Part 1 is HERE. The writing prompt, sent Monday morning, was this:
Below, once again, are some of my favorite responses, as well as my response to those responses in this all-but-name-only mailbag.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends:
Two for the price of one with Jason and Adam on D.C. United here, and I am hopeful that their assessment — which is the prevailing conventional wisdom about new manager Hernan Losada, and how he will have his team play — is correct. Losada, in a very short time, built a rep in Belgium as an innovative risk-taker as a tactician, and the local sentiment was one of disappointment that such a promising and fun young coach had left their league to join ours. I take all of the above as a good thing, even if it's worth taking it with a grain of salt at the same time.
Why take it with a grain of salt? Because the returns really, really started diminishing down the stretch for Beerschot. Between when he took over in October of 2019 and August of 2020, Losada led his club to a 14-5-5 record across all competitions. From the end of August 2020 until he took the D.C. job in mid-January, they went 6-9-3 across all comps, which included a pretty unsightly seven-game winless skid (0-5-2) to close things out. It got ugly there at the end.
Even so, I think there's ample cause to be excited for D.C. fans, who will be seeing their team trot out under the guidance of a new, permanent head coach for the first time in more than a decade. And the unknowns are exciting, too:
- Will Losada lean into a 3-5-2, which was his preferred formation for most of his stay in Belgium?
- Will he get the best out of Edison Flores, whose 2020 was marred by myriad injuries? And if so, at what spot?
- How will the new draft picks — two in the top five of this year's SuperDraft — fit in?
- Will we get to see Russell Canouse back at defensive midfield full-time?
That last one is of particular interest to me because Canouse was freaking awesome in 2018, but has spent a good chunk of the past two years either hurt or playing the wrong position:
As with every team that missed the playoffs, there are a ton of questions. I'm excited to see what answers Losada comes up with, and I think D.C. fans are right to be as well.
I'm very "in" on the Rapids. My optimistic take is that they're where the Union were a year ago: A kid-heavy team coming into its own thanks to a few shrewd signings (more of Colorado's have come from within the league, while Philly were more about pure imports) and a commitment to developing talent from within that is now ready to compete for a trophy of some sort.
My pessimistic take on the Rapids is they're where the Union were two years ago: A kid-heavy team coming into its own, but still a cut or two below the league's elite.
Either version of the Rapids is worth watching, though, especially when you consider how aesthetically pleasing "The Rapids Way" has become. And yes, "The Rapids Way" is no longer a meme and is now a compliment, because this team under Robin Fraser knocks the ball around, generates attacks from unusual spots and moves like hell off the ball. It's not full-flight LAFC, but it's all very fun, and proved to be very difficult to contain during the second half of last season.
Bassett and Vines, as mentioned, are at the center of this, and will have to balance their individual ambitions with the collective. Both have European interest and both, I'm sure, are raring to go. But the best way to get into the best possible situation in Europe is to get out on the field and dominate in MLS. This, once again, brings us back to the Philly comparison: Remember what Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie did last year? That is the blueprint for Bassett and Vines. Perform at that level and success — both individual and teamwide — will follow.
And maybe, at the end of 2021, there will be a trophy of some sort in Commerce City to show for it.
So yeah, it looks like Paxton Pomykal is going to be back and ready to go from Day 1. He was one of the breakout players of 2019, vice-captaining the US U-20s — remember, on a team with Sergino Dest, Tim Weah and Chris Richards, Mark McKenzie (who basically didn't play) was the captain and Pomykal was effectively the on-field captain — to a quarterfinal appearance at the U-20 World Cup, generally locking down central midfield all year for Dallas, and then playing through injury to put on a breathtaking display in a playoff loss to the eventual champion Seattle Sounders. He finished third in that year's 22 Under 22 ahead of the likes of Aaronson and McKenzie, and the interest from AC Milan that ESPN reported was very, very real.
He had offseason surgery after that 2019 season and was expected to be completely fit for 2020, but was limited to just 150 total minutes before being shut down last September for yet another turn under the knife. He packed those 150 minutes with highlights on both sides of the ball:
If he'd stayed healthy, I think he'd have topped 22 Under 22. I'm certain Dallas would've had a better season, and I suspect he'd now be among the cadre of young Americans at top clubs in Big 5 leagues in Europe.
That is a gigantic, and thus far determinative word for Pomykal, who's had at least one surgery each of the past four years. This past year, after playing his final game on August 21, he had a procedure on his groin and one on his hip. As per what FC Dallas said, a full recovery was expected within six months.
As per what Pomykal himself said on a pair of podcasts back in mid-January, he was ahead of schedule on that recovery, and expected to be completely fit and ready to go come the start of the season. True to his word, he has been a full participant since Day 1 of the preseason.
Dallas have a pair of new wingers, a new starting center back and a new starting right back. They might have a new starting center forward as well, if either Jesus Ferreira or Ricardo Pepi can beat out Franco Jara.
But I genuinely don't think any of that could change the potential ceiling on this team as much as getting 2500 minutes of a fit and sharp Pomykal in central midfield. He has a Lodeiro-esque all-around effect on this team, and nothing Luchi Gonzalez tried last year could quite replicate it.
I regret to inform the rest of you that Juan is probably going to get his wish.
LAFC spent a huge chunk of last season scuffling for various reasons. The trade of Walker Zimmerman put them behind the eight-ball in central defense, and right back was a sore spot through most of the season for one reason (Tristan Blackmon having to cover at center back) or another (Andy Najar being washed). New 'keeper Kenneth Vermeer was an adventure. Center forward Adama Diomande was in and out of the lineup, and then gone for good. Brian Rodriguez couldn't score. And then, most importantly, both Eduard Atuesta and Carlos Vela missed significant time due to injury.
And so folks had fun watching LAFC fall from record-setting Supporters' Shield winners in 2019 to seventh place in the West in 2020. Their season then ended — once again — in the playoffs at the feet of the Seattle Sounders.
Except that wasn't actually the end of LAFC's season. They still had the CCL to complete, after all, and come December a lot of the issues that had plagued them through the regular season had disappeared. Jesus Murillo had been brought in and largely filled Zimmerman's shoes, which meant Blackmon could go back to right back on a fulltime basis. Vermeer still had iffy moments, but fewer of them. Center forward was still a concern, but Bradley Wright-Phillips gave them great minutes during the regular-season and then Danny Musovski gave them very good minutes in the CCL. And then, most importantly, both Atuesta and Vela were healthy.
Combine that all with the likes of Diego Rossi, Eddie Segura, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing — all of whom were magnificent throughout the CCL run — and yeah, anyone who watched them dominate Cruz Azul and Club America, then take Tigres to the wire in the CCL final knows how dangerous this team is.
This is against Tigres in the CCL final:
That's the same Tigres side that, a month later, absolutely bossed Palmeiras and then pushed Bayern Munich to the brink at the Club World Cup. LAFC were legitimately the better team for an hour (just as they had been vs. Cruz Azul and America for the full 90) before running out of gas.
LAFC are deeper and better now, having added a new right back, a new left back and front line depth. They've also opened up a DP slot by loaning Rodriguez out, and maybe the biggest "will they/won't they?" question in the league right now is about how they'll use that DP slot. What if they actually go for Kun Aguero? What if they flex their local muscle and buy Jonathan Rodriguez from Cruz Azul? Or what if they go a little further afield and buy Gabigol from Flamengo?
None of those moves would surprise me. Any of those moves would make LAFC prohibitive favorites. And even without a move like the above, LAFC are no worse than third in any sort of realistic preseason rankings.
So I hope you all had your fun watching them suffer last year, because it's not going to last. And consider this fair warning that tomorrow I'm basically going to be writing the same thing about Atlanta in the final installment of this mailbag.