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RSL acquire midfielder Crooks from Middlesbrough

Real Salt Lake have acquired midfielder Matt Crooks from English second-division side Middlesbrough. Crooks, a 30-year-old England native, is under contract through the 2026 MLS season. Most of Crooks' professional experience has unfolded in England's lower divisions, highlighted by spells at Middlesbrough and Rotherham United. He's produced 65g/26a across 341 appearances.

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Daily Kickoff Previews Day 7: D.C. United, New York City FC & Real Salt Lake

We’re previewing all 29 teams over 10 days in as Daily Kickoff a style as we can.

Yesterday we checked in on the Philadelphia Union, FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids. Today, it’s D.C. United, New York City FC and Real Salt Lake.

Yes, we know the rosters aren’t finalized yet. The rosters are never finalized.

2023 By The Numbers (per American Soccer Analysis)

D.C. quietly had good to maybe even really good underlying numbers last year? Yeah, I know, it doesn’t click for me either. But the numbers are the numbers. And D.C. finished the year with the fourth-best expected point total and expected goal differential in the Eastern Conference. In related news, they also finished as the second most unlucky team in the East when it came to underperforming their underlying numbers. They were especially unlucky when games were tied, checking in as the second-most underperforming team in MLS during even game states. That helped them end up with a negative-8 goal differential when tied.

Basically, they played from behind. A lot. Being the chasing team typically inflates some underlying numbers. At least a little bit. Combine that data point with the eye test and there’s a reason you aren’t going to see too many folks picking D.C. to take a major jump forward based on 2023.

2024 DKO Range Prediction

Between ninth and 15th in the Eastern Conference.

Remember, we’re operating under the assumption the East is stacked this season. Breaking into the upper tier is going to require an elite roster or elite overperformance. The latter seems possible for D.C. United. The former still feels a few steps away. Although they did make a few sharp moves this offseason.

The Black & Red brought in defender Aaron Herrera and a 21-year-old Young DP No. 6 named Matti Peltola. Peltola should help round out a midfield that could be solid when healthy thanks to DP Mateusz Klich and U22 Gabriel Pirani. If it’s not healthy… let’s just say there are some depth concerns here. That goes for multiple spots on this roster.

The bottom line here is the current edition of a fully healthy D.C. XI doesn’t seem strong enough on paper to challenge the top half of the East. The slightly weathered down by an MLS season version of this D.C. XI has clear weak points.

All that said, it’s year one for new manager Troy Lesesne and new CSO Ally Mackay. There’s an “Under Construction” sign on this team in 2024. Some joy can be found in any moment that suggests they’re ahead of schedule.

Player of the People

The people love rising star Ted Ku-DiPietro. Here’s to hoping he gets significant starting minutes in attack this season.

This could all go pretty well if…

The roster keeps improving from here on out, they stay remarkably healthy, Lesesne’s post-Red Bull game model raises their floor and there’s some overperformance.

2023 By The Numbers (per American Soccer Analysis)

NYCFC’s underlyings were very similar to D.C. United last year. Like almost identical when it came to expected points, expected goal differential and their underperformance relative to those numbers. The big difference, though, is NYCFC leaned on their defensive solidity. The Pigeons allowed the third-fewest xG against in MLS last season.

Normally that’d be great news for a team whose major concern coming into last year seemed like it would be replacing center back Alexander Callens. That’s simplifying things a bit (a lot), but it always kind of seemed like NYCFC would figure things out in attack thanks to their impressive collection of young talent. They just needed a striker to round things out. They… uh… took their time on that.

Forward Mounsef Bakrar arrived in July and only got 10 starts under his belt before NYCFC’s season came to a close. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2015 thanks to an attack that posted the sixth-lowest xG in the East and the fourth-fewest goals scored total in MLS. They improved from 1.17 xGF per game to 1.49 when Bakrar arrived, but they clearly spent way too long trying to build the airplane while flying it to really get anywhere.

2024 DKO Range Prediction

Between fifth and 10th in the Eastern Conference.

Well, the good news is Bakrar is already here in 2024. The spine of the team seems relatively set with midfielders James Sands and Keaton Parks operating as one of the single-best pairings in the league. We have a decent idea of what this team will look like at the back and in midfield.

The bad news is it sure seems like there’s still some plane building happening in attack as we fly into the regular season. NYCFC have brought in 25-year-old winger Hannes Wolf as maybe or maybe not the Talles Magno replacement. Or maybe that’s 19-year-old Agustín Ojeda? Or maybe Magno isn’t going anywhere? Oh, also, it seems like they’re still working on bringing in 18-year-old striker Jovan Mijatović. There have even been reports of 21-year-old Matías Arezo arriving, too. That’s a lot of turnover and youth in attack for a team that had an incredibly inconsistent attack last season thanks in part to their youth and turnover.

Still, we are talking about players who seemingly have more than enough talent to make an impact when they’re sharp. If NYCFC can at least give their reworked attack a full season to gel, Parks and Sands could be able to handle everything else… even if there are some concerns about center-back depth.

Right now, they seem less like a team set to consistently rack up points throughout a season and more like a team that no one at the top of the East is going to want to deal with once the playoffs arrive.

Player of the People

Keaton Parks has had to overcome compartment syndrome throughout his career. He’s still found a way to be outstanding any time he’s on the field.

This could all go pretty well if…

Talent overcomes turnover, the midfield and backline depth aren’t tested too much, and the attack gets better and better as the year goes along.

2023 By The Numbers (per American Soccer Analysis)

RSL were just about middle of the road in nearly everything last year. There’s not much to dig into. They were fine. That’s fine. But it is important to note they were a totally different group once DP forward Chicho Arango arrived, going from 1.27 expected points per game in the 21 games before Arango arrived to 1.26 expected points per game after he arrived…………….oh. Well. I mean, they were fine.

2024 DKO Range Prediction

Between fourth and 12th in the Western Conference.

Big range here on paper. In practice, RSL always seem to find a way.

This is a hard team to assess right now, though. They’re hard to assess in pretty much any scenario, but they currently have two DP spots available. They could look very different very quickly. For now, we’ll just expect them to do try-hardy RSL things, let Arango be Arango and earn enough points to get by. I don’t really know what to add other than to just keep gesturing over and over to the RSL logo. This team is what it is.

Player of the People

Diego Luna is ultra-talented, a joy to watch on the ball and has what I would describe as a “Soundcloud famous” level of tattoos. He’s perfect.

This could all go pretty well if…

Arango continues being productive at a high level, Luna builds on a solid 2023, they bring in two new DPs who hit and the team as a whole continues outworking people the way they’ve tended to outwork people under Pablo Mastroeni. Precedent tells us this is a playoff team. Just because.

Other Things

Almada powers Argentina, Gómez leads Paraguay to 2024 Olympics: South America's two tickets for the 2024 Summer Olympics are punched – thanks, in large part, to MLS players enjoying key roles. Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada (Argentina) and Inter Miami CF midfielder Diego Gómez (Paraguay) recently captained their respective nations to glory at the 2024 Conmebol Pre-Olympic Tournament. They also finished as the competition's joint top goalscorer (five goals apiece). At the upcoming Olympics, men's soccer will be held from July 24 to Aug. 10.

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Good luck out there. Get your head on it.