Three weeks ago I got brave/foolish and took a stab at predicting all 22 starting lineups across the league. Teams across the league had done so much work early in the winter transfer window that it seemed manageable.
Know what? It kinda was. I definitely got way more wrong than I got right, but with a few weeks of preseason in the books it's pretty clear that most every MLS team has been predictable in both formation and intent if not necessarily in personnel. This doesn't mean the season will be predictable – it's MLS, right? – but rather that there are more teams out there with coherent and expressible ideologies.
We are now much closer to the start of the season, and so here's version 2.0 of my Starting XI guesses:
Atlanta United FC
PREDICTED FORMATION: Definitely a 4-3-3, except maybe for when it's a 4-2-3-1
It looks very much like Miguel Almiron will be the straw that stirs the drink, at least to start out the season, and the team will be built around him. Expect Josef Martinez to play tight and inverted on the left while Hector Villalba plays wider on the right, and I see no reason to think Kenwyne Jones won't start.
ALTERNATE: The more I look at this roster the more convinced I am that we're more likely to see a 4-2-4 rather than a 3-4-3 as Tata Martino's second look. Almiron is probably better on the flank, and it'd be pretty easy to pull Martinez inside as a second forward next to Jones.
PREDICTED FORMATION: It's a 4-4-2 with a false 10
What I mean by a "false 10" is that Michael De Leeuw will drop back a ton – more than any natural forward would – to get on the ball, but won't actually be the one tasked with controlling the shape of the game. That'll all come from Dax McCarty and Juninho in deep central midfield.
I'll wager Chicago have until mid-April to try to get this to work. If it's not clicking by then, expect them to bring in a true No. 10 and go to a 4-2-3-1.
ALTERNATE: Veljko Paunovic tried a little of everything last year, and I doubt he's done throwing the 3-5-2 at teams. That will be especially true if they do go out and get a true No. 10, and then want to play De Leeuw up top with Nemanja Nikolic. I can talk myself into that lineup scoring a lot of goals.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
Nothing's changed for Colorado in the last three weeks, so I'm not changing my prediction regarding their formation or starting XI.
The rationale for putting Dominique Badji up top, by the way, is that this is a counterattacking team and Badji is their best chance at stretching the field. That also allows Pablo Mastroeni to use Kevin Doyle as a playmaker. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
ALTERNATE: 4-4-2 with Shkelzen Gashi as a second forward. Do it!
Columbus Crew SC
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1 SC
Once more unto the breach with the 4-2-3-1 that Gregg Berhalter has trotted out for three straight years now. Ethan Finlay will play high and tight, Justin Meram will pinch in and playmake, Federico Higuain will roam wherever he wants and both fullbacks will bomb forward relentlessly.
If Crew SC struggle again, the personnel will change. I don't think the formation will, though.
ALTERNATE: As I said in v1.0, I won't be surprised if we see just a little bit of Columbus in a 3-4-3 this year simply because they're overloaded with center backs and central midfielders who can play in the diamond. That might become their default "oh man, we're down late and need to throw the kitchen sink at 'em" formation.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-1-4-1
I think Ben Olsen knew his lineup for first kick about five minutes after United lost to Montreal in last year's playoffs, and he's said straight up that this team will stay in the 4-1-4-1 to start the season.
- Will Sean Franklin beat out Bobby Boswell to start in central defense? (I think so)
- Will Nick DeLeon become the fulltime right back (That naturally follows from No. 1, doesn't it?)
- Is Ian Harkes really gonna win a starting job? (Yes, he's that good and Olsen now agrees he's not a d-mid)
- How long can Marcelo Sarvas hold on? (Not sure, but note that Jared Jeffrey is getting time at d-mid this preseason
ALTERNATE: C'mon, as if a straight-up 4-4-2 isn't seared into Olsen's DNA.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
Dallas have just kept adding more and better pieces throughout the entire offseason, and are well equipped to play Oscar Pareja's 4-2-3-1 even without Mauro Diaz. Expect it to be a little tighter and expect a little less open-field play since Javier Morales is a different kind of No. 10, but FCD will be very familiar to folks who've watched the league over the past few years.
For all the praise Pareja deserves and gets about the way his team plays, he has no problems being a ruthless, counterattacking pragmatist when the need arises.
PREDICTED FORMATION: Deep-lying 4-3-3
I think the plan has to be to gum up the midfield and then hope that the ball can get cycled to the flanks early. That'll give Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis the chance to go at guys in isolation, and Mauro Manotas is very clever at finding gaps to hit (and backlines to stretch).
It's a lot of "hope" at this point, though. If the defense doesn't hold, things will get bad quickly for Houston.
ALTERNATE: If they can bring in a real No. 10 this will turn into a 4-2-1-3. If they can't... I mean, we still see ultra-defensive teams use banks of four all the time, right?
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-4-1-1 that's really more of a 4-1-3-2
EDIT: Doyle didn't realize that Robbie Rogers and Gyasi Zardes are likely to start the season out injured. You can expect to see Rafael Garcia at right back and maybe Jack McBean up top to start the season. Please shame him on twitter for not keeping up. -BEN BAER
Minnesota United FC
PREDICTED FORMATION: A 4-3-3-ish-looking thing
So far it looks like Kevin Molino was acquired to play as a winger instead of a No. 10, and Johan Venegas was acquired to play as a center forward instead of a winger. It's early, though, so both of those things can change.
Josh Gatt, a winger, may have been acquired to play right back, but that's rank speculation on my part. Center forward Christian Ramirez might start, but so far he's been playing with the reserves in preseason games for the Loons. Abu Danladi has also played primarily as a center forward thus far, and has looked a little overwhelmed with the pace of the game.
So... I don't know. I think it'll be more 4-3-3 than 4-2-3-1 at this point, but we've got to get a lot more data points in the next few weeks.
ALTERNATE: We'll definitely see a 4-2-3-1 with Molino as a true No. 10 for a good chunk of this season.
PREDICTED FORMATION: Low-block 4-3-3
No change in the game for the Impact. They are who we thought they were.
ALTERNATE: As I mentioned in v1.0, I'm certain we'll see some sort of 5-back set-up if this team has trouble defending crosses again.
New England Revolution
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-1-3-2 (consider it something close to a diamond)
Here's what I know:
- The Revs have played a 4-1-3-2 all preseason thus far
- Kelyn Rowe has mostly been at the point of the diamond, as he was for their best run last year
- There is no comfortable way to get all four of Rowe, Nguyen, Juan Agudelo and Kei Kamara onto the field
- There is no justification for keeping Caldwell off of it unless the Revs want to ship goals
- There is no justification for keeping Agudelo off of it given how well he played last year
- There is no justification for keeping Kamara off of it given that he's scoring every game in preseason thus far
You do the math, then.
Depth is a good thing and the Revs have a bunch of it. Because of that, Jay Heaps has a real selection headache.
ALTERNATE: The trusty old 4-2-3-1 is still available, and I'm sure Heaps will take it out of the garage from time to time.
New York City FC
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-3-3, build from the back
Right now I have Khiry Shelton starting at left wing, and I think he'll get a very shake at winning that job given Jonathan Lewis is on international duty with the US U-20s. But like everyone else, I'm waiting to see where newly-acquired Designated Player Maxi Moralez fits in Patrick Vieira's plans.
ALTERNATE: There'll be some 3-4-3 from this team, especially when Pirlo is rested.
New York Red Bulls
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-2-2 press
They've played almost exclusively a 4-2-2-2 so far this preseason, which leads me to believe that's what they'll play when the games really matter starting next week against Vancouver in the CONCACAF Champions League.
That backline is a work in progress, and three of those guys (Justin Bilyeu, Aaron Long and Sal Zizzo) are unlikely to be long-term starters – Long isn't even officially on the first-team roster, and is still technically a RBNYII player. But he's been getting the lion's share of the preseason minutes, and he's mostly been pretty good, so it looks like he'll get his chance.
RBNY have changed a lot more than people expected this winter, from the front office to the field. If it doesn't immediately work, the fanbase will be grumpy.
ALTERNATE: We could see a repeat of last season when RBNY started in a 4-2-2-2 but went back to the 4-2-3-1 after a few weeks.
Orlando City SC
PREDICTED FORMATION: Still predicting some kind of 4-4-1-1
I admit I have no real idea here – I'm just spitballing with this lineup given their personnel and what they've said about Jonathan Spector's role. This team could and maybe even should look vastly different in three weeks, especially if they're able to move a few of the high-salaried players who are just taking up space.
ALTERNATE: As I mentioned in v1.0, a true 4-4-2 diamond actually makes a lot of sense for this group provided Cristian Higuita is up for it.
PREDICTED FORMATION: A flexible and somewhat narrow 4-2-3-1
So far this is what we seem to be looking at for Philly, who lost presumptive center back starter Joshua Yaro for 3-4 months with shoulder surgery this past week. That'll thrust veteran Oguchi Onyewu into a starting role most likely, and it's fair to wonder just how much rust he'll need to shake off.
It's also fair to wonder if this team really is better than they were last year. They never really seemed to recover from the loss of Vincent Nogueira, and the hope will be that Haris Medunjanin can finally fill that void.
ALTERNATE: There will be some two-striker set-ups from this group, with an exceedingly narrow 4-2-2-2 the best bet. Philly have a lot of workhorses they can put out there, and in this era of "The Press is the Best Playmaker," sometimes that's enough.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-1-3
That front four has looked dynamic and intuitive thus far in the preseason, and it's noteworthy how balanced the two wingers have been. When Sebastian Blanco drops deep, Darlington Nagbe stays high, and vice versa. The spacing has been good.
They owe a debt to the central midfield for that, of course, as well as center forward Fanendo Adi. You can't stay high as a winger if your midfield and forward aren't doing work holding onto the ball.
The worry, of course, is who lines up next to Liam Ridgewell in central defense. No easy answers there.
ALTERNATE: Expect Portland to sneak a bog-standard 4-4-2 into the rotation every now and again. It might be fun to occasionally watch Darren Mattocks run off of Adi's hold-up play, you know?
Real Salt Lake
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-1-3
I don't think Year 3 post-diamond is going to see any appreciable shift in formation from RSL, who've come out in their typical 4-3-3 (that's more of a 4-2-1-3) in preseason. They've mostly been a counterattacking team, and we'll see how long that continues to be the case.
Of note: Jordan Allen, who I've always preferred as more of a true midfielder, has looked good at right wing. Also of note is that there are four guys who could end up as starters (Justen Glad, Bofo Saucedo, Brooks Lennon and Danilo Acosta) on duty this month with the US U-20s. Of that group only Glad is close to a guarantee to walk back into the lineup when he returns, but everyone will have a shot.
So the above lineup is very much a "for now..." kind of thing.
San Jose Earthquakes
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-4-2 classic
I can only assume the Quakes brought Jahmir Hyka in to play at left midfield in a flat-ish 4-4-2, which is his natural spot. He's a creator from there (think Brad Davis), not really a goalscorer. That's fine, as long as Chris Wondolowski finds one more great year in his boots and Danny Hoesen proves to be an MLS-caliber No. 9.
Florian Jungwirth has been playing primarily in central defense, and I think he'll stay there at least until Harold Cummings is fully fit. Nick Lima's been good at right back, and I think he'll hold onto that job for a while. Jackson Yueill has been impressive, but there's no way I can figure how to work him into this XI. Same for Tommy Thompson.
A lot of names can and probably will end up changing. I don't think the basic shape will, though.
ALTERNATE: You could talk me into a 3-5-2 from this group if Yueill forces his way onto the field, and if Hyka proves he can play as a wingback.
PREDICTED FORMATION: They're not going to change from the 4-2-3-1 that won them MLS Cup
The Sounders have bolstered every line during the offseason. They're younger and deeper and more complete than the team that won last year's MLS Cup, and Clint Dempsey's continuing return to health is just the cherry on top. I know it's best to be cautious, but as long as he's starting in preseason games I see no reason to think he won't be starting when things really matter in March.
The only real question I have above is left wing. Harry Shipp has played well there in the past, but you could make an argument that the sounders would be better-served by having a true speedster on that side.
Seriously though, this is going to be a 4-2-3-1 team 95 percent of the time even if Deuce isn't what anyone should consider to be a prototypical guy for the middle of that "3" line.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-3-3highpress4lyfe
Nobody's roster has changed less over the last three weeks, so I kind of feel like I should just use the old blurb.
Two things to keep an eye on: What happens with Graham Zusi's potential shift to right back, especially if one of the young right wingers on the team starts providing goals from that spot? And what happens when Erik Palmer-Brown returns from the U-20s? It's not at all inconceivable that he wins a job at the expense of one of the veterans.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 5-3-2/3-5-2
There's at least one more decent-sized addition to come, I think. But perhaps not until summer?
ALTERNATE: The Reds have flexibility because they have depth, so anything's possible in terms of formations. But keep an eye out for a 4-3-3, or even a 4-1-4-1 when Sebastian Giovinco needs a rest.
PREDICTED FORMATION: Four at the back, Matias Laba at d-mid and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
With Fredy Montero now in the fold, I'm pretty sure this team will have to be built around the partnership between him and Yordy Reyna up top, which is fair enough. I'm not sure there's enough skillset diversification in that duo, but there's plenty of talent – a clear upgrade on what Vancouver have trotted out the last few years.
Both wingers are playmakers, as is wunderkind Alphonso Davies. I could make an argument that they're trying to approximate the shape of the 2014 LA Galaxy, which was the best attacking team in league history. But that group had a better two-way option in central midfield, and that's an area Vancouver need to address. I still have hope that Russell Teibert can make good on his promise, but time is pretty clearly running out for him.
ALTERNATE: Anything with four at the back is possible, but a 4-3-3 with Kekuta Manneh and Davies playing very, very high is beyond possible. I'd go so far as to say it's "likely."