Even with would-be aristocrats like LAFC and the Seattle Sounders hogging the spotlight with chronic success, MLS remains strikingly egalitarian from week to week. For example, though only two Matchdays have transpired in the new season, just four of the league’s 29 clubs have played two matches and taken full points from both.
Though it’s true that LAFC and Minnesota United, who’ve only played once thus far, could yet join that list, it’s a surprisingly select group for the first week of March. So we’re taking a quick look at what that quartet have done right, centering on what we see as one key overarching facet of their strong starts.
First stop: sunny south Florida.
Resourcefulness – and a pinch of redemption
Here’s an expansion riddle. The Herons by and large face-planted when given a blank sheet upon which to construct a new squad from scratch three years ago. Yet over the past year-plus they’ve made vast improvements despite being saddled with some bulky contracts, constrained by a stiff set of punishments for breaking MLS roster regulations and forced to rebuild their internal culture.
Remodeling is often tougher than working from scratch. So kudos are due to CSO/sporting director Chris Henderson, head coach Phil Neville and their staff for their resourcefulness, utilizing what they have and/or can get rather than what they might ideally want. That was reflected in the 2-0 wins over CF Montréal and the Philadelphia Union.
Miami’s Matchday 1 goalscorers were Sergii Kryvstov, a veteran center back recruited from war-displaced Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk on what was reportedly a free transfer, and Shanyder Borgelin, a homegrown prospect cut loose by the Union in 2020 before earning a first-team contract with his hometown club after shining in MLS NEXT Pro last year. All this while lead striker Leo Campana is hurt (calf), and his would-be partner Josef Martínez is still settling in.
Other standouts: Rodolfo Pizarro, shipped out on loan to Monterrey last year despite it costing IMCF a dead Designated Player slot, yet now back and “playing some of the best football I've seen him play,” in Neville’s words; goalkeeper Drake Callender, a San Jose academy product considered surplus to requirements by the Earthquakes who made 10 saves, several of them clutch, over the first two weeks.
The Herons, like Seattle, benefitted from back-to-back home games against teams ripe for ambush, and Neville himself just said “it's too soon to start making big statements.” We’ll learn a lot more about them when they visit New York City FC at Yankee Stadium for the Pigeons’ home opener, the team that ended Miami’s 2022 campaign with a humbling L in Round One of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
How did the Revs go from Supporters’ Shield winners in 2021 – setting a new league points record – to 20th in the overall table and out of the playoffs in ‘22? That took a multi-layered cocktail of factors, a tequila sunrise of disappointment if you will. But one critical issue that Bruce Arena didn’t quite solve last year was fitting his top talents (and there is ample talent on this roster) into the most coherent overall shape and tactics on gameday.
As Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle framed it in his Revs season postmortem, “how easily that wide diamond could end up with them playing 1-v-3 in central midfield against good teams. Arena eventually conceded on that point, going to a 4-2-3-1 in midseason in order to try to even out the numbers, but given injuries and the squad overhaul – and the fact the roster was built to play with two up top – it never really clicked.”
New England’s wins over Charlotte and Houston suggested that The Bruce has found some answers. He’s used both the diamond midfield and something more like a conventional 4-2-3-1 to pack the engine room with willing legs like teenage homegrown Noel Buck and new acquisition Latif Blessing, while still making room for Spanish string-puller Carles Gil and livewire dribbler Dylan Borrero. The latter’s ability to adjust to both wing and forward deployments looks particularly vital thus far.
Promising starts from the entire back line have been key, too, with supercharged fullbacks DeJuan Jones and Brandon Bye influential and Henry Kessler showing a good understanding with newcomer Dave Romney. Arena’s next challenge is figuring out when and how to reintegrate returning-to-fitness regulars like Gustavo Bou and Andrew Farrell, and where (if?) DP Giacomo Vrioni best fits in. This weekend’s trip to LAFC will be interesting.
Just the right amount of chaos
As a part, like it or not, of the national press pack that reached the general consensus that CITY SC would be Wooden Spoon contenders in their inaugural season, let us start with this: You’re welcome, St. Louisans.
Well? Didn’t all that punditry about the newcomers boarding the struggle bus give Lutz Pfannenstiel, Bradley Carnell and their players the precious gift of a “narrative” to rage against, a set of perceived slights with which to cast their squad as underdogs and outsiders, a hard-working bunch eager to upset the apple cart and rally their magenta-clad supporters against the outside world?
On a less tongue-in-cheek note, we have to give tons of credit to STL for summoning every resource at their disposal to make a flying start to life in MLS, even if everyone who’s paid any attention to MLS expansion over the decades would be quick to caution that the honeymoon period always comes crashing to a halt sooner or later.
Carnell has crafted a seemingly egalitarian group fully committed to the club’s high-press principles, ready to run themselves ragged and get stuck in to the fullest. Showpiece signings João Klauss and Eduard Löwen have been productive and inspiring without breaking the bank. Even those who think STL are lucky ducks who’ve had multiple goals handed to them by opponents’ brain farts must acknowledge that the energy of their hectic style wreaks a destabilizing sort of havoc to make that possible:
And when they do get on the ball, CITY SC have shown cleverness and cohesion in the attack, as their advantage in expected goals in both of their wins would suggest. Harrying the other team like your hair’s on fire is one thing; showing composure and clarity when you do win it back is another. We’ll have to see if they can sustain all this intensity through the heat of summer, but for now, they’ve more than earned their momentum.
Historically prone to slow starts, the Rave Green have bolted out of the blocks this winter, aided, as noted above, by two very winnable home games at always-imposing Lumen Field. But let’s take the eye test into consideration, too.
It’s not just that they beat Colorado and Real Salt Lake, it’s that they did so with panache, knitting together some truly lovely stretches of possession while keeping things solid in the back. Coach Brian Schmetzer called it “some of the best soccer that the Seattle Sounders have played in a very long time,” and the crew over at Sounder At Heart dubbed it “Highlife Soccer” – a blue-collar American cousin to the ballyhooed “champagne football” of yore.
After suffering the worst Concacaf Champions League hangover in history – which is really saying something – and missing the playoffs for the first time in their MLS existence just as Garth Lagerwey pulled up stakes for Atlanta, Seattle could justifiably have blown some stuff up. The core of their roster has been aging, after all, and they have plenty of saleable assets to flip in the event of a rebuild.
Instead, they tweaked and tinkered, and largely kept faith in the trusted figures who earned them CCL immortality last spring. With that comes the partnerships that make good teams flow, like the Roldan brothers along the right flank and the crucial central triangle of Nico Lodeiro, Albert Rusnák and the returning João Paulo. It didn’t quite click in time for a Club World Cup run, but it’s given them a head start on the rest of MLS.