It has been the longest offseason in years but we are finally, this week, turning the page. That's right, preseason is beginning!
In accordance with past tradition, it's time to start rolling out my usual slate of preseason preview content. The first of these, as usual, will be "one big question for each team as preseason begins."
Note that this is just A big question, not necessarily THE big question. Though in some cases it can, in fact, be THE big question, even if we didn't know it at the time.
The Western Conference list of Qs was published on Monday. The East is below.
Away we go...
A Big Question:How much does Michael Bradley have left in the tank?
Age eventually comes for everyone. Age + injury + an ungodly amount of minutes over the course of a 17-year-career? That takes a toll, which has become more and more apparent over the past two years for Bradley. Things got ugly at times in 2020:
That was before he missed six weeks with an injury, mind you. When he came back for the stretch run he was even less mobile.
Bradley can still ping a pass as well as almost anybody in the league and his game-reading is still exceptional, but he needs 1) real defensive help when he does play, and 2) to not be a 90-minute player every week. Maybe not even to be a starter every week, to be honest, because the dude is just wearing a target at this point.
One thing I keep kicking around in my head: does it make more sense to move Bradley upfield as a box-arriving free 8 these days? You don't need to be fast or athletic to do that job well, you just need to be smart, and Bradley is still that. It could be a way of leveraging his strengths while minimizing his age-inflicted weaknesses.
A Big Question:Can Anthony Fontana fill Brenden Aaronson's shoes?
- Anthony Fontana with Philly Union II: 1 goal in 3,425 minutes across 49 games
- Anthony Fontana with Philly Union: 10 goals in 836 minutes across 34 games
There are a lot of "plays better when surrounded by better players" out there, but I can't think of anyone who's a better example of that than the 21-year-old Fontana. The kid was a non-factor in the box over thousands of minutes in the USL, but any time he's out there surrounded by MLS players, he becomes a weapon. His goalscoring played a major hand in getting the Union last year's Supporters' Shield, and he showed a Wondo-esque ability to make defenders forget he exists. That, in turn, made him big in big moments.
He has, I'm assuming, a chance to ear a bigger role and more minutes now that Aaronson has moved on, and likely at the spot — the No. 10 — that Aaronson vacated.
But understand that, Fontana plays the position in a different way. While Aaronson was always pushing the opposing backline off the ball and trying to make penetrating runs, Fontana has been much more about finding soft spots in between the lines and away from the defense. While Aaronson could be visionary with his passing, Fontana has always been much more functional and rudimentary (he has a grand total of two assists in 4,300 career professional minutes). Neither guy is what I'd consider a typical No. 10, but Fontana really, really pushes it to the extreme. He's almost more of a pure poacher than a 10.
I'm genuinely unsure of what that means for his future. But I suspect as long as he presses well and keeps putting the ball in the net, he will continue to get into the lineup.
Orlando City SC
A Big Question:Can they get back to using the ball?
It kind of went unnoticed, or at least unremarked, that by the end of the summer Orlando City had evolved from an attractive, possession-oriented side to one that played almost exclusively on the counter. They were obviously very good at it, as they lost just twice in the final two-and-a-half months of the season, but both those losses came in their final five games. And then they were outplayed pretty badly by both NYCFC (who just couldn't put the game away) and New England in the postseason.
The version of the Lions that did this to NYCFC in July was nowhere to be found in November:
Injuries — especially to left back Joao Moutinho — and attrition were the main culprits, and with a deeper roster and presumably less-condensed schedule that should be less of a concern in 2020.
Hopefully, anyway. While Oscar Pareja is rightfully considered one of the best managers in MLS, one thing you could justifiably knock him for is that his teams tend to become more linear and easier to play against as the season wears on. That needs to change for Orlando to take the next step, and for Pareja to finally win his first MLS Cup.
New York Red Bulls
A Big Question:Will any of the imports hit?
Here are RBNY's 2018 imports:
Here are their 2019 imports:
- Mathias Jorgensen
- Josh Sims
Here are their 2020 imports:
There is not a clear, high-level starter in that bunch, save for half a season from Kaku. On a related note, RBNY have gotten steadily worse since 2018.
Here is the crop of 2021 imports thus far:
() Reyes played for Inter Miami last year, but RBNY technically got him from Colombia's Atletico National, so I'm gonna include him as an import.
They have to do more than the past few crops. There was enough left over from that great 2018 team to push the 2019 and 2020 sides across the finish line and into the playoffs, but I don't think that's true anymore. Reyes — who, as of now, is probably a starter — has to be good, and they need to nail at least one DP signing.
It seems a lot to ask of a team that's had a very, very low hit rate for years.
New York City FC
A Big Question:Can James Sands really pass the ball?
Watch how many times Sands wins the ball in this compilation. Then watch how few times his first pass after winning it actually breaks lines and puts NYCFC on the front foot:
The moment at 29 seconds really, really crushes me every time I watch it:
Bradley's pass has been picked off and he has stranded himself in no man's land. Toronto's fullback has been caught out. NYCFC's center forward is still planted high and central, occupying both TFC center backs. Simply sliding the ball into Ismael Tajouri-Shradi's path puts NYCFC into a 2-v-2 with two more attackers in position to crash the box on a late-arriving run.
Sands instead plays square to Alex Ring.
That moment is the difference between Sands being a very good if one-dimensional MLS d-mid who gets 300+ games and a dozen national team caps, and Sands ending up on a Wolfsburg or Borussia Monchengladbach-level side and earning 50+ national team caps.
This is the next step for him: He's got to turn his defense into offense. If he does, bigger things await both him and NYCFC.
New England Revolution
A Big Question:Did Adam Buksa just need a year?
I am a pretty firm believer in advanced analytics, and most of the advanced analytics said Buksa, the big center forward Bruce Arena brought in ahead of the 2020 season, was doing a lot of work to get into the right spots in order to create danger and link play, and that the Revs generally played better soccer when he was in there. By and large I trust he goals will come for guys with that kind of statistical profile because, by and large, goals do actually come for guys with that statistical profile.
They didn't in 2020, though. He had 7g/2a in about 1,850 minutes across all competitions, which is hardly the worst ROI in the league. But it's also clearly not good enough to be a fulltime starter, let alone a DP.
I'm not giving him a full mulligan, but I think I'm leaning toward "he's going to be much better in 2021." There's the analytics argument, and then you can add in the "learning a new league" argument as well as a "learning a new league during a pandemic" argument. 2020 was hard for everyone, so I'm willing to wait on Buksa.
But not for too long. And my guess is Arena's not planning to wait for too long, either. If Buksa's not starting to match boxscore productivity to the underlying numbers by, say, mid-June, the clock will be ticking.
A Big Question:Can Hany Mukhtar be the man?
Nashville exceeded basically all expectations in their debut season, qualifying for the playoffs with ease and then becoming the first expansion team since the Chicago Fire way back in 1998 to actually win a postseason game. They, in fact, won two postseason games, pounding the hell out of fellow expansion side Inter Miami in the play-in round before sneaking past Toronto FC the Eastern Conference first round. Then they took the eventual champs to extra time before finally bowing out in the East semis.
A great debut season by any measure. If there was a gray lining to the silver cloud, though, it was the play of their DP No. 10. Mukhtar put up just 5g/4a in 1,400 minutes across all competitions, and the boxscore numbers actually flatter him. He created only three big chances (chances Opta reckons should be scored) all season — fourth on Nashville behind d-mid Dax McCarty (5), winger Randall Leal (5) and rookie fullback Alistair Johnston (4). He was fourth behind that same trio in expected assists, generating only 1.9 xA over the course of his entire season.
To put it in context: The only starting playmaker to generate fewer expected assists on a per-90 basis was Ezequiel Barco, and it's still an open question as to whether Barco is a playmaker or just a guy who dribbles a lot.
Nashville won't take a step forward in Year 2 if Mukhtar himself doesn't take a massive step forward. While he deserves the same sort of "It's hard to learn a new league in the middle of a pandemic" benefit of the doubt Buksa's getting, bear in mind the analytics say one thing for Buksa, and something very, very different for Mukhtar.
A Big Question:What formation will Thierry Henry choose?
If we assume Henry is still the head coach at the start of the season — which feels like a big assumption right now, but we're going to roll with it — then the Frenchman's got a big (obviously so) decision to make: How will his side line up?
Generally over the course of the 2020 season Henry had his team play with five at the back, aiming for a 3-4-2-1 that often played as a counterattacking 5-4-1. Sometimes he went with a 4-2-3-1, and occasionally a 4-3-2-1. It all added up to a Montréal side that usually defended deep and conceded a ton of shots. A lot of those shots turned into goals, as they shipped 43. That was worst in the East and fourth-worst overall.
Some of that was personnel-related, and some of that was the fact Montréal never got good enough at using the ball to actually defend via possession. But some of that was also the fact chopping and changing the lineup every week is not a recipe for consistently high achievement in any phase of the game.
Settling on a formation and starting from that baseline should be job No. 1 for Henry this preseason. Figure out the basics, then build from there.
Inter Miami CF
A Big Question:Is Blaise Matuidi a solution or a problem?
Matuidi came to Fort Lauderdale with a World Cup title, three Scudettos and five Ligue 1 championships. He's also got a double handful of various league and cup titles, and was, at his apex, regarded as one of the very best box-to-box midfielders in the world.
This is how he defended McCarty's game-clinching goal in the playoffs:
That was not necessarily a one-off. Here's a virtually identical goal Miami gave up a month prior:
That one was less on Matuidi — though he certainly wasn't in any danger of pulling a muscle trying to track back and make a play — than it was on the team structure, but either way the Frenchman's midseason arrival did not make Inter Miami better. Instead you could make the argument (I'm doing it right now!) that his presence exacerbated the very problem it was supposed to solve, namely a lack of toughness and field coverage in the middle of the park. And as a result he made the team worse.
Matuidi really was a disaster out there, and at 33 (he will turn 34 the week before the season starts) he is not at an age in which you'd expect improvement. New head coach Phil Neville will have to do a quick and possibly painful assessment of the legendary midfielder's place in the team.
A Big Question:What's Edison Flores's best spot?
Flores has played a little bit of everything for club and country over the past five years. With Peru, he's most often lined up at the left wing, though with occasional appearances on the right and at attacking midfield. With Morelia in that magical 2019, he was much more of a second forward, though at times he was drop deeper and became a true No. 10 attacking out of central midfield. With D.C. United last year it was a little bit of all of the above when he was healthy — which wasn't that often.
Now he has a new head coach in Hernan Losada and, presumably, a new system as Losada has favored a 3-5-2 in his brief coaching career thus far. He has preached flexibility and a lack of dogmatism in the interviews since he was hired, but everybody's got a favorite.
The question then becomes is it best to play Flores as a second forward, free to roam out wide, or make penetrating runs, and go find the game? Or is it best to play him as a true attacking midfielder, a little deeper behind two true forwards who will feast on the service he provides?
If I were to guess I'd say "second forward." I think Flores is more attacker than creator. But it's just a guess right now.
Columbus Crew SC
A Big Question:Can Aidan Morris do that on the regular?
Take a moment, again, to appreciate what Morris — the youngest starter in MLS Cup history — did to the Seattle Sounders two months ago. Not only did he dominate Nico Lodeiro (!!!) in what was essentially a head-to-head match-up, but he keyed the first two goals in the Crew's record-setting win:
It is not fair to say the 19-year-old Homegrown's performance came out of nowhere, precisely. Morris was regarded as the star of Columbus's academy system, as well as the best freshman (and one of the best players of any age) in college soccer back in 2019 before he signed a pro deal. The vast majority of folks understood he had a good MLS future ahead of him.
But at the same time he was, in fact, the youngest starter in MLS Cup history, and had, in fact, played only 360 mostly unremarkable regular-season minutes. The only reason he was out there against the Sounders was because Darlington Nagbe was medically not cleared to play.
It was a massive performance with potentially massive implications for the future, especially now that Nagbe has hit his 30s and has become more injury-prone as the years roll on. For Columbus to be as good as we all think they can be — and to be clear, that's "a legitimate threat, if not outright favorites to win every competition they play in" — Morris is going to have to eat a chunk of Nagbe's minutes, and when he does, he's going to have to look a lot like the kid who was so great back on December 12.
A Big Question:Is Calvin Harris a starter?
The one bright spot for Cincy over their first two seasons in MLS was their original SuperDraft pick, Frankie Amaya. He hasn't been the type of genius attacking midfielder he was billed as coming out of college, but has instead provided significant value as a ball-winning, ball-moving bulldog of a central midfielder. He has progressed to the point teams were reportedly offering seven figures worth of allocation cash for him this offseason, and Cincy turned that down.
With the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 SuperDraft, Cincy opted for Harris, an English winger by way of Wake Forest. They will be hoping, obviously, he follows Amaya's track and becomes a consistent and valuable starting-caliber player on a short timeframe.
Given the state of the attack — they scored just 12 goals last year — they need him to. Brenner and Lucho Acosta (likely) have bigger roles to play and more obvious pressure, but Cincy have gotten it right in the draft before. They'll hope to have done so again here.
Chicago Fire FC
A Big Question:Can they please stop making catastrophic defensive errors?
Week after week after week, one of the Fire defenders or defensive midfielders conjured something like this:
That type of play was the difference between a playoff appearance and yet another year coming to an early end.
Just clean that up and they'll actually make it to the postseason, something they've managed just twice in the past decade. That feels borderline impossible in a league of parity, but here we are.
A Big Question:Is Josef gonna be BACK back? Or just back?
All the other stuff is important — the new Argentine central midfielders; Barco evolving into something consistently useful; Miles Robinson bouncing back; George Bello continuing his progression; Marcelino Moreno looking like a high-level No. 10; Gabriel Heinze being worth the hype — and a good chunk of that needs to hit in order for Atlanta to be a serious trophy contender again.
But you do realize even in the midst of all of last year's misery that if Josef had stayed healthy, they easily make the playoffs, right? He absolutely dragged that 2019 side that hated their coach and played like it to two trophies and to the East final. The man is so great he scored 27 goals under Frank De Boer. That is like 37 goals in normal circumstances.
I want to see that version of Josef again, 12 months after his ACL tear. Even if you hate Atlanta — and I know a lot of you reading this do, and I understand why — you should be rooting for this guy to come back fully healthy. He is one of the best and most exciting players in MLS history, and the league was worse for his absence in 2020.