We're now two weeks away from real games (or much less, depending on the club), so most coaches are starting to give the lion's share of friendly minutes to projected starters.
That, combined with a Saturday slate (see all results here) that had more than half of MLS’ clubs in preseason action, gave plenty of opportunity to form observations about players and team make-ups around the league.
Columbus Crew SC – Hot Wings
Pedro Santos | USA Today Images
With Justin Meram's offseason trade to Orlando City, Columbus have now dealt away three of the flank standouts that started MLS Cup 2015 for them. The Iraq international, Ethan Finlay and Waylon Francis combined to work 459 league contests for the club, who also recently waved goodbye to wing speedster Kekuta Manneh.
That's a lot of service out wide (and service from out wide, for that matter) to replace in 27 months' time. But after Saturday's 3-1 defeat of Atlanta United, it's becoming safe to say that Crew SC management has done a clever job in turning over those positions.
The left side now looks to be the turf of Pedro Santos and new Young Designated Player Milton Valenzuela. The former probably won't match Meram's production from last season, but he has chalked up a goal, an assist and a penalty kick win in the last two games. All in all, he just looks more comfortable pushing the attack on his natural wing than he did patrolling the right after his 2017 midseason arrival. Some of the credit for that goes to Valenzuela, who has quickly impressed with both stern defensive work and a willingness to support rushes.
Cristian Martinez seems to have the early inside track on the right wing job. In addition to bothering Atlanta with some strong bursts up the flank, the young Panama international also chipped Brad Guzan from 40 yards for the winning goal. His efforts were aided by 2015 holdover Harrison Afful, who looks back to his best after a couple of inconsistent campaigns.
FC Dallas – In this corner …
Kellyn Acosta | USA Today Images
Oscar Pareja's FC Dallas side begin competitive play for the year when they make a CONCACAF Champions League trip to face Tauro in Panama City later this week, so one could practically hear the gears turning in his head when midfield ace Kellyn Acosta hobbled out of Saturday's 2-1 friendly win over Portland.
The US international had been struggling with a groin ailment before his preseason debut, which barely lasted a half hour. Acosta re-aggravated the injury on a shot attempt and was immediately pulled with the pain visible on his face.
As Acosta now seems unlikely to start on Thursday, Pareja must now preside over a good old-fashioned playing time fight in his central midfield. Most will fairly assume that Victor Ulloa will step into the spot next to Carlos Gruezo. He's done it before and is definitely no stranger to the FCD lineup, having made 97 league starts for the club over the last four years.
And yet, folks should not sleep on Jacori Hayes' chance to win the battle. The 22-year-old has enjoyed a strong preseason, showing increased maturity both on and off the ball to go with an energy output that matches Ulloa's.
Houston Dynamo – No-fly Zone
Alberth Elis | USA Today Images
Something very interesting stood out as Houston’s regulars piled up a 5-0 win against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday night. Even though they were facing a team almost exclusively made up of green reserve players, the Dynamo seemed mighty allergic to using the middle of the field.
Time and again, Houston midfielders immediately turned toward the flanks with the ball as if it was a hot potato. Even with the junior Red Bulls abstaining from their usual high pressure look, the Dynamo routinely preferred shipping long balls to the wing over patient builds through central park.
Obviously, MLS man cannot live by flank raids alone. Eventually, someone in the middle has to want the ball. And with lead playmaker Tomas Martinez suspended for the season opener against Atlanta, there's no better time than the present for that workload guy to present himself.
LA Galaxy – Patience Rights (and Wrongs)
Alessandrini and the Galaxy | USA Today Images
Though Sigi Schmid's boys dropped a 4-2 preseason decision to arch rivals San Jose on Saturday night, it was no lost evening. The Galaxy once again operated on the ball with much more confidence, purpose and organization than they showed at almost any time last year, and got another pair of goals from Ola Kamara as reward.
🎥All the action from today's preseason test. pic.twitter.com/58llhnEYyu— LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) February 18, 2018
The Galaxy were quite content to patiently boot the ball around until they found a way through San Jose to the final third, which happened early and often. Romain Alessandrini repeatedly dropped deep to help Perry Kitchen move LA out of the back and Jonathan dos Santos then deliberately pointed the team toward open lanes, while Ashley Cole (one assist) and especially the eager Rolf Feltscher used the extra possession time to get forward with abandon. The lesson? Don't expect this cultured Galaxy side to be in any hurry to break foes down this season.
On the other hand, this slow and steady build approach can also cost the Galaxy if they don't care for the ball better in their own end than they did on Saturday night. A terrible giveaway by Gio dos Santos helped tee up the Quakes' first, Jorgen Skjelvik's hospitable clearance header facilitated San Jose's second and Alessandrini also invited good chances with a couple of pressure-valve fumbles.
Montreal Impact – Life in the (right) fast lane
Montreal vs. Tampa Bay | Tampa Bay Rowdies
Aside from a Dominic Oduro roll or two, Montreal's right flank has largely been a revolving door of mediocrity since they joined MLS in 2012. Though there are still kinks to be worked out, a pair of young Canada internationals seem ready to change that. Raheem Edwards and Michael Petrasso worked in menacing starboard tandem during the first half against Tampa Bay on Saturday, and the latter played a handsome role in both of the Impact's goals.
The opener came when Petrasso, playing at right back, raced onto an Edwards slip pass to serve a tasty cross for Sapher Taider to ram home. The former Toronto FC man switched sides after the break, but it didn't slow him down any. His impressive bull rush through a crowd of defenders sparked the Impact's late winner.
All that said, the two will still need to raise their defensive game for the regular season. The second-flight Rowdies were able to pin Petrasso back in his corner quite often, and it was his weak line clearance that led to Edwards committing a penalty foul. Montreal got off easy that time thanks to an Evan Bush spot-kick save, but a moment later, Petrasso failed to pressure the build on Tampa Bay's goal play.
New York Red Bulls – Spark plug change?
Jesse Marsch and his squad | New York Red Bulls
Because the Big Apple bunch went with what was essentially a "C" team populated almost entirely by Red Bulls II prospects on Saturday, there wasn't a great deal to learn about their first-choice side in the 5-0 defeat to Houston.
Still, Jesse Marsch may have found someone to replace the energetic depth minutes provided by Gonzalo Veron last season in returning son Amando Moreno. The diminutive forward left New York as a teenager four years ago to join Liga MX side Tijuana, where he was most relegated to cup duty.
Moreno is back with the Red Bulls, and if Saturday's display is any clue, he did not waste all that time spent on the bench south of the border. For much of Saturday night, he was the most insistent runner not named Alberth Elis in the game.
Watching Moreno repeatedly dribble his overmatched side out of trouble and into attack positions, it became clear that the 22-year-old could prove very useful indeed if given chances to run with a Red Bulls first unit famous for causing turnovers with high pressure.
Portland Timbers – Sam I Am
Sam Armenteros | Portland Timbers
When Portland acquired Samuel Armenteros 10 days ago, the prevailing wisdom around our MLS bubble was that the Western Conference contenders did well to add a solid depth piece to their attack. It says here those observers may have sold the Sweden attacker short.
Following a debut display against Dallas on Saturday night that included a professionally-taken goal, Armenteros looks more like the pick of the Timbers bunch to take up Darlington Nagbe's vacated lineup slot out wide.
#PTFC need to sharpen their defense and passing, but a positive in #PORvFCD was newly signed striker Samuel Armenteros scoring in his unofficial debut only 5 minutes after coming on as a sub. Knifing run onto Valeri's pass, and a cool finish into the bottom corner. #RCTID#MLSpic.twitter.com/3TAmwFWr77— Jason Foster (@JogaBonito_USA) February 17, 2018
While the 27-year-old certainly wouldn't be the fastest winger in the league, he does "run downhill" on the ball – once the beefy Armenteros gets going, it's very hard to slow him down. His antics in and around the box gave FCD plenty of headaches, and opened space for teammates.
Of course, he's no mere china shop bull. Armenteros also comes with a handy technique tool kit that allows him to supply danger crosses, work close combos around the box or cap a smart run with a tidy finish, as he did on Saturday night.
San Jose Earthquakes – Expansion sides
Fatai Alashe | San Jose Earthquakes
Though the Earthquakes posted a mistake-aided preseason win over the LA Galaxy on Saturday night, one area of concern was made apparent. Or, more correctly, one on each side of the pitch.
With the likes of Danny Hoesen, Jahmir Hyka, Tommy Thompson and Vako on board, San Jose has some crafty offensive weapons for the build. However, all of these players like to shade inside. For them, the notion of "wide attack" usually means operating in the outside channels of the area, and this can help opposing defenses stay compact through the middle.
It's an incredibly long season to hope for so much systematic flank support from the wide backs, so it would behoove San Jose to come up with a genuine wing raider (preferably one with appreciable speed) before the transfer window shuts on May 1. The more they can spread the field, the better their transition game and attack will be.
Sporting Kansas City – All hands on deck
Roger Espinoza | Michael Rincon/Sporting KC
Simply put, the scouting report on Sporting KC was incredibly easy to put together last season: stifling defense, suspect offense. One imagines that rep was only solidified by the winter departure of string-puller Benny Feilhaber.
As they have yet to directly replace the man who rang up 29 goals, 41 assists, an MLS crown and two US Open Cup titles over the last five campaigns, it appears as though Sporting will be implementing a playmaking-by-committee system this year.
Forwards Diego Rubio, Daniel Salloi and Khiry Shelton have all flashed the ability to link play in the box. New DP signings Felipe Gutierrez (who can play combos on top of the area) and Yohan Croizet (who wheels and deals out wide) will be asked to pick up some "bye bye, Benny" slack. Gerso and Johnny Russell can run defenders ragged, while Roger Espinoza and right back Graham Zusi also pick spots to jump into attack.
This is certainly not an ideal approach, but it's doable to an extent with KC's available cogs. Until a proper No. 10 walks through the clubhouse door at Children's Mercy Park, everyone will just have to raise their set-up games.