National Writer: Charles Boehm

MLS overreactions! Who’s different, who’s the same & why it matters


Coaches and players generally don’t like surprises on game day.

Nor do they enjoy admitting when any aspect of their opponent has surprised them in any sense, because it could call into question the extent of their preparations for the match, even if it’s a case of their adversary having an unexpected trick up their sleeve, or the natural unpredictability inherent to the opening weeks of a new season, especially in a league like MLS.

With that in mind, I found noteworthy the frank words of Gerardo “Tata” Martino after Inter Miami’s 1-1 draw at the LA Galaxy Sunday night, a fortunate road point for which he readily and accurately gave full credit to “the genius of Leo” Messi, scorer of a last-gasp, gut-punch equalizer.

“It's not that it surprised us a little, but it's clear that the two footballers, I think they arrived at the last minute, today they already played – the team is totally different,” said the Argentine manager of the Galaxy’s new attacking acquisitions Joseph Paintsil and Gabriel Pec.

“Because they have a good No. 9 [Dejan Joveljic] and they have two attacking wingers who are dangerous, both the Brazilian guy and this guy, I don't know if he played in Belgium, and then they were very solid defensively. I think they played a good game.”

Galaxy reinvention

Here a cynic might note that for combined transfer fees reportedly approaching $20 million, which is quite a spending spree in MLS, you’d darn well better get “totally different” very quickly. But that’s the beauty of the transfer market and the main reason it’s the drug of choice in the world’s elite leagues: It offers the promise of quick results and rapid turnarounds.

With that hefty injection of talent to a squad already blessed with playmaker Riqui Puig, U22 Initiative striker Joveljic and proven MLS contributors like Diego Fagundez and Mark Delgado under the leadership of Greg Vanney, a treble winner in 2017, the Gs aim to reload on the fly and skip past the much more sobering R word – rebuild.

Based on their marked overall superiority against an admittedly jetlagged Miami, it might just work, especially in attack.

"I'm really excited about this group because I think we have, for the first time, a really nice balance between guys who want to play in between the lines and guys who want to play and go to goal and get behind and take people on one-on-one," Vanney said post-match at Dignity Health Sports Park.

"Your team always has to have balance. You can't have a bunch of guys who want to come and get the ball at their feet. You have to have guys who want to run and want to play on the run and play on the move. Having a player like Riqui, who can skate through spaces and can get to the next line, having guys who can run is going to benefit him. It's going to benefit Dejan. It's going to benefit the whole team.

"I'm excited about it because it's going to be tough for teams to clog up the middle of the field on us, because that's what everybody did when they came here in the past or played us last year. Just create against density in the middle of the field and see if wings can actually beat you. Now we can beat you on the wings, and that's what I feel like we're going to be. Now you have to make a decision. You have to defend the full width of the field, and that's going to open up real opportunities for everybody."

Adapt and thrive

FC Dallas splashed some cash this winter as well, and while big-ticket signing Petar Musa hasn't debuted yet, Nico Estévez implemented a new formation to maximize the Croatian striker’s impact in tandem with the North Texans’ existing weapons. It’s a 3-4-2-1 built around flying wingbacks and a sort of box midfield, and if you’ve heard MLS called a copycat league, yes, there’s a lot of Columbus Crew-iness at work there.

SuperDraft rookie Logan Farrington is the Musa stand-in for now, though the heroes of Saturday’s last-minute comeback home win over San Jose were classy Spanish box-to-box craftsman Asier Illarramendi and young wingback Dante Sealy, suggesting that Estevez’s switch can unlock some incumbent pieces in addition to the new guy.

It would be a far bigger gamble for a team competing in Concacaf Champions Cup to try what the Galaxy or FCD are doing, given the unique pressure it carries of playing high-stakes matches in the opening weeks of your season. And certainly not everyone can splash out on elite, field-ready starters like the Galaxy just did.

STL way

Hence the approach often characterized as the opposite end of the spectrum: A team-is-the-star collective under a firmly established philosophical ethos, like we see in Philadelphia and St. Louis, where high pressing and direct play is engineered to elevate a whole into much more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that those two sides won their CCC first legs and need only hold serve this week to move on to the next round of the continental tournament, while checking the minimum box of avoiding defeat in league play at the weekend.

Intensity remains CITY SC’s watchword, and when you hear Bradley Carnell speak, he’s much more apt to talk about the presence of that as decisive in their results than the personnel on the pitch.

“We feel we have a very good, sort of, principal-based team,” said Carnell in Houston on Monday. “We define ourselves by our non-negotiables, and usually when there’s two different, contrasting styles, when those non-negotiables are really that strong, it can be tough to play against.”

Philly standard

Undoubtedly, STL have built their club this way due in no small part to the Union’s ballin’on-a-budget success along those same lines. And despite months of talk about Philly’s current group reaching the end of their cycle together, they’ve somehow managed to keep hold of almost everyone who made them the nearly-men of MLS over the past half-decade – and that might just make them the league’s best hope in CCC.

“I know that's the very popular thing to say, but why wouldn't you keep together a great group of players, and try to obviously add as we go along?” Union boss Jim Curtin told me during preseason. “So the core is still together, the core that’s had the highest amount of points in the last five years, which is something we're proud of. We think we have a great club and I think we've built a real identity and foundation.

“But in order to become now a championship club, I think we now have to lift MLS Cup. That's the ultimate thing that we're going to be judged by. I think everybody understands that. That's our expectation as well. It's kind of the gift and the curse, right? We're at a point where anything less than going to another final and getting a trophy is considered a failure.”

Nashville DNA

Which brings us, finally, to Nashville SC, whose vanilla 0-0 stalemate with the New York Red Bulls at GEODIS Park on Sunday served up troubling signs of the stagnation that can set in when ideological consistency gets cranked up a little too high for a little too long (granted DP forwards Hany Mukhtar and Sam Surridge were out injured).

The Coyotes built the highest, sturdiest floor of any modern expansion project, qualifying for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs with regularity on the back of a rugged rearguard, and even reaching last year’s Leagues Cup final. But their persistent inability to enliven the attack – which everyone acknowledges is pivotal to making the next step forward as a club – now spans across several strikers and the presence of a perennial MVP candidate in the magical Mukhtar.

“If you look at the foundations of what we have achieved at this point, there’s some really good things going on. So I’m not tearing up a page here,” said longtime head coach Gary Smith last month. “If I change wholesale what this team has achieved and where we’ve been and what we’ve done and some of the stats and the qualities of the group, then that would be silly of me.”

He’s not totally off base there, it’s true. And Sunday was just one game, against a frustratingly direct pressing adversary. But Smith’s tendencies seem to be getting just a bit too familiar for the gold-clad faithful in Music City, who are crying out for a speedier pace of evolution.