SKC Agada Thommy - Doyle column

Here is the writing prompt, sent Tuesday morning:

Below are some of my favorite responses, as well as my responses to those responses. That makes this the first mailbag of 2023 (a New Year’s resolution of mine is to produce these more regularly).

This is part 2 of this mailbag. Part 1 was yesterday and part 3 is coming tomorrow.

In we go!

Doyle preseason mailbag 2 - question 1

We started yesterday’s mailbag with a broad, league-wide topic, so I figure we should do the same with today’s. And the topic that came up the most – some of the comments were snarky, but most were sincere – was the debut of the new, expanded format Leagues Cup.

For those who haven’t followed it closely, here are the bullet points:

  • All 47 teams across MLS and Liga MX will participate.
  • LAFC and Pachuca have a bye directly into the knockout rounds.
  • The top 15 teams (well technically No. 2 to No. 16), based on league standing in the previous year, are the top seeds in the 15 three-team groups.
  • The group stage is a three-game round robin with the top two teams advancing to the knockouts.
  • The tournament will be played from mid-July to mid-August, with the final on August 19.

There are a lot of hooks to this tournament, which I bet will grow and evolve over the coming decade, but the biggest one is the one JDB put his finger on: Leagues Cup will give us a better (though not perfect) sense of the overall strength of both leagues. That is significantly different from the Concacaf Champions League, which is naturally tilted towards the top end of the spectrum.

Why does that matter? In large part the argument – the one I’d make – is that high-spending juggernauts like Tigres, CF Monterrey and Club America, who have dominated CCL for almost 15 years now, aren’t necessarily representative of the league as a whole, and there is a lamentable inclination in all soccer fans to boil a league’s overall quality down to how great its top handful of teams happens to be. This is more of an issue in Europe than it is in the Americas, which tend to be more balanced (though that balance is starting to disappear in Brazil and Argentina), but even in the Americas MLS is an outlier in terms of parity.

And because of that parity, the bottom of the league tends to play at a higher level than the bottom of other comparable leagues, while the top tends to be lower because of budget constraints. The delta between “good team” and “bad team” in MLS just ain’t that big and, as such, you get a higher percentage of truly competitive games here.

Does that make it a better league? That’s up for you to decide (or debate, really), and I admit the Tigres/Monterrey/America argument is a persuasive one, especially since it’s been supplemented by lower-spending but still highly successful sides like Pachuca and Santos.

But yeah… I don’t really have a great way to close this blurb. I’m just excited about Leagues Cup giving us a month of intense soccer and a new way to measure where MLS fits into the discussion.

Doyle preseason mailbag 2 - question 2

It’s been 45 years since the St. Louis Stars of the old NASL packed it up and moved to Anaheim, California. That’s nearly half a century since the soccer capital of America – and yes, I know other places have tried to claim that title, but anyone who knows the history of the sport in this country knows St. Louis is the sport’s true home here – had a first-division team.

We’ve seen so much expansion over the past 15 years that it feels like people have become a little bit jaded to it, like it’s old hat for anyone not in the market that’s taking its bows. And I get that, since we’ve gone from 12 clubs to 29 in what feels like the blink of an eye.

No one should feel like that about St. Louis. This is a landmark moment for the league and the sport, and I suspect the first game at CITYPARK on March 4 vs. Charlotte FC is going to be memorable for lots of locally resonant cultural reasons.

As for the team itself: I’ll class it as still a work in progress, though as I’ve written a number of times already, I feel like they’re in good shape for an expansion side because they’ve committed to a playing style and sort of overall worldview and are acquiring talent aimed toward that. They’ve also done the right thing in putting together a braintrust with MLS experience (head coach Bradley Carnell and director of coaching John Hackworth have both been around the league for a long time), which should smooth out some of the potential rough patches that could otherwise have tripped up rookie general manager Lutz Pfannenstiel.

Still, though, the midfield needs reinforcing and there are zero proven goalscorers anywhere in the squad. They will be misery to play against – Energy Drink Soccer and all that – but I will not believe this group’s got match-winning end product in it until I see it happen with my own eyes in meaningful games.

Doyle preseason mailbag 2- question 3

One of the things I’m most excited by about St. Louis’s arrival is the potential – I’ll go so far as to say “guaranteed” – rivalry with next-door neighbors Sporting KC.

Sporting have had on-again-off-again feuds with Chicago way back when, and RSL about a decade ago. They’ve had some bad-tempered encounters with Dallas and LA, and they’ve made the trek up I-35 to face off against Minnesota United in one competition or another about a billion times over the past six seasons.

And yet they are the main rivals of precisely no one. I’m guessing that instantly changes once these two clubs line up across from each other on May 20 at CITYPARK (and if I may make one future conference alignment suggestion: If/when the 30th team is added, keep St. Louis in the West to preserve the border war between these two teams, and move Minnesota east to hopefully spark a Bears/Vikings-style rivalry with the Fire).

Now that I have that out of the way: If you’re the type of person who likes to lay the occasional wager, or if you’re the type of sicko who plays MLS Fantasy, Willy Agada is your guy. The 23-year-old midseason signing was a bolt of lightning for Sporting last season, putting up 8g/2a in a shade over 900 minutes, and doing so with underlying numbers that suggest that kind of Best XI-caliber productivity was in no way a fluke (his .73 xG/96 as per AmericanSoccerAnalysis was second in the league among players with 900+ minutes, behind only Taty Castellanos).

All of that understates the teamwide effect he had, though. Agada’s relentless channel-running created more room for Sporting’s midfielders, who subsequently got on the ball more often and with more space to operate in, as per the tracking data. They then completed more passes, and passes that were more valuable, which then opened up more space for Agada as the defense was forced to scramble. The result was a 6W-4L-2D record and 1.9 goals per game in Agada’s 12 appearances, and just 5W-12L-5D with 0.9 goals per game in the other 22.

This is the virtuous cycle created by elite and relentless off-ball movement. If that 900-minute sample size holds true, then Sporting’s midfield – led by Agada’s fellow mid-season acquisition Erik Thommy, and reinforced by offseason acquisition Nemanja Radoja – should end up looking like one of the league’s very best.

That does leave some questions about the defense, as usual. I don’t know if they’ll be answered in the affirmative, but Sporting are way up near the top of my own personal watchability rankings.

Doyle preseason mailbag 2 - question 4

At the very top, however, remains FC Cincinnati. Their 64 goals scored was fourth-best in MLS; their 56 goals allowed was sixth-worst. Wait… 120 goals, total, across 34 games? That’s can’t-turn-it-off stuff.

In 2023, both their attack and their defense should be better. That attack should benefit from an injection of familiarity and confidence – remember, Brenner wasn’t starting regularly until mid-May, and didn’t score his first goal until June – as well as potentially upgrading right wingback (they don’t precisely need to do that; while both Alvas Powell and Ray Gaddis are hard-working defenders, both take a lot of stuff of the table in the final third). They could crest 70 goals.

Defensively, I’d be at least a little surprised if they allowed 50. A full season of DP d-mid Obinna Nwobodo and center back Matt Miazga (they allowed just 1.3 goals per game in Miazga’s 10 appearances, and 1.8 in the other 24 games), then reinforced by new arrival Marco Angulo in central midfield, seems to check some very necessary boxes and provide some very obvious upgrades.

As with everyone else this time of year, there’s still work to be done. For Cincinnati, the most obvious spot to aim for is still center back – and while I haven’t seen it specifically reported, I’ve got to imagine they’re going as hard after free agent Alex Callens as Atlanta are said to be. The Peruvian international, who was Defender of the Year-caliber when healthy last season, is just about an ideal fit in that 3-5-2 of Pat Noonan’s.

Doyle preseason mailbag 2 - question 5

Whether they get Callens or not, there’s legitimate hope and optimism in Atlanta this offseason (along with a helping of genuine sorrow thanks to the end of the Josef Martinez era, but alas, nothing gold can stay). The arrival of Garth Lagerwey as president/CEO is at the center of that optimistic swell in Five Stripes fandom, since Lagerwey’s body of work over the past 15 years speaks for itself.

And along with Lagerwey’s arrival, there’s been an obvious emphasis on a more common-sense approach to roster building. Atlanta’s stuffed with ball-to-feet midfielders (Thiago Almada being the best of them), so instead of shelling out for yet another for reasons, how about signing a proven MLS field-stretcher and goalscorer in left winger Derrick Etienne Jr.? Instead of burning max cap hits on backup central midfielders, or hoping against hope that Josef would become Josef again, how about doing the pragmatic thing and finding a mutual agreement to cut ties? And instead of going after another high-priced imported center back, how about aiming for a proven MLS commodity like Callens?

There’s been a lot of “let’s make a big move to make a big move” type of stuff in Atlanta’s past. I don’t see much of that thinking in their present, and while I’m not sure Lagerwey deserves all the credit – their Primary Transfer Window last year was very, very good – it’s probably not a coincidence Atlanta made a bunch of obviously smart moves right after they got the guy who’s been GM’ing the league to death for the past seven years.

None of that, however, should overshadow Almada, who is one-of-one in league history: an MLS player who won the World Cup while in MLS. The 21-year-old should be flying from the jump this season.

Which is not to say he wasn’t last year; Almada was very, very good in 2022 with 6g/12a and underlying numbers that put him right in the mix with recent MVPs Carlos Vela, Carles Gil and Alejandro Pozuelo.

So while a lot of Atlanta’s room for improvement comes from answering “will they do less dumb stuff in their roster build?” in the affirmative, a lot of it could (should?) come from Almada, in Year 2, playing like a guy who’s gonna be in the MVP discussion.

Doyle preseason mailbag 2 - question 6

Right up the road in Charlotte, there is another Year 2 set to unfold. And while there’s probably no MVP discussion upcoming – though it’s not at all out of the realm of possibility that Karol Swiderski gets to that level – I’m going to keep up with the optimism here and say 1) I really enjoyed a lot about how the Crown played under head coach Christian Lattanzio once he took over in mid-spring, and 2) the way they’ve used different player acquisition mechanisms this offseason suggests that GM Zoran Krneta learned from last year’s mistakes. On both short- and medium-term timelines, then… yeah, that’s the good stuff.

Lattanzio-ball, as Ben termed it, is unsurprisingly heavily inflected by City Football Group principles (Lattanzio was an assistant at NYCFC under Patrick Vieira), and what we saw from that was Charlotte become more comfortable keeping the ball and owning midfield as the year went on. This wasn’t peak NYCFC, but it was pretty identifiable by, say, July that Lattanzio was operating from the same blueprint that made the Pigeons the league’s winningest team from 2016-22.

Does that mean they’re going to be “the screwdriver and not the screw”? That may be overly optimistic for simple talent reasons: I’m not sure they’ve got a single guy on the roster who’s in the top five in MLS at their respective spot. A few could get there (keeping my fingers crossed for Derrick Jones!), but you wouldn’t write anyone’s name in pen for that type of excellence at this point.

That’s the opposite of NYCFC’s under Vieira, then Dome Torrent and Ronny Deila. For all the tactical and aesthetic brilliance of those sides, it’s well worth remembering that a lot of it came from them being a no-weak-links side – at their very best they had as many as eight starters among the five best players in the league at their respective positions, and literally none in the bottom half.

Charlotte can aim for that, and will probably be in the mix for a playoff spot this season. Got a long way to go to get to the top of the mountain, though.