Time for a maybe-kinda-useless-but-probably-not thought experiment: What are the starting lineups for all 22 MLS teams if the league started now?
"Doyle, you're an idiot. There's still six weeks before the season kicks off, so you know these are going to change."
Ok, you're right, but less right than you think. MLS teams have been busier earlier in the transfer window than we've ever seen in the past, and while there are surely some big acquisitions on the way (looking in your direction, NYCFC), the vast majority of lineups are pretty well complete. There will be some tweaks here and there, of course, and maybe even one or two more big trades. Things will change.
But it's not even the end of January and I feel like I've got a handle on how most everybody's going to lineup, as well as most of the projected starters. This feels like a new era, and so in keeping with the old era I will now make a bunch of predictions that are sure to humiliate and shame me in the weeks and months to come:
Atlanta United FC
PREDICTED FORMATION: Something 4-3-3-ish, I think
I think it'll look something like this to start off, right? Tata Martino has generally tended toward the 4-3-3 of some sort as a head coach, though this one may be more of a 4-2-1-3 with Yamil Asad's defensive workrate notoriously questionable down in Argentina. I'm not sure how any sort of disconnect will be handled there, especially since it seems very likely that this team will gegenpress from the first whistle.
ALTERNATE: Expect them to spend at least a little time in a 3-4-3 with Michael Parkhurst as a pseudo-sweeper.
PREDICTED FORMATION: Right now it's a 4-4-2 with inverted wingers
Honestly we could even tuck both wingers in a little tighter on each side. Both David Accam and Arturo Alvarez love to get into the middle of the pitch at odd angles, and Accam of course also loves to stretch the field. The fullbacks will have to overlap more effectively and more often than they did last year, and I expect both central midfielders to support rather than attack.
ALTERNATE: If Chicago use their open DP slot to sign a No. 10 – and I think they will – this is likely to turn into a 4-2-3-1. Not sure what that means for Michael De Leeuw, who's really only a second striker.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
Some of the names have changed for Colorado, but I don't think the modus operandi will. This team will defend deep and compact and be opportunistic going forward, meaning they will have to do damage on set pieces and on the break. They showed that can be a winning formula for one season, but I have questions about its efficacy over two seasons.
ALTERNATE: I believe that Shkelzen Gashi is a better second forward than winger, and I'd like to see him play there in a 4-4-2.
Columbus Crew SC
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1 SC
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. Just about the first thing Gregg Berhalter did as head coach was decide upon this five-man midfield, and as we enter 2017 I think it's the one we'll see one last time for Crew SC. Both fullbacks will overlap, and Ola Kamara will get a million looks, and whether they improve or not will come down to the new faces in central defense and goal.
ALTERNATE: I refuse to be shocked if, at some point, we see Columbus in a 3-4-3 for a little bit. But they'll spend 95 percent of their time in the good old 4-2-3-1.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-1-4-1
If it ain't broke, don't break it. And even though D.C.'s season last year ended beneath a flurry of Montreal goals in the Knockout Round of the playoffs, there's no reason to turn away from the formational and philosophical change that served them so well from late July onward. There'll be some tweaks in terms of roles, and a rookie or two threatening to break into the XI, but United look set to let the good times roll just like they did in 2016.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
The offseason acquisitions kind of tell the story, right? They went after three new attackers in spots that were voided by either injury, transfer or relatively sparse production, and they targeted both fullback spots. That's a lot of change for a team that just won a double.
But while the faces change, the system won't. I'm pretty sure the default will be the same 4-2-3-1 that Oscar Pareja has run for his entire coaching career.
ALTERNATE: Back in 2014 & 2015 when Mauro Diaz got injured, Pareja compensated by going to a low-block 4-4-2 and just countering like mad through the wings. That's probably still an option for road games or turf games when Javier Morales needs a rest.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-3-3
DaMarcus Beasley gets an asterisk because they haven't officially signed him yet. I think that'll get done, though.
With or without DMB, I'm pretty sure this is how the Dynamo will look. It's some sort of three-man midfield for sure, with two very narrow, very attack-minded wings. Most folks think "Oh, 4-3-3 means we'll be a possession team!" but I very much doubt that'll be the case with Houston in 2017. They're built to absorb and break.
ALTERNATE: If they can acquire a true No. 10, they will have the pieces to run either a 4-3-1-2 or a 4-2-3-1. The first of those two looks might be more interesting, given the potential forward combos on this roster.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-4-1-1 that's more of a 4-1-3-2
That's Romain Alessandrini on the right wing. I know LA haven't officially signed him yet, but "YET" is the word there. And obviously they're signing him to start.
With or without him, LA's shape will revolve around two guys: Giovani dos Santos and Jermaine Jones. Even if they call it a 4-2-3-1, it won't be that because Gio isn't a midfielder; he's a second forward. They won't call it a 4-4-2, though, because reasons. And even calling it a 4-4-1-1 is kind of wrong because Jones doesn't really share the deep midfield with anyone – he just follows his nose all over the pitch and requires his teammates to bend to his will. Scott Caldwell was masterful at shadowing him in New England, and that'll be Joao Pedro's role in Carson.
ALTERNATE: We'll see a touch of 4-3-3 from this team, especially when dos Santos isn't available.
Minnesota United FC
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-1-3
I expect Adrian Heath to try to replicate what he did with Orlando City, playing a lineup that's heavy on attacking intent and is comfortable building via possession. Part and parcel of that is having wide players who get forward as much and as often as possible when playing off of their No. 9, which is why I think this'll be more of a 4-2-1-3 than a 4-2-3-1. Expect Johan Venegas to, at times, look like a second forward.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-3-3
Montreal ran all the way to the Eastern Conference championship round before losing the most epic playoff series in league history to Toronto FC. There's a lot of "damn, they shipped seven goals" to cope with in unpacking that 210 minutes, but there's also a lot of "hey, they came within a few minutes of qualifying for MLS Cup" to unpack as well.
So I don't expect any real philosophical changes, though another addition on the backline – specifically, a physically dominant center back – wouldn't shock me.
ALTERNATE: Bet if they have trouble defending crosses again this year we'll see some 5-3-2 or even a bit of 5-4-1.
New England Revolution
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-4-2 diamond!
This is potentially a very bad guess, but I really do think we'll see New England play the diamond more often than they go to work in any other formation this season. The questions I have revolve more around fit, and whether one of Lee Nguyen, Juan Agudelo or Kei Kamara has to sit in order to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And if one of them does sit, that means Kelyn Rowe finally gets a shot to show what he can do as a No. 10.
The Revs' best moments last year came in the diamond, of course. Go watch the first 20 minutes of the US Open Cup against Dallas – before Gershon Koffie got hurt – and you'll get a glimpse.
EDIT: Also, I am a monster for leaving Caldwell out of this lineup.
ALTERNATE: The 4-2-3-1 that they've played forever isn't going to just go away.
New York City FC
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-3-3, build from the back
Patrick Vieira pretty memorably outsmarted himself by tinkering too much in the playoffs by changing everything up, all at once. New formation, new goalkeeper, new lineup, new philosophy, and no chance in a 7-0 drubbing by Toronto FC. So it goes.
I think that's a learning experience for him, and I also think that the slow-build 4-3-3 NYC played for most of last season is baked into his very soul. I am happy with that, because his team were quite fun to watch, and this year's group should be younger and more explosive.
ALTERNATE: We'll see more of that 3-4-3 again as well.
New York Red Bulls
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-2-2. Yeah, I went there.
I outlined my reasoning for the switch to the 4-2-2-2 in this column from last week. It's not a fait accompli that they'll go to this look fulltime, and it's an open question as to whether or not changing up something that worked so well (the 4-2-3-1) for so long is a good idea. But I've got myself a hunch, and I'm going to ride it.
Bear in mind that New York potentially have open DP slots and a good chunk of cash on hand to add pieces literally anywhere, including that front line.
ALTERNATE: The 4-2-3-1, obviously. Remember that RBNY actually tried the 4-2-2-2 at the start of last season before reverting.
Whatever the formation, though, this will be a high pressing team.
Orlando City SC
PREDICTED FORMATION: I'm gonna guess 4-4-1-1, sorta
This is one of the teams that I really have no idea about, largely because their roster has been in such flux since the middle of last summer. They have about 15 different guys who can play deep in midfield, and just shipped out their second-best creator for a huge chunk of allocation cash, and have two DPs who don't really play, and four goalkeepers, and two of the better USYNT attacking prospects in the pipeline... I really don't know.
I do know that Kaká is at his best in a free role underneath a single striker, though, so I'm just going to go with that.
ALTERNATE: Sure, you can talk me into a 4-4-2 diamond with Will Johnson on one side, Matias Perez-Garcia on the other, Kaká at the point and Cristian Higuita at d-mid. Maybe Carlos Rivas can partner Cyle Larin up top? I'd watch that.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1 that morphs into a 4-3-3
The questions for Phlly revolve much more around personnel than they do around formation. Is Roland Alberg ready to run the show as a No. 10? Is Maurice Edu healthy? Jay Simpson as the No. 9, or is it still C.J. Sapong's job?
Those questions obviously matter quite a bit, but regardless we mostly know what the Union will look like in 2017. You can argue it's more of a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1 since both wingers are goalscorers who play so high, but at the same time so is Alberg. You could also argue at times it'll look like a 4-4-1-1.
ALTERNATE: I bet we see a bit of the 4-2-2-2 with both Simpson and Sapong up top, especially if Alberg struggles as a string-puller.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-3-1
Portland are still going to be Portland, for the most part. The big shift is once again going to be personnel, as Darlington Nagbe is slated to start as an inverted left wing. If that's the case expect that side to play very narrow and for the left fullback to constantly get into the attack on the overlap.
Obviously I have other questions about what's going to happen on the right wing, because that'll determine a little bit more about Portland's shape and line of confrontation. If it's more of a playmaker out there, I could see them becoming a possession team a la 2013. If it's more of a true winger or converted forward, I suspect they'll be the deep-lying counterattacking group of the last two years.
ALTERNATE: Caleb Porter's stealthily used the 4-4-2 from time to time over the last four years, and has the pieces to make it plenty effective this year as well.
Real Salt Lake
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-2-1-3
The generational evolution continued this offseason, and it seems pretty clear that the RSL of the future (and hopefully of the present) is one that can get out and run with five guys in the attack. The front three will operate just like they did last year, and it's up to newcomer Albert Rusnak to make certain the midfield three stays connected a little bit better than in 2016.
ALTERNATE: I hope we get to see a 4-1-3-2 at least a little bit, because I think Joao Plata may actually be a better second forward than he is a winger, and because I love Jordan Allen as an inverted, playmaking left midfielder.
San Jose Earthquakes
PREDICTED FORMATION: 4-4-2 I think
This is another one I'm more than a little bit iffy on because of skillset overlap on the roster – there's just a ton of guys on that central midfield depth chart, and it's not clear how they'll all pair off. It's also not clear whether or not Tommy Thompson's late run of starts in 2016 was an audition he passed of failed, and if right-footed Nick Lima will play right back or left back, and how I'm justifying Fatai Alashe as a reserve.
Dom Kinnear's teams have generally played a 4-4-2 with at least one inverted midfielder to get goal dangerous in the past, though, so I'm going with that.
ALTERNATE: A million center mids? A bunch of wide players who can run? A host of new CB signings? That's the 3-5-2's music!
PREDICTED FORMATION: Pretty pretty pretty sure they're not going away from the 4-2-3-1 that helped win them MLS Cup
Remember how good the Sounders looked for those couple of games when Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro were all in the lineup together? To be clear: Dempsey has returned to training, but there are still a bunch of hurdles that need to be cleared before he's a fulltime starter again. Still, I'm choosing to be optimistic.
The one issue with the above XI is that it will lack width in the front line, which puts a ton of pressure on the fullbacks to overlap.
PREDICTED FORMATION: High-pressing 4-3-3
Sporting are still going to be Sporting, and you can see that because despite all of their offseason acquisitions there really shouldn't be that many changes to the starting XI. They should probably manage a little more playmaking from the wings, and perhaps they'll actually get a little more goalscoring as well. I suspect their left winger will play very tight to Dom Dwyer, but that's not really unusual with this club.
ALTERNATE: Not really a different formation, but perhaps a different look in that they have a number of right wingers who are more goal-oriented than Graham Zusi. A front three that's narrow on both sides would be something new-ish for SKC, but it'll still be a 4-3-3.
PREDICTED FORMATION: 3-5-2/5-3-2
No reason to change a lot, is there? TFC deserved their spot in MLS Cup and arguably deserved a better fate, and so they kept the gang mostly together. It's understandable, even if there are serious words about getting more creativity out of central midfield (which they could've used in December for sure).
Always the biggest question with a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2? How much energy are you ripping out of your wingbacks over the course of the season. Justin Morrow especially is asked to provide endline-to-endline coverage, and he needs to because without him, TFC can lack penetration.
ALTERNATE: A little of everything for sure – Greg Vanney likes to tinker. But I'm guessing we see more 4-3-3 than expected in 2017.
PREDICTED FORMATION: Something with four at the back
This is another team that's hard to figure out. Yordy Reyna is, in my opinion, much more of a second striker than a center forward, so that No. 9 role still seems barren. And signing him in the first place suggest that maybe they're not going to replace Pedro Morales like-for-like? Or if they do it'll be Homegrown product Marco Bustos pulling the strings? Or maybe Christian Bolanos moves in from the wing and Alphonso Davies starts and Reyna is, actually, the No. 9?
Nobody really knows. So I'll take my cue from Whitecaps fandom and hope that a DP target forward is on his way and the Curse of Camilo will finally be lifted.
ALTERNATE: Anything is possible here, as long as there are four at the back.