National Writer: Charles Boehm

What's plaguing MLS's 6 winless teams? And what's their solution?

At this time last week, we wrote about the four teams who made it through Week 2 with records unblemished.

Alas, none of those remain today, as all four suffered defeat in Week 3. curse, perhaps? Meh, sounds like excuses, doesn’t it, Real Salt Lake?!?!

Anyway, what’s more pressing today is the sobering fact that six clubs have yet to notch their first league victory of 2022. Quite unsurprisingly, that sextet is also propping up the foot of the overall league table: Montréal, Charlotte, Miami, Vancouver, Toronto and San Jose, ordered here from bottom to top. What do these winless ones need most?

Those first two have yet to earn a single standings point, so we’ll start there.

What they need: A break

RECORD: 0-3-0, -6 goal differential

An ancient spring proverb occasionally pops up on the MLSsoccer Slack: “You can be good at CCL or good at MLS, not both.” Yes, there are rare exceptions and this year we may – may! – be seeing a paradigm shift, but it generally applies, and CFM ‘22 look like a textbook case.

I and others have written at length over the years about the costs – mental, physical, psychological and monetary – of making deep runs in Concacaf Champions League, thanks mostly to the quality of regional international adversaries, the stress of the tournament and its awkward place on the MLS calendar. The hurdles are that much higher for Montréal given the combination of long-distance travel and bitter winters their geography imposes, and this year’s squad is not a deep or expensive one per se.

The Quebecois club produced an immense performance to vanquish Santos Laguna and are now locked in a similarly difficult tie with Cruz Azul – two Liga MX namesakes. They’ve looked tired, sloppy and occasionally distracted in their three league losses to quality Eastern Conference foes (at Orlando, vs. Philadelphia and at NYCFC) and that’s understandable given the stakes in CCL. A trip to Atlanta looms this weekend; maybe they can rest and regroup during the international break.

What they need: A finisher

RECORD: 0-3-0, -5 goal differential

You’ve almost certainly read the Miguel Angel Ramirez quotes. You’ve probably seen the relatively limited number of clear scoring chances they’ve conjured over their first three games – which is not to say none! There are certainly signs of fluidity amid the frustration in CLT, despite pedestrian expected-goals numbers and other attacking data points thus far. What they’ve lacked most is a calm, clinical presence to turn box service and final-third passing combinations into tests for opposing goalkeepers with any sort of regularity.

For the most part, this is not a surprise. Ramirez and plenty of others have pointed out the incomplete nature of Charlotte’s front line for months, and it’s shown on the pitch. Karol Swiderski may yet turn out to be that guy, but the Designated Player only just arrived, and a learning curve is natural for the Polish No. 9.

That applies to everyone involved. The early stages of any expansion project tend to unfold in an environment of heightened, well, everything – anticipation, excitement, uncertainty, emotions, you name it. That’s part of the fun, but it also complicates the process of building culture, identity and squad depth. While this team will be a work in progress all season, the outlines of a useful system are there.

What they need: Some harmony

RECORD: 0-2-1, -6 goal differential

If Charlotte feels like a fish tank, consider the microscope perched over south Florida, where the innate glamour and visibility (and pronounced underachievement to date) of IMCF pressurizes every statement, every performance.

Toss the limitations imposed by last year’s roster sanctions and this is a de facto expansion situation for Phil Neville, Gonzalo Higuain & Co., who aren’t doing an ideal job of projecting unity and belief. Maybe all that’s not entirely fair, but to whom much is given, much is expected. And the spotlight should not be such a heat lamp for the prominent personalities involved here.

Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle did a precise breakdown of Miami’s difficulties in his weekend wrap; I’d merely add that they need to show they can all pull in the same direction, and should have hope of getting some reward for it over their next two matchdays, at Cincinnati and home to Houston. After that, they’ve got two dates with Supporters’ Shield-holding New England sandwiched around games against Seattle and Atlanta, which is… 😬 in scheduling terms.

What they need: Engine-room steel

RECORD: 0-2-1, -5 goal differential

Aside from their 4-0 opening-day thumping in Columbus, the ‘Caps haven’t been woeful, per se. They held the defending champs to a scoreless draw at BC Place last week and kept stride-for-stride with Houston until Darwin Quintero went supernova in a Team of the Week-level display on Saturday.

Yet you can’t really say Vanni Sartini’s system is working, either. VWFC have struggled to control the tempo and tenor of their first three games, and from here the leaky, too-often-overrun central midfield looks like the most pressing priority.

They’ve got to get tougher to play against, whether that means trying a different combination from the current Russell Teibert-Leonard Owusu axis (Caio Alexandre when healthy, perhaps?) or shifting the shape in front of their three-man backline to offer added rigidity.

The reference point of a healthy Brian White up top would surely help, too, and might coax the best out of star playmaker Ryan Gauld, who’s had a quiet 2022 thus far.

What they need: Time

RECORD: 0-2-1, -4 goal differential

The Reds are in the early stages of a new regime, one that both needs and wants to bring forward a crop of tantalizing albeit unproven talent headlined by Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and his fellow academy products. Thus they have also become one of the league’s youngest sides. Verily, the pitfalls of that maturation process have been evident in their first three matches, a draw at Dallas followed by losses to the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew.

Bob Bradley’s aggressive, risk-taking game model isn’t going to be fully absorbed and automated in one preseason. Injuries and other issues have denied him of his ideal XI, most prominently in the absence of showcase signing Lorenzo Insigne, who is playing out his Napoli contract and won’t arrive till summer. And the kids, as is usually the case, aren’t yet capable of sustaining the requisite levels of consistency week in, week out.

Yes, the Toronto fans and media landscape expect TFC to contend in spite of all that. So far we’ve seen flashes and glimpses of how slick they could be – they pinned the Crew in a tough spot until the walking cheat code named Lucas Zelarayan bailed out the home side at Field – and a bit of patience is in order, for the next few weeks at least.

What they need: A little less drama

RECORD: 0-2-1, -4 goal differential

Look, I love the fun kind of chaos as much as anyone on this site, hence my longstanding soft spot for the Quakes’ telenovela-esque entertainment factor under Matias Almeyda. Even the scriptwriters at “Club de Cuervos” might do a double-take at the riverboat-gambler deployment of Jackson Yueill and Francisco Calvo as the anchors of San Jose’s backline.

As charismatic as Pelado’s most recent explanation was, Yueill is a regista-type holding mid clearly being asked to do stuff well outside his comfort zone. Meanwhile, Calvo’s chaotic modus operandi is by now well established: the Costa Rican is passionate and technically gifted but works better in MLS as a quality role player than a cornerstone. Both would probably benefit from having Tanner Beason, a dependable, unfussy center back languishing on the bench, playing next to them.

As it stands, no one in the league has leaked more goals than the eight the Quakes have conceded so far, a number that could easily be much higher considering the volume of quality chances generated by opponents. Whatever is on Almeyda’s mind, some pragmatic defensive rigidity would surely help staunch the bleeding, even if it bores us neutrals for a while.