EDITOR'S NOTE: The non-playoff team blurbs were originally published in late November, while the blurbs of the teams eliminated in the play-in round and the first round of the playoffs were published in early December.
The final eight blurbs are new.
At the time I'm kicking this column off, the 2020 regular season is over and the year has ended for eight teams. And so it's appropriate to take a look at the how and why, and the what comes next.
This column will quite obviously grow over the next few weeks as more and more teams see their 2020 come to an end. And then finally, an MLS Cup champion will be crowned.
And so in we go...
FC Cincy had a legendarily dysfunctional debut season in 2019. They chopped up and rebuilt damn near half their roster for their sophomore campaign. And they might've one-upped themselves in the dysfunction department regardless. A gif is worth a thousand words:
The best laid plans of mice and men, I guess. You have to give Cincy's front office points for ambition — they went out and got a coach and players with real pedigree, guys who were imported and some from within the league. On paper this wasn't going to be a playoff team unless almost everything broke right, but did anyone really expect almost everything to break wrong?
FORMATION & TACTICS: Ron Jans was supposed to be the head coach, and had his team playing in what looked like a 4-3-3 in the preseason, but then he and the club parted ways after he said some openly racist stuff. So Yoann Damet got his second run as an interim head coach at the start of the season, with the team coming out in a 4-1-4-1 and then a 4-2-3-1.
And then the Covid shutdown, and then Jaap Stam became the team's third head coach of 2020. And Stam cycled through a 5-4-1, a 3-5-2, a 4-3-3, a 4-1-4-1 and eventually finished with a 4-2-3-1, playing mostly out of a mid or low block.
They tried to possess and didn't hit a lot of long balls, but they didn't really have many ideas.
HIGHLIGHTS: Unquestionably, it was the back-to-back wins over Atlanta United and the Red Bulls in the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament, though the first-ever MLS regular-season Hell is Real rivalry win over Columbus certainly rates as well.
But yeah, back in July, with Stam on the sidelines for his second and third games in charge, Cincy did the job: they got numbers behind the ball, didn't make any catastrophic mistakes, and were opportunistic when moments presented themselves. And Frankie Amaya scored a worldie.
So they got themselves out of the group stage and into the knockout rounds, and then... were thoroughly outplayed by Portland in the Round of 16. But Steve Clark basically gave Cincinnati a goal, and it went to PKs, and any time you're into PKs you've got a shot, and... Portland won, of course.
But still, this was a more than respectable run even if it wasn't great soccer.
Is it telling that Frank De Boer and Chris Armas would each be fired—De Boer immediately and Armas a month later—after losing to Cincy? Yes, yes it is.
LOWLIGHT: If you want to pinpoint the moment where it all started to go really, really wrong for Cincy in 2020, here you go:
SHOT: Jürgen Locadia, FC Cincinnati - 88th minute
The Timbers had just gifted Cincy one goal, and were doing their damnedest to gift them another. If Jurgen Locadia — their star DP striker, an in-his-prime No. 9 who was scoring regularly in the Bundesliga at this time last year — buries that, Cincy are into the quarterfinals and Portland are going home.
Locadia literally has not scored since then. Cincinnati went 2W-12L-4D and scored just six goals in the subsequent three months. One goal every three games for a team that brought in two attacking DPs this offseason.
REVELATION: Here's what I wrote last year:
I don't think anyone on the roster earned that distinction. Some of the young guys – DP Alan Cruz, draft picks Frankie Amaya and Tommy McCabe, Celtic loanee Andrew Gutman – showed promise or had good moments, but nobody was a "revelation."
Cruz regressed to the point where it wouldn't shock me if he was gone this winter, and McCabe disappeared. Amaya and Gutman were both marginally better in Year 2 than they were in Year 1. Joe Gyau also worked hard.
Nobody, though, was a revelation.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Did you read the part about Cincy having scored just six goals in 18 games over the course of three months? That is the type of disappointment you get when Locadia and Yuya Kubo — the other DP attacker they signed this past winter — combine for just four goals in about 2400 minutes between the two of them. You can sprinkle TAM attacker Siem de Jong's 0g/0a in 800ish minutes on top.
All three of these guys have resumes that suggest they should be, at the very least, pretty good MLS players. Locadia sold for almost $20 million just two years ago! De Jong is just 31 and was a fringe Dutch national teamer!
None of them have even been replacement-level in 2020.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Amaya (CM): He's a ball-winning terrier with range, skill and real toughness, and should be a foundational piece. Tata Martino and El Tri have approached the Mexican-American, who has represented the U.S. at various youth national team levels.
- Gutman (LB): He's still on loan, and while he hasn't been perfect, there's been a real, noticeable improvement curve, and he's got some sauce on the ball and in the attack.
- Kamohelo Mokotjo (DM): The 29-year-old Dutch-South African d-mid arrived mid-season and has been energetic, at the very least. He and Amaya should be able to form a defensively solid central midfield.
- Gyau (W/WB): Gyau did lots of hard work as both a winger and a wingback. He's not a match-winner out there, but he soaks up lots of minutes with solid two-way play.
- Alvaro Barreal (LW): They brought the young Argentine in during the summer transfer window and he hasn't done much — 0g/0a in 330 minutes — but you don't spend that kind of money on a young attacker and not at least give him a chance to succeed.
Offseason Priority: They pretty obviously have to do some more roster rebuilding, and it starts with their DPs. As mentioned, Cruz regressed to the point where it's hard to imagine him being back and wearing a DP tag. It can't possibly be worth exercising whatever Locadia's buy option is given his lack of productivity, though apparently the loan is set to last all the way through next year. And Kubo hasn't looked DP caliber and doesn't really fit any position in the 4-3-3 that Stam pretty clearly wants to play.
So I honestly have no idea what they're doing, or could do.
Then they have to figure out central defense, and figure out if they want a No. 10 or want to use Amaya and insert signing here as free, pressing 8s, and they're not locked down in goal, either.
Lots of work to do. The conventional wisdom after their debut season was that the way that 2019 roster was originally constructed had set the team back years, and 2020's results seem to suggest the conventional wisdom was right.
After Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta left, it was time for a rebuild. A gif is worth a thousand words:
D.C. United charged into last year's offseason with what I thought was a pretty good rebuilding plan, targeting players who'd been proven, high-level contributors either in MLS or in Liga MX, all of them in their prime.
And then they basically all got hurt. Ben Olsen lost his job, and they are, as per the latest reports, a couple of weeks away from naming a permanent successor.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Because of all the injuries and underperformances they were all over the shop in terms of the formation. I thought it was going to be a straight-forward 4-2-3-1— to be honest, it should've been a straight-forward 4-2-3-1 even given said injuries and underperformances — but it usually wasn't. Sometimes it was five at the back, sometimes it was four, sometimes it was two up front, sometimes it was three.
No matter the formation or whether it was Olsen or interim head coach Chad Ashton, who is still in the mix to get the permanent job, D.C. were light on possession and attacking ideas, which was paired with one of the most porous defenses in the league.
That's how you finish next-to-last.
HIGHLIGHTS: D.C. won only five times all year, with three of them coming down the stretch under Ashton, so you could argue for that. You could argue for young Griffin Yow's late equalizer vs. Toronto in September, or younger Kevin Paredes' relatively consistent week-to-week performances.
But my favorite of D.C.'s trio of teenaged homegrowns is central midfielder Moses Nyeman, who put in a legit two-way performance against Cincy in mid-October:
Maryland and Northern Virginia—basically the D.C. metro area—is one of the richest in the country in terms of local talent. The only real silver lining from this season is that it forced United to play more of the local kids and, perhaps, get the academy cranking out first-team performers.
LOWLIGHT: On October 7, D.C. went to the Bronx and got thumped 4-1 by NYCFC. It was their fourth loss in a row, and moved them to 2W-9L-5D on the season. They'd won just once since March.
Olsen was dismissed the next day. It was time.
It was also sad. Olsen is as deeply entwined with D.C. United as any player has ever been entwined with any team in MLS history. He's been a part, as either a player of a coach, of something over 70 percent of all United games, ever. When D.C. took the field on October 11 of this year, it was the first time since the 1997 US Open Cup final that he wasn't either on the roster or on the coaching staff.
REVELATION: Nobody. You could argue that the team leaning into the #PlayYourKids academy path is a bigger-picture revelation, but I need more data before I believe that. It could've just been forced by circumstance, as opposed to an active choice.
And while all three of Yow, Paredes and Nyeman had their moments, none were so good as to be a revelation. And as mentioned elsewhere, virtually all of the other additions disappointed.
DISAPPOINTMENT:Ola Kamara? Julian Gressel? Yamil Asad? Edison Flores? How can you possibly choose just one?
Or maybe it was the spate of injuries that was the most disappointing. We never really got to see the version of Flores who kept Monarcas (RIP) alive in Liga MX back in 2019, or the version of Kamara who's been a goal machine in MLS. Gressel and Asad seemed unsure of themselves and their roles in a way they never, ever looked in the past. And basically everybody else on the team got hurt, too.
Or maybe it was the defensive underperformance that was the most disappointing? They conceded 38 goals in 34 games in 2019. In 2020 they shipped 41 in 23. Yikes.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Flores (AM/W): If he stays healthy, he'll be really good in this league. Maybe not quite Best XI, but not far off.
- Asad (W): We know what a healthy Asad can be in MLS.
- Gressel (W): We know what a healthy and played-in-his-proper-spot Gressel can be in MLS.
- Russell Canouse (DM): The only stretch of consistently good play D.C. have put together over the past four seasons came during the second half of the 2018 season when Canouse was the write-it-in-pen starter at d-mid.
- Bill Hamid (GK): Hamid had a tough year, but 2020 was a tough year for damn near everyone. He's still one of the better shot-stoppers in the league, and is in his prime.
Offseason Priority: Remember when Oscar Pareja was hired by Orlando City or when Bruce Arena was hired by the Revs? Both those teams were struggling—Orlando City to a near legendary degree—so everyone assumed a roster teardown-and-rebuild was incoming. And everybody assumed wrong.
This D.C. roster is much, much better than their record indicates, and so the question for any new coach should not be "who are you going to bring in to make us better?" but rather "how are you going to make the guys already here better?" There is real balance and talent in midfield, and thanks to the development of the kids and the return of Paul Arriola, there is legitimate depth as well.
Less so up top, where Kamara is now 31 and there's a collection of mismatched pieces behind him on the hodgepodge of a depth chart, and there's almost no depth to speak of on the back line. So there do, quite obviously, need to be some additions—maybe even a starter or two.
But if they get the right coach and get some luck with their health in 2021, this team's not as far away as 2020 made it seem.
Houston Dynamo FC
A new coach, a few new pieces, and a new, high-energy and attractive playing style. A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Dynamo hired Tab Ramos in an attempt to move out of the doldrums of the Wilmer Cabrera era, which was an attempt to move out of the doldrums of the Owen Coyle era, which was an attempt to move out of the doldrums of the late-stage Dom Kinnear era.
They did play better soccer. But they landed in basically the same spot they've been in since 2013.
FORMATION & TACTICS: It was mostly a 4-3-3 — though there was a brief, early-autumn shift to a 4-2-3-1 — that was based upon energetic and somewhat intricate possession play. Darwin Quintero, as an inverted left winger, would be the main playmaker, while the right winger would stretch the field. The dual 8s would be tasked with making late-arriving runs to get onto the end of crosses and pull-backs, and the center forwards would do center forward stuff.
The left fullback would generally push higher than the right fullback. Maynor Figueroa, at left center back, would be tasked with initiating possession quite a bit.
Defensively it was "pray for Matias Vera."
HIGHLIGHTS: The three-game winning streak in late-August/early September was pretty much the whole of it, since they only won one other game all season long. Granted, it was a commanding 2-0 Texas Derby win over FC Dallas, but man, for those three late-summer games, everything that Ramos wanted from the Dynamo seemed to be working. Look at how they massacred Sporting KC:
HIGHLIGHTS: Sporting Kansas City vs. Houston Dynamo | August 25, 2020
That's the top seed in the West! Then Houston followed that up with a similarly commanding 3-0 win over Minnesota United — another playoff team — before posting another 2-1 win over Sporting.
Incidentally, Alberth Elis had 2g/3a in just 112 minutes over the course of that three-game winning streak. Those were his final games in Houston.
LOWLIGHT: They went 0W-3L-3D in the first six games after Elis was sold, which... fair enough. It's tough to replace one of the best attackers in the league.
Then they got that 2-0 win over Dallas and looked good doing it. There were seven games left in the season, and Houston had proved they were able to beat playoff teams, and they were in control of their own destiny. A good run of form would get them to the postseason.
They went 0W-5L-2D with a -8 goal differential, with the absolute bottom coming from a 3-0 revenge loss at Dallas on Halloween. That was pretty much that.
REVELATION: There's one of two ways to go here. Door No. 1 is that this team, like D.C. and Cincy, played so poorly that nobody actually qualifies as a revelation.
Door No. 2 is that the death-spiral they went into after Elis's departure was something of a revelation. I knew how good Elis was—he was in that Jordan Morris/Diego Rossi/Cristian Pavon group of "best non-Carlos Vela wingers in MLS—but, my god, were Houston over-reliant upon him.
So the only revelation was a bad revelation. Oof.
DISAPPOINTMENT: I don't really think many long-time Dynamo fans expected this team to make the playoffs, but I do think many expected some progress both tactically and individually from the younger players. And while I'd argue that Ramos's team was much more aesthetically pleasing than any Dynamo side of the past eight years, it came with a very obvious cost: They left themselves open to an almost infinite amount of transition opportunities.
Houston allowed .57 xG per game in transition, as per Second Spectrum tracking data. That was the worst in the league, and the underlying numbers certainly did match the eye test, and that is why despite the aesthetic improvement, there was no W/L/T improvement to be found.
Two other fairly massive disappointments: Mauro Manotas managed just 3g/2a in 1330 minutes this year, as his regression from his 2018 heights picked up steam. That's not great.
The other one is that all of the above happened while Ramos, instead of skewing toward a younger group, didn't really play the kids. Nico Lemoine got just 163 minutes, while Marcelo Palomino got just 21. Erik McCue didn't play despite the central defense not being, uh, an area of strength.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Manotas (FW): He had a tough year but he's just 25 years old and is a proven goalscorer in this league.
- Vera (DM): Another 25-year-old, Vera's been an underrated ball-winner since his arrival, though he could obviously use some help back there.
- Memo Rodriguez (CM/W): Another 25-year-old who put in another solid year, this time as a No. 8 instead of on the wing. I think I like him better on the wing since he's too low-usage to be a commanding CM, but he's much more part of the solution than part of the problem.
- Adam Lundqvist (LB): The 26-year-old added value on the overlap and in possession, and wasn't an obvious, glaring negative defensively.
- Darwin Quintero (AM/W): He's 33 and isn't going to do the work defensively anymore, but he's still a masterful string-puller and final third match-winner, with 7g/10a in 1700 minutes.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They need to find a way to switch to a 4-2-3-1 in order to get Vera some ball-winning help in deep-central midfield. Station Quintero as the 10, move Memo back to left wing, offload Tomas Martinez and get a DP No. 8 — a Jan Gregus-type. Teams use the 4-2-3-1 as a way of hiding their playmakers defensively and of gumming up the middle to prevent counterattacks, so if you want to shave down those numbers in Houston, there you go.
This assumes that Manotas comes back and is happy and scoring goals again. This also assumes that Mateo Bajamich, the Argie 2nd division winger they spent seven figures on to replace Elis, actually does replace Elis to some degree.
They also need to upgrade most of that backline, but especially the central defense. It is a glaring need.
There is major surgery to be done in Houston.
They were arguably the model club, having a cadre of stars from home and abroad and three trophies in two years. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Did Atlanta United unnecessarily overcomplicate basically everything about their existence with an offseason sell-off of key contributors and by doubling down on Frank de Boer's vision for what he wanted from his team?
Did the offloading of those players, and the unhappy manner in which many of them left do serious (and perhaps irreparable, at least in the short-term) harm to the club culture?
This was a season of failure for Atlanta, the first they've tasted in MLS.
FORMATION & TACTICS: This is another team that was all over the shop, again thanks largely to injuries and roster turnover and coaching turnover. De Boer was dismissed after the team's belly flop at the MLS is Back Tournament, and while interim head coach Stephen Glass tried, nothing he did in the subsequent three months actually worked despite a still-respectable amount of talent in the locker room.
In the end it was, for the most part, a 4-2-3-1 with a pair of fullbacks tasked with pushing high and getting into the attack, and a pair of deep-lying central midfielders who mostly didn't.
Defensively they defended pretty low. There was nothing noteworthy about it, save for their overall regression in terms of how (not) well they scrambled.
HIGHLIGHTS: There were only two times after March when things looked good-ish, to the point that Atlanta fans had hope. One was the first game after the MLS is Back Tournament—the first game of the post-De Boer era—in which they came out and knocked Nashville around in a 2-0 win. It was Pity Martinez's best game of 2020, and one of his best games ever in a Five Stripes kit. It was also his second-to-last.
The other was a 4-0 dismantling of D.C. in early October thanks to the unstoppable combo of checks notes Brooks Lennon and Jon Gallagher. That was a paddlin', and was also Atlanta's second win in three outings, which had them very much in the playoff race with eight games left in the season.
They'd win one of them.
LOWLIGHT: That 1W-5L-2D stretch to finish out the regular season sure has a claim, as does the 0W-4L-2D stretch after that August win over Nashville. Any momentum they might've picked up from De Boer's dismissal was illusory.
But the real lowlight was the MLS is Back Tournament performance. Three straight 1-0 losses in which Atlanta not only weren't winning, but in which they weren't even dangerous. They had no ideas and generated almost nothing, and by the final outing—in which they lost to what was essentially the Columbus reserves—the writing was on the wall for De Boer and some folks in the front office had seen their own seats become undeniably warmer.
REVELATION: Young left back George Bello, an Atlanta academy product, probably wasn't good enough overall to warrant full-on "revelation" status, but I'm gonna toss this clip of him here anyway:
Armchair Analyst: Is George Bello the next USMNT Star? | Top Tier
Bello clearly improved over the course of the season, and he is the type of talent who is still being monitored by Champions League clubs. This was the perfect year to live through the bad moments in order to get to the types of good moments his talent says he's capable of producing. I am not absolutely convinced he'll get there, but I'm more convinced than I was 12 months ago, which is progress.
Neither Lennon nor Gallagher, nor d-mid Mo Adams were "revelation"-level guys this year either, but all three looked like useful squad players or potentially even starters in the right set-up. That's not the type of personnel-related victory Atlanta were hoping for in 2020, but wins like that throughout the squad tend to add up even if the W/L/T returns aren't immediate.
DISAPPOINTMENT: There are lots. Losing Josef Martinez to injury for basically the entire season is an obvious thing to point to; if he doesn't do his ACL, they probably make the playoffs. That hurts bad.
But I would argue the regression of Miles Robinson was an even bigger disappointment in its own way, and the complete lack of progress from Ezequiel Barco is starting to become a millstone:
What Atlanta United Ezequiel Barco needs to do to be the man | Top Tier
All of those disappointments somehow pale in comparison to this one, though: Literally every offseason import underperformed. The Best XI-caliber players Atlanta shipped out after the 2019 season were, to a man, replaced by high-priced guys who did not live up to their billing. Not a single one!
That should chill Atlanta supporters to their bones. You can't be an elite team in this league if you repeatedly miss on signings, and going back a couple of years now—all the way to Barco—Atlanta have mostly done exactly that.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Josef (FW): He's freaking Josef. Even if he's only 90% of what he was before the ACL tear, that still makes him a top 3 center forward in the league.
- Marcelino Moreno (AM): The DP No. 10 was brought in mid-season and looked pretty good, all things considered. He didn't set the world afire, but when you pay many millions for an in-his-prime DP No. 10, you'd best be planning to build around him to some degree.
- Robinson (CB): They better hope the 2019 version of Robinson comes back in 2021.
- Bello (LB): Steady progress from an elite prospect. Can't knock it!
- Franco Escobar (RB): Escobar, like just about everyone else, struggled in 2020. But he's a proven, high-level player in MLS who's in his prime. The front office shouldn't make the mistake of sending him away.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They need to find the right coach, obviously. I'm not going to go and offer any advice since I was one of the ones assuming, two years ago around this time, that De Boer would work out just fine. But the difference from the Tata Martino era has been pronounced.
Within the roster itself, if we assume Josef comes back healthy then the two areas Atlanta most obviously need to address are central midfield and central defense. Maybe a new coach can make the guys already on hand look better, though I do have my doubts about many of them. Eric Remedi and Emerson Hyndman are probably not full-time starters in MLS (though both are paid as if they are), Jeff Larentowicz is pushing 40 and I'm still not sure what you would say it is Matheus Rossetto does, exactly.
Neither Fernando Meza nor Anton Walkes got it done at center back. Meza at least has a track record, but he's gonna be 31 at the start of next season and really, really struggled with the physical aspects of the league. It's hard to see that improving.
After years of fielding an entertaining, often explosive attack that was undercut by an error-prone defense, Chicago replaced their coaching staff after the 2019 season and for 2020 fielded a team with... an entertaining, often explosive attack that was undercut by an error-prone defense. A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Fire were, in a lot of ways, the same Fire. They played good ball under Raphael Wicky, and I had a lot of fun watching them.
It all often looked really good right up until the end. Then it just broke.
FORMATION & TACTICS: After toying around with a 3-5-2 and even a 5-4-1 during the MLS is Back Tournament, Wicky had his team settle into a 4-2-3-1 with some 4-3-3 principles come August. The whole idea was to put as many guys as possible out there who can pass the ball and use that to unbalance teams via possession, as well as the occasional over-the-top offering to target man Robert Beric when the opposing defense started cheating toward midfield a step or two too much.
Almost everybody in the Fire's regular rotation could really spray, but especially the deep-lying central midfielders and both center backs. That often let them set the tone and, by mid-September, you could count on them to sort of command most games as they all built chemistry and got on the same page.
They were especially good when Beric would check toward the ball and bring the opposing defense with him, which gave the wingers and attacking midfielder opportunities to find open lanes and pockets of space.
HIGHLIGHTS: Their best run of results came in late September/early October when they went 3W-1L-1D over five games and gave themselves control over their own playoff destiny down the stretch.
Truth is, though, that there were highlights from almost every game. I'd argue the best they played all year was in a 2-2 mid-September draw vs. Columbus:
Chicago Fire showing signs of progress under Raphael Wicky | Top Tier
The Fire were dominant against a team that had, up until that point, not conceded more than once in a game all season. Chicago could've easily had five on the day.
Of course... they didn't. And they found a way to somehow cough up points at the very end, which was their season-long M.O.
LOWLIGHT: So after that 3W-1L-1D stretch Chicago had six games left in the season and were in total control of their own playoff destiny, right down to the final day of the season. They were clearly the better team in, I would say, four of those six games, and played the other two dead even. Just on balance of "how does this team look?" you'd have said "like a playoff team."
They won none of those games. And this is how their season ended:
GOAL: Valentín Castellanos, NYCFC - 77th minute
That was with the score knotted at 3-3 at home on Decision Day against a very good NYCFC team. It was a win-and-you're-in situation for Chicago. And that's the magic their backline conjured.
REVELATION: Homegrown rookie center back Mauricio Pineda had a few of those inexplicable moments, but comparatively fewer than the guys around him. Pineda had been arguably the best player in college soccer (or damn near) for four straight years, and yet for a long time it seemed like Chicago didn't want to/weren't going to be able to sign him to a deal.
Then last year, with the addition of Wicky and sporting director Georg Heitz, the academy floodgates finally opened and Pineda was signed.
He slotted right into the XI, first at d-mid and then at center back, and added significant value at both spots. His transition from four years of college soccer was virtually seamless.
I will not be at all surprised if he's starting for the U.S. Under-23s in Olympic qualifying, and then at the Olympics themselves if the U.S. (finally) make it. He is that good.
Pineda's academy teammate Djordje Mihailovic deserves a shout here as well, as he shook off a disappointing 2019 and a rough start to 2020 by snagging a full-time role as a playmaking winger in Wicky's three-man front line. Djordje was one of the top open play chance creators in the league, and finished with 2g/7a in 1171 minutes. Those are very good numbers.
DISAPPOINTMENT: While most of the new signings worked out, young DP attacker Ignacio Aliseda left a lot to be desired. This is the second-to-last game of the season:
This type of play is how you end up with just 1g/2a in 1400 minutes despite playing for one of the league's better attacks.
Chicago's other starting winger, Przemyslaw Frankowski, had just 3g/1a in 1500 minutes. Neither did enough.
If they had done enough, all those late defensive breakdowns would've been less catastrophic and less determinative of the overall season outcome.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Beric (FW): I almost never vote players from non-playoff teams to the Best XI, but Beric was that good this year.
- Gaston Gimenez (DM): Gimenez mostly lived up to his DP tag, doing a regista's work in opening up the game and setting the tempo while adding value defensively.
- Alvaro Medran (CM): Medran is smooth and classy on the ball, and along with Gimenez was superb in dictating the game. He is one of the league's best pass-before-the-pass guys.
- Pineda (CB): He should be a foundational piece for a good long while, though he could probably use a more athletic and less error-prone CB partner than Francisco Calvo.
- Mihailovic (W/AM): He has what seems to be an intuitive understanding of the shape and tempo of the game in the attacking third. Getting him onto the wing, with more time and space to pick the final pass, was a smart move from Wicky.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Finding someone besides Beric to put the ball into the back of the net with some level of consistency should be pretty high on the list. Ideally that would be Aliseda, who one would hope is poised to make a leap in Year 2 (and one would also hope that 2021 will not present the same sort of off-field challenges that 2020 did).
As it stands, Fabian Herbers was Chicago's second-leading scorer with four goals. Herbers is a nice squad player who can fill in at a couple of spots, but if he's your second-leading scorer, you're leaving yourself vulnerable to heartbreak elsewhere on the pitch. You need things at the back to be locked down and to go mostly right.
Which brings us to the other obvious place to look: the back line. Perhaps some of the improvement can/will come from within. I would say the biggest change from the Veljko Paunovic era to the Wicky era thus far has been Wicky's willingness to let players play through mistakes, give them some consistency and the chance to earn reps. The Fire under Paunovic never improved year-over-year because he just never did that.
So Wicky's guys might. But it takes a lot of faith to count on that, and I have to imagine there's a bunch of shopping that'll happen this winter.
Real Salt Lake
Year after year RSL have somehow struggled through most of the season, turned it on at the end, then gotten over the top into the playoffs. A gif is worth a thousand words:
It just proved to be too much for them in 2020. Between the nature of the year itself, to the issues involving owner Dell Loy Hansen and the club culture, to the kind of questionable offseason signings, to the even more questionable managerial decisions from Freddy Juarez, RSL just couldn't make it over the hump.
And so when they got knocked down and it came time for them to really push themselves, the push never came.
FORMATION & TACTICS: 4-2-3-1 low block with, usually, some sort of a false 9 that tended to drift wide between the center backs and fullbacks rather than occupying the center backs in the A gap.
Neither fullback got high with any regularity, and they struggled to get out into transition via any sort of practiced patterns of play. A lot of what they did for a good chunk of the season came down to "let's hope the wingers can go full Messi off the dribble!"
They weren't a fun team to watch.
HIGHLIGHTS: It's hard to pick too many out of the pile considering they didn't win back-to-back games all year long, but they did have one of the most explosive and entertaining five-game runs in the league this season upon their emergence from the bubble.
First they pounded Colorado 4-1 (more on that one in a minute), then they went to Portland and got a 4-4 draw thanks to a pair of second-half stoppage time goals in the first game after the Hansen story had broken. Then they hosted Seattle and got themselves another point thanks to a 2-2 draw.
Of course, then they went to Minnesota and got crushed 4-0, but then they followed that one up with a 3-0 win over LAFC. It was wild and all-over-the-place in terms of performance levels on both sides of the ball, but RSL were mainly out there getting results against good teams and were solidly mid-table in the West. They were looking at another year of, perhaps, hosting a playoff game.
LOWLIGHT: From an on-field perspective, almost everything that happened after that LAFC win has to be on the list as RSL went just 2W-8L-2D over the final 12 games of the season as Juarez tossed out different lineups and formations and players in different roles every single game.
The first game of that 12-game stretch was the absolute worst, though. Because the first game of that 12-game stretch was at home against Colorado, and RSL had just crushed the Rapids 4-1, and after that commanding win, they went ahead celebrated yet another year of Rocky Mountain Cup dominance. Because how could the Rapids possibly bounce back from that, right?
Colorado smoked RSL 5-0. It was the first win for Colorado in Utah since 2007—before Rio Tinto stadium, which is damn near a teenager, was built. Kyle Beckerman had scored for Colorado in the Rapids' prior win in Utah.
That loss just seemed to crush whatever had been brewing for RSL. They'd scored 13 goals in the previous five games, and would score just nine more all season.
REVELATION: And once again, nobody qualifies unless you go the Houston route and say that the only revelation was a bad one.
In this instance it would be the personnel choices of Juarez. RSL have long been amongst the league leaders in terms of homegrown minutes, and have produced a steady stream of contributors from their academy—first in Casa Grande, now in Herriman. So it was natural to hope that Juarez would be to RSL what Jim Curtin has been for Philly or Luchi Gonzalez for Dallas: a homegrown coach who worked his way up from the academy to the first-team position and would then further expand an already open pipeline of players taking the same path.
Juarez's approach was basically the opposite. RSL academy products got fewer minutes than they have in years, as Justen Glad mostly lost his starting spot (I'm still perplexed), Corey Baird was in and out of the lineup, and then a whole host of guys from the next cohort down—David Ochoa, Luis Arriaga, Julian Vazquez, Chris Garcia and a few others—basically never got a sniff.
It makes zero sense.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Basically everything about the year, both on the field and off. We're now in Year 3 of Damir Kreilach being the best center forward on the roster despite the fact that he's a central midfielder, and DP No. 10 Albert Rusnak was less effective than he'd ever been, and DP No. 9 Sam Johnson was released a few weeks after an incident involving a firearm used at a house party held in the middle of a pandemic.
Throughout all of this a new ownership group still has not been found.
Just turn the page on 2020 already.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Kreilach (CM): He's really good at a number of spots! He's also approaching his 32nd birthday, so it'd be best to permanently ensconce him in central midfield and let him do the job he's supposed to.
- Rusnak (AM): 3g/2a in 1300 minutes from a DP No. 10 is yuck, but we've seen Rusnak—who's still just 26—put up real numbers before.
- Pablo Ruiz (DM): The little Argentine d-mid was pretty good in his 1300ish minutes of action in 2020, though I think there'd be some warranted worry about the defensive efficacy of him and Kreilach together in central midfield.
- Aaron Herrera (RB): Herrera didn't progress year over year, but he didn't regress as hard as most of the other players on the roster and remains one of the better fullbacks in the league.
- Baird (W/F): He's steadily regressed since his Rookie of the Year campaign, and will be 25 by the time next season starts. Two years ago he was considered better than Chris Mueller. He still has the talent to be that level of a winger in this league, and nobody else on this roster can say as much.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They have to figure out how many of these guys are going to be back—I have a feeling a lot of them will have new addresses in 2021. That might include Juarez, who has seen his team get steadily worse over the duration of his year-and-a-half at the helm.
They need to (finally) find a No. 9, or maybe just embrace the fact that Kreilach's their best bet there full-time. They need to figure out what to do in central defense. Nedum Onuoha has retired, Marcelo Silva has not looked adequate, and Glad might not be back. I was under the impression that he was out of contract, but the team apparently holds an option for next year, though I'm not sure why they'd exercise it if Juarez doesn't rate him.
Is Ochoa the answer in goal, and for how long? Will any of the other kids, including young DP winger Jeizon Ramirez, ever get real minutes? What level can Rusnak actually hit?
So many questions, though the biggest one is obviously the ownership situation. That's the one that most urgently needs resolving.
They said goodbye to Zlatan. They said hello to Chicharito. They gave Guillermo Barros Schelotto the chance to make it his team. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Chicharito "disappointed," to put it mildly. He has gotten and deserves a ton of the blame.
Same with Schelotto, who was given an unbalanced roster, but still one with a ton of talent to work with. He was unable to make that talent work, and is now out of a job.
Another year in the long and growing list of no good, very bad years the Galaxy have had since 2014.
FORMATION & TACTICS: It was almost always a 4-2-3-1, and almost always the default tactic was to sit deep, try to absorb pressure and then boot a long diagonal to Cristian Pavon in isolation, then hope he can bury the fullback and create a chance.
Because Pavon is awesome, this often worked.
When they were in possession Sebastian Lletget became very clever at sniffing out opportunities in the box, and did a nice job of finishing them off.
But mostly they were scattered, passive and disorganized on both sides of the ball.
HIGHLIGHTS: They came out of the bubble and rattled off four straight wins. All four of them were against playoff teams, and two of them — the first and last — were against crosstown rivals LAFC. Those had to feel particularly good given the 6-2 humiliation LAFC had inflicted upon the Galaxy in Orlando.
The first of those wins over LAFC was a showcase of what the Galaxy did best over that stretch:
How the LA Galaxy exploited LAFC's fullbacks in El Trafico win | Top Tier
Yes, what they did best was "win a corner kick." It was that kind of year for the Galaxy.
LOWLIGHT: It's hard to look past that 6-2 loss in Orlando, and I don't think anybody's really going to forget it. But on the heels of that four-game winning streak, LA grabbed a draw at San Jose on September 13, and then... went 2W-9L-1D in their final 12 games. Schelotto finally lost his job after the ninth of those 12 games, a 5-2 loss at Portland.
They played some of the most hapless, dispirited soccer in the league over the final two months of the season. The soccer was bad and the body language was worse, and when that happens, jobs are lost.
REVELATION: I want to put Julian Araujo here, but the young right back spent most of his time at right wing. I want to put Efra Alvarez here, but the young playmaker produced just 1g/2a in 720 minutes. I am still pretty high on both players, but neither played well enough for "revelation" status, and given the Galaxy's long track record of squandering their homegrowns, the clock is starting to tick.
If Araujo is losing minutes to Rolf Feltscher—who still has all the same strengths and weaknesses that have been apparent since he first arrived in Carson—how high can they actually be on him? If Alvarez can't get real minutes as a playmaker even as the attack is completely drying up during a lost season, will he ever?
DISAPPOINTMENT: Everything about the season, basically. But mostly Chicharito's obvious disengagement which, when combined with Jona Dos Santos's season-long, injury-related no-show, must've made things pretty grim on Victoria Street.
These guys were two of the most prominent faces of the past decade for El Tri—Chicharito has a real claim on "Most Beloved Concacaf Player, Ever"—and were supposed to be the same for the Galaxy. Instead we're now entering an offseason where it seems there's real talk of one or both moving on. Already.
But I think Schelotto was actually a bigger disappointment. I talked myself into the notion that they couldn't play flowing, pressing, modern soccer with Zlatan around; that he was just too old and immobile. And with him gone, Schelotto would implement a system that highlighted his team's obvious strengths and that while the Galaxy would've lost a lot in terms of pure talent at the No. 9 spot, they'd have made up for it in terms of teamwide chemistry and attacking versatility.
Wow was that wrong. So, so so so wrong.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Pavon (W): Well, assuming he's back, anyway. Pavon had a Best XI-caliber season and is in his prime. Do what it takes to keep him!
- Lletget (CM/AM/W): The veteran did a little bit of everything, as he's done for the USMNT as well.
- Araujo (RB): Now's the time, man.
- Dos Santos (CM): I think he'll be back, and if he's healthy, he'll be one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the league again.
- Chicharito (FW): Unless Chivas bail them out, they have no choice here. They've just got to figure out how to get the most out of him.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Well, they need a new head coach, and I suspect that means a global search that ends with a global-ish name. Schelotto was exactly that, having managed Boca Juniors to multiple titles and a Copa Libertadores final. So bear in mind that a global search and a nice resume doesn't necessarily mean a winning stint awaits in MLS.
Part and parcel of the coaching search has to be understanding what, exactly, Chicharito's problem was in 2020. Was he just unmotivated by Schelotto? Did he hate the (lack of) system? Is his heart not in it? The Galaxy have to figure that out real quick, because if they hire another coach who can't get anything out of their star DP, they're going to be in for a world of hurt.
They also need to do what it takes to keep Pavon. LA and Boca have been negotiating in the press with each other about him for a year now, and I have no idea how close (or not) they are to finding a number that works for all parties. It would be a crushing blow to lose him.
And then they have to figure out the defense. And goalkeeper. And maybe d-mid. Then the opposite wing from Pavon.
There's a lot of work to do.
They got better, right? A gif is worth a thousand words:
Things at the top level just ended up moving a little bit too fast for the 'Caps, who had their second straight massive offseason overhaul and were kind of repeatedly starting from square one, again and again and again.
At times it was genuinely promising. At other times not. In the end it all just moved a little too fast for them.
FORMATION & TACTICS: It sometimes seems like whatever Marc Dos Santos sees, he's going to try at least once. So you just go ahead and name a formation and I will nod my head and say "yup, the 'Caps gave that one a shot." Week after week after week it was something new and different, and it will probably not shock you to learn that this team was massively inconsistent.
On the defensive side of the ball there were two versions of the 'Caps. Version one was the attempt-at-being-a-pressing-team which was freaking flammable. If you turned on the TV early in the game and saw Lucas Cavallini & Co. 100 yards from goal trying to force a turnover, you were well advised to keep it on that channel because you were about to see goals. They tried—they really did!—to make the press work, but, my god, did it not.
The other version was a low block team that mostly conceded possession and TONS of shots, but tried to limit shot quality. They were better at that, and once Dos Santos embraced that and a basic 4-4-2 shape, Vancouver were generally decent-ish.
HIGHLIGHTS: Dos Santos embraced the above too late to get his team into the playoffs, but not too late to put together a tidy little 4W-3L-0D stretch to end the season and at least make it interesting.
The best of those performances was the 2-1 "home" (they were in Portland, remember) win over LAFC, a game in which Cavallini looked worth every penny Vancouver had paid for him:
HIGHLIGHTS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs. LAFC | October 14, 2020
You can see the "low block and hit in transition" ethos that they'd settled into by that point. It suits them.
There is also a strong argument for the Thomas Hasal Games from the MLS is Back Tournament. The homegrown 'keeper got onto the field and was just magnificent over the course of two-and-a-half games before eventually bowing out to Sporting in the knockout round. It was a lot of fun.
LOWLIGHT: They finished 4W-3L-0D. They started 5W-11L-0D. When you lose 11 of your first 16 games, you have dug yourself a pretty damn deep hole, and in the end it turned out to be too deep for Vancouver to climb out of.
There are two choices for rock bottom from that opening stretch. First would be the 6-0 loss at LAFC on September 23, a game which felt like it could've gone to 10 or 12 if the Black-and-Gold hadn't decided to back off after they missed the extra point. In a year full of lopsided blow-outs across the league, this one felt like one of the very worst.
The other option here is the 4-3 loss to San Jose to open the MLS is Back Tournament, a game in which Vancouver blew two separate two-goal leads and allowed Shea Salinas to go full Messi on the 98th-minute winner. It was an insane game.
And in case you just sort of glanced past it: Yes, Vancouver went the entirety of the regular season without recording a single draw, the first time that's happened for any team in the post-shootout era of MLS (2000-present).
The mildly amusing part to me is that the PK shootout loss to Sporting in the tournament? That's actually recorded as a draw in the record books—all shootouts are. So the one "draw" they had wasn't actually a draw and didn't really count (only group stage games from the tournament counted toward the regular season).
Hey look, I said it was mildly interesting. Nobody's forcing you to read this!
REVELATION: I love Michael Baldisimo:
How Michael Baldisimo runs the Vancouver Whitecaps | Top Tier
He wasn't really on anybody's radar, but man can he spray the ball around. For a team heavy on wide attacking play, that is essential.
It looks like Dos Santos is not as enamored of the kid as I am, so Baldisimo would be well advised to go into preseason with an "I'm going to win the job" mentality in order to give the coach no choice. That'll mean adding a bit of extra defensive awareness and edge.
If he does that, we're not just talking about a starter, but a potential star.
DISAPPOINTMENT: I think it probably has to be Yordy Reyna, the former DP and Peruvian international who is now a former Whitecap. He should've been an easy fit in a No. 10 role, halfway between a second forward and a midfield creator, underneath Cavallini. Instead he mostly just sleepwalked through his final half-season in Vancouver (save for 20 scintillating minutes vs. Chicago) before being shipped out to D.C. for a solid chunk of change
Reyna was really quite productive with 6g/11a in about 1900 minutes in 2018, and I don't think anyone's ever seriously doubted his talent. It never even came close to working out for him under Dos Santos, though.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Cavallini (FW): I love him. He's not ever going to win a Golden Boot, but he'll be a reliable goalscorer who puts in the most honest shift in the league for the next half-decade.
- Baldisimo (CM/DM): They've got to find him at least 1500 minutes next year. I'll be angry if they don't.
- Cristian Dajome (W): He wasn't prolific, but he's in his prime, put up 3g/4a and works hard. He can be a starter on a playoff team.
- Janio Bikel (CM/DM): Can Bikel and Baldisimo work as a central midfield pairing in a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1? Not sure.
- Erik Godoy (CB): Godoy is a genuinely pretty good center back in his prime who won't lose a game for you if you don't ask him to try to do too much.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: If they're committed to that 4-4-2, then they have to find a better partner for Cavallini than soon-to-be 34-year-old Fredy Montero, who is a nice depth piece but not really a starting caliber player at this point in his career.
If they're going to move away from the 4-4-2 into more of a 4-2-3-1, then they need to find or develop a No. 10. Frenchman David Milinkovic got a bunch of chances there, but he kind of underwhelmed before a season-ending injury. Rookie Ryan Raposo, who I quite like, didn't get enough chances, though I'll admit he mostly underwhelmed in the ones he did.
And look, they probably need to sell left back Ali Adnan. As dynamic as he is going forward, he is a massive negative defensively and it's kind of insane to use a DP slot on a fullback. I'd argue he was out-performed by Cristian Gutierrez, anyway.
As with every team that finishes below the line, there are more questions than answers. So expect another busy offseason from the 'Caps brass.
I mean, they made the postseason at least. A gif is worth a thousand words:
So yeah, they took their time navigating a very irregular season and never looked comfortable doing so, but they did, in fact, make it to the other side. They just didn't stay for very long once they got there.
Never forget that being an expansion team is hard.
FORMATION & TACTICS: I had a lot of hope for Miami heading into 2020 in large part because of how much I'd enjoyed some of Diego Alonso's Liga MX sides, which had generally put a pretty strong emphasis on attacking wing play and overlapping fullbacks, and were often pretty pragmatic about their defensive shape and line of confrontation.
It was hard to see any of that this season in Fort Lauderdale. Alonso was all over the shop: back fours, back fives, back threes; three up top, two up top, or a lone forward with two inverted attacking midfielders and wingbacks. High lines, low blocks... you name it, he did it.
Combine that with the stop/start nature of the season, the constant injuries and absences, as well as the midseason roster moves, and it's probably no surprise this team had little chemistry and never generated any sort of momentum.
So the "formation & tactics" answer is "I don't know, whatever -- something different than whatever it was they did last time out."
HIGHLIGHTS: It took Orlando City until their sixth season to get a rivalry win. It took Miami until their sixth game.
HIGHLIGHTS: Inter Miami CF vs. Orlando City SC | August 22, 2020
Inter would get another dub against Orlando later in the season, but it was this one, both teams' first game following the MLS is Back Tournament, that seemed to suggest there was something brewing for Alonso & Co. Young Julian Carranza, who'd been a $6 million offseason investment, got a pair of goals, and Rodolfo Pizarro played maybe his best game of the year.
This kicked off a 3-2-2 stretch over the course of seven games. That's not incredible, but it's not bad! And with those big-name, big-money midseason additions, surely the best was yet to come.
LOWLIGHT: It's not fair to say "everything that happened after that seven-game stretch" since going 4-6-1 wasn't terrible, they picked up a couple of wins over playoff teams and kept losing by a single goal to, more or less, pretty good teams. Again: Being and expansion team is hard.
It's also tough to find a single moment to point to that would make you say "yes, unquestionably, that is the lowlight." The late goals they conceded to Atlanta and Montreal in mid-October, turning a win into a draw and a draw into a loss, probably come closest, but lack dramatic punch. Some of Gonzalo Higuain's misses have an argument, as do the early losses that piled up, but in general I would say the "lowlight' was the fact that the arrival of Higuain and Blaise Matuidi basically didn't move the needle for this team in the slightest.
Higuain, the league's highest-paid player, had just 1g/2a in 802 minutes. Matuidi, a generational midfield workhorse and World Cup champion, struggled in the regular season did this in the play-in round:
GOAL: Dax McCarty, Nashville SC - 57th minute
That's not an acceptable effort.
So if you forced me to point to one moment that says "hey, maybe this really isn't going to work," there you go.
REVELATION: Unquestionably, the one bright spot for Inter was the play of Scottish attacker Lewis Morgan, who arrived on a small fee and with small expectations from Celtic. The 24-year-old put up 5g/8a in 1950 regular-season minutes, and while he was at his best on the right wing in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, he was also effective when playing underneath a lone striker on the "2" line of a 3-4-2-1, which was one of Alonso's preferred formations.
I don't think Morgan projects as a Best XI talent, but he certainly looks the part of a "plays big minutes and gives real production for a good team"-level talent going forward.
DISAPPOINTMENT: There are so many. Nico Figal was supposed to be a borderline Argentine international but his defensive instincts are... worrying. Neither of their top two SuperDraft picks made a strong case to be foundational pieces. Obviously the overall performances of Higuain and Matuidi could go here, and while Pizarro was better -- and at times quite good -- he wasn't the MVP-type of talent that they paid for.
But all that pales in comparison to the 2020 seasons put together by Carranza and Matias Pellegrini, the young, high-priced Argentine imports. Those two goals from Carranza in the "highlights" clip of the win over Orlando City? Those are the only goals he scored all season in just 550 minutes of play. Pellegrini, a winger/attacking midfielder, had just 1g/4a in 1000 minutes across all competitions, and it's difficult to say what he does well. The combined transfer fees for the two players is reportedly around $15 million.
Alonso had a good track record of developing talent in Mexico. He showed none of that in 2020. That needs to change in 2021, or Miami are in huge trouble.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Higuain (FW): His finishing was poor but he worked hard, found chances and his link-up play was good. It wouldn't shock me if he came out of the gates on a tear in 2021.
- Morgan (W): He was probably a top 10 winger in the entire league, which is a huge compliment given how much wing talent there is in MLS these days.
- Pizarro (W/AM): So I called him an "AM" and he plays as a 10 and he wears the No. 10 even though he's not a No. 10. That's part of the problem, but he's still a very good player.
- Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (CB): LGP was the man down the stretch for this team and is a Best XI-caliber CB in his prime, even if he does remain gaffe-prone.
- Matuidi (CM): He'll be 34 at the start of next season and I'm not wild about listing him here, but given the way he's paid and the rest of the roster's composition, I don't see any other great choice.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: I really, truly think that Alonso needs to pick a formation and style of play, and just stick with that for a while. Given that Morgan and Pizarro are both better on the wings, and that Matuidi is a pretty natural No. 8, and that Higuain is an actual center forward, and that their fullback corps is probably league average or maybe slightly better... just throw a basic 4-2-3-1 out there. Drill the hell out of that system, learn to defend compact, and put your talent in a position to win games while simplifying things for the young players on the team (especially the center backs).
You see the big hole though, right? There's no No. 10, and you probably need one to play a 4-2-3-1 at a high level and win in MLS.
The nice thing about this league, though, is that it's filled with good blueprints for exactly that kind of thing. The true enganche -- playmakers who have free rein to run wherever they want, be creative and make the game -- has died out at the very highest levels of club soccer, but MLS is run by guys like Nico Lodeiro, Carles Gil, Alejando Pozuelo, Lucas Zelarayan and Maxi Moralez.
Miami need a guy like that.
They started hot-ish, held on for dear life, and found a way back to the postseason. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Montreal made the best they could out of a terrible situation in 2020. Make no mistake: Canadian teams had it worse this year thanks to the COVID-19 related travel restrictions. They spent months living out of hotels and, for long stretches, not being able to get home to see their families.
It was brutal and had to be soul crushing. And I totally get why Thierry Henry & Co. celebrated like mad on the final day of the season when they officially clinched a postseason berth.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Henry took a decidedly defensive approach to his first season in charge, often stuffing multiple defensive midfielders into attacking roles and habitually drawing a low line of confrontation and defending out of a low block, be it in a 5-4-1 or a 5-3-2 or a 4-3-2-1 or a 4-3-3.
In a lot of ways it was just a modern day version of catenaccio, though with the difference between the Impact's version and the classic version being that the Impact weren't particularly good at it. Even when defending in a low block they were prone to allowing massive gaps between the lines, and gave up a ton of high-level chances.
In attack they hit with speed out wide and occasional brilliance from Romell Quioto, but in general were not great at creating anything from possession.
HIGHLIGHTS: There is a strong argument for the start of the year, when Montreal won a Concacaf Champions League home-and-home and then took four points from two very good teams to start the regular-season. And there is a really good argument for their four-wins-in-six-games stretch from the final group stage game in the MLS is Back Tournament to mid-September. Five of those games were against the Reds and 'Caps, and one of those wins was a 1-0 over Toronto that put an end to TFC's 19-game regular-season unbeaten streak (in hilarious fashion).
But really it was that Decision Day presented by AT&T win over D.C. United and subsequent celebration that did it:
In the end it turns out they didn't need the three points, but they fought for them anyway, and got them despite playing a man down for a chunk of the match — on the road.
It was a moment that really seemed to crystallize that this team has bought into Henry's vision. And they played like it against the Revs two weeks later, though ultimately they came up short.
LOWLIGHT: Remember that four-wins-in-six-games stretch? If the Impact had been able to make it five-in-seven with a win over Vancouver — who they'd just beaten 4-2 — they would've won the Canadian Championship and booked another ticket to the CCL.
Instead they melted down, picking up a needless red card for the second straight game and kicking off a four-game losing streak, which was part of a larger two-wins-in-12-games stretch that damn near cost them a trip to the postseason.
Living in New Jersey for two months was not kind to them.
REVELATION: It's not often a 29-year-old gets to go down as a "revelation," but Quito was largely friggin' awesome as a No. 9 this year. He's a winger by trade and obviously had an unorthodox approach to playing as a center forward, but not so unorthodox that I'd call him a false 9. Dude really did get in there and battle against the league's CBs, and he produced: 8g/6a in the regular season, and another goal vs. the Revs in the playoffs.
This is just basic No. 9 stuff:
GOAL: Romell Quioto, Montreal Impact - 88th minute
Everybody's always described Quioto as a "mercurial talent." On his day he can be one of the very best players in the league.
Under Henry in 2020, he had more days like that than ever before. I can't wait to watch him in 2021.
DISAPPOINTMENT: No one besides Quioto was anything close to a consistent attacking threat. The young wingers who'd been so promising in 2019 either didn't stay healthy or didn't earn Henry's trust and thus regressed, and the midfield lacked punch once Saphir Taider was sold in mid-season. Sam Piette was often the guy asked to be in the highest-leverage position to make the highest-leverage play, and while Piette is a fine player, he's not that. He finished with 1g/1a in about 2000 minutes.
You could argue, though, the bigger disappointment was the defensive woes. A team that buys a DP d-mid (Victor Wanyama) and plays in a low block shouldn't also be gappy, but they definitely were.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Quioto (FW/W): My guess is he'll head back out to the wing next year, but either way he's a clear top-end talent who can be devastating if Henry gets him to bring it every game.
- Wanyama (DM): The veteran wasn't one of the elite d-mids in MLS this year and needs help covering ground out there, but he can still spray. That ability to spread the field should be a cornerstone piece for this team.
- Luis Binks (CB): The young Englishman has already been sold to Bologna, but has also re-upped for another year at Stade Saputo. His distribution is a weapon, but he needs to take a step forward defensively next year.
- Zachary Brault-Guillard (RB): A rocketized overlapping threat who has enough skill to make some plays in the attacking third, Brault-Guillard should end up being a high-level weapon for a team with the likes of Binks and Wanyama to spread the field.
- Emanuel Maciel (DM): He got about 1,000 minutes, most of them next to Wanyama. Their skillsets seemed to be more overlapping than complementary, but every partnership is a work in progress.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: More than anything else they need to come out of this offseason with two plug-and-play center backs. Binks should still be a starter, but it's unlikely he's going to be in Montreal past 2021 and it's unlikely he'll play every single game, regardless. The Impact need to be prepared for his departure and just better in central defense, which has been an area of weakness for this team basically since 2013.
They have to somehow get that right. Binks was a nice step, but only a temporary fix rather than a generational solution.
And then they obviously have to figure out a way to replace the productivity of Taider in central midfield. As of now there is only one DP on the team, and it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if the Impact spend another one of those slots on a No. 10 or an attack-minded No. 8 to generate some goals and assists.
San Jose Earthquakes
Pure chaos. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Sure, it often made no sense and damn did it have a way of blowing up in their face, but good lord was it fun to behold. If I did Watchability Power Rankings, San Jose would be near the top. Maybe even No. 1.
If you're not entertained by the Quakes then I probably don't want to know you.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Did you know that Matias Almeyda's team uses a man-marking system? You did? Ok, well still, I'm going to ask you to take a look at this:
How to beat the San Jose Earthquakes' man-marking scheme | Top Tier
Everything in that video still applies, though the Quakes did a better job as the season went on of disrupting teams in the transition moments before they settled into their man-marking scheme (the Judson effect), which they usually picked up in a mid-block.
In attack nobody in the league is more committed to spreading the field and creating overloads out wide. Both fullbacks overlap all the time, and both wingers play with chalk on their boots. It's very difficult to be a compact defensive team vs. San Jose.
Almeyda prefers a 4-1-4-1, but it did kind of evolve a bit into more of a 4-2-3-1 (that they often called a 4-4-2) at times after Magnus Eriksson was sold.
HIGHLIGHTS: That analysis above was taken from the wild-as-hell 4-3 win over Vancouver in the MLS is Back Tournament, a game in which San Jose twice trailed by two goals and finally won 4-3 after Shea Salinas went full Messi eight minutes into second-half stoppage time. It was an absurd goal to end an absurd game.
But I think the real highlight was the come-from-behind 3-2 win over LAFC in the Quakes' second-to-last game of the season, which clinched a playoff berth. It had to feel cathartic for a number of reasons:
- LAFC had frequently humiliated San Jose in 2019, but it was the Quakes piling on the misery in 2020
- San Jose collapsed down the stretch in 2019, they played their best soccer down the stretch in 2020
- The wingers had gone ice cold late in 2019, but in this game it was a 1g/1a performance from Cristian Espinoza that sealed the deal
I'm not going to say they erased all the memories of that horrible collapse last year, but they did erase a lot of them, and did so in style. From September 27 through November 4, which was the date of that LAFC win, they went 6-2-1 with a +8 goal differential after being written off by basically everyone in late summer.
LOWLIGHT: So the reason they were written off by everyone in late summer... coming out of the MLS is Back Tournament they went 0-5-3 with a -21 goal differential. A MINUS TWENTY-ONE GOAL DIFFERENTIAL!!!!!! They lost games by 5-1, 7-1, 6-1 and 5-0 during that stretch. They set a league record for most 3+ goal losses in a season. It was, at times, complete insanity:
How the Sounders Dismantled San Jose | Top Tier
Again: If you're not entertained by the Quakes I probably don't want to know you.
REVELATION: Quakes fans will want me to mention Judson here, but we already knew Judson was good, right? So he doesn't count, and neither does the fact that Chris Wondolowski is an ageless warlock who will be scoring goals until he is 50. Marcos Lopez took a step forward in Year 2, but not a huge one, as did a few of the other 2019 arrivals. Cade Cowell was good, but not a season-changer.
J.T. Marcinkowski was both good and a season-changer. Veteran Daniel Vega had gotten 12 of the first 13 regular-season starts, and had gone 2-6-4 while allowing more than 3 goals per game and a save percentage hovering around 50% (the advanced numbers agree that Vega was... poor).
Marcincowski got his first start in mid-September and comported himself well in a 1-1 draw in the midst of that awful 0-5-3 stretch. Vega was back between the pipes in the next two games, which San Jose lost by a combined 11-1. And then it was Marcinkowski's job for good.
The 23-year-old Homegrown wasn't perfect, but the Quakes went 6-3-2 in his 11 starts and both the boxscore numbers (1.27 goals against on a 65% save percentage) and the advanced stuff (he was a mid-tier MLS 'keeper as per the analytics nerds) suggest he was a massive upgrade. He also bounced back well from his one truly abysmal performance, a 3-0 loss at Portland in mid-October.
It's always a question with young 'keepers. In Marcinkowski, the Quakes seem to have an answer.
DISAPPOINTMENT: My biggest disappointment is that Wondo said one more year instead of 10 more years. This guy will absolutely figure out how to be a useful 15-minute "poach us a goal" super-sub until he's 50.
I know some Quakes fans would say that their biggest disappointment is that it took Almeyda so long to finally go with Marcinkowski and to reinsert Florian Jungwirth into the XI, and they've got a point. That delay probably cost them a home game, though that would've robbed us from the show they put on at Sporting in the playoffs.
So I guess the answer is that after the mid-season sale of Eriksson, the Quakes didn't go out and get a replacement, and thanks to the injury to Gil Fuentes, didn't really have a ready-made Homegrown replacement for that role. Andy Rios got the bulk of the minutes and he was fine, but spent most of his time looking like what he was: a converted forward. Carlos Fierro got most of the rest of the minutes in that spot and actually scored a (hilarious) goal in the playoffs, but again mostly looked like a guy playing out of position.
Almeyda has made it clear he expects reinforcements this offseason. More on that in a bit.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Judson (DM): Diego Chara-lite is a high, high compliment. And one the 27-year-old Brazilian is entirely worthy of.
- Jackson Yueill (CM): Yueill ended up playing as more of a true No. 8 this year than acting as the regista he was last year, and was equally good but maybe not quite as influential.
- Espinoza (RW): One of the highest-volume chance creators and best crossers in MLS, and possessed of an endless engine. The knock is still the same, though: He needs to finish.
- Jungwirth (CB): The 31-year-old German has proved to be indispensable in the middle of that defense.
- Cade Cowell (W): The hope is that I'll be writing a lot about him in the "revelation" section in next year's version of this column.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: It looks like Oswaldo Alanis is coming back next year, and rookie Tanner Beason had some promising moments in central defense. I still, however, want to see them add another young and athletic CB. They also need a d-mid who can give Judson the occasional breather, as Luis Felipe has found it impossible to function at a high level in Almeyda's system.
Their fullback depth is good. Their wing depth is good, and potentially great if Cowell makes a leap and Salinas can hold out for one more year. So what it comes down to, really, is what they'll do at the Nos. 9 and 10 positions.
Can a 38-year-old Wondo still start for a pretty good team in MLS? Probably. If you're starting a 38-year-old Wondo, playing him 2,500 minutes and asking him to be your leading scorer, are you going to seriously compete for trophies? It's not impossible, but it's not exactly likely, either.
And then there's the 10, which in my mind is an even bigger priority. It is certainly possible to compete and win in this league without a great one. It just hasn't happened that way all too often in recent years.
New York Red Bulls
RBNY smash. Just not as effectively as they used to. A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Red Bulls are still, by a lot of metrics and the eye test, the most committed pressing team in the league. They're just not quite as good at it as they were a couple years ago, they still struggled to do stuff other than pressing and honestly sometimes their hearts weren't really into the whole pressing thing to begin with, maybe.
But they did make the playoffs for an 11th straight season, which is a massive accomplishment.
TACTICS & FORMATION: So I mentioned the pressing bit, which is largely what you think it is. Remember, too, that RBNY combine generally high and hard pressure with super direct play: win the ball, play it forward. They're not as insane about it as they were in 2017 and 2018 — or at least, they weren't; maybe that'll change next year —but it's still their DNA.
There were times, though, when they really did just kind of sit in a mid-block and invite teams forward. Fans mostly blamed that on the since-departed Chris Armas, but it happened under Bradley Carnell as well.
Formation-wise they were all over the place. Flat 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-4-1-2. It was a lot.
HIGHLIGHTS: I think you could maybe argue the back-to-back three-goal wins are there, or perhaps the 2-1 win on Decision Day over Toronto FC. That was part of a pretty decent home stretch in which they went 3-1-3 and pulled themselves out of the play-in round and into the playoffs proper (though the one loss in that stretch was a 5-2 Hudson River Derby humiliation).
But it really does come down to the kid. Here's Caden Clark's match-winning MLS debut:
GOAL: Caden Clark, NY Red Bulls - 48th minute
There are few things Red Bull fans love more than inflicting misery upon Atlanta, and this one got them hyped.
LOWLIGHT: The final two games of their three-game stay at the MLS is Back Tournament and then their first seven games coming out of Orlando were just brutal. Yes, that stretch included a 1-0 win over NYCFC and a 2-0 win over D.C. United, but both of those were just brutal outings devoid of... pretty much everything, but most especially chance creation. It was a 2-4-1 stretch during which they scored four goals, two of which came off of goalkeeper errors.
Armas lost his job after the fourth of those seven games, a 1-0 home loss to a mostly injured, completely foundering D.C. side that had no business being in the game. Things did not immediately get better under Carnell — they lost two-of-three, including a defeat to Cincy — but they did eventually get somewhat better.
So that stretch as a whole, with the D.C. game in particular, are probably the right answer.
REVELATION: Caden Clark, right? He got a game-winner against Atlanta, scored a thunderbolt against Toronto the following week, and then became the second-youngest goalscorer in MLS postseason history with the opener in RBNY's 3-2 loss at Columbus. He definitely qualifies.
The other argument would be for Brian White, the third-year forward who is quietly building a "hey you should probably start this guy" resume. He had 5g/1a in 870 regular-season minutes, then came off the bench to score a goal in the playoffs. Across all MLS competitions (i.e., not US Open Cup or CCL) he's got 16g/3a in about 2500 minutes. For context, Gyasi Zardes had 13g/2a in about 2500 minutes in 2019, and three of Gyasi's were penalties. Bradley Wright-Phillips in 2017? 17g/1a in 2560 minutes.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Let's take a look at the 2020 incoming transactions...
With the exceptions of Clark and Stroud, no one on this list lived up to — let alone exceeded — their billing. I made a joke earlier this year that RBNY were following the 2017 Minnesota United/2018 Colorado Rapids blueprint for talent acquisition and... well it wasn't really, truly a joke. The imports of the last couple of seasons have almost uniformly been outperformed by guys developed via NYRBII in the USL Championship.
I think Kaku's season should go down as a disappointment as well. And the central defense's. These guys are supposed to be stars and leaders, but they didn't really look like it.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Clark (AM/W): For the one more year that they likely have him, he's a talent worth making a foundational piece.
- Florian Valot (CM): Bounced back from missing most of two seasons with matching ACL tears to post a quietly excellent year as a two-way central midfielder.
- Aaron Long (CB): Long, as mentioned, was not great in 2020. But he has been one of the best CBs in the league and can be again, and is in his prime. And it's clear that they're not going to sell him, so...
- Cristian Casseres, Jr. (CM): If new coach Gerhard Struber goes with the 4-4-2 diamond (or a 4-3-1-2), I love the idea of Casseres as one of the shuttlers. Though he, like almost everyone else, needs a bounce-back 2021.
- White (FW): I could see using him as a super sub if they were going with a one-forward set-up, but if it's two up top there is no reason not to have White as one of them.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Word around the league is that the Red Bulls are open for business. Almost everyone on the roster is available for trade and it shouldn't shock anyone if that includes Kaku, the lone true DP in the ranks (though they did pick up his option).
They need at least one more forward, and they need to figure out what they have in young Dru Yearwood, who spent most of his 650ish minutes looking slightly out of his depth. They need to figure out left back, which was a sore spot all year. They need to figure out if Sean Davis can play d-mid in Struber's system and they need to figure out if Kyle Duncan can ever add as much value defensively as he does in attack.
It seems like a lot, but here's the thing: This roster comfortably made the playoffs yet again, and did so despite not having any real top-tier DPs. And rectifying that should be the priority.
What would the Red Bulls look and play like if they had Nico Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz and Joao Paulo as their DPs? Or even just two guys at that level? It'd elevate the whole team, right?
I do not believe Struber — who is well-regarded both in England and on the continent — would've taken the job if he wasn't guaranteed a certain amount of squad investment, including DPs. So perhaps we'll see exactly what this RBNY core would look like with those types of players leading the way.
LAFC had a plan. It didn't work. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Last offseason they tried to do something they probably thought would be cool and fun — rebuild most of their defense — but in the end it was a pretty misguided and righteous self-own that ended up making them look kind of silly.
Rule No. 1 of running an MLS team is "Never give away a Best XI-caliber center back in his prime." (Red Bulls fans who are disenchanted with Long and may have kept reading will want to remember that.) In a season full of obstacles both expected and not, they never really recovered from the one they inflicted upon themselves via the Walker Zimmerman trade.
TACTICS & FORMATION: It was almost always super fluid and aesthetically pleasing 4-3-3 with overlapping fullbacks, an emphasis on possession and breaking lines with passes, and a super mobile front line. Even without Carlos Vela for most of the year, constant injuries in midfield and a revolving door at right back, the attack — led by Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi — was one of the league's best, and capable of some absolutely gorgeous stuff against good teams:
GOAL: Diego Rossi, LAFC - 41st minute
That is it. That is the platonic ideal of an LAFC goal, and I love it.
They didn't press as much in 2020, and obviously they were much less stout defensively than they had been. Individual talent matters.
HIGHLIGHTS: They still managed to be maybe the most fun team in MLS, though! And it started with one of the most fun CCL victories I can ever remember seeing. First they lost 2-0 at Club Leon, then atop the Clausura, in the first leg. They looked listless and rusty in doing so. That was pretty much that.
Then they did this:
HIGHLIGHTS: LAFC vs. Club Leon | February 27, 2020
There were other pretty great moments for LAFC — four-goal wins over each of their California neighbors sure do count for something — but this was one of the greatest continental victories by any team in MLS history.
And guess what? They've still got a chance to win the thing. LAFC face Cruz Azul in the Round of 16 in what has become a single-elimination tournament down in Orlando starting in mid-December.
Is 2020 crazy enough to have an MLS team finally break through in the CCL?
LOWLIGHT: LAFC had more lowlights in 2020 than in their first two years combined, including a couple of pretty awful El Trafico losses coming out of the MLS is Back Tournament, which came on the heels of a disappointing PK shootout loss in the quarterfinals of the tournament itself. And then there was taking just one point from their final two games, which consigned them to a road game at Seattle to open the playoffs.
But it was said road game at Seattle that has to mark the low point, right? Last year the Sounders came to downtown LA and rope-a-doped LAFC to death; this year, they just pounded 'em. Seattle scored early in the first half, they scored again midway through the second half and then when LAFC clawed one back to make it 2-1 late, it took Jordan Morris all of three minutes to find the coup de grace.
Given how badly LAFC had outclassed the Sounders in the Round of 16 back in Orlando in July, it felt like maybe the balance of power had shifted with these two teams. The subsequent four months proved that assumption to be very, very wrong.
REVELATION:BWP's got juice left in the tank! LAFC picked the 35-year-old up for basically nothing ahead of the season and he put up 8g/6a in just under 1100 minutes, leading the league in G+A/90 and putting together some turn-back-the-clock performances. He was a big part of the reason the attack kept humming even as Vela was sidelined and Brian Rodriguez underperformed in front of goal.
It really is the ideal situation for Wright-Phillips, who is brilliant at creating space for his teammates with his off-ball movement (watch the run he makes on that Rossi goal embedded above) and at finding space they create for him. He is an ideal second or third-fiddle in a cerebral, mobile attack — which is what LAFC have been almost from Day 1.
It's like with Wondo: I firmly believe BWP can keep scoring goals into his 40s because he's that smart. LAFC probably shouldn't plan to get more than 2,000 minutes out of him next year, but I'll be disappointed if they don't figure out a way to bring him back.
DISAPPOINTMENT: The biggest one has to be that they traded Zimmerman away without any apparent plan to replace him, and that gaping wound in central defense cost them points throughout the year. They finally brought in Colombian Jesus Murillo late in the season and he was good, but not Zimmerman-level good.
Even worse might be what happened at right back, though. Nashville fleeced LAFC out of $350,000 in allocation cash for the No. 1 spot in the allocation order, which LAFC then used on Andy Najar, presumably to fill the void created when they'd let Steven Beitashour walk after the 2019 season.
Najar started just one game and played in just eight, and was on the field for a total of 180 minutes. He was clearly just a shell of his former self, and LAFC declined his contract option after the season.
Just completely bizarre to break up what had been the league's second-best defense in 2019.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Latif Blessing (CM): The biggest reason LAFC couldn't press as much this year is that Blessing had to patch holes at RB, on the wing or deeper in midfield too often. Get him back as that destroying No. 10 and watch the press return.
- Mark-Anthony Kaye (CM): He makes the game look so smooth and easy on both sides of the ball, and is arguably the league's best two-way central midfielder when healthy.
- Eddie Segura (CB): Segura definitely wasn't as good in 2020, but that applies to almost everyone on this roster. Bob Bradley's got to figure out how to bring the Best XI-caliber version of the kid we all saw in 2019.
- Wright-Phillips (FW): Yes, they declined his contract option and BWP's technically a free agent. But my guess is they figure out a way to get something done.
- Vela (RW): Injured, soon to be 32 and not in top form? He still had 4g/2a in just 510 minutes in MLS competitions and lit Leon on fire in the CCL. He'll be back.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Ok, Vela will be back, but will Rossi? Rodriguez? What about young LB Diego Palacios or CM Jose Cifuentes, both of whom are full Ecuador national teamers? Where does Francisco Ginella fit in?
All of those are huge questions. My guess is that Rossi and Rodriguez will both be sold as soon as the transfer window opens on January 1, and that's fine — developing and selling these types of players is clearly something that LAFC have invested a ton of time and resources in. It makes sense for both who they are, and who they want to be, and it also makes sense for what the world of soccer is and how everybody but, like, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and PSG have to operate. Everybody but those four are selling clubs. In that context, everybody has to be replaceable to one degree or another.
Eduard Atuesta might not be, though. Vela's the best player but Atuesta was the most indispensable, as LAFC went 3-5-0 with a -6 goal differential when he didn't start. All five losses were by multiple goals. When he did start, LAFC were 7-4-6 with a +17 goal differential (all MLS competitions) and just one multi-goal loss.
As with Rossi and Rodriguez there are giant clubs in giant leagues preparing giant, eight-figure-sized bids for Atuesta. This is how the world of soccer operates.
We'll see what that means for LAFC in 2021.
They fought COVID-19, they handled some regression and they traded their leading scorer. A gif is worth a thousand words:
They had to dodge so much throughout the year, and at times it looked like that was going to be impossible. But they mostly did it — right until the very end, when they got completely crushed.
But 2020 represented an undeniable step forward.
TACTICS & FORMATION: Robin Fraser has very clear ideas of how he wants his team to play, usually keeping one winger high and wide with the other dropping in to be a playmaker, keeping the d-mid back as something of a regista and having his center forward play almost as a false 9, which then opens up gaps for the No. 10 — Cole Bassett, who you'll read more about in a minute — to make late-arriving, goal-scoring runs.
The point is to make the field as wide as possible and to force the opponent to defend from touchline to touchline, and they were often really good at it while playing out of what was nominally a 4-2-3-1, though as with any modern coach it turned into more of a 3-2-2-3 (or sometimes a 3-2-3-2) once they were really on the front foot, in possession in attack.
Forcing the opponents to defend wide also meant that the Rapids were pretty wide, and thus wide open to be counterattacked themselves. That was their main weakness, though I truly relished seeing Fraser sacrifice a bit of pragmatism for both principle and aesthetics.
HIGHLIGHTS: After a massive COVID-19 breakout within the team in late September, the Rapids missed a month of soccer. They got drilled in their first game back and then lost their second on a late, unfortunate own goal from Lalas Abubakar. All the good work they had done in the first part of September, which included that massive and unprecedented Rocky Mountain Cup win (scroll up to the RSL section, Rapids fans), looked like it was coming undone.
Now look again at that schedule the Rapids had coming out of their Covid-enforced hiatus: at Sporting, at Minnesota, home to Seattle, at Portland, then finishing at Houston. The first four are just a meat-grinder, and Colorado had already lost the first two, and all of a sudden their playoff dreams were slipping away.
They crushed Seattle 3-1 at home, then they went to Portland a won 1-0. They finished up the year with a 2-1 win at Houston.
Nine points out of that particular five-games stretch would've been a major accomplishment even under the best of circumstances. In these particular circumstances, with the playoffs on the line and rust to shake off and still figuring out life after Kei Kamara? The Rapids have a lot to be proud of.
LOWLIGHT: I'm not going to consider the road loss to Minnesota in the playoffs to be a lowlight, given that there was quite a bit stacked against Colorado even being in the playoffs in the first place. The simple fact is that they got drilled by a better team on the road. That's what's supposed to happen.
What's not supposed to happen is the listless, disengaged showing the Rapids put forth this summer in Orlando as they took just one point from three games, a run of poor form that carried on for three games into early September after coming out of the bubble. There was nothing fun or open or engaging about the way they were playing, and it seemed like the magic first Conor Casey and then Fraser had conjured last year had disappeared.
REVELATION: It can't be anyone other than Bassett, who won the starting job for good in mid-September just as the Rapids started charging up the standings (the two things are related).
I've had a lot of conversations about Bassett with MLS and USMNT-obsessed friends and we'd all come to the same conclusion: He's a good athlete and does a lot of things well, and is often in the exact right spot to help a sequence of play or snuff out an opposing sequence before it gets started. But it's not like he's a game-breaking athlete, and it's not like his touch or vision really pop off the screen, and it's not like he's such a great ball-winner that he's an obvious future d-mid. What, exactly, does he do?
How Cole Bassett and the Rapids Unbalanced the LA Galaxy | Top Tier
Bassett's 2020 started in January when he scored a brace for the US U-20s in a 2-0 win over Mexico, a fact that I filed away as "interesting" but didn't really think too much of beyond that.
But it turns out the kid's true calling is making those late, box-arriving "Frank Lampard runs" from central midfield. He went for 5g/5a in 982 minutes and was one of the very best teenagers, at any position, in the entire league.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Trading Kamara was a risk worth taking in a lot of ways given where he is in his career relative to the rest of the roster, and how Fraser wants to play. And the Rapids did end up having a better record in the aftermath of that trade, and probably played better soccer.
But Diego Rubio produced just 3g/4a across all competitions this year. Since two of those goals came in the 5-0 blow-out of RSL, another way of framing this is to say that Rubio scored in just two of his 17 appearances. It is actually kind of remarkable that they made the playoffs with a No. 9 who gave them so little in terms of boxscore production, and speaks well of many of the rest of the attackers, as well as Colorado's continued dominance on set pieces.
Rubio had been a per-90 monster in his MLS career prior to 2020 with 26g/13a in about 4200 minutes, which isn't quite Best XI production though it isn't far off.
This was his first real chance to hold the job outright, though, and he mostly came up short.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Bassett (AM): For however long he's there, it's a good bet he'll be the nominal No. 10. But there is strong European interest for obvious reasons.
- Abubakar (CB): It was an up-and-down season from the Ghanaian, but there's little to suggest he won't be a foundational piece in the middle of that defense for the next half-decade or more.
- Jack Price (DM): Price will never be an elite defensive presence as a 6, but his distribution (excellent) and set piece delivery (best in the league) are worth the trade-offs.
- Sam Vines (LB): Arguably the second-best LB in the league from September onwards, the 21-year-old became a significant attacking threat on the overlap in Year 2 as a starter.
- Kellyn Acosta (CM): Now 25, Acosta looked better than he has since the first half of 2017, back when he was a CCL match-winner and a USMNT. He played himself back into a US camp for the first time in almost two years.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They're going to have to figure out what the market is for Bassett and Vines. For more and more MLS teams, "how much will we sell our Homegrown players for?" is becoming a larger and more important part of the job.
On-loan playmaker Younes Namli back for another. The Danish DP didn't put up huge numbers with just 2g/4a, but his ability to slip inside from the right wing and orchestrate attacks became a huge part of what was going right for Colorado. On-loan goalkeeper William Yarbrough might not be, as his was originally just a one-year deal. They need to figure that out.
But it really does come down to Rubio's spot as well as the left wing, which was split between Jonathan Lewis and Nicolas Benezet. For the fourth straight year, Lewis put up big per-90 numbers (5g in 750 minutes across all competitions), but for the fourth straight year he failed to lock down a starting role. Benezet, meanwhile, managed zero goals and 3 assists in a touch over 500 minutes.
It's a safe bet there will be new faces there, and it's a safe bet the guys who return will once again have to fight for playing time.
They won their second-ever MLS trophy. A gif is worth a thousand words:
It took them a half-decade of trying but the Timbers finally got themselves back to the top and they absolutely earned their perch there.
They just didn't get to enjoy it for long, as the unexpected — injuries and a home loss in the playoffs — put an end to their reign.
TACTICS & FORMATION: Portland went away from the "cross every time you have a sliver of daylight" rocketball that had been their only attacking idea in 2019 and toward a more varied attack that worked harder to get the ball into good spots to create good chances, almost always working out of a 4-2-3-1. They stationed co-leading goalscorer Jeremy Ebobisse out wide for the most part after winning the MLS is Back Tournament, though I'd argue they were more effective with him leading the line as a true No. 9.
After losing MLS is Back Tournament MVP Sebastian Blanco to an ACL tear in early September, Portland reverted to more of their familiar counterattacking stance. It says a lot about the talent on hand that they could lose a player of Blanco's caliber and remain near the top of the conference, though they were obviously much less dangerous once he was sidelined.
HIGHLIGHTS: There were some good moments, especially the frankly kind of hilarious way they would constantly go up a goal early against the Sounders and then just park the bus and invite 35 crosses from their frustrated Cascadia rivals. Those moments — two wins and a draw — had to feel good, especially after Seattle had smashed Portland 3-0 in both teams' first game out of Orlando.
But there is no question that the highlight of the season was winning the tournament itself, and doing so in a way that alternated between stylish (they ripped NYCFC apart) and pragmatic (they destroyed both Philly in the semis and Orlando in the final on set pieces).
WATCH: Portland Timbers lift MLS Is Back Trophy
So yeah, any time you get to do that with a major trophy — and I will forever count this summer's tournament a major trophy given how much that went into it and how seriously teams tried to win it — that's the highlight of the season.
The Timbers are champs.
LOWLIGHT: The obvious answers here are the ACL tears that ended the seasons of both Blanco and DP center forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda, who had entered a fine vein of goalscoring form. It is hard to lose any player. It is harder to lose a DP. It is damn near impossible to lose two DPs and still be a competitive team. Add Ebobisse's late-season concussion into the mix, and that's how you have a Timbers side that scored just twice in their final three games, including the playoffs.
But what had to be particularly frustrating on top of it all was the Timbers' inability to see out a result. Blanco and Niezgoda were huge losses, but that doesn't explain why and how Portland constantly conceded late goals which cost them so, so many points.
And so it was almost destined to be that way in the playoffs. Jorge Villafaña put the Timbers up 1-0 with a goal in the 82nd minute and that should've been that, but it obviously wasn't. Ricardo Pepi broke through the Portland backline three minutes into second-half stoppage, pinged his first shot off the post and then deposited his own rebound for the 1-1 draw.
It eventually went to penalties, where Dallas got the W. From Portland's perspective, it should never have gotten that far.
REVELATION:Eryk Williamson didn't follow Ebobisse's path from little-used rookie to occasional sub to emergency starter to regular contributor to hey, this guy's a borderline star, isn't he?
No, Williamson came out of nowhere to become not just a starter, but an essential piece of what made Portland great when they were at their best. He'd played just 234 MLS minutes across his first two years, but in Year 3 he was a write-him-in-pen starter:
How the Portland Timbers have changed in 2020 | Top Tier
Williamson not only drove the game forward and provided solutions in possession, but he did real work defensively to take some of the burden off of the timelines Diego Chara.
He was awesome. If he hadn't gotten hurt in that playoff loss to Dallas, he likely would've been in the current USMNT camp.
DISAPPOINTMENT: While Ebobisse and Williamson took massive steps forward, young Argentine playmaker Tomas Conechny was not able to join them. He got on the field for just 182 minutes and managed no goals or assists, and even without Blanco or with Niezgoda and Ebobisse injured and Diego Valeri solidly into his mid-30s, there was just no room for him.
Conechny is in his third year in Portland, so it was a surprise to see him so thoroughly buried down the depth chart. Maybe it's just not meant to happen for him there.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Chara (DM): At 34 he earned his first Best XI nod, looking and playing exactly as he did at age 28. I don't know, maybe he'll never age.
- Valeri (AM): At 34 he didn't quite earn a Best XI nod, but he looked and played almost as well as he did at age 28. I don't know, maybe he'll never really age.
- Ebobisse (FW/W): Here's a strange coincidence: Ebobisse's gotten two extended runs as Portland's starting No. 9 over the past three seasons. During the first of those runs, they made the 2018 MLS Cup. During the second of those runs, they won the MLS is Back Tournament. Weird!
- Williamson (CM): Just a hugely dynamic two-way central midfielder. He sometimes takes too many risks, but that's an acceptable flaw when you've got Chara backing you up.
- Yimmi Chara (W): The younger Chara, Portland's third DP, got off to a slow start but was arguably Portland's most consistent attacker from mid-September onwards.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The Timbers have already begun chopping and changing a bit, having traded Homegrown back-up LB Marco Farfan to LAFC for allocation cash with an eye on bringing in 23-year-old Argentine Claudio Nicolas Bravo to presumably challenge Villafaña for the starting spot. And Andy Polo seems to be sussing out some other options.
But really, it comes down to getting Blanco, Niezgoda and Williamson healthy, and probably bringing back Felipe Mora, and then figuring out the rotation and depth chart from there. Portland's roster is quite obviously championship-caliber when all the pieces are available, which is why they lifted a trophy this year. They don't really need to go out and get new pieces; they just need to get the pieces already in place fit enough to go.
New York City FC
A new coach, but largely the same style and of course the same, soul-crushing playoff exit. A gif is worth a thousand words:
NYCFC's first season under Ronny Deila finished the same way each of their previous four seasons, split between Dome Torrent and Patrick Vieira, face-down in disbelief after being eliminated early in the playoffs.
It's just who they are now. From a certain point of view you could argue "That's so Metro" now applies more to the blue side of NY than it does to the red.
TACTICS & FORMATION: Way back in February — roughly one million years ago — NYCFC came out in the CCL and played such beautifully expressive and risky soccer that it led certain fans to wax poetic.
That didn't last. In large part that's because NYCFC were pretty well flattened by injuries for most of the season, though Deila had a hand in some of the regression thanks to his tinkering with personnel and positions, as well as some of the principles of play.
But by the stretch run they did end up looking quite a bit like Vieira's version of NYCFC, with lots of positional fluidity, pretty sequences of play and a potent attack. Getting Maxi Moralez back was obviously the key, as he's a plug-and-play solution as the No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1.
HIGHLIGHTS: NYCFC came out of the MLS is Back Tournament playing pretty brutal soccer but were nonetheless able to rack up some wins, going 4-2-1 in eight games from August 24 through September 23. It was good enough to take the heat off of the manager, whose team had started 1-5-0 in his first six regular-season games.
But again: It was brutal soccer. They created little, Moralez and Heber were hurt (the latter out for the season), and Alex Ring was playing on the wing. Nothing really seemed sustainable.
Then they got a soft spot in the schedule and started to get right. D.C., Miami and Cincy fell in succession with the Pigeons scoring 11 goals across those three games, and then after a three-game lull, they finished out the season with four straight wins.
The biggest of those was a dominant, one-sided 5-2 demolition of the Red Bulls on the first of November:
HIGHLIGHTS: NYCFC vs. New York Red Bulls | November 1, 2020
This was a really, really good performance. The previous first-choice front line were all hurt (Heber), sick (Ismael Tajouri-Shradi) or gone for the next 18 months on loan (Alexandru Mitrita) and thus weren't even available, but NCYFC were still so good because their midfield was so good.
Back-up attackers or not, it didn't seem to matter.
LOWLIGHT: And then the playoffs came and it mattered a lot. NYCFC went down to Orlando and were largely the better team for most of the game. They battled back from conceding an unnecessary early goal, ripped away control of the game and peppered Pedro Gallese's net. It was a truly spectacular display of attacking soccer... right up until they shot.
Gallese stood on his head and produced save after save, and then somehow NYCFC actually became less threatening once they went up a man following Ruan's red card. They had done everything right, played some beautiful soccer, and... it just didn't matter.
You know what happened next. Here is the absolute pit of despair if you're an NYCFC fan:
I think it has to be the Rodrigo Schlegel save that will go down as the low point, but if you want to argue it's actually Moralez pinging his opening PK off the underside of the crossbar for the most predictable miss in shootout history that's the real bottom of a spike-filled pit, I won't push back too hard.
REVELATION: There was none. James Sands had a nice run and certainly made year-over-year progress, but definitely not a revelatory amount. None of the other young players — not even highly rated Uruguayan youth national team central midfielder Nico Acevedo -- got enough playing time to qualify.
A large part of that is because when Moralez (No. 10), Ring (No. 6) and Keaton Parks (No. 8) were all healthy there was just no question what the best three-man central midfield group was. So you could say that it was something of a revelation that these guys could be so dominant for so long together, but... they were a 64-point team in 2019, so not really.
I think this is something Deila got right, for what it's worth. That 64-point group deserved one last chance to run it back and see if they could win something, and while the new manager did tinker, he didn't deconstruct. My only real gripe with him was his insistence on playing Ring at left wing for a month, though even that was understandable when viewed from the lens of "let's just get our best players onto the field."
DISAPPOINTMENT: Heber has a fairly modest resume, but he was spectacular in 2019 and likely saved Dome's job. I think he was the clear third-best center forward in the league behind Josef and Zlatan, and then he opened 2020 by becoming the first MLS player ever to score a CCL hat-trick. A bigger, better 2020 would surely await.
In 12 other appearances before doing his ACL, he scored just one goal. He didn't look awful, per se, but just a touch off and lacking in confidence. And then he did his knee, and he probably won't be close to 100% again until he's in his 30s (he turns 30 next April).
Just so depressing on all levels. He was one of my favorite players to watch last year.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Ring (DM): Still a top five d-mid in the league, and a very good No. 8 as well.
- Anton Tinnerholm (RB): The league's best right back yet again, as important to NYCFC on both sides of the ball as any defender in the league can claim for his team.
- Parks (CM): Quietly took a step forward in Year 2 as both a tempo-setter and a line-breaking distributor, while adding a touch of goalscoring as well.
- Ronald Matarrita (LB): A top five LB in MLS who, while not quite as influential as Tinnerholm, was nonetheless essential for the Pigeons and bounced back mentally after last year's playoff metldown.
- Alex Callens (CB): The Peruvian international is perhaps the most underrated center back in the entire league, and put together probably his finest season thus far.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: I could've extended that list of five players to seven: Sean Johnson had an excellent year and is not going anywhere. Maxime Chanot had a rather poor year by his standards, but I expect he'll be back.
It gets dicey after that group, though. I love Sands but I'm not sure he fits into the best possible XI for NYCFC unless he takes a massive step forward as a distributor, or unless he displaces Chanot, or unless Deila goes to a 3-4-2-1. None of the front three who finished the season in the starting lineup — including Taty Castellanos, who's an invaluable pressing forward but who just doesn't put the ball in the back of the net often enough to lead the line for a title contender — are "build the team around him" types. All those spots are up for grabs.
Moralez is, of course, a "build the team around him" type and you could argue that City have done just that for the past three years. And they hit great heights, but he'll be 34 before a ball is kicked in anger next season and Father Time started knocking on the door this past year.
Perhaps Santiago Rodriguez will enter.
Regardless, the difference between NYCFC with Maxi and NYCFC without Maxi has been gigantic. They need to figure out a way to bridge that gap because the guy's not getting any younger.
For a while it looked really good and then it just fell apart. A gif is worth a thousand words:
It is impossible to deny that Toronto were really, really good for a solid chunk of the season, and that this roster is still really, really talented. But a few pieces got old, and a few other pieces got hurt, and it was just too much as a season's worth of legitimately good work was just washed away down the stretch and in the playoffs.
TACTICS & FORMATION: One of the things since-departed head coach Greg Vanney had been aiming at for a while was converting from a 4-4-2, which had been the primary formation of the Giovinco Years, into a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, with a pair of wingers flanking Jozy Altidore and ahead of Landon Donovan MVP winner Alejandro Pozuelo.
There was some of that in 2019, but Jozy couldn't stay healthy. There was some of that in 2020, but Jozy couldn't stay healthy and then the wingers couldn't stay healthy and didn't really deliver. And then everybody else got hurt, too.
But in general they tried to run a ball-dominant 4-2-3-1. At times it looked really, really good, but they basically never had the chance to use the same lineup more than twice in a row, and none of the wingers really made a case that they were of the caliber necessary to make the formation sing.
HIGHLIGHTS: From September 9 through October 18 they went 7-0-2 including a stretch where they posted wins over NYCFC, Columbus, Philly and New England on the trot. By the end of that run they were pretty massive favorites to win the Supporters' Shield, not just because of the amount of points they'd picked up but also because of how they'd done it. Here's what I wrote after that win over the Union:
Yes, we're officially at that stage where all eyes in the East are pointed toward Toronto FC. Maybe even all eyes in the league, given where they are in the standings (tied atop the Supporters' Shield race with the Crew), the play of Alejandro Pozuelo (staking a damn near irresistible claim on the title of best player in the league, and the now-obvious front-runner for MVP), their long-term form (only two losses and a +17 goal differential in their past 25 regular-season games dating back to last summer), and, well, who they're beating.In the past three games they have faced NYCFC, Columbus and, on Saturday, Philadelphia. That is the cream of the Eastern Conference crop. The Reds took nine points.As I said after last week's dominant second half against the Crew, Toronto have a gear that I do not believe the other teams in the East can hit.
I still don't believe I've seen any other East team play that well, but despite their glowing record and goal differential over the past 25 games, and despite the presence of Pozuelo and so many others with winning resumes and pedigrees, it was all unsustainable for the Reds.
All is not lost, though: They are still heavy favorites to become the 2020 Canadian Champions! The date for the final against Forge FC of the CPL is not yet set, but a win there sends the Reds back to the CCL.
LOWLIGHT: The loss to Nashville in the playoffs certainly qualifies, as does getting blown out by NYCFC in the MLS is Back Tournament knockout round. Losing three of four down the stretch — which started with a 5-0 humiliation at the hands of Philly, a result that completely swung the momentum in the Shield race — is right there as well. It all had to hurt.
But this was the lowlight:
PENALTY FAIL: Toronto called for encroachment on PK pass trick - 47th minute
Toronto were on an 18-game regular-season unbeaten run at that point, one shy of matching the league record... and this is what Pozuelo and fellow DP Pablo Piatti came up with? My mind is still reeling.
The Reds lost that game (which they'd otherwise dominated) and then lost the next as well. If they'd just taken a single point they'd have gone into Decision Day in control of their Shield destiny instead of needing a win and some help.
In the end they got neither.
Akinola had been a marginal USYNT winger who'd put up big numbers against weak teams but struggled to make any sort of headway against any of the higher-level competition the US had faced, and missed out on the 2019 US U-20 World Cup squad. His form with TFC2 in the USL wasn't much better, and while he'd shown flashes in 250 MLS minutes as a teenager in 2019, expectations for him heading into 2020 were nil. You could argue he was fourth on the center forward depth chart at the start of the season.
And then he got on the field and couldn't stop scoring. It began with a hat-trick against D.C. in Orlando, and by the end of the year he had 9 goals in about 1100 minutes across all competitions. And these weren't the goals of a forward on a heater; he was showing a high level of sophistication in how he was setting up and manipulating defenders off the ball:
How Toronto's Ayo Akinola is growing into a top striker | Top Tier
He was absolutely a revelation and I'm still pretty surprised he didn't get the start over Jozy in the playoffs.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Nobody endures more hamstring injuries — that includes Akinola — than the Reds. One after another they managed to lose key players throughout the season, or see them hobbled to the point that they became shades of their former selves (as was the case with Pozuelo from mid-October onward). It is, at this point, an annual tradition.
But I really think the biggest disappointment has to be the production of the high-priced wingers. Piatti, a DP in his first (and only) year, had 4g/4a in about 1500 total minutes. Erickson Gallardo, a TAM signing in his second season, had 0g/0a in about 200 minutes and failed the eye test for every single one of those.
These guys were supposed to elevate the team and justify the formation switch. If either had been even a slightly above average MLS winger, Toronto probably would've won the Shield.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Pozuelo (AM): He's the MVP and he is a wizard. There are whispers of a godfather offer coming from the Middle East, and it would have to be gigantic for TFC to even pick up the phone.
- Akinola (FW): Line him up and keep him as healthy as possible. Jozy might be the DP, but he's going to have to get used to playing the Ilsinho role.
- Jonathan Osorio (AM/CM/W): I think the best way to use Osorio would be as an inverted winger with a stretch-the-field type on the right. But at whatever spot, he has to be out there.
- Richie Laryea (RB): Last year's revelation spent this year being one of the league's most dangerous attacking right backs, a legit game-changer.
- Chris Mavinga (CB): Mavinga might've put out more fires than any other center back in the league. He wasn't precisely dominant, but he was essential.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The Reds still look like one of the best teams in the league, and they still do have a lot of depth (in large part thanks to an academy set up that's starting to pump out legit first-teamers). But whoever the new manager is will have to handle convincing some long-time foundational pieces — Altidore, Michael Bradley and Justin Morrow, and perhaps Omar Gonzalez — that they, too, are now "depth."
Getting the right guy into the locker room to manage that dwarfs all other priorities. If they get that guy and adjust the lineup appropriately, I suspect TFC in 2021 will win things. If they instead settle for the status quo Toronto will still likely be very good, but will not top out as a title-contending team (save perhaps for the Canadian Championship).
In terms of personnel they obviously need a direct, goal-scoring, DP winger (I'd aim for a right winger so that Osorio can play inverted on the left) and a young, athletic center back to at least challenge Omar for that spot.
They won their first-ever trophy! A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Union have improved every year under Jim Curtin and the obvious next step for 2020 was going to be competing for some sort of title. They'd come close before with three trips to the US Open Cup final, but truly leveled up this year.
First they made it to the semis of the MLS is Back Tournament before losing to the eventual champion Portland Timbers, and then they went out and went 12-3-3 after league play resumed — often playing gorgeous soccer — which culminated with them clinching the Shield on Decision Day.
They just didn't quite stick the landing once they got into the playoffs.
TACTICS & FORMATION: The 2019 Union had been largely defined by their ability to wear teams down while playing out of a 4-4-2 diamond for the first hour, and then rip them apart over the final 30 minutes while playing out of 4-2-3-1.
There was still some of that, but there was much more of tossing the 4-4-2 diamond out there and letting it ride. That might've been a purposeful shift from Curtin, or it might've been a self-reinforcing cycle in that Philly generally played well in the diamond, and generally led more than they did in 2019, and so if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it mid-game.
What was something of a surprise is that they actually dialed the press back a bit when I thought — I think everybody thought — they were going to be kind of Red Bulls-y and crank it up to 11.
Instead they kept the ability to press, and kept their ability to build from possession, but became the league's best transition team.
HIGHLIGHTS: There were lots of them, including the 15-minute blitzkreig of Sporting in the MLS is Back quarters, the week-after-week mental and emotional consistency that's a hallmark of any Shield-winner, and the gigantic 5-0 win over Toronto that swung the momentum of the Shield race late in October. Philly had a truly fantastic season with few true lulls.
But nothing compares to your first, right? The Union went into Decision Day 90 minutes away from hoisting a trophy. They'd been in that spot four previous times, including their previous game (a 2-1 loss at Columbus in which Philly had coaxed a Team of the Week performance out of Eloy Room), and had come up short each time.
Not in this one, though:
Philadelphia Union celebrate with the Supporters' Shield
They really earned it by dominating a very good New England team.
LOWLIGHT: They really earned their playoff exit by being dominated by a very good New England team.
One of the reasons I love that we award both the Shield and MLS Cup is that if you win both competitions, you immediately get canonized as one of the great teams in league history. It takes a lot to win the Shield — talent, depth and week-to-week consistency, as well as luck with injuries. It takes a lot of some different stuff to win MLS Cup — elite talent, favorable match-ups, a hot striker and serious luck with injuries.
Philly won the Shield because they had really good talent, really good depth, mostly avoided major injuries and were just locked in week after week. They got blown out in the playoffs because they could not handle New England's top-end talent.
Two different trophies for two different things. Philly were only good enough for one of them.
REVELATION: I kind of want to say Homegrown attacker Anthony Fontana, who got himself on a month-long heater and got the Union some points out of games that they weren't necessarily dominating, but I'm going to go with Jose Martinez instead. El Brujo is 26, and was on the fringes of the Venezuelan national team before coming to the Union. This guy wasn't a star — he had the profile of a depth piece, maybe a part-time starter for Philly.
How would he and a rotating cast of his teammates replace Haris Medunjanin, who'd been running that midfield without misplacing a pass for three years?
The answer was "seamlessly." This is his one-time outlet that puts Kai Wagner into space:
How the Philadelphia Union tore apart Toronto FC | Top Tier
This guy who nobody had heard of at this time last year came into the league and was one of the top five d-mids, and a write-it-in-pen starter for the league's best team. He looks like a foundational piece going forward.
DISAPPOINTMENT: It's not just the playoff loss to New England, but how it happened. After being up for it week after week after week during the regular season and in the MLS is Back Tournament, they just... weren't vs. the Revs.
And I think what had to particularly sting is that this was the final outing for Homegrown attacker Brenden Aaronson, and quite likely for Homegrown center back Mark McKenzie as well. Philly created two Champions League players out of their academy, and both had looked the part for huge stretches of the year, and they got absolutely crushed by Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou.
As elite as Aaronson and McKenzie had been in the regular season, they weren't at that level when the postseason came along. It was tough.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Martinez (DM): A top five d-mid in his prime. They'll hope he can be for them what Diego Chara's been for Portland.
- Andre Blake (GK): Blake bounced back after a pretty poor 2019 season to win his second Goalkeeper of the Year award, and is still right in the heart of his prime.
- Jamiro Monteiro (CM/AM): The Cape Verdean international wasn't quite as prolific in terms of boxscore stats as last year, but is a consistent two-way game-changer either as a No. 10 or on the sides of the diamond as a shuttler.
- Sergio Santos (FW): He stayed a lot healthier in 2020, but was similar in terms of per-90 productivity; 4g/1a in 622 minutes in 2019, and 8g/2a in 1218 minutes in 2020. That's not quite elite, but that's really good. And his work rate is elite.
- Jack Elliott (CB): Yes, I know Jakob Glesnes eventually won the job over Elliott to partner McKenzie, but I still rate Elliott higher. Whatever happens, Philly should have few problems at CB next year.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: We know Aaronson's gone, which explains why he's not on the above list. I left McKenzie and Wagner off that list as well because it seems fairly likely that they'll both be gone this winter, too.
Will their replacements come from within (we know about Fontana and Elliott, but it's worth mentioning that Homegrown Matt Real was good in limited minutes at LB this year) or will Philly take some of their likely windfall and go shopping for another foundational DP-type player? It's a tough thing to balance since the Union very explicitly want to develop and sell players, so you don't want to block their path. But at the same time, wouldn't those young attackers look better playing in front of a Pozuelo or Lodeiro-type? And don't you need one of those guys to win an MLS Cup?
They need to figure out that balance.
The other notable absences: captain Alejandro Bedoya, who got a Best XI vote from me this past year, and striker Kacper Przybylko. Bedoya covers an unholy amount of ground and is about to hit his mid-30s; Przybylko has had two very good years, but seems to top out as "very good," is streaky (only one goal in his final 12 appearances in 2020) and at times seemed to have negative chemistry with Santos.
I'm not saying to kick both guys to the curb, but they're no longer "build around them" pieces.