Warshaw: Five key position battles around MLS in 2019

Ezequiel Barco - Atlanta United - June 24, 2018

As a player, it’s one of the worst parts of preseason: Competing for a spot. You never know where you stand, and sometimes you’re competing with a friend. Every night you lie in bed and think about the way the coach spoke you, his mannerisms, and what they mean for your future.

But for the rest of us, it’s fun to see the competitions play out. Here are the five most intriguing positions battles that should play out this preseason.

Atlanta’s attack

This fact will never not blow my mind: Atlanta United won MLS Cup with a $15 million player on the bench. If that fact doesn’t blow your mind, you probably never saw the Kansas City Wizards wear the greatest jersey in league history, either.

The simple idea that an MLS team invested $15 million dollars would make my 10-year-old self cry in joy. Then the idea that A) the team had the luxury not to play him and B) actually decided not to play him would have made my mind explode.

It’s not a given that Ezequiel Barco will find a spot in the starting lineup in 2019, either. No matter how you slice the potential formations, there is still (at least) one more potential starter than starting spot. Even if Julian Gressel moves to right back to open up an attacking spot, Tito Villalba could step in. It’s entirely possible that the most expensive player in league history starts 2019 on the bench again.

And yet... I would be very, very, very surprised if Barco doesn’t begin 2019 in the starting XI.

For one, Atlanta knows the heights of Barco’s potential. He was mediocre in 2018, but he was an 18-year-old moving to a new country, new team, and new language. The slow start doesn’t take away from his high ceiling. If you believe in a player’s potential, then you have to let him work through the growing pains. Nobody would know that more than Ajax alum Frank de Boer.   

Second, Barco is more than a player; he’s an asset. I hate reducing players/people to economic terms, but since this is a business, that’s what players are sometimes. Atlanta spent the $15 million as a speculative investment, hoping to sell him for more after he performed in MLS. They will do everything they can to give him a chance to succeed, particularly with the Under-20 World Cup this summer (if Argentina were to qualify).

But it still circles back to the main question: Who does Barco beat out to get into the starting lineup?

Dallas No. 10 and Chicago No. 10

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Mihailovic in action for the Fire. | USA Today Images

In 2018, there were 21 US national team-eligible attackers to play more than 1,000 minutes. There is a very clear common thread among them. Only Sacha Kljestan played as a central attacking midfielder.

That could change in 2019, though. Both Dallas and Chicago have Homegrown attackers pushing for starting spots.

With Mauro Diaz and Maxi Urruti moving on from Texas, the central attacking midfield spot is open at Toyota Stadium. Dallas brought in Pablo Aranguiz last year to fill Diaz’s shoes, but the Chilean struggled to make an impact. All signs out of Texas suggest it’s an open competition for the spot right now, with US U-20 international Paxton Pomykal as one of the players in contention.

In Chicago, 20-year-old and recent USMNT debutant and goalscorer Djordje Mihailovic seems to the front runner to play with Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield. The Fire have other options to play the attacking spot, including Aleksandar Katai, Schweinsteiger, and new signing Przemyslaw Frankowski, but all three are better suited in roles other than the No. 10.

Real Salt Lake center back

Justen Glad had become one of predominant faces of the franchise. Homegrown prospect-turned-lockdown-starter. The national team and Europe seemed to be the next step. Then he got benched in the biggest games of the year. Newcomer Nedum Onuoha partnered with Marcelo Silva in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, but can Glad win his starting spot back in 2019?

Portland striker

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Ebobisse emerged as an MLS striker in 2018. | USA Today Images

The Portland Timbers made a run to MLS Cup with Jeremy Ebobisse up front. They’ve made it clear, however, that they hope to add, if not upgrade, at the position. I asked Sam Stejskal to provide the lowdown:

“It’s no secret that the Timbers are looking to sign a Designated Player at striker this winter. Recent reports from The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio and ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle linked the club to Argentine Ezequiel Ponce, currently on loan from Roma to AEK Athens, and to Tigres’ Julian Quiñones. Either player would be a huge investment, with the transfer fee for either likely ending up significantly north of $5 million. The Timbers aren’t spending that kind of money on a player only for him to sit on the bench. If they make a buy this winter (no sure thing… I’m told they could wait for the summer to make a big purchase), that player will have the clear upper hand to start over Ebobisse.”

LAFC midfield

Four men enter, three men leave. Eduard Atuesta. Mark-Anthony Kaye. Lee Nguyen. Andre Horta. And that’s assuming Carlos Vela plays wide, which is far from given. It’s tough to imagine any of the four coming off the bench. Kaye might have been the team’s best midfielder in 2018 before going down hurt; Horta was a multi-million dollar investment; Nguyen has been an MVP finalist; and Atuesta provides the only true defensive midfield option. Bob Bradley got creative with his midfield last year; what’s he planning in 2019?

Other fun positional battles to keep an eye on:

SKC center mid: Roger Espinoza,Felipe Gutierrez, and Ilie Sanchez are the incumbents. But SKC also went out to get Kelyn Rowe this winter. Does Rowe take someone’s spot in the middle, play wide, or come off the bench?

NYCFC box-to-box midfielder: There’s a gaggle of possibilities fighting to replace Yangel Herrera in the middle of the field. Ebenezer Ofori got most of the time last year, but 18-year-old James Sands started to steal minutes at the end of the season. The team also signed former (and maybe future) US international Keaton Parks from Benfica and former US youth international Juan Pablo Torres back from Belgium in the offseason. All four have the chops to start, but only one will get the spot.

FC Cincinnati's defensive midfielders: So. Many. Options. Over 20 percent of Cincinnati's roster is taken up by defensive midfielders. Literally any of them could win the starting spots.

Atlanta United's left back: Atlanta traded Greg Garza to FC Cincinnati, putting the left back position up for grabs. Chris McCann and Mikey Ambrose took most of the reps when Garza was unavailable last year. It sounds, however, like 17-year-old George Bello will be given every chance to win the spot.