Welcome back to the TwitBag, which is my chance to answer some of the better questions I get on Twitter with more than 140 characters. Thanks for reading, and let's jump right in:
There is a full slate of U.S. Open Cup action happening on Tuesday and (mostly) on Wednesday. It's the Round of 16, and 13 of the remaining teams are from MLS. Just one team from the lower divisions made it to the quarterfinals last year, and none the year before, which should give you an idea of how rare deep runs from USL and NASL clubs are.
That said, I think Miami FC stand a pretty decent chance of winning when they host Atlanta United on Wednesday (7:30 pm ET; USsoccer.com). I watch a fair bit of both of the second division leagues, and Miami FC are pretty clearly the best non-MLS team out there. Given that, the fact that they'll be hosting (homefield advantage tends to play an outsize role in USOC outcomes), and what I'm guessing will be a semi-experimental lineup from the Five Stripes, I wouldn't be at all shocked to see Miami make the quarters.
FC Cincinnati, who will host Chicago on Wednesday (8 pm ET; ESPN2) in front of at least 25,000 screaming fans, have the second-best chance at pulling an upset. Sacramento Republic go on the road to face the Galaxy (10:30 pm ET; USsoccer.com), which makes them a distant third.
I hate to harsh your long overdue "Hey I'm watching a good team!" buzz, but MLS Cup isn't remotely in sight as of yet for Chicago or anyone else. Start talking about stuff like that once you've won a playoff series, not before.
The U.S. Open Cup, on the other hand, is four wins away. Everybody left in the tournament should be flying that flag.
1. NYCFC are closest, in my estimation. They go out there every week and do their thing, and it's pretty tough to shake them out of their mindset/approach. RBNY killed them by pressing them last year, and Toronto FC did the same in the playoffs, but you just can't put them in the blender like that this year.
Mistakes will still be made, of course. But I've not seen a game this season in which I thought NYCFC were the second-best team save for the 3-1 loss to Atlanta in which they were missing both Alex Ring and Yangel Herrera.
2. The market inefficiency in MLS is the way teams undervalue central defenders available via the draft. This is because the draft as a whole has become undervalued, and because most center backs coming out of college need some serious polish when it comes to distribution and risk management. Many teams seem to lack faith in their own ability to coax improvement out of half-formed players.
Did I just name all the starting center backs on the three best defensive teams in the league? Yes, yes you did other Barry.
I'm not sure that makes them "moneyball" teams, per se. But if your club is out there passing on big, athletic center backs in the draft, you should probably be tweeting angry stuff at the GM.
3. Bastian Schweinsteiger is my second-favorite player this century behind only Xavi (who is my favorite player of all-time), so there's zero chance I'm going to toss out any other name here.
Balotelli is a great player with a larger-than-life personality and a huge fanbase. Why on earth wouldn't you want to see him in the league?
No one really jumps off the page as an imminent arrival. Aron Johannsson, perhaps, if he gets the right offer (I certainly wouldn't spend a DP slot on him). There's maybe an outside chance of Eric Lichaj coming home, since he's entering the last year of his contract. Or it's possible that one of the kids who hasn't been able to break through – Luca De La Torre, Andrija Novakovich, Fernando Arce, Jr. – gets itchy feet and the right opening.
I liked Canada's chance better before Cyle Larin's arrest, but still think they should be able to show a level of attacking feistiness that's been lacking for almost a decade now. Anthony Jackson-Hamel is more than adequate as a target forward fill-in, and the rest of the midfield and attack sort of lays itself out from there.
Defense is a concern, however.
For the US, I wrote a column-sized take on Sunday.
It's not exactly "now or never" for Juan Agudelo but I'd sure breathe a lot easier if now was the time he started matching production to potential with the US. I'm a firm believe that the US still need hold-up play and playmaking from their center forwards, and Agudelo has the potential to be an ideal back-up to Jozy Altidore in that regard.
So he should get – hopefully – a few starts in that role, and hopefully he does enough with it to warrant future call-ups and confidence from Bruce Arena.
If it doesn't happen now, though, it's still probably not the end of the road for Agudelo, who will be 29 years old come the 2022 World Cup. He should play a significant role next cycle one way or the other, but he's got to want it.
Bummed for C.J. Sapong, but he's got to use it as fuel and become a goal machine in the second half of the season. Sharper, more aggressive runs and more of a killer instinct in front of net, please.
I've only seen him a couple of times, so I don't have a full take yet. In general he didn't seem to be a game-changing player, but much more of a "useful cog" kind of guy. Which is fine – good teams have useful cogs, and I'm happy he's in the pool
Agudelo and Hedges wouldn't count as "out of nowhere" since both have been to camps and played for Arena. Dom Dwyer probably doesn't count as "out of nowhere" because Arena's been name-checking him for the last six months.
So the two that jump out at me? Kelyn Rowe, who is still only a part-timer at the role I think he's auditioning for (back-up playmaker), and Sean Johnson, who has resurrected his career and reputation in four months under Patrick Vieira.
Vieira's ability to make the most out of domestic reclamation projects or outright youngsters is why NYCFC have been able to thrive despite one of their DPs being, uh, something close to retired.
Yeah, this might low-key be the biggest question of the coming month. Clint Dempsey is obviously not past it, but he's obviously not able to be a 90-minute force game after game like he was in the past. And let's all remember that Jurgen Klinsmann rode Deuce into the ground each of the last three summers, and Deuce delivered in spectacular fashion:
- 2014 World Cup: Dempsey scored two of the five US goals
- 2015 Gold Cup: Dempsey scored six of the 11 US goals
- 2016 Copa America: Dempsey scored three of the seven US goals
He can't do that anymore, and he shouldn't be asked to do that anymore, and Arena's right to look for other options.
But Dempsey's time isn't yet done. He should be a super-sub for the US – he's ideal for the role, with his positional flexibility, big-game rep and obvious nose for goal. I can see him lasting in that capacity through next summer's World Cup.
The big question, though, is "Will he accept it?" It takes a real re-wiring to get used to coming off the bench, and many star players never quite adjust to that role. You don't get to 56 career goals by being happy with "second choice" status (which Dempsey showed in his heated exchange with Arena after being subbed off against Trinidad & Tobago).
But I've talked to a few folks who know Dempsey well, and they are certain that he'll get over whatever issues he may have with reduced minutes in this new era of the USMNT that is built upon two things: Pragmatism and Pulisic. If coming off the bench in high-leverage moments is what keeps Dempsey in the squad, he'll do it, he'll compete like hell, and he'll probably find at least one more big-time goal in his legs.
And to anyone who doubts that, I say...