LAFC-Philly Doyle preseason mailbag

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 3 of this mailbag. Part 1 was Wednesday and Part 2 was Thursday.

In we go!

Doyle preseason mailbag 3, question 1

This question is kind of tongue-in-cheek, but also kind of not given how steadily the Union have progressed under Jim Curtin. Check it:

  • 2015: 37 points, -13 goal differential, USOC final
  • 2016: 42 points, -3 goal differential
  • 2017: 42 points, +3 goal differential
  • 2018: 50 points, -1 goal differential, USOC final
  • 2019: 55 points, +8 goal differential
  • 2020: 47 points (won Supporters’ Shield), +24 goal differential
  • 2021: 54 points, +13 goal differential, CCL semifinals
  • 2022: 67 points, +46 goal differential, MLS Cup final

It’s uncanny how steady the growth has been for the Union. And bear in mind that the one year they took a step back (2021) came after they sold two Best XI homegrowns, and came amid the type of deep CCL run that has absolutely ruined other teams.

So yeah, kind of tongue-in-cheek and kind of not, and given everything we’ve seen from the Union during Curtin’s near-decade in charge, you’d probably be right to point at MLS Cup and say “they’re the favorites heading into 2023.” I certainly won’t argue with you if you do.

But I do think it’s worth pointing out they’re maybe a little bit weaker on paper than they were last year at this point. There is no proven depth behind Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes for one, and for two Cory Burke was arguably the best sub in the league last year – a pure battering ram off the bench who repeatedly changed games with his energy and physicality and, you know, the occasional goal. He’s up the road in Harrison now, and it’ll be damn hard for the Union to replace Burke’s presence via their typical path of promoting talent from within.

Doyle preseason mailbag 3, question 2

If the next step for Philly isn’t winning MLS Cup it’s winning CCL, right? They’ve never won a final before of any stripe – three losses in three trips to the US Open Cup final, and last year’s devastating defeat in MLS Cup – so nominally you could list the Open Cup or Leagues Cup (winning the first edition of the expanded Leagues Cup would be legit). But if we’re all being honest, I think we all understand that MLS Cup and CCL are the two major cup competitions at this point.

And if Philly make it far in either competition, there’s no reason to think they can’t/won’t meet up with LAFC again. In fact, just looking at the CCL bracket, I’d say that the Union and LAFC would probably be favorites to make it to the semis for an MLS Cup rematch. That home-and-home would, I imagine, be played at a level of intensity that teams only rarely reach.

LAFC, of course, have hit that mark before. We saw it in MLS Cup itself (which, for the record, I’m still standing by as the greatest game in MLS history across all competitions), and we’ve seen this group make a deep CCL run in the not-so-distant past. Yes, 2020 is receding in the rearview somewhat, but a good chunk of the LAFC group that made it all the way to the final that year are still on the roster, and this season could very well be their last hurrah.

The truth is, though, I don’t expect them to be all that sharp to start the year. There’s been a bunch of turnover (adios Gareth Bale, Latif Blessing, Franco Escobar, and it seems a good bet that José Cifuentes and Diego Palacios could be joining them soon) this offseason, and what we’ve seen repeatedly is championship hangovers are very real.

So I’m more curious than optimistic about LAFC’s CCL chances. I’m sure they’ll be good in 2023, but they don’t exactly look like a juggernaut right now.

Bear in mind, of course, this team swings big with their acquisitions and have a DP slot open, so things can change significantly by the time the games count.

Doyle preseason mailbag 3, question 3

Down the 110 in Carson, things are also expected to change significantly by the time the games count – and obviously, unlike LAFC and Philly, the Galaxy won’t have to deal with the schedule crunch CCL represents. They should be able to ease into the season, and will likely do so as one of the favorites.

And Galaxy Dude is right: they will be among the favorites because of that midfield, which was devastating in a relatively small sample size last season (they lost just once in seven games while scoring two goals per game when the three of them started together).

The reason, obviously, is both talent – all three guys are among the top five players in the league at their respective spots, and Puig will be on the shortlist of MVP candidates heading into the season – and fit. Delgado gets on the ball a ton, but his movement into pockets and away from traffic is so smart that he doesn’t need the ball to be effective. Brugman is more ball-dominant, but that’s a good thing since his comfort dropping deep and playing out means that Puig can stay higher and Delgado can just pick up possession in clever spots rather than picking up possession in high-risk spots.

The three of them were simpatico on both sides of the ball. It was an instant fit.

And now they need to find wingers who can make use of attacking advantages that midfield creates, and who can operate in the space Chicharito’s gravity creates. Because of the sanctions imposed upon them this winter (sanctions that essentially amount to a summer transfer ban minus domestic maneuvering), they are on the clock to find at least one guy like that – maybe two if they can part with Douglas Costa (like Kevin Cabral’s trade to Colorado) via one mechanism or another – before the primary window closes.

If they get that potential DP(s) signing right, the Galaxy could end 2023 where LAFC ended 2022. But outside of Puig and Brugman, the Galaxy have not been known for getting their international signings right for a long, long time.

Doyle preseason mailbag 3, question 4

NYCFC, of course, are on the total other end of the spectrum concerning talent ID, recruitment and integration. They have the scouting resources of City Football Group at their disposal and they’ve been liberal in using them, which has created a pipeline of highly-talented, young South Americans to the Bronx (soon to be Queens!).

Talles Magno is probably the best of the ones that remain, though Gabriel Pereira’s also in with a shout. Will they be able to bring back Santi Rodriguez, who was in town on loan from Montevideo City Torque (another CFG club) for the past two years, and was absolutely excellent in 2022?

I’m not sure. I’m hoping so, though, because with Maxi Moralez having decamped for Argentina, Santi seems like the natural fit as his replacement.

But the point is that even if Santi’s not coming back, the pipeline is going to stay open. NYCFC have been unapologetic about being a waypoint on the path to Europe for CFG kids, and all of Patrick Vieira, Dome Torrent and Ronny Deila did an excellent job of integrating those newcomers with a cadre of veterans as well as one of the most productive academies in the league.

It’s been a great recipe – NYCFC have MLS’s best record since 2016. It’s tough to be that consistent.

This year, however, with no Maxi, a paper-thin midfield, major question marks around two of the league’s best free agents (GK Sean Johnson & CB Alex Callens), and the chance that Talles will be played out of position as a No. 9 once again… this year’s the biggest test of the NYCFC formula since Vieira took over for Jason Kreis was back in 2015. And that makes them one of the most interesting teams in the league to keep an eye on in the coming months.

Doyle preseason mailbag 3, question 5

CF Montréal might be even more interesting, though, right? They made a ton of news for their player sales this offseason – Ismaël Koné for $9 million to Watford; Djordje Mihailovic for $6 million to AZ Alkmaar; Alistair Johnston for $3.5 million to Celtic – and it’s understandable, after what happened to the Revs last year, to expect a massive regression from Montréal.

But if that regression happens, I’m not sure it’ll be because of the talent exodus. Koné’s a talent, but he only played about 1,600 minutes last year, and in Rida Zouhir they’ve got a clone of him ready to go. Johnston is obviously excellent, but Aaron Herrera was the best RB/RWB in the league two years ago, and they got him for a song. You could argue that, based on Herrera’s skillset and performance in MLS, they might’ve upgraded.

They won’t manage to upgrade on Mihailovic, who was Best XI-caliber when healthy last year. Remember, though, they didn’t exactly fall off a cliff when Mihailovic missed time, and it’s reasonable to expect improvement from both Joaquín Torres and Matko Miljevic. Plus if they can land Alan Sonora, as has been rumored forever, then they’ll have moved from strength to strength.

No, the real question with Montréal is how new head coach Hernan Losada does after Wilfried Nancy moved to lead the Columbus Crew. And the truth is you could talk me into anything from 40 points and a fast fade into irrelevance to 65 points and another year of legit contending. It’s all on the table under the ex-D.C. United manager, both for Montréal and for basically everyone else.

And that’s the MLS way, right? Everybody’s got a puncher’s chance entering the season, and I’ll never stop being excited about that.