We’re in the final week of the 2022 preseason. Hope is springing eternal all over MLS, and with hope comes possibility: Can our guys do it? Is there a chance Unfancied Team X can come out of nowhere and put together a dominant regular season? Is there a chance Playoff Caliber Team Y can make the jump – as last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners, the New England Revolution did – from “very good” to “literally the best team in the regular season?”

The answer to that last question is “of course!” The Revs showed it last year, as did Philly the year before that, and LAFC and the Red Bulls the two years before that, etc., etc.

The answer to the “out of nowhere” question, however, is almost certainly no. It’s been a decade since the 2012 Quakes came out of the blue to Goonie their way to a Shield, and they really did prove to be a (completely magical) one-off.

And so that’s what we’re going to talk about in this column: Why your team can win the Shield. But in actuality, why they almost certainly won’t.

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It’s an annual tradition: You ask why Atlanta can win the Shield, and I provide you with a screenshot of the current MLS roster values as per Transfermarkt. Here’s the top 10:

Doyle Shield - top MLS teams transfer value

I’ll add the usual warning that this should be taken with a grain of salt, given that Transfermarkt’s crowdsourced values are a pretty blunt instrument, and are sometimes not even reflective of what they’re supposed to be measuring. Nonetheless, across the globe they do generally correlate pretty well with team strength. And that aligns with the conventional wisdom on this Five Stripes group – they’re pretty damn loaded.

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They were loaded in 2020 and ‘21 as well. How’d that turn out? Games aren’t played on a spreadsheet, mate.

More to the point, though, is given the age (Brad Guzan, Ozzie Alonso) and injury history (Ozzie, Josef Martinez) of certain key players, as well as the ramping-up period that should reasonably be expected for Thiago Almada, Atlanta seem better suited to be a team that rotates the squad pretty heavily during the regular season in order to be fresh and in-form for the playoffs. They’ll drop some regular-season points because of that.

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I really liked their offseason. It has to be hard to part with one of your original DP signings – it’s got to take a measure of humility to say “we spent a lot of money and got it wrong” – but Austin did exactly that with the Tomas Pochettino loan departure, a move that opened up the chance to acquire a better, and much more necessary player.

That’s d-mid Jhojan Valencia, reputed to be a ball-winning dynamo. If he’s what he’s reputed to be, and Kipp Keller walks onto the field and turns into the next Chad Marshall, then that’ll be the defensive issues solved. If they get normal, chemistry-based progression from the attacking midfield and wingers, and a big Year 2 jump from center forward Moussa Djitte, then… yeah ok, for some of these teams an implausible number of things have to go right.

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An implausible number of things have to go right. I’m still extremely worried about that backline in general, and Djitte’s lack of movement in the box is a huge red flag.

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We are now living in a world in which the Fire make really good and targeted offseason signings, ones that seem to fit needs and blend into the overall existing structure. This is the opposite of how they’ve built for most of the past dozen years, during which they lurched from one rebuild to the next, season after season.

Anyway, let’s say Xherdan Shaqiri comes in and goes for 20g/10a, while Jairo Torres plays at a Best XI level, Kacper Przybylko bags a dozen goals and Rafa Czichos plays so well he’s in the Defender of the Year discussion. All of this is made possible by Ezra Hendrickson running a straight-forward, intuitive 4-2-3-1 that puts Shaqiri, especially, in position to be extremely influential.

For what it’s worth, I think all of the above is extremely plausible.

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Even if all of the above happens, will that be enough? It’s not like Shaqiri, Torres, Przybylko and Czichos are coming into a 55-point team. The Fire have mostly average-ish players and have missed the playoffs a million years in a row. Just being in the hunt for a playoff berth would require them to be 50% better than last year.

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Brenner peels off a facemask, Scooby Doo-style, to reveal he’s prime Ronaldinho. While everyone’s distracted by that, Haris Medunjanin has experimental surgery that gives him cyborg legs, and now boasts Diego Chara-esque field coverage.

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Call me naive, but I just don’t think the above will happen.

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Ooof, we’re really getting some of the hard ones out of the way early here. Okay, let’s give this a shot: Because Jordy Alcivar and Alan Franco have played together with Ecuador they have uncommon early chemistry, which means that midfield starts looking a lot like LAFC’s 2018 debut team. Meanwhile the backline works exactly as intended, and it turns out Karol Swiderski is the Polish Josef Martinez.

All that possession turns into goals, and all of the above gets turbocharged when they add a massive DP winger signing in midseason.

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Doyle Shield column - Charlotte MAR preseason

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In his first year-and-a-half in charge, Robin Fraser led the Rapids to 1.7 ppg. In his second full year in charge, he led them to 1.8 ppg. Let’s say they hit 1.9 ppg in Year 3.

Traditionally that’s been a good enough number to win the Shield, though the last time that was the case was actually 2016. But because there are more good teams and fewer outright disasters in 2022, the gap between the top and the bottom shrinks, and we’re now looking at mid-60 points for the Shield rather than the low-70s.

The deep and ultra-adaptable Rapids are perfectly designed to grind through the regular season and pick up points in a scenario like that, especially if they add a DP No. 9.

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I think the Shield winner’s still going to need 70ish points, and I just don’t think the Rapids can get there if they don’t get a big-time, big-money goalscorer. And, well…

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It’s the Caleb Porter principle: miss the playoffs one year, then have some sort of memorably great season the next. In 2013 he debuted in Portland and the Timbers only fell short of the Shield on the last day. In 2014, they missed the playoffs. In 2015 they won MLS Cup. In 2016 they missed the playoffs. In 2017, they won the West.

In 2019, he returned from a year’s hiatus with the Crew and missed the playoffs. In 2020 they won MLS Cup. In 2021, they missed the playoffs.

That means it’s time for something truly great to happen on the banks of the Scioto.

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They’re just not built for it. Lucas Zelarayan, in particular, is much more of a “goes on a month-long heat-check” kind of guy – a playoffs kind of guy – than he is an “elevates the entire team around him for 90 minutes every time out” kind of guy.

It’s tough to be a great regular-season team if that’s the type of No. 10 you’re built around.

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The Jesus Ferreira False 9 thing works – he’s the Frisco Firmino, which allows Paul Arriola to produce a career-best year off one wing and Alan Velasco to develop into Dallas’s next $20 million sale on the other.

Meanwhile Paxton Pomykal produces 3,000 Best XI-caliber minutes running the midfield, Matt Hedges returns to his Defender of the Year prime and first-round SuperDraft pick Isaiah Parker really is Kevin Paredes-level good as he converts to left back.

On top of that, the positional play structure Nico Estevez institutes both helps Dallas’s skill in possession and their resilience in transition defense. No more cheapies!

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Arriola’s career-high in goals is seven. Ferreira’s is eight. The presumptive starting front-line trio, Velasco, is just 19. If it’s not him it’ll be 21-year-old Szabolcs Schon (zero goals last year), or Jader Obrian, who scored a respectable nine goals in 2,200 minutes last season, though they came in bunches and he’d go missing for months at a time.

On top of that, while I love Pomykal and rate Brandon Servania pretty highly as well, neither guy is the old Frank Lampard-type of bursts-out-of-midfield-to-poach-a-goal type of No. 8.

In short, I just have a hard time imagining they’ll have enough firepower unless Ferreira and Arriola are literally about to double their previous career bests.

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Here’s what I wrote last year: “Everybody has kind of forgotten how absurdly good Edison Flores was for Monarcas Morelia (RIP) back in 2019, right before D.C. brought him in. If you’d asked around Mexico who was better, Flores or Zelarayan, it would’ve been like an 80/20 split in favor of the Peruvian. And we know what kind of team you can build around Zelarayan.

"Flores is the same. He is a foundational piece you can build a winning, dynamic team around, and we literally saw that happen in Liga MX.”

Instead of juicing Flores, that seemed to curse Zelarayan. Oh well. I still stand by it – Flores has, in the past, been an utterly dynamic and ruthless match-winner of a second forward/playmaker/winger, and has done it for a team that badly needed to punch above its weight, as this D.C. team does.

So let’s say Flores rediscovers his 2019 form, and Moses Nyeman is the American Pirlo, and the whole group buys into Hernan Losada’s Maximum Overdrive once again. Oh, and Bill Hamid reverts to his 2015-ish best.

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While I think it’s likely Flores and Hamid perform well if they can both get and stay healthy, I don’t think the other two parts of the above puzzle will come together. Nyeman is very good – I’m very high on him – but he’s not going to drop a Best XI-caliber season on the league at 18.

And as for the other bit, I am definitely worried that after a year of giving 110% effort in Losada’s system, D.C.’s players will dial it back to 95% and the results will be disastrous.

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New manager Paulo Nagamura will get the best out of the most expensive center-back pairing in the league, Tim Parker and Teenage Hadebe, and will develop a bunch of the other young defenders, which means the Dynamo will stop being a sieve.

And that, in turn, allows them to press the hell out of people with that highly mobile midfield and front line. Suddenly it’s like watching 2012 Sporting KC out there!

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Houston have made one truly significant move this offseason (DP forward Sebastian Ferreira), and would need that to translate to a roughly 40-point year-over-year improvement.

Seems like a stretch.

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Carlos Vela is back. Brian Rodriguez is cooking, and Chicho Arango is the best center forward either has ever played with in downtown LA. The midfield and defense, meanwhile, got a dose of veteran MLS knowhow in Kellyn Acosta and Ryan Hollingshead, respectively, while Maxime Crepeau is just a massive improvement over anyone this team has ever started in goal.

Let me reiterate that first point, though: Carlos Vela is back and says he’s healthy. I’ve missed watching him do stuff like this:

If you’ve got the best player in the league, you’ve got a shot.

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Maybe Vela doesn’t stay healthy? That lowers the ceiling a bunch. But even if he’s fit as a fiddle and even with Crepeau between the sticks, this LAFC defense remains unconvincing. On top of that, Steve Cherundolo doesn’t exactly have a long and compelling track record as a head coach.

To be fair, though, with this team there’s a real chance they hoist the Shield even if things only hit at like 80% of their maximum. There’s so much talent here, and it all seems to fit together, and they kind of underlined that by ripping the Red Bulls limb from limb in their final preseason game.

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Chicharito was electric last year, putting up 17g/3a in a touch over 1,700 minutes. He’s got more help in the attack this year with the arrival of Douglas Costa and, hopefully, the evolution of Kevin Cabral (and Efra Alvarez, who’s drawing rave reviews in preseason).

The defense remains a work in progress but Mark Delgado should help a bunch on the 2 line of that 4-2-3-1, and a full season of Rayan Raveloson next to him makes a ton of sense.

Plus Julian Araujo is going to break out – I’m talking “starts every game at the World Cup for El Tri and is sold for $10 million next winter.”

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And yet, that defense really, really, really remains a work in progress. The Galaxy shipped 54 goals last year and while Delgado should help, he’s not going to shave 15 off that total.

It’s just hard to imagine the Galaxy defense being anywhere good enough. Even when they were posting respectable goals-against numbers early last year it was because Jonathan Bond was standing on his head. When he regressed to the mean, things got real grim and stayed that way.

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Let me introduce you to the 2001 Miami Fusion, one of my favorite MLS teams of all-time and the previous most unlikely Shield winner in league history:

The unthinkable can happen in this league. It has before, and in the same damn town!

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This Miami team winning the Shield would be orders of magnitude more unlikely than the one that pulled it off 21 years ago. They gutted the roster this offseason for a reason – it’s the start of a years-long rebuild.

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Emanuel Reynoso performed at an MVP level last year. More people would’ve realized that if his teammates had finished off the damn near infinite chances he’d created.

Enter Luis Amarilla. He got off to a wonderful start in 2020 before injuries and the pandemic changed everything, and near as I can tell Adrian Heath’s been working for the past 15 months to bring him back. Well, he’s now officially back, and he did promise he’d score 25 goals once upon a time. If he makes good on that, suddenly the Loons are cooking.

One more note: In the dozen games Hassani Dotson started in central midfield last year, on the 2 line of Heath’s 4-2-3-1, Minnesota went 7-1-4. That’s 2.1 points per game – easily enough to win the Shield in most seasons.

Dotson appears to be the starting No. 8 this year.

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It’s a very small sample size above, and small sample sizes are noisy. That applies to Amarilla’s previous stint in MLS, which lasted for all of 425 minutes. And while his career outside of MLS has been good, it’s more in line with “solid MLS starter” rather than “25 goals and a serious Golden Boot push.”

There are talented pieces here and as long as the defense holds up – I see no reason why it wouldn’t – they should be a good team. But that’s still pretty far from a Shield.

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Djordje Mihailovic levels up again, Mason Toye breaks out, and the addition of Alistair Johnston turns that backline into an elite unit, while young Rida Zouhir turns out to be the second coming of Atiba Hutchinson.

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Even the above probably wouldn’t be enough, though I’ll admit I want to live in a world where all of it happens.

Keep an eye on Zouhir by the way. He has the makings of an elite, top-end prospect.

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They figure out why they’ve been so vulnerable on restarts, fix it, and suddenly have the best defense in MLS history. They give up like 25 goals, murder everyone on attacking set pieces and Hany has another MVP-caliber season, while Ake Loba proves to be worth the money.

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I mean, Nashville really might!

That said, I think the biggest reasons they won’t are that Hany’s going to regress to the mean a bit and the travel they have to do playing in the Western Conference is just a whole lot. They’ll be tough to beat again, but I don’t think they’ll have that extra gear to turn enough of last year’s draws into wins.

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They won the Shield last year, setting a single-season points record (73) along the way, and return 88% of their minutes for 2022 – second in the league:

There is every reason to think the Revs will be an elite team again this year.

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By midsummer three of the five best players on last year’s team will have been sold for a combined $25ish million to UEFA Champions League teams. That is a massive talent outflow.

It’s also part of the game, and I think that the Revs will find a way to compensate over time. But losing Matt Turner and likely Adam Buksa midseason, in addition to the departure of Tajon Buchanan after last year, does not make for the type of stability Shields are built upon.

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Taty’s reported new extension means he’ll be happy to stick around for the rest of the year and try his luck after the season, Maxi holds off Father Time for one more season and everyone else stays healthy.

Plus one of the South American U22 kids starts hitting the back of the net with regularity.

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Taty gets sold and Heber’s just not able to rediscover his 2019 form, while none of Talles Magno, Thiago Andrade or Santi Rodriguez are ready to carry any sort of scoring burden. And/or Maxi gets old.

But I still think this team’s a really, really good bet to win the Shield.

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Carlos Coronel stays elite, the defense stays elite, and Patryk Klimala is this year’s David Gass Theorem winner as he breaks out and scores 20+ goals while setting up another dozen or so, many of which are finished off by Luquinhas (Newcomer of the Year) and Caden Clark (Young Player of the Year).

And just nobody can deal with the press. That run the Red Bulls went on to close the season last year? It’s like that from Day 1 this year.

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Teams this young don’t ever win anything:

The Union’s 2020 team and the previous RBNY Shield winners were loaded with veterans and sprinkled with a few high-upside kids; this version of RBNY is loaded with kids and sprinkled with very few veterans.

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The foundation is there. This is a 50-point team that’s just dying for a few difference-makers to come in and push them up a rung into the ranks of the elite. And so Orlando City’s new ownership group went shopping this offseason for said difference-makers, coming back with one young, but already kinda proven high-upside playmaking winger (Facundo Torres) and one veteran, highly productive goalscoring No. 9 (Ercan Kara).

That’s the whole argument right there: those guys are supposed to be among the best in the league at their spots, and the rest of this roster is already littered with above-average-to-excellent players.

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Most players – even DPs – take a year or so to adjust to a new league. It wouldn’t shock anyone if that was the case for Torres and Kara, and if that’s how it plays out, Orlando just don’t have the firepower to hang with the big boys in the East.

The other worry is that the defense just wasn’t all that good last year. They conceded the most goals of any East playoff team, yet have made zero adjustments or additions to the backline.

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They just keep growing under Jim Curtin, and part of that growth over the past two years has been the ability to juggle competitions while keeping the level of intensity high. It hasn’t always produced wins, but that’s largely come down to the inability of the attack to turn high-leverage moments into goals.

To that end, the Union have acquired an international-level No. 10 (Daniel Gazdag) and two DP forwards (Julian Carranza, Mikael Uhre) over the past two windows. So let’s say the rest of the Union keep playing as they have been and those guys all play like they're supposed to.

There’s a decent reason to suspect it might work out just like that.

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It’s just a decent reason, though. There’s also decent reason to suspect at least two of them (Gazdag and Carranza) are nowhere near that level of quality based upon what we’ve seen of them in MLS. And if that’s the case, then they’re just praying Uhre is the real deal and the kids can make up for Gazdag’s shortcomings.

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This guy’s gonna come back healthy and run it:

Between that and 2,000 good minutes from Sebastian Blanco, that’s enough.

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Actually, that probably wouldn’t be enough, especially since Felipe Mora’s hurt and since Dairon Asprilla is likely to regress to the mean after a career year.

Beyond that, I have my doubts about goalkeeping compared to the past few years with Steve Clark gone. As always, it’s worth remembering Diego Chara and Larrys Mabiala are both irreplaceable and both in their mid-30s.

This is the only team in the league I think has a decent chance at MLS Cup and zero chance at the Shield.

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Last year’s team was often fun and often good, and made a really credible playoff run! They’re almost all back, plus three new DPs!

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[taps mic] I said three new DPs!

...silence...

[smacks mic into palm] THREE NEW DPs!!!!

...haunting silence as the abyss stares back at me...

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First of all, Jeremy Ebobisse is gonna score close to 20 goals this year.

Second of all, Matias Almeyda is a mad genius who appears set to roll his team out in a 3-6-1 with Cade Cowell at wingback and Jackson Yueill at center back. The amount of shock and paralyzing surprise that instills into the teams they’re facing is going to be worth, like, 40 points all on its own.

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Hey, we’ve finally made it to the team I think is going to win the Shield this year! Yeah, the Sounders will be juggling multiple competitions – never great for your Shield chances – and have some very key players coming back from injuries, but they’re loaded with quality, are proven winners (to put it mildly) and have depth basically everywhere in the roster

Beyond that, they really did seem to want to go for it last year, and if they’d had any sort of luck with injuries they might’ve at least given the Revs a run. Regardless, they ended up on 60 points. Now think about adding Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Albert Rusnak to a 60-point team. Seems like a good reason to suspect they can become a 70-point team, right? Especially since no one in the West seems particularly fearsome this year.

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Age? Injuries? Wear and tear from all the CCL and US Open Cup games? Lack of chemistry?

Lots of things can go wrong. Even a team as good as the Sounders needs some luck and lots of focus to win a Shield.

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They need to check four boxes:

  1. Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell reprise their magnificent 2021 seasons
  2. Nikola Vujnovic slides easily into the starting No. 9 role
  3. Jose Mauri proves to be a defensive upgrade over Ilie Sanchez
  4. Nicolas Isimat-Mirin stays healthy and plays 2,500 minutes next to Andreu Fontas

It’s not nothing, but all of that is achievable, as are some less-obvious boxes they need to check.

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It’s not even clear Mauri has won the starting job – it might be Uri Rosell instead. Rosell’s a good depth piece, but is even less mobile defensively than Ilie, and it’s hard to imagine he’s the man to put an end to Sporting’s woes in defensive transition.

As for Isimat-Mirin, he’s 30 and missed a ton of time last year. Fontas is 32 and definitely saw his level drop over the final two months of the season. 2,500 minutes might be what they need to hit, but it feels highly unlikely that both those guys will get to that number in A+ shape.

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Toronto will just get out there and ball. They’ve got tons of skill at almost every position, but especially in midfield where Michael Bradley, Alejandro Pozuelo and Jonathan Osorio can all open the game up with a single touch. Add in fullbacks who are given license to fly forward, a potential 20-goal scorer in Ayo Akinola and the midseason addition of Lorenzo Insigne, and this has the potential to look like Bob Bradley’s 2019 LAFC side.

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Can they win the ball? Can that backline defend? Will any of the fullbacks be actual fullbacks and not just attackers who sometimes stand along the backline? Will the goalkeeping improve?

Just too many questions for this side.

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Ryan Gauld, Brian White and Deiber Caicedo were all very good last year in their first season in Vancouver. With a year of chemistry and continuity and a full preseason under Vanni Sartini, they reach a level beyond “very good” and suddenly start to produce 2021 New England Revolution-style vibes, where their relentless movement and ability to get out into transition ends up creating chance after chance after chance after chance.

On top of that, the entire defense levels up (led by Ranko Veselinovic) and it turns out Thomas Hasal was, indeed, ready to wear the No. 1 shirt.

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Maxime Crepeau was arguably their best player last year and while I think Hasal is good, I don’t think he’s as good as Crepeau. It’ll be hard to make up that gap, even with a full year of Gauld and White. It’ll be even harder if Veselinovic and Erik Godoy stay constantly injured, and if there continue to be ball-winning issues in central midfield (which, given the personnel, isn’t hard to imagine).