Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Seattle Sounders made CCL history... Which MLS team wins it next?

Last week I wrote a column titled “The Blueprint” in which I went through Seattle’s methodology in building a roster that has, for 13 straight years, competed at or near the top of MLS, and that had left them uniquely positioned to break the Concacaf Champions League curse and actually bring home the first CCL title for MLS since that competition had been remade.

Twelve hours after that column was published, the Sounders obliged by going out there and winning the damn thing over Pumas. It was a huge day for Seattle, and it was a huge day for MLS.

It is not likely to be the last huge day for MLS. As I pointed out in that column, smart teams around the league are following the same sort of best practices the Sounders have laid down in terms of roster building – putting resources into the core, being agnostic about talent acquisition, veering toward proven, high-end commodities, etc. Teams that do that, and have the right combination of coaching and ambitious ownership, give themselves a chance to be next through the regional tape and into the Club World Cup.

That is what the blueprint is for, right? Not only to be good and win stuff in MLS, but to continue to grow into the types of teams that can consistently compete internationally. The Sounders showed it can be done. Twenty-seven other teams definitely noticed.

So who’ll be next? Let’s dive in:

Why they’ll do it

The Black & Gold check damn near every box. They have been ambitious in their DP acquisitions over the years, and have been just as ambitious with their U22 Initiative shopping. They have brought contributors in from the USL Championship, and found value via the SuperDraft. They have sold guys on for GAM when they needed to have more flexibility to make moves within the league, and have been clear-eyed, in the last window, about spots they need to upgrade.

That last window, with the additions of Kellyn Acosta, Ryan Hollingshead and Ilie Sanchez, gave them the type of veteran core that had been culled out of the team over the previous couple of years. But it’s worth remembering the guys who are holdovers from the previous couple of years not only have title-winning experience (I still think the 2019 Supporters’ Shield-winning LAFC side is the best I’ve seen in MLS) but actual CCL experience.

Remember this?

That goal’s pretty as a picture, and it came in the actual CCL final against a Tigres side that, no disrespect intended, is a damn sight better than the Pumas team Seattle manhandled last week.

So they have the pedigree, they have the core, they have the structure, and under new head coach Steve Cherundolo they look a lot like the type of team that’s going to get their next CCL chance as soon as next year.

Why they won’t

Two reasons: DPs and depth.

LAFC have been ambitious with their DP signings, but they’ve missed on a couple. Andre Horta was here and gone in an instant, while Brian Rodriguez has all the talent in the world, but has yet to turn that into productivity. Carlos Vela, meanwhile, is just not the guy he was in 2019, and probably never will be again.

LAFC have the chance to make another big DP signing this summer given there’s an open slot with the departure of Diego Rossi. My guess is it will end up being a midfield playmaker (spending on DP 10s is almost always a good idea), which brings us to the depth part: there are good reasons to think one or both of Jose Cifuentes and Latif Blessing could end up in Europe before the summer’s over.

That’s a lot of moving pieces to juggle in some of the most important spots on the pitch. Seattle had to deal with the same, and they coped by getting at least some of the answers from academy products. LAFC can’t replicate that yet – their Homegrown pipeline has promise, but it’s yet to produce an Obed Vargas or Josh Atencio type of contributor.

Why they’ll do it

Primarily because the Soccer Gods have a great sense of humor and it would be funny if the Pigeons won a continental title before Man City did. Even Red Bulls fans have to admit that would be hilarious.

Beyond that, though, the best arguments are that NYCFC have a veteran, winning core, a reliably excellent Homegrown pipeline to build depth (as well as occasional high-end starters), and are breaking new ground with their recruitment and integration of top U22 talent, primarily from South America.

It all culminated with a team that, last month, beat the ever-loving hell out of Seattle in the second leg of the CCL semis and forced an all-time performance out of Stef Frei to put the Sounders through. The fact NYCFC did that without some key contributors, and have subsequently played the best ball in MLS without some key contributors, is at least a little bit frightening.

I mean, Talles Magno was one of the very best players in CCL of any age. Full stop. He, Thiago Andrade and Gabriel Pereira could all end up being in the top 10 of this year’s 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list, and Santi Rodriguez would be there as well if he wasn’t just a few months too old. Only LAFC are in the same ballpark as NYCFC (heh) when it comes to leveraging the potential of the U22 Initiative.

Why they won’t

They have zero home-field advantage in CCL play, and it’s fair to question their DP situation. Plus it’s very likely Taty Castellanos is gone this summer.

Let’s go in reverse order: I’m not sure Taty is irreplaceable, and they’re certainly going to get a lot of money for him (though reports say it’ll be less than the $20 million they’d hoped for). But he will be very, very very difficult to replace, and even if they spend their entire windfall on the next No. 9, there is zero guarantee that guy will be as good as Taty has been.

And bear in mind he’s been this good despite the fact he’s not a DP! Which brings us to the other issue… NYCFC’s DPs aren’t great in the same way that Seattle’s are. Magno, as mentioned, is excellent, but Maxi Moralez is 35 years old and has clearly lost a step, while new center back Thiago Martins has been… less than convincing thus far.

Now think about Seattle’s DP triumvirate of Raul Ruidiaz, Nico Lodeiro and Albert Rusnak, and how significant they were in getting that team to the top of the mountain. It’s a different kind of player profile, and if NYCFC want to win the CCL next year (I think it’s very possible they’ll qualify once again), they probably need a rethink on how to use those slots.

The final issue is the home-field advantage bit. You probably remember the fact Concacaf does not certify Yankee Stadium for CCL play, but you might already have forgotten NYCFC played home matches at three different venues (Banc of California Stadium; Rentschler Field; Red Bull Arena) during their 2022 CCL run.

I am of the opinion an MLS team needs every advantage possible if they’re going to win this thing – just look at how the Sounders maximized their home-field advantage throughout their run. NYCFC doesn’t have anything like that.

Why they’ll do it

The Union have a well-defined system of play that got them all the way to the CCL semifinals literally last year, and has them atop the East this year. They are a club that’s used to winning now, and that was built via repetition and excellence in the type of core the Sounders have boasted since 2009 (rotating pieces in and out).

They also have a pipeline of depth thanks both to their excellent academy as well as Ernst Tanner’s eye for undervalued overseas talent. Add in Jim Curtin’s developmental chops, and… honestly, do you remember last year’s Eastern Conference Final? They were without 11 players due to health & safety protocols, and they still gave NYCFC hell. I don’t think even the Sounders could’ve been down so many contributors and run the Pigeons so close.

What ultimately proved fatal for the Union in that game, as well as last year’s CCL final and previous playoff and US Open Cup runs, was a lack of top-end, final third quality. And so this offseason they went out and brought in two new DP center forwards to go with playmaker Daniel Gazdag (who was essentially a DP last year and is not classified as one this year).

They have very clearly tried to address what they very clearly needed to address.

Why they won’t

I like what I’ve seen of Uhre so far, and love how Carranza has taken his chance with the Union. I remain lukewarm on Gazdag, though I’ll happily admit he’s been much better over two months of the 2022 season than he was at any point in his five months of work last year.

Are those guys as good as Ruidiaz/Lodeiro/Jordan Morris/Cristian Roldan in the final third? Or Castellanos/Magno/Andrade/Rodriguez/Moralez? I don’t think you’re a gimlet-eyed cynic if you say they’re not.

The other issue for the Union could be their nature as a club regarding player sales. It’s part of who they are, so if someone comes calling for Jose Martinez or Kai Wagner (it seems likely in both cases), or Carranza or Gazdag or, I don’t know, Jack Elliott, then those players will be sold. And while the Union have the pipeline to replace them, there is a difference between “replace them and continue to be a good MLS team” and “replace them and continue to be a team that could conceivably win CCL.”

Why they’ll do it

Yeah, this one might tick some folks off, but the Galaxy have in Greg Vanney a coach who’s been there before (you remember Toronto FC’s 2018 run, right?) and a history of spending like they really, really mean it. If you have a proven coach and proven ambition, and patience to let that coach build, you’re going to be successful.

And so what we’re seeing now is a Galaxy team that, with a third of the season done, is third in the West and is tied for first overall in goals allowed. They have allowed just a single goal from open play all season, and my god does that represent a massive departure from the past eight years of Galaxy soccer.

Beyond that, just look at their roster balance. The vast majority of these guys are in their prime, and many of them have international experience (that includes Mark Delgado’s CCL experience, and damn would it be a nice story if he was able to get redemption for his late miss in the second leg of the 2018 final).

There’s still a ton of work that needs to be done on this roster, and much of that is continued internal development of many of the young players on the team, but you don’t have to look too hard to see a foundation that could make LA matter again.

Why they won’t

For all their spending, their DP situation is dire. Chicharito has been excellent since the start of last year, but he’s weeks away from his 34th birthday. Douglas Costa, who they signed this offseason, has been a cipher, while Kevin Cabral profiles (and produces) more like a U22 Initiative signing – a toolsy kid who can be compelling, but is frustrating much, much more often than not.

Beyond that, there’s just been significant calcification in the front office, as profiled by Paul Tenorio in the Athletic. The tl;dr is the reason the Galaxy have been bad for so long is that since Bruce Arena left, there was never any sort of blueprint followed on how to be good.

So Vanney is trying to drag them kicking and screaming into the TAM era, while trying to be the first coach to make any sort of dent in terms of Homegrown development, while fixing the defense, and adding veteran pieces, and is doing all this with two massively underperforming DPs. It’s a lot.

I think the above three teams (LAFC, NYCFC and Philly), as well as the Sounders, could plausibly win CCL next year. I don’t think the Galaxy could do that. But if Vanney gets the type of support he needs in continuing to retool the whole organization, and gets a mulligan on one of Costa or Cabral, there is a pretty obvious path for them to get it done in 2024. And that might be (probably would be) soon enough for them to be next.

Why they’ll do it

It’s the same argument as for the Galaxy – a proven coach and ambitious, high-spending ownership. The difference is Toronto are 12 to 18 months behind in their development, so the core the Galaxy have developed does not yet really exist for the Reds.

And so Bob Bradley is throwing the children to the wolves right now. In part it’s because he has no choice, since the roster was gutted this winter, but in part it’s because Bradley is building something for the future, and guys like Ralph Priso, Kosi Thompson, Luca Petrasso, Jayden Nelson and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty are expected to be part of it. Given their talent and Bradley’s history of developing kids with potential into high-level pros, I am not doubting the outcome here.

The other thing to factor in here is TFC have historically dominated the Canadian Championship, winning seven of 10 tournaments from 2009 to 2018 (they could make it technically eight of 12 if they win the 2020 final which – and I am not kidding here – has not yet been played, and is scheduled for June 4. North American soccer is weird, y’all), so they usually have the clearest shot directly into the tournament.

Also, the same argument as the Galaxy is I don’t think there’s any legit chance they will get it done for the 2023 version of the CCL. But if no MLS team gets it done next year, I don’t think it’s crazy to think that TFC could climb the mountain by 2024 or 2025.

At the very least, this is fun as hell:


Why they won’t

There’s no actual guarantee any/all of those kids will turn into core pieces of a good team, and my god are TFC’s underlying numbers brutal this year. This does not, right now, look like an “Insigne will arrive and put them over the top” situation. This looks like an “Insigne will get here and despair at how broken things are” situation. I’m not sure they have more than two players who would be starters on good MLS teams, and that’s not great!

So there’s just so much rubble to clear. The best thing possible would be to get out of Bradley’s way and let him get to work clearing it, but even that is no guarantee – remember, when things went bad for LAFC, that was a mess of their own making. While it’s never been public as to who called the shots on things like trading Walker Zimmerman, I think it’s fair to assume Bradley had some say in how that team’s roster management went.

The other issue is in goal. I think all the other possibilities I’ve mentioned, including the Sounders, are in a better spot at that position than TFC are.

The Next Group

They’ve got the pedigree, a great youth pipeline and Wilfried Nancy sure seems like a great coach thus far. But they’re likely to sell their best player (Djordje Mihailovic) in this window or the next, and ownership doesn’t seem too likely to go out there and spend big to replace him. On top of that, there has been a decades-long lack of stability with regard to front office vision and a lack of patience with the coach.

What happens, for example, if they run into a prolonged patch of bad form? The Union had patience with Curtin when that happened in 2015 and ‘16. Will Montréal show Nancy the same faith?

Just based upon spend and ambition they should be at the top of this list, but Atlanta’s acquisition approach has often just been asset collection rather than having some guiding principle with regard to how the pieces actually fit, and so since Tata Martino left they have been collectively less than the sum of their parts.

That could change – it feels like it is changing under Gonzalo Pineda. But he’s trying to reorient an aircraft carrier there, and isn’t the only one with a hand on the tiller, so it’s going to take some time.

Plus there’s the Josef issue. Will he ever be the same again?

I’m not even kidding. They’ve already got one killer DP in Lucho Acosta, and it looks like they’ve got another in Obinna Nwobodo. Both those guys are the right age to keep doing this for years, and aside from them, they are rapidly building out a foundation of MLS veterans this team had previously lacked, so it’s not entirely shocking they’re finally winning, is it? Plus they just crushed their SuperDraft class, and in Brandon Vazquez have a center forward who certainly seems to check all the right boxes.

As some of the previous regime’s contracts come off the books, Chris Albright and Pat Noonan are going to have all sorts of room to maneuver and keep adding quality, and if there’s one thing Cincy’s ownership has shown, it’s that they’ll open the checkbook. Now that said checkbook is being given to folks who seem to know how to use it…

Obviously 2023 is way too early to think about Cincy in these terms, but the title of this column isn’t “which MLS team wins it next year?” it’s “which MLS team wins it next?” If the door stays open in 2023 and 2024, Cincy might be the ones to walk through it in 2025.

The odds are against them, of course, but that’s true of any MLS team. That includes Cincy, now that they’re finally playing like one.