It is time for the first installment of our usual preseason slate of content: One Big Question for Each Team! As usual, some of these will be THE big question – the definite article matters there – and some will be A (indefinite article!) big question. And it’ll be interesting, looking back, to suss out which was which.
Eastern Conference went yesterday. Here’s the West.
In we go…
Can Moussa Djitte be goal-dangerous?
It is beyond question that Austin’s entire attack functioned at a higher level once they acquired target-man Moussa Djitte in the summer. His ability to occupy defenders, hold the ball up, complete meaningful passes and always be an outlet when the midfield ran out of ideas was essential.
He also scored just once in 606 minutes. Here’s why:
That is a tap-in. Every half-decent forward in the league at least gets a boot on it.
The tweet says it all.
Goals by committee again or is help on the way?
Being able to consistently generate goals up and down the roster over the course of the regular season paid huge dividends for the Rapids, who won the West and had a million different dudes score at least four goals. They were built for that type of grind in a lot of ways.
What they weren’t built for was the playoffs, where they dominated the Timbers for an hour, couldn’t put away their chances and then watched it slip away late. While they still have players I like quite a bit – I remain the president of the Jonathan Lewis fan club, and his underlying numbers were outstanding – it’s clear that there’s no alpha goalscorer. And teams without an alpha goalscorer tend not to go far in November.
The Rapids have three open Designated Player slots and made a good chunk of money last year selling Sam Vines. They’ll make more this winter on at least one more sale (though I’m guessing it’ll be two).
Go out and get a big-time No. 9, man. This team’s so close!
Is it time to move Paxton Pomykal back inside?
I understand keeping Pomykal on the wing last year to see if his body would hold up, and the good news is that it did. The next step is to move him back to his more natural No. 8 position and give him a bigger share of the game.
Can they get Matias Vera to start passing the ball forward again?
Nobody was going to confuse Vera for Eduard Atuesta or Michael Bradley when he came into the league, but the kid was not a bad or overly cautious passer of the ball by any stretch. He’d ping the occasional diagonal, reliably play third-line passes to feet and even find the occasional through-ball. You weren’t going to build an attack around him, but you weren’t going to think “man, it just dies when it gets on his foot.”
Over the past year-and-a-half, it just dies when it gets to Vera’s foot. A huge chunk of the reason Houston are much less dangerous in transition than they used to be (and to be clear, the biggest reason is that Alberth Elis is gone) is that they never get vertical out of deep-central midfield. Vera’s wings were clipped.
Paulo Nagamura’s got to help the kid grow them back or it’ll be another season of plodding, predictable soccer in H-Town.
Is Latif Blessing still a pressing No. 10?
LAFC had a great debut season but they didn’t become a thundering juggernaut until Bob Bradley moved Blessing inside to the point of attack in that three-man midfield. Blessing’s range, ball-winning ability and relentlessness, as well as his “yeah, I’ll try that” approach to high-risk passes made him a No. 10 unlike any other in the league, and was one of the keystones of the very best versions of LAFC we’ve seen over the past four years.
It’s also an unusual enough interpretation of the position for me to think that maybe Steve Cherundolo will go in a different direction? The upside of Blessing in that role is obvious: You win the ball back higher and more often, which in turn produces more and better chances.
The math becomes fuzzier if it’s a lower-volume, lower-pressing side. In that type of set-up Blessing’s “must pursue the ball!” instincts can become a liability, and his lack of precision with the final ball is an outright deal-breaker.
So if Cherundolo changes the team’s principles of play, expect a new role for Latif.
Does Kevin Cabral have goals in him?
If Kevin Cabral was just a regular prospect on a somewhat hefty contract – we’ll say somewhere around a max salary – I think I’d look at his first season in Carson and say that while it wasn’t precisely successful, it was nonetheless filled with promise. The 22-year-old scored just five goals and added two assists in 2000 regular-season minutes, which isn’t a terrible haul for an attacker in his first season in MLS, and especially an attacker with a middling, at best, pedigree.
But Cabral isn’t just a regular prospect with a somewhat hefty contract. Cabral is a DP for the LA freaking Galaxy, in town on a five-year deal. Getting him didn’t just cost a $6 million transfer fee; it also cost the Galaxy $250k of allocation cash and a first-round pick, both sent to FC Cincinnati for his discovery rights.
That is a massive investment, and if Cabral had performed commensurate with that level of outlay the Galaxy would have made the playoffs. But he didn’t, and they didn’t.
Here is the good news: Cabral’s five goals came on just about nine expected goals (xG), and nine xG in 2000 MLS minutes is actually pretty promising for a kid. It puts him in the 94th percentile as per Second Spectrum among all MLS wingers on a per-90 basis, and there are two things to keep in mind:
- We have mountains of data saying that the vast, vast majority of attackers regress to the mean with their xG. In Cabral’s case that would mean progressing toward a goal total more in line with the underlying numbers. See: Taty Castellanos.
- Most newcomers play better in their second season. See: Hany Mukhtar and Adam Buksa.
I’m not about to corner the market on Cabral stock or anything, but I think there’s reason to be optimistic if you’re a Galaxy fan.
Who’s going to win the ball?
Wil Trapp’s been a good player in MLS for a long time, but Trapp is not the type of defensive midfielder who’s going to find scraps and dominate 50/50s all over the pitch. He’s the type that sits in front of the backline, cleans up messes and dimes useful passes to progress the team into the attacking third.
Ozzie Alonso did that and found scraps all over the pitch, dominating 50/50s when he did. Ozzie is now gone to Atlanta.
That, in theory, opens up playing time for Hassani Dotson, who came into the league as a little-heralded utility-man three years ago and has evolved into a somewhat big-heralded utility-man since then. He is a good player. Can he be Ozzie?
Probably not! But he – or someone else Minnesota imports – is going to have to do the “wins the ball” part of Ozzie’s job if the Loons want to keep the same setup with roughly the same faces out there. They will need that range and steel through central midfield or they risk getting overrun like they did in the playoffs at Portland.
Can Ake Loba lead the line?
Nashville spent big, laying out $7 million for the Ivorian… center forward? Second forward? Winger?
It worries me that it’s not clear which of those is the correct answer. I think it’s center forward, but I’m not sure about that and judging by how little time Loba got once he arrived mid-season (380 minutes in the regular season; none in the playoffs), neither is Gary Smith. That’s a red flag.
Ideally a full preseason will give Loba a chance to answer the question in the way everybody in Nashville is hoping: Yes he’s a No. 9, and yes he’s a great fit up top in that 3-5-2 next to Hany Mukhtar.
But there are no guarantees, and the fact that Nashville’s center forward depth chart was already overstuffed, and that they still saw fit to go out and get two more forwards this offseason in Teal Bunbury and Ethan Zubak … that’ll be red flag No. 2.
This is a trophy-worthy team if Loba hits. Just feels like a massive “if” at this point.
Is this the year that Diego Chara finally gets old or injured?
He’s 35 years old and was the best player on the field in MLS Cup 2021, right up until Sean Johnson stole the show and won NYCFC the title. Chara has been in the middle of the pitch for the Timbers for more than a decade now, and while I think it’s fair to argue that he doesn’t quite bring it week-to-week like he used to – he no longer puts out every single freaking fire everywhere on the field for 10 months straight – he still has that gear and still uses it in big games. That includes the entirety of the playoff run, which was a remarkable performance at any age.
But Father Time eventually wins. David Villa was an MVP candidate one year then hurt and ineffective the next. Dom Dwyer took a knock, couldn’t create separation and that was that. Diego Valeri, of course, is the most salient example. Over the past three years he went from the 8g/16a heart of a Cup contender to an 8g/7a secondary attacking option to, last season, a little-used reserve. That is a more gradual decline, and yet it feels like it happened in the blink of an eye.
Even with the Sebastian Blanco situation still in the balance, this remains THE big question for Portland. Can Chara once again outrun Father Time? If so, the Timbers will be the Timbers. If not…
Will the front office get the resources to go nuts?
RSL had a respectable regular season and followed that up with a more-than-respectable playoff run. They have a lot of pretty good players in or just entering their respective primes, and one truly excellent player at the tail end of his. They have, if Albert Rusnak signs as a free agent with the Sounders as expected, three open DP slots and three open U22 Initiative slots.
And they have brand new, ambitious owners. Guys who probably want to make a splash, I imagine.
What would happen if they added three high-level, DP caliber players to a roster that collected 48 points and made it to the Western Conference Finals? Feels like we should find out because, honestly, this group isn’t that far away.
So yes, I hope the front office gets the resources to go nuts.
Is the Tanner Beason Effect real?
It was night-and-day stuff with the second-year defender out of Stanford. When he played the Quakes were 8-6-10 (W-L-D) and sported a positive goal differential. When he didn’t, they were 2-7-1 and conceded twice as many goals as they scored.
It took Matias Almeyda a long time to come around on the kid – it always does with Almeyda – but Chris Leitch seems to have taken that decision out of the coach’s hands by not trying to extend Oswaldo Alanis’s loan and not, at this point, bringing in any veteran reinforcements for the backline.
And honestly, why should he? When Beason and Nathan started together in central defense, the Quakes picked up 1.5 ppg. That would’ve been enough to make the playoffs. When one or the other was missing, that dropped to 0.9 ppg, which would’ve been good enough to get a top-three MLS SuperDraft pick.
I’m not sure if this is sustainable, but I’d like to think it is. And I like that the roster make-up basically guarantees we’ll get to find out from Week 1 this season.
Back to the 4-2-3-1?
The 3-5-2, which eventually became a kind of 3-4-2-1, suited Seattle’s makeshift personnel last season. Cristian Roldan did amazing work as a sort of central winger, the wingbacks were constant menaces going endline to endline, and Joao Paulo had an MVP-caliber season. I never thought Seattle would compensate for the absence of Nico Lodeiro that well.
Whether Lodeiro is truly back or not (and to be clear: THAT is the big question, along with other questions surrounding the happiness of Raul Ruidiaz), the Sounders have the personnel on hand to flip back to Brian Schmetzer’s preferred 4-2-3-1, provided that they’re able to get Albert Rusnak as a free agent.
Jordan Morris is back and at his best as a goalscoring winger. They spent on Leo Chu, who looks promising. Roldan has been excellent in the past as a defensive winger, and Rusnak can play either as a true No. 10 or a playmaking winger.
As far as I can tell, the only way to get most of these guys on the field is the 4-2-3-1. I don’t think that means the 3-5-2 goes away forever, but I would be surprised if it’s Seattle’s default look once again this season.
What do they do at center forward?
The numbers without Alan Pulido are not as grim as I expected. In fact, they’re not grim at all:
That said, as Mike points out in the next tweet, it took Best XI-caliber seasons from Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell to make up for Pulido’s prolonged absence last season. It is difficult to imagine both guys replicating that again, which they’ll need to from the jump with the Mexican DP slated to miss the whole year following knee surgery.
Despite those numbers above, Pulido definitely will be missed. While Khiry Shelton, who as of now is at the top of the No. 9 depth chart in KC, does wonderful work stretching the field, linking play and pressing, he’s never, ever been confused for a goalscorer. If he was, he’d be on a DP contract himself or, more likely, playing in one of the Big 5 leagues in Europe. He’s that good, except when it comes to putting the ball in the net.
So I think Sporting will need someone who puts the ball in the net. They have the ability to buy Gadi Kinda down with TAM in order to find another DP No. 9 who will do just that, and hopefully mitigate Pulido’s season-long absence. But I’m not entirely sure they will.
What kind of a leap can Deiber Caicedo make?
Caicedo, as a 21-year-old rookie who had to navigate a new team in a new league, with two new coaches and two new home fields, and a new No. 9 and a new No. 10 that were both added mid-season, and multiple roles across multiple formations, was much better than just about everyone outside of Vancouver realized. The kid wasn’t perfect – he’s a kid – but he put up 5g/7a in about 2250 minutes, and had strong underlying numbers as well.
He also appears to be a really instinctual fit in attack with Ryan Gauld and Brian White, as he happily floats from the wing to the half-space, then pushes the line to try to run in behind or will happily prowl for White’s cushioned knock-downs. It’s real hand-in-glove stuff when those three are clicking.
So it’s natural to expect more in Year 2. Hell, I bet the kid expects more, himself. He certainly should, and if he makes a leap, then it’s fair to think the already pretty impressive ‘Caps attack will make a leap with him. And that could be the difference between a “just happy to be here” cameo in the postseason, and a deep and meaningful run.