It's here! The 25th season of MLS! Get HYPED!!!!
New MLS anthem by Hans Zimmer released ahead of 25th season start
Oh goodness, I am so ready to two-box soccer and Halo right now.
As is now tradition, I'm starting the year with a tip of the cap to the great Zach Lowe for the inspiration, courtesy of his Annual Tiers of the NBA opus, to write this piece. 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.
TIER I: THE ALPHAS
You're about to see the largest top tier in the history of this column, and it's largely because I just couldn't bring myself to put LAFC into a tier by themselves. But I was this close.
Why? Because think about the things that felled them last year: Lack of central midfield depth and lack of striker depth combined with a high-energy, high-pressing tactical approach to just take the legs out of the best MLS team I've ever seen by the final quarter of the season. First Carlos Vela got hurt, then Adama Diomande went into the SABH program, then Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing got hurt, and throughout the final months a few other guys were not moving like they had been earlier in the season.
So they went out and loaded up. Diomande's already hurt, but LAFC brought in Bradley Wright-Phillips and have under-the-radar youngish No. 9 Adrien Perez (if you want a darkhorse breakout candidate for 2020, he's your guy) to take that spot, while Jose Cifuentes and Francisco Ginella should both be able to spell Kaye, Blessing and Eduard Atuesta for significant stretches.
They still have Vela and Diego Rossi, and Brian Rodriguez is now acclimated. So's Eddie Segura and Diego Palacios.
This team might not put up the insane numbers they hit last year – league records for total points and goal differential – but on paper they are a deeper and better team, which should mean that, if anything, they can actually ratchet up the press that was so effective throughout 2019.
My Worry: There is sometimes such a thing as "too much talent," where internal competition for places creates discord rather than forcing players to raise their games. There is also the chance that LAFC will have held onto Rossi and Atuesta for one transfer window too long, and if you think that's not a thing that can harm a team's overall performance then you're not familiar with the 2017 FC Dallas squad or this year's Tottenham Hotspur.
But really, it's this:
LAFC are still going to play front-foot, high-risk, entertaining, possession-heavy soccer. No matter how good you are, you will turn the ball over at least a little bit if you play that way, and good teams have shown the ability to take those turnovers and turn 'em into goals. I could have just as easily used the highlights of LAFC's first-leg CCL loss to Leon here, though in that instance it would be the fullbacks rather than the d-mid whose defensive instincts would be in question.
I'll also just shout out Kenneth Vermeer's M'Bolhi-esque debut, counterbalanced by the fact that I'm not actually too concerned about their backline. I'm assuming that Tristan Blackmon will be moved to CB and a true RB is on his way (yes, they just acquired the No. 1 allocation spot, and yes, they've had Andy Najar in camp all winter and yes, Najar's one of the region's best RBs when healthy).
Regardless, week after week after week LAFC will entertain. That's a fact. But in the biggest, toughest moments, will they win? It's still an open debate.
4-3-3: Vermeer; Blackmon, Jakovic, Segura, Palacios; Atuesta, Kaye, Blessing; Rodriguez, Vela, Rossi
() For now. Blackmon will eventually be a CB and I don't think Vela will spend all that much time playing as a False 9 once Rossi or Rodriguez is sold.
Despite a backline adjustment that could credibly be called an overhaul – three of the four defenders who started in MLS Cup are gone – there's no reason to think that the Sounders will be worse than last year. Do you really think the team that replaced Ozzie Alonso and Chad Marshall in the span of a couple of months will struggle without Kim Kee-Hee and Brad Smith? Yeah, neither do I.
The early returns are promising, as Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Joao Paulo both had what I'd consider to be very good debuts in the first leg of the CCL down in Olimpia. The Sounders looked good for the first half, and then I'd say "comfortable" for the first 15 minutes of the second half before running out of gas at the hour mark (not uncommon by any stretch in any team's first game of the year).
On its own, that's pretty good. Having looked good for even for a half without Nico Lodeiro? Since the summer of 2016 you can count on one hand the number of times that's happened. Seattle have generally been helpless without him.
And that'll be the one big change from last year to this year. I'm sure the defenders will be fine, and maybe even excellent, and both Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris are excellent, as is Gustav Svensson. But with Joao Paulo in there, suddenly the Sounders should be a little better equipped to go from back-to-front at pace, and when they do that, Lodeiro should be higher upfield than he's generally been over the years.
And I'll drop this note again: They are 15-1-2 across all competitions when Morris, Ruidiaz and Lodeiro take the field together.
The rest of the West is in danger.
My Worry: Even having said all of the above, Lodeiro is still irreplaceable. If this offseason knock that has now lingered for a month is going to persist throughout the season, this team's ceiling drops significantly even if their floor doesn't all that much. That could be the difference between being in this group and actually being a tier down.
Also, I'm maybe being a little too sanguine about their defense? Xavier Arreaga didn't win the starting job last year despite his DP tag and Torres' suspension, and giving up on this play was a bad, bad look:
He'll probably be fine. Probably.
4-2-3-1: Frei; Leerdam, Arreaga, Gomez Andrade, Nouhou; Paulo, Svensson; Roldan, Lodeiro, Morris; Ruidiaz
The second-best team in MLS last year brought back most of their best players, replaced one of them, and are counting on internal improvement from most of the rest. They might've already gotten it from Heber, who is my dark horse pick to win either/both of the MVP and/or Golden Boot awards. I'm not saying he's gonna, but I am saying nobody should be shocked if he does. Dude's movement is special:
One of the things that lots of smart folks — including active players – have said to me over the past year is that while NYCFC don't have any real weak links out there, they also lack a Vela or Lodeiro or Josef Martinez-level star. This isn't meant as a slight to Maxi Moralez, who deserved his Best XI spot last year and is as essential to NYCFC as Lodeiro is to Seattle, but I think almost anyone outside the Bronx would be willing to admit that there's at least a little bit of daylight between those two players.
How much daylight is there between Heber and Josef, though? When he was on the field last year NYCFC picked up points at a better clip than LAFC did. It's not just a team-wide effect, either, as the guy's got 18g/4a in about 1,940 minutes across all competitions for NYCFC, which compares favorably to that guy down in Atlanta.
Anyway, if Heber is healthy for 2,500 minutes he will put up something like 25g/10a and be regarded as a top-five player in the league, or maybe even top three. If that happens, and one of their two DP wingers (Alexandru Mitrita and Jesus Medina) breaks out, then this team has the talent to push for 70 points.
My Worry: First of all, Moralez is old and Heber was injury-prone last year. Maybe those things won't come into play in 2020, and maybe they will. But there are exactly zero teams in MLS that can afford for their two best players to suddenly get bad or hurt, so I'm not going to single out the Pigeons for that here.
What I will say is remember Zdenek Zeman? If not you should watch THIS.
The important takeaway is that the man's teams played some so the most entertaining, caution-to-the-wind soccer anybody's ever seen. In a lot of ways, he tried to reinvent the game, and you could argue that his tactical approach was as important to the evolution of attacking soccer over the past quarter-century as Marcelo Bielsa's has been to the evolution of pressing soccer. Two guys back, eight attackers from kick-off? Everything about this is awesomely entertaining.
Well, Ronny Deila had his team doing stuff pretty damn close to that at various points throughout their win against San Carlos, and not just on kick-offs. I characterized it as "insane risks with the positioning of the fullbacks" but it was much more than just the fullbacks. He has gone with a full DPS build, even on the road, even in his first game, even without Moralez. And he won 5-3.()
I love this. I question whether it will consistently work against more talented teams than San Carlos.
Zeman, for what it's worth, never won a title above Serie B.
() They were measurably less adventurous in the second leg, which they controlled and won comfortably.
4-1-4-1: Johnson; Tinnerholm, Chanot, Callens, Matarrita; Ring; Medina, Parks, Moralez, Mitrita; Heber
I didn't even get to Atlanta before I mentioned Josef. Know why? Because Josef's the best center forward in league history. He came out of the break looking like Andy Warhol and banging in goals like prime Marco van Basten. The King of the Dirty South has two goals and two assists before the season's even started, and in his Five Stripes career he now has 90 goals and 12 assists and three trophies in 102 games across three seasons.
One thing we all need to have learned over the past three years is that as long as Josef's out there, Atlanta's got more than just a chance to beat you: they've got a chance to bury you.
But here's the scary thing: Pity Martinez also has 2g/2a in Atlanta's first two games, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that those two guys looked very, very on the same page:
If those two guys are on the same page, then it almost doesn't matter what happens behind them. But I'm actually pretty into what's happening behind them, as the 3-4-2-1 makes sense tactically (they can play in crosses to Josef with Pity and Ezequiel Barco underneath and two rampaging fullbacks getting around the edge) and in terms of personnel. Even after trading Julian Gressel they have a ton of true wingbacks, and they have a bunch of true central midfielders despite trading Darlington Nagbe, and the way this roster's built just makes sense – even if how they got there kinda didn't.
Plus it'll just feel different, in a league of four-man backlines, going against a three-man backline. Every little bit helps.
My Worry: There is Josef, and Pity, and then what? Barco has yet to be a match-winner outside of taking PKs in the Copa Sudamericana three years ago, and while they've loaded up on wingbacks – I do think this is the perfect spot for Brooks Lennon – none of them is going to be as good as Gressel.
The truth is that three of Atlanta's five best players from last year's team are gone: Nagbe, Gressel and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Of the two remaining from that quintet, one is Josef and the other, CB Miles Robinson, is now nursing his second injury in four months.
Maybe they will find match-winners elsewhere, and maybe one of the younger players will have a break-out season similar to what Robinson did last year. But those are "maybes," not sure things.
As is, frankly, Pity's CCL form. Even at his best with River Plate, he was not the type of player to string together week after week of dominant performances. If he suddenly becomes that guy, then he'll have been worth every bit of that monstrous transfer fee Atlanta paid last winter. It's a gigantic "if," though.
3-4-2-1: Guzan; Escobar, Robinson, Meza; Lennon, Remedi, Rossetto, Mulraney; Pity, Barco; Josef
They've made three of the past four MLS Cups. They faced two of the three teams above on the road in last year's playoffs and beat two of them, despite missing Jozy Altidore. Jozy's healthy now, and so is Omar Gonzalez, and Alejandro Pozuelo's fit and rested. I don't know that we need to complicate it beyond that.
But if we wanted to: Look at what Jonathan Osorio did in last year's postseason and pretty regularly throughout his past four years in MLS, and look at their wing depth even without new DP Pablo Piatti, and look at their d-mid depth even without Michael Bradley.
Toronto dealt with more injuries than almost anyone throughout last year's regular season and still hosted a home game in the playoffs. Then they dealt with major injuries to Gonzalez and Altidore in the playoffs and still made MLS Cup. And then when they brought a hobbled Jozy in for the final few minutes of MLS Cup, he scored.
It'd be crazy to bet on them to all stay completely healthy throughout the season – that ship's already sailed with Piatti and Bradley anyway – but given what happened last year, it'd be crazier to bet against them at least having a say at the very end.
My Worry: To be clear, they did get very, very lucky at NYCFC and Atlanta in the playoffs, and performances like that don't tend to lead repeatedly to wins. It was very, very bad luck to see those types of injuries in the first place, and then very, very good luck to get to MLS Cup despite them.
And they've addressed that by... not really adding a back-up for Jozy this offseason despite the fact that he's gone over 2,000 minutes exactly once in his five years at BMO Field? By adding, in Piatti, a DP winger with a gruesome recent history of injuries and... yeah...
"A few weeks" has turned into the season opener and the home opener, and maybe longer.
I don't think this will be a season-defining injury for the team, but it might be a burned DP slot. And if Jozy only has 1,500 minutes in his legs this year, then TFC are back to hoping for a bit of luck in big games. That won't be enough to carry them through the Eastern Conference again.
I don't know. I've almost talked myself into knocking them down a tier, but not quite. They're still the gang that's made three of the last four MLS Cups.
4-2-3-1: Westberg; Auro, Gonzalez, Mavinga, Morrow; Fraser, Osorio; DeLeon, Pozuelo, Gallardo; Altidore
TIER II: THE CONTENDERS
Columbus went out there this offseason and added three starters: A veteran CB, arguably the best No. 8 in the league and a No. 10 from the best and most successful team in North America over the past decade. This is on top of the return of arguably the best LB in the league from injury to a team that, in the second half of the season, showed the ability to grind out results no matter who they were playing against.
When Caleb Porter and Tim Bezbatchenko took over a year ago the question was "how much of Gregg Berhalter's system and team will they keep?" The answer turned out to be "not much" in large part because of injuries and age, and so by the middle of 2019 they kind of cashed in their chips and decided to start remolding the team and roster into what they wanted to see.
This is what the hope is:
In Lucas Zelarayan they have a No. 10 who's comfortable not just operating between the lines, but creating danger from those spots. They also have, in Gyasi Zardes, one of the most reliable "he's right where he's supposed to be" No. 9s in the league, which is why the guy gets so many one-touch finishes.
They will get 15-20 goals from Gyasi and very good-to-excellent No. 10 play from Zelarayan, and if the defense stays healthy they will have a very good defense. In Eloy Room, I think they might have a top three goalkeeper in the league, and provided one of their Homegrown kids works out (right now I'm hearing Seb Berhalter has the advantage over Aidan Morris), they will have engine room depth as well.
There's a lot to like about this group.
My Worry: Is there a lot to love about this group, though? Zelarayan is potentially a top-five No. 10 in this league, and lots of folks have Nagbe as one of the very best box-to-box CMs in the league. Maybe Milton Valenzuela – who's coming back from a devastating knee injury, mind you – and Harrison Afful – who turns 34 just as the stretch run starts – will be top five fullbacks?
Even if all of those guys hit, though, it's hard to look at the Crew and make the case that, man-for-man, they are as talented as any of the teams in the top group. In order to be the very best in the league, you need the ability to toss out a team that can win about 10 games every year just because they're more talented (the other ~10 wins should come from actually playing well).
Columbus can't do that. They have to be "on" almost every single game.
4-2-3-1: Room; Afful, Jonathan, Wormgoor, Valenzuela; Artur, Nagbe; Santos, Zelarayan, Diaz; Zardes
New England Revolution
Bruce Arena has coached 12 full seasons in MLS, and his team has made the playoffs in each of them. He has coached three half-seasons in MLS – including last year, when he inherited a Revs team that was heading towards the deepest parts of the ocean – and made the playoffs in two of them.
Last year's Revs were not a great team even under Arena. They had trouble getting pressure the ball, left the middle of the pitch barren too often and endured some questionable individual performances from the backline. But they lost exactly two games during the five months he was in charge during the regular season, and... yeah. Even when things weren't great out there the effort and "work for each other" camaraderie he instilled was impossible to miss. New England weren't about to lay down and die just because they were supposed to.
That included in the playoffs, when they went on the road to Atlanta and did, eventually, lose. But they weren't played off the field by any stretch. It had to be encouraging.
More encouraging than that: In Matt Turner they have a match-winner in goal, and in Carles Gil they have a match-winner in midfield, and in Gustavo Bou they have a match-winner in attack. They also gave Bou a new playmate in center forward Adam Buksa, who's been impressive in preseason.
The Revs were a playoff team that got better this winter. That's pretty simple math.
My Worry: How much better, and at the right spots? Buksa should clearly help, but I don't know if the attack is the first place I'd have looked to upgrade for New England given how scattered their central midfield and how gappy their defense often was. They needed some absolute gifts and some true heroics out of Turner to get results that they hadn't really earned with their play.
And in the preseason it seems like Arena's tried to counterbalance this by adding a central midfielder, changing out of that box-4-4-2 with Gil as an inverted, playmaking right winger into something closer to a 4-2-3-1. It makes some sense – except for the fact that Bou's never really had a position in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. He's much more comfortable as a second striker or even a False 9.
They also had a misfire this season when trying to add depth at center back (I'm bullish on their FB depth for what it's worth), meaning that rookie SuperDraft pick Henry Kessler might already be third on the depth chart. Bruce has made good with rookie CBs before – 2009 Galaxy fans and 1996 D.C. United fans know what I'm talking about – but this feels a little bit thin.
4-2-3-1: Turner; Bye, Farrell, Delamea, Buttner; Caicedo, Zahibo; Penilla, Gil, Bou; Buksa
Portland, like New England, made the playoffs last year, then went out on the winter transfer market and bought a lot of players who should make them better. Again: this should be simple math. The team that crosses a lot went out and found a better winger as well as two more center forwards who are good and sneaky about finding spots in the box from where they can finish crosses.
Mora and Jaroslaw Niezgoda are in town to join (or displace) Jeremy Ebobisse, with the hopes that one of them will do the above 20 times. Yimmi Chara, who is Diego's younger brother and was their most expensive signing of the offseason, is there to make sure the crosses they whip in are higher quality than the ones they too often settled for in 2019.
Portland also figured out how to bring Diego Valeri back on a TAM contract, and finally got Cristhian Paredes for good from Club America. Diego Chara's still there. Sebastian Blanco's still there. Larrys Mabiala's still there. Steve Clark was arguably a top-three 'keeper in the league last year, and he's still there.
It's not actually possible to look at this roster, point to one position and say "ah, yes, that is obviously the weak spot."
My Worry: Unless you really want to question the central defense, which I actually think is kind of fair. Clark as absolutely heroic last year, and there's no guarantee that new addition Dario Zuparic will walk into the squad and make it better. In fact, they all really, really struggled in preseason.
“We played very well, but these two games we saw things that we need to work on. Nothing to do with attack," head coach Gio Savarese told Stumptown Footy. "We saw that we’re capable of playing through teams with no problem to create chances and score goals, but now we need to be better defensively.”
Fair enough – Savarese's track record as a defensive coach should provide some benefit of the doubt that he'll figure things out on that side of the ball. But offensively, despite their weapons, it's an open question as to whether the Timbers will consistently generate quality looks for their trio of strikers unless they get out on the run. And it's pretty clear, after the way they took a nosedive in the second half of last season, that teams aren't going to be wild about letting the Timbers get out and run.
Which means another million crosses are incoming. Portland should be good enough to get into the postseason even if that's the case, but they'll need to do more than that in terms of building actual chances out of actual possession if they're going to really, truly contend.
4-2-3-1: Clark; Moreira, Mabiala, Zuparic, Villafana; D. Chara, Paredes; Y. Chara, Valeri, Blanco; Mora
Yes, the Galaxy might concede almost two goals per game yet again, which will enchant and delight fans across the league. But they might score 80 or even 90 because that's the kind of attacking talent they have. The Galaxy are just loaded in that front five with MVP-caliber players, internationals and match-winners.
I don't think anybody would be that shocked if Chicharito scored 30 goals and won both the Golden Boot and MVP, or if he scored 30 goals and won only the Golden Boot because Cristian Pavon won MVP. I don't think anybody would be all that shocked if Sebastian Lletget had a monstrous, break-out season playing as kind of an 8.5, cycling possession, covering ground on both sides of the ball and generating chances. I don't think anybody would be shocked if Jona Dos Santos had another Best XI-caliber year doing the same, or if Aleksandar Katai turned out to be the low-key roster addition of the year by anybody.
I don't particularly care that Chicharito didn't score in preseason and that the Galaxy looked kind of mechanical in their build-outs and lost in their build-ups. Players who are this good eventually figure it out.
You're crazy if you don't think this is going to be one of the best attacks in the league.
My Worry: About that defense...
Nick DePuy's looked promising. Maybe he's the next Aaron Long? And maybe Julian Araujo, who for the time being is behind Rolf Feltscher, is the next Reggie Cannon? Maybe Independiente's Alan Franco really is on the way? Maybe Emiliano Insua is the answer at LB? Maybe Gio Gonzalez's, uh, let's call them "struggles" last season were just a blip? Maybe Perry Kitchen has a Kerry Zavagnin-esque mid-career come-up and finally reaches his potential at d-mid?
Beyond all that, the big criticism of Guillermo Barros Schelotto at Boca Juniors was that his sides played without an identity and he never took a super-talented collection of individuals and turned them into a "team." The Galaxy definitely had an identity last year – get it to Zlatan at all costs – but I don't think that was courtesy of GBS, and I don't think anyone would argue that they were better than the sum of their parts.
It's a big year in Carson. I'm not sure anybody in the league's got more pressure on them than LA.
4-1-2-3: Bingham; Feltscher, Gonzalez, DePuy, Insua; Kitchen; Dos Santos, Lletget; Katai, Chicharito, Pavon
TIER III: PROBABLY IN THE PLAYOFFS
I've already mentioned it this offseason but you know who came closest to beating Seattle in the playoffs last year? It wasn't LAFC or Toronto, it was FC Dallas. And they did so on the road in front of 65,000 cedar plank salmon-eating maniacs, and forced Stefan Frei into a legendary extra time performance.
Were there mistakes? Yes, plenty. But it's not hyperbole to say that this was one of the greatest playoff games in league history:
HIGHLIGHTS: Seattle Sounders FC vs. FC Dallas | October 19, 2019
Dallas bring back every one of consequence from that team, and most of them should be better because most of them were children last year. Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira, Reggie Cannon, Brandon Servania, Jesse Gonzalez... all those guys are on the upslope. They also added, in Fafa Picault, one of the league's best pressing wingers, which should give you an idea re: their approach in terms of diversifying their attack in 2020 and generating more quality chances. Plus Zdenek Ondrasek is all settled in.
The key, then, is for the guys who were already there to be somewhere between 5 and 15 percent better. The key to that might actually be their one big splash on the international transfer market, veteran Brazilian d-mid Thiago Santos. He's 30, he's been through the wars in his home country's Serie A, and he does two things: break up play and distribute quickly into the attack. That's it.
Dallas didn't quite have that guy last year. Now they do, so look for that 4-2-3-1 to be more of a front-foot, relentless 4-3-3 that plays higher and faster.
My Worry: It kind of looks like 17-year-old Ricardo Pepi is going to get the start in Week 1, and while I'm hyped – #PlayYourKids and all that – there's not a long and distinguished list of contending teams that gave minutes to 17-year-olds. By mid-season this shouldn't be an issue, as in addition to Ondrasek they'll have Franco Jara to be the No. 9 (and Ferreira is still around to play as a false 9 if necessary), but it's maybe not the best way to start the season for a team with eyes on, I'm guessing, 60-ish points and a trophy of some kind.
Beyond that, all the corollaries I applied to teams like the Crew in terms of top-end talent? That's at play here as well. Pomykal, Ferreira, Cannon and Pepi all have greater heights they could hit, but "could hit" is not the same as "will hit," especially when injuries are factored in (as a USMNT fan I am marginally less worried about Pomykal's propensity for injury than I am for Christian Pulisic's and Tyler Adams's, but only marginally). I feel like this lack of top-end polish mostly revealed itself in big chance creation, as for all their pretty build-up, Dallas really struggled to provide the final ball with any sort of regularity.
Sometimes progress isn't linear. Nobody should be too shocked if Dallas barely budge forward at all, or even take a slight step backward.
4-3-3: Gonzalez; Cannon, Hedges, Ziegler, Hollingshead; Santos; Ferreira, Pomykal; Barrios, Pepi, Picault
() Bryan Acosta will almost certainly be a starter once he's done recuperating from his appendectomy, and Servania is still hurt. Pomykal's only just returned to full training, so there's a chance he might not be 90-minutes fit, either.
I kind of feel like conventional wisdom has veered too far in the direction of "Miami struggled getting any big-name DPs in like we expected, therefore they're going to struggle this season," and I really don't get that. They have a ton of depth not just for an expansion team, but for literally any MLS team. Fully 20 players on their roster right now (which isn't even complete!) have international experience at one level or another – a number that includes a starting playmaker for Mexico, a fringe national team CB for Argentina, and high-upside young players from three different continents.
"Yeah but they don't have a No. 9!" I mean, yeah they do. They spent $6 million on Julian Carranza for a reason, and they spent the No. 1 draft pick on Robbie Robinson for a reason. The guy who made that selection is the same guy who picked Cyle Larin, Miles Robinson and Julian Gressel, so mmmmaaaybe they deserve the benefit of the doubt? And if not the kids, then either Juan Agudelo or Jerome Kiesewetter is the stopgap. That's a hell of a four-deep.
Miami also have, in Diego Alonso, a coach who's both developed young players to sell at the highest level and won at the region's highest level.
I don't think it'll all come together as instantly as it did for Atlanta, and I would bet against anyone on this team being a Josef or Vela-level player. But if we're really at the point where this roster isn't a playoff team, then MLS has come further than I thought.
My Worry: Or maybe we're so used to the Year 1 success of guys like Miguel Almiron, Tito Villalba and Diego Rossi that we're now taking it for granted? Carranza's hurt, it's kind of an open secret that Matias Pellegrini's struggled a bit in preseason, and Rodolfo Pizarro has always been mercurial. Even under Alonso he wasn't the type of guy to carry the team from week-to-week.
It's an expansion team so there are definitely, definitely definitely going to be question marks and rough patches, and a lot of weight will fall upon Alonso as well as guys like team captain Luis Robles and veterans like Victor Ulloa, Wil Trapp, Roman Torres and AJ DeLaGarza to keep the locker room nice and steady. All those guys have winning pedigrees.
But it should've worked in Orlando two years ago when that team brought in a lot of talented veterans with winning pedigrees. Strange things can happen in Florida.
4-2-3-1: Robles; Nealis, Reyes, Figal, Sweat; Trapp, Ulloa; Pizarro, Nguyen, Pellegrini; Agudelo
() This is assuming Agustin Almendra isn't here in time to start the first game or two. But it does look like he's coming eventually, which probably moves Ulloa to the reserves and changes the shape to a bit more of a 4-3-3.
TIER IV: THE BUBBLE
Is this too low? After what they did in the preseason I'm worried this is too low. They got Luis Amarilla, he promised 25 goals this year, and then scored roughly every 45 seconds he was on the field in their last couple of preseason games, and when he wasn't on the field scoring goals, Mason Toye was out there both scoring goals and getting assists.
This whole sequence feels like the future:
If those guys are coming off the bench it's because players like Amarilla, Robin Lod, Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay are keeping them there. If that's the case, that means a lot of things are going right with this first XI, and if things are going right, this is a playoff team.
There are fewer questions at the back this year as well. They returned their starting backline and deep-lying mids, and know in Hassani Dotson they have coverage at two of those spots, and added veteran coverage elsewhere as well. I'd also argue they upgraded in goal, though I'm not about to die on that particular hill.
Still, this was one of the best defensive teams in the league last year. They have the pieces to be that again.
My Worry: Scoring a ton in preseason doesn't necessarily translate to scoring a ton in the regular season – take that from the guy who picked Dom Badji and Santiago Mosquera to break-out in 2019.
The fact is that this team scored just 12 goals in their final 12 games across all competitions last year, which included literal must-win games in which they went down early and then did not have the firepower to pull themselves back into it. Then they traded their most gifted attacker and have replaced him, thus far, with nothing.
Lod has no goals and no assists in seven games worth of minutes, Finlay has not scored double-digit goals since 2015, and Molino (who is the starting No. 10 right now) has played about 1000 minutes across the past two seasons and has never had more than nine assists over the course of a year.
There's a reason they're going hard after Bebelo Reynoso.
And bear in mind that all of this is happening within the context of "If Ike Opara gets injured and misses significant time they're shipping three goals per game." If "Value" means "value to his team over a replacement player," then Ike was the 2019 MVP.
4-2-3-1: Miller; Metanire, Opara, Boxall, Gasper; Alonso, Gregus; Finlay, Molino, Lod; Amarilla
In 2015, Jim Curtin's first full year in charge, Philly grabbed 37 points and finished in ninth place. In 2016 they climbed up to sixth on 42 points. In 2017 they stayed on 42 points, but dropped down to eighth. In 2018 they set a team record with 50 points, good enough for sixth place. In 2019 they broke that team record by collecting 55 points, finishing third in the East and winning a playoff game for the first time.
Progress isn't supposed to be this linear, but that's what Philly's done under Curtin. And for the first time, in 2020 they didn't just drive forward by picking on the bad times. They also went toe-to-toe with the league's best and occasionally beat them:
HIGHLIGHTS: Philadelphia Union vs. Atlanta United FC | August 31, 2019
That came in the heart of the playoff race. It's not an exaggeration to say that it's the biggest regular-season win in Philly history.
The plan this year is to take a lot of the principles – tactical (press!), formational (4-4-2 diamond!) and personnel-wise (Play the kids!) – and lean into them even harder. Philly want to be the youngest, fastest and most difficult to play against team in the league. They want young players with potential like Brenden Aaronson to become match-winners, and they want to prove that under-the-radar investments like Sergio Santos can be for them what Heber is to NYCFC.
It has been slow and almost preposterously steady growth over the past half-decade, largely while building from a possession scheme and disorganizing the opposition with the ball. This year's supposed to be a new era.
My Worry: It has been slow and almost preposterously steady growth over the past half-decade, largely while building from a possession scheme and disorganizing the opposition with the ball. This year's supposed to be a new era.
Ernst Tanner never hid his intent when he was hired as GM, saying from the off that he wanted the Union to be a pure pressing team, and talking openly about his preference for the 4-4-2 diamond. Both of those ideas went against the scheme they'd developed under Curtin, a possession-heavy 4-2-3-1 that looked a hell of a lot like what the Crew did under Gregg Berhalter.
I thought there'd be some amount of backsliding last year as they moved in Tanner's direction, but as spelled out above, they had the best season in team history. Now they've gotten rid of Haris Medunjanin, and that means they're trying all of the above except without a safety net. If things start falling apart there is no more preternaturally calm and gifted regista to put his foot on the ball and start ripping teams up with heat-seeking diagonals or seeing-eye, through-the-lines ropes to checking midfielders.
It is a massive, massive risk to move away from that.
4-4-2 diamond: Blake; Gaddis, Elliott, McKenzie, Real; Oravec; Bedoya, Aaronson, Monteiro; Santos, Przybylko
() For now, Matt Real replaces the injured Kai Wagner. Wagner was, for what it's worth, one of the two-best LBs in the league last season. His is not a small absence.
If at any point in the past 10 years you'd told me that Peter Vermes was given a budget, I'd have told you that Sporting KC were a 65-point, trophy-winning team. He'd done that – stuff like that, or close enough – so often while cobbling together squads of undervalued grinders and getting them to be exactly on the same page, and executing exactly according to plan for so long, that it was almost impossible to think of them as anything but that.
Then last year happened. Sporting had been drifting away from the high press for a couple of years, and then in 2019 really went all-in on being a possession team. And then they went all-in on being injured and giving up 67 points. It was shocking.
Then this offseason happened, and Vermes was given a budget. Sporting (finally) added a No. 9, their record signing in Alan Pulido, as well as two starting-caliber CBs and a potential starter (or at least part-time starter) in central midfield. They also brought back Khiry Shelton, and it looks like he's not just Pulido's back-up, but might be starting on one of the wings.
Plus he's calling out his veterans.
“We re-signed a lot of guys that have been really good for us, and I don’t necessarily think that all of those guys... lived up to that.”
They have a history of responding when he says things like that.
My Worry: Maybe they didn't live up to it because they logged too many hard miles the past decade pressing themselves to death? You used to be able to set your watch by Sporting's second-half meltdown, which kicked in every August from 2014 through 2017. Maybe August has finally come to the careers of Roger Espinoza, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi (combined age: 99 years old)? And maybe if he's not surrounded by the hardest-working, ground-eatingest team in showbiz, Ilie Sanchez's physical limitations are that much more of a problem?
Last year was baaaaadddd, man. Opara being gone was obviously a huge part of it, but this was more than just one guy. Until there's on-field proof that it's fixed, it's not fixed.
Also, Pulido's underlying numbers have never been great. I still think he'll score 15-20 if Sporting's attack generates chances at something close to the rate they usually hit, but it's not the stupidest bet in the world to hit the "under" on either Pulido's number or the team's.
4-3-3: Melia; Zusi, Puncec, Besler, Martins; Ilie, Kinda, Espinoza; Russell, Pulido, Shelton
() Some injury concerns for Felipe Gutierrez at the start of the season, though he'll be a starter once he's healthy.
D.C. had the second-best defense in the league and brought back basically all of the ones that mattered. "Second-best defense in the league" is a great starting point for any team, and that's a big part of the argument for D.C. to make a third-straight trip to the playoffs.
The other part of the argument is that despite losing Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta, their attack sure looks more flexible and balanced in terms of two-way play. Yamil Asad, if he's healthy, is a 10g/8a type of left winger who is one of the best defensive wingers in the league. Julian Gressel is literally one of the half-dozen best crossers of the ball MLS has ever seen, and the guy whose head he's aiming for scored 34 goals over the 1.5 years he was actually allowed to play as a true No. 9 in this league.
And their record signing, Peruvian playmaker Edison Flores, is a modern, mobile, hard-working No. 10. He's got plenty of magic, mind you, but that's not all there is to his game.
What I'm saying is that Ben Olsen's teams are always comfy playing long-balls and counterattacking, but this team has the horses to press as well. United could take a big step forward in 2020.
My Worry: Theyyyyy could also take a big step backward. I was on the verge of bumping D.C. up a tier because I really do like the look of the front four and because – again – they had the league's second-best defense. But they didn't just lose Rooney and Acosta; they lost Rooney, Acosta and Paul Arriola. And Asad hasn't played in 18 months, and Gressel's mostly been better as a wingback than a winger, and Ola's on the wrong side of 30 (with zero proven back-ups), and Russell Canouse is at right back, and Frederic Brillant is 34, and there are no proven back-ups behind him and Steve Birnbaum, so it's just a lot.
I've talked to a lot of smart folks around the league who have D.C. in the playoffs pretty securely, but I don't know. To me it's a coin flip, especially given how many Eastern Conference teams seem to have improved year-over-year.
4-2-3-1: Hamid; Canouse, Birnbaum, Brillant, Mora; Moreno, Felipe; Gressel, Flores, Asad; Kamara
San Jose Earthquakes
Ready to run through a wall for Pelado Almeyda tbh: “I have a contract with San Jose Earthquakes for three more years but I hope my bosses extend it to 10.”
You love to see it. And given how entertaining the Quakes were last year – in large part because his players were all ready to run through a wall for him as well – fans around the league should love to see it as well. Almeyda is the most successful Chivas coach of the past half-century, pulled first River Plate and then Banfield out of the 2nd tier before that and last year took the Quakes from 21 points to 44.
They were dire, and then he got there and, despite not-that-many changes to the personnel, they were not. That's what a coach is supposed to do.
And there have once again been not-that-many changes to the personnel. The idea seems to be that there will be natural improvement thanks to having a year in Almeyda's system under their belt, and thanks to last year's newcomers better understanding the demands of the league. In preseason it worked out for a few of them:
I have no clip to show you here because everything the Quakes did this winter was behind closed doors. I get it, but I hate it.
Anyway, there are also some whispers about a 4-4-2 look, and that's all I can offer you at this point. I'm sure they're still going to play their man-marking scheme, I'm sure they're still going to try to use the ball in attack (there's a reason Almeyda's praising Jackson Yueill), and I'm sure they're expecting more out of Rios, Carlos Fierro and Cristian Espinoza.
My Worry: How much more? Rios, Fierro and Espinoza scored three goals in 3,000 combined minutes last year, and down the stretch – when they desperately needed somebody other than Wondo to put the ball in the net – they had no one.
In a conference where almost everyone invested heavily to upgrade their rosters the Quakes mostly stood pat, adding veteran CB Oswaldo Alanis and three kids. Wondo's 37, Vako is streaky and Magnus Eriksson is not a goal threat. In almost every game this year they will face a talent deficit.
On top of all that, it's not just San Jose's players who might be more used to Almeyda's man-marking scheme this coming year. The Quakes fell apart down the stretch and it wasn't, I don't think, entirely due to a talent deficit or running out of gas. Every team in the league has 34 games worth of tape to dissect, which means there's no more novelty factor. They're not going to ambush anyone.
I'll just say it here: I am a man-marking skeptic. I think good ball-movement can carve right through an all-out man-marking scheme, and I don't think it's a coincidence that the team San Jose looked most helpless against was LAFC.
4-4-2 box: Vega; Thompson, Alanis, Jungwirth, Lima; Yueill, Judson; Espinoza, Fierro; Rios, Wondolowski
() Call it a hunch. They can always go back to the 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 if the 4-4-2 doesn't work.
Rapids fans are mad at me. I was the first one on the "this team is good and fun!" bandwagon last year, and I spent a lot of time pointing out that they were murdering teams in transition and defending much better with Lalas Abubakar on the backline, and I even took a victory lap after that season-ending push that saw them win five of their final seven games of the season, including four against playoff teams.
Then I betrayed them by picking them to miss the playoffs in our massive season preview and putting them here on the bubble instead of solidly in. I am no longer welcome in Colorado.
First, let's talk about what made good and fun. As mentioned above they straight murdered teams in transition, which is a pretty smart thing to do when you're playing at 5280 and getting opponents to run out of gas by the 70th minute. Second is they straight murdered teams on set pieces, generating a league-best 17 goals off of restarts.
And then this is what they're trying to add to things in 2020:
Rapids 11-pass build-up
That is some ball. You can see that they want to use long diagonals – there's one from Abubakar to start the clip and one from Kellyn Acosta in the middle of it – to stretch the opponents horizontally, and then once that's happened, the idea is to hit line-breaking passes to midfielders checking between the lines.
If they're a team that can break you down like that with the ball, and still murder you in transition, and still murder you on set pieces, they're in, right?
My Worry: I'm not willing to bet all that much on Colorado being able to do all three of those things, or even two of the three with regularity against the teams they'll need to beat in the West. Teams are going to be much smarter about not letting them get out into space, and I know I've said this a million times this offseason, but I'll say it again here: Their set-piece dominance is not sustainable.
Neither of those things are going to be taken away entirely, but even if the Rapids are 80% as effective at both in 2020 as they were for the final two-thirds of 2019, that's not going to be good enough. Not unless they're able to regularly produce goals like the one above, which... it's a nice idea, but I'm not going to hold my breath.
Underlying all of this is that they're probably not as good a defensive team as the boxscore numbers said they were down the stretch. Simply put: their central midfield is kind of easy to play against. They're not great at getting pressure to the ball, and that forces the backline to scramble perfectly or concede.
Against a league that's suddenly pretty full of $10 million attackers, that's a pretty big ask.
4-2-3-1: Irwin; Rosenberry, Abubakar, Moor, Vines; Price, Acosta; Nicholson, Namli, Shinyashiki; Kamara
Kemar Lawrence demanded an exit because he felt like the team was in a rebuilding mode. He got his wish and was replaced by a SuperDraft pick. Michael Murillo, the other fullback, was replaced by a Homegrown. All-time leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips is gone, and it looks like he's being replaced by a pair of SuperDraft picks (which, to be fair, was the case last year as well). Another former SuperDraft pick is going to start in goal (if he's not already injured), and there are draft picks and Homegrowns liberally interspersed in the depth chart at other spots as well.
Most other teams have set records for transfer outlay over the past three windows. RBNY have gone in the other direction, selling three starters from that magnificent 2018 Supporters' Shield-winning team and sending a few others off into the sunset. It is disconcerting to RBNY fans.
It is also part and parcel of who this club now is. They didn't replace Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill with like-for-like big-name imports, and after they sold Matt Miazga they patched the backline together until Aaron Long was ready.
Long is still there, as is Tim Parker. Brian White and Tom Barlow did a nice job of replacing BWP last year, and Kyle Duncan had already beaten out Murillo by the end of the season. Cristian Casseres might not be Tyler Adams, but he's definitely got the talent to be one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the league. Kaku and Josh Sims and Danny Royer are all back. Here is Sims combining with Patrick Seagrist – the draft pick who will replace Lawrence at LB – to create a chance:
Seagrist to Sims
The Red Bulls still have their high press, but maybe more important is their team-wide philosophy of "next man up." There are no sacred cows on the roster, and because of that they have been able to plug-and-play, patch-and-replace literally the best players in team history.
Obviously the hope is that they'll be able to do it again.
My Worry: I think it was probably a lot easier to do that when budgets were lower, but now we've got teams going out and dropping $5 or $10 or $15 million on an attacker, and that kind of quality usually shows on the field. Players who are X-times more comfortable on the ball are X-times better equipped to play through the press, and once you play through a press you've got this team in a bad, bad spot. Philly repeatedly showed that in last year's playoffs.
So the press wasn't as effective in 2019, while at the same time the on-paper talent gap (which I think is more "real" than "perceived") is growing. Other than Long is there a single RBNY player on this roster you could look at and make a plausible "I think he could make the Best XI!" case for? How many could you make "he'll be top five in the league at his spot!" cases for?
It's not a lot.
With the built-in shock-and-awe advantage of the press a thing of the past and the on-paper talent deficit a thing of the present, it's tough to see a path into the postseason. Honestly, it feels like Kemar was right.
4-2-3-1: Meara; Duncan, Parker, Long, Seagrist; Davis, Casseres; Sims, Kaku, Royer; White
() They've also toyed with a 4-4-2 in preseason, as per usual.
TIER V: OPEN QUESTIONS
There's actually a decent argument to move Orlando City up a tier. I believe in Oscar Pareja's ability to coax defensive solidity out of almost any team, and I think he's got enough attacking talent and enough creativity to get them on the field and into a formation where they could do some damage. This is from a friend who was able to see some of the preseason games up close:
Pareja’s first-choice lineup seems to be sort of a hybrid 4-4-2/3-5-2, with Ruan as the nominal RB but bombing up the right flank, Benji Michel as the LM but doing a ton of work defensively, Miller as a stay-at-home left back, Pereyra as something of an old-style inside-right playing in midfield, and Nani in a free-role forward spot. That won’t be how it looks the first two matches because Nani is suspended, but that seems to be the plan. It’s not what I expected, but it makes some sense.
I agree, that does make some sense even if it's unorthodox as hell. It seems fun and I'm excited to see it!
But I'm not going to have any expectations for Orlando City this year. With so many new faces and so many questions with regard to fit, fitness and age surrounding their DPs, even an extended appearance on the bubble feels like a stretch.
My Worry: The more granular worries are that Nani and Pereyra can't share the field without turning the team into a sieve, and that Dom Dwyer's never ever going to be that guy again (and none of the other forwards on the team are ready to replace him), and that the defense won't be fixed.
The year-long worry is that too many of the new guys aren't going to be legitimate answers. Orlando City fans are familiar with that one.
The all-encompassing, long-term worry is that the powers that be will once again get way too impatient and Pareja will somehow end up on the hot seat by the end of the year, destroying not only any progress the team will have made, but any hope for progress in the even longer term. Everything would be set back to zero. Again.
To that end, it almost doesn't matter what happens on the field this year. As long as Pareja's on the sideline to start the 2021 season, by the most important measures 2020 will have been a success.
4-3-1-2: Gallese; Ruan, Antonio Carlos, Schlegel, Miller; Michel, Urso, Mendez; Pereyra; Nani, Dwyer
() Swap out Nani and Dwyer for Tesho Akindele and Chris Mueller in the first couple of weeks, and bear in mind that this probably isn't going to really like like a 4-3-1-2.
Real Salt Lake
Did you remember that they finished third in the West and won a playoff game last year? I did – to be fair, it's my job – but I had three separate conversations this past offseason with people who legitimately forgot that RSL were a playoff team.
Which is to say they were pretty non-descript, and probably became even more so after selling Jefferson Savarino (which was the right move; you've got to eventually sell the young players that you're building with if you're actually going to become the Ajax of MLS) and the retirement of Nick Rimando.
None-descript is pretty ok, though. Ten years ago that was RSL's whole thing, as their "The Team is the Star" motto was used to contrast them to the likes of the Galaxy or Seattle. They didn't care if you knew who they were; they had a style and approach that they believed in, and by leaning into that they produced a six-year run of elegant, entertaining and winning soccer.
Last year's team wasn't really that. Last year's team was more about plucking the low-hanging fruit and getting out into transition at every opportunity. They will still definitely try to do both of those things in 2020.
My Worry: There's less low-hanging fruit. "Beat the bad teams" is a great plan for pushing toward the top of the conference when there's lots of bad teams. But after an offseason of massive spending and expected improvement from within pretty much everywhere, there aren't many bad teams anymore.
That means RSL's got to pick up a few more wins against good teams, and judging by both last year and preseason... oof. RSL went 0-2-1 with two goals scored and seven conceded in the only three games we know about, and I watched two of them. It wasn't great.
Here's the main problem: new head Freddy Juarez is starting three CBs. That'd be fine if he was playing with a back three or a back five, but he's not. He's lining his team up in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1, and one of the CBs (Justen Glad) is at RB. That's pushed RB Aaron Herrera up to RW. It didn't work and everybody noticed:
If your FB can't distribute (Glad's a good passer out of the back but not on the overlap, and definitely not a possession hub in the way of modern fullbacks) and your winger poses no attacking threat then you just lose any danger from that side and you get targeted when pressed, which is what happened against both Sporting and Phoenix Rising of the USL. RSL had no way of playing out.
That baffling personnel decision was compounded by dropping a d-mid between the CBs in possession, which pushes the FBs high... to what end? What advantage are you gaining when you push Justen Glad and Donny Toia upfield? You're not creating anything dangerous for yourself; you're just leaving your old-ish, slow CBs and DMs exposed to counters.
I watched a lot of soccer this preseason and no team left me more perplexed than RSL.
4-2-3-1: MacMath; Glad, Onuoha, Silva, Toia; Beckerman, Kreilach; Herrera, Rusnak, Meram; Johnson
() My guess is there'll be a ton of tinkering with this.
If you were handed a relatively modest budget to build a team, what would you do? Well, chances are you'd do what you could to find proven, veteran grinders to install up the spine of the team and take a "first do no harm" approach to how you want to line up and play. Just find ways to not lose the game before you start investigating the margins to find ways to win the game.
And I'd say a good way to not lose the game is to play a low-block 4-5-1 with Dax McCarty, Anibal Godoy and Derrick Jones as your rugged, ball-winning-but-still-able-to-pass-it-very-well central midfield trio, and then adding a Best XI CB behind them. I don't think anybody expects 50 points or 50 goals out of this bunch, but if you look at the way they're constructed, it's hard to imagine them shipping 50. They won't get ripped up through central midfield the way that FC Cincinnati and Minnesota did when they debuted.
Jones, by the way, is not just a defensive presence. He can drive the ball forward and put pressure on teams on the dribble:
In addition to Walker Zimmerman, Nashville have two other veteran CBs who started in the playoffs last year and two young, high-upside CBs. They have a USMNT LB who's been one of the better LBs in the league over the past three years and veterans at RB and in goal.
Look, unless Hany Mukhtar is the second coming of Diego Valeri and Daniel Rios is the second coming of, I don't know, Mauro Manotas or something, this team's not going to be all that much fun to watch. Gary Smith's teams were always pretty light on aesthetics anyway.
But they're going to be a hard out.
My Worry: If neither Mukhtar nor Rios nor Randall Leal hit, then the above clip of Jones driving forward, falling down and scoring from his rear might be their best way to generate goals. That or put Zimmerman up top and just launch long-balls at his head.
This is neither a sustainable nor a good way to win games, and even with a veteran engine room and backline, it can be demoralizing. There's a chance that Nashville's approach means their season will fairly rapidly settle into a sort of muted shade of gray that saps any energy from the team, and when energy disappears losses tend to mount.
Another way to think about it is this: For both McCarty and Godoy, their best attribute as deep-lying distributors is their ability to play third-line passes into the half-spaces so the playmakers can go to work. If it's Jones in that half-space, does he have enough juice to turn those moments into something? If it's one of the wingers – presumably Mukhtar and Leal – pinching inside, do the fullbacks present enough of an overlapping threat to turn those moments into something?
I... doubt it.
4-2-3-1: Willis; Miller, Zimmerman, Romney, Lovitz; McCarty, Godoy; Mukhtar, Jones, Leal; Rios
There is exactly one team, total, in Tiers IV and V that can look at their roster and say "We know for a fact that we have multiple elite attackers on this roster, guys who are good enough to win trophies in this league. And we know that because we've seen them do it."
It's the Dynamo, and it's Manotas and Alberth Elis. They were the two best attackers on the 2017 team that made it to the Western Conference final, and they were the two best attackers on the 2018 team that won the U.S. Open Cup. Remember that?
HIGHLIGHTS: Houston Dynamo vs. Philadelphia Union | September 26, 2018
That Union side went to the playoffs a month after that but Houston stuffed 'em into the woodchipper because of these two guys, and these two guys are still in H-Town. In Memo Rodriguez they have a less spectacular but more reliable third member of the attacking posse than Romell Quioto was, and in Darwin Quintero they have a guy who might be better than any of them, provided they can figure out how to fit him into the XI.
There is a lot to like about that front three, especially since Tab Ramos has talked about wanting to press this year – that plays to their strengths, and pressing usually works in MLS – and especially because in Christian Ramirez they have arguably the best back-up striker in the league.
They should score goals.
My Worry: They should give up a lot of goals as well unless Ramos has an Almeyda-level effect on his team's defensive performance. Houston brought back almost the entire defense and midfield of a team that's conceded 117 goals over the past two years while missing the playoffs twice. If any of these guys are in the top half of the league at their respective spots, they have yet to show it.
Two other issues. First is that pressing comes with significant – SIGNIFICANT – risks if you have old or slow center backs, which Houston do. Second is that pressing comes with significant – SIGNIFICANT – risks if you have anybody in the front six who's not committed to preventing easy distribution (this is how Cristian Penilla ended the Brad Friedel era in New England last year), and does anybody really think Darwin's going to do that at this stage of his career in the Texas heat?
I don't know how all these pieces fit together. I'd be surprised if there weren't some serious speed bumps along the way, and considering both Elis and Manotas are in contract years, those speed bumps may be all she wrote.
4-2-1-3: Maric; Bizama, Struna, Figueroa, Lundkvist; Vera, Boniek; Martinez; Elis, Manotas, Quintero
The thing is that when everything goes wrong in Year 1 it means you have to rebuild everything in Year 2, and that's where FC Cincinnati are at. It's been complicated by the dismissal of Ron Jans as another coaching search begins. Cincy's MLS existence has, thus far, been pretty rough.
But at least this year it'll be rough with a $20 million striker and another DP striker/winger and a still-in-his-prime-even-if-it's-the-tail-end fringe Dutch international No. 10! All of those guys playing in front of Medunjanin should mean that they get the ball in good spots and can do good things no matter who the manager happens to be.
Jurgen Locadia, Yuya Kubo and Siem De Jong could be one of the better attacking trios in the league. Those first two guys are in their absolute primes, both at age 26, while De Jong just turned 31. He's hardly past it. And Allan Cruz as a box-to-box ball-winner behind them is fun and good.
My Worry: All three of the new signings have to hit. Medunjanin and De Jong have to somehow play in the same midfield together without getting absolutely gashed in front of a central defense that is old-ish and lacking in athleticism.
I felt like it would be a stretch to sit Medunjanin in front of that backline even if he had Cruz and another ball-winner in the midfield with him. If it is Medunjanin, De Jong and Cruz, then Cruz is going to do the defensive work of three in terms of trying to shrink the field.
Kubo looks like a good signing but he doesn't look like a left winger, which is where he's probably going to be playing. The right wing is a giant question mark, and I don't think either fullback slot or goalkeeper can be considered strengths.
Plus they don't have a permanent head coach. Season hasn't kicked and this team's already in flux.
4-3-3: Richey; Deplagne, Van Der Werff, Petterson, Garza; Cruz, Medunjanin, De Jong; Regattin, Locadia, Kubo
Can this whole thing be a "TBD" or nah? Chicago have a new sporting director, a new technical director and a new head coach. They have three new DPs and a couple of new Homegrowns. They have a new brand. They have a new (old) home stadium.
It's a lot.
Here's what we can surmise about how they'll play given head coach Rafael Wicky's past, the types of players they signed in the offseason and what we saw from them in preseason:
- They will play a 4-2-3-1.
- They will try to build via possession, likely with center backs who complete simple passes to the central midfielders who are then asked to break lines and truly initiate sequences.
- They will ask center forward Robert Beric to do a ton of hold-up work and release wingers into space.
- They will most likely defend in a mid block.
None of those things is a given, but that's really all I can tell you about the Fire right now.
My Worry: They added five new starters to the front six that was so good at carving out chances (not so great at finishing them!) last year? They need to have done their homework on all of those guys, and probably need all five of them to hit. Three of them are wearing DP tags, so you'd put your money on them to come through, but anybody who's watched a little bit of this league knows that a DP tag is no guarantee of success.
Gaston Gimenez should be something beyond solid – you'd hope he'd be among the best d-mids in the league. Alvaro Medran wears the 10 but is more of a No. 8, a pass-before-the-pass guy. Ignacio Aliseda's almost a complete unknown. He could be the next Miguel Almiron (great!) or the next Ezequiel Barco (pretty good!) or the next Josue Colman (uhhhhhh). Beric's track record suggests rugged solidity more than spectacular goalscoring output.
Even if every one of those guys hits, what's going to happen in that defense? It didn't look great in preseason, and their propensity for breaking down in crucial moments killed them throughout all of 2019. I figured it would look a lot different by now.
4-2-3-1: Kronholm; Sekulic, Kappelhof, Calvo, Bornstein; Gimenez, Medran; Frankowski, Stojanovic, Aliseda; Beric
Uh, can we get another TBD here? The 'Caps went out and spent big on Lucas Cavallini, the Canadian No. 9 who's been very good both in Uruguay and Mexico over the past seven or eight years, and that made sense. He was worth spending some of that Alphonso Davies money on.
You know he's going to start at center forward, but the rest of this rebuilt team I'm going to leave almost entirely to Marc Dos Santos's imagination, because until we see it – and see it work – we won't know. Inbeom Hwang played as a No. 10, an 8 and even a 6 last year at times, and all that is in play again. Where will Yordy Reyna line up? Will new winger Cristian Dajome fare any better than Lucas Venuto and Lass Bangoura did last year?
It's unlikely they'll have a ton of the ball this year. Will the defense hold up? Will they win the ball enough in central midfield? Will Ali Adnan's forays into the attack repeatedly leave the 'Caps exposed as happened last year?
TBD, TBD, TBD. Here's a video of Cavallini scoring a Nations League goal against the USMNT for you Canadian fans to enjoy:
GOAL: Lucas Cavallini seals Canada's first win over the US in 35 years
My Worry: Literally everything I listed above – yes, 'Caps fans, that includes Inbeom and Adnan – are concerns. Nobody on the 'Caps played well last year which is why so many of the players who were there in 2019 aren't in 2020. That's the way it goes.
The bigger, more overarching, longer-term concern is that Dos Santos has gotten three transfer windows to put together his team now and it still feels like he's at step 1. He not only has to integrate a ton of new faces, he has to do so while building out a new scheme and then making smart adjustments for when/if things go wrong, and hoping for a better process than "it turns out Maxime Crepeau was, in fact, able to make 13 saves tonight."
Cavallini is a really, really good No. 9 and should be a good fulcrum to play both through and to. That's a great starting point.
But what if, in mid-2020, it's all still as messy as it was throughout most of 2019?
4-2-3-1: Crepeau; Nerwinski, Godoy, Cornelius, Adnan; Inbeom, Owusu; Dajome, Reyna, Milinkovic; Cavallini
In his first two games in charge of the Montreal Impact, Thierry Henry's side drew Saprissa – usually the best team in Central America – 2-2 in Costa Rica and then 0-0 at home. They advanced on away goals to the CCL quarterfinals despite having less than 30% possession in each game, despite losing multiple players to injury, and despite having only one DP on the team.
That one DP, Saphir Taider, only got a brief cameo in the series, coming on late in the second leg. He is the only DP on the team because the great Ignacio Piatti returned home three weeks ago.
What I'm saying is that this is definitely a rebuilding year and Titi's already dealt with some stuff and at no point did they play pretty soccer but guess what? They scored two pretty goals and that was enough! Here ya go:
In getting to the 2-0 lead in the first place Henry had his team playing a bizarre 5-2-3 mid-block that really actually seemed to work, given how often they were able to get into space behind the Saprissa backline. Then once they had that lead they retreated into more of a low-block 5-4-1 and just absorbed, absorbed, absorbed.
And they worked really, really hard by the way. The effort issues that plagued this team under Remi Garde last year where nowhere to be seen.
My Worry: In the end it probably doesn't matter much how hard you work or what formation you play or who your manager is if you're at a talent deficit literally every single game, and as the roster's currently constructed that's going to be the case for the Impact. There's a reason your coach trots you out in a 5-4-1 bunker at home and it's not because you've got superior talent.
Every single game is going to have to turn into a scrap and the Impact are going to have to avoid game-breaking mistakes because they just do not have the juice, as currently constructed, to dig themselves out of a hole. That's the concern for this season.
Long-term, the concern for Montreal is the same as the concern I have for Orlando City: Will Titi get time to really work even if the results aren't there? This team needs stability and culture and an identity, and if you hire someone like Henry you have to give him the time and resources to build those things, otherwise what's the point?
There will need to be patience.
5-4-1: Diop; Brault-Guillard, Binks, Fanni, Raitala, Corrales; Okwonkwo, Taider, Piette, Quioto; Bojan