The Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns have lined up in what’s known as a back 3 formation in every regular season match so far. The Houston Dash and Kansas City Current have turned to variations of the formation as well, and Angel City planned to do it until multiple defenders picked up long-term injuries.
As fans, we’re seeing a more tactically intriguing league. This is a sign of NWSL growth! Instead of teams in dueling 4-3-3s or 4-2-3-1s, we’re getting chess matches between coaches and players. This isn’t to suggest that every team played the same style in the past, but the greater the variation the more questions there are to be answered, and that’s fun.
Though obviously cliché, the NWSL is a high-transition league and this scheme, which sees a third central defender, can fill space and slow down attacks. In possession, width provided by higher wingbacks can stretch opposition and open gaps in the opposition’s defense.
What’s so different?
A traditional back line is a central center back pairing with fullbacks (a right back and a left back) forming a line across the pitch, but adding another central defender changes things quite a bit.
Adding a central defender stretches coverage from central areas to the left and right side of the box as well. This allows the starting position for wide-right and left defenders to be higher, and means that defending doesn’t necessarily have to be the top-line skill on their CV.
These wide players are called wingbacks, and can be used to stretch opposing defenses in attack and/or drop deeper to add numbers to the backline, making a 5 across the back instead of a typical 4.
Why are teams using this scheme? Versatility
With three capable center backs patrolling the width of the box, teams can get funky with personnel and positioning. Conveniently, we can use the two most consistent 3-back teams (Thorns and Red Stars) to note how approaches can differ.
Portland line up in a 3-5-2, leaving their middle area clogged with a wingback on either side of three central midfielders. This allows them to possess the ball in central areas or easily drop into a back 5 to limit space for opposition attacks. However, this leaves only two players dedicated to their attack. Luckily when you have Sophia Smith, one of the best shot creators in women’s soccer, it’s fine.
Chicago opts for a 3-4-2-1 to provide an additional line and a player pushed closer to attack. These additions have helped them establish a fairly hellacious press. Wherever the opposition is attempting to go with the ball, the Red Stars can send multiple players to close down. In attack, the two behind the striker can drift wide to act as traditional wingers, or tuck narrow into attacking midfield spaces. This freedom and unpredictability has put Mallory Pugh on everyone’s much-too-early MVP shortlist.