Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 22 MLS teams by tier

My favorite NBA column every year is Zach Lowe's "Annual Tiers of the NBA" opus, which comes out in the days leading up to every season. Like all true hoops junkies, I usually have the date circled on the calendar. Then the story comes out, and I make fun of the Knicks until Ben Baer and David Gass cry, and that's how I really know the season of my second-favorite sport is about to start.

So with a tip of the cap to Mr. Lowe, here's my own version of that very column, MLS-style. What follows are not hard-and-fast Power Rankings, per se, but rather something a little more loose in terms of talent level, cohesion, chemistry, and all the et ceteras that make teams tick.

These teams are mostly in the order I think they'll finish, but what really matters is the tier designations.

TIER I: FRONTRUNNERS

 
TOR

Toronto FC

Yeah, I have the vanquished MLS Cup finalists here. But they were vanquished only after holding the Seattle Sounders without a shot on target – and just three shots, total – for 120 minutes before falling on penalties.

Then they brought 95 percent of that team back, added a key piece in midfield and another in defense, and finally enter a season with a concrete identity and plan. The Reds are a 3-5-2/5-3-2 team that will, first and foremost, press high and make teams uncomfortable. They will play on the front foot, and attack through Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, the league's best forward pair.

Seattle memorably asked "And what else?" back in December, to which TFC's response was "not much." I still think the hosts would've won if they'd subbed Tosaint Ricketts on sooner, but the big need correctly identified was more playmaking in attacking midfield. So they went out and got Spaniard Victor Vazquez, who has done a job for a very good Club Brugge team for most of the decade.

I don't see a weakness to this team unless Drew Moor gets hurt. I think they can survive without Giovinco, Altidore or Michael Bradley for a time, and we know they'll be fine if they lose Clint Irwin for a bit, and I not-so-secretly think that Jay Chapman will be better than Vazquez.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: I have Jonathan Osorio holding onto his starting job for now, but it'll probably be one of Vazquez or Chapman in the long run.


 
SEA

Seattle Sounders

They lifted the Cup, they improved, they got younger, they got their star healthy, and they're still not No. 1. I'm sure Sounders fans will be a barrel of laughs in the comments section.

Seattle have a number of things going for them, starting with Nicolas Lodeiro playing inverted on the right as kind of a No. 10, and kind of a winger. He goes wherever he wants in attack, and the Sounders have the structure to support his wandering thanks to the straight-ahead pragmatism and simplicity of the 4-2-3-1 they play.

For the first time, though, they also have depth on the "2" line of that formation. For the past eight years it was death if Osvaldo Alonso was out but now he has a blooded, high-quality backup in Swede Gustav Svensson. Ozzie may finally be able to take a weekend off without the world falling apart in his absence.

There are three concerns, I think, with this team:

  1. Backline depth (they'll add another piece or two, I'm sure)
  2. Speed in the attack outside of Jordan Morris
  3. Clint Dempsey's health

Even if they only get the right answer to two out of those three, they're still a top four team in this league. And since the West is weaker than the East this year (!!!), maybe they're the Supporters' Shield favorites?

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: Svensson will play right back in place of the injured Brad Evans for now. Also, it sounds a little bit like Dempsey won't start this weekend, but I don't believe that.


 
DAL

FC Dallas

They're the only team in league history that's topped 60 points twice in a row. They brought back an improved defense, an improved front line, and arguably improved wingers. Kellyn Acosta looks like he's ready to have something close to a Best XI season. Buy Reggie Cannon stock. Cristian Colman looked active, strong and dangerous in his Hoops debut. There are no longer any real goalscorer questions with this team.

There remains, however, the Mauro Diaz question. I don't expect the Magic Little Unicorn™ to be healthy, really, until 2018, and that means Dallas will have to toggle between a counterattacking 4-4-2 (which is what they started in against Arabe Unido last week) with Maxi Urruti pairing Colman, or a more compact 4-2-3-1 with ageless warlock Javier Morales as the No. 10 underneath a lone forward.

I think both looks will work even as they face better competition than Arabe Unido, and I also think they have more depth than at any point in the past, in virtually any spot. The one question mark may be behind Morales, but even there they have youngster Paxton Pomykal (he might be more of a No. 8, but still), who by all accounts had a monstrous winter. And we know Oscar Pareja doesn't mind playing the kids.

There will be some early bumps in the road, and – win or lose – an inevitable CCL hangover. Nonetheless, everyone should expect Dallas to be in it for the long haul.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: There are a few regular starters (Michael Barrios and Maynor Figueroa) not in this XI. I'm making allowances for their CCL workload and some squad rotation. There could be a little more, maybe a little less depending upon what happens Wednesday.


 
NY

New York Red Bulls

I strongly considered moving RBNY down to the next tier thanks to their ugly start to the year in CCL play (a 1-1 home draw isn't a disaster, but it's not inspiring), their backline injuries, real questions about their switch to a new formation, and the absence of their captain.

But this team is still loaded. They have the best goalscorer in the league, one of the most prolific set-up men in MLS history, a former Best XI defender who's still in his prime, and a herd of academy kids ranging from "Very Good and Should be a Contributor" (Derrick Etienne) to "Best Young American Talent, non-Pulisic Division" (Tyler Adams).

Once they all get healthy, this team will be as deep as anybody in the league thanks to savvy shopping, but also to their approach toward developing academy kids and USL players (Aaron Long will see lots of minutes in central defense). The big question – the one to which there is no answer as yet – is whether or not they're as deep with game-changing attacking quality as the other three in this group. We know the answers for Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, but we're still waiting to see on Daniel Royer and especially Gonzalo Veron.

If both those guys come good, RBNY will be in the argument for the top spot. If neither does, we can probably drop them a tier.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: Squad rotation could wreck havoc here, since NY play at Vancouver on Thursday, then at Atlanta on Sunday. They really need Gideon Baah, Connor Lade and Kemar Lawrence to get healthy, and Etienne to be an answer in attack.

TIER II: CONTENDERS

 
CLB

Columbus Crew SC

I believe in expected goals models. That doesn't mean that I think they're infallible, or that I think they're all perfectly accurate, or that "bad luck" can't grab a team by the throat for more than a year at a time. It means, simply, that I think they're more predictive than other metrics we have, and I'm particularly prone to believe them when they match the eye test.

To me, the eye test for last year's Crew SC said two things: They were still an attacking juggernaut (they made Adam Jahn look like Ruud Van Nistelrooy for god's sake) despite shoddy finishing, and they were constantly let down by an error-prone defense.

For the first part of that, I don't think they'll be as poor in front of goal this year, and the team we saw from August onward (24 goals in 13 games) is the real Columbus, not the group that scored just 26 goals in 21 games from March through the end of July. For the second part, Gregg Berhalter & Co. went out and signed a DP center back, brought in two high-upside rookies, a possible new starter at left back, a likely new starter at defensive midfield, and Zack Steffen in goal.

That's a lot of new faces to integrate, but I have a hunch it'll work. If you're looking for a bounce-back team to wager on, here you go.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: Of the rookie center backs, Homegrown Alex Crognale has been the more impressive according to reports. If Berhalter decides he needs more size back there (a constant issue for Columbus over the past two seasons), expect Crognale to get the call.


 
POR

Portland Timbers

There has been some furious debate in the halls of MLS Digital about the correct/appropriate placement of the Timbers. They are so very clearly very thin in central defense, where they just had to trade for a 32-year-old defensive midfielder in order to plug a hole, that it's fairly easy to talk one's self into this team leaking goals on the regular.

But with new d-mid David Guzman sitting in front of the back line and Diego Chara chewing up ground as he goes box-to-box, I think the worries at center back are probably a touch overstated. They're still there, mind you, but it's not like teams are going to be able to set up shop and pick Portland apart.

The attack, meanwhile, should be one of the league's best. Fanendo Adi has been unstoppable in the preseason, Sebastian Blanco is great sidekick for Diego Valeri, and Darlington Nagbe has been able to constantly bring left back Vytautas Andriuskevicius into the play on the overlap. It's been fearsome, and it's not like you can go send help – leave a single center back to deal with Adi in the area, and you're picking the ball out of your own net one way or the other.

Lack of depth relative to the rest of best will hurt this team, but there's real reason to think Portland will climb well past the red line in 2017.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: Expect reinforcements at right center back near the end of spring.


 
SKC

Sporting KC

They're going to operate like they always operate, with a high-pressure, front-foot 4-3-3 that's designed to try to win the ball back as quickly as possible and smother teams before they can build attacks.

And they're going to have to answer the same question they always have to answer: Who, besides, Dom Dwyer, is going to be a real goal threat in open play? Two years ago they had an answer for that, and last year they didn't, and so this offseason they went shopping. There's a new DP in Gerso Fernandes, and a high-scoring young winger from Ghanaian named Latif Blessing, and a Homegrown Hungarian, and Soony Saad is back, and... well, there needs to be an answer. One of those guys has to do the job, or SKC will be stuck in third gear for the fourth year running.

I also, for the first time in a while, have real questions about the defense. Matt Besler was injured this offseason, and neither Ike Opara nor Kevin Ellis has ever really been a full time starter; Erik Palmer-Brown is busy playing d-mid for the US U-20s; Graham Zusi looks to be replacing Saad Abdul-Salaam at right back; Jimmy Medranda is playing in the midfield or on the wing.

That's a lot of turnover, and not all of it strictly necessary.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: Expect Gerso and Medranda to swap sides a bit.


 
DC

D.C. United

On paper, this is a better and deeper version of the group that doused opposing defenses in kerosene and lit them on fire over the final three months of the 2016 season. United were a stylish and relentless attacking juggernaut out of a 4-1-4-1 that – IMO, anyway – often played like a 4-3-3 with pinched in winger and overlapping fullbacks. It left them exposed at the back at times, but they outscored teams 33-21 over the final 13 games of the season. Any coach in their right mind would take a +12 goal differential down the stretch.

It looks like 2017's version of United will try to be the same team, only more so. Sean Franklin is now primarily a center back, and Nick DeLeon is a right back, and Ian Harkes is a potential game-breaker as a No. 8. Even the fact that Lucho Acosta is nursing a knock shouldn't slow this team down too much, since Julian Buescher was damn good in limited minutes last year. Out goes one young playmaker, in steps another.

I keep kind of feeling like the other shoe's going to drop with this group. But if it doesn't, they will have gone about building a legitimate contender in a radically different way than most of the other teams in the top half of the table, and front offices around MLS will take note.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: If Acosta can't go, Buescher is the most natural playmaker replacement. But there's also a chance Ben Olsen could decide to start Jared Jeffrey and make Harkes more of a No. 10. Of course, Jeffrey might start in front of Harkes anyway, so... yeah, it's a bit of a question.


 
LA

LA Galaxy

There is a distinct lack of depth in the defense, and a distinct longness of tooth, and because of that there are many, many folks who are trying to talk themselves into the notion that the Galaxy may be actually, factually bad. I am nearly one of them.

But I can't quite get there. This team will certainly struggle at times, and both fullback spots are big, fat red flags, and Gyasi Zardes needs to get healthy soon and who knows how the central midfield will click? But in terms of raw talent, LA are still in the top 30 percent of MLS teams, and it's hard to bet outright against that.

So what will happen out of the gates? I suspect we'll see some high-scoring games, a bunch of goals from Gio Dos Santos, and Jermaine Jones playing like a man with something to prove. That may not be super-sustainable, but it should be entertaining as hell as this franchise finds its way in the post-Bruce Arena era.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: It could be Jack McBean up top instead of Ariel Lassiter. I'm pretty sure about the rest of those spots, though.

TIER III: THE PACK

 
NYC

New York City FC

I'm obviously afraid to make any guarantees with this team one way or another, so I'm just going to stick them straight in the middle. NYCFC have gotten younger in goal, on the backline, in midfield and on the wings. They have legitimate talent in depth, and I think Patrick Vieira learned a lot about what to do and a little about what not to do (welcome to the postseason!) in Year 1 as a head coach.

I think David Villa has at least one more year in his tank, and that Jonathan Lewis is a special talent, as is – obviously – Jack Harrison. I think they will produce the most methodical and prettiest goal build-ups of any team in the league this season. I think Maxi Moralez has a chance to be very, very good in this league. I think we should all enjoy what's probably the final year of the Andrea Pirlo era.

I don't know what to think beyond that. Their expected goals totals from last year say this team should regress, but there was such a heavy home/away tilt it's almost impossible to divine anything from that. The lack of Frank Lampard and Andoni Iraola in midfield says they should regress, but maybe this team needed to move on from the veterans? The questions on the backline say the team should regress, but... well, you know the drill.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: Alexander Callens could sneak into that central defense, and there's a chance McNamara and Moralez will flip spots.


 
MTL

Montreal Impact

Montreal scare the pants off of everybody in the league when they get out on the counter. The speed of Dominic Oduro, the vision and cunning of Matteo Mancosu, and the everything of Ignacio Piatti were just about impossible to contain in November. They went to Toronto and exposed what was one of the league's best defenses in the Eastern Conference Championship – a defense that pitched as comprehensive an MLS Cup shutout as the league has ever seen.

It wasn't just those three guys up top, though. The Old Man Game in central midfield, with Patrice Bernier, Hernan Bernardello and Marco Donadel, is strong. Those guys nail every rotation and it's impossible to pull them apart.

But for as much as Montreal exposed the Reds, the Reds exposed Montreal. The Impact were, by some margin, the worst team in the league defending set pieces, and they lost because of it. They're also not a particularly good team attacking static, deep backlines. Right now it feels very much like they're going to do what they do, and hope nobody makes them adjust.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: I've got nothing for you. What you see is what you get!


 
NE

New England Revolution

It could go really, really well for the Revs in 2017. Or, as happened in 2016, they could give up goal after goal on crosses, important players could miss huge chunks of time with injuries, and they could tattoo every inch of woodwork on every goal frame from sea to shining sea. Putting them in the middle of the pack really is a cop-out, because I think the Revs could be a pretty sneaky contender. At the same time, I think the wheels could fall off and they'll be roadkill.

I'm going to have more on the Revs elsewhere in the coming days, so I'll keep this brief: I'm 95 percent sure this team will sink or swim based upon the quality of the new signings in central defense, as well as the health of Xavier Kouassi. Because I think their front five (and subs) stack up against anybody in the league.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: Last time I had Lee Nguyen on the bench, and the time before that it was Scott Caldwell. This time, it's Diego Fagundez's turn.


 
COL

Colorado Rapids

Only Houston generated fewer expected goals than Colorado last year, and nobody scored fewer inside the 18. Plus the Rapids overperformed their expected goals against by just about 10 – they conceded just 32 on an expected goals total of 41.68.

Can you feel me building up to it? OK, here goes: I don't believe in the Rapids. I really do think last year was fluky, and while their defense will be good once again, they're not going to be "setting records for the most one-goal wins"-level good. On top of that, this is a team that lacks the type of depth we see in other spots around MLS.

I'm almost talking myself into dropping them a tier, but I won't. Why? Because they will have cohesion and chemistry, and they will be very difficult to break down, and that's an excellent formula for picking up results early in the season. "Don't do dumb things" is a perfectly acceptable approach while trying to figure out how to generate an attack, even if it doesn't make for the most attractive soccer.

In other words, I know the Rapids will know who they are out of the gate. I can't say the same for the teams below.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: Burgundy Wave did a really good job of breaking down the other starting XI possibilities this past week. Give 'em a click!


 
CHI

Chicago Fire

Dax McCarty has more freedom to push into the attack, it appears, than he's had at any point since 2010. That's a testament to the newfound strength in this team's deep-central midfield – with McCarty and Juninho, the Fire will be rock solid, experienced, and championship-pedigreed.

But "let's get one of the league's best d-mids higher up the pitch!" doesn't seem like a perfect recipe for chance generation in the MLS of 2017. Chicago will do work on the break, for sure, and they looked legitimately dangerous late last season once Brandon Vincent figured out how to time his overlaps. There's a lot of stuff to work with, especially with their array of pure attackers.

I think they'll go into a full-on stall when they face a static defense, and they absolutely will face a static defense on the regular if they're scoring goals from week to week.

The other big issue for Chicago is that it's not clear the backline can defend "on their own," so to speak. They were good defensively when they played a pure bunker, but couldn't generate any offense. They were pretty good in attack when they got on the ball, but were almost comically porous defensively in those moments. It was all one thing, or all the other.

They've got to find balance.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: Maybe flip Juninho and McCarty a bit? Also, for a team that underwent a ton of changes, this lineup has remained pretty predictable (I think). I haven't changed it since January.


 
ATL

Atlanta United

If their young South American attackers are as good as the hype, then we can bump Atlanta up comfortably into the second tier. If they struggle to jell, struggle to defend, struggle to travel or play at altitude or on turf or in the cold, then things can get pretty "expansion"-y at Bobby Dodd Stadium this spring because that defense isn't going to save them.

The other thing is that it seems like the powers that be for Atlanta have gone all-in on Tata Martino's ability to get the most out of this particular bunch, because I can't imagine they have much TAM or GAM left over after this winter's spending spree. These guys will all have to fit together and improve together and eventually win together, because other than Brad Guzan, there's not going to be much help on the way.

And yet... I've got them in this tier for a reason. A number of the guys they brought in are legitimate talents, and they have a helping of veteran knowhow in the locker room, and that home crowd of theirs should be a factor.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: If Julian Gressel really has nailed down a starting job, he's got the inside track for Rookie of the Year, I think.


 
RSL

Real Salt Lake

I originally had them one tier down, but upon second look that was harsh. Both Joao Plata and Yura Movsisyan are very good attackers in this league, and Albert Rusnak has the profile of someone who should be. Jordan Allen has been good on the right wing in preseason, and Brooks Lennon has been good on the right wing for the US U-20s. Right there you've got an attacking foursome with a little bit of depth that should work.

More concerning is everything behind it, and how it all stays together. This group really did look and play like a collection of individuals for much of last season, and injuries took a toll just when things seemed to be coming together. On top of that there's the ticking expiration clock on Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Demar Phillips. For a team caught between generations, lots of things have to go right and stay right in order to compete.

On the flip side: I see elite young talent on every line – Plata, Allen, Rusnak, maaaaybe Lennon, Justen Glad and perhaps Omar Holness. Tony Beltran, Stephen Sunday and Aaron Maund are good players in their respective primes, and there are more promise-filled youngsters coming up through the ranks.

In general, I'm not sure if RSL are actually closer to competing this season than they were last year. The short-term could get ugly. But I'm convinced they've moved significantly closer in the long run.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: Glad is a fulltime starter once he returns from the U-20s.

TIER IV: OPEN QUESTIONS

 
ORL

Orlando City SC

I've already tweeted this like five times, but I'll let repetition be my friend here: I'm like 150 percent more excited for Orlando City than I thought I'd be, and it's almost entirely because Jason Kreis is coming home to the 4-4-2 diamond. (I'm uncomfortable calling it that until we see what the rotations are defensively, so this might be better called a 4-3-1-2, but it's damn close to the diamond either way).

Kreis's RSL teams played beautiful soccer in that formation, won an MLS Cup and came agonizingly close to a CCL title, and generally set the standard, aesthetically, in MLS for more than half a decade. It's not that he can't coach a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-5-2, but there's something vaguely comforting about seeing a Kreis-led team in the diamond.

It'll be doubly fun if it works as well in attack as I think it could. Kaká's best years came as the No. 10 in AC Milan's diamond, and Cyle Larin + Carlos Rivas up top seems like as natural a forward pairing as you could hope for.

Are there worries on the backline? Of course! RSL gave away the flanks back in the day, and dared you to beat them in the air because they had Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers to cut out crosses. OCSC have nothing approaching that combo, so there will have to be adjustments, and they still might give up 60 goals.

But they might score 65. I love this and am excited for every part of it.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: The Lions haven't been publishing their lineups this preseason, so some of these are guesses. I have to admit that I really only care about that trio up top at this point, though.


 
PHI

Philadelphia Union

I end up talking myself into the Union being contenders every year, and it hasn't happened. And they're one of the few teams in the East that I can look at and think "They didn't really get better this offseason, did they?" I'm not sure Chris Pontius can string together two straight healthy and productive years; I'm not sure that Oguchi Onyewu has anything left in the tank; I'm not sure either Keegan Rosenberry or Fabian Herbers will avoid the sophomore slump; I'm not sure Josh Yaro or Maurice Edu will ever be fully healthy; I'm not sure they'll ever really figure out how to replace Vincent Noguiera.

That last one is the big one: Philly racked up points at the level of a playoff team with Nogueira in the lineup over the last two years, and at something much, much less than that when he wasn't. It's Haris Medunjanin's job to replicate that in 2017, and Jim Curtin's first big decision will be who to pair in deep central midfield with the talented but relatively stationary Bosnian string-puller.

If the Union don't get that right, almost none of the other stuff really matters all that much. And because I'm a risk-taker, I'm going to go ahead and predict Homegrown youngster Derrick Jones to get the job.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: Roland Alberg? Fafa Picault? Ilson Jr? Ken Tribbett? Giliano Wijnaldum?

Honestly... I don't know. Any one of those guys could play a huge role, or none at all.


 
MIN

Minnesota United FC

I've been beating this drum all offseason: The Loons are underrated. They have a lot of talent from within CONCACAF who shouldn't have much trouble adjusting to the rigors of the league, and they have a playmaker in the prime of his career who put up 11/8 as a third option in 2016, and they have, in Collen Warner, a rugged and reliable d-mid who should prevent the middle of the field ahead of the central defense from getting too soft or sloppy. They have more than a dozen guys who've represented their country on one level or another. They have the No. 1 draft pick, Abu Danladi.

They have some real answers, but like every expansion team they have a whole bunch of questions that will keep popping up one after another after another over the course of the season, and that will wear this group down. No expansion team has made the playoffs since the Sounders in 2009, and I don't think MNUFC are going to be the ones to end that streak.

I do think they'll get a lot closer, and be a lot more fun than people expect, though. And I'm going to give you an out-of-the-blue name to watch out for: Collin Martin. He was excellent in preseason, and I think he'll get real minutes in a No. 8 role, or perhaps as a pseudo No. 10 if Adrian Heath decides it's smarter to move Kevin Molino back to the wing.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: If the Francisco Calvo/Vadim Demidov proved vulnerable in the air, it's entirely possible that Calvo will be moved to left back and Joe Greenspan will start getting minutes in central defense.


 
VAN

Vancouver Whitecaps

They made two big moves this offseason to rebuild the attack. One of the newcomers (Yordy Reyna) is hurt, and won't play until the summer. The other (Fredy Montero) is a 'tweener forward who hasn't managed to score double-digit goals in either of the last two seasons. They've opened the season, CCL-style, playing winger Kekuta Manneh as a No. 10, and "Yeah but who's gonna score the goals?" is a good question for the fourth year running.

This could all come good, since Manneh on one side and Alphonso Davies on the other seems like a devastating pair of wingers, and since Matias Laba remains a rock in central midfield, and since the central defense is rugged but functional, and since David Ousted is one of the seven- or eight-best 'keepers in the league.

But I really don't know how all of this is going to work together for the 'Caps. They'll have to play some low-scoring games, hit hard on the counter and do work on set pieces, which is all within the realm of the accomplishable. I'm just not sure how probable a path it is to the playoffs in 2017.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: I'm figuring some squad rotation following Thursday's CCL match-up against the Red Bulls, but as always with this sort of thing, it's almost impossible to predict this far out.


 
SJ

San Jose Earthquakes

I don't feel good about this. The Quakes undeniably have more talent than they did a year ago – Florian Jungwirth alone should improve this team. But he's not alone by any stretch, as San Jose added names and numbers on the front line, in midfield, at fullback and in central defense. You could look at this team and talk yourself into maybe seven new starters if you were willing to hear the argument.

It's more of a struggle, however, to put together an XI that actually fits. There are a lot of overlapping skill sets and potential difference-makers, but there's a whole "house of cards" feel to this team. If the wrong piece gets removed, five or six others can end up being less effective than expected, and San Jose don't have the raw goal-scoring ability to deal with that.

So it really does, once again, come back to Chris Wondolowski, and putting him in the best spots to score goals. He's bagged double digits for seven straight years, and is the only proven attacker in the mix. You almost have to play some version of a 4-4-2, then, because that's the best way to get Wondo looks. On paper a 4-3-3 or even a 3-4-3 might make more sense for this team as a whole, but Wondo's got no spot in either of those set-ups. You can't take your only goalscorer off the pitch.

So that's what Dom Kinnear's got to figure out, and probably pretty quick.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: Yeah man, I'm finally on the Tommy Thompson Hype Train, and I'm ready to attach a second car for Jackson Yueill.


 
HOU

Houston Dynamo

This team will have to play super narrow, and super pragmatic, and super deep. They will have to hope they can pull off the same types of stuff that made Montreal so good for a couple of months last year, and hope that one of the wingers – Hondurans Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis – can have the field-distorting gravitational pull that makes Piatti an impossible cover even when he doesn't have the ball.

It's a big ask for a team that maybe sorta doesn't have a defense that'll hold together, and definitely doesn't have a midfield playmaker that can open the game up. Plus Piatti is a true winger, while Quioto and Elis are both second forwards, I think.

This is a rebuilding year for the Dynamo as they try to get as far from the Owen Coyle era as quickly as possible. It's not going to be quick, and it's not going to be pretty. They've collected some attacking talent to start the process, and the next several months will be about figuring out how it all fits.

WEEK 1 LINEUP

NOTE: As of now, I think that Cubo Torres has won the starting No. 9 role, and Mauro Manotas is a super-sub. But that may be stupid.

For what it's worth, Cubo hasn't scored in MLS since 2014. It's been quite a slump.

Series: 
Topics: 

Stay connected: The official MLS app keeps you connected with the latest news, highlights, scores, standings, and analysis all for FREE. Download for iOS (Apple) or Download for Android