With a tip of the cap to the great Zach Lowe, here's my own version of his "Annual Tiers of the NBA" column, MLS-style. What follows are not hard-and-fast Power Rankings, per se, but rather something a little more loose in terms of talent level, cohesion, chemistry and all the et ceteras that make teams tick (or not).
These teams are mostly in the order I think they'll finish, but what really matters is the tier designation.
Bear in mind, by the way, that with the playoff format change (single elimination hosted by the higher seed) the regular season should be hotter than usual. Every point matters.
TIER I: THE ALPHAS
New York Red Bulls
I've made this point for a quarter century now: The Supporters' Shield is the best indicator of who the best team is. I know it's not the trophy most teams want to win – RBNY players, coaches, front office and fans would trade it for the MLS Cup in a New York minute – but I value consistent excellence over the course of eight months more than consistent results over the course of five playoff games.
The Red Bulls in 2018, of course, weren't just "excellent" – they were historically so, taking home 71 points to set a new single-season record, and clocking in with a league-best +29 goal differential to go with a league-best 33 goals allowed. They were a wagon.
And in 2019 they return 10 of 11 starters, get three key players back from injury (one on the wing, one in central midfield, and one at fullback), add two potential young stars in attack and matriculate a potential young star from RBNY2 at central midfield. They'll probably have the benefit of all this without undergoing a mid-season coaching change as well.
Going for 70+ points again is a big ask, but it's not out of the question, is it?
My Worry: The one guy they have to replace is now putting in legitimately dominant displays for a top four Bundesliga team. Tyler Adams was awesome in 2017, awesomer in 2018, and apparently he has no ceiling. How do you replace that?
The answer is "via a bit of rotation and a bit of a tactical/formational adjustment." RBNY played what looked a little bit more of a 4-3-3 rather than the 4-2-3-1 last week, with Sean Davis as a holder and Marc Rzatkowski a little further advanced as more of a No. 8. Rzatkowski and Cristian Casseres, Jr. – that young, potential starting center mid matriculating from USL – will likely share the responsibilities.
Casseres is an Adams-type in that he covers a lot of ground, but is really much more of an 8 than a 6. Rzatkowski provides a different look:
It's conceivable that their mix-and-match skillsets actually make RBNY stronger in central midfield than they were last year with Adams. Imagine that.
4-3-3: Luis Robles; Kemar Lawrence, Aaron Long, Tim Parker, Michael Murillo; Kaku, Sean Davis, Marc Rzatkowski; Daniel Royer, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Florian Valot
() When Casseres plays it'll be more of a 4-2-3-1.
Atlanta's season was also historically elite, clocking in at 69 points (the same as Toronto FC in 2017) and taking home the MLS Cup while allowing zero open play goals in the postseason. That was quite a change from a team that'd primarily been reckoned with as an attacking juggernaut over their first two years in the league.
Obviously the dose of pragmatism – they went into absorb-and-counter mode at the start of the playoffs – did them some good. And new head coach Frank De Boer has stressed a similar defensive mindset, if not necessarily aping the style Tata Martino eventually fell into last November.
The exceedingly early returns haven't been great, and I totally understand the level of simmering panic/disgust in the fanbase after last week's loss in Costa Rica. But getting drilled 3-1 down in Costa Rica is a rite of passage for MLS teams, and Liga MX teams, and the USMNT, and El Tri. Costa Rica is Concacaf's gom jabbar.
I'm not entirely convinced that Atlanta United are MLS's Kwisatz Haderach, but they bring back 9 of 11 starters, have depth almost everywhere, and match almost everybody in the league in terms of top-end talent. They can go out there and win most games just because they have more gas in that particular tank.
My Worry: In case you forgot what they lost, Miguel Almiron has been the best player on the field in his first two EPL starts:
Pity Martinez is supposed to be something close to a like-for-like replacement, and you could argue he's the better player in the attacking third. But he's not the everywhere-on-the-field, every-facet-of-the-game force that Almiron is.
Replacing that is hard. It gets harder when De Boer lines the team up in a janky 5-4-1 that doesn't really seem to highlight the strengths of literally anyone on the roster. Atlanta were a mess last week, and while that probably won't continue indefinitely, a slow start could cost them the Shield.
3-4-3: Brad Guzan; Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, Miles Robinson; Brek Shea, Darlington Nagbe, Eric Remedi, Julian Gressel; Ezequiel Barco, Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez
() Bet this moves to a 3-4-1-2 with Hector Villalba coming in up top and Barco going to the bench.
TIER II: THE CONTENDERS
Sporting started making the playoffs in 2011. They haven't stopped, and won't stop. And since we're applying the rule of 3s: can't stop!
In large part this is due to a deep, balanced and talented roster, and that is due almost in toto to Peter Vermes's relentless ingenuity both in terms of player acquisition and tactical adjustments. Yes, Sporting are still playing out of a 4-3-3, but don't mistake "formation" for "tactics": this is a vastly different team than even two years ago. They're much more married to the ball, and methodical back-to-front possession, and much less committed to pressing teams until they suffocate.
They still have that club in the bag, and used it in the playoffs last year against RSL. But it's not their first choice any longer, and hasn't been for a while.
And look, there's a danger in reading too much into one game (especially a game against a team that's struggling as much as Toluca), but: In the past half-century, US and Canadian-based teams have beaten a Liga MX team by three or more goals exactly twice. That 3-0 really, really meant something.
It means even more when you contextualize it with "they brought back nine starters and upgraded their depth in order to improve upon a team that went for 62 points and +25 last year."
They were a Shield-caliber team in 2018. They just had the misfortune of doing it during the same season as two historically great teams.
My Worry: No, I'm not done worrying about the No. 9 role despite Krisztian Nemeth's great first leg, and despite a system that's verging on Berhalter-in-Columbus-level great at producing big chances. Josef Martinez and Bradley Wright-Phillips finished these chances last year:
That said, I'm weirdly more concerned about the defense. Andreu Fontas did a gorgeous job of distributing the ball, but every time he was asked to backpedal a bit it looked like the first time in his life he'd tried to play defense. They're definitely giving up more than 40 goals this year.
4-3-3: Tim Melia; Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, Andreu Fontas, Graham Zusi; Felipe Gutierrez, Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza; Daniel Salloi, Krisztian Nemeth, Johnny Russell
() Expect way more squad rotation from Vermes than in past years. There is a non-zero chance Kelyn Rowe wins a starting job outright at some point.
In 2017, Atlanta United set the league afire by amassing 55 points and finishing fourth in their conference in their expansion season. In 2018, they won MLS Cup.
In 2018, people kind of yawned when LAFC amassed 57 points and finished third in their conference. They even scored a similar number of goals – Atlanta with 70 in 2017, LAFC with 68 in 2018 (though it's worth noting that Atlanta went +30 on goal differential, while LAFC was "just" +16).
I don't know if it's that what had previously been extraordinary is now just ordinary since it's been done back-to-back, or if it's because Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi aren't quite as exciting as Almiron and Josef, but regardless, it just doesn't feel like there's enough expectation around this team. But there absolutely should be.
One big reason is that their attacking talent is as good as anybody in MLS (and their midfield talent is arguably at that level as well). Another underrated reason is that Bob Bradley did most of his "gettin' ready for 2019!" wheeling and dealing in the middle of 2018. Lee Nguyen, Christian Ramirez, Adama Diomande, Eduard Atuesta, Andre Horta, Danilo Silva... these are all major pieces who came in during the season. They collected 57 points while rebuilding and rebooting on the fly.
How many will they take now that they've had an offseason to work together and achieve a higher level of chemistry and cohesion?
My Worry: Let's go back to that goal differential bit between expansion Atlanta and expansion LAFC. Obviously it comes down to the defense – the Five Stripes conceded 40, and had one of the league's best defenses to build on heading into Year 2. LAFC conceded 52, which is mid-table at best.
Many of these were just guys not making plays they should make, but more often it was them not getting pressure to the ball in midfield:
I expect significant improvement in that regard this season. I'll admit, though, that I'm also a little bit worried about that central defense's ability to handle the aggressive, front-foot approach Bradley asks of them.
4-2-1-3: Tyler Miller; Jordan Harvey, Eddie Segura, Walker Zimmerman, Steven Beitashour; Eduard Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye; Lee Nguyen; Diego Rossi, Christian Ramirez, Carlos Vela
() When Horta comes in for one of Atuesta or Kaye it'll be more of a 4-3-3, but you really should watch the ESPN+ doc on LAFC. I don't think Horta's going to be first choice.
How shook are you by the fact that they just completed a winless preseason? How shook are you that Chad Marshall is 34 and coming off an injury? How shook are you by the fact that they're replacing Ozzie Alonso, literally the greatest d-mid in MLS history? How shook are you when you think that if form holds true from the last three years, they'll probably spend the first few months of the season in a coma?
Any of it is, on its own, probably enough to keep the Sounders from winning their second-ever Supporters' Shield. All of it banding together and worst-casing 2019 might be enough to keep the Sounders from being a really, really good team.
But probably not.
The Sounders are deep and talented and well-built and have A+ pieces at every level of the field (Raul Ruidiaz up top; Nico Lodeiro in midfield; Marshall at CB; Stefan Frei at goal). You can punt a month here, or allow for an adjustment period there if you've got that kind of foundation.
Beyond that, they have that third DP slot and a pretty well-established habit of using it well come summer. Add in a pretty well-defined style of play, which I'll call "Get the ball to Nico, and then make a good run so that Nico will get the ball to you," and I just don't think there should be that much worry in Seattle.
This should be a really, really good team, and has a really, really good chance at being more than that.
What a freaking legend.
Defensively, they can survive Marshall losing a step. They can't survive if the Roldan/Svensson combo doesn't replace Alonso's destructive ability in central midfield.
4-2-3-1: Stefan Frei; Nouhou, Kim Kee-Hee, Chad Marshall, Kelvin Leerdam; Gustav Svensson, Cristian Roldan; Victor Rodriguez, Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris; Raul Ruidiaz
() When Morris pushes high and Lodeiro drops deep, this will function a lot more like a 4-3-3 than in years past. They might occasionally get exposed on the defensive side in transition because of it.
D.C. United were legitimately a joy to watch during the second half of last season. And that causes me at least a little bit of concern because they were legitimately a joy to watch during the second half of 2016 before cratering for a year-and-a-half. There's no guarantee that what they did for the last six months will translate to the next 12.
But it seems something close to "likely" that they'll be very good, right? Wayne Rooney is still Wayne Rooney, and Lucho Acosta showed that he could be more than just a highlight reel player, and Paul Arriola took a step forward, and this was all happening atop a defensive midfield that suddenly became one of the league's best, and alongside overlapping fullbacks who were suddenly some of the league's most dangerous. Oniel Fisher looked like Dani freaking Alves for weeks at a time! What the hell is going on!?
That's who D.C. were once Rooney arrived, Bill Hamid returned and Russell Canouse got healthy. They'll have all three of those guys from first kick this year, plus a couple of reinforcements at other spots – right back, left wing, maybe center back as well. Even if one or two of those guys don't pan out, they're still pretty stacked.
This should be the best D.C. team in 20 years. I don't think they're as good, relatively speaking, as the great teams of the Bruce Arena-led dynasty of the '90s, but they're not far off (especially if Lucas Rodriguez is actually better than Yamil Asad).
My Worry: Nobody can replicate what Rooney does in terms of linking play, threatening goal, and generally being a center forward who serves, in a lot of ways, the same function as a freaking regista. If he gets hurt, they're in trouble.
That's the "if, then..." worry. The actual worry is that their defense is not as good as the other teams at this level and above:
Steve Birnbaum needs to take a big step forward in terms of organizing things this year, and Donovan Pines needs to use the first few months of the season to adjust to the pro game, then the last few months to show that he's the Rookie of the Year and a potential national team player.
Both guys have the talent to manage it.
4-2-3-1: Bill Hamid; Joseph Mora, Steve Birnbaum, Frederic Brillant, Leonardo Jara; Russell Canouse, Junior Moreno; Lucas Rodriguez, Lucho Acosta, Paul Arriola; Wayne Rooney
() No real asterisk here, though there's been at least some question of Rodriguez's early adjustment period based upon his preseason form.
TIER III: THE PLAYOFF PACK
I've written this elsewhere, but that won't stop me from writing it here as well: The Impact went 11W-6L-4D over the final 21 games of the 2018 regular season. It wasn't enough to get them into the playoffs, but it's enough of a sample size to convince me that Remi Garde's got a plan and knows how to implement it. Put another way: They spent nearly two-thirds of the season playing at a 60-point pace, and beat the hell out of some good teams – Sporting, RBNY, Columbus, Philly – while doing so.
Montreal are a solid playoff team this year. I'll be genuinely surprised if they're not.
They'll do it by playing a deep line and limiting the quality, if not the quantity, of the shots they allow, then getting out on the run with Ignacio Piatti and his supporting cast. Here, let's just watch a minute's worth of Piatti goals:
This tactical approach will not win them any awards for aesthetics, save for when Piatti is in 1-v-1 situations robbing defenders of their souls. And it might not win them any trophies as the ceiling for teams who play like this is maybe slightly lower than teams who play like, say, Sporting. But the floor is also very high, which means they'll avoid the abyss that we saw in March, April and May of last year.
Other than Piatti, the rest of this roster is a little short of high-end talent (though Saphir Taider may prove me wrong about that), which is another check mark in the "good team, not actual contenders" column.
My Worry: First of all, what if Garde decides that he doesn't have to follow last year's plan and instead goes back to the well re: playing via possession? I think the addition of Micheal Azira in central midfield makes them less susceptible to the regular drubbings they took in the early stages of 2018, but they're still not built for that. Coaches can be stubborn, and I have some mild concern there.
I have greater concerns about the central defense. Rod Fanni was really, really good last year, and Zakaria Diallo has his work cut out replacing him. If he's not up to it, the Impact will really have to scramble.
4-3-3: Evan Bush; Daniel Lovitz, Rudy Camacho, Zakaria Diallo, Bacary Sagna; Saphir Taider, Samuel Piette, Micheal Azira; Ignacio Piatti, Maxi Urruti, Orji Okwonkwo
() I really think the wing opposite Piatti is up for grabs, and I wouldn't be shocked if someone ended up pushing Azira for that starting job.
It wouldn't be a surprise if they got off to a bad start. The defense, throughout most of preseason, looked a mess, and there's a wait-and-see about the attack since nobody's reaaaaaally sure of what to expect from both Andy Polo and Jeremy Ebobisse, and – most important – they're on the road for three months. Portland have never been a particularly good road team, remember, and leaving the cozy confines til June means no one would be shocked to see them enter summer somewhere near the bottom of the standings.
Breathe. Relax. They're going to be fine.
Portland brought back everybody from last year's MLS Cup appearance save for Liam Ridgewell, and yes, that means they have a ton of talent. Talent is the best starting point. A solid coach (Gio Savarese proved he is at least that in Year 1 of his MLS journey) is a good second step, and a good chunk of roster balance is a good third step.
That roster balance means they can be a wait-and-see team when they finally go for that third DP. If Polo or Ebobisse or both turn out to be elite at their respective positions, they suddenly have a bunch of flexibility come July. Maybe instead of adding to the attack they go for a high-level defender, or a Diego Chara heir in central midfield? It's all on the table.
Regardless, chalk this group off as "team most likely to make a huge second-half surge."
My Worry: The Sounders are super dependent upon Lodeiro. D.C. ain't much without Rooney. It's hard to see the Impact being much of anything without Piatti.
Portland, without Chara, are winless in 20 straight games.
Ok, that's the "if, then..." worry. The actual worry is that Ebobisse doesn't find these kinds of goals often enough:
He needs to get the occasional tap-in in order to put up real numbers, and if he doesn't, that means the attack isn't exactly clicking through the first four months of the season. And if that happens, it means the Timbers will be using that DP slot next summer not to strengthen the team, but to patch a hole.
A lot is riding on his shoulders.
4-4-1-1: Jeff Attinella; Jorge Villafana, Julio Cascante, Larrys Mabiala, Jorge Moreira; Sebastian Blanco, David Guzman, Diego Chara, Andy Polo; Diego Valeri; Jeremy Ebobisse
() Yeah, it's a 4-4-1-1 since Valeri isn't a real midfielder anymore and hasn't been in two years. Only real personnel question is Cascante's spot, since he's been unconvincing in preseason and Bill Tuiloma is reported approaching fitness.
There's been some sense that I'm overreaching by putting them here, but Dallas had 57 points last year, return most of their core, and should expect a new level of dynamism via internal improvement. They're going full-tilt into the RBNY way of doing things, and it looks quite a bit like as many as three new Homegrown players, all of whom have excelled in either the USL or with US youth national teams, are pushing for major minutes (or maybe even starting jobs).
I am not hesitant in stating that I believe this is the correct way to go about doing things. We saw in the second half of 2017 what happens when a roster – even a super-talented roster – goes stale, and jobs are no longer on the line. We'll see now if a new coach and a (partially) new generation of players can push FCD back towards silverware.
That said, I don't think all or even most of the internal improvement will come from the Homegrown kids. In particular, the front line of Santiago Mosquera, Dom Badji and Michael Barrios looked reborn in preseason:
There was a lot of that in February. YMMV on how much that matters to you, but 1) it doesn't mean nothing, and 2) when taken within the context of "Luchi Gonzalez's super-mobile, high-pressing scheme seems to play to their strengths," I actually think it means quite a bit.
My Worry: They have zero proven backline depth, and while Paxton Pomykal was good in the preseason, he didn't exactly set the world aflame. If there are questions as to whether or not you're actually the starter in Week 1, that means you weren't entirely convincing, you know?
That's potentially a big gap. Combine it with the fact that nobody on the roster has ever had a double-digit goals season in MLS, and that's a lot of known unknowns to work through.
4-3-3: Jesse Gonzalez; Marquinhos Pedroso, Reto Ziegler, Matt Hedges, Reggie Cannon; Paxton Pomykal, Carlos Gruezo, Bryan Acosta; Santiago Mosquera, Dom Badji, Michael Barrios
() If it's not Pomykal, it'll probably be Jacori Hayes – a more conservative player – in that midfield role. Pablo Aranguiz, who was supposed to be the primary central midfield playmaker, has been Mosquera's back-up as an inverted, playmaking left wing so far in 2019.
I've been in the process of slowly talking myself into the Crew over the past month. The reason I had to talk myself into a team that won two playoff games last year? Simply put: I believe they're at a talent deficit compared to almost every other top team in the East.
In years past they've made up for this deficit by playing one of the most defined and well-structured systems in the entire league. Gregg Berhalter's team was, for years, known for their ability to generate tap-in chances for No. 9s as first Kei Kamara, then Ola Kamara, and then Gyasi Zardes all had their best seasons in central Ohio.
But last year they evolved into something better: A team that generated tap-ins on one side, then shut down any sort of quality looks on the other. No cheapies vs. the Crew in 2018.
So why were't they better? Overall talent.
The talent didn't change much this offseason, but the coach did. And with Caleb Porter's arrival will come some tweaks (at minimum) to the system, including a selective high press that should, I think, play pretty well.
Beyond that, it just stretches credulity to imagine the wingers being as poor in front of net as they were last year. Add eight more goals to last season's tally and you have a team that flirts with 60 points.
I mean, maybe he broke a mirror or walked under a ladder or something. Yeesh.
4-2-3-1: Zack Steffen; Waylon Francis, Gaston Sauro, Jonathan Mensah, Harrison Afful; Wil Trapp, Artur; Justin Meram, Federico Higuain, Pedro Santos; Gyasi Zardes
() They'd do well to rotate Afful and especially Higuain, who are both into their 30s now. And obviously the Steffen transfer out is looming.
Lost in all the schadenfreude of watching the Galaxy fall on their faces for the second season in a row: They improved by 16 points year-over-year and produced one of the best attacks in the league. They were a fringe playoff team last season who fell short (hilariously, if you're from outside southern California) on the last day of the season, but pretty clearly have the pieces in place to make another jump in 2019.
A healthy Zlatan from the start of the year? Check. A dose of reality about overpaying for aging European defenders? Check. A bit more youth and balance and dynamism throughout midfield? Check.
They also have a stable head coaching situation for the first time since Bruce Arena bid adieu after the 2016 season. Guillermo Barros Schelotto may very well be more than just a "stable coaching situation," he may in fact be a built-in advantage over most teams (despite what Boca Juniors fans aggrieved by their Copa Libertadores loss to River Plate may feel about the situation, anyway).
LA won't make a 16-point jump over last season as there are still too many questions on that backline, as well as about Sebastian Lletget's week-to-week health. But – sorry to break this to most of you – this is a playoff team.
My Worry: The backline is thin, and I'm basing a lot of my "hey, they're not going to give up 64 goals again" confidence upon last year's relatively strong final two months, as well as the arrival of a single reinforcement in Diego Polenta.
We won't have to see stuff like this anymore, at least:
4-2-3-1: David Bingham; Jorgen Skjelvik, Diego Polenta, Daniel Steres, Rolf Feltscher; Sebastian Lletget, Jonathan Dos Santos; Romain Alessandrini, Emil Cuello, Uriel Antuna; Zlatan Ibrahimovic
() Our man Scott French says rookie draft pick Emil Cuello’s got the inside track on the No. 10 spot, at least for Week 1 – which is kind of shocking, but it’s good to be a Boca Juniors fan when GBS is your coach.
TIER IV: THE BUBBLE
There's a chance that everything works out. There's a chance that their new offseason signings in attack are huge upgrades, and the subsequent offensive explosion propels them up the standings. There's a chance that linear progression from the young central defense, and from a few other guys who've worked their way into the rotation, is good for shaving a few goals allowed off their season total. There's a chance that all of the above happens as a shift to a high-pressing scheme unsettles opponents and results in loads of transition goals.
All of the above are good concepts. What the Union lack is proof of concept. They can't present that until they're out there on the field winning games that matter, and that won't start until this weekend.
I understand why Ernst Tanner demanded the shift to pressing soccer, just as I understand why they splashed out (by their standards) for Marco Fabian. Their ceiling, as a whole is a lot higher now.
Man I'll miss this, though:
That was the single best sequence of play in MLS last season. It deserved a goal at the end.
My Worry: Just because you're fast doesn't mean you're going to be a good defender in a pressing situation. Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty were both asked to put out a lot of fires on the back foot last year, and they mostly scrambled well. Defending on the front foot, though? The world's not exactly filled with 20-year-old CBs who excel at that.
Even more concerning is that if you're slow, you're probably not going to be an effective pressing midfielder. Both Haris Medunjanin and (to a lesser extent) Fabian are pretty slow. That's going to put a lot of pressure on the guys around them – especially as they learn a new system.
4-4-2 diamond: Andre Blake; Kai Wagner, Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie, Ray Gaddis; Haris Medunjanin; Derrick Jones, Alejandro Bedoya; Marco Fabian; Sergio Santos, Cory Burke
() If Medunjanin can't do the job at the back point, look for Jones to drop into that role and either Warren Creavalle or Brenden Aaronson to push into the XI.
This could all go wrong in a hurry, but I'm buying what I see from Chicago's front six – including what's on their depth chart. The midfield should be able to dominate the ball in a way similar to what they did in 2017, when they were putting together some of the prettiest goalscoring sequences in MLS:
This wasn't that long ago! The coach of that particular team – which finished third in the league – is still there, so it's a decent bet his ideas are still there. A number of the key players in that sequence are still there, and so's their talent.
If Djordje Mihailovic develops as I think he will, and Przemyslaw Frankowski is a slightly above average MLS winger, they're in good shape to be a team that scores a lot of goals. And as I mentioned at the top, their two-deep for that front six is legit (I'd argue they overpaid a bit for CJ Sapong, but he does fill a need for them).
I know that this is no different from what I've said and written elsewhere about this team. Sorry about that, Fire fans, but it is what it is.
Which means you know exactly what's coming in the next section.
My Worry: They do not look like a team that's going to give up fewer than 55 goals. And if you're giving up that many, you've got to hope and pray that you find enough late comebacks or miracle, split-second saves to sneak out a few results you don't deserve (given David Ousted's form the past couple of years, that might not be a safe bet).
Now, there have been reports that Chicago are still shopping for defensive reinforcements, and it shouldn't shock anybody if at least one starter is added between now and the close of the spring transfer/trade window.
But yeah... this could all go wrong in a hurry.
4-2-3-1: David Ousted; Jorge Corrales, Marcelo, Johan Kappelhof, Nicolas Hasler; Dax McCarty, Bastian Schweinsteiger; Przemyslaw Frankowski, Djordje Mihailovic, Aleksandar Katai; Nemanja Nikolic
() This seems fairly straight-forward at this point. Both fullback spots are the big questions.
There was concern, in some segments of the fanbase, over the club's willingness to go out there and blow the doors off in pursuit of a David Villa replacement. Some doubted ownership's willingness to spend big, or pursue a big name.
Enter Alexandru Mitrita, who commanded the third-largest transfer fee in MLS history:
Rather than pull a Danny Mills, I will say this: I have never seen Mitrita play aside from a handful of preseason games, and he's clearly got some stuff he can bring to the table. You want a reason why the Cityzens paid close to eight figures for him? There's the clip above.
What will determine, in large part, how much of a dip (if any) this team takes from the last three seasons of contention is 1) how well Mitrita replaces Villa, 2) how well they replace Yangel Herrera's presence in central midfield, and 3) how much of last season's late-season gloom was a permanent state of affairs.
But let's not bring it there yet. Let's focus on the "talent" question, one which NYCFC can answer resoundingly in the affirmative. Line them up, 1-thru-25, and they're probably a top four or five team in the league, resplendent with full internationals at almost every position.
Teams like that usually make the playoffs.
My Worry: Sometimes they don't, and it takes all kinds of mental gymnastics to say they were anything but a bad team for the last four months under Dome Torrent. From July 29 onward they went 4W-8L-4D – 16 games, which is just under half-a-season's sample size – under Torrent across all competitions. That's a 34-point pace, after playing the first 20 games of the season at a 71-point pace. Dome took an MLS Cup contender and turned them into a Wooden Spoon contender overnight.
It's not clear what exactly was wrong, as they were uniformly poor no matter who was available or not. My biggest worry (my worry within the worry, I guess) is that they stopped being able to press as well, which bespoke an underlying lack of organization.
That's why this is a bubble team and not a solid playoff team.
4-2-3-1: Sean Johnson; Ben Sweat, Alex Callens, Maxime Chanot, Anton Tinnerholm; Alex Ring, Ebenezer Ofori; Alexandru Mitrita, Maxi Moralez, Jesus Medina; Jonathan Lewis
() So yeah, it's a pretty bog-standard 4-2-3-1 save for a little bit of interchange and inverted fullbackery on the left. Lewis – who I love as a winger – looks like the starter (for now) up top. I'm not sure where Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, who was "excellent" last year by some metrics and "unsustainably excellent" by others, fits in. NYCFC have some problems to solve.
I've been going back-and-forth about the Dynamo for a while now, but their two CCL games against Guastatoya have convinced me (maybe because I'm an idiot): They're going to be pretty good! Not great – they just don't have the depth, and their defense appears to be only "functional" rather than "a strong point," and unlike many other teams in the bottom tax bracket of MLS, they're not yet pushing Homegrown contributors through the ranks. It appears unlikely they'll find answers to pressing questions from within.
But they have a style of play, they have that functional defense, they have a bit more steel in central midfield, and that front, attacking four is capable of just tossing you into the woodchipper:
Elis to Manotas is a cheat code. We saw it in the Champions League, we saw it in the U.S. Open Cup, we saw it in the 2017 playoffs. Both of these guys could make high-7-figure/low-eight-figure moves to big European clubs sometime in the next 12 months. They are absolutely good enough, and when those are your two best attackers, and Tomas Martinez and Romell Quioto are your third- and fourth-best attackers, and you have a functional defense, you're gonna win some games.
My Worry:Juan David Cabezas is hurt already, and the Dynamo were helpless/hopeless/punchless against Guastatoya until Wilmer Cabrera brought in the starters.
This team is paper thin. They proved it last year and they proved it again this week.
I am also not a fan of Wilmer Cabrera's substitution patterns, which as often as not, rob his team of momentum rather than give them an extra push for the final 20 minutes. Every now and again it'd be interesting to see the Dynamo make proactive rather than reactive subs.
4-2-3-1: Joe Willis; DaMarcus Beasley, Maynor Figueroa, Kiki Struna, AJ DeLaGarza; Matias Vera, Juan David Cabezas; Romell Quioto, Tomas Martinez, Alberth Elis; Mauro Manotas
() I think there's a decent chance a lot of these guys are rested in Week 1 since there's a date with Tigres midweek, but in a perfect world, this is their first XI without much quibble.
I held onto my TFC stock way too long last year and am concerned that I'm doing the same once again here. They were a 36-point team in 2018, and have come out of the gates looking like they'll struggle to collect even that many in 2019. Big changes are needed, and big changes are coming.
They clearly need Alejandro Pozuelo or someone like him to weave all that midfield possession they generate into penetration. Maybe he's the guy who hits the pass, or maybe he's the guy who hits the pass before the pass. Or maybe he's the guy who hits the pass that changes the defense's shape that allows some other guy to hit the pass before the pass, or maybe he's just the guy who puts his foot on the damn ball when things are falling apart.
By all accounts he's been the captain and best player on the best team in Belgium this season. By many accounts he's been the best player in Belgium, full stop. He'll help a lot.
So would a couple of TAM wingers if they're really intent on going to a 4-3-3 (which I think they are). Can they get Lucas Janson back? That guy was good.
They'll be a different team a month from now. I think it'll be a significantly better one.
My Worry: They may have to score 100 goals to even get to the bubble:
Maybe they should hold off on signing one of those wingers and consider better addressing their backline needs.
4-4-2 diamond: Alex Bono; Justin Morrow, Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor, Auro; Michael Bradley; Marky Delgado, Nick DeLeon; Jonathan Osorio; Jozy Altidore, Jordan Hamilton
() This is very obviously a "for now" situation. Hamilton did just score a goal in the Champions League and has the talent to be an MLS regular, though. He'll need to make the most of the season's first few weeks in order to prove to the powers that be that they should bet on him.
Real Salt Lake
They made the playoffs last year – by the grace of God and Mauro Manotas – and return everyone of note. Know what that means? By default they're a playoff bubble team this year.
RSL fans should be excited about a lot of the talent on this team. Corey Baird was the rookie of the year, made his USMNT debut and picked up an assist! Jefferson Savarino is a pretty decent bet to be the answer to "Who's the next MLSer to go for a hefty transfer fee to some European team?" Joao Plata can be the best player in the league for weeks at a time. Albert Rusnak is reliably fun and good and inventive in the attack. Bofo Saucedo's out here ending lives:
That's Damir Kreilach (a darkhorse Best XI candidate) and Marcelo Silva with key moments in the sequence above. Justen Glad and Brooks Lennon and Aaron Herrera are all former USYNT studs who have, for long stretches, looked like above average MLS starters. Everton Luiz has looked the part of a competent addition, there are yet more kids coming through the pipeline, and Sam Johnson is maybe going to be worth that DP slot at the 9.
We saw in the second half of each of the last two seasons what this team is capable of when they get cooking. The kids have another year under their respective belts, and that should lead to improvement.
My Worry: I have three big worries. For one... sometimes a lot of depth is too much, and can lead to bad blood in the locker room. Managing minutes, managing egos, managing everything that goes with leading a roomful of alpha males is still, even in this age of tactical innovations, the most important job a head coach has.
For two, RSL have at times looked overwhelmed on a tactical level. They had no way of coping with Portland in a pair of what should've been must-win games last year, and too often devolve into a series of individual battles rather than rehearsed, repeatable build-up sequences. It was often on gory display during preseason.
And for three, both Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando showed their age last year. It's painful, but it's reality. Cutting the cord on them will be tough, but will probably be necessary in order for this team to crest 50 points.
4-2-3-1: Nick Rimando; Aaron Herrera, Marcelo Silva, Justen Glad, Brooks Lennon; Kyle Beckerman, Everton Luiz; Albert Rusnak, Damir Kreilach, Jefferson Savarino; Corey Baird
() Yeah, that's Rusnak as an inverted, playmaking left winger. They tried that a bunch this preseason in order to get Beckerman, Luiz and Kreilach into the same central midfield together.
Minnesota United FC
The moment of truth is here: This is when the three-year plan, talked about so frequently during the "soft launch" of 2017 and then in more desperate whispers during a disappointing 2018, is supposed to come to fruition with a playoff berth. If it doesn't happen now, then major changes will be in order.
Of course, major changes have already taken place, with the biggest aimed at shoring up what has been a record-settingly bad defense over the past two years. In are Ike Opara, Ozzie Alonso, Jan Gregus and Romain Metanire. Out are a lot of guys whose names I won't be quizzing you on.
Those four guys are all cornerstones in what is, on paper, a team that definitely definitely definitely should not, in any conceivable reality, figure out a way to give up 70+ goals again. If they can carve it down from 70 to 60 allowed, they'll probably be in the playoff hunt but fizzle out. If they can carve it down to the low 50s, they'll probably make it.
A reminder, that they've never had a defender like a healthy Ike Opara. Hell, most MLS teams – even the ones that have been in business for a couple of decades – haven't had a defender like a healthy Ike Opara:
That's because there's a lot of reasons to be high on the attack. Darwin Quintero was worth the price of admission as a No. 10 last year, and they have 1,000 fun, fast and exciting wingers to choose from around him. They shouldn't need to throw crazy numbers forward to be a team that puts the ball in the net 55 times.
My Worry: I wrote about this when Opara and Alonso were acquired, but... both guys are over 30 and injury-prone, and both regressed last year. Maybe that regression halts or slows. Maybe it continues apace. Maybe – god forbid – it picks up a little bit of steam.
They really can't afford that. This is a team that needs to be, at minimum, 15 goals better defensively to have a coin-flip of a chance at the playoffs. Think they'll be that if Opara and Ozzie give them 60% of available minutes at 70% of capacity? Me neither.
Obviously that's the "if, then..." scenario. The more pressing concern is that while personnel was a big part of Minnesota's problems the last two years, the bigger problem may have been structural:
Kevin's emoji says it all.
4-2-3-1: Vito Mannone; Francisco Calvo, Michael Boxall, Ike Opara, Romain Metanire; Osvaldo Alonso, Jan Gregus; Rasmus Schuller, Darwin Quintero, Miguel Ibarra; Romario Ibarra
() Yeah it's weird, right? But they've been using Schuller as an inverted winger for some reason so far in 2019, and given that DP center forward Angelo Rodriguez is nursing an injury, it seems a deeeeecent bet Romario gets the start up top. Good name for a forward, at least!
There's maybe a better chance that they drop down a tier than there is that they stay in this tier. But my column, my rules, and after a few years of paying attention to Marc Dos Santos's teams off and on, this is a rule: Give Marc Dos Santos's team the benefit of the doubt.
I'm not really sure what to say beyond that, other than that this team feels, in a lot of ways, more like an expansion team than the actual expansion team (FC Cincinnati) does. The goalkeeper is new, the defense is rebuilt, the midfield is rebuilt, and the attack is rebuilt. Last year's biggest acquisitions are all gone. It seems there's a decent chance only two starters, right back Jake Nerwinski and central midfielder Felipe, will hold their spots once again in 2019. And I would bet neither my money nor yours that those guys will both be full-time starters.
Based upon Dos Santos's past, the type of offseason acquisitions they made and what they played in preseason, I think it'll be a 4-3-3 with an emphasis on two-way play in central midfield and playmaking on the flanks. I think the fullbacks will often push up in support, but rarely to overlap (and almost never to bang in crosses). I expect they'll value having the ball more than past iterations of the 'Caps.
I like this. This is fun! I'm excited to learn new things.
My Worry: Integrating a million new faces into a new culture with a new style of play after losing your three best players in the offseason is not great. Let's remember what they had...
They'll have had to have hit on a lot of these most recent signings to be a playoff team. I probably am giving Dos Santos too much credit, but I don't care – I like the way his teams play.
4-3-3: Zac MacMath; Brett Levis, Derek Cornelius, Erik Godoy, Jake Nerwinski; Felipe, Jon Erice, Inboem Hwang; Lass Bangoura, Fredy Montero, Yordy Reyna
() Pretty much all the acquisitions they made this winter – including bringing Montero back – made sense, but I'll admit I lifted an eyebrow at Erice's signing. He's a 32-year-old Segunda Liga lifer who can pretty much only play d-mid. That doesn't scream "pay a transfer fee for me!", but they sure did.
TIER V: OPEN QUESTIONS
Orlando City SC
Here I am, back to drink at the trough of my own failure. You'll recall, of course, that I bought a lot of stock in "Orlando City will make a run at the playoffs in 2018!" It went up in smoke in many of the most flagrantly tragic ways known to man.
I won't make the same mistake twice, and by that I mean that I don't think Orlando City have a realistic path to the playoffs. They shipped 74 goals last year and their defense doesn't look appreciably better, for one. And for two, James O'Connor had plenty of time last year to put together a team that could put together a run. Yeah, coming in a mid-season is tough on anyone, but he went 2W-13L-3D. That's worse than the guy he replaced, and worse than the guy who was replaced by the guy he replaced.
But 1) they can't possibly be worse, and 2) Sebastian Mendez, Nani and Danny Acosta are all legitimate talent upgrades. This team now has more guys at more spots who can play the game at a pretty high level, and that matters enough for me to feel they can approach 45 points.
If they do that while getting meaningful growth out of a few kids – looking your way, Josue Colman – that'd be a nice step forward and something to build upon.
My Worry: Or maybe none of that will happen. If the vision at the top isn't clear and the chemistry on the ground is bad (it's an open secret around the league that the Orlando locker room was not a fun place last year), nothing much will matter at that point. You might end up with a team fighting each other more often than they're fighting for results.
And a reminder that even when things were going good last year, the underlying stuff was pretty bad. They were giving up a million breakaways and living off of last-minute comebacks. You can't do that if you want to be a playoff team.
5-3-1-1: Brian Rowe; Danny Acosta, Lamine Sane, Carlos Ascues, Shane O'Neill, Kyle Smith; Uri Rosell, Sacha Kljestan, Sebastian Mendez; Nani; Dom Dwyer
() It'll maybe end up being more of a 5-2-2-1 with Kljestan and Nani together underneath Dwyer, I think? At this point it all remains to be seen, but regardless they haven't looked in preseason like a team that plans to give up two goals per game.
San Jose Earthquakes
The Quakes had the worst season in club history, and one of the worst in league history by bringing home 21 points. Everyone assumed that would mean complete overhaul mode, but here we are about to kick off 2019 and we're looking at a team that's brought back about 90 percent of the minutes they played last year, and seem like they'll have just four new starters.
Of course they're on their fifth new coach in the past 20 months, and that might be enough. Matias Almeyda's teams play physical, often brutish and aesthetically less-than-pleasing soccer, but...
That's a guy you hire. The reason is right there in the tweet.
So what to expect from Almeyda's Quakes? More 50/50 challenges than any team we've seen in MLS in a long time because their whole system is predicated on man marking. Let's let veteran center back Guram Kashia explain:
"That man-marking, to follow everybody, is something new for me and I’m trying to really pay attention on the right people," Kashia told Goal.com's Jon Arnold. "With two central defenders, one follows the striker and one is a type of libero. That’s something we need to be working on. We’ll make mistakes, but every training, we’re working on it. It’s a matter of time about how fast we’re going to learn and adjust to the system."
That's it. If the team takes to it quickly, they'll unleash 90 minutes of hell every week. If they don't, they'll get carved up by good ball movement again and again and again.
My Worry: Even if everything goes right, they probably don't have the necessary talent to push up the table. How many guys do they have who would start on more than half of MLS teams?
Which opens the door for the worst-case scenario... imagine if everything goes wrong. We saw a 90-minute snippet of that in the preseason when they got trucked 3-0 by their own USL affiliate a few weeks back.
I don't think that'll happen though. They'll be better than last year – perhaps even much better. But a 25-point improvement still probably leaves them short of the postseason.
4-2-3-1: Daniel Vega; Marcos Lopez, Harold Cummings, Guram Kashia, Nick Lima; Judson, Anibal Godoy; Magnus Eriksson, Vako Qazaishvili, Cristian Espinoza; Chris Wondolowski
() In Lopez they have an actual, factual left back on the roster this year. Baby steps!
Everybody zigged last offseason, and so the Rapids zagged. Right into oncoming traffic.
It's probably accurate to say their recruitment plan from the 2017/18 offseason – in which they threw TAM contracts at a half-dozen Europeans of dubious pedigrees – was not a good one. Many of them are gone and most of the others are no longer starters. Only center back Tommy Smith is a very good bet to be in the first kick XI, and that's at least in part because Kortne Ford is hurt.
And so Colorado have zagged again. They had to shop at home this winter, combing through MLS to bring in the likes of Kei Kamara, Diego Rubio, Keegan Rosenberry and Benny Feilhaber. Those four guys (and a bunch of other MLS vets) will start in what will almost certainly be a 4-4-2 diamond with an emphasis on both possession through midfield and attack via overlapping fullbacks, as well as selective high pressing.
Look! It's a preseason goal born of selective high pressing!
I think they'll be fun, and I like a lot of their young(ish) talent. Rubio, Rosenberry, Kellyn Acosta, Cole Bassett, Ford, Dillon Serna, Matt Hundley... that's a team to build around and through for five years or more.
But I don't see a playoff path for them in 2019.
My Worry: The defense isn't going to be that much better – if at all – than the group that coughed up 63 last year. That means things will go wrong, and there are some volatile personalities in that locker room for if/when that happens.
It's a short-term thing, of course, and it should be lost on no one that another rebuild's coming (a lot of these veteran contracts come off the books next winter). But there could be long, long stretches of the season that feel like the most uncomfortable part of Thanksgiving dinner when nobody talks to anybody else without snapping.
4-4-2 diamond: Tim Howard; Dillon Serna, Axel Sjoberg, Tommy Smith, Keegan Rosenberry; Jack Price; Benny Feilhaber, Kellyn Acosta; Nico Mezquida; Diego Rubio, Kei Kamara
() Jack Price is going to be a starter, I think, even though he wasn't around for the final preseason game, apparently due to injury. He's questionable for Week 1 for Portland, and if he can't go, then Bassett likely gets the nod as the d-mid.
New England Revolution
The Revs have had a lot of turnover in the past two winters. A quick look shows only three likely starters (Diego Fagundez, who seems to have interest in playing elsewhere, as well as Scott Caldwell and Matt Turner, who may not be "likely" starters) who've been around since 2016. It's essentially a new team from the one that just missed the playoffs in 2017, and missed badly in 2018.
That's what the front office wants and what the coach wants, and it's what the fans should want. Clearly it wasn't going to work for Brad Friedel with his previous personnel, and if it's not going to work with the talent on hand, and if you believe in the coach, you have to bring in new talent.
They've done that. Carles Gil and Juan Fernando Caicedo are the big bright names, along with a bunch of guys who arrived at various points in the 2018 season. Some of them – Cristian Penilla, really – adjusted quickly. Others looked a step or two off.
The idea is that they'll be ready (or at least readier) with some time in the league under their belts. With the added reinforcements, the idea is that they can start trending upward after five years of steady decline.
My Worry: Once everyone cracked the code for Plan A last season, there was no Plan B:
That is another thing the new faces are supposed to help with. You don't get a playmaker from Spain if he can't make plays, right? Gil needs to be good for this team to have a path.
Even so, it may not be enough. The defense did not look good for most of last season, and Gil's not going to help with that.
4-2-3-1: Matt Turner; Edgar Castillo, Antonio Delamea, Michael Mancienne, Brandon Bye; Scott Caldwell, Luis Caicedo; Cristian Penilla, Carles Gil, Diego Fagundez; Juan Fernando Caicedo
() Brad Knighton might start in goal, Andrew Farrell might start at right back and Wilfried Zahibo might start at d-mid. But this is probably pretty close to what we should expect to see.
Cincy brought back a large chunk of their USL squad, and I mostly got it. They had a winning team down there, and while there's a large and growing talent gap between MLS and USL, chemistry is chemistry. Guys who buy in are guys who buy in. If you're populating roster slots 18 through 30 with those types of guys – players who you know will carry the water and be good soldiers – it's not a bad plan.
But things didn't really get much better from there, and days from FC Cincinnati's first-ever MLS game, the roster seems to be filled with a lot of piano movers and not too many piano players. They have paid a lot of xAM for part-time or former MLS starters, and have a surfeit of both center backs and defensive central midfielders.
There's some talent here, but not much balance. The players have noticed.
“I have a lot of concerns. I want to score goals, and I need every support I can get in order to do that,” center forward Fanendo Adisaid at Media Day this week. “When you’re a center forward and you don’t score goals, you get worried about the whole situation. But this is something that the coaches are working on. We still believe that the club can bring in a No. 10 for us, someone that is very experienced and can push us (forward).”
The silver lining is that hey, at least they've got an identity! Cincy look the part of a team that'll put 11 guys behind the ball and try to either 1) hit you on the break, or 2) kill you on set pieces.
Teams have climbed to 40 points on that blueprint.
My Worry: A lot more teams haven't. I don't think it's enough to be even on the fringes of playoff contention in MLS in 2019, especially since they won't be able to score their way out of jams.
To be clear, I absolutely share Adi's concerns. But I've got some concerns that even with a fully functional attacking midfield out there, Adi himself might not be up to the job of leading an MLS line anymore – as I wrote last month, he's got just 9 goals in his last 39 games across all competitions over nearly two years. That's a significant and prolonged dry spell.
Roland Lamah's gonna have to do a lot of this:
5-4-1: Przemyslaw Tyton; Greg Garza, Nick Hagglund, Mathieu Deplagne, Kendall Waston, Alvas Powell; Roland Lamah, Allan Cruz, Leonardo Bertone, Emmanuel Ledesma; Fanendo Adi
() This is a stab-in-the-dark guess. One thing I'll guarantee is that the XI changes a bunch during the year, as does the roster – Cincy have a lot of players at a few different spots who have real trade value. If things get ugly, they have the pieces to pull off their version of Minnesota's 2017 Sam Cronin deal, which saved the Loons from a legendarily bad first year.