MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Real or fake? Rendering verdicts after MLS Matchday 1

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After a delay thanks to Mother Nature, Matchday 1 is officially in the books. It’s the first of a long, winding road that leads to MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9.

Teams will peak, dip and evolve throughout 2023. Matchday 1 is just when the first data points are entered.

What was real and what was fake?

  • Question: Attack out of sync?
  • Verdict: Real

Talles Magno still does not look comfortable as a No. 9. Matias Pellegrini did not look comfortable as a No. 10. Both players are natural wingers.

NYCFC lost 2-0 to Nashville SC, dominating possession (and passes), but generally not bothering the hosts’ defense. They created just 0.4 expected goals (xG), despite chasing the game in the second half.

Magno’s sample size at center forward is large enough that it’s reasonable to be out on it (I sure am). To be fair to NYCFC, it took a little while for Taty Castellanos to jump, but Magno was perhaps the league’s best left winger over the first half of 2022 when Castellanos was at center forward. Rival MLS executives told me Magno can be a UEFA Champions League-level player at left wing… not center forward.

Right now, there’s reason to worry. The good news? NYCFC’s 2023 roster will look far different than the roster that opened Matchday 1. Hell, I’d reckon the roster will look different by the end of March. They still have ample room to add high-level talent and a track record of usually acquiring the right players.

Reports indicate Santi Rodriguez will soon make his way back to NYCFC. They need him ASAP. Last season, the Uruguayan attacker was seventh in MLS in chances created from open play per 90 minutes and sixth in assists per 90 minutes. He’s perfect to take the mantle from club legend Maxi Moralez, who was part of the winter exodus.

The attack will be fine. Rodriguez will come back and maybe another piece will be added, but even just Rodriguez should solve a lot of problems.

A secondary concern is the midfield was way too easy to play through without Alfredo Morales (and the offseason loan exit of Cacha Acevedo). They need to address that too… but James Sands’ loan with Rangers expires this summer. Will he come back or head elsewhere in Europe?

  • Question: Attacking problems are completely solved?
  • Verdict: Fake

Thiago Almada is awesome. His two goals in stoppage time from distance were probably the peak highlights from Saturday night, single-handedly earning the 2-1 win over San Jose.

But that doesn’t mean Atlanta United's attacking problems are solved. Here’s the shot chart, with plenty from outside the 18-yard box. One of the few from inside the 18 was a penalty kick… that DP winger Luiz Araujo put wide.

Atlanta were missing two starters from their front four in DP center forward Giorgos Giakoumakis (visa issues) and winger Derrick Etienne Jr. (subbed on). I still believe this attack is going to put up numbers, but the underlying performance will need to improve.

  • Question: Can they be protagonists?
  • Verdict: Real (for now)

If you missed FC Cincinnati vs. Houston Dynamo FC on Saturday night, watch the highlights below. There are a whole lot of Dynamo attacking moments.

Houston outshot Cincy (19-14), outpossesed them (62%-38%), outpassed them (581-358) and had more corner kicks (7-0). The passing stats are one thing – Cincy are a direct team that kill you in transition – but outshooting and the domination on corners away from home? It was impressive.

It’s an overall goal for the club this year under new head coach Ben Olsen.

“One thing we want to do is play more proactive, be more on the front foot,” Dynamo GM Pat Onstad told me last week. “We’re working with Benny on that. … We feel we have a nice mix. We brought in some guys like [Amine] Bassi and [Ivan] Franco who are playmakers, but they’re young and guys who like to work and press. The other side we have Corey [Baird] and Nelson [Quinones], who are ridiculously fast. We feel like we have a better balance.”

Onstad noted former Houston manager Paulo Nagamura (his original hire in 2022) wanted to be proactive as well, then results went south and the club had to be more dogmatic to try and get results. Onstad also said he understood why Nagamura took that approach.

The Dynamo’s midfield trio of Artur, Coco Carrasquilla and Héctor Herrera controlled the game and battled like hell. Cincy still created a bunch of chances themselves (and won the game), but it was an encouraging performance for the Dynamo to start 2023.

  • Question: Playoffs?
  • Verdict: Break out the Malort!

Chicago are technically above the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line (ninth in the East) thanks to an even goal difference. Sometimes you win by not playing.

  • Question: Are the Sounders back?
  • Verdict: Real

Seattle became the first MLS club to win the modern-day Concacaf Champions League last year, but never recovered from that grind in league play and missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time since entering as an expansion team (league-leading 13-year streak snapped).

For 2023, Seattle are running it back with their core and made only one key addition (Héber). Whew, boy did it look great during a 4-0 win over the Colorado Rapids.

US men's national team players Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan (who each signed contract extensions this winter) played great and Héber got on the scoresheet, with star forward Raúl Ruidíaz held out injured. They dominated the Rapids both in and out of possession; Colorado struggled to build out comfortably, let alone create much danger.

The Sounders’ performance serves as a message to the rest of the league: Hey, don’t forget about us.

Colorado had their own individual mistakes and poor performances. The truth lies somewhere between "Seattle are great" and "Colorado are bad," but methinks it’s closer to the Seattle end of the scale.

  • Question: Defensive concerns overblown?
  • Verdict: Fake

Even before trading away Bill Tuiloma to Charlotte FC, the Portland Timbers likely needed another option in central defense. Then they got up to $900,00 in General Allocation Money (GAM) from the second-year club for the New Zealand international, leaving the club doubly in need of reinforcements.

Monday night's 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City is a good start and a clean sheet is welcomed, but their defensive concerns haven’t gone away with one shutout. SKC weren’t at their sharpest or full strength, yet still created ample chances and looked threatening on every set piece.

Zac McGraw defended well and will play a big role for the club this season, even when another center back is signed. Juan Mosquera is a big talent at right back. Aljaž Ivačič is coming off a strong season at goalkeeper.

The club needs more, though, and will be tested mightily when visiting LAFC for Matchday 2.

  • Question: Maybe Orlando’s attack isn’t that good?
  • Verdict: Fake

Orlando City beat the New York Red Bulls, 1-0, but they managed just one shot on target at home… and that was Facundo Torres’ penalty that resulted in the game’s lone goal.

New DP winger Martín Ojeda didn’t look dangerous amid a plodding attack that created just six shots total, one of which was a hopeless Ojeda attempt from within his own half that was covered by RBNY goalkeeper Carlos Coronel and mishit anyway.

Still, Orlando's attack projects as being very good. Oscar Pareja’s teams have traditionally taken time to gel, while the Red Bulls are very difficult to play through with their vicious press. Torres and Ojeda, especially, have tons of talent and Mauricio Pereyra is another good orchestrator.

  • Question: Lack of top-end attacking talent?
  • Verdict: Real

CF Montréal dropped their 2023 opener against Inter Miami, 2-0, on the road. It came with some good moments, but ultimately some preseason fears were reinforced, namely whether or not the club have enough difference-makers in attack.

Last year’s fun, entertaining team has undergone sweeping change year-over-year. Head coach Wilfried Nancy left for Columbus, while Djordje Mihailovic, Alistair Johnston, Ismaël Koné, Kei Kamara and Joaquín Torres are all out via transfers abroad or intra-league trades. The most vivid growing pains will be felt in attack.

New head coach Hernan Losada plays a pressing/transition system, a change from Nancy’s possession-based ethos. No replacement has come for Mihailovic, Torres, or Kamara. Leading scorer Romell Quioto remains, but 2022 was his first in six MLS seasons where he reached double-digit goals. Montréal ended up with a solid 2.0 xG and 14 shots against Miami… but no goals.

Seeing Torres (who had seven assists in just over 1,300 minutes last year) make an immediate impact for the Philadelphia Union probably didn’t help.

  • Question: Elite wingback?
  • Verdict: Real

One more: Alvaro Barreal was so good at left wingback against Houston. He was really impressive down the stretch last season as well, when Pat Noonan and his staff put him in that role.

Barreal is a natural winger. I didn’t think he’d fit well in Cincy’s new system last year, but he’s excelled. The 22-year-old Argentine assisted Cincy's first goal and wasn’t credited for an assist on the second, but it was his cross that resulted in Obinna Nwobodo’s game-winner.

I said on Extratime last week that one player who could jump from pretty good in 2022 to potentially elite at his position in 2023 was Barreal at wingback.