Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

One big question for each Eastern Conference team before the 2023 season

Doyle East big question - 2.13.23

It is time for the next 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 – while others will be A (indefinite article!) big question. And it’ll be interesting, looking back, to suss out which was which.

Eastern Conference first. Western Conference tomorrow.

In we go…

Can Thiago Almada be an MVP-caliber No. 10?

There are lots of other questions here, including the balance in central midfield with that roster of mismatched parts the front office has collected over the past few years; the health of Miles Robinson and the adjustment curve of Luis Abram in central defense; how quickly Giorgos Giakoumakis starts banging goals in up top; whether Derrick Etienne Jr. can hit his 2022 numbers; and just how good a coach Gonzalo Pineda is. He’s had enough time, right?

But in this league of ours, an MVP-caliber No. 10 papers over a lot of cracks. If Almada walks onto the field this year and is, say, Carles Gil-level – and honestly, I think that’s where expectations are for him and the fanbase – then it gives the rest of the team more margin for error.

Do they have an identity?

On paper they’re not a real No. 10 team because Xherdan Shaqiri’s not good enough at pure, open-play chance creation. They don’t generate a ton of possession, so they’re not an NYCFC-type that owns the tempo. They were a very good counterattacking team for a minute there last year, but Jhon Duran’s gone on that $18 million-base transfer to Aston Villa, so it’s hard to count on that continuing.

They have good balance with their wingers, but not elite talent. And the same goes for the No. 9, which remains an open question.

If, at midseason, Wiebe or Bogert turned to me and said “man, this is just a typical Chicago Fire game,” I don’t really have a picture in my head of what that could look like in a good way (we all know what that’d look like in a bad way).

Can they put together a silverware-caliber defense?

This is as straightforward as it gets. While I think there’s likely to be some regression in that attack, I’m pretty sure it’ll still be one of the league’s best.

Can the defense, then, be good enough to add a piece of silver to that collection of Wooden Spoons in the trophy cabinet? It looked like it in the second half of the season with both Obinna Nwobodo and Matt Miazga in town, so I’m bullish. But it’s not a guarantee.

Will they get enough from their DPs?

Karol Swiderski is good. Not great, but good on a weekly basis no matter where he was playing last season.

And that’s basically the entire list of positive contributions from their DPs.

Jordy Alcivar is gone, but Kamil Jozwiak is back and they badly need more from him (0g/3a in about 1,200 minutes last year).

After Alcivar’s departure and the sale of Daniel Rios, they spent big on center forward Enzo Copetti. And while the Argentine’s 2022 was super compelling (21 goals in about 3,200 minutes across all competitions), he had just three goals in 1,600 top-flight minutes in 2021. So he’s pretty far from a sure thing.

Can they dominate the ball and thus dominate tempo the way Wilfried Nancy’s CF Montréal team did?

That Montréal side was one of the best-coached, best-structured teams in recent league history. They just never let themselves get unbalanced and were almost always decisive with the ball – a necessity in such a possession-heavy scheme.

I think the Crew have a lot of the necessary pieces to make this approach work in Ohio, but it probably won’t happen overnight. Nancy’s first year in Montréal was 2021, remember, and it took that group about 20 games to really learn all the dance steps.

Will either of the new ‘keepers prove to be starting caliber?

There are so, so many questions with D.C., so let’s just keep it simple. Their goalkeeping last year was… “subpar” is too kind a word. It was devastating on essentially a weekly basis.

So they went out this winter and came back with Alex Bono and Tyler Miller via free agency. Both those guys have talent, but Bono went into a full-on tailspin during Toronto’s playoff push – there’s a reason they let him walk – and Miller has spent most of his career as a backup.

Can the Josef Martinez/Leo Campana duo click up top?

By signing both of these guys, it seems like Miami are committed to some sort of two-forward formation – and while I’m sure there will be goals in it whether it’s a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2 (diamond, flat, whatever), there’s just no defense in that Josef-Campana pair.

That’s a really big problem. If you’re not getting pressure to opposing build-outs, then your midfield is gonna get pulled apart pretty damn easily. If Miami are building their midfield to support a No. 10 who doesn’t defend (they are), then they’re already losing the numbers game.

Think of it this way: Remember how much Austin improved defensively last year? A lot of that was Ruben Gabrielsen in the back, and another big chunk was Daniel Pereira taking a massive step forward at d-mid.

But I’d argue the biggest factor was Maxi Urruti’s defense from the No. 9 spot. He simply refuses to let opposing center backs hit easy passes into the guts of that Austin midfield, and thus the Austin midfield never lost its shape scrambling.

That type of defense is maybe the most underrated and misunderstood individual player attribute in this sport of ours, with knock-on effects that travel all the way to the goalkeeper. And Miami just completely lack it.

How do they replace Djordje Mihailovic’s playmaking?

I’m not actually all that worried about how they’ll replace Alistair Johnston (they got Aaron Herrera for a reason) or Ismaël Koné (Nathan Saliba and Rida Zouhir are on the job), but Djordje was a Best XI-caliber No. 10 when he was healthy last year, and walked right into the lineup for a Champions League-caliber team in the Eredivisie and started producing (before he immediately got hurt again… sigh).

Montréal seem to believe they can do it from within, either with Sean Rea or Matko Miljevic (who I wasn’t particularly impressed by, but who the underlying numbers loved last year).

If they get this wrong – if neither of these guys is up for it – then the ceiling is much, much lower than what we saw from last year’s group.

Do they have a starting No. 9?

Straight up. They haven’t been scoring in preseason, which is a continuation of what happened down the stretch last year. And as of now they’re running it back with the same center forward depth chart we saw in 2022, minus Ake Loba.

And yes, the fact Loba’s banging in goals in Liga MX (on loan at Mazatlán) while still occupying one of Nashville’s DP slots is salt in a wide-open wound.

What formation will they play?

It’s sometimes been a 3-5-2 in preseason (believe it or not), which seems like the only way to get the three DPs on the field at the same time. Carles Gil sits in as a 10 underneath the forward pair of Gustavo Bou and Giacomo Vrioni, which makes a good amount of sense.

But 1) Bruce Arena’s always been a four-at-the-back kind of guy and 2) I’m not sure there’s a natural spot in the 3-5-2 for young Dylan Borrero, who was excellent in his injury-shortened debut season.

Can they replace Alex Callens?

There are obviously lots of other huge questions as well, including replacing Maxi Moralez and Sean Johnson. But the Pigeons at least seem to be making moves in that direction on the Maxi front (credible reports now say they’re bringing back Santi Rodriguez, and are working to ink Richy Ledezma), and have actually made a move on the SeanJohn front (they traded for Matt Freese from Philadelphia).

There’s been nothing on replacing Callens, who was the league’s best center back in 2022 when healthy.

Will the 4-2-2-2 work?

They’re trying it again! The 4-2-2-2 is the formation from the original Red Bull blueprint, and RBNY managers have repeatedly tried it (remember the Gonzalo Veron purchase during Jesse Marsch’s tenure?), but it’s never worked in MLS.

It might have to this year since the front office went out and bought this team three new forwards (Cory Burke, Elias Manoel, Dante Vanzeir). None of them were cheap.

You don’t load up like that at that spot if you only intend to play one at a time.

Is there an open competition to be the No. 9?

DP Ercan Kara is the incumbent and my guess is he’ll start the season with the job, but his lack of mobility was a real issue for this team throughout 2022. So this offseason Orlando first traded up in the SuperDraft to pick MAC Hermann Trophy winner Duncan McGuire (I have had multiple Orlando City fans in my DMs over the past month absolutely raving about this kid), then went out and got Argentine youngster Ramiro Enrique on a U22 Initiative deal for good measure.

And I’m not going to entirely rule Jack Lynn out here. He killed MLS NEXT Pro in 2022 and has been getting preseason reps with the first team to start 2023.

Can they handle the pressure of being favorites?

The last time an MLS team came into a season with this much juice was 2021, when everyone thought LAFC and Columbus had a legit chance to set records. Both missed the playoffs.

I think the way last year ended for the Union means there’ll be no intensity drop-off like what we saw from those two sides, but pressure can do strange things to any team’s chemistry – and one of the secret ingredients for last year’s Union side was they had amazing chemistry.

Do they have the depth to make it a full season across multiple competitions?

What I’ve heard from folks around the league this preseason jives with what I see when I look at the Reds’ depth chart: their first XI is excellent, but it all falls apart if two or three guys can’t go. And folks, nobody makes it through a full MLS season with only two or three injuries.

Toronto will need major contributions from guys who aren’t even on the depth chart right now. The way this roster is constructed is incredibly precarious, and I think everyone knows it.