Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Armchair Analyst: What we're looking forward to as preseason begins | Part 1

Here is the writing prompt, sent Monday morning:

Below are some of my favorite responses, as well as my responses to those responses.

I guess that makes this a mailbag. I should've called it that at the top. Oh well, too late to go back and edit now.

In we go:

Armchair Analyst: What we're looking forward to as preseason begins | Part 1 -

This is a really good question that we won't have an official answer to until 2022 at the earliest. I, like Kieran, believe that Greg Vanney is actually a very good coach, and would argue that Toronto's sustained run of excellence from 2015 through 2020 doesn't happen if he's anything less than a very good coach. But we have seen multiple good MLS coaches put together a sustained run at one location then head elsewhere and fall pretty, pretty flat.

That could obviously happen with Vanney in LA, where the Galaxy are something close to threadbare despite some massive spending on the top end of the roster. There is a ton of work to be done.

Is it the same amount of work Vanney had on his hands when he took over Toronto in 2014? No, I don't think so. But he also got Michael Bradley in his prime in Year 1, and then subsequently added Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco, Alejandro Pozuelo and a boatload of quality TAM guys and MLS veterans along the way. TFC didn't hit every signing -- pour one out for Ager Aketxe -- but they hit on their most important signings, kept those guys as the foundation through their prime years and Vanney got them to play attractive and effective possession soccer by leaning on the strengths of his best players.

It's a good blueprint. It's not one, though, that I think this version of LA can follow. Chicharito is, at best, at the tail end of his prime years, and the same goes for Jonathan dos Santos. Sebastian Lletget is excellent, but he's more a complementary piece than a focal point. There are zero significant TAM-level players on the roster to speak of (unless you mean significantly disappointing, in which case you can pick out a few), and the defense remains a massive worry.

I suspect Vanney's up to the job of fixing it, though I'd be surprised if he turned things around as quickly as Bruce Arena did in New England or Oscar Pareja managed in Orlando.

Armchair Analyst: What we're looking forward to as preseason begins | Part 1 -

Gonna take the Columbus part of this first. I think in the history of "we're really excited for this season to begin," 2021 Crew fans have to be near the very top of the list not just for this year, but for all-time.

  • Defending MLS Cup champs? Check
  • Offseason marked by both clever and ambitious signings? Check
  • Transcendent playmaker capable of putting together an MVP season? Check
  • Exciting young players in the mix at almost every position? Check
  • A potential record-making CCL run pending as a legit possibility? Check
  • A new stadium to open? Check

Going from "Save the Crew" to this over the course of three years is just spectacular. I hope Columbus fans decide to be at least a little bit insufferable this year, because y'all have earned it.

Philly and San Jose, meanwhile, are right to have earned any neutral's interest. They've certainly earned mine.

For Philly, who are coming off last season's Supporters' Shield win, I will be completely shocked if 2021 is anything but a step backwards in terms of results. The Union sold two Best XI players and you can't just do that in any league and not get dinged a little bit.

The interesting part for me, then, comes less from the results (they're going to be worse) and the playing style (it'll be similar), than from where they get the talent to replace Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, and how comfortable they are living with a year of growing pains. The fact that they signed Scottish center back Stuart Findlay suggests they weren't quite ready to throw one of the kids into the CB rotation, while the complete silence about a direct Aaronson replacement suggests that maybe Anthony Fontana's going to get dibs on that position.

Beyond that... what happens if a real offer comes in for Kai Wagner, or Jack Elliott (who is so much better than people realize), or Jamiro Monteiro? How far into the "selling club" ethos are they willing to lean, and how much will the fans understand if the answer is "all the way"?

San Jose, of course, have already leaned all the way into their ethos and identity, by way of head coach Matias Almeyda. They man-mark almost everywhere even when it's clearly not in their best interest to do so; they make the field as wide as possible in attack, pinning both the wingers and fullbacks to the touchlines and spraying long diagonals; and they always try to keep the tempo high as hell.

It's made for always fun and often winning soccer in Almeyda's first two years. That has happened despite the fact that San Jose's roster overhaul was slow and deliberate, taking apart piece-by-piece over the course of 24 months what had seemingly been slapped together over a couple of windows in 2017.

Now, in Year 3 of the Almeyda era, they have something closer to what I imagine Almeyda would consider to be his team, both in terms of style -- there is no longer any learning curve for these guys on either side of the ball -- and composition. This winter they added a No. 10 in Eduardo "La Chofis" Lopez who's played for Almeyda before, and they added a defensive midfielder in Eric Remedi who's played for Almeyda before, and they added a right back in Luciano Abecasis who's played for Almeyda before. That's alongside holdovers Daniel Vega, Andy Rios, Carlos Fierro and Oswaldo Alanis, all of whom came to San Jose after playing for Almeyda at one of his previous stops.

The Quakes aren't going to be the most talented team in MLS, but they are very much going to be Almeyda's team -- more so even than they were last year when they made the playoffs and scared the bejesus out of Sporting Kansas City. And that should translate into an even clearer commitment to Almeyda's unique style, plus a clearer vision of how to make it work.

Armchair Analyst: What we're looking forward to as preseason begins | Part 1 -

Yeah, me too. After that eight-year run of defensive excellence they put together from 2011 to 2018, it's still jarring for me to process what's happened to the Sporting defense -- especially the center backs -- over the past two years. They were legitimately terrible defensively in missing the playoffs in 2019, and then climbed up to "average, but still completely liable to get picked apart in the wrong matchup" in 2020.

As it turns out, they had two wrong matchups in the 2020 playoffs. San Jose hung three on 'em in the first round, with only Tim Melia's heroics securing advancement for KC, and then Bebelo Reynoso and Kevin Molino just ripped them limb from limb in the Western Conference Semifinals. All told, in 210 minutes of playoff soccer with home-field advantage and one of the best 'keepers in MLS history between the pipes, Sporting managed to ship six goals. That is brutal.

That is also not entirely the fault of the central defense, but I'm willing to say that the central defense was the proximate cause. Matt Besler and Winston Reid are now gone and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin has arrived, presumably as a starter. But is that enough? Even with new d-mid Remi Walter in front of the central pairing, will that be enough?

More to the point: What does it mean if it's not? Peter Vermes has been much more flexible in his tactical approach than he's generally gotten credit for, but he's never wavered from the single pivot during an era in which even Pep Guardiola is wavering from the single pivot. It is possible that the game simply moves too fast now and too many decisions are forced upon too many players in too rapid a sequence to risk having just one guy cleaning up in front of the backline.

This goal is literally a recurring nightmare if you're a KC fan:

Upgrading the talent at d-mid and center back should help. "Better talent" is the answer to like 95% of soccer's questions.

It's that other 5% that's a real worry here for Sporting.

Part 2 coming tomorrow.