We're 67 games into the 2017 MLS regular season, which is just under 20 percent of the full slate. We've gotten some answers – yes, Atlanta's spending will result in some points, and yes, Colorado's defensive performance from last year was unsustainable, and no, Patrice Bernier will never age – but we're still at a point in the season where we're still asking lots of questions.
So here's one big question for each of the 22 teams in the league. It's not necessarily "the biggest" question, but it's one I've been thinking about, and that has potential to be definitive.
Even though I'm a Shield Standings Truther we'll go in alphabetical order:
Can they keep overperforming their expected goals?
Most expected goals models have Atlanta hovering somewhere around seven goals for. Thus far, they've scored 13. That is a red flag.
Worth noting that Atlanta's been almost comedically clinical on breakaways, and most expected goals models tend to undervalue breakaways, so you could make a compelling argument that their expected goals total should be somewhere between nine and 10. But that still means they've way over-performed, and when that happens you can usually bank upon a regression to the mean.
Can they defend down the right side?
The Fire have looked vulnerable defensively from time to time, and when that's happened it's usually been their own right side. Michael Harrington generally gets more grief from the fanbase than he's earned, and Michael De Leeuw is a useful player in this league. But there's a reason teams try to set up shop over there.
Can they generate anything going forward?
The Rapids have dealt with injuries on the backline, a suspension in goal, a trade that's left the fan base perplexed, and...
I've yet to see anything that can start to answer this, and assume there are more personnel moves to be made.
Columbus Crew SC
Their defensive record is significantly better with the kid in the lineup – in his four starts they've conceded 0, 0, 1 and 1 goals. In Mensah's three starts they've conceded 1, 3 and 2.
Mensah also got a roasted a few times in the open field, and picked up a deserved red card against Houston. There's no question the rookie Homegrown has been a better, more reliable player, but often times teams are compelled to play their DPs regardless.
Can Patrick Mullins save the attack again?
When Mullins came to D.C. last year they began playing off of him in a 4-1-4-1 and were ridiculously fun. Since he went down injured... well, they've been less fun, and none of the other options have distinguished themselves at center forward largely because none are all that adept at hold-up play.
I think Mullins is very, very good, but I also think what United did last year – both in terms of his individual per-90 numbers, and the team's scoring output – was an anomaly. D.C. need Patrick Nyarko and Lucho Acosta to rediscover last year's form, and they need Ian Harkes to start burying some of those top-of-the-box chances he's shown a knack for finding.
At what point will Cristian Colman start burying those breakaways?
If Atlanta are an outlier on the high end of the finishing efficiency scale, Colman's an outlier in the other direction.
Colman's movement is very, very good. If his finishing reaches a commensurate level, Dallas might just run away with the Shield. If it doesn't, the name "David Texeira" will start being thrown around in the fanbase.
What happened to the defense?
Houston conceded twice in the first two games, and have conceded nine in the four games since then. They were lucky Christian Ramirez didn't drop a hat trick on them (and draw a red card in the process) in last weekend's 2-2 draw.
They've missed A.J. DeLaGarza for the last 180 minutes, which is part of the equation. Another part is that by throwing their wingers so far forward, they allow opposing teams tons of time and space out wide in transition. Three of the last four teams they've faced have made hay with that.
Is there an obvious fix for the defense?
The Galaxy have pitched only one shutout – against 10-man Montreal – and have had issues at fullback, center back, defensive midfield and goalkeeper. They've gotten beat from possession, on the break, and on set pieces. It's a very, very different Galaxy than we're all used to seeing.
Minnesota United FC
Can Christian Ramirez keep this up?
Ramirez hasn't been clinical in front of net, as he has five goals on 23 shots. But that's actually a good thing, since finding those chances in the first place is the mark of a truly gifted striker (this probably applies to Colman as well, Dallas fans). Both David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco, to name two, take a ton of shots. So does Bradley Wright-Phillips, so does Fanendo Adi, and you kind of get the picture here, right?
I think Ramirez will be fine. But there will come, at some point, a cold spell. He will need to just work through it, and Adrian Heath will need to trust him to do so.
Haven't gotten to see that much of it as of yet, but damn were they fun in that final half-hour vs. Atlanta this past weekend. Tabla has a very good first touch, creates instant separation because of his balance and agility, and loves to drive the game forward both with and without the ball.
Piatti loves to send runners through, especially in transition, and Dom Oduro has filled that role with aplomb. But Tabla's game is a little more dimensional, and that opens up other possibilities for an Impact team that's often stalled out when not allowed to play in transition.
New England Revolution
Throw out the 3-0 loss at Chicago since New England kind of just tanked it once they went down to 10 men. In the previous two games, at Portland and at home against Houston, they got a draw and a win in allowing just one goal against two of the highest-scoring attacks in the league.
It didn't look flukey. The Revs have had nothing but questions in central defense since 2014, but it looks like they found a couple of answers this offseason.
New York City FC
The Pirlo Question
Goal.com has written about it, I've written about it, NYCFC blogs and podcasts are all about it, and it's often plain to see that the end is nigh for the Italian legend. Will Patrick Vieira make a move away from his DP midfielder in favor of a more robust two-way presence?
New York Red Bulls
Who's the third heat?
We know, now that they've reverted back to the 4-2-3-1, that both Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan will be more comfortable and productive. But Mike Grella's still hurt and they miss him quite a bit, and Gonzalo Veron is still hurt and they miss him less but still. Daniel Royer hasn't been productive – two goals and one assist in 855 MLS minutes. The final touch from Derrick Etienne hasn't quite been good enough.
Alex Muyl just headed home a nice goal this weekend, so maybe he's the answer? He doesn't really have the profile of a goalscorer from the wing (lots of RBNY fans somewhat derisively refer to him as "a defensive winger") but it's not like any of the veterans standing in his way have sealed the deal.
Regardless, somebody has to step up for New York and provide some of what Grella and Lloyd Sam brought back in 2015. Namely: Goals!
Orlando City SC
Is this diamond forever?
Here's OCSC's pretty hilarious network passing graph from this weekend's 2-1 win over the Galaxy:
This is made using Opta data. The circle represents the location of the aggregate touch for the corresponding player, while the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes they exchanged. Carlos Rivas (No. 11) and Cyle Larin (No. 9) are off on an island by themselves, which gives you an idea of how much work the forward duo is left with.
So... what happens when Kaká comes back (which will be soonish)? His best years came at the point of AC Milan's diamond, but he's certainly not going to sit deep and compact and do the type of defensive work that Matias Perez Garcia and Giles Barnes have brought out over the past few weeks.
Of course with Kaká running the show and the rest of the midfield getting more familiar by the week, they probably won't have to spend quite so much time absorbing pressure. I've got it in my head that this is one year too soon for the Lions, and I'm not backing off that stance. But if things break right they can make some folks absolutely miserable in 2017.
Can they make a move within the league for a difference-making attacker?
Once upon a time, after a series of less-than-productive overseas signings, D.C. United went all-in on finding relatively proven or undervalued MLSers and building around that. It's a blueprint Philly may want to follow given their struggles bringing in impact attackers over the last couple of years.
Should Marco Farfan keep his spot?
The 18-year-old left back get a lesson from Dom Dwyer this past weekend but in general has been steady as a rock with his defensive positioning over his 355 MLS minutes – better on that side of the ball, I think, than incumbent Vytautas Andriuskevicius. Vytas, on the other hand, has been a true force when pushing into the attack in a way that Farfan just hasn't quite managed.
It's a delicate balance to strike, and not an easy choice.
Real Salt Lake
Can Joao Plata get healthy and stay healthy?
It's maybe less of a pressing issue than it was before Brooks Lennon did this:
That's Plata's usual spot, cutting in from the right.
For what it's worth I don't think it's his best spot – that's as a second forward, which is where he played in 2014 when he was Best XI-caliber. But either way, RSL are better off if Plata can shake the injury bug and get out onto the field as often as possible.
San Jose Earthquakes
Is there an answer on the roster?
San Jose's on track for 45 goals this year (eight goals in six games thus far), which would be a substantial improvement on last year's haul of 32 and their four-year average of a shade over 35 goals per season.
But yeah, this attack isn't scaring anyone as currently constructed. And nobody aside from Chris Wondolowski looks like they're capable of putting the ball into the net on the regular.
Should they move Jordan Morris to the wing?
Morris proved last year that he could do a job out wide when the situation called for it, and the situation may just about be calling for it again in Seattle. Morris hasn't combined well up top with Clint Dempsey, hasn't finished well (one goal in 531 minutes), and the Sounders haven't gotten enough penetration from the midfield.
Perhaps it's time to give Will Bruin – who has two goals in just 51 minutes this year – a start as the No. 9 and Morris a chance to try on the hat he wore in last year's playoffs, when Nelson Valdez cleared a path up top.
How good is the defense, really?
Two goals conceded in six games, including a few against some of the better attacking teams in the league. That's pretty good. But as Ben Baer pointed out on Monday's ExtraTime Radio, SKC are only sixth best in terms of expected goals against. Tim Melia, ladies and gents:
At some point they're going to regress.
How much tread is left on Steven Beitashour's tire?
Few players have logged more minutes than the Iranian international over the past five seasons (a little over 14,000 across all competitions for club and country), and almost nobody logs harder minutes. Whether it was as an overlapping right back in San Jose and Vancouver, or as a pure wingback in Toronto, Beita has gone endline-to-endline for 90 minutes a week for the better part of this decade.
He's 30 now, and against Columbus this past weekend he started to look a step slow. It might be time to start giving Marky Delgado the occasional 90 out wide.
Is it too early for Alphonso Davies to be a difference maker?
Davies is just 16, and at times he is absolutely thrilling to watch – a combination of pace, power, touch and technique that few MLS players, if any, can match. He often comes so, so close to producing definitive plays.
But thus far in his young MLS career "close" is as good as it gets. Davies lacks a little bit of polish and a little bit of patience in the final third, which goes a long way toward explaining his lack of production thus far in terms of counting stats. Sticking with him now will pay off in the long run, but in the short run it may cost Carl Robinson & Co. some points.