I’m a narrative guy. I bet I’ve started a column with that line before.
We’ve got plenty of narrative threads in 2020, and the rope they weave together is, in five words, professional soccer in a pandemic. A new competition in a bubble. A patchwork schedule. Toronto FC playing home games in Hartford, Connecticut. Injuries to the league’s biggest stars. This year is just weird, unprecedented and, ultimately, an asterisk of a season.
Yeah, I said it.
That ought not to take away from the many accomplishments and sacrifices. That ought not cheapen the trophies won and hoisted into the air. All that remains wildly impressive and admirable because it happened in times that are beyond challenging both personally and professionally. There won’t be asterisks in the record books, and there shouldn’t be. Nobody needs them. We’ll all just know: “Ah, see that happened in 2020. The league and the world was … something altogether unrecognizable then.” The asterisk is silent.
None of this makes the Supporters’ Shield any less real. It won’t make winning MLS Cup any less impressive. The Landon Donovan MLS MVP will still put that bad boy up on the mantel proudly. Clubs will still shuffle the deck and make major changes, both to the roster and perhaps the coaching staff, if their group fails to meet expectations. There are consequences. We've already seen that. There is silverware at stake. The competition matters.
Thus, the storylines matter, too. Here are four to watch as the 2020 regular season enters the stretch drive.
Who will win the Supporters’ Shield?
This race, barring a double collapse of epic proportions, comes down to two teams: Toronto FC and Philadelphia Union. Each have 41 points. Here is their schedule down the stretch, starting tonight…
- Toronto FC: vs. NYC, vs. MIA, at RBNY
- Philadelphia Union: vs. CHI, at CLB, vs. NE
Those schedules are not soft. I’d say the Reds have the easier path, but then Toronto also won’t actually play those home games in the 6ix. In normal times, I might also be tempted to say this particular Shield means more to the Union — first silverware in club history! — than their neighbors to the north, but Greg Vanney’s heated comments about what it means to the players sorta debunks that theory.
Nothing against Toronto, but I hope the Union win it. It’d be a fitting preamble to the end of Brenden Aaronson’s time in Philly (and maybe Mark McKenzie’s, too) and a just reward for the slow and steady build from mediocre soccer team to a sporting project the entire league can learn from. No matter who wins it, it’ll mean something extra special given the conditions and the fact that it was off the table just a week ago.
Will the Landon Donovan MLS MVP please stand up?
Alejandro Pozuelo is the odds-on MVP favorite. Who will contend with the Toronto FC star?| USA Today Sports
No, seriously. I usually have a decent read on these things (read: popularity contests), but it’s pretty murky this year outside Alejandro Pozuelo.
I’m still a big Pozuelo guy and I think he should win It if everything stays somewhat similar to present day, but I’m not 100 percent sure voters will follow me if Toronto FC don’t win the Supporters’ Shield. The problem is there’s not a clear favorite outside the Spaniard. Here’s a list of guys I think at least have a case, but also a major hole in their campaign.
Diego Rossi (LAFC) – I’m going to guess he’ll find a way to win the Golden Boot presented by Audi, but there’s very little hype (only three goals since Sept. 3) and a veteran teammate of his might just make a late run. No, I am not talking about Carlos Vela, though he ought to help both Rossi and Bradley Wright-Phillips’ cases.
Gyasi Zardes (CLB) – The Crew seem poised to be back to their pre-October ways thanks to the returns of Darlington Nagbe, Lucas Zelarayan and Eloy Room. It might just be too late for Zardes … and he probably isn’t even the team MVP.
Jordan Morris (SEA) – He’s been utterly dominant for long stretches of 2020, but at the wrong times for MVP voting #recencybias. Sorry, Tutul!
Nicolas Lodeiro (SEA) – He won’t get MVP love despite running himself into the ground for the Sounders, but maybe/finally a Best XI selection?! It's absolutely deserved.
Chris Mueller (ORL) – Quietly one of the most productive players in the league. He’s been #cash for Oscar Pareja and a big part of Orlando's first-ever playoff team, but he’s not going to win any popularity contests. I’ve tried to get the campaign going and crickets.
Walker Zimmerman (NSH) – Are Nashville a playoff team or anywhere close to it without Zimmerman? Maybe, 10 teams are going to make it from the Eastern Conference after all, but much more unlikely than where there odds currently sit. He’s been dominant on both sides of the field, and is the current favorite for Defender of the Year.
Someone on the Philadelphia Union – Can you win the Supporters’ Shield and fail to have even one agreed upon MVP candidate? Yes, that’s the Union in a nutshell. It’s not that nobody deserves a shout. It’s that the committee is so strong and the list so long that there’s no obvious chairman for voters to rally behind. They’re all highly valuable!
Alan Pulido (SKC) – He missed too much time because of injury and international duty to be considered, but Sporting are 7-2-1 with their No. 9 in the lineup and Pulido has six goals and four assists in those 10 matches. Had he played a full season, I think it’s very likely he’d be a favorite to win the award.
Carlos Vela is the elephant in the MLS Cup Playoffs room
I really thought 2020 was a wrap for Vela. I now know that was a bad assumption, and we know what those make of you and me. Now, and I know it’s just one 20-minute substitute appearance and one goal, it feels like 2020 might be LAFC’s opportunity to finish the job they started back in 2018. Let ‘em know, Calen Carr.
I’m not going to completely jinx it, but they’re a couple impressive performances away from being MLS Cup favorites. Alicia Rodriguez of SBNation came on Extratime to help us understand how Bob Bradley might manage his talisman. Her read was that Vela would be eased into things, and rightfully so given what happened the last time he came back from injury, what he means to the club and what a fit and motivated Vela would mean in the playoffs.
LAFC are home against Houston (likely win), away to San Jose (probable win, but more unpredictable) and home against Portland (toss up, with LAFC favored) to end the season. With a healthy Vela, Jesus Murillo in the fold to solidify the defense (again, it’s only been two games, but he looks the part), their wingers back from international duty, Eduard Atuesta in form again and Wright-Phillips there to pull teams apart with his movement, there’s not a team in the league that wants to see LAFC in a one-game, someone-is-going-home scenario.
Hell, forget all the other stuff if Vela is back at 80 percent or better. He is that devastating. And if Mark-Anthony Kaye can come back from that ankle injury too, watch out.
Miss the playoffs with an expanded field? Yikes!
Here’s my personal power rankings of clubs that ought to be mortified/soul-searching should they finish outside the expanded playoff field.
- LA Galaxy – Chicharito. Cristian Pavon. Jonathan dos Santos. Guillermo Barros Schelotto in charge. Dead last in the West. Can the project be salvaged or is this it?
- Inter Miami CF – Look at what Nashville are doing. Who’s the sexy expansion team now? It won’t be Miami if they can’t even finish top 10 in the East.
- Atlanta United – They’re already in the throes of introspection, or at least they should be. Can Josef Martinez fix this alone? Almost certainly not. Hiring the right manager is a start — rumors, where art thou? — but basically everyone took a step back in 2020. Who stays? Who goes? Who arrives to up the quality and consistency?
- Chicago Fire – This was supposed to be a glorious return to Soldier Field and a year of stability/success on the field. They may push their way into the field and make a run. They may not even play a playoff game. Given the offseason they had and the 10 postseason places available, the former would be very tough to swallow for the new technical staff.
- San Jose Earthquakes – If MLS goes to PPG for the Western Conference, the Quakes would be out as it currently stands. I love the unmitigated chaos as much as the next neutral, but the club is paying Matias Almeyda too much to 1) miss the playoffs when two-thirds of the conference gets in and 2) not invest in the squad to the level needed to fit the Argentine’s intense style. Will Almeyda stick around if they fall short? If he does, will San Jose up the ante a little bit?
- FC Cincinnati – How many more transfer windows until they’re competitive again? I kid, I kid. But for real? How many?
Long live the king (of Kansas City)
Peter Vermes is unmatched in his regular season consistency among MLS coaches.| USA Today Sports
Sporting KC director of communications Kurt Austin, a bonafide MLS stat savant, dropped this in my inbox this week. Even a pandemic can’t stop Peter Vermes’ from bagging double-digit dubs.
With Sporting’s 4-0 victory on Saturday, Peter Vermes has now won 10 or more regular season matches in each of his 11 full seasons as the club’s head coach. He’s the first coach in MLS history to win 10 or more regular season matches in 11 consecutive years (in fact, no coach had ever won 10 or more regular season matches in 10 consecutive years).
Longevity, consistency and competitiveness. Those three words sum up Vermes' time in Kansas City. He's found a way to keep his team in the hunt for a decade straight as the league changed rapidly. One last nugget ahead of tonight's match in Cincinnati.
Tonight, Vermes could become the first head coach in MLS history to make nine playoff appearances with a single club:
- Peter Vermes – 8 (SKC)
- Steve Nicol – 8 (NE)
- Bruce Arena – 8 (LA)
- Sigi Schmid – 7 (SEA)
- Dom Kinnear – 7 (HOU)
Soccer czar of Kansas City, indeed.