Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

One big question facing every MLS team revisted


With the season's end less than two weeks away, now’s the best time to take a look back at what we thought would be among the most relevant questions each team would have to answer, and what in fact turned out to be the most relevant question each team had to answer.

So with that in mind, here’s my “One big question for each Western Conference team” look from January, just before preseason started, and here’s the Eastern Conference version of the same.

Bear in mind that, in the original column, I was listing stuff that could be A question, not necessarily THE question.

Let’s go:

What it was: What kind of a leap can Deiber Caicedo make?

What it should have been: Can they spin last year’s hot finish into truly consistent attacking output?

Injuries – including to Caicedo – have had a lot to do with Vancouver being among the very worst attacking teams in the league this year, but even so… man, did they not build off of the initial burst of momentum Vanni Sartini infused them with last year.

The ‘Caps have the second-worst attack in the league in possession, as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, and are just middling in transition.

What it was: Will they be able to press?

What it should have been: Will they be able to defend, like, at all?

The answer to both, of course, is “no.” TFC had the right idea, I think, to go out and sign a DP center back, and on paper Carlos Salcedo looks exactly like the type of guy MLS teams should go after.

But he was a trainwreck, and to be honest, it didn’t really get better once he was offloaded.

Remember this tweet?

It wasn't wrong.

What it was: What do they do at center forward?

What it should have been: Hey actually I got that one 100% right.

Willy Agada’s had a massive two-way impact for Sporting, to the point that I’d argue center forward wasn’t just A big question, but was literally THE biggest question Sporting faced this year.

What it was: Back to the 4-2-3-1?

What it should’ve been: Do they have the depth to survive a deep CCL run?

They did go back to the 4-2-3-1, and it quite obviously worked like a charm as the Sounders became the first MLS team to win the modern iteration of the CCL.

But as the injuries, wear and tear piled up, the Sounders did what so many teams that make deep CCL runs do (it also happens in Liga MX, by the way), and faded to the fringes of the playoff picture. Obviously this doesn’t happen if guys like João Paulo and Raúl Ruidíaz don’t get injured, or if Nico Lodeiro and Yeimar Gómez Andrade have enough energy to play like they did at the start of the year… but that’s the point, right?

What it was: Is the Tanner Beason Effect real?

What it should’ve been: Can they get the 2019/20 version of Judson back and actually exert some control over central midfield?

Beason has been probably the best and most consistent Quakes center back this year which, to be fair, is a pretty low bar. But it’d be tough for anybody to look good in the middle of that defense given how often the central midfield just gets run through.

Judson was amazing – Diego Chara-lite – in 2019 and ‘20, but injuries and inconsistency, both to him and the team around him, have seriously diminished his field-shrinking and ball-winning skills, and so even when the Quakes were playing ok this season, they were always on the verge of having the game run away from them.

What it was: Will the front office get the resources to go nuts?

What it should’ve been: That was it, that was the big question.

The answer to that question, of course, was “no.” RSL brought back Jefferson Savarino as a DP and signed Diego Luna as a US youth international standout, plus brought in Sergio Córdova on loan. Those are nice moves, but I don’t think anyone would consider that to be going nuts in the transfer market.

RSL were able to xDAWG their way through the first half of the season and stay above the line, but as the energy level around the league has lifted, and as other potential Western Conference playoff teams have benefitted from new additions, the talent gap has started to matter more than xDAWG.

What it was: Is this the year that Diego Chara finally gets old or injured?

What it should’ve been: Can Aljaž Ivačič be the No. 1 ‘keeper they need?

Ivačič is probably third on my goalkeeper of the year ballot behind Djordje Petrovic and Andre Blake – the guy has been phenomenal. And he’s had to be since the Timbers still habitually close out games by defending in the ‘keeper’s lap.

Steve Clark excelled in those situations for half a decade, and Ivačič has been even better since this version of the Timbers is actually worse in the air (especially in their own box) than last year’s not-very-good-defending-in-the-18 team.

With all due respect to Chara, Ivacic has been the team MVP in 2022.

What it was: Can they improve the final ball in transition?

What it should’ve been: That was it, and man, holy s&#%!

You probably know the numbers by now: Through the first 18 games of the year the Union scored just 22 goals, and Jim Curtin was saying stuff like “we’re missing that one guy who can make a special play.”

Since then they’ve scored a bajillion goals and have like eight guys making special plays, and are likely to set the single-season mark for goal differential.

Note that they are actually somewhat less of a transition team than they were at the start of the year. But even so, you’d be 100% correct to consider them primarily a transition-heavy side.

What it was: Will a new crop of DPs mean a big step forward for the Lions?

What it should’ve been: Will that central midfield need a makeover?

I think you could argue Orlando took a big step forward by winning their first piece of silverware as an MLS club (US Open Cup), and by quite likely qualifying for the playoffs for the third year in a row.

But while Facundo Torres and – to a much lesser extent – Ercan Kara had something to do with that, the real key was how Oscar Pareja added new pieces (César Araújo and Wilder Cartagena) at d-mid while flipping the roles of Mauricio Pereyra (now a playmaking No. 8) and Junior Urso (goalscoring, box-arriving attacking midfielder that I refuse to call a 10).

It took him a while, but Papi eventually got it right.

What it was: Will they finally find a home for Frankie Amaya?

What it should’ve been: Will they get the productivity they need out of center forward?

Amaya had a few good months before being passed on the depth chart by homegrown Daniel Edelman as well as erstwhile DP Dru Yearwood, but the rotation ins and outs there didn’t end up mattering all that much.

What matters is the one thing that stands between this version of RBNY being what they are and what they could be, which is a top-tier, elite MLS side: goalscoring from center forward.

Patryk Klimala, Tom Barlow, Elias Manoel and the since-departed Ashley Fletcher have combined for just nine goals all year long.

What it was: What’s Tayvon Gray’s ceiling as an attacking right back?

What it should’ve been: What happens if there’s a mid-season coaching change?

Nick Cushing got dealt a bad hand, having taken over for Ronny Deila on an interim basis just after Keaton Parks got hurt and just before Taty Castellanos was loaned to Girona of LaLiga. Even so…

  • 13W-5L-3D, +21 in all comps under Deila
  • 7W-9L-5D, -2 in all comps under Cushing

They’ve played a lower line and pressed less effectively all over the field since the change. It’s not just a personnel thing; it’s structural.

What it was: Will Bruce Arena change the team’s shape?

What it should’ve been: Can they effectively replace $24 million worth of talent?

The answer to the “what it was” question was yes and the answer to the implied follow-up question of “will it matter?” was no, because the answer to the “what it should’ve been” question was also no.

Arena’s always been masterful at getting teams with superior talent to dominate the moments that win games. The Revs, this year, did not have superior talent.

What it was: Can Ake Loba lead the line?

What it should’ve been: Yeah, that was it.

I’ve always been a big C.J. Sapong guy, but he’s got limitations as a goalscorer – we know his ceiling. Loba, in his first full year with the team, was supposed to develop into the type of ruthless, high-scoring No. 9 that virtually all title teams have.

Instead he barely gets off the bench. And it doesn’t really feel like Nashville’s ceiling is “title team” because Hany Mukhtar still shoulders so damn much of the attacking load.

What it was: Can Mason Toye live in the box?

What it should’ve been: Can they get the goalkeeping they need to be an elite team?

I’ve still got Toye stock, but he’s clearly the third-choice center forward behind Romell Quioto and Kei Kamara.

That hasn’t remotely held Montréal back this year, though. What has – the reason they’re pushing for 60 points instead of edging close to 70 – is what’s happened in net. Sebastian Breza beat James Pantemis for the No. 1 kit at the start of the year, but performed so poorly that Wilfried Nancy was forced to make a switch.

Since then it’s been more of a rotation, though my money’s on Pantemis getting the No. 1 kit for the postseason.

What it was: Who’s going to win the ball?

What it should’ve been: Who’s going to put the ball in the net?

Luis Amarilla is not going to make good on his promise of a 25-goal season; at this point, the Loons would probably be happy with 10. He’ll need one more goal in the final two games of the year to get there, which would in the process tie him with Emanuel Reynoso for the team lead.

Minnesota actually have other, more pressing concerns right now – injuries have crushed them, exposing a lack of depth in central defense most of all – but the thing is that a hot striker can sometimes cover up issues like that.

What it was: Does Kévin Cabral have goals in him?

What it should’ve been: It was that, that’s what it should’ve been.

The whole reason the Galaxy are where they are in the standings is that none of their wingers can put the ball in the net, and no one’s guiltier on that account than Cabral.

If he’d progressed into the type of winger that it looks like he absolutely should be, LA’s in a whole different tier right now.

What it was: Is Latif Blessing still a pressing No. 10?

What it should’ve been: Will they back off the press significantly, and if so, will it have negative repercussions?

The answer to the first question is “yes,” and the answer to the second question is “not really.”

Obviously with LAFC no longer one of the league’s foremost practitioners of a high, hard press, Blessing’s utility has waned in 2022. He’s now understandably a reserve behind the starting midfield trio of Ilie, Kellyn Acosta and José Cifuentes.

What it was: Are Gregore and Jean Mota elite building blocks?

What it should’ve been: Are Gregore and Jean Mota playoff-caliber building blocks?

Jumping straight to “elite” was a bit ambitious on my part, and downgrading it simply to “playoff-caliber” makes sense.

Either way, it’s important to understand that solidifying the central midfield – which is what those two guys have done – is the biggest reason that a Miami team everyone had destined for the trash bin in preseason is entering the final two weeks with a very real shot of making the playoffs.

There are other, glossier stories with this team, but getting two guys in central midfield who won’t cost you the game every week (and will occasionally win it for you) is huge for any struggling team.

What it was: Can they get Matías Vera to start passing the ball forward again?

What it should’ve been: Do any of these pieces fit together?

Vera didn’t start passing the ball forward again, though I’m not sure it would’ve mattered all that much if he had as the Dynamo’s roster is still such a Land of Misfit Toys-style mess. That fact was laid bare when they added Héctor Herrera midseason and somehow managed to get significantly worse.

What it was: Is it time to move Paxton Pomykal back inside?

What it should’ve been: Is there enough goalscoring in this side?

The answer to the Pomykal question was obviously yes – he’s been very good, and now bordering on Best XI-caliber since Nico Estevez has moved him to the right side of the three-man central midfield in Dallas’s 4-3-3.

What both Pomykal and Dallas are best at right now is pitch control, which is the main way Estevez has tried to stanch the defensive bleeding that destroyed this side last year. It’s obviously worked, as Dallas are one of the very best defensive sides in the league, but it’s come at a cost as virtually the entire goalscoring burden has fallen on the front line.

They’ve been up for it, obviously. But Pomykal in particular needs to be more dynamic and productive in the attacking third if Dallas are going to make a run.

What it was: Will they play out of the 4-2-3-1?

What it should’ve been: Will they completely reshape the culture and become a playoff team?

For the record, Cincy have played out of the 4-2-3-1 on and off over the course of this season, though the 3-5-2 is clearly Pat Noonan’s preferred formation.

But the formation question, and the tactical questions, and even the personnel questions (which have been methodically answered over the course of the season via both massive internal improvement and significant new additions) all pale in comparison to the culture question.

The simple fact is that, for the first time in their MLS existence, Cincy are not a meme team. And that’s probably the biggest, most important victory by anybody in the league this year.

What it was: Can Hernan Losada wring that same level of commitment out of the troops again?

What it should’ve been: Nailed it.

Here’s a chunk of what I wrote in January:

I have spoken with lots of players over the years who will tell you, straight-up, how hard it is to bring that same energy to a system like Losada’s season after season. That is why the Red Bulls, even in their glory days, had so much roster turnover, and there is a reason why the Union are willing to do the same with all but a few key veterans. Maximum Overdrive requires fresh blood sacrifice to keep humming.

It does not, however, look like D.C. are going to have that. As of now the roster is largely the same group that came up short in 2021. The hope is that they’ll collectively find five percent more to give, but the truth is that in a system like Losada’s, most players find five percent less in Year 2.

Just about the entire D.C. roster had tapped out by Week 3, it seemed, as their season almost insta-cratered. United have now gone through two coaching changes and both a roster and a tactical overhaul in the past six months. Meanwhile Losada is subtweeting (or sub-Instagramming, I guess) their devastating losses.

What it was: Can they inject off-ball pace into their play again?

What it should’ve been: It’s that.

I know there will be a push here from fans to focus on the Crew’s struggles in the final 15 minutes of games, and that’s entirely understandable.

But they’re so ponderous in their build-up basically from the opening whistle that it just destroys them. As per TruMedia via StatsPerform, they have the third-longest time per possession, but the 12th-most passes per possession, which tells you something about how slowly they move the ball around. As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, they’re in the 25th percentile or lower of all the relevant sprinting and workload-related data.

When they actually move on and off the ball quickly, they look like one of the best teams in the league. But after a couple of months in Columbus, even Cucho’s starting to slow down some. It’s like the whole roster’s in some sort of malaise.

What it was: Goals by committee again or is help on the way?

What it should’ve been: Can they develop enough from within to replace the guys they sold?

Real quick: Help was indeed on the way, as they went out and got Gyasi Zardes in the spring and, between him and Diego Rubio, the Rapids have gotten 23 goals from their forwards. That’s not great but it’s clearly no longer a “goals by committee” endeavor.

That obviously didn’t matter, though, because the midfield and defense fell apart and goalkeeper William Yarbrough had by far his worst year in net.

And sadly, for one reason or another (usually injury), none of the next group of young guys was able to step in and fill the holes left by the likes of Sam Vines, Cole Bassett, Auston Trusty or Kellyn Acosta.

What it was: Can they get their DP signings right?

What it should’ve been: That.

Xherdan Shaqiri, who was the league’s highest-paid player until Toronto’s Italian invasion at midseason, hasn’t precisely been a bust, but you’d be hard-pressed to make the case that he’s one of the better No. 10s in the league. He’s probably around… 15ish if you’re charitable? More likely 20.

Jairo Torres, meanwhile, has definitely been a bust in his first year, and the move to re-sign Gastón Giménez to a two-year DP extension after last season remains one of the most jaw-dropping front-office decisions we’ve seen from anyone in the past half-decade at least.

I’m not putting all the blame completely on this trio, but when the guys who are supposed to be your three best players are nowhere near actually being your three best players, and two are actively among the least-effective players in the entire league at their respective positions, it’s gonna be pretty hard to make the playoffs.

What it was: Will they get Jaylin Lindsey healthy for a full year?

What it should’ve been: How many of the initial imports would prove to be viable MLS players?

It’s a measure of how good Christian Lattanzio’s been as an interim head coach, and of how much undeveloped/underappreciated talent there is out there that Charlotte are anywhere near 40 points in their inaugural season. Because of all the guys that Charlotte’s front office brought in from overseas before the year began, only four had any kind of consistently positive impact.

So they’ve already gutted the roster once, and it looks like there’s more clearing of the decks to come this winter.

Where would they be if they’d hit on maybe two more signings?

What it was: Can Moussa Djitté be goal-dangerous?

What it should’ve been: Can Diego Fagundez finally live up to the potential he first showed in this league as a 16-year-old?

With Fagúndez doing exactly that – 6g/15a makes this his best year since 2013, if not ever – and Sebastián Driussi putting in an MVP-caliber season, it hasn’t mattered as much that Djitté is hardly ever goal-dangerous, and that Austin’s mostly been reduced to relying upon Maxi Urruti and Danny Hoesen at center forward.

And actually, in a way it’s been a blessing, because as frustrating as Urruti always is in attack, he remains one of the best defensive forwards this league has ever seen, and that defense from the front line has made it much, much more difficult for opposing teams to shred Austin’s midfield like they did in 2021.

What it was: Will Josef get healthier?

What it should’ve been: Will Josef buy in?

By all accounts, Josef Martínez’s knee is fully fit. What’s not fully fit is, well, the rest of him. And it shows up in all the Second Spectrum data, which has him down near the bottom of virtually every workload-related metric (it’s all especially glaring on the defensive side of the ball).

Remember in 2019 when nobody in the locker room liked Frank de Boer and Josef responded by becoming a monster, putting the whole team on his back and scoring in like 18 straight games because he refused to be outworked on the field? Well, this year’s been the polar opposite of that.