Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Midseason grades: Progress report for Western Conference teams so far 

We’re officially past the midway point of the season in terms of total games played in the 2022 regular season, and 27 of the 28 teams in MLS have played at least half their schedule (c’mon, D.C., please keep up), which means it's time to hand out some midseason grades across the length and breadth of MLS.

Bear in mind I'm factoring in Cup play (US Open CupConcacaf Champions League and/or Canadian Championship), off-the-field stuff and just baseline expectations as well. If you want to know who the best teams are, just look at the standings. If you want to know who's having the best year, I've got you covered below.

The East was Wednesday; here’s the West. In we go!

I talk a lot about linear, year-over-year improvement. And by that I mean something like what we’ve seen in Montréal – where a coach in his first year lays down a tactical framework, puts pieces in place (some new, some used) to execute it and does well. Then in the next year, they do almost everything 10 or 15% better, and because of that, they go from a mid-table team to one that’s solidly in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs race.

From a certain point of view, Austin’s shown linear improvement themselves. They are using largely the same players to execute upon largely the same exact framework Josh Wolff laid down in his first season.

Only they’re not 10 or 15% better. Austin’s more like 35 or 40% better at just about everything than they were last year, and their improvement is linear in the sense that a line pointing almost straight up is, in fact, linear.

Anyway, you could see what Wolff was trying to build last year. You can see them executing on it at a very high level this year.

What they could’ve done better: They really seem to have missed badly on the Jhojan Valencia signing, though Danny Pereira’s development into arguably the best young d-mid in MLS has cushioned that particular blow.

One note is that the advanced numbers tend not to like them as much as the eye test does, or as the table does. That usually ends up mattering in the end.

The good vibes from last year are long gone. Colorado have been less effective at controlling play through midfield, less effective at generating goals off of set pieces, and less effective at just keeping the ball out of their own net. This team won on the margins last year, and at the same time got significant steps forward from a lot of their marginal players.

This year they’re losing on the margins, and most of the players who took a step forward last year have taken a step backward this season. Auston Trusty and Lalas Abubakar at the back, Jonathan Lewis up top, Mark-Anthony Kaye in the middle… none of those guys are as good as they were a season ago.

Add in injuries to Jack Price and Danny Wilson and underperformance from new additions like Gyasi Zardes and Max, and it’s been a tough 2022.

What they could’ve done better: They sat tight this winter and then actually subtracted from the roster (Cole Bassett was loaned and then Kellyn Acosta was traded) instead of building up from the strengths of last year’s side.

So last year’s team was just deeper and more dynamic than what this year’s version – which can only really attack in transition at this point – has proved to be.

Nico Estevez, in one offseason, changed Dallas from a team that seemed to figure out a way to let every single game get away from them, to one that probably puts more emphasis on pitch control and mastery of rhythm than anybody else in the league.

If you’re a complete tactics nerd you’ve probably enjoyed seeing this. I, myself, mostly like it because it’s distinct – nobody else in MLS plays quite like Dallas under Estevez, who don’t get vertical other than off-ball runs in behind (which are primarily made to open up space for Jesus Ferreira underneath), and who don’t really press (even though they have the personnel to be really good at it, and even though I suspect Estevez is saving their legs to unleash a surprise press when the weather cools), and even though they often need an engraved invitation to consider shooting.

They want control of the ball, and they want control of the game, and they are willing to sacrifice chances to blow the game open in order to achieve that. Given their spot in the standings, it’s mostly been worth it.

What they could’ve done better: I think they just need to find a better balance between game control and risk-taking. Right now their frankly incredible degree of risk aversion is costing them points, as it did this weekend in their 1-1 draw to Inter Miami CF.

The new owners, the new GM, the new coaching staff… they’re all clearly trying to fix a bunch of the stuff that’s been broken with this team for a while. But it’s clearly going to take more than one window worth of tearing the old foundations down – in truth it’ll probably take more than three windows. There’s not a ton on this roster that you can point at and say “that is something to build around.”

But they have at least made a couple of expensive signings in Sebastian Ferreira and Hector Herrera. Guys like that wouldn’t have been a part of the Dynamo’s plans in earlier iterations.

Still, it feels like this is going to take a while to fix.

What they could’ve done better: While Ferreira’s been decent, neither of their other imports this winter (winger Thiago Rodrigues and right back Zeca) have been at all effective. Zeca, in fact, might be the worst defensive fullback in the league.

They had one of the best offseasons of anybody in the league by going out and addressing their MLS experience deficit. Via free agency signings and trades they acquired more than 1,000 games worth of MLS run, adding four starters – Kellyn Acosta, Ilie Sanchez, Ryan Hollingshead and Maxime Crepeau – in the process.

And so they’ve become less spectacular and more solid. They’re up in their usual spot amongst the best in the league as per the underlying numbers, and are pairing that with a sort of ruthless knowhow that eluded this team over the past couple of years.

All of the above has allowed them to survive injury-hit seasons from Carlos Vela, Brian Rodriguez and Chicho Arango, as well as a serious regression from Latif Blessing.

They are, in short, winning the types of games they would have drawn or lost each of the past two years. It hasn’t always been pretty, but it’s been effective.

What they could’ve done better: LAFC should be pretty! I’ll admit I bear something of a grudge against them for not being as ambitious in how they play as they were in their first four years of existence.

But the bigger issue now is that I’m not sure all these high-profile pieces are going to fit snugly with what’s been working so well. Where, for example, does Gareth Bale line up? Is his arrival going to move Vela to a false 9, and Arango – who’s been the team’s best attacker – to the bench? Have they given up on developing Brian Rodriguez? Who is Giorgio Chiellini going to move to the bench?

I get why they signed these guys and why at least one more big name is probably coming, but the more they add, the less certain I am it’s going to work.

Just watching them, it’s clear they’ve taken a pretty significant step forward in terms of their structure and solidity over last season. In 2021 they spent a lot of time dancing on the razor’s edge, playing wide-open soccer because they had no ability to clamp it down and win the game playing in any other style. It caught up to them.

This season they seem more in control of games and have been so irrespective of the formation Greg Vanney’s trotted out. This is showing up in the advanced numbers, most of which really like how the Galaxy are performing.

Raheem Edwards and Mark Delgado were low-key two of the best signings anybody made this offseason.

What they could’ve done better: Douglas Costa was high-key maybe the worst? I didn’t think he’d flop this hard, but he’s been a net negative. Add that to the lack of progress shown from Kevin Cabral, Samuel Grandsir and Efra Alvarez, and Vanney’s grand plan to play a 4-2-3-1 has gone up in smoke.

They’ve clearly – clearly clearly clearly!!! – been much better playing two up top. Vanney finally seems to be caving to that reality. Where would they be if he’d seen the light in March or April?

Also, I docked them a half-letter grade for falling on their faces in the Open Cup against USL Championship side Sacramento Republic. Vanney was right to lash into his team after that one.

It’s been underwhelming, hasn’t it? Granted, the Loons have been hit by more than their fair share of injuries, with Hassani Dotson (knee) and Roman Metanire (thigh) being the two most significant. Losing guys like that for essentially the whole season is tough for any team. For one that has never had a lot of depth, and doesn’t put much stock in their academy to build said depth, it’s been pretty rough.

But they’re still afloat because they’ve got Emanuel Reynoso and Robin Lod in attack, Michael Boxall in defense and especially Dayne St. Clair in goal. The big Canadian was, up until the return from the Concacaf Nations League break, having one of the best seasons of any ‘keeper in MLS history, and that had been enough to keep this team within touching distance of the playoff race.

That’s nowhere near as good as they were supposed to be on paper, but they’ve got everything left to play for.

What they could’ve done better: I think maybe they’d ask for a do-over on the winter window, as Luis Amarilla has proved to be just a part-time starter, and most of the other signings have been depth pieces, save for the now-injured Kervin Arriaga (ankle).

In short, there is no magic in this team beyond Bebelo, and everyone they’re facing knows as much.

It’s all just exactly the same, isn’t it? Except they don’t seem to be trying quite so hard. And that’s not great for a team without a ton of ways to win games beyond trying really hard.

I don’t think it’d be fair to be disappointed in a side that’s above the playoff line and remains really, really hard to beat. But I don’t blame any Nashville fans for being less than thrilled with what they’ve seen, either.

What they could’ve done better: I’m happy for Walker Zimmerman in getting a full-on DP contract, but what if they’d kept him on that max TAM salary, kept the DP slot open and been able to trade for Alejandro Pozuelo? Putting Poz as a 10 with Hany Mukhtar as second forward and C.J. Sapong up top… that team’s got plenty of ways to hurt you, even if Ake Loba spends his whole Nashville career as a disappointment.

Another group of fans who are probably less than thrilled with what they’ve seen from their side this year, you knew the Timbers were going to struggle out of the gates given the injuries to Sebastian Blanco, Eryk Williamson, Larrys Mabiala and, eventually, Felipe Mora.

And true to form, it’s been a struggle. All of those guys have returned to one degree or another, but I think it’s fair to say that none of the four have returned to their previous respective levels (though Williamson’s second half this past weekend at Nashville suggests he might only be a week away from looking like a Best XI-caliber No. 8 on a fulltime basis, which would certainly be a nice way to start the second half of this season for Portland).

So it’s all been a little bit less than good, and they find themselves a little bit below the playoff line. An extra dollop of bad news is that they’ve already played 19 games, which is tied for the most in the West. So they don’t have a ton of margin for error.

What they could’ve done better: In retrospect, it seems like moving past Blanco and building around a younger, healthier No. 10 would’ve been the right call, doesn’t it? I respect that Portland wanted to hang on for one more year with a guy who’s meant to his club what Blanco has and who gave as much during last year’s push to the MLS Cup final as Blanco did. Still, even though his per-90 boxscore numbers are good, he hasn’t been anywhere near as influential on a minute-to-minute basis.

It looks like age and injuries may have finally caught up with the 34-year-old.

RSL meme -Doyle

No DPs until recently, but they’ve got the highest xDawg in the league.

What they could’ve done better: I think maybe the only thing I can criticize RSL for at this point is failing to sell David Ochoa this past winter before his value tanked. I have to assume he won’t be there much longer, which is a shame given his successful path through the academy.

If I was just grading their performance under Alex Covelo I’d probably have them at a B+. But I’m not – the first seven games under Matias Almeyda, in which they went a very predictable 0W-4L-3D, count, as does ownership’s decision to keep Almeyda (who was clearly trying to get fired) on over the winter. If they’d just bitten the bullet at that point and hired Covelo (or any normal coach), then they’d probably be in a playoff spot today.

Instead they’re closer to the Wooden Spoon, with just 18 points through 17 games. It’s disappointing.

The thing is, though, if you’re a Quakes fan you have to be encouraged about what you’ve seen under Covelo. Jeremy Ebobisse has blossomed into a Golden Boot presented by Audi threat, and Cristian Espinoza looks like a borderline Best XI-caliber winger. Jamiro Monteiro is having his best year since 2020, while Cade Cowell, Benji Kikanovic and most of the youngish defenders are coming along nicely.

I don’t know what it means to be disappointed and optimistic at the same time. I guess that’s a C.

What they could’ve done better: I’ll just rehash my first paragraph here: I think they’re a playoff team if they’d parted ways with Almeyda this winter.

They went out and did this:

And then their post-CCL hangover lasted precisely one game. Since then, Seattle are 6W-2L-1D and are still picking up wins despite having lost Joao Paulo for the season while juggling injuries to absences of the likes of Raul Ruidiaz, Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Xavier Arreaga, Obed Vargas, Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris.

Nobody else could’ve done this.

What they could’ve done better: lol

I don’t think there are more than a couple of teams in the league that could lose their DP No. 9 and their DP No. 10 for the season and be fine. Sporting have proved this year that they are not one of those select few.

Those injuries were obviously killer, but beyond that it’s pretty clear there aren’t many (any?) folks on this roster playing at their necessary level, be it for reasons of injury (lots have been dinged up), age (guys like Roger Espinoza, Graham Zusi, Andreu Fontas and especially Tim Melia have been showing their mileage) or “other” (a bunch of these signings might just not be very good), it’s all come undone.

The only reason this isn’t an F is because they’re one game from reaching the US Open Cup final. They deserve a lot of credit for making a deep run like this while the regular season has fallen apart around them.

What they could’ve done better: Like I said, most of their recent imports have been busts. It’s also been almost a decade since they turned a draft pick into a high-level contributor, and it’s been years since they clearly won an intraleague trade or made what proved to be a savvy intraleague acquisition.

It feels like they need a complete reassessment of their talent ID and integration protocols.

From late February to the end of April: 1W-6L-1D, -11 goal differential. Since then: 6W-2L-2D, +2 goal differential.

The ‘Caps are still not playing great soccer, and a lot of these wins have been cobbled together with the same xDawg approach that’s worked for RSL. But Vanni Sartini’s gotten actual DP productivity out of Lucas Cavallini, has gotten Cody Cropper to play like an honest-to-goodness No. 1 option in goal, and has kept pulling the right levers with his lineups and subs even as he’s lost players to injury, international absence and illness (the latter being the reason, I am told, for several players performing at something less than the level they showed down the stretch last year).

All of it adds up to a team just two points below the playoff line and with real reasons to think that the second half of the season will be significantly better given the addition of Andres Cubas and a little bit of the same magic that drove them down the stretch last year.

What they could’ve done better: Getting Cubas this winter would’ve been a game-changer, as would a more clear-eyed assessment of the actual defensive weaknesses of the selection of wingbacks on hand.