Something that MLS is remarkable for in the world of soccer is its relative stability around head coaches. Many other leagues – especially in the Americas (with rare exceptions like Tuca Ferretti at Tigres and Marcelo Gallardo at River Plate) – are filled with teams that love to chop and change at the first sign of trouble, a level of churn that becomes quite obviously counterproductive. Stability is often, in and of itself, a good thing.
But often is not always, and as the league's profile and stakes have grown, the frequency with which head coaches are turned over in MLS has increased. This is also probably a good thing, as stability can and sometimes does lead to atrophy.
There were eight new coaches coming into MLS this past offseason, six of them with established teams and two with expansion teams Nashville SC and Inter Miami (I'm not going to bother rating the interim coaches at Atlanta and the Red Bulls). As we're nearly halfway through this year, it's time for a progress report:
Thierry Henry, Montreal Impact
Best Moment:Montreal have played their great rivals Toronto FC four times this year. They've lost three and won just once, but that win stopped an 18-game regular-season unbeaten run by the Reds. The league record is 19, and I'm sure it was very enjoyable for the Impact to put that streak to the sword, even if it took some PK hilarity from Toronto to make it happen.
There have been other very good moments as well, including a 2-2 draw at Saprissa in the Concacaf Champions League – Henry's first game in charge. The scoreless home draw in the second leg put Montreal into the quarterfinals, which is always an excellent accomplishment.
But they stopped their hated rivals from tying a league record. That's significant.
What's Going Right: It was a low-block 5-4-1 earlier in the year, which then hit hard on the counter:
Henry's tried to evolve the team away from that, going mostly to a lopsided 4-4-2 diamond/4-2-3-1 hybrid that can be a little bit more front-foot and adventurous.
He obviously wants his team to be more of a protagonist, using the ball to pull the opponents apart and build goals via possession. It's not going to happen quickly.
The other thing that's gone right is that Romell Quioto is actually a really good center forward! I did not expect that to be the case, but it is.
What's Going Wrong: Two big things:
- The more they come up and try to use the ball, play on the front foot and be protagonists, the more helpless they look defensively. They've not been able to find a workable balance between defense and attack.
- Discipline. Dumb tackles, dumb passes, dumb red cards, dumb turnovers. They've cost Montreal so, so much already in 2020.
Oscar Pareja, Orlando City SC
Best Moment: There are already a bunch. Getting their first-ever rivalry win (over Inter Miami) to open the MLS is Back Tournament? That was really good. Making the tournament final and putting forth an A+ effort along the way? Really, truly wonderful and wildly enjoyable from a neutral's perspective. Finally beating Atlanta United – and just comprehensively outplaying them along the way in a 3-1 win last month? Any other year in Orlando's history and that would be it. Easily.
But this isn't any other year. This is 2020, and so I'm giving the nod to Orlando's performance throughout the Tournament, but especially in that semifinal destruction of a previously air-tight Minnesota United side:
Their ability to use the ball to carve teams up has set the tone game after game after game. Few teams play prettier soccer than the Lions.
What's Going Right: Pareja's ability to take a team with no real identity and turn them into one of the league's best practitioners of the beautiful game is remarkable.
More remarkable is that he's done this while developing the younger players on the roster (Chris Mueller, Sebastian Mendez, Benji Michel and Joao Moutinho have all leveled up, while Daryl Dike is in the 22 Under 22 conversation) and getting much-improved play from the veterans. Uri Rosell, to highlight one, looks reborn.
Having all that going right means that Orlando can and have survived without multiple starters at various points over the past month, and Pareja has rotated his squad to keep key veterans fresh.
What's Going Wrong: My big knock on Dike heading into the SuperDraft was that he wasn't goal-hungry enough as a No. 9, and not necessarily a natural goalscorer with his off-ball movement. He's been better on that front than I suspected, but there are still times where he makes the wrong run, or makes the right run too passively.
So we've seen, in recent weeks, Orlando either squander leads or fail to extend them during periods of dominance. This isn't all on Dike – I love Mauricio Pereyra, but he'd struggled in front of net until last week, and production from wingers other than Mueller has been sporadic since play resumed in August – but if he wants to convince the Orlando front office that they don't need a DP No. 9 this winter, he needs to do it with more than just his extraordinary hold-up play. He needs to get goals.
Ronny Deila, NYCFC
Best Moment: Toronto FC have inflicted multiple humiliations upon NYCFC in big moments over the past four years, so there had to be some catharsis in the Pigeons' 3-1 win over the Reds in the knockout round of this summer's tournament:
It's never been NYCFC's ethos to counterattack their way to a win, but when the opportunity is there, you have to take it. They did so against a team that's traditionally broken their hearts.
What's Going Right: The defense has mostly been very good in MLS play, conceding more than a single goal just twice in 13 games comprising the regular season and MLS is Back Tournament.
This is perhaps not surprising given the ultra-defensive approach Deila takes, with multiple deep-lying and/or outright defensive midfielders scattered throughout the midfield.
What's Going Wrong: Predictably, the attack's been not great. Alex Ring was a top five d-mid in MLS each of the past few years; now he's starting at left wing.
This speaks to a bigger problem with NYCFC's roster, particularly in regards to their DPs. Maxi Moralez has been great when healthy, but seems to be losing his fight to Father Time (read: injuries) this year. Deila keeps trying to get something out of Jesus Medina, but the old "blood from a stone" idiom comes to mind. And Alexandru Mitrita doesn't even get playing time any longer.
You can survive if one of your DPs doesn't deliver, but if you're going 1-for-3 or – pending Maxi's health – 0-for-3, you're not winning anything. Despite the lack of trophies in NYCFC's existence, I'm certain they came into 2020 with the expectation that they'd break that streak.
Tab Ramos, Houston Dynamo
Best Moment: Tab had to wait a while for his first win, but it was glorious when it finally came. The Dynamo beat the living hell out of Sporting at the end of August, winning 5-2 by constantly getting out on the break and eviscerating them in the open field.
It was some of the most attractive and ruthless soccer of the year from anybody in MLS.
What's Going Right: It's been a bunch of things, but the bedrock principle is that the 4-3-3 is working. In large part that's because Darwin Quintero has been the good version of Darwin Quintero, cutting in from the left wing to be a playmaker. But that's happening within the context of a team that's well-balanced on both sides of the ball, and can get super-dangerous in the blink of an eye when either of their Free 8s – Darwin Ceren and/or Memo Rodriguez – get forward.
Memo's been particularly good at timing those runs:
Houston have also made some low-key solid moves to add depth, several of which have already paid off.
What's Going Wrong: With apologies to Quintero, the two best players on this team heading into the season were supposed to be Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas. Elis has been mostly excellent, but is about to be sold and while Houston have good depth and look to be signing a new Young DP, it's going to be tough to replace Elis.
Manotas, meanwhile, has not been great – arguably not even the best No. 9 on the team. That's got to change now that Elis is off to Portugal.
Gary Smith, Nashville SC
I think you could argue that their first win, 1-0 over FC Dallas last month, was a bigger moment in the bigger picture, but I'm not sure it was a better moment.
What's Going Right: As you can see from the video above, Nashville's able to press a bit and turn that into danger. Obviously, though, that's not the only good thing about the defense – they've conceded just 11 times in 10 games. That's among the league leaders in goals against, and is right in line with their expected goals against.
In other words, their defense is working as it's designed to work.
What's Going Wrong: The attack is not working as it's designed to work. They'd scored just five times all year going into last weekend, and left at least that many more on the table with profligacy in front of the net. That's at least somewhat expected, because literally everyone who wrote a Nashville preview had a line about how center forward was a massive question.
They'll be hoping that new DP Jhonder Cadiz is the answer.
Raphael Wicky, Chicago Fire FC
Best Moment: The answer should've been "this past weekend when they logged a multi-goal win over Columbus" but, you know, they didn't actually log a multi-goal win over Columbus. They played a great first 25 minutes and created a bunch of chances throughout the rest of the game, but folded down the stretch and the Crew walked away with a point.
What's Going Right: It's not a ton, but you could make the argument that some of the young talent on this roster is starting to shine through. Mauricio Pineda at center back, Ignacio Aliseda as a No. 10/second forward and Djordje Mihailovic as a playmaking winger have all had really good moments, especially when the veteran central midfielders can control the game a bit:
I also think that, in general, Chicago have shown promise in terms of understanding and leveraging transition moments like the one above.
What's Going Wrong: They've shut out Cincinnati twice. They've shut out everyone else zero times. In nine games this year against "not Cincinnati" they've conceded two or more goals seven times.
The killer is that these are often goals coming from individual breakdowns by veterans rather than "learning experience" mistakes from youngsters.
Jaap Stam, FC Cincinnati
Best Moment: It was, unquestionably, the 2-0 win over RBNY to close out the group stage and put Cincinnati into the knockout round. It wasn't clinical or pretty, but they were the better team on the day just as they'd been against Atlanta earlier that week. They absolutely deserved to advance from Group E.
Is it a coincidence that both Atlanta and RBNY fired their coaches soon after? No. No it is not.
What's Going Right: Since that RBNY win they've conceded a respectable nine goals in seven games, plus have actually pitched three shutouts. There will be no repeat of last year's record-setting-in-its-futility defensive record.
What's Going Wrong: Since that win they've gone 0-3-4 with just two goals scored in seven games across all competitions. Both tallies came off of catastrophic blunders rather than any sort of deliberate build-up or pressing, not even a set piece.
They've scored just seven goals all year and there's been little indication that the DPs they signed this offseason represent real solutions.
Diego Alonso, Inter Miami CF
It's the one moment of true happiness Miami have had thus far in 2020. There have been good sequences of play and promising moments, but most have come undone at one level or another. This one, against their Florida neighbors, did not.
What's Going Right: Well, they're dead last in the Supporters' Shield standings. By definition, not a ton on the field.
If this team was losing every game 3-0 then ... it wouldn't matter. But they're not. They're consistently losing by one goal, and you'd think that these three, once they're integrated and up to speed, would be enough to reverse some of those scorelines.
What's Going Wrong: I mean, you'd think. You wouldn't bet your life on it, though, because Gonzalez Pirez and Matuidi are already here and it's not like Miami are playing significantly better.
"Yeah but Higuain will be finishing all those chances they've been flubbing!" you say, and I shake my head sadly at your ignorance and point out that those chances have largely been falling to Miami's midfielders, and Rodolfo Pizarro in particular. It's actually those guys who haven't been finishing.
I'd have signed a No. 10.