The MLS is Back Tournament begins Wednesday, as you might have heard. It's right there in the name of the tournament.
And since this is pretty much the final few days of preseason before the games begin, I'm transporting our annual preseason "one big question" column to mid-July. 2020's been weird.
Also, a quick and friendly reminder that this is a big question, not necessarily the big question.
Let's do this by group:
Orlando City SC
January Big Q:Will Papi get time to work even if things get ugly?
Obviously this one stands – if Oscar Pareja is not still the Orlando City head coach at this point in 2022, things have gone disastrously wrong. Everything this team's about right now has to be long-view related.
July Big Q:Will the new defensive spine prove to be worth the investment?
Veterans Pedro Gallese (GK) and Junior Urso (CM) are here permanently, and both of those make sense on paper. They add know-how and stability, and come from leagues where players have a history of successfully transitioning to MLS.
But a trio of younger players – CBs Antonio Carlos and Rodrigo Schlegel, as well as CM Andres Perea – arrived on loan. This also makes sense, given the long-term commitments Orlando City's brain trust have made in the past usually haven't worked out. They did, in a sense, gamble on Gallese and Urso. By only bringing in the other guys on loans, they've given themselves some wiggle room in case things don't work out.
Inter Miami CF
January Big Q:Can Diego Alonso do his Pachuca thing again?
Alonso isn't just famous in Mexico for winning a bunch of titles; he's famous for shepherding players like Chucky Lozano, Erick Gutierrez and, yes, Rodolfo Pizarro from young players with potential to multi-million dollar transfers. Pachuca made bank when he was there.
July Big Q:Can Pizarro live up to that price tag?
Other than a magical Concacaf Champions League run with Chivas, he didn't really live up to it after leaving Alonso and Pachuca, and by this time last year Monterrey fans were openly scorning him.
The talent is there. He needs to apply it week to week for Miami.
New York City FC
January Big Q:Are their apex attackers good enough?
I wrote then and still believe now that they are, but based upon the players – current and former – I talked to regularly last season when we had the studio open, there's a lot of skepticism. A trophy would go a long way toward silencing the doubters.
July Big Q:How much change will Ronny instill?
It took NYCFC about 25 games to adjust to Dome Torrent's system after he replaced Patrick Vieira. They will not get that luxury in adjusting to new head coach Ronny Deila, though the early returns are interesting:
I do love the notion of all gas no breaks attacking soccer out of nowhere for 20-25 minutes per game. I also think it's a significant departure from the rigid positional discipline of DomeBall.
January Big Q:What happens when Ilsinho becomes mortal again?
This is still a big question given how absurd Ilsinho's on/off splits were in 2019 (Philly were +23 when he was on the field and -15 when he wasn't). The first two games of the season went some distance toward assuaging those concerns, but 180 minutes isn't much of a sample size. And also, zero wins isn't great even if the schedule was difficult.
July Big Q:Is Sergio Santos going to be the guy?
The Brazilian forward is fast, relentless and a pressing maniac. His whole game on both sides of the ball is vertical, and he's been smart at finding the right spots off of his center forward partner (usually Kacper Przybylko) when he's been on the field.
And if you look at his numbers, 5g/3a in MLS play (regular and postseason) across 950 minutes isn't bad at all. Santos has the look of a starting forward even if he leaves some goals on the table with iffy finishing.
We saw in that wonderful 3-3 draw at LAFC just how dangerous he can be, and we have a larger sample size of Przybylko's bona fides. This could work if they both stay healthy.
January Big Q:Does a new era mean a more successful team?
Obviously still the gigantic question, and one that will remain open into 2021 and beyond no matter what happens in 2020.
July Big Q:How ready is Mauricio Pineda?
The Homegrown started the first two games of the season at d-mid and was very good, but I wrote then (and wrote over the past few years as the Fire conceded sloppy goal after sloppy goal) that the kid projects better as a center back. I wish he'd signed and played pro minutes after his freshman season at North Carolina, because it was apparent even then that he was better than the college game.
But that's not the way it happened. And for a while, it looked like Pineda as a Homegrown was never going to happen.
So, I was pleasantly surprised when he signed in the winter, encouraged when he got on the field in the season's first two games, and then drank from the chalice of vindication when he put in a good-if-partial shift at CB against the Revs in March.
Now, though, with DP d-mid Gaston Gimenez on the scene and veteran CB Johan Kappelhof out for the summer, it looks like Pineda will be getting more than just partial shifts in the middle of Chicago's backline. It looks like he's going to have to start, be solid and prove me right.
January Big Q:Will Hany Mukhtar hit?
The German playmaker looked pretty good through two games. Not breathtaking or anything, but certainly seemed to have the vision, skill and work rate required of a modern MLS No. 10. I'm not penciling Mukhtar in for Best XI or anything, but I have no reason to doubt that he'll make it here.
All small sample size caveats apply.
July Big Q:Center forward
If Mukhtar hits, but none of the forwards on the roster can put the ball in his net, will it matter? This is obviously the biggest question about Nashville on the field at this point, especially after two games to start the season in which almost every other aspect of the team is promising.
Daniel Rios is probably going to get his shot to prove what he did in USL can translate to MLS. If not, there is plenty of reporting indicating that Nashville's ready to open their checkbooks and go in a different direction.
Seattle Sounders FC
January Big Q:Will any of the kids step forward?
This question has gained added importance given Harry Shipp's retirement, which at least opens the door for Handwalla Bwana to compete with Miguel Ibarra for the No. 3 spot on Seattle's winger depth chart.
July Big Q:Does Jordan Morris pick up where he left off?
From June 23 of last year until play was halted after the first weekend of March, Morris put up 17g/14a in 33 games across all competitions for club and country. For context, Miguel Almiron put up 12g/14a in his fantastic 2018 season. Ignacio Piatti's best season was 16g/13a in 32 games. Carlos Vela's first MLS season was 14g/13a in 28 games.
Is Morris that level of a winger? Does he really belong in the discussion with those guys? To be honest, and despite the numbers: No, I don't think so. Wonder if he'll prove me wrong.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
January Big Q:What kind of midfielder is Inbeom Hwang?
Inbeom's partnership with Russell Teibert over the first two games of the season was promising, and Vancouver have brought on board a few other reinforcements. I think we've seen more evidence that he's a spraying No. 8 who needs a truer ball-winner next to him, and hope that Marc Dos Santos leaves him in that spot throughout the summer.
July Big Q:4-5-1 or 4-4-2?
It's a stretch to go off of one result but Vancouver went on the road to LA in the second game of the season, played a 4-4-2 and got the game-winning goal on a fairly straightforward "the second forward takes the space the center forward creates" kind of play. This is as old-fashioned and simple as it gets, and maybe that's the right answer for a team that struggled so much in 2019.
But the idea of playing with two up front has now been severely complicated by the news that the 'Caps will be without forwards Tosaint Ricketts, Lucas Cavallini and Fredy Montero, as well as Andy Rose and Georges Mukumbilwa.
San Jose Earthquakes
January Big Q:Is there a second scoring threat?
This question was born of their epic late-season collapse in 2019, during which they lost each of their final six games to miss the playoffs and scored only four goals during that stretch. Two of those were by Chris Wondolowski, one by Jackson Yueill and one was an own goal. No Earthquakes winger put the ball into the back of the net in the final 10 games of the season, which is brutal for a team that plays a 4-3-3 and has two DP wingers.
The good news? Four goals from four different players in two games to start 2020!
The bad news? Seven goals conceded and only one point from two home games to start 2020!
July Big Q: What the hell happened?
We know what happened at the end of 2019: San Jose kept playing pretty decent soccer, but got a few unlucky breaks, made a few really, really bad individual plays, and nobody but Wondo could score. It was a miserable confluence of events, but they all had to happen at once in order for this team – which had played such good, fun, attractive soccer for months – to miss the postseason.
But the start of 2020 made my head swim. They legitimately looked like these were their first games playing for Matias Almeyda and turned Minnesota United into 1970 Brazil on that night in March. They got whupped.
There are caveats, mostly centered around the absence of Judson and subsequent sub-optimal personnel adjustments Almeyda then had to make in order to compensate for the Brazilian ball-winner's absence. But... yikes.
January Big Q:Can Alejandro Pozuelo, Jonathan Osorio and Michael Bradley all play in the same three-man midfield?
I'm still curious about this one. That's a lot of skill, but not much field coverage and basically negative ball-winning ability. I think this would make the Reds incredibly vulnerable.
We didn't see these guys together in March as Bradley was hurt, but he's available for this tournament.
July Big Q:Can Jozy stay healthy?
Jozy Altidore's hamstrings and summer tournaments have never mixed happily. But when he's managed to stay healthy has been memorable: a stunning free-kick vs. Jamaica in the 2017 Gold Cup final, and of course his entire performance vs. Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semis. Jozy has the ability to do things few others can claim.
And so if he stays healthy then TFC are one of the favorites to win this thing. If he doesn't, they're not.
New England Revolution
January Big Q:What's going on at d-mid?
Bruce Arena rotated four players through the team's first two games, though the season-ending injury to Luis Caicedo means he's down to three. Veteran Matt Polster has been rumored to be heading to Foxborough, and his original spot was defensive midfield.
He would be a big help if he can avoid the injury bug.
July Big Q:Same tbh, but for the sake of diversifying let's ask about left back
In their opener at Montreal the Revs got spread out and stretched, and so right wingback Zachary Brault-Guillard constantly got in behind on that flank via big switches. Part of this was just good game-planning from Thierry Henry, part of it was Montreal having a few CCL games under their belt while the Revs were playing their first competitive match of 2020, and part of it was personnel-related – DeJuan Jones is still learning the spot and was playing next to rookie Henry Kessler at LCB.
Bruce Arena didn't bring in veteran Alex Buttner to sit him, I'm sure, and now that he's healthy he's probably the starter. But just slotting a veteran in there isn't an automatic fix for issues with regard to defensive shape and especially continuity.
January Big Q: Can anyone play on the right wing?
I'm going to consider this question to be both dodged (Henry lined Montreal up sans wingers in the season's first five games across all competitions) and answered. Brault-Guillard is a rocket, and is clever about timing his overlaps, which means that even if Titi decides to go with a 4-3-3, he can fiddle around with the functionality of the right winger and make him kind of a second forward, or more of an inside playmaker, or just have him hunt space as a raumdeuter.
Brault-Guillard made a lot of things possible for Montreal early on this year.
July Big Q:What formation will Henry play and how high will he draw his line?
Implicit in Henry's comments from CCL games and early-season MLS play was that he was easing into the season and easing into the job by not trying to turn them into Arsenal's Invincibles or those wonderful Barca teams overnight. It's safer to put an extra center back there, it's easier to destroy than create, and when you have options who can take space at light speed, you might as well sit deep and draw the opponents upfield.
It worked pretty well, but I don't think Henry wants his team to play this way long-term. And it wouldn't shock me if we saw a much different-looking version of the Impact in July than the one we saw in February and March.
January Big Q:Is Ola Kamara good enough to lead the line for a contender in 2020?
Last week I wrote about Ola's run of bad luck, which included the injury he suffered in D.C.'s second game of 2020. The good news is that he's reportedly recovered and available, and with high-end creators around him – Edison Flores, Julian Gressel and Yamil Asad – I can see a world where Ola goes HAM and leads this tournament in scoring.
But yeah, it's a question.
July Big Q:Will Flores settle in as the No. 10?
The Peruvian has played some left wing, some right wing, some second forward and some as a pure playmaker throughout his career. I'd argue that the best we saw of him was last year with Monarcas was as a true "go anywhere you want" No. 10. Given D.C.'s roster composition and structure, I figured that's what we'd get in the District.
But... no. It was Julian Gressel as the 10 in Week 1, and while Flores was more central in Week 2, the game wasn't exactly flowing through him. It was a little bit weird.
Real Salt Lake
January Big Q:Does Corey Baird have another level to hit?
It's a really good question! And especially important given the ever-changing circumstances of RSL's center forward situation.
But the short version for asking this question: Baird struggled a bit in his second year, but still had some breathtaking moments. This goal, man:
A first touch so pretty it overshadowed the fact that the finish was a freaking trivela.
Anyway, if Morris can go from a good MLS winger who was a pretty good national team player to an elite MLS winger who's a national team centerpiece in one offseason, what's to prevent Baird making a similar jump? He has speed, he has flair, and he has the chance to be a match-winner. Hell, he kind of has to be for RSL.
July Big Q:What's the midfield balance?
Nick Besler, Kyle Beckerman and Damir Kreilach all have made a case for a starting job in central midfield. Everton Luiz is, I would say, a necessity in central midfield given his ability to break up play.
If Luiz has one spot, are we still in an era in which Beckerman automatically gets the other? Does Krelach become a full-time No. 9? Does Freddy Juarez play with three d-mids and move Albert Rusnak to left wing? How does this all fit?
The first two games of the season lead me to believe Juarez is going to take a dispiritingly conservative approach.
January Big Q:What's up with Ilie?
The veteran Spanish d-mid struggled mightily in 2019, as did almost everyone on the roster relative to expectations. Ilie was much better in the first two games of the 2020 season and it doesn't seem unreasonable to hope for or even expect a return to his 2017 & 2018 form.
July Big Q:Is Alan Pulido as good as he looked? Is Gadi Kinda?
Obviously it's just 180 minutes, but these two guys seemed to level the entire team up, which is what was badly needed after last year's shocking regression. Pulido was paid like a star and everyone kind of suspected that any above-average center forward would feast in Peter Vermes' system, but Kinda? Dude came out of nowhere.
January Big Q:Can Distressed Assets SC be a winning proposition in 2020?
Well, in Colorado's first game of 2020 they got the winner from Jonathan Lewis off the bench. In their second they got the opener from on-loan No. 10 Younes Namli, and the winner from free agent signee Drew Moor, who was surplus goods in Toronto.
So far so very, very good for DASC.
July Big Q:Is Lewis going to make the starting job his now that the path has been cleared?
I've been a Lewis fan since he came into the league, but for one reason (defense) or another ("lost in the tactical sauce," as a friend put it) he never broke through to earn consistent minutes with NYCFC, and then wasn't quite able to lock down a starting job in Colorado despite the fact that the Rapids paid relatively big money for him, and despite the fact that he did stuff like this:
The Rapids are now down to three real wingers, and they made a bigger investment in Lewis than in the other two. If not now... never?
Minnesota United FC
January Big Q:Where is the offense going to come from?
They were dominant on set pieces and the counter through two games. That's a great formula.
July Big Q:So, about that central defense...
Look, I didn't make this meme. But when I saw it on /r/MLS there's a reason I saved it:
This might be one of the biggest questions in the entire tournament given Opara's age, injury history, level of play (he's enjoying one of the greatest four-year runs any CB MLS has ever had) and Minnesota's 2020 and 2021 ambitions.
January Big Q:Is this personnel/tactical/cultural overhaul going to continue, and will it all be worth it?
One of the biggest questions in the league given how good they were in the Tata Martino era, and how much of a stylistic departure the Frank de Boer era's been. I look forward to collecting more data.
July Big Q:Can this team compete without Josef Martinez?
Uhhhh... can I use that Ike meme again?
January Big Q:Was last year's late-season defensive solidity a bunker-based mirage?
With so many players and, crucially, a new coach, this is no longer really a pertinent question. If Ron Jans was still there you could posit that he was intending to build upon what his team did in September, but he's gone and not missed.
Clean slate for Jaap Stam.
July Big Q:How solid can the defense be?
So I'll just take the same question and reframe it, partially because I've already written about Jurgen Locadia (he was a $20 million striker two years ago! He's a fringe Dutch international in his prime!) so much, and partially because I've already written about the midfield (how do you get Haris Medunjanin and Siem de Jong into the same 4-3-3 without becoming a sieve???) so much, and partially because it really is a burning question.
Good, bunkering September or not, FC Cincy really did ship 75 goals last year. New arrivals or not, they set a league record for defensive futility. And it's not like they were awesome in the first two weeks of the season as they conceded five goals in two games.
When that's your track record, every single spot on the team should be up for grabs.
New York Red Bulls
January Big Q:How good is Cristian Casseres, Jr. ready to be?
The early returns in 2020 were mostly good, especially (obviously) this:
That is the ball you have to win if you're going to play CM at a high level in the Red Bull system, on any continent. The bottom-corner rip is a nice bonus, obviously.
July Big Q:Can Florian Valot stay healthy?
Valot is a no-doubt-about-it starting caliber winger in this league, and there are plenty of people in and around RBNY who think he has the quality to be much more than that. But he's also missed most of the last two years with ACL tears, and isn't a kid anymore. He's 27, staring directly into what should be the best years of his career.
And he was absolutely wonderful in the first game of the season against Cincinnati as he picked up two assists and generally bossed things for about 60 minutes in an eventual 3-2 RBNY win.
Nobody in the league has had worse injury luck than Valot over the past couple of years. It'd be nice to see him reverse that.
Columbus Crew SC
January Big Q:What tactical approach will they take?
Big ups to Caleb Porter & Co. for putting out these videos, which provide a pretty clear blueprint for how he wants his team to play:
It was a work in progress early in the season, which is to be expected as it's early in the season. But you don't work on stuff like this in training unless it's the stuff you want to do in the games themselves.
July Big Q:Will we get to see the fully unleashed version of Milton Valenzuela?
He was arguably the league's best LB in 2018 as a 19-year-old. He missed all of 2019 after doing his ACL. He returned to start the first two games of the 2020 season, though he came off at halftime in Week 2 at Seattle with a knock.
It is a worry. Columbus have solid depth, but there's a world of difference between "solid" and what we saw from Valenzuela at his peak two years ago. If that guy's out there, suddenly you have to defend the Crew from touchline to touchline and endline to endline. They can make the field really, really big.
January Big Q:Will Bob Bradley rotate the squad more?
LAFC's record-breaking, gorgeous and glorious 2020 regular season came at a cost. First Carlos Vela went down with a muscle injury, then Mark-Anthony Kaye and then, finally, Latif Blessing. By the time they got to the playoffs they were running – or limping, I guess – on fumes. And Seattle were ruthless about punishing that.
We only got to see them play four games in 2020 before lockdown, but Bradley seemed more willing to go to the bench, and to do so earlier. He was particularly diligent about managing Kaye's minutes, and this all came following a winter transfer period during which they added a ton of depth up top, in central midfield and at left back.
So I'm gonna say the answer was "probably, yeah."
July Big Q:What's Andy Najar got left?
Najar, who LAFC added via the allocation order last month, is just 27 years old and is the presumptive starting right back. If he can stay healthy he'll probably be one of the best right backs in the league, but that "if" has defined Najar's career. If he'd stayed healthy we'd be talking about him, Tecatito Corona and Sergino Dest as the three Concacaf RBs who were going to giant European clubs this summer or, in Najar's case, were already there. The likes of Tottenham and Valencia had scouted him in the past, and following his superb 2015/16 season with Anderlecht, most of the biggest teams in the Bundesliga were reported to be knocking on the door.
There is no doubt that if he'd stayed healthy he'd have continued his upward trajectory. If Najar can be 85% of what he was in 2015 and is 90-minutes healthy just about every week, LAFC will have yet another match-winner on their books. The rich will have gotten richer.
Again, though: That is the "if" that has defined the kid's career.
January Big Q:Can they fix the defense?
TBD but they only gave up two goals in the first two games of the season, and it's not like they were getting overrun and David Bingham was standing on his head. It seemed better because, quite honestly, it was better.
July Big Q:Can they fix the offense?
TBD but they only scored one goal in the first two games of the season, and it's not like they were creating a ton of chances and Chicharito just couldn't find his finishing boots. It seemed worse because, quite honestly, it was worse.
The Galaxy have a ton of talent but too easily settle for long-balls and crosses to no one. I think that is a bad gameplan, but if they insist upon doing it, they should just throw another forward up there with Chicharito to win knock-down headers and create poaching opportunities. A straight-forward 4-4-2 would seem to fit much of the personnel, and could even provide a spot on the field for Homegrown playmaker Efra Alvarez (play him as an inverted, playmaking RM).
January Big Q:Will Darwin Quintero fit on the wing?
Here's what I wrote in preseason:
And as it stands, it looks like Darwin will be playing on the left wing – his old home with Santos Laguna when he was legitimately one of the best players in North America – in front of a front-foot, three-man midfield.
There is ample reason to think it will work. There is also ample reason to think that Darwin's... let's call it "lack of interest" in defending will be a massive handicap that completely exposes that side of the pitch, tilts Houston's midfield until it's out of balance and allows them to get shredded up the gut.
I stand by every word of that. Which is great for my track record because it means I can be both right and wrong. All my bases are covered!
Anyway, Darwin didn't start either of Houston's first two games, but did get on the field for the final half-hour of Week 2's 4-0 laugher of a loss at Sporting.
July Big Q:4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3?
It was definitely more of a 4-3-3 with Matias Vera playing as a lone d-mid, and wooooo boy were Sporting able to exploit that. If Tab Ramos decides that Vera needs more help and has to drop one of the attacking midfielders deeper, that changes a ton about Houston's shape and how they can/will advance the ball into the attacking third.
I think this is something close to "inevitable" by the way.
January Big Q:Will they get enough production from the wings?
Two home games, two goals, neither from the wings. And there was not much indicating that the attack had gained cohesion commensurate with the offseason talent infusion, especially in a 1-0 Week 2 win during which Portland were outshot 14-3 by an expansion team.
This one will remain an open question.
July Big Q:Can they use the ball to create chances?
Portland have been a counters-or-set-pieces-or-oh-my-god-Diego-Valeri-is-brilliant team for almost a decade now. Gio Savarese clearly wants to change that and play front-foot, flowing soccer. They want to play with the ball and not against it.
But last year that meant cross after cross after cross from fullbacks pushed up into the final third instead of patiently and methodically carved-out chances from attacking interplay. So in Week 1 this season, Minnesota gameplanned for that then annihilated Portland on the counter in behind Jorge Villafaña and Jorge Moreira.
In Week 2, Savarese positioned his fullbacks more conservatively, Portland got an early goal thanks to Valeri's brilliance, and then took exactly one more shot in the game's final 78 minutes.
With this much talent on the roster there has to be some sort of a happy medium.
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