It’s about to get busy, people.
Midweek matchdays have officially arrived, not to mention the U-20 World Cup that kicks off later this month with 14 MLS players on Mikey Varas’ US team.
Now, we’ve already tasted some of the busyness that comes with an increasingly full soccer calendar. Senior national team call-ups, US Open Cup/Canadian Championship games and Concacaf Champions League play have forced teams across the league to dig deeper down their depth charts. There's also the month-long Leagues Cup pause this summer. But with midweek league games coming up in three of the next seven weeks, things are about to get even crazier.
While every team will face unique challenges as we head into the summer, which ones are best positioned to combat fixture congestion? Let’s dive in.
There’s an element of subjectivity when it comes to picking the “deepest” MLS teams – the ones that will be able to thrive even when games come at them thick and fast.
You can’t just say the teams using the most players are the best-prepared teams. Sure, that idea satisfies the literal definition of “deep," but it doesn’t satisfy the idea that to be a truly good team, you need something more than bodies ready to sub in off the bench. You need quality depth. You need capable players that can play at a level that roughly resembles your starting group. That’s where the subjectivity comes into play. Because those rotational pieces don’t often see a lot of game time, it can be hard to tell if one team’s bench is better than another’s bench.
Well, at least it can be hard to tell for teams that aren’t LAFC.
The roster that co-president/general manager John Thorrington has assembled is a no-brainer pick here, mostly because they’ve already dealt with a busy calendar this year…and they’re excelling. In 17 games across MLS play, CCL and the US Open Cup, LAFC have lost just twice. They also have the second-best expected goal differential in all of MLS (+0.65 per 90, according to FBref).
Head coach Steve Cherundolo has done an excellent job of rotating his squad during this first stretch of the season. Dénis Bouanga, Carlos Vela, Kwadwo Opoku, Stipe Biuk and Mateusz Bogusz fight for three spots in the frontline every game. Kellyn Acosta, Timothy Tillman and José Cifuentes fight for two No. 8 spots. There’s been rotation across the backline, too. LAFC are still missing an out-and-out No. 9, and they could use more quality in central midfield. But this is clearly a very talented squad.
They’ll continue to weather the storm. We already know they can do it (and they have an open Young DP slot).
Speaking of teams that have weathered storms, the Seattle Sounders deserve recognition for how they’ve dealt with a number of key absences during the early stages of the season.
Raúl Ruidíaz? He’s missed time. Nouhou? He’s missed time. Cristian Roldan? He’s missed time. Obed Vargas? He’s at the U-20 World Cup. The list keeps going beyond those four. And yet? The Sounders are on top of the Western Conference. They have the best xGD per 90 in MLS this year, according to FBref. They have one of the two best attacks in the league based on non-penalty xG per 90 (1.62) and one of the three best defenses in the league based on non-penalty xG allowed per 90 (0.93).
With a group of versatile attackers, headlined by Jordan Morris and his ability to play any number of spots across the attacking line, plus a stable of quality midfielders, Seattle can change between shapes and personnel with relative ease. Albert Rusnák can step into the attacking line and open up a spot for Josh Atencio. Alex Roldan can shift over to left back to give Reed Baker-Whiting a runout. They can go to a back three with Nouhou. Brian Schmetzer has a ton of options.
As players start to return to fitness, they’ll be even more equipped to deal with the slate of games coming their way over the next six weeks.
One of these things is not like the first two…
Look, I know what you’re thinking. Joe, the Whitecaps have been fun this season. But do they really belong in this conversation?
I say yes! But before I explain why, let me illustrate just how fun (and good) the Whitecaps have been so far in 2023. Per FBref, Vancouver have the fifth-best xGD per 90 in all of MLS (+0.49). They have an above-average defense based on xG allowed, but it’s the attack where they really shine. At this point in the season, the 'Caps are averaging more non-penalty xG per 90 than any team in MLS. That’s right. I said any team in MLS. Their 1.69 non-penalty xG per 90 figure is the best of the best right now.
How are they doing it? Well, Julian Gressel has been electric playing as a right-sided No. 8. He creates a ton for them in open-play and on set pieces. But it’s not just about Gressel pulling strings – here comes the depth talk, get ready folks.
The No. 9s have been sharing the load up top. Brian White and Simon Becher both have four goals this year on some strong underlying numbers. DP Sergio Córdova will start to impact games now that he’s back in action. In Ryan Gauld and Pedro Vite, head coach Vanni Sartini has two high-level No. 10s to work with. Then there’s Gressel (who can play in midfield or anywhere on the right wing), Ryan Raposo (who can play in both fullback spots), Mathías Laborda (who can play on the right side of the backline), and Javain Brown (who can play as a center back in a back three or as a right back in a back four).
They don’t have a perfect squad, but Vancouver have top-end talent in midfield and in the frontline. They also have versatility in the backline. Expect to see them pick up some important results over the next month and change.
I mentioned earlier that to survive the busy calendar, teams need reserve players who are capable of playing at a level that roughly resembles the starting group. If that idea doesn’t describe Nashville SC (at least at every outfield position other than the one occupied by one Mr. Hany Mukhtar), I don’t know what does.
Because head coach Gary Smith uses a fairly pragmatic style built on defensive compactness and transition play, Nashville can identify players using very clear profiles. They want hard workers. They want defensive ability at every position. And they want players who move off the ball to create space for Mukhtar in the attack.
When you look at their squad, it’s clear Nashville have found those players. Yes, there’s absolutely room for another high-level attacker (maybe a DP No. 9?). Given that Aké Loba is no longer on the books, it seems like there’s a chance that player could arrive in the summer. Still, even without another game-changer in the forward line, Nashville have the pieces to continue their 1.58 points per game pace.
Their compact approach minimizes the strain on their center backs, which means Nashville probably don’t lose as much when they go from Walker Zimmerman or Jack Maher to Lukas MacNaughton as you would expect. With Sean Davis, Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy, there’s veteran depth in midfield. Jacob Shaffelburg, Alex Muyl, Fafà Picault and Randall Leal fight for just a couple of spots ahead of every game.
Nashville’s ceiling is limited by their lack of star power outside of Mukhtar, but their floor is pretty darn high with their style and set of capable reserves.
The Primary Transfer Window came and went, and NYCFC didn’t sign a No. 9.
Like with Nashville, that missing attacking piece limits New York City’s ceiling. Still, their depth and quality at almost every other position should put Nick Cushing’s group in a position to differentiate themselves over the coming weeks. They may only be 10th in the East right now (though they’re level on points with four teams above them in the standings), but make no mistake: NYCFC have the players to climb up the table.
In James Sands, NYCFC have an exceedingly capable center back to eat up minutes behind Maxime Chanot and Thiago Martins. Tayvon Gray can also hang back as a third center back – or he can play as a more defensive right back behind Mitja Ilenic. There’s cover at left back, plus quality in midfield between Sands, Keaton Parks, Alfredo Morales, Richy Ledezma and Santiago Rodríguez. Those last two players can also contribute higher up the field in the attacking line, where Talles Magno, Gabriel Pereira and others are stationed.
Things have yet to fully click for NYCFC, but expect their roster build to earn some plaudits heading into the summer.
On the surface, this seems like another strange choice.
The New York Red Bulls’ position in the table doesn’t speak well to their depth – they’re sitting 14th in the East through 12 regular-season games. If they can’t deal with one game each week, why should we expect them to do a good job of handling an even busier stretch?
Well, for two reasons. First, they’re due for a rebound.
RBNY have the fourth-best xGD per 90 in all of MLS this year, according to FBref, with +0.50. They’ve been the best defensive team in MLS, allowing fewer chances per 90 than any other team in the league based on xG allowed. Even though the results haven’t been there for most of the season, the Red Bulls are doing some things well. They’re due for a regression to the mean over the coming weeks (we saw some of that last weekend in their unspectacular, but important 1-0 win over NYCFC in new head coach Troy Lesesne’s first MLS game in charge).
The second reason RBNY are well-equipped to deal with the next several weeks is because they really do have useful depth at a bunch of positions. The Red Bulls’ player recruitment process benefits from their defined, consistent style of play. With a clear eye towards hard-running, aggressive, forward-thinking players, RBNY have built a squad full of players who can thrive in several shapes.
They’re five-deep in central midfield and two-deep at both fullback spots. Cameron Harper can play 87 different positions, or thereabouts. And while none of their attackers, outside of the injured Lewis Morgan, are game-changers on their own, they have a group of serviceable attackers that should be strengthened with a summer signing.
RBNY won’t climb to the top of the East over the next six weeks, but they’ll be higher up in the table than they are today.