Preseason is beginning. Yeah, it came that quickly.
I for one have always considered preseason a time for hope and belief and completely irrational theories on why this year is the year for your team in particular. It’s nice to have these moments of positivity before everyone gets mad at you for putting some team 15th instead of 13th in the Power Rankings.
There’s still a lot of work left to do for a whole lot of teams, but now is as good a time as any to talk about why there’s reason for optimism at this very early and beautiful moment of the MLS season where anything could happen.
It’s year one
Calling 2021 “year one” for Gonzalo Pineda totally disregards the situation he stepped into. This team finished 12th the East in 2020 and was well on track to do the same before Rob Valentino steadied the ship as interim manager and Pineda guided it into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. There were clear flaws along the way, but Pineda had to come in and do damage control and a rebuild on the foundation of the team rather than turning them into a perfectly functioning machine.
Now he gets a full preseason to implement his philosophy and a full season to fine-tune it. Judging from what we’ve already seen of Atlanta United under Pineda, that’s a phenomenal sign for the fate of the Five Stripes. It helps that it’s not just his first year one. Luiz Araujo also gets a full offseason to settle in. 2022 could be a special year for the Brazilian winger.
It’s year two
Over the last five years, expansion teams have often taken a noticeable step forward in year two. Atlanta won MLS Cup. LAFC set the points record. Nashville went from fringe playoff team to genuine contender. Minnesota took a bit longer. Cincinnati and Miami… jury’s still out.
Ok, so for some teams it doesn’t happen right away. But Austin FC have shown ambition and, from an outside view at least, looked more overwhelmed personnel-wise than tactically. That’s nothing a second year of roster building can’t fix. A foundation is there. And the expansion teams with a steady foundation are the ones who have taken that year two jump.
It’s year one and it will be year two
Expansion life is tough. But it carries a lot of promise with it. Who knows what this team will actually look like in year one, but they could look incredible. And even if they don’t, year two could be the year they really start to put it together. Everything is in front of them.
Maybe a more tangible reason for optimism, though, is that Charlotte FC have reportedly already sold 50,000-plus tickets for their home opener. Soccer in the South continues to bring in some serious attendance numbers. All eyes are on that March 5 home opener against the LA Galaxy and its potential to break the MLS attendance record.
Every MLS team gravitated toward some form of MLS or U.S. Soccer experience in the latest coaching carousel, but Hendrickson may have a better relationship with the league than any of them. He spent 11 years playing in MLS before joining Seattle as an assistant in 2009 and remaining an assistant of some kind within an MLS club every year since. It’s not a head-turning hire, but Hendrickson’s knowledge of the league could help provide some of the stability Chicago Fire FC have been missing as of late.
The Philadelphia Experiment
At some point, someone is going to get mad at me for comparing FC Cincinnati to the Union all the time. They probably already have. But I was already making those comparisons when they brought in Union front office member Chris Albright as their general manager and then they hired Union assistant Pat Noonan as their head coach and then they brought Ray Gaddis out of retirement and my hands are heavily tied here. Trust me when I say there are far worse things to be compared to.
Philadelphia have become one of the league’s most consistently outstanding performers without having to shell out the cash of some of the league’s bigger, less successful clubs. Cincy have essentially done the opposite so far. They certainly haven’t been afraid to spend but the results have been … less than ideal. Now imagine a world in which they replicate the Union’s team-building philosophies but with a top-five payroll in the league. Moneyball but with money is almost always a recipe for trophy-winning success. I can’t imagine we’re going to see Cincy stuck at the bottom of the table for much longer.
There’s still time to run it back ... but better
Just a reminder that we’re talking about the first-place team in the Western Conference here. They understandably haven’t changed much this offseason. That should be enough reason for optimism on its own, but what should truly excite Colorado Rapids fans is that there’s even the tiniest possibility the team might try and strike while the iron is hot and bring in DP-level talent to a team with no weak links. Having a chain with no weak links is nice, but it’d be even cooler if it was covered in diamonds. That’s the kind of upgrades Colorado could make by filling one or two or all three of their empty DP spots. They’d improve their chances of challenging for MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield and maybe even give themselves a genuine chance at a CCL run.
Maybe the optimism really lies in the fact that they could go either way here and still challenge for trophies. And hey, if things don’t go as planned in the first part of the year, they could always fill those spots in the summer.
The honeymoon is coming to an end
After you win MLS Cup, you get a certain amount of time before people gain the ability to be genuinely frustrated with the direction of the team. No one in Columbus should be truly upset with how 2021 went. In a vacuum, it didn’t go well. In context, you watched your team miss the playoffs while holding MLS Cup and even got a Campeones Cup title.
That phase is reaching its conclusion though. Despite 2020, 2021 certainly had to be disappointing on some level. There were preseason talks of the Columbus Crew being an all-time excellent team based on the talent they brought in to add to a championship roster. It didn’t quite work out that way. And maybe in some sense coming far short of that possibility was for the best. Complacency won’t be as much of an option this year and this roster and the folks in charge of it will be motivated to get the Crew back where they feel they belong: Competing for the top of the East. They’ll likely have the pieces and hopefully they’ll have the injury luck to make that happen.
A chance to cash in
Ricardo Pepi is gone to German Bundesliga side FC Augsburg, but a whole lot of money has come in. About $18 million worth depending on who you ask. FC Dallas will certainly miss El Tren but they should have plenty of players available to replace him and any other holes they’d like to patch up if they’re willing to spend to make it happen. Obviously, MLS roster rules don’t make it quite as easy as just throwing money at the problem and being done with it, but a major influx of cash certainly can’t hurt.
They’re already in shape
I highly doubt Hernan Losada will have to worry about his team showing up to preseason lacking fitness. They’ll know what to expect from their manager this year and we may just see a year two bump from D.C. United as Losada’s philosophies continue to take hold. The underlying numbers loved D.C. last year and it's hard to see them missing out on the playoffs this year if those numbers stay the same, or maybe even improve.
A new foundation
It’s easy to be optimistic when nearly everything is new. Houston Dynamo FC have new ownership, a new general manager in Pat Onstad and a new head coach in Paulo Nagamura. Onstad has already made a couple of smart signings by grabbing Steve Clark and Daniel Steres, plus Darwin Quintero is back on a TAM deal. Those all feel like the kinds of moves you need to make to push a team like Houston in the right direction. There may not be an immediate payoff with this new group of leadership, but new leadership that’s already showing promise is always a reason to look forward to the future.
A chance to be a little more neutral
I’m not entirely sure what Steve Cherundolo’s tactical philosophy will look like at LAFC, but I have to imagine there’s a sense of understanding that LAFC were a bit too chaotic evil over the last two years. A little bit more neutrality and a sense of assuredness that some spectacular defensive mistake isn’t about to doom them would feel welcome. A complete season of 19-year-old Mamadou Fall, maybe the most talented young defender in the league, should help with that.
A few tweaks here and there and LAFC may just be more of a sure bet than they’ve ever been. Or at least, they might feel like it. A little less anxiety game to game seems like plenty of reason for optimism.
Greg Vanney and some newness
In Greg Vanney’s second full season in charge in Toronto, they made MLS Cup. That seems like a positive omen. On top of that, the LA Galaxy have a little bit of roster flexibility at the top with all that Sebastian Lletget allocation money they got from the Revs and their new DP spot that opened up after the departure of Jonathan dos Santos.
Remember, things were going very well for LA until, well, they weren’t at all starting about five-eighths through the season. There was a foundation there. Now they just need to find a way to make sure it stays in place for the entire year. After adding a jillion new players last season, stability should come a little easier.
Once everything is torn down you can build it back up
Y’all ever seen a house built on top of another house? You can’t do it. I’m told you have to tear down the other house first. And when the first house finished 10th and 11th in the East in its first two seasons, everyone probably agrees it's ok for Inter Miami CF to start over and try again.
No one believes again
Do you hear that Minnesota United FC? You’re the underdog again. Nearly everyone put faith in you last year and you sputtered for a lot of the year. Well, now you won’t have to worry about that as much. It’s Minnesota versus the world again and we know how that usually goes.
Unless me believing in them because no one believes in them actually cancels everything out … which would mean I don’t believe in them … which ... hold on, gotta go think some things through here.
None of the old questions
It felt like there were so many questions facing this team last year. Would Wilfried Nancy be up to the job? Would Djordje Mihailovic succeed with a new team? Could they handle being in Florida for an undetermined amount of time?
CF Montréal answered all of those and nearly every other question that could have been asked positively. In the end, they barely missed out on the playoffs. But there haven’t been many changes to this group since then other than bringing in Alistair Johnston from Nashville. The only real question they’ll have to face this year is if they can live up to expectations. That’s a much better place to be.
Nearly everything about their offseason so far
They’ve stockpiled allocation money in exchange for international slots and Johnston. They feel they can upgrade on Johnston and if you can turn four international slots for $1 million in allocation money, you’re doing something right. On top of that, they beat out a handful of other MLS clubs in the race to sign former Red Bulls captain Sean Davis. They’ve added and will continue to add to a team that took a massive leap last season after an impressive year one. They’re opening up a new stadium just in time for this team to likely be an MLS Cup contender. You really didn’t need me to tell Nashville SC to be excited for 2022.
Sebastian Lletget is free
I mean, besides the obvious fact that nearly everyone is returning to a team that just set the MLS points record, it seems like a good thing that Sebastian Lletget is there to replace the key attacking player that actually did leave, Tajon Buchanan.
I’m fascinated to see what Lletget can do when he has Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa in front of him and Carles Gil there to carry the brunt of the creative load. He may not fully replace Buchanan for the New England Revolution. But even if he doesn’t, this team is stacked. And if he does replace Buchanan, and maybe even ends up offering a little more, then a historically great team somehow got better.
Do whatever you want for a year or three and just keep rolling MLS Cup out when you need to remind yourself that you did the dang thing.
That freedom that can lead to even better soccer if used correctly by New York City FC. That’s how it works, right?
Seems like Lewis Morgan is going to thrive
Lewis Morgan had an outstanding 2020 and a not-so-outstanding 2021. He got moved around a bit last year and never looked quite as comfortable under Phil Neville in Miami. He’s an explosive, dynamic player though and seems like an excellent fit for Gerhard Struber. There’s a reason the New York Red Bulls spent $1.2 million in General Allocation Money to make this deal happen. I’m not going to say he’s going to carry New York to a title, but he’s a piece to put some belief into as the Red Bulls look to replace some key guys.
The Wilfs aren’t wasting time
Orlando City SC could have sat on the money and the roster spots they’ve opened with Nani’s exit and the transfer of Daryl Dike. Instead they’ve re-signed Mauricio Pereyra to a DP deal and been linked to some high-price talent (hello Facundo Torres). The Lions aren’t messing around. And these moves might just inject some life into a team that seemed to lose its edge last season.
It’s the Union
Do you really need more proof of concept at this point? The Philadelphia Union are mostly returning the same guys and they’re going to add some pieces you didn’t expect that will instantly fit. And if they don’t fit they’ll just replace them with some kid from the academy that will instantly fit. And then Andre Blake will make a bunch of saves when he needs to and they’ll be in the playoffs.
I know it’s weird in Portland right now, but let’s try to take a glass-half-full look at it. Diego Valeri is soon exiting and it’s unclear if Sebastian Blanco will be back. So 2022 may bring a totally new feel at the top of the roster for the Portland Timbers. But that could be alright!
You have a chance to bring in some younger players you won’t have to worry about leaving or fading for a couple of years. That could mean less minute managing and added stability throughout the season. Will those young players be good enough to lead you to a second-straight MLS Cup appearance? Who knows. But different doesn’t always mean bad.
Other teams were interested in Pablo Mastroeni. Real Salt Lake held onto him. Now he gets a chance to work for a full season of not worrying about the stats and looking at heart instead. We’ll see how it goes. It helps that he’ll have a new ownership group behind him.
A new general manager
Chris Leitch took over as interim GM of the San Jose Earthquakes last year and then went out and made one of the gutsiest moves of the season by bringing in Jeremy Ebobisse in a blockbuster, out-of-nowhere trade. It earned him the permanent job. Now we get to see what he does in a full offseason in charge with the added pressure of putting a winning product together in what could be Matias Almeyda’s last season as head coach.
EDITOR's NOTE: They signed Albert Rusnak as a DP.
They’ll still score
Take your pick
I’m partial to the whole making a landmark MLS signing thing (Lorenzo Insigne!) but you could talk me into Bob Bradley being the biggest reason to look forward to 2022 for Toronto FC. Or maybe you’re more interested in the (apparent) fact that 2021 was surely the low point and it can’t get much worse. Right…?