KeyBank Match-up of the Match: American MLS vs. Dutch Total Football

A clash of styles makes for exciting game

KeyBank Match-up of the Match: AFC Ajax

Photo Credit: 
(Getty Images)

Total Football. An idea that originated within Holland, migrated to FC Barcelona and elements of which were even implemented in Spain’s recent World Cup winning side. It is an idea that, as Jonathan Wilson puts it in his excellent book Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, “was about space and how you controlled it: make the pitch big when you have the ball and it is easy to retain it: make it small when you do not and it becomes far more difficult for the opposition to keep it.”

The birthplace for this style of play was at AFC Ajax—the Portland Timbers exhibition opponent on May 25 at JELD-WEN Field (7:00 p.m. PT streaming online, and 750 AM The Game & La Pantera 940 AM (Spanish) on radio). Created by then-coach Rinus Michels in the 1970’s and led by the legendary attacking midfielder/forward Johan Cruyff, it was put into spectacular use by Ajax in the 70’s. Later it was widely adopted by the Dutch National team as part of their famous “Clockwork Orange” teams of the same era. It has become a style of play that is synonymous with both Ajax’s success and, arguably, Dutch national identity.

Central to the manipulation of space is the idea that all players—regardless of position—have the freedom to move and create on a whim. A defender can become an attacker and an attacker a defender. The key is that when one player moves, another must cover. It takes practice and instinct.

Given the friendly nature of Wednesday's match, it will be an excellent opportunity to see experts of the tactic take the field against an MLS side firmly rooted in an American system of play. That comparison brings us to our KeyBank Match-up of the Match.

KeyBank Match-up of the Match
American MLS vs. Dutch Total Football 


Though Scottish with a long playing history in Europe with Rangers and Chelsea, Timbers head coach John Spencer came into coaching through the MLS ranks and considers himself firmly planted as an American coach. As the team’s style has begun to gel this season, there is heavy emphasis on the wings with defensive wingbacks moving up into the attack, a flooding of the midfield, and then a push for quality service into the box. Built around a 4-4-2 formation, there is fluidity in the center and freedom for the forwards to roam and create runs as they see play develop. It is a system that requires a tremendous amount of stamina in the midfield both on the wings and in the central positions that Spencer likes to run with in a box-to-box manner. Quick passes, strong defensive shape, and breakneck speed are all hallmarks of Spencer’s team.

With Ajax, total football was built around a 4-3-3 formation that this team utilized to recently win their 30th title in the Eredivisie in Holland. Skilled proponents that they are, the team traveled to D.C. United last weekend for a friendly which they won 2-1. As D.C. head coach Ben Olsen put it postgame, “Understanding the way they play, we didn’t get it for about 15 minutes. But after fifteen minutes we started figuring it out, and I thought the game changed.”

While the Timbers' game remains a friendly and doesn’t count in the standings for either team, watch for the clash of styles, tactical formations, lots of movement. It should prove to be a great chance to see two exciting attacking systems meet for a celebration of the beautiful game.