Is there pressure during a pandemic? Expectations amid the unexpected? Consequences for ambition unfulfilled? Is Frank de Boer the manager of Atlanta United?
This season may not look like anything in our collective Major League Soccer memory, but that doesn’t mean it’s a throwaway. Club to club, there’s too much time, effort and money invested for a laissez-faire approach. We saw that during MLS is Back, when Atlanta made the season-disrupting (in a good way) decision to let de Boer go a year-and-a-half into his contract. We’ll see that this summer, as the league navigates a transfer window complicated by COVID-19. We’ll see that all the way through Dec. 12 as the 25th season comes to a crescendo.
Pressure, of course, isn’t a monolith. It’s slippery. It’s hard to define. It’s there, a dark cloud hovering over everything, until it’s not. It comes in different shades, depending on the expectations – stated or unstated – the level of investment and the baggage that every club has packed away. Sometimes it’s personal. Sometimes it’s collective. Sometimes it’s more theoretical than specific. It’s all of the above.
Time to go team-by-team through MLS and identify which shoulders the most pressure falls on as Phase 1 of the league returns to play. You will, inevitably, disagree. Feel free to give me a reprieve from quarantining with two kids under three by tweeting your thoughts at @andrew_wiebe. I’ve got to be on Twitter, honey. It’s for work, I promise.
Atlanta United – Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra
Yeah, so De Boer wasn’t the right fit! Atlanta seemingly got everything spot on until they hired the Dutchman. Big question: How much credit does Tata Martino deserve for that success? After all, the Argentine manager was the key to recruiting Miguel Almiron, his style of play helped Josef Martinez become the most voracious goalscorer this league has ever seen and his team won MLS Cup in 2018.
Martino is (quite obviously) gone, so now it’s on Eales and Bocanegra to identify, attract and hire the manager that will get the Five Stripes’ culture, style of play and results right. Not to mention giving whoever gets the job the players who’ll make it all possible. They set the expectations, now it’s time to fulfill them.
Chicago Fire – Everyone, top to bottom
This was supposed to be a transformative year for the Fire. Back on the banks of Lake Michigan at Soldier Field. New technical staff and head coach. New crest, new look, new club. Too bad a new world disrupted all that momentum. There’s nobody the pressure doesn’t touch in Chicago. They’ve got to change who they are, as a club and as a squad, and that process started months ago.
FC Cincinnati – Jurgen Locadia
Whole lotta attention has been heaped on Locadia by MLS nerds like me and FC Cincinnati’s obsessive (I mean that in the best way) fanbase. I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but the expectations — Josef Martinez light, maybe … hopefully! — might not be anchored in reality. This is a player who, despite his reputation and price tag, has scored double-digit goals just three seasons in his career. His breakout year with PSV (17 goals, all comps) was seven years ago now. Locadia has to stay healthy and deliver if 1) Cincy want to sniff the playoffs and 2) he wants to see that loan made permanent.
Colorado Rapids – Robin Fraser
Look, I don’t actually think Fraser is under that much pressure, but it’s on him to show that what he (and Conor Casey, to be fair) got out of this team during the second half of 2019 wasn’t a fluke. Given the results last year and the reinforcements this winter, languishing at the bottom of the Western Conference again just isn’t good enough for Colorado. Pressure is on to make the playoffs and prove the squad’s promise wasn’t just a flash in the pan, but rather something sustainable and systematic.
Columbus Crew – Caleb Porter
Look who sits atop the Eastern Conference standings. Yep, it’s Porter’s Crew. I say “Porter’s” because this isn’t Gregg Berhalter’s team or tactics anymore. Columbus has been turned over to fit their manager’s vision. Bare minimum is a home game in the playoffs.
Here is Porter’s coaching career from a postseason POV: conference finals, DNQ, MLS Cup champs, DNQ, conference semis, DNQ. He seems well on the way toward a playoff berth in Year 2 in Ohio, but the quality of this squad and early results imply even more should be expected. It’s on Porter to pull those strings.
FC Dallas – Dan Hunt
FC Dallas want to develop their own talent, play their own talent, succeed with their own talent and then sell said talent for a profit. That comes straight from ownership. That comes straight from Dan Hunt. It appears to be time for a starter or two — looking squarely at Reggie Cannon and Paxton Pomykal — to not only be the subject of European offers, but to make their next career moves. The final decision comes down to Hunt. What will he decide?
D.C. United – Ben Olsen
I know it’s a little strange to say there’s pressure on a coach who’s been in his post longer than every one of his colleagues not named Peter Vermes. But D.C. seem stuck in sort of the same old, same old outside half a season of inspirational play from LuchaRoo. Can Olsen freshen things up? Can he get more from a squad that seems to have the potential to deliver it? Or have those questions already been answered during a decade in charge?
Houston Dynamo – Alberth Elis
The Dynamo competed ably in a stacked Group F during #MLSisBack. They ultimately faded late in games and in the decisive moments, but Tab Ramos is on to something. What that is, I’m not quite sure yet. I do know that Houston will probably only go as far as Elis does.
We’re on Year 4 of asking for some semblance of consistency in the final third. The Honduran international finds himself in so many good spots that just sort of fritter away. He could be the most explosive open-field player in the league. He could provide a guaranteed 15 goals and 10 assists. He could absolutely make a European or Mexican team better. He could do and be all those things. Time to be that player, both for himself and the club.
LAFC – Carlos Vela & Bob Bradley
Pressure is on to win MLS Cup — let’s just be crystal clear about the internal and external expectations here — and that pressure inevitably lands on the shoulders of the superstar and manager. Just facts.
LA Galaxy – Guillermo Barros Schelotto
It seems pretty clear that the Galaxy aren’t going to cross their way into the playoffs. Yeah, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s every move is going to be dissected, but he’s not the one who has to figure out how to make this roster string together enough results to sneak into the postseason. Lucky for Guille, the field is expanded in 2020!
Inter Miami – GM Paul McDonough
There’s an open Designated Player spot in Miami. You probably weren’t aware. It’s sort of flown under the radar. During quiet moments, I sometimes wonder who they’ll sign. No point worrying or talking about it publicly, right? 😉
Minnesota United – Mark Watson/Manny Lagos to get “Bebelo” Reynoso done
Enough talk. No more long-running rumors. If the Loons truly want the Boca Juniors attacker — or another No. 10! — it’s time to just get the deal done. Or walk away. It’s the sort of move that could give a plucky underdog the final piece they need to, once and for all, be truly respected by the rest of the league/the realtors of MLS dot com/Extratime/et al.
Montreal Impact – Bojan Krkic
Three goals and one assist in 12 games (all comps) doesn’t feel like enough from your high-profile attacker! The Impact have looked their best under Thierry Henry when the Spaniard drops a little deeper and helps spring Romell Quioto and Orji Okwonkwo into open space then trails the play. We know he can produce the odd banger. Montreal just need more of all of the above.
Nashville SC – Anyone who enters the final third
Someone, anyone … do something goal dangerous!
New England Revolution – Gustavo Bou
It’s incredible how quietly a Best XI player was lost for the season. Carles Gil, your absence ought to have been properly mourned. Anyway, now more than ever, Bou’s ability to create for himself and others out of nothing is crucial to the Revs’ success. For New England to be better than last year, the Argentine needs to go full “Nacho Piatti.”
NYCFC – The players
Yes, the blue side of New York has a new manager in Ronny Deila. Again. No, it’s not an excuse to fall short in the big moment. It can’t be, especially for the players, who are clearly good enough to win something. Pressure is on the squad. Prove it. Show your quality. Make history, no matter who is standing on the sidelines.
New York Red Bulls – Kevin Thelwell, Denis Hamlett, Chris Armas
Here’s what Thelwell, RBNY's new Head of Sport, had to say in July during his first interview with the club…
"MLS Cup is where we all want to be, so you have to build a team that's going to help you to do those things. That's where we're going to be."
You can forgive Red Bulls supporters for wondering if that sort of team is being built. After all, they’ve never won MLS Cup, and the signings (so far) aren’t exactly best-in-show on name or résumé. It’s on the folks making the soccer decisions to prove this team is good enough to do what’s never been done before (or at least live up the standards set during the past decade).
Orlando City – Nani
Any pressure on Oscar Pareja is gone. Just keep building, Profe. Family, culture, results. Somos juntos. Nani is loving the new regime and his play reflects it. He could be the MVP of the league. That is well within his abilities. If he is, Orlando are a serious MLS Cup contender. If he’s not, they’re a pretty good team without a consistent game-changer.
Philadelphia Union – Ernst Tanner
The Union have a pair of young players (Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie) that European teams are interested in. Tanner was hired for these moments. It’s his job to wade into the market and find the best deal for the club and the player, then reload and do it all over again. He’s knee-deep in European waters right now. What will he pull out of the muck and mire? It better be millions of dollars at some point.
Portland Timbers – Yimmi Chara
Hard to pile pressure on a team that just lifted the MLS is Back trophy, but the Portland team that lifted it didn’t feature Yimmi. The Timbers didn’t seem to miss a beat without him, to be honest, and that’s sort of the point. The pressure is on him to change that and elevate the squad even further. Still no goals or assists in almost 300 minutes, though…
Real Salt Lake – Albert Rusnak
By my count, RSL have one player they expect to make something out of nothing every game. That’s their No. 10. This is very much a goalscoring-by-committee squad. Hard for the committee to deliver if the chairman isn’t on his game. I’d like to see more of the 2017 Rusnak in the rest of 2020. In other words, goals, yes, but more in terms of chance creation for his teammates. Get out the gavel and show everyone where to go, Albert.
San Jose Earthquakes – Daniel Vega
Literally under pressure because, given the way the Earthquakes play, Vega is going to be as busy as a line cook basically every game. San Jose also need him to be better at stopping saveable shots from going in the back of the net. That seems important.
Seattle Sounders – Xavier Arreaga
He’s no Chad Marshall but, then again nobody is! I’m mostly kidding. I want Arreaga to settle and succeed. He seems like a good dude.
It’s just that, right now, he hasn’t REALLY done either, even after lifting an MLS Cup. How do I know? The folks at Sounders at Heart are putting out columns titled “How to Solve the Xavier Arreaga Problem” and that means the pressure is on to leave some poor decisions and poor performances in the past.
Sporting Kansas City – Peter Vermes
When you’re the Soccer Czar — the title I’ve given PV mentally — then it all falls on you. Vermes, I’m sure, would agree. That’s the price you pay for total control. Was last year a blip, or was it an aging and flawed squad finally showing holes? Sporting spent big in the offseason and so far it looks like 1) money well spent and 2) 2019 was, indeed, a blip. Let’s see if that holds.
Toronto FC – Jozy Altidore and Pablo Piatti’s muscles and joints
The Reds are the best team in the East if Altidore and Piatti stay healthy, maybe even if they don’t. The problem is both guys so rarely get a full season’s work out of their bodies. Here’s to hoping that five-month break gave both the physical runway they need to tear up the league!
Vancouver Whitecaps – Marc Dos Santos
What is progress? Will the Whitecaps show it? All eyes are on Dos Santos to answer both of those questions. I don’t know the answer to either, if I’m being honest.