It’s been about a month since I had the time to answer some of your questions, but I’m here now so let’s dive in:
I’m going to start off with what is probably my most controversial opinion: I do not think that LAFC should use a Designated Player slot to re-sign Carlos Vela, whose contract expires at the end of June.
It’s not a question of skill – Vela has been excellent this season with 4g/2a in five games, and just this past weekend vs. Orlando he carved out one of the best passes of the year, picking up a secondary assist on Brian Rodriguez’s opener.
But Vela is 33 years old now. He’s never been the fittest guy out there, and since his miraculous 2019 season that’s been borne out on the field. Or, I guess I should say that’s been borne out off the field as Vela started just 19 of 56 regular-season games in 2020 and ‘21, playing in a tick under 1700 minutes. Want to know why the Black & Gold cratered after winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2019? There are lots of reasons, but “Vela was mostly hurt” is a good place to begin the search.
Now, he’s bucked that trend thus far in 2022, with five starts and five games heading into Saturday's El Trafico vs. the LA Galaxy (7:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes). But he’s already had to be subbed off at the break in one of those, has yet to go the full 90, and… he’s 33! There is no reason to think he’ll be more productive and less injury-prone in his mid-30s than he was in his early 30s. We all know that, in sports, it tends to work in the other direction.
I understand that LAFC will probably make this signing anyway, and I understand why since Vela remains a singular talent when healthy. And if they can get him on a TAM deal, it’s a no-brainer – get that one done in a second.
But DP slots are too valuable to spend on a guy with just 9g/7a in the past two years combined, and a lengthy track record of missing time with injury beyond that. So yes, letting him walk would be a massive risk. From where I sit, though, spending a DP slot to hold onto him would be a bigger one.
Note: LAFC are likely to still have one DP slot open anyway given that Diego Rossi's loan to Turkey’s Fenerbahçe is set to become a permanent move this summer (I'm pretty sure the loan becomes permanent, anyway). And with their other current DP (Rodriguez) officially counting as a Young DP, they have access to all three U22 Initiative slots (all are currently filled) irrespective of how they fill their open DP slot/slots.
What I'm saying is that LAFC have the flexibility to make a couple of massive moves this summer. For a team that's already leading the Shield race, that's pretty tasty.
The early chemistry between Sergio Santos and Julian Carranza has been really promising, and Jim Curtin has already spoken at length that he’s not worried about their goalscoring woes thus far (they have just one between the two of them). And I get that, because if you’re able to get your strikers on the ball in good spots, goals do tend to follow.
The other argument for these two guys is that a lot of what the Union do is based upon making the field small for opposing teams, and the first line of defense in the 4-4-2 diamond is of outsized importance in that regard. Santos and Carranza just so happen to be two of the best pressing/defensive forwards in the league, which has gone a long way towards Philly’s impressive early-season form.
But we’ve seen a lot of Santos and, to a lesser extent, Cory Burke over the past couple of years, right? We’ve seen that while they both have skill sets that add specific value – Burke is a superb option off the bench when Philly’s chasing a goal – they have the types of limitations that can make a team do something like go out and bring in two DP forwards in the same offseason.
So my assumption is that both those guys, Carranza and Mikael Uhre, are going to get the chance to win and hold starting jobs. Carranza might never be an elite goalscorer, but in addition to that game-winner last Saturday vs. Charlotte and his elite defense/pressing, he’s also got a pair of game-winning assists already. He’s also been getting a ton of the ball in great spots, which is something that never happened for him at Inter Miami.
Uhre’s been hurt and thus his integration hasn’t really happened yet, but I’m guessing that Ernst Tanner watched Santos, Burke and Kacper Przybylko (now at Chicago) blow chance after chance in last year’s playoffs and said “we need a guy who can finish those.” Once he’s fit enough to start, I expect he’ll be starting.
And then we’ll see. Tanner has one of the best track records in the league when it comes to acquisition success rate, but he’s not infallible – there’s a chance that Uhre’s arrival from Denmark’s Brondby doesn’t work out, or that the Miami version of Carranza is the real version. And if that’s the case, then the door once again opens for Santos or Burke.
But I’ll admit that’s not how I’m expecting this to play out. What I’m actually expecting is Carranza continues to show that his current form is the real him, and for Uhre to look like a 15-goal guy.
And if that’s the case, then the question kind of answers itself.
I swear it’s a coincidence that I started this column answering one question about LAFC and one question about Philly. Sometimes things just work out like that.
Before I answer this question, let’s establish something important: Having a future – even a very good future – with a team is not the same thing as justifying the $13 million price tag that Brenner was wearing upon his arrival from Brazil’s São Paulo. I think the first thing is fairly likely, but that second thing is incredibly unlikely.
Brenner can still be a good player with a good future for Cincy, though. He was not that last year, registering just 8g/2a in 2800 minutes, but in my eyes there were significant mitigating factors:
- 21-year-old adjusting to a new league in a new country.
- Cincy were spectacularly bad.
- Jaap Stam was a big part of why.
Brenner is now a 22-year-old who’s no longer adjusting to a new league or a new country, and Cincy are no longer spectacularly bad (by some measures they’ve got one of the best attacks in the league), and the arrival of Pat Noonan, Stam’s permanent replacement as head coach, is why.
The fact that Cincy’s dug themselves out of a years-long attacking hole without Brenner factoring is, from a glass-half-empty point of view, kind of damning. But I’m going to look at this with a glass-half-full perspective: In Brenner’s 112 minutes this year he’s repeatedly found the ball in better spots than he ever did last season.
He hasn’t converted yet, but he will. And if, at some point, either Brandon Vazquez or Dom Badji miss time or see their form dip just enough, then Brenner will get his chance. Right now, he’s moving like someone who I’d expect to take it.
Will the end result be a guy who’s worth a DP slot? I think that’s a fairly low probability outcome (though by no means is it off the table). But based on what he did last year, and the improvements we’ve seen in his movement this year, I would not be shocked if he was starting and putting together something like a 12g/5a season this year or next.
That’s not great, obviously, but it’s really not bad at all. And for Cincy, that represents a significant improvement over everything they’ve experienced over the past three seasons.
It looks really good on paper for Nashville if they can take three points from the final three games of this eight-game, season-opening road odyssey before debuting GEODIS Park on May 1. That would put them on 10 points, with at least seven of them coming against Western Conference teams (i.e., not only did you collect points, but you denied home points to teams you’re competing for playoff positioning with).
And as you mentioned, they have the flexibility to add another DP, which could potentially give a boost to an attack that’s overly reliant upon Hany Mukhtar and set pieces to do any kind of damage. So if Nashville were a stock, all the research would consider them a solid “buy” despite their place in the standings.
But there are three fatal flaws here:
- They are, as mentioned, overly reliant upon Mukhtar and set pieces to the point of mind-numbing predictability.
- They are still shockingly bad at defending restarts, which explained their middling home record last year and explains a few dropped points already this year.
- There is no guarantee a new DP will arrive or that said new DP will help.
The first two are self-explanatory. The third… Nashville have made three purchases for more than $1 million in their history. Mukhtar was their first and he’s a Best XI-caliber guy, so they got that one right. The other two are Rodrigo Pineiro, a young Uruguayan attacker who played all of 10 minutes last season and is no longer in MLS (he’s on loan in Chile), and Ake Loba, their record signing who arrived last summer and has one goal, two starts, and just 426 minutes logged in 24 appearances. The $6.8 million man from Liga MX’s Monterrey has not looked any closer to winning a job this year, as he’s played just 45 minutes across five games and has not looked anything like a DP forward (or attacking midfielder, or winger, or whatever – the fact that he’s kind of position-less might be part of the problem and might require a more flexible approach than Gary Smith’s to solve).
Do they get another crack at acquiring a needle-moving signing after that? I hope so, since this group really does look like they’re one high-end attacking piece away.
But the track record’s worrisome, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s noticed it.
The Quakes are so bad because of Matias Almeyda’s man-marking scheme. It’s basically the same thing that happened to Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds this year – enough time in the league produces enough film for literally everyone to break down and pull apart a high-risk, high-reward scheme and turn it into a high-risk, no-reward suicide mission.
So they are bleeding goals in all the ways they’ve bled goals since Day 1 of Almeyda’s tenure, but more often.
The truly disappointing thing, though, is that the Quakes are no longer any fun to watch in attack. Even in the worst days of 2019 and ‘20, they were throwing numbers forward, making the field big and bending in a million crosses. In general I don’t think that last part is good (crosses have a low chance of success), but here’s the truly bizarre part:
Since acquiring Jeremy Ebobisse from Portland last summer, one of the most aerially dominant center forwards in MLS, they have been crossing the ball almost 20% less often than they were in the two-and-a-half years under Almeyda before Ebobisse’s arrival. The fullbacks aren’t pushing as high and Cristian Espinoza, who was a “start every game, play every minute” guy (and one of the best crossers in the league) prior to last year’s stretch run, has become more of just a rotation piece over the past 15 games dating back to last season.
It goes beyond that, though, in two ways:
- Before Ebobisse’s arrival they were connecting on about 21% of their crosses. Since he’s been in the team, that number's jumped to over 25%, as per TruMedia via StatsPerform.
- The Quakes front office went out and got, in Jamiro Monteiro (trade with Philly), one of the best No. 10s in the league at winning second balls… the types of second balls that tend to drop into Zone 14 when a defense is desperately trying to clear crosses away from a dominant aerial forward.
So, honest to god, what it looks like to me is that GM Chris Leitch went out and got a couple of guys who are perfectly equipped to make Almeyda’s previous, long-implemented attacking scheme work better than it already had been, and Almeyda has… changed the scheme.
In related news, the Quakes have scored zero open-play goals through five games.
I just don’t know. But I have an idea as to how to fix it.
Good chat, gang. Talk again soon.