Voices: Sam Jones

Every MLS team's 2022 New Year's wishlist

It’s the end of the year. People are making New Year’s resolutions. We made up some resolutions for each team in MLS etc. etc. Y’all get it right?

To download a bunch of meditation and organization apps. Maybe go out and get some nice socks.

Please. Nothing crazy this year. It just … things have been a little hectic lately. Some nice, sturdy socks, the kind you hear about on podcasts, would be great. Atlanta United listens to podcasts now by the way. About business and stuff. They may even get around to getting health insurance and investing in some smart, low-risk stocks. At least they hope.

The hiring of Gonzalo Pineda is a step in the right direction. And Ozzie Alonso signing on a reported senior minimum salary certainly fits that mold. But it might take more than that for Atlanta to finally get some stability. It’s just so tempting to go out and shock the world though. And their friend keeps sending them messages about how cool NFTs are and how they definitely aren’t digital beanie babies and it would only cost like two months rent to go splitsies on this really cool one that will totally pay off years down the line.

To be more Year 2 Nashville than Year 2 Cincy

If you’re a mid-market expansion team and your first year puts you somewhere in between Year 1 Nashville and Year 1 Cincy, it could certainly be worse. It kind of just makes you Minnesota, right? But Austin FC kind of seemed to be angling for the Nashville beginning in the way they built their roster. They picked up some MLS guys, they made a major allocation money trade for a top-tier MLS player to shore up their spine, and they left a DP spot open to fill during the summer. It wasn’t an exact replica, but the process rhymed at times.

Then none of the MLS Guys were as effective as Dax McCarty. Alexander Ring is good but not quite a two-time MLS Defender of the Year like Walker Zimmerman, and only one of the DPs between the two has turned into Hany Mukhtar. (Admittedly, 2020 Hany Mukhtar did not reach the level of 2021 Hany Mukhtar.) Add 56 goals allowed and it’s clear Year 1 had its flaws. That’s OK though. Year 1 is supposed to be hard. It’s just that teams like Nashville, LAFC and Atlanta have ruined the grading curve despite a few other recent expansion teams’ best attempts to balance that out.

Austin still played quality soccer at times, and their expected goals numbers point to a team unluckier than all but five others in MLS. There’s room for a playoff-caliber jump forward in Year 2. Most expansion teams have cruised into that second-year bump. Austin have the potential to make the biggest leap of any of them. They’re already locked in with their DP spots (for now, Tomas Pochettino is still around). Which means they have to get the middle of their roster sorted out. They could take a few cues from other recent expansion teams with that. This time, they’ll hope those moves resemble the best expansion teams on paper and in practice.

To get some names and a giant peach

Charlotte FC’s ticket sales already indicate another expansion fan base in the South is ready to impress the rest of the league. But there are still plenty of questions about what kind of team that fan base is going to see. Especially in attack. As of writing, Charlotte’s projected starters up front, according to MLSsoccer.com's Tom Bogert, are TBD at left wing, U22 Initiative forward Vinicius Mello at striker, and maybe McKinze Gaines on the right?

Gaines started just one game last year for Austin and Mello is obviously young and unproven. (TBD is hot trash and won’t return my requests for an interview and I hope they fail.) That’s a lot of unanswered questions in positions that might be the most important to capture the attention of casual fans.

Fortunately, Charlotte have two things in their favor. They have three open DP spots, two of which will I’m guessing will be used before the season starts and a third which I’m guessing will be filled later in the season in the style of Nashville and Austin. They also have plenty of time.

All that really matters is that when those players get here, that they’ll have enough to beat Atlanta in the battle for the Gaffney, South Carolina water tower.

To reach the promised (playoff) land

Here are Chicago Fire FC’s positions in the standings since finishing third in the East and third in the league overall four seasons ago in 2017:

  • 2018: 10th East, 20th Supporters' Shield
  • 2019: 8th East, 17th Supporters' Shield
  • 2020: 11th East, 22nd Supporters' Shield
  • 2021: 12th East, 22nd Supporters' Shield

Things have not been fun. Just reaching an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs spot in Year 1 under Ezra Hendrickson would be more than enough. Just being in serious playoff contention would be nice, too. You’ve got to start with your goals somewhere.

To buy some metal silverware and find a sense of brotherly love

Let's start small. The first goal should be to not finish last.

The second goal should be to continue moving toward a world where FC Cincinnati is a bit more like Philly. They’ve already brought in former Union technical director Chris Albright as general manager, and he’s already brought in former Union assistant coach Pat Noonan to be the team’s head coach. The intent seems obvious: Cincy want what the Union already have. The only difference is that Cincinnati have a willingness to spend at levels the Union haven’t shown.

You may not believe it, but Cincy had the fifth-highest payroll in the league last year. Philadelphia had the 25th. The latter finished second in the Eastern Conference, the former did not do that. Now, can we imagine a world where there’s a team like Philadelphia but with deep pockets? That’s a terrifying team, right? In theory, that team could be Cincinnati. The more they can move toward that model this year, the better.

Colorado Rapids logo
Colorado Rapids

To reward themselves for all their hard work

The 2021 Colorado Rapids won the regular-season Western Conference title with a grand total of 532 minutes from their lone Designated Player. That was the lowest DP contribution in the league. That DP is now gone. So, if you’re keeping track, that’s zero total DPs on the reigning Western Conference regular-season champions’ roster. Kind of seems like there’s a really good opportunity to go out and get a DP or three and reward yourself for creating a championship-caliber team on hard mode.

To go by the store and get some Windex

Just a reminder, the Columbus Crew won MLS Cup in 2020 and Campeones Cup in 2021. That’s two more trophies than a whole lot of teams have won of late. They don’t really need to worry about much. They just need to get something to help clean the glass on their trophy case to make sure everyone can see MLS Cup as clearly as possible.

I mean, theoretically, you can ride that for at least another two years before you start having to worry about anything else again. If you want more, though, you’d start by getting Miguel Berry more minutes and staying healthy or maybe working to refresh one of the oldest rosters in the league. But you don’t necessarily have to do that.

FC Dallas logo
FC Dallas

To buy a mattress

Rather than recruiting another DP, it might prove just as useful to put all this academy player transfer money coming into the FC Dallas coffers under a mattress to keep it safe. I’m just saying, the last few years of “find a DP that lives up to his potential” resolutions haven’t quite worked out. Maybe practicality is the way here.

D.C. United logo
D.C. United

To get (another) a gym membership

Everyone on D.C. United is required to have one already, of course, but this is a second one just in case the other one is closed. You know, the one you go to every day after practice with the team. Hernan Losada is going to get this group in shape any day now.

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Houston Dynamo FC

To believe in the new them

They have a new owner in Ted Segal. A new general manager in Pat Onstad. And the reports are they have a new head coach. This is the MLS team equivalent of cutting your hair, buying new clothes and adopting a dog to get your life back on track. And it just might work! All Houston Dynamo FC might have needed is a new direction and a confidence boost. Hopefully, they keep pushing forward toward something bigger.

To focus on being in the moment

It’s officially time to mark the end of the Bob Bradley LAFC era. And boy, did it leave folks with some really complicated and confusing feelings. I’ll never quite know what to make of a team that went from setting records one year to leading the league in expected goal differential two years later and missing the playoffs, as everyone went, "Yeah, that’s about right." Weird team is weird. And now nearly every core piece is gone. They even transferred their points record to New England.

So it’s time to look forward. They can’t rely on pointing to 2019 or Bradley or really anything else and saying “Hey, lookit, things are great actually.” That means focusing on building on Cristian Arango’s remarkable opening performance, taking steps to finally put a defense on the field that doesn’t seem eager to exist as a chaotic neutral, and finding a manager that can bring it all together. There’s a lot of work to do in the here and now.

To get over their writer’s block

Last year, the LA Galaxy started out like an MFA student hit by a great idea. They began powering through the writing process and churning out a great story with excellent prose and world-building and a strong narrative. Then they got into the middle of Act II and hit a wall. And by the time they powered through to Act III, they had completely run out of ideas.

They’ve built the foundation for what could be something good, now they have to figure out how to turn it all into a final product. That might mean going back and editing out some pieces that didn’t quite make sense. With some tweaking, it might all come together. Maybe another year of experience will help.

Inter Miami CF logo
Inter Miami CF

To shed some pounds

The challenge for Inter Miami CF heading into 2022 is the sanctions impacting their roster build. It already looks like they’re trying to get rid of some of the weight from the initial roster build. Lewis Morgan got sent to New York for a major chunk of allocation money, Rodolfo Pizarro seems to be heading out on loan, Julian Caranza is off to the Union and Matias Pelligrini left earlier in 2021. It wouldn’t be surprising if even more moves are on the way. They may not tear this thing down to the studs, but they’re clearly doing some necessary remodeling. Once they get rid of that weight, the time will come where they can start packing on muscle again.

Minnesota United FC logo
Minnesota United FC

To get a(n) (under)dog

Minnesota United FC made their way into the playoffs last year, and then looked strangely lethargic once they got there. They were legitimately walking in critical moments of their game against Portland. Go back and watch Sebastian Blanco’s goal from distance. They give away the ball and then – it appeared – just decided against closing Blanco down.

That’s a weird vibe from a group that so often went to the “no one believes in us” well of motivation during their first few years. They need to find that feeling again. They need to be the underdogs. Anything to keep that once dependable edge.

CF Montréal logo
CF Montréal

To improve their relationship

Wilfried Nancy gave CF Montreal so much this year. It’s time for them to start giving back. They’ve got their person. They’ve got proof of concept. Now they need to give him whatever he’s asking for.

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Nashville SC

To start spending their savings

I’m almost certain Nashville SC have a plan. Like really certain. They’ve acquired somewhere around $2 million worth of allocation money this offseason for international slots they don't need and a good-but-not-crucial piece in Alistair Johnston. That’s brilliant business. And with each move, the hype has built. “WHAT DO THEY HAVE PLANNED?” the internet keeps asking. Which is pretty fair of the internet.

They might need to dedicate some of that allocation money to balancing out some salary cap things here and there. But they should still have enough leftover and enough roster flexibility to make a few moves that might turn some heads. Remember, Nashville have already done plenty to turn heads so far. They began their existence with back-to-back playoff appearances and had the talent to advance even deeper into the playoffs if Alex Muyl and Walker Zimmerman didn’t have a passionate distaste for the Delaware River. They were driven to pummel the river with soccer balls and they took that chance. Understandable.

That being said, I want to reiterate here that I really do think they have a plan for all this allocation money. They’ve just been too competent not to. And even if the plan is just “fleece the rest of the league and figure it out later," that still seems like a decent plan.

To know it’s all building towards something bigger

There’s no reason for the New England Revolution to change much here. They just need to remember that, in MLS, all you can do is get back to the playoffs and see what happens. Just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s not you, it’s them. You’ll find what you’re looking for one day. Think about all the stories you’ll have along the way. If they don’t see your value that’s their fault. All you can control is you. If it’s supposed to be it’s supposed to be. And…uh…you’ll get em next time…slugger. (Help, I’m running out of self-help phrases.)

New York City FC logo
New York City FC

To take the next step

After your team wins a trophy there’s always a sense of the game being over. “OK! We did it! Now….now what?” Fortunately in MLS, there’s a bonus level. New York City FC have a chance at history in the Concacaf Champions League. Especially if Taty Castellanos hangs around (seems unlikely, but still). Other MLS teams are vying for CCL glory as well, but only one of them won MLS Cup last year. NYCFC have a free pass to rear back and go for it. There’s nothing to lose, NYCFC. Go make us proud.

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New York Red Bulls

To find the limit of Red Bulls-ing

Manager Gerhard Struber brought the New York Red Bulls back to near-peak Red Bulls this season. They once again led the league in pressing actions by a significant margin. It once again felt like full-on, unhinged, energy drink soccer. Now they just need to see just how far it can take them. We know it can take them to a playoff spot, but is there more than that? The answer has kind of been a resounding no. Struber will have to find a way to break through where Jesse Marsch and Chris Armas couldn’t. How do you do that …? I have no real idea, but we’ll see where it goes.

Orlando City SC logo
Orlando City SC

To keep making a good first impression

We’re in the first offseason of the Wilf family’s ownership of Orlando City SC and my goodness have y’all seen some of the rumors going around? Numbers like $2 million and $10 million are being put out there when it comes to reported Orlando transfer targets and it’s pretty clear that there’s intent to spend big to replace Nani and maybe even fill a third DP spot. They’ve already re-signed Mauricio Pereyra and it seems like a few more major signings might be on the way to inject some spice into a group that never quite reached its full potential in 2021.

Philadelphia Union logo
Philadelphia Union

To change nothing, you’re perfect and I love you

No notes.

Ok, the Philadelphia Union could maybe add another striker. But this all seems to be working really, really well. No other notes. Except maybe spend more, but that’s kind of my note for every team. Oh, and maybe get whatever has been going on with Jamiro Monteiro sorted out. But other than that, no notes.

Portland Timbers logo
Portland Timbers

To figure out what life is like in a brave new world

Diego Valeri seems to be on his way out. It isn’t 100% certain Blanco will be back. Diego Chara will be, of course, in vintage form so long as no one destroys the painting of him that weirdly seems to age slightly each year.

Anyway, Valeri may not be around for the Timbers. And although his role diminished in 2021, that’s still a major piece to replace. On top of that, Portland need to find a way to do more than merely ride good luck. They’ve led the league in outperforming their expected goal differential each of the last two seasons. That just can’t be sustainable ... unless it is. I’ve literally been proven wrong about this for two whole years now.

Real Salt Lake logo
Real Salt Lake

To find even more human spirit

Manager Pablo Mastroeni famously said “stats will lose to the human spirit every day” during his Colorado coaching days. It was incredible. But at Real Salt Lake, with a roster still built on one of the league's thriftier budgets, it may take even more of that spirit to keep earning results for an entire season.

To keep finding the best version of themselves

Manager Matias Almeyda is back for what could be one last ride. And although they didn’t make the playoffs last year, the San Jose Earthquakes did move toward a tactical philosophy that didn’t involve quite as much man-marking. At least for a little bit. I saw it happen, I swear. And the results were at least less dramatic even if they weren’t totally improved. Maybe that shift to the practical should continue this year. It might be for the best ...

But also way less fun. GO OUT TRYING TO FLY TO THE SUN, MATIAS!

Oh, and Chris Wondolowski is gone. That’s a big deal. But I kind of already did the same thing for Portland and Diego Valeri. I think they’ll be fine. The other New Year’s resolution should just be to get the ball to Cade Cowell.

Seattle Sounders FC logo
Seattle Sounders FC

To live a healthier lifestyle

If they stay healthy, Seattle Sounders FC are easily the favorites in the West. That’s the whole thing. They probably would have won it this year if they weren’t totally broken for significant chunks of the season. But Jordan Morris is back in full now and they have a whole offseason to not get hurt. Just keep not getting hurt. It’s that simple for Seattle.

Sporting Kansas City logo
Sporting Kansas City

To rethink their fitness regimen

It wasn’t dramatic, but Sporting Kansas City kind of faded down the stretch and didn’t have enough to make it through the playoffs. The regular season is great and all, but it might be time to rethink how they approach it. Remember, the playoffs are an important thing in MLS. There’s no reason to burn yourself out too early or give bloggers a chance to feed into the narrative that you keep doing that.

Whether it’s a definitive truth that SKC are overrunning themselves or an out-of-control narrative or somewhere in between – it’s always somewhere in between – they’ve simply had too much regular-season success to suffer more playoff disappointment. Whatever options out there could help change things should probably be explored.

Toronto FC logo
Toronto FC

To learn parkour

Y’all ever see that parkour move where people fall from like 30 feet and you think they’re about to break every bone in the lower leg but then they do that tuck and roll thing and just sprint out of the fall? That’s what Toronto FC are trying to do here. Except the fall is from closer to 100 feet and they’re trying to do a quadruple backflip out of the roll.

They might just pull it off. It sure seems like Lorenzo Insigne is on his way to Toronto for an absolute ton of money. And Bob Bradley is already there as head coach and sporting director. As astonishingly miserable as 2021 was for the Reds, it sure seems like, once again, throwing loads of money at the problem is a phenomenal option if you have that choice. We’ll just have to see if it’s enough to solve all of their problems.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC logo
Vancouver Whitecaps FC

To believe in Vanni

Give manager Vanni Sartini whatever he wants. Literally anything, Vancouver Whitecaps FC. The world is a better place when Vanni has whatever players, resources, anything he wants. Vanni rules. Please, please, please give Vanni everything. This is going to be so much fun.