HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 13: A general view of the MLS, Fussball Herren, USA march ball on the field during the first half of the Major League Soccer game between the New York Red Bulls and Minnesota United on March 13, 2022 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire SOCCER: MAR 13 MLS - Minnesota United at New York Red Bulls Icon220332609

As we move ever-closer to the MLS Cup play-offs, everyone is probably wondering how much attacking, free-flowing football we’ll get. However, as the teams at the tops of each Conference will know, it’s the fine details that have played as much of a role in getting them there.

It’s important to acknowledge the importance set pieces can have going into the play-offs especially as this is when games tend to become tight affairs.

Over the weekend, top sides like LAFC, New York Red Bulls, and FC Dallas all took advantage of dead-ball situations. In this tactical analysis piece ,we’ll examine how LAFC and the Red Bulls seem to get the best of these situations.

Walker Zimmerman & LAFC

In their first MLS season, LAFC have impressed everybody that’s set eyes on them. Their attack has been attractive and dynamic, but in the last few games in particular they’ve added another facet to their attack. Walker Zimmermann.

Popping up with three goals in his last three games, this can’t be a coincidence, so here is a deeper dive into how he’s scoring so regularly. This goal is from a couple of weeks ago.

Set Pieces 2018 MLS Cup Walker Zimmermann Tactical Analysis
Here we can see that every LAFC player in the six yard box has been picked up. However, Zimmermann starts his run from the edge of the box where he can’t be picked up by zonal markers.
Set Pieces 2018 MLS Cup Walker Zimmermann Tactical Analysis
This means, all he needs is a pinpoint cross. He’s able to ghost into the highlighted space without being picked up and bury the header.

Having struck three times of late, its interesting to note that each of his goals have come from a similar run. Beginning out of the trouble and identifying the spaces left by a defence playing a zonal marking system.

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls have had similar success against a zonal marking system but they’ve gone about it in a slightly different way.

Rather than commit so many players inside the six yard box, they look to outsmart the zonal markers with a few movements to create space for their open man.

Set Pieces 2018 MLS Cup Walker Zimmermann New York Red Bulls Tactical Analysis
Here we can see the main threats for the Red Bulls are hovering around the penalty area. The two closest to goal will move towards the ball, dragging their markers wide and creating space for the third man.
Set Pieces 2018 MLS Cup Walker Zimmermann New York Red Bulls Tactical Analysis
The ball is played to the best option out of the first two men. Knowing the third man is running into the space created earlier, he helps the ball on into the space.
Set Pieces 2018 MLS Cup Walker Zimmermann New York Red Bulls Tactical Analysis
Playing against a zonal defence the NYRB man has a great advantage. Not only is their space to attack, but he’s running into it, giving himself momentum against stationary defenders. He then wins and scores the header.

Again, what we see here is a great attention to detail from a top team in MLS. Their tactics showed to be more nuanced than LAFC’s, however. A very smart way of going about it, they were able to exploit the opposition defence despite being outnumbered and that type of innovation can go a long way once in the play-offs.


Overall, set pieces won’t be on many people’s lists as something to look out for during the play-offs, but they could end up being what wins games. Of course, with the likes of Bradley Wright-Phillips, Wayne Rooney, Josef Martinez and co. expected to be on show, they’ll take the limelight.

But just remember, teams are on the training ground for a long time and could be forming new methods of attack as we speak. As set pieces go somewhat under the radar in general, the amount scored during the play-offs may shock some people.