It's been a bit. Let's answer some questions!
The big news this week is that, at long last, St. Louis will be joining MLS as the 28th team. They'll officially begin play in 2022, but the important takeaway here is that soccer has been a big, big deal in St. Louis for more than a century. Every U.S. men's national team World Cup roster has had at least one player born or bred (or both) from St. Louis, and most had more than that. It has been called "the spiritual home of US soccer" and "the ancestral home of US soccer" and, along with Kearny, N.J., and Fall River, Mass., St. Louis is one of three places that can really, truly make that claim and back it up.
It is truly awesome that St. Louis will finally have an MLS team, and with a privately financed downtown stadium to boot. Local sportspeople were saying (anecdotally, mind you) that the crowd for today's announcement was bigger than when the NFL's Rams announced they were moving to St. Louis 25 years ago. "Bigger than the NFL" is not a phrase many professional teams in any league in America get to use in any sort of context, so I'm gonna call this a win.
Now onto the actual question: My gut feeling is that the bigger rivalry will be with Sporting Kansas City than with the Chicago Fire. I know that in baseball the Cubs and Cardinals have always been big rivals – more than the Royals and Cardinals, save for the 1985 World Series (Don Denkinger wishes he had VAR) – but it's always seemed pretty clear that MLS rivalries align more to the NHL or college sports maps than they do to MLB ones. Perhaps it's a demographic thing.
Regardless, in that area of the country, it's all about KU vs Mizzou. So my money's on SKC vs. The Lou becoming the heartland's big rivalry. Traveling fans who are already used to hating each other anyway should just make it feel natural.
Also, I'm really looking forward to St. Louisians talking about how their team plays the sport "the right way."
Full disclosure: Anders is the producer of Extratime, and he was listening yesterday as Calen Carr and I discussed how awesome it would be if the Houston Dynamo went after Piojo Herrera as their new manager this offseason. Herrera has pedigree, star power and credibility on both sides of the Rio Grande. He is a very good manager and a great entertainer. Do it for the GIFs!!!
Piojo also has arguably the best job in North America, managing the best and most successful club in North American soccer history. Club America fans are notoriously fickle, but they love Piojo and he wins. I doubt he'd leave, and if he did it would require a hefty spend – both on his salary and on roster upgrades – to lure him.
Also, he lost his job managing El Tri after he punched a reporter. So for those of you who don't like me, you should really root for this to happen.
Barring Piojo, then, the other name that makes a lot of sense to me is Eduardo Coudet, currently manager of Racing in the Argentine Primera. Coudet finished his playing career in the US, getting a handful of games for the Philadelphia Union in 2010 and then for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2011. He's also managed in Mexico with Tijuana (he wasn't successful there because he tried to get them to play actual soccer instead of the kick-and-run stuff that's been their M.O. since they came into existence).
Yes, Racing won the title this past season and Coudet's a hot name right now in Argentinean managerial circles. But if the San Jose Earthquakes can get Matias Almeyda, then Houston can get Coudet. Or at least make him think long and hard about the job.
In the meantime, I'm interested in seeing how this team plays under Davy Arnuad, the interim head coach. And no matter who the next head coach is, it's incumbent upon the powers that be in Houston that they keep ahold of Kenny Bundy, who managed their U-23 affiliate this past season. He's one of the first names you hear when you ask around USL about up-and-coming young coaches.
He definitely has been since he got that visit from the good folks at City Football Group in mid spring, and I think it came from the realization that he had to work with NYCFC as they were, not as he wished they were. MLS is, in general, a much higher level than a certain subset of folks want to give it credit for, but even the most ardent of the league's fans can admit that it's quite a change to go from working with the most talented team in the world (Manchester City) on set pieces to doing the whole damn thing for any MLS team. There was culture shock and an adjustment period, and Dome did not handle it well.
And then, suddenly, he did. Part of it was getting Heber, which allowed him to simplify, but the bigger part was realizing that he needed to simplify in the first place. He's done a nice job over the past four months.
If the Red Bulls take zero points from this week, they're pretty well on their way to doing exactly that. Losing their leading scorer (Brian White) is not great at this point in the season, and neither is the fact that it's still not clear what their best XI is, or best formation is, or who their best player is.
This is a team that's borderline rudderless. In the past when they hit that point, they always had the "we're pressing maniacs" ethos to return to. But even when they do that this season, it just doesn't quite work. Watch Marc Rzatkowski here:
GOAL: Gustavo Bou sneaks one past Luis Robles to level
He's just sleeping. You can actually see poor Sean Davis, left to defend 1v2 in no-man's land, gesturing at him. Rzatkowski does this sort of thing all the time, but it looks like Chris Armas just doesn't want to take him out of the lineup (to be fair, Armas has a long leash – it took a half-season of worse defensive plays than that and a blow-up from his teammates at practice to get Michael Murillo benched).
That Wilfried Zahibo pass is a turnover against last year's RBNY team. It leads to a goal against this year's team. Want to know how they miss the playoffs? By continuing to do that.
As for how they can win MLS Cup ... I don't think they can.
It definitely shouldn't be! These guys have had weeks to train with the team, and both have now gotten a handful of minutes. This all comes in the context of Greg Vanney indicating at the start of the year that they wanted to go to a 4-2-3-1, and then the front office going out and getting him the players to do exactly that.
It is bizarre that they played last game in a two-forward set-up, and it remains bizarre that this team is still stuck in second gear. As my colleague Tom Bogert wrote on Sunday, maybe the "inevitable" TFC run isn't so inevitable after all. We all kind of expected it last year and it never came, but we were able to chalk that up to injuries and bad luck and a bad defense. Now they're less injured and have what should be, on paper, a better defense and a better attack and ... they're still very far from being very good.
The big note I have from watching them play: They rarely create dynamic superiority. If you watched that 2017 team, they'd drag you to one side of the field with possession and then use quick reversals to exploit dynamic superiority – guys running into gaps – across the zone of density. That kind of movement isn't happening anymore, and it's what I thought Erickson Gallardo and Nicolas Benezet were brought in to fix.
I wouldn't be shocked if Dallas missed, though I actually do think they'll make it since they have an easier schedule (more home games, fewer games against playoff-caliber opponents) than some of the other teams in the Western Conference playoff race.
Regardless, #PlayYourKids is not the issue. The quality of their academy players and draft picks are, I'd say, the only thing that's stopped Dallas from sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
The bottom line is I don't think they'd have been as reliant on that young core if they hadn't biffed their offseason imports yet again. Bryan Acosta hasn't been close to DP level, Zdenek Ondrasek has been a TAM bust, and Bressan is just depth. Those were their big winter signings ahead of 2019.
In 2018 it was Anton Nedyalkov, Reto Ziegler, Santiago Mosquera, Marquinhos Pedroso, Pablo Aranguiz and Abel Aguilar. In 2017 it was Anibal Chala, Jose Salvatierra, Roland Lamah, Cristian Colman, Hernan Grana and Carlos Cermeno.
Most of these guys were signed using some sort of allocation money, and a few were/are actual DPs. Those are the guys who are supposed to be the core of any good team, and of the last 15 signings I count one outright success (Ziegler), one qualified success (Lamah), two wait-and-sees (Acosta and Bressan) and tons – TONS – of disappointment.
It's a myth that FC Dallas haven't spent. Over the past five years they're top 10 in the league in transfer outlay. What they haven't done, by any measure, is spend well.
If any other team had missed this badly, this often, they'd be on 15 points and looking at a complete overhaul. But because FC Dallas's academy is what it is (an absolute talent producing juggernaut), and because Luchi Gonzalez has zero compunction about benching underperforming veterans, this team has stuck around the playoff race. The guys they've developed from within have kept them in it; it's the guys they've gone shopping for who've let them down.
Dallas fans this offseason should root for the team to go out and get DP-caliber scouting and analytics departments.
Tata's never been one to play the kids at any of his jobs, and I think that's largely because he's a national team coach at heart. National team coaches don't develop players; they pick a new roster every camp and give those guys a set strategy to execute. They're taking mostly finished products and plugging them directly into roles with specific instructions.
Miles Robinson was definitely not a finished product when he came into the league, and Tata's not the first coach who's had little use for a talented young player on a learning curve. This wasn't exclusive to Robinson, by the way. Atlanta spent $15 million on Ezequiel Barco last year and he was basically a human victory cigar by the time the playoffs arrived. That's just who he is as a coach.
With that out of the way: It's been nice to see Robinson thrive under Frank de Boer. It's not just that he's maybe the league's best 1v1 defender (especially in the open field; he probably still has Brian Fernandez in his back pocket), it's that he's now doing stuff like this:
This was awesome. He wasn't quite as dynamic against Portland on Sunday, but was nonetheless confidently getting the ball on his foot, evading the first wave of pressure (it looks like he's worked on that Ozzie Alonso shoulder fake) and and striding into midfield before picking his pass. Robinson has been a match-winner this year, and De Boer deserves a lot of credit for that.
I was asked this back in May, and I'll just re-up with the same exact answer:
And then there's the star of the U17s, Gio Reyna, the son of USMNT legend Claudio Reyna. Like his dad, Gio is off to Germany to start his professional career (he's signed with Borussia Dortmund, and is eligible to go over before the age of 18 because he was born in Scotland).
Reyna is spectacular in every eye-catching way. His feet are soft and he has the whole bag of on-the-ball tricks, both when receiving a pass with the defender on his back, and when running at a defense. He produced both goals and assists in this latest tournament, and did so from open play and set pieces. He is big and strong, quick and fast, tricky and elusive. He plays with his chest puffed out, an arrogant and dominant alpha. His upside is "Clint Dempsey, but a much better athlete."
He is also a good, old-fashioned ball-hog who always prefers to take five touches when one would do. He wants the ball so much that I'm not sure he'd be fun to play with, and there are definitely times where he doesn't make his teammates better. The US U-17s improved by leaps and bounds when they moved him to the wing and out of the middle, because the ball moved better when he wasn't in the engine room.
I very much have a love/hate relationship with him. He is my favorite US prospect, and he is my least favorite US prospect. Dortmund will either break his spirit and turn him into a role player, or they will refine his instincts and turn him into a Pulisic-level star.
Nothing I saw from his preseason with Dortmund has changed my mind at all. Yes, he was less selfish than he'd been with the US U-17s, but according to what I've heard, Reyna went back to being a ball-hog as soon as he got with the Dortmund U-19s.
My hopes for him are sky-high. My expectations are much, much lower.
We'll end here: Yes, I think there's hope. Just on raw talent you have two international players at center back, three at center mid and one guy who should be an international at goalkeeper. You have what should be, in theory, elite fullback depth, and that should be enough.
But Seattle doesn't get coordinated pressure to the ball anywhere on the field. They are easy to play against by the eye test, and the underlying numbers agree:
Big thanks to the kids at AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com for that one. They do great work with data viz stuff.
Anyway, the Sounders look broken and out of joint defensively, and they're not happy about it. Veteran Gustav Svensson apparently had words with Brian Schmetzer when he was subbed off this weekend. That's not a great sign.
In the past, they had Alonso and Chad Marshall to paper over any sort of cracks and keep them at or near the top of the league. But those guys are gone now and they're not coming back, and it's up to Schmetzer to figure out how to create a more holistic defensive approach that works for the talent he's got on hand.
And he needs to do it ASAP. Seattle aren't guaranteed to make the playoffs by any stretch. They have one of the hardest remaining schedules and the clock is ticking.