to give those players a chance to impose themselves. The diamond has served them well, but it’s time to unfurl the sails a bit and see what else they can do.