The headline says it all. I wrote this same column last February, and I think I largely hit the nail on the head, though I’ll let you be the final judge.
**pats self on back vigorously**
Anyway, it’s not 2020 anymore, but good #content ideas live on. In case the headline wasn’t clear enough, this list is 10 MLSers for whom 2021 is a huge year. Huge is defined by the stakes at play, both individually and collectively. I split the list evenly between Eastern and Western Conferences. No bias here!
Inevitably, I missed someone. That’s the thing about lists. They’re finite. As always, let’s discuss my choices and who I overlooked on Twitter, where I’m always available to talk soccer, children’s books that make me cry, why grackles are the bullies of the bird world or anything else that makes life a little more entertaining.
I tried to tell the USMNT haters chorus (AKA folks who don’t watch or rate MLS). Maybe now, after two well-taken goals against Jamaica, they’ll listen.
There is a reason Lletget is one of Gregg Berhalter’s standbys. He does everything asked of a central midfielder better than most. He is consistently reliable and often spectacular. If not for injuries and managers who didn’t rate him at West Ham, he might be a five-year Premier League veteran who doesn’t need to convince anyone of his quality. Alas, that wasn’t to be.
I can tell you one thing, though: his peers in MLS don’t have any questions about whether he’s a baller or not. Superb balance. Crafty ball retention. The burst and footwork to eliminate defenders on his own. The vision to do the same with a pass. Clean in and around the 18-yard box. He runs. He harries. He tackles. He’s one of the best two-way midfielders in our league.
Lletget is squarely in his prime, and this is his time. His time to lead the Galaxy out of the doldrums and back to glory (or close to it). Greg Vanney will lean hard on the 28-year-old. His time to help the United States reclaim their place in Concacaf, but also show the world what Americans can do. His time to continue building the case he ought to be at a World Cup in a little less than two years.
The story this preseason isn’t whether the Dutch attacker likes fast-food spaghetti with chili ladled on top of it. It’s whether Locadia will have access to said gut bomb for long, and if so, under what circumstances.
I used “attacker” to describe the 27-year-old because it doesn’t seem like he’s going to be the point of the attack for Jaap Stam, nor should he be after last year’s struggles (1 G in 17 games) and the big-money signing of Brenner.
Fun is good. Maybe now that the pressure is off a little bit — and, in theory, FC Cincinnati is more stable as an organization and therefore/hopefully better — Locadia will play up to his reputation. Then again, maybe that reputation, mostly developed coming up on a decade ago at PSV, isn’t representative of reality. Maybe he is just inconsistent and, mostly, unproductive.
Maybe not, though! That’s on Locadia to prove the narrative right or wrong in 2021. His play will decide his future, inside or outside MLS.
SIDE NOTE: Why doesn’t Locadia play for Curacao? He can make the switch from the Netherlands, for which he never made a senior national team appearance. C’mon Guus, make the call. That’d add some extra spice to Concacaf World Cup qualifying and the Gold Cup.
I love that Busio wanted the 10 shirt. I love that Peter Vermes gave it to him. I love this quote, from early March, that came out of the mouth of an 18-year-old American attacking midfielder.
"I think the first two years I've been playing, it was just more of me being a young guy and getting on the field and scoring a goal every once in a while. [With] those years of experience for me already, I want to step up this year and really put the team on my back…
"I want to score a lot of goals and get assists and I guess that's what No. 10s usually do. I've been working on my attacking a lot more. Like I said earlier, the No. 10 has to be scoring goals and getting assists so it feels big for me, this offseason, just to focus a lot on that final pass or that last goal."
Again, this is an 18-year-old American now-No. 10. Hell. Yes.
But also, the number and the words put pressure on Busio to deliver. That’s how it should be, of course, but it’s not always how it works out. He’s got six goals and six assists in 50 appearances over three seasons. That’s a good foundation, but it’s certainly not elite (or even average) No. 10 production.
There’s also a real question about starter minutes. Felipe Gutierrez isn’t returning to Sporting KC, but there’s still going to be a battle for minutes. Gadi Kinda can play the 10, and Roger Espinoza, Remi Walter, and Ilie Sanchez are all more veteran options in Vermes’ three-man midfield. Busio has to not only win a job, but produce once on the field. A big year indeed.
Phil Neville is a manager in Major League Soccer. I repeat, Phil Neville is a manager in Major League Soccer. I know it’s real, but it sorta feels fake.
He’s done the job in a World Cup, but never at club level, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention brief stints as an assistant with Manchester United and Valencia. Point is, he’s doing this particular job for the first time, and there will be a lot of eyes on Inter Miami in 2021.
This isn’t a “show signs of progress and we’ll be happy job.” It’s a “we signed Gonzalo Higuain, Rodolfo Pizarro, Blaise Matuidi and dropped millions on Argentine prospects to win now” job. So can Neville win now in a league and soccer culture in which he has zero experience? If he does, that’ll be a job very well done.
Unlike Neville, Wolff has been preparing to be an MLS head coach for his entire soccer life. As a player, as an assistant coach and, for the past year-and-a-half, specifically to be Austin FC’s first manager. It’s got to feel good for him to hit the training field and start to do it instead of just preparing for it.
The squad he’s got at his disposal appears to be quite good, and there is room, under the salary cap and roster designations, for the group to get even better. The narrative around Wolff is that he’s from the Gregg Berhalter school — after all, he spent years as a Crew and USMNT assistant — but it’s time to show what a Josh Wolff team looks like and plays like.
The opportunity in front of him is huge. The project looks promising. Austin is ready for their team, and the Q2 Stadium deserves soccer that’s better than just alright. Will the team be that? How will they progress from preseason to Decision Day and, hopefully, beyond? It’s time to make a first impression and for Wolff to step into his identity as the head man.
Reputation and price tag don’t always equal production. It’s time for Barco to start balancing that equation.
Talent is not the problem, and Frank de Boer’s style of play is no longer an excuse. Gabriel Heinze ought to be able to connect with and get the most from his countryman, who remains a big-time talent in Argentina’s youth national teams despite his career trajectory flattening out in Atlanta.
Barco turns 22 on March 29. Happy birthday, Ezequiel, you’re no longer a young player. You’re a player expected to return Atlanta United to the lofty heights that seemed like they’d last forever prior to 2020 and attract significant transfer interest. You’re expected to be a star.
Last year, this spot belonged to Brenden Aaronson, who had question marks about his production in the final third before last season and ended up winning a Supporters’ Shield, making the Best XI and earning a huge move to Red Bull Salzburg, where he’s thrived under Jesse Marsch and shown well when called into the national team.
Bassett has fewer questions about his production (5 G, 5 A in 982 minutes in 2020). He clearly has a knack for arriving in the box at the right time and choosing the right finishing technique. He drops deep to connect play, but he also has the final ball in his locker. The next step is doing all the work in and around the box while being a physical presence (and staying healthy) for a full season.
So why is this year huge? Because if he keeps doing what he’s doing, there might be an Aaronson-esque move coming. The Rapids want to sell players, in particular Homegrowns, and Bassett can help set the market. Interest doesn’t seem to be the issue, rather the numbers around the commas.
“We’ve had offers for Cole in the past from European clubs, but we didn’t feel they matched our valuation for Cole," Rapids GM & EVP Padraig Smith told MLSsoccer.com’s Tom Bogert last year.
Maybe they will in 2021.
Dos Santos is, by all accounts, an intelligent, driven and experienced manager. He’s been successful everywhere he’s been, both as an assistant and head coach. That has not yet translated to the Whitecaps, which is not solely his fault by any stretch of the imagination. There was some baggage, let’s say, to get past in Vancouver and a squad to build.
But the past must stay in the past, along with three straight years out of the playoff field. Now, it’s all about the future. We just did the Vancouver Whitecaps season preview on Extratime driven by Continental Tire. What I say here is basically going to be a summation of that conversation, but here it goes anyway, first via haiku.
A 10 is one thing
How about some consistency?
No playoffs, then what?
The chase for a Designated Player No. 10 is out of Dos Santos’ control. What is in his control is the way the team plays from week to week. What identity, approach and XI can get the results necessary to move forward? It’s time to figure that out, or it’ll be another year sans a sniff at the postseason.
All the things I said about Lletget and the World Cup apply here. Right now, it seems Long is a first-choice starter (or darn close to it) in Gregg Berhalter’s eyes. He’s certainly got the talent to hold on to that spot through Qatar 2022, but that’ll depend on form, for club and country.
For club, 2020 was a forgettable year, so we might as well just forget it. There were extenuating circumstances. A pandemic and coaching change, for one. A transfer saga that ended without a EPL move, for another. Long also became a father, which can throw previous life rhythms into disarray.
I still think he’s a Best XI/Defender of the Year favorite, and Gerhard Struber is going to lean on him like Gary Smith and Nashville SC did with Walker Zimmerman to establish the right culture and model of play with the Red Bulls. Remember, Long thrived under Jesse Marsch’s tutelage and within his all-out press. I expect 2021 to return the 28-year-old to the ranks of MLS’s elite center backs.
That’d be good news for the USMNT, too. For all the dreaming about the World Cup, we still have to, you know, qualify. Long could be a protagonist in that quest.