Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

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

Doyle West questions 2.14.23

Here, as promised, is the next installment of our usual preseason slate of content: One big question for each Western Conference 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 was yesterday. West below.

In we go…

Is last year’s magic repeatable?

They got massive xG overperformance not just from star DP Sebastian Driussi, but from the entire team. We all harped on it so much that it became a meme – and yes, Austin fans will absolutely ratio me when I tweet out a link to this story. I can’t blame them.

Bear in mind, by the way, how MLS has a rich history of teams outperforming their xG and virtually every other underlying metric. But it’s wildly unusual to string together multiple seasons in a row like that. Pretty much only the Sounders have done it over the past decade, and we all saw the numbers finally catch up to them last year.

Can they get goals from the wingers?

They’ve collected a bunch now. Michael Barrios, Jonathan Lewis, Kevin Cabral, Braian Galvan… these guys all seem to know where the goal is. All of them make the type of runs and get into the types of spots where consistent goalscorers work.

None of them are consistent goalscorers. That’s why the Rapids have gotten each of them on a budget.

If just one of these guys lives up to his potential as a goalscorer, Colorado’s front office will look like geniuses.

Will they regret letting Matt Hedges walk?

I believe you should never let a proven, high-quality, domestic center back walk if he’s still got gas in the tank, and Hedges showed last year he’s still got plenty of gas in the tank even as he approaches his mid-30s. It would’ve taken a big budget hit to keep him – reports put his salary option, which Dallas declined, at over $1 million – but in the long run, it might end up being a bigger hit letting him go. Other teams can attest, and now Hedges is in Toronto.

Can Hector Herrera be a foundational piece in MLS?

Two things here are true:

  1. HH is one of the very best midfielders in Concacaf history.
  2. The Dynamo got worse when he arrived mid-season last year.

It’s not supposed to work that way when you add a guy with that kind of talent and experience, but fit and motivation matter. Herrera didn’t look particularly motivated in orange, and his fit in central midfield was questionable at best.

You could see it in the underlying numbers, as the Dynamo simply allowed more and more valuable opponent possession directly through central midfield when Herrera was out there. I’m pretty confident in the cause/effect relationship there.

Do they have enough on the wings to go to the 4-2-3-1?

After getting rid of Kevin Cabral and Samuel Grandsir, after bringing back Douglas Costa (who was a disaster in 2022), after making no major offseason signings thus far despite facing summer transfer window sanctions, and despite having no academy kids pushing for first-team minutes on the wing despite being smack in the middle of the most talent-rich area in North America, the answer appears to be no.

And so Greg Vanney’s gone with either a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2 thus far in preseason. Maybe that’ll change with Chicharito having picked up a hamstring injury and Tyler Boyd in town ahead of a potential move, but even if Boyd signs I can’t really talk myself into believing LA have the pieces to go out and do what they actually want to do.

Will they be able to focus on CCL and keep their level high in the league at the same time?

The Black & Gold, even after selling Chicho Arango (that’s obviously another huge question), quite obviously have continental aspirations. And there is a long and illustrious history of MLS teams with continental aspirations going all in on the pursuit of glory, then paying the price in league play. All you have to do is take a spin up to the northern reaches of I-5 to see the most recent iteration.

Deep CCL runs wreck MLS seasons more often than not, remember.

What’s the story with Emanuel Reynoso?

What we know right now is that…

  • He’s still in Argentina, and…
  • He’s being for being there instead of reporting to preseason.

I will add my bit of reporting here and say sources at the club are sour on Reynoso in a way they haven’t been in the past despite his often laissez-faire approach to the job. Which is to say a week ago I had my money on “this will all work out and everyone will forget it happened by May.”

Now I wouldn’t touch that bet with a 10-foot pole.

Is Diego Chara immortal?

Last year, at age 36, he logged yet another typical Chara season: 2437 minutes, 59 fouls, nine yellow cards, 88% passing, a million miles of ground covered and a million opposing attacks destroyed.

There were times in the second half of the season, however, when he did look like he’d lost half a step. I’m not sure if that was actually the case (it doesn’t show up in his underlying numbers), or if the rest of Portland’s midfield structure was so janky it just seemed like Diego was behind the play more often than in years past.

Whatever the actual answer is, the fact is he’s going to be 37 in April and, sooner or later, Father Time is going to win. Portland’s got to figure out a way to ask less of Chara or they’ll set themselves up to spend another postseason watching from home.

Does Damir Kreilach return to his Best XI form?

The big Croat had the finest season of his career in 2021, putting up 16g/9a while finally playing full-time as a sort of target raumdeuter. He was brilliant at finding space and linking play in build-up, and even more brilliant at losing his mark to drift to the back post and bang home goal after goal in the box. Playing underneath a true center forward in what was functionally a 4-2-3-1… it was perfect.

And then he missed virtually all of 2022 with a back injury.

He’ll be 34 in mid-April and there’s just not a great history of guys at that age recovering from a major back issue to hit their previous level. And there’s certainly no one on RSL's roster who plays that role in the hole underneath a 9 like Kreilach does.

Is there another level for Jeremy Ebobisse in attack?

Ebobisse finally got a chance to be a full-time No. 9 and responded with 34 starts, nearly 3000 minutes and 17 goals. Not bad for a guy who’d been shunted to the wing for the bulk of his professional career before that.

If those are the numbers he put up during his first year leading the line, what’s he capable of in Year 2? Especially with an improved midfield behind him and potentially elite wingers on either side…

Can they get the balance correct on the left side?

Based on the one-game sample we had in the Club World Cup, it looks like Brian Schmetzer has already made a tactical switch in possession. Instead of the two fullbacks taking turns overlapping (one goes up while the other stays so the back four always turns into a back three), it looked more like Alex Roldan had nearly complete freedom while Nouhou Tolo was always sliding in to become a third center back. So in possession, the Sounders shifted into a 3-2-2-3 shape.

That’s great in that it recognizes Nouhou’s strengths as a defender and limitations as an attacker. But teams that go 3-2-2-3 tend to get their attacking width from the wingers, and those wingers tend to be 1v1 merchants.

Jordan Morris does not fit that mold. Even at his best he doesn’t beat guys off the dribble and has always been way more comfortable tucked in almost as a second forward. So one of the big issues from last year – Seattle got nothing up that left side – seems like it’s still on the plate even after an adjustment and some pretty important players returning to health.

I’m honestly not sure how to fix it.

Was that 10-game sample from Willy Agada real?

Dude looked like prime Josef Martinez. He made every other player on the field for his team better, even when he wasn’t touching the ball.

The impact of guys like that tends to be sustainable (at least until/unless they get injured), so I’m betting Willy’s got at least 15 goals in him – and that Sporting look much more like the team that scored 1.9 goals/game with Agada in the lineup (with a climb up the table) rather than the one that scored just 0.9 goals/game without him (floundering at the bottom).

Will Roman Burki live up to expectations?

The Swiss international had a long and pretty great career, first in his home country and then in the German Bundesliga primarily with Borussia Dortmund. And the expectations are massive, given he’s got by far the highest profile on the current roster.

But his shot-stopping numbers really started to dip in 2019 and as good as he likely still is with his feet, the No. 1 job of any goalkeeper remains keeping the ball out of the goal.

If Burki’s just league average, it’s probably not good enough. St. Louis need him to be in the Goalkeeper of the Year discussion, and in his last few years in Dortmund he wasn’t really at that level.

Can the Ryan Gauld/Pedro Vite attacking midfield partnership work?

I thought it looked great down the stretch last year as Vite’s insertion into the lineup gave Gauld more room to roam and freedom to play off the ball, so I am bullish on this working out.

But we’ve seen flashes from Vancouver in the past that they weren’t able to spin forward into the following season. Remember how good they were at the end of 2021? Remember how they got off to the club’s worst-ever start in 2022?

Yeah. Nothing’s guaranteed.