Josef Martinez: I’m generally wary of “his absence reinforced how valuable he is!” arguments because I think, in a lot of cases, those arguments come down to “the coach is really bad at doing anything other than trotting out his first-choice XI and not screwing it up.”
But in the case of Josef’s ACL tear and subsequent absence last year… ok yeah the coaching was also very poor. Still, it really did reinforce how Josef’s not just the greatest pure goalscorer this league’s ever seen, but how he’s a force magnifier for the entire rest of the team. And they were just helpless without him.
Alex Ring: We saw last year what a beyond solid veteran defensive midfielder can do for an expansion team, as Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy ran the show for Nashville. Ring is expected to pretty much do the exact same thing, though I’d wager he’ll be doing it more as a single pivot rather than as part of a double pivot, as was the case for McCarty and Godoy.
Ring, of course, has played as a single pivot before, and done so at an exceptionally high level.
Francisco Calvo: If he is the same mistake-prone guy he’s always been in MLS, the Fire will lose games in the exact same way they did last year. If he’s the rock-solid, reliable veteran he’s been for Costa Rica, Chicago will be a much tougher out.
Other players can raise the Fire’s ceiling, but it’s up to Calvo to raise this team’s floor.
Lucho Acosta: Cincy generated nothing from the run of play last year, and scored just 12 goals all season long. It will be, of course, a team effort in terms of fixing it.
But Lucho’s the guy wearing the No. 10. They paid a lot of money for him, and he’s shown in the past that he can be a match-winner. He’s also got one of the best highlight reels of anybody in the league over the past half-decade:
The thing is, he’s never been a focal point for an entire season. When D.C. United asked that of him, he struggled. Same with Atlas.
Cincy will ask it of him as well, and the truth is that they need him to impact the game more like Nico Lodeiro does for Seattle than like Acosta used to for D.C. He’s got to be a one-man solution to a ton of problems, and has to own that responsibility while the rest of the squad -- which has won two Wooden Spoons on the trot -- tries to figure things out.
Auston Trusty: I’m cheating here. Trusty is not the most important Rapid in the “as he goes, so goes the team way.” If Colorado have anybody like that, it’s probably Jack Price (though it’d nice to see Kellyn Acosta finally take that mantle as a two-way force).
But we know who the rest of the Rapids are for the most part. With Trusty, his potential is damn near limitless. He’s a 6-foot-3, left-footed center back who can really move and wins everything in the air There aren’t a lot of guys with that profile.
It’s conceivable he makes the kind of jump that Miles Robinson made in 2019 or Trusty’s old Union teammate Mark McKenzie made in 2020. If he does that -- plays at a Best XI clip -- then the Rapids suddenly become a team that plays expansive and attractive attacking soccer, but can also shut your whole thing down thanks to their center backs.
This is a huge ask, but Trusty’s got the talent to be that guy.
EDIT: I just looked at last year’s version of this column and it turns out I wrote damn near the exact same thing.
Lucas Zelarayan: The Crew without Lucas Zelarayan: Very good! They’re tough to break down, hurt you on set pieces and know their build-up patterns.
The Crew with Lucas Zelarayan: The first team in MLS history to win MLS Cup by three goals.
If he stays healthy this year they’re among the favorites to win any competition they enter, and they’ll almost always have the best player on the pitch.
Andres Ricuarte: Dallas played with almost zero magic last year, and were among the worst in the league at generating high-quality chances.
Better finishing from Franco Jara could’ve helped, and so I almost listed the DP center forward here. But the heart of the problem came from the heart of the midfield, which just… didn’t do much:
That sequence is from before Ricuarte’s arrival, but the truth is things didn’t improve at all once he was in the XI.
Ricuarte’s the No. 10 (or, at the least, one of the free 8s). He’s got to turn those moments of ball progression into penetration and actual danger. That’s been missing far too often for a team this talented.
Donovan Pines: D.C. made it to the playoffs in 2019 because their defense was very good even as their attack fell apart. D.C. did not make it to the playoffs in 2020 because their defense followed the midfield and attack into the trash bin.
With Steve Birnbaum injured, Frederic Brillant aging (or aged, depending on how optimistic you are), and the other two center backs being new in town, a ton of responsibility is falling on the shoulders of Pines. The third-year Homegrown has to rise to the occasion or it’s going to be a long season (again) for D.C.
Mateo Bajamich: There aren’t a lot of wingers that make lists like these, but there aren’t a lot of teams that fall apart as completely as Houston did after Alberth Elis was sold mid-season. He had 4g/3a in 377 minutes and the Dynamo were 3-1-2 with 14 goals scored in Elis’s six appearances in 2020. In their other 17 games they were 1-9-7 with just 16 goals scored.
Obviously that was about more than just Elis’s departure. But holy hell did Elis’s departure play an outsized role in their death spiral.
Bajamich, who they paid seven figures for to get him from Instituto in the Argentinean second tier, is supposed to be a direct replacement. No pressure, kid.
Eduard Atuesta: Yes, Carlos Vela’s still their best player as well as the best player in the league -- and maybe in the entire federation. He is the one who raises this team’s ceiling to the point where they can beat Mexican giants like Club Leon, Cruz Azul and Club America.
They didn’t precisely fall apart without Vela, though. They weren’t as good, obviously, but that attack still hummed, and they still generated tons of looks and lots of goals.
They were, on the other hand, helpless without Atuesta, going 1-4-0 with a -8 goal differential across five games in late summer. They were 8-4-5 with a +16 goal differential when he was in the lineup.
And yes, remember that Atuesta was suspended for the CCL finale vs. Tigres. LAFC still put up a great fight, but we know how it ended.
My guess is things would’ve turned out differently if Atuesta had been on the field.
Chicharito: He’s supposed to have the kind of effect on his team that Josef’s had on Atlanta through the years. He fell pretty, pretty short of that mark in 2020.
The Galaxy need a ton of other stuff to go right if they’re to pull out of this half-decade-long tailspin, but it’s got to start with the highest-paid player in the league. He’s supposed to be the star, and needs to play like it.
Can I say Phil Neville?: Miami have this almost arbitrary collection of players:
- A full Mexican national teamer in the prime of his career
- A star goalscorer struggling to fit in MLS after a decade-plus of glory in Europe
- A reigning World Cup winner in central midfield
- A former US wunderkind attacker who’s now a left back
- Last year’s No. 1 SuperDraft pick, regrettably taken ahead of a much better player
- A 33-year-old Championship legend who’s barely played soccer in the past two years
- A d-mid from the Brazilian second tier
- A Scottish winger discarded by Celtic finding his second sporting life in the US
If you were making up bios for fake MLS players and just let those bios auto-complete, this is the team you’d come up with.
It’s on Neville to somehow knit this thing together and make it a coherent, cohesive whole. That was apparently his best attribute with the English women’s side -- he got that locker room on the same page, and apparently they loved him. Instilling that type of camaraderie and buy-in will go further in Fort Lauderdale than the performance of any one player this year.
Bebelo Reynoso: We’re pretty sure they’re going to be pretty good. Only Bebelo can make them great:
Can he do this without his partner in crime, Kevin Molino, who moved on to greener pastures?
I don’t know. I do know that he
has to in order for Minnesota to approach the same type of success they had at the end of last season.
Victor Wanyama: We’ve seen in the past a veteran defensive midfielder almost single-handedly elevate a team and drag them to respectability. There were games last year where Wanyama did that, both shielding the defense and setting the tempo.
That has to be a weekly occurrence for Montreal to make a return trip to the playoffs. Wanyama probably needs to be one of the two or three best d-mids in the entire league for that to happen.
Walker Zimmerman: He was the center back version of Josef last year, elevating his team on both sides of the ball and just making everyone around him better thanks to his dominance. That extended to the attack, where for a good long while Zimmerman was Nashville’s best (read: only) attacking threat because of presence on set pieces.
He absolutely deserved his Defender of the Year nod. If he’s not in the running again this season, I think Nashville as a whole are likely to take a pretty solid step backwards.
Matt Turner: Carles Gil obviously raises their ceiling, but here, just watch this:
Replace Turner with a league-average goalkeeper and they are seven goals worse, which puts them right in line with Chicago and Atlanta -- two teams who missed the playoffs -- in terms of goal differential. And I’d argue that in 2019 he was even more valuable.
Maxi Moralez: It is not great that Moralez, who just turned 34 and saw his 2020 numbers plummet to 1g/4a from 2019’s heights of 7g/20a, is still the clear answer to this question. It is doubly not great given that the reason Moralez’s numbers plummeted was in part due to missing so much time with injuries, and in part to a thinning of the attacking depth around him.
That thinning has continued into 2021. It seems like NYCFC are going to ask Maxi -- who’s already carried an outsized burden even for a No. 10 -- to take a heavier share of the load than ever before.
Or they might go to a 4-4-2 and bench him. In which case I guess James Sands is the answer here. It’s all on the table!
Dru Yearwood: The Young DP struggled with the physicality and tactical demands of MLS, which seemed a clear step above him in his debut season.
He got his feet wet, though, and now it’s time to dive into the deep end of the pool. Red Bull doesn’t spend on kids to sit them; they’re there to play, and Yearwood in particular is there ostensibly to win the ball and get this team to be instantly vertical. That’s supposed to be his calling card.
We haven’t seen much of that in Harrison since 2018.
Uri Rosell: Without Rosell this team morphed from one of the more attractive, possession-based sides to almost purely a counterattacking group. It is good that they had such flexibility, but the ceiling was clearly higher when Rosell was winning the ball and dictating the game from deep.
As long as he’s in there, then all those high-end attackers -- Nani, Mauricio Pereyra, Chris Mueller and now, hopefully, Pato -- can stay high and stay dangerous. When they have to track back too deep, Orlando City are much easier to defend.
Jose Martinez: El Brujo was the best No. 6 in the league last year, and had a real argument to be the Newcomer of the Year.
Given that Philly lost two starters on the backline, as well as the No. 10 who played directly in front of him this offseason, Martinez’s job is both more difficult and more crucial. It is a huge test for him, and for the Union.
Diego Chara: It is “The Diego Chara Memorial Most Important Player on Your Team” award, after all.
I am going to very gently point out that he turns 35 this week. Does that mean he’ll simply run down Father Time, drag his cleat across the old man’s ankle to stop a breakaway, then smile his way out of a yellow card?
I don’t know. You tell me.
Justen Glad: Some very basic numbers: Since 2016 with Glad in the lineup, RSL are 51-42-32 with 185 goals allowed. That’s good for 1.48 ppg with a goals against average of 1.23.
Since 2016 with Glad not in the lineup, they’re 9-21-9 with 91 goals allowed. That’s good for .92 ppg with a goals against average of 2.33.
Seems like Glad’s should be the first name on the team sheet.
Judson: The good folks at Quakes Epicenter wrote at length on how important the little Brazilian destroyer is to Mathias Almeyda’s system, and I’m not one to argue. This is the graph that sums it all up:
Take all of this together, and you’re left to conclude that Judson is both a wonderful player and a linchpin in Almeyda’s style of play. But you’re also left with a much more troubling conclusion: that if Judson isn’t in the lineup, Almeyda doesn’t appear to be able to cover for him given the current squad. They look like a bottom-tier MLS team without him, but a frisky mid-table side with him.
Again: I am not going to dare to argue that point. I’d say at this point it’s irrefutable.
Now, maybe Eric Remedi steps in and shows he can do the same job almost as well as -- or even better than -- Judson. I don’t think it will happen like that but if it did, then we’d have a fun little debate.
But even so, it’d just make the point clearer: Almeyda’s system needs a midfield destroyer/ball-winner or they’re chum. For now, Judson is that guy.
Nico Lodeiro: Now, more than ever.
Nicolas Isimat-Mirin: We got a sense of who Roberto Puncec is as an MLS player last year -- a pretty good center back who can soak up a lot of minutes and limits his mistakes. He’s not going to elevate the guys around him, though, and there are times where he need some protection himself.
Sporting couldn’t provide it last year. And really, they haven’t had a center back like that since 2018, when Ike Opara was in his final season in KC.
Peter Vermes has cycled through replacements for Ike since then (Puncec was supposed to be one of them, mind you) and this offseason he landed on Isimat-Mirin.
If he is really, really good, then it’s easy to see a path for Sporting to get back to true contender status. If he is just ok, then it’s easy to see a path for Sporting to suffer another humiliating playoff exit.
Chris Mavinga: The Frenchman wasn’t perfect last year but my god did he spend a lot of time putting out fires started by the slow-footed midfield ahead of him, and the slower-footed center back partner next to him. Omar Gonzalez, Michael Bradley, Marky Delgado et al are all still good players, but none of them have recovery speed.
So it all falls on Mavinga. If he’s not out there they can’t even attempt to approximate their preferred style of play because every turnover would become a jailbreak in the wrong direction.
Caio Alexandre: If the ‘Caps are to be a counterattacking team -- and I think that’s the goal -- the Brazilian central midfielder is going to have to have a Jan Gregus-like effect as the No. 8. He’ll obviously be tasked with a good portion of defensive work and ball-winning, but the most important thing is his ability to hit those pinpoint diagonals that can get the Vancouver attackers out into space against a backpedaling defense.
He’s the piece that should make all their other investments actually worthwhile.