Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Eryk Williamson to World Cup with USMNT? Lagerwey to Chicago Fire? Midweek mailbag Q&A

It’s been a while since I put a mailbag together, so let’s dive in:

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First off: no relation.

Second: Kieran’s a Toronto fan and is on a fishing expedition here. Let’s give him what he wants.

Right now Toronto FC are one of three dire straits clubs, along with D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City. I think there’s an argument for a few others to be in that tier (Chicago, who have remarkably won four of their past seven; San Jose, who’ve got a winning record since Alex Covelo took over; and Houston, who’ve mostly just scuffled along since mid-April), but to my eye, there’s a pretty solid difference between those three and the three bottom-dwellers.

Of those three bottom-dwellers, I think it’s pretty clearly Toronto who have the best chance to put something together and turn around what’s been a nightmare season, and that’s pretty clearly because of the tranche of talent they’re about to be able to throw out into their front six. Lorenzo Insigne got the bigger contract and headlines, and has had the better career, but I’d argue it’s the 28-year-old Federico Bernardeschi who’s the bigger signing given his age and pedigree.

Bernardeschi is smack in the middle of his prime rather than at the tail end of it. He’s had a disappointing few years, but was nonetheless a key part of last year’s European champions (started one game, appeared in four and buried his PK against lol England in the final) and has averaged about 2,000 minutes per season across all competitions for Juventus over the past half-decade. Thus he seems to be a pretty snug fit in the same category as guys like Sebastian Giovinco and Carlos Vela, two outliers who absolutely dominated MLS for a couple of years upon their arrival.

Even with the arrival of Mark-Anthony Kaye, who’s been a Best XI-caliber CM under Bob Bradley at LAFC, I have questions about ball-winning and range in central midfield, and I have questions about the willingness/ability of that front three – Insigne, Jesus Jimenez and Bernardeschi, left-to-right – to run and press in the way Bradley will want. Plus, obviously, Toronto’s defense remains a disaster.

But this team’s going to have the ball a ton, and they’re going to be able to do high-level stuff with it when they do. I still doubt they’ll make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, as the hole they’ve dug for themselves is just too deep. But they have a much better shot at it than either Sporting or D.C., both of whom seem to be heading towards complete teardowns this offseason, and neither of whom have the type of talent that the Reds can toss out onto the field.

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The premise of this question is wrong, as the Galaxy have played most of the past two games in some version of the 4-2-3-1 – though I’ll grant it was a very lopsided, asymmetrical and at times 4-4-2-ish 4-2-3-1 this past weekend at Colorado. And I would argue the absence of Mark Delgado and the poor form of Jonathan Bond has played a bigger role than anything regarding shape or even tactics.

Irrespective of that, the story of LA’s season is that they were supposed to be built for a 4-2-3-1, but can’t reliably put the ball in the net when they play in that formation because their two DP wingers, Kevin Cabral and Douglas Costa, just are not carrying their weight. If even one of those guys was putting together a Romain Alessandrini-esque season, the Galaxy would probably be on about 1.8 ppg and harboring legitimate thoughts about a Supporters’ Shield push.

But it’s not that way. It’s the other way, and it’s bad.

The lifeline Greg Vanney’s found is the pairing of Dejan Joveljic with Chicharito up top. Both guys are pure strikers, which means some sort of two-forward lineup, and in general, Vanney has veered toward the 4-4-2 in the instances when those guys share the field.

I have made the argument before that this is a mistake. The Galaxy actually have the personnel to play a 3-4-1-2 – just drop Victor Vazquez, Sacha Kljestan or Efrain Alvarez into the hole underneath the two strikers. The two up front with the three-man midfield, along with wingbacks Raheem Edwards and Julian Araujo, should give this side the goals they need along with the pitch control Vanney desires. Cabral can stay on for at least the rest of the year as a field-stretching super-sub, and as for Costa… well, the powers that be made the contract buy-out rule for a reason, right?

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I’m not sure they need to make more signings. From the outside looking in, it seems more like Atlanta need to have some patience and a plan to develop the guys who are already there for once. From early 2019 until late 2021 they lacked both, constantly going out into the market, spending obscene sums and chasing the dragon. When it didn’t immediately work out, then it was time for yet another rebuild. Rinse, repeat.

The fact is, though, I still really like Santiago Sosa and think if he and Franco Ibarra both get healthy and get onto the pitch, they could end up being very good together (they should fit perfectly in a 4-2-3-1). Matheus Rossetto has improved a ton this year, and maybe the same will happen for Emerson Hyndman when he’s finally fit to play again. Talented players develop and produce when you give them stability and playing time.

I actually like what Atlanta’s front office did this past offseason, as Ozzie Alonso was supposed to be a sort of band-aid for all of the above while the kids got fit and learned their roles. Obviously that went wrong in the worst possible way (ACL tear), but the idea – which was to give these guys a veteran winner to lean on and learn from – was correct.

Now, the correct thing to do is to make sure that suffering through this season of hard knocks turns out to be worth it. That’s up to Gonzalo Pineda’s staff, but mostly it’s up to Carlos Bocanegra and the other decision-makers to stop chasing the dragon and start trusting the talent that led Atlanta to sign these guys in the first place.

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Back up the Brinks truck for Seattle president of soccer/GM Garth Lagerwey, who seems to be in the final year of his current deal.

Obviously Seattle will fight to keep him, and should. And obviously Atlanta, who will be replacing Darren Eales, should get involved here.

But Lagerwey’s from Chicago. I would not be at all shocked if the allure of home, Joe Mansueto’s willingness to spend and the chance to really rebuild the team – and actually get it right – from the ground up prove to be irresistible.

With apologies to Aaron Long, Daniel Salloi and Alex Callens, Lagerwey is potentially the most valuable free agent on the market this winter.

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One more elite attacker, be it a midfield string-puller or a No. 9. The guys they have in those spots – Randall Leal and C.J. Sapong – are good MLS players, the types elite teams can count on for 1,500 solid minutes. But neither is the type to go out there and take over a game, and so the bulk of basically everything falls at the feet of Hany Mukhtar.

As with LA, Nashville are handicapped by a missed DP signing, since Ake Loba was supposed to be that one more elite attacker. That’s not going to work out, though, as he’s managed just 2g/2a in 676 minutes since his arrival 12 months ago. At this point he’s just playing “human victory cigar” minutes, and I feel like if that was going to change, it would’ve by now.

Anyway, they just figured out how to upgrade right wingback with the acquisition of Shaq Moore, who should help. But if they’re going to be elite, they need more than just that, and right now it doesn’t look like they’ll be getting it in this window.

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I think we’ve seen enough of Julian Gressel at various spots in his MLS career to know while he is the league’s best wingback, he’s only middling as a right winger in a 4-2-3-1 or as a right midfielder in a flat 4-4-2, and is too much of a disaster defensively as a fullback in any kind of back four. He is the player for the position the Whitecaps got him for, and if Wayne Rooney doesn’t intend to play a lineup with wingbacks, then I totally understand the idea behind moving Gressel along.

Where D.C. blew it is in two spots:

That first one could come back to bite them, as we’re entering an era in which free agency is going to be a potential franchise-changer, and front offices would do well to burnish their reps as player-friendly. That second one, though… multiple sources have told me Nashville made a significantly higher offer for Gressel back in the winter, and that D.C. missed out on an absolute haul.

I’m more inclined to ding them for that – which signifies a lack of direction, and of strategic thinking – than for clearing the decks with a new manager in town.

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This is the third straight “elite” question, so we’ve apparently entered the Joe Flacco part of the mailbag.

Anyway, every preseason I do a column titled “Each team’s most important player.” Each year, for RSL, that is Glad.

Here is what I wrote in this year’s version:

Since 2016 with Glad in the lineup, RSL are 63-55-38 with 237 goals allowed. That’s good for 1.46 ppg with a goals-against average of 1.52.

Since 2016 with Glad not in the lineup, they’re 11-22-9 with 93 goals allowed. That’s good for 1.0 ppg with a goals-against average of 2.21.

Glad just missed a chunk of time and yup! Things are still the same; this year, when Glad starts, RSL are 9W-2L-3D with nine goals allowed. That’s good for 2.1 ppg with a goals-against average of 0.6.

When he doesn’t start, RSL are 0W-4L-3D with 17 goals allowed. That’s good for 0.4 ppg with a goals-against of 2.4.

I don’t think he’s the best center back in the league, but he might be the most important and is the first defender on my list of All-Star snubs. And I hope we get to see him with the US men's national team in the first post-World Cup camp.

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And finally, I absolutely believe Eryk Williamson has a shot to be on the World Cup roster as the fourth-string No. 8 behind Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and Luca de la Torre. I could even see him pushing de la Torre for the third spot in that hierarchy, though that’s more of a long shot.

According to a couple of sources, Williamson actually had to turn down a call-up to this last camp as he worked toward full fitness, but just the fact he was called at all should give you (all of us, really) a read on how highly Gregg Berhalter rates him.

Given how well he’s played for Portland over the past month, I’ll be surprised if he’s not at September camp with the USMNT. And I won’t be surprised at all if he plays his way into a secure spot on the Qatar 2022 roster given his talent and the US’s needs.