Below, once again, are some of my favorite responses, as well as my response to those responses in this all-but-name-only mailbag, which may very well become a recurring feature.
And in we go, one last time...
Same here. MLS has leaned harder into the "selling league" identity over the past 18 months than I ever thought possible, and that's gone hand-in-hand with two things:
- Better players coming through the academies.
- Managers being more willing to play those players big minutes in big games.
If you would like examples: Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie were both 2020 Best XI players in leading the Philadelphia Union to the Supporters' Shield -- the club's first-ever piece of hardware -- before being sold for about $15 million, combined. After selling Reggie Cannon for millions to Boavista, FC Dallas didn't go out on the market to buy a replacement. The job instead went to the next academy product up, and Bryan Reynolds performed so well that he was sold to AS Roma for about three times what Cannon went for.
Then, of course, there was MLS Cup itself. Darlington Nagbe was not medically cleared to play, and rather than leaning on a veteran to replace him in the lineup, Caleb Porter gave the start to homegrown defensive midfielder Aidan Morris. Morris became the youngest starter in MLS history (breaking Landon Donovan's mark) and bossed the great Nicolas Lodeiro for 90 minutes:
Teams win, and profit, and win some more with Homegrown players.
And it wasn't just the obvious ones. I don't think Ayo Akinola was really on anybody's radar before he broke out at the MLS is Back Tournament last summer, and while Cole Bassett was a nice prospect, did anybody think he'd be more productive on a per-90 basis as an attacking midfielder than Aaronson was?
Developing players like this is the most exciting thing MLS does. Full stop.
As for who this year's domestic teenage star will be, I think there's a trio of frontrunners: The New York Red Bulls' Caden Clark, the San Jose Earthquakes' Cade Cowell and Dallas' Ricardo Pepi. Of the three, I'm leaning toward Clark -- an attacking midfielder who's also played a good chunk on the wing -- as the best choice, since I think he's got the best chance of being a starter. Pepi will have to fight a Designated Player (Franco Jara) and fellow homegrown Jesus Ferreira for the No. 9 job in Dallas, and Cowell is likely behind Carlos Fierro and Shea Salinas in the pecking order on the left wing in San Jose.
Clark might be slated to become RBNY's No. 10 if Gerhard Struber actually uses a No. 10 this year. If he's not playing as a 10, he'll instead be starting on the wing, from whence he scored 3 goals in about 350 minutes last year.
We already know that Clark is reportedly bound for RB Leipzig after the 2021 season. There is a vested interest across the organization in getting him as many reps at the MLS level as is possible, and based upon what we saw last year, there's a strong correlation between reps and productivity with Clark.
Austin FC's build has been methodical and almost entirely sensible. They have DPs at the No. 10 and left-wing spots in Tomas Pochettino and Cecilio Dominguez, guys who are in the prime of their careers and have done it in some of the top leagues in the Americas. They splashed out a significant amount of allocation cash on Alexander Ring, one of the five best d-mids in the league, and then brought in a young backup in Sebastian Berhalter. They didn't do what I expected in the SuperDraft by picking Danny Pereira over Philip Mayaka, but Pereira was the consensus No. 2 on the board, so it's not like this is going to be an Omar Salgado situation.
They've collected a bunch of MLS veterans for the backline, mixed in a few SuperDraft picks and, in 22-year-old Colombian center back Jhohan Romana, snagged an under-the-radar talent who's got some buzz and the required physical tools to succeed in this league.
I don't have a lot of questions about how this team is going to work. I have a big question about who's going to do the finishing, because right now the center forward rotation is a trio of journeymen in Danny Hoesen, Aaron Schoenfeld and Jon Gallagher. None have shown the type of consistency needed to be long-term starters in MLS.
I am weirdly excited for that as well, though. Austin head coach Josh Wolff worked directly for Gregg Berhalter for more than half a decade, and I'm assuming will run a similar type of system. Berhalter, of course, is the Striker Whisperer:
Can Wolff, who actually was a damn good striker, do the same thing?
Tab Ramos wasn't able to manage it last year, his first with the Houston Dynamo, as the team kind of fell apart once Alberth Elis was sold. They then sold Mauro Manotas this offseason. This is not a hard reboot, but it's a new era.
How will it function? I'm not sure, but I suspect that with the addition of Tim Parker and first-round SuperDraft pick Ethan Bartlow in central defense, the Dynamo will be less vulnerable than they were basically throughout all of 2020, and having that solidity could provide Houston with the opportunity to take some risks and send some numbers forward with intent. Any time they tried that in 2020 they got murked, but any time they tried that in 2020 they were at a talent deficit. Maybe not so much in 2021?
It's not accurate to call Lodeiro or Raul Ruidiaz "unknowns," but both have largely been Superman-esque in their MLS careers thus far. Lodeiro has been in town since 2016, and the Seattle Sounders have made four of five MLS Cups since then. Ruidiaz arrived in 2019 and has played in 10 playoff games. He has nine goals and added six assists in those 10 appearances. That is absurd.
So no, it shouldn't surprise anyone if the Sounders do what they almost always do: wait patiently and make a big move (or two) during the summer window to bolster the veteran core and prime themselves for the playoff push.
That said, I am genuinely surprised they haven't done a little more than that already given how much they lost from last year. Starting left winger Jordan Morris popped his ACL and probably won't take the field again until 2022, while starting right winger/back-up left winger/back-up left back Joevin Jones was allowed to walk after the season ended. So was starting* right back Kelvin Leerdam, while longtime d-mid Gustav Svensson also departed.
(*)Yes, I know Leerdam didn't start in the playoffs. But he was, until his injury, clearly the starting right back for Seattle, and had been for years.
Their additions thus far: free agents Kelyn Rowe, Spencer Richey and Fredy Montero. It's something of a homecoming for all three, as Rowe and Richey are from Seattle, while Montero, of course, got his start in MLS with the Sounders during their 2009 expansion year.
All three provide worthwhile depth, but this team, as of now, lacks the pop and dynamism we saw from each of the past five versions. I don't think that will last, and am curious to see how -- and when -- Garth Lagerwey will find a solution.
Josef Martinez has been the most consistent and most explosive goalscorer in MLS history. The league was worse last year without him, and I'm excited as hell that he's back. You should be, too.
Except for when your favorite team's playing Atlanta United. They're also going to be back, by the way. I hope you all enjoyed the Five Stripes being a punching bag while you could, because I'm pretty sure that era's over.