First, an anecdote:
He stared at me for a second, got real pissed and said "they're meaningless to you. To you." Then he got up and left.— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) August 14, 2017
At the time I'm kicking this column off, the season's kinda done for eight of the 22 MLS teams. That does not mean the games are meaningless.
Coaches are coaching for jobs, and players are playing for jobs. MNUFC were basically eliminated from playoff contention 13 seconds after the first kick of the season, but they just finished 4-2-2-over-eight-games stretch and dropped what I'm sure felt like a delightful bit of revenge on Atlanta United. The Rapids are out here playing .500 ball for the past month, breaking hearts in Montreal and Dallas and Utah. Even the Galaxy are getting a little bit feisty.
The column starts now because we know that eight teams have been eliminated, and so it's appropriate to take a look at the how and why, and the what comes next. Do not, however, call the final weekend of the season meaningless. Dudes are out there playing for jobs.
EDIT: Well, the above is now moot. Decision Day is done and now we're onto the Audi 2017 MLS Cup playoffs. We'll continue to add more teams to this list as more seasons end.
The Colorado Rapids were very, very good in 2016, but a close look at the underlying numbers revealed that was never going to last. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Sometimes you're just not prepared in the way you think you're prepared, you know?
And so goes the story of the Rapids, who gutted a lot of the core that brought them unexpected success in 2016, then came nowhere near repeating that in 2017. Pablo Mastroeni was dismissed as manager and neither the aesthetics nor process have improved, and while there are some intriguing young-ish pieces, right now "intriguing" is the right word for most of them. Not "quality" or "proven" or "coveted."
This was kind of a lost year.
FORMATION & TACTICS: For the most part it's been a 4-5-1, though at times you could've called it a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2, and maybe once or twice you could've talked yourself into it being a 4-3-3.
It doesn't really matter, though, because Colorado played the same way no matter they lined up: Scrunched deep into their own defensive third and dying to hit either on the counter or via long-ball. You can count on one hand the number of goals they created through sustained possession or planned pressure.
HIGHLIGHTS: The "Human Spirit" speech from Mastroeni – which came in the midst of what looks certain to be this year's only winning streak for Colorado – is up there for sure, but I'm going to give the nod to this on-the-run, left-footed through-ball from Kevin Doyle:
That's the pass of the year in MLS, from anybody. The Rapids would go on to win that game, the final in their three-game winning streak.
LOWLIGHT: A nine-game winless skid in July, August and early September that eventually cost Mastroeni his job. The Rapids scored six goals over that stretch and never played anything resembling good soccer pretty much throughout.
REVELATION: Nobody really comes close to being a "revelation", but Homegrown rookie CB Kortne Ford was at the very least "promising." He's got a prototypical CB build and elite physical tools, and should be a building-block for a team that's otherwise been a little too eager to dispense with (or bench) their young, promising players.
DISAPPOINTMENT: DP striker Shkelzen Gashi had a promising-ish first season in MLS, bagging 9g/4a in 2016. In 2017 it would've seemed smart to slot him into his natural position as a second forward underneath a true No. 9 and just let him go to work, given Jermaine Jones' departure opened up that place in the hole.
But... nope. Gashi's either been hurt or shunted out to the wing, and he's managed just 2g/1a in a touch over 1000 minutes (both goals came in the same game, by the way).
That is a crushing lack of production from a guy in the prime of his career, and who has two Golden Boots in the better-than-you-think-it-is Swiss Super League. There's no reason Gashi should be a passenger for this team rather than a centerpiece.
Five Players to Build On:
- Ford (CB): Kid's got all the tools. They're crazy if they don't figure out a way to give him 2000+ minutes next season.
- Axel Sjöberg (CB): Colorado continue to have a relatively good defense, which was clearly much better when Sjöberg was healthy.
- Marlon Hairston (MF/FB): The 23-year-old got over 2500 minutes this year split between two spots. He's good at both, but his upside at RB is considerable.
- Zac MacMath (GK): The 26-year-old was better than Tim Howard this year. Next year's preseason should be an open competition.
- Stefan Aigner (MF): He's been clever and useful in limited minutes since his mid-summer arrival.
Offseason Priority: Finding a head coach is job No. 1, since it seems unlikely that Steve Cooke's going to get that "interim" tag removed. Then they need to see if they can flip some of their veterans for young assets – guys like Alan Gordon and Micheal Azira, for example, have value in this league for teams looking to bolster frontline and defensive midfield depth, respectively.
And bottom line is that they can't be afraid of a major rebuild.
This was the worst season in team history. A gif is worth a thousand words:
About the only thing that went right was the acquisition of Romain Alessandrini. Everyone else who was supposed to be key either got hurt, got old, or underwhelmed. You will hear the words "overhaul" and "major rebuild" and maybe even "complete teardown" this offseason.
Sigi Schmid's not taking a scalpel to this roster. He's taking a jackhammer.
FORMATION & TACTICS: I... don't know? LA had to play a little bit of everything this year, first under Curt Onalfo and then under Schmid. There's been a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-1-1 and even a 3-4-3 one ill-fated evening, and none of it has really worked to any good effect. The main issue has been that there's no real defensive midfielder to protect the backline, and that the backline is really, really really in need of protection.
This was apparent pretty early on in the season. It stayed apparent throughout.
HIGHLIGHTS: An eight-match unbeaten run from April 29 to June 21 during which they were relatively organized and effective. They've gone 2-12-4 since.
LOWLIGHT: Did I mention that they're 2-12-4 since June 21? I did? Ok.
There are lots of lowlights to choose from, but the one that stands out more than any other was the 2-1 loss at the Quakes on July 1 in front of 50,000 fans at Stanford Stadium. LA held a 1-0 lead into the 75th minute before coughing up an equalizer to Chris Wondolowski and then the winner to Shea Salinas three minutes into stoppage time.
Then things got worse three days later after a 6-2 home loss to RSL.
REVELATION: There really wasn't one, but let's give a hat-tip to Bradford Jamieson IV for showing at least a little something. The 20-year-old attacker has 3g/1a in 884 minutes, and looks like he'll be the only Galaxy Homegrown with a chance to make a long-term dent.
That their academy is not churning out high-quality roster pieces by this point is simply shocking.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Sebastian Lletget's injury? Robbie Rogers' injury? The inability of Joao Pedro, Jermaine Jones and Jonathan Dos Santos to mesh in any perceptible way? Giovani Dos Santos dropping from 14g/12a last year to 6g/3a this year? Gyasi Zardes getting the yips so bad he's now a right back?
All of the above probably fits. But if I had to put my finger on one thing, it'd be this: The front office's decision to go after Jones, Pedro and JDS this year in the first place. All three guys play the same spot (box-to-box No. 8), and that happens to be Lletget's best spot, and none can really play as a No. 6. They have a lot of equity tied up in guys who probably can't play together at a high enough level to actually compete for trophies.
This year should've been built around Lletget, but instead they built over him, and did so in such a way that even if he'd stayed healthy they weren't going anywhere.
Five Players to Build On:
- Alessandrini (W): Worth every penny they paid for him.
- Lletget (MF): Galaxy fans haven't forgotten how good he is when healthy.
- G. Dos Santos (FW): Play him strictly as a second forward underneath a true No. 9 and he'll produce again.
- J. Dos Santos (MF): Paired with Lletget in central midfield, LA would have a skillful duo to build around (though they'd lack bite).
- Ema Boateng (W): His numbers aren't there yet but his talent is easy to see.
Offseason Priority: Sanity – they need to get some, and that might mean some painful trades and cuts. And it should mean an elite, high-end, true midfield ball-winner as well. Use all that TAM they heisted from D.C. for Paul Arriola at that spot, and build out from there.
Expansion seasons are almost never easy, especially when they start... poorly. A gif is worth a thousand words:
But the Loons made some good-if-a-little-bit-panicky trades, got production out of some young-ish players that maybe would've been written off elsewhere, and now have a roster packed with high-end attackers. As far as expansion seasons go, this one was more promising than many, and in recent memory only suffered in comparison to 2017's other newcomers.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Adrian Heath's primarily been a 4-2-3-1 man over the years, but he's had to tinker some this year thanks to injuries, suspensions, international absences and just the lack of overall depth that's endemic to expansion rosters. So we've seen a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2 and a 4-4-1-1 from time to time.
No matter the formation the goal has been to keep the fullbacks mostly home and the deep midfielders mostly deep (though Ibson gets a pass from Heath no matter where he goes). They never really evolved into the the type of possession team they promised to be, but it's hard to win like that in Year 1.
HIGHLIGHTS: No question it was the 3-2 win at Atlanta United, courtesy of a Kevin Molino goal six minutes into second-half stoppage. That was a very obvious bit of revenge for the 6-1 shellacking in the other direction way back in Week 2, and may cost the Five Stripes a home game in the postseason.
LOWLIGHT: The 6-1 shellacking in Week 2. At the time it seemed to indicate that the Loons would be the worst team in MLS history – they'd taken it in the face 5-1 at Portland in the opener, remember – and the ruthlessness with which their midfield and backline was repeatedly exposed was the type of cringe TV millennials love. They didn't look talented, and they didn't look prepared.
They've taken other bad losses this season and there's still a decent chance they'll tie or even break the single-season record for most goals conceded. But nothing compares to what Atlanta did to them on national TV in MNUFC's first-ever MLS home game.
REVELATION: It turns out Christian Ramirez can, indeed, play at the MLS level. For all the money they wasted on bad or broken imports, and for as many high-profile attackers they drafted or traded for, it's clear that Ramirez is The Man in Minnesota. His 14 non-PK goals are more than any other American in MLS, and if he puts in a full, healthy season next year, he should be able to compete for the Golden Boot.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Shopping in Scandinavia. The Loons' front office tossed bags of money at a bunch of guys who were never going to work out, like Vadim Demidov, John Alvbåge, Bashkim Kadrii, and Rasmus Schuller. Back in 2009 that would've probably been a nice core, but in 2017-era MLS? When the other newcomers were spending their GAM and TAM on the likes of Carlos Carmona, Yamil Asad and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez?
The difference in quality was stunning and immediate, and it put MNUFC behind the 8-ball from literally the first kick of the season.
Five Players to Build On:
- Ramirez (FW): He's in the prime of his career and is a steal at his $350,000 salary.
- Abu Danladi (FW): I had my doubts about the No. 1 pick but he's had a superb second half of the season, and with one game left is at 8g/3a in just under 1400 minutes.
- Ethan Finlay (W): Revitalized after moving to MNUFC from Columbus.
- Molino (MF): He's bounced between the wing (very good) and No. 10 (not so much).
- Francisco Calvo (CB): The only slam-dunk of a winter import. He hasn't been perfect, but he's arguably the most crucial building-block on the team.
Offseason Priority: They need to figure out if Ramirez and Danladi can play together, and then figure out what that means for their formation going forward. So far both seem better as true, lone No. 9s than when shoehorned together in two-forward lineups, or with Danladi on the wing.
They also need young fullback depth, and young central midfield depth, and quite possibly a playmaker. The good news? They're sitting on three DP slots that could go a long way toward answering some of those questions, but obviously their overseas scouting needs to be better this January than it was last January.
Remember the end of 2016, when D.C. were an attacking juggernaut for three months, and we all asked "Was that real?" A gif is worth a thousand words:
It was not. The four guys at the center of that run last year – Lucho Acosta, Patrick Nyarko, Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam – all spent big chunks of the year being hurt or ineffective, and their backups came nowhere near filling the gaps that were left. And so D.C. tied their own league record for most times shut out in a single season, which is depressing.
Combine it with a disastrous year at the back, and that's how you get a last-place conference finish.
FORMATION & TACTICS: They started out the season in a 4-1-4-1, then shifted to a 4-2-3-1 after a series of let's-call-them-troubling defensive performances. Part of the reason there was an early-season commitment toward playing out of the back and getting the fullbacks high that did not come close to paying off (despite the same thing working a charm down the stretch in 2016).
So by the end of March this team was already retreating into a bunker-and-counter shell. They've opened up a bit down the stretch here again, but it's nothing like what happened last year.
HIGHLIGHTS: Either Mullins going off for a hambone against San Jose, or their mastery over Atlanta United. D.C. are 3-0-0 with a +4 GD against the Five Stripes, and are 6-19-5, -32 against everybody else. Woof.
LOWLIGHT: D.C.'s season ended on July 19. They came out of the Gold Cup break BLAZING hot, and raced to a 3-0 lead on the Sounders in Seattle by the 50th minute. Forty minutes later they were on the wrong side of the scoreline and of history, falling 4-3 to become the first team in MLS ever to lose after taking a three-goal lead.
That was the fourth in what ended up being an eight-game winless skid.
REVELATION: Not a player, but a fact: The front office is now willing to spend at least some money. They signed two DPs in the summer, in Paul Arriola and Zoltan Stieber, and their presence has helped fuel a respectable 4-4-1 stretch over the last nine games. They also offered Bill Hamid a very nice contract (which he turned down, but still), and brought in former US U-20 captain Russell Canouse.
United are still at the very bottom of the league in total salary outlay, but don't expect that to be the case again next year.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Lots of injuries, and lots of veterans suddenly getting old sure have their say, but more than anything it was Steve Birnbaum's inability to be a backline anchor that hurt D.C. this year. He regressed badly after a very strong third year.
Five Players to Build On:
- Stieber (LW): A playmaking winger in the prime of his career. He hasn't lit things up, but he's got skill and vision
- Arriola (RW): The 22-year-old US international is a two-way demon who plays smart and hard, but needs more end product.
- Acosta (AM): He hasn't been as influential in his second year, but he's a 23-year-old No. 10 who plays with a chip on his shoulder.
- Canouse (DM): Another 22-year-old, he's unproven but has been mostly good since his arrival from Hoffenheim in Germany.
- Steve Clark (GK): He's an above-average MLS 'keeper with years of his prime left, and a more-than-adequate Hamid replacement.
Offseason Priority: Figure out what you can really expect from Birnbaum and Mullins. This was supposed to be their year, but both have been disappointments. Figure out if a midfield of Acosta, Canouse and Ian Harkes can work together and use the ball to control games. Figure out who the fullbacks are. Sign Homegrown midfielder Eryk Williamson.
And get ready, emotionally and otherwise, for a loooooong road trip to start the year.
It all seemed so promising for a while there, didn't it? A gif is worth a thousand words:
Yeah man, this team lacked closers. Nobody's getting a car and nobody's getting steak knives, and nobody's even getting a cup of coffee. The Purple Lions got off to a great start and then spent the rest of the season repeatedly falling on their faces no matter who was on the field or what they tried.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Jason Kreis toyed with a number of different looks, from a 4-4-2 with a box midfield, to a flat 4-4-2, to a 4-4-2 diamond, to a 4-4-1-1, to a 4-2-3-1, to a 4-3-3 once or twice, here or there. There was a distinct lack of chemistry no matter what.
The funny thing about this team, though? They were very good when they kept the ball and played short passes, but they didn't do much of it. Meanwhile they were awful when they played long-balls... so they played more than anybody in the league.
OCSC in 2017 were a truly bizarre team.
HIGHLIGHTS: Obviously the first two months of the season, during which they won six of seven games including a pair of one-goal victories over NYCFC. They'd opened a new stadium in style, kept getting goals from third-year forward Cyle Larin, the defense was doing just enough to keep opponents off the board, and anything they let through Joe Bendik was gobbling up.
Seems like a long time ago.
LOWLIGHT: Just about everything since then fits into this bucket, but there's a special place for the end of July. On the 21st of that month they welcomed Atlanta to town and took a scoreless draw into the 86th minute, then saw that go up in smoke when Hector Villalba unleashed a freaking screamer for the game-winner.
Eight days later they went up I-75 and took a lead against the Five Stripes... until second half stoppage time, when Villalba found an all-too-easy equalizer. Instead of four points out of the two games – points that maybe could've revitalized their season – they walked away with just one.
That was when they really started to fall out of the playoff race, and they haven't been able to climb back into it since.
REVELATION: Nobody fits the bill here, since none of the kids progressed and none of the offseason signings surpassed their hype.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Carlos Rivas. The Colombian DP hasn't picked up an assist since May, hasn't scored a goal since August, and has just about permanently fallen out of the rotation. Throughout his entire OCSC career, his shot selection has remained utterly hilarious.
I don't think you can give him real minutes on a good team, and I can't imagine he'll return next season.
Five Players to Build On:
- Dom Dwyer (FW): Given what they paid they've got to build around him despite his subpar numbers (8g/5a in 2000 minutes) this year.
- Yoshi Yotun (LM): The Peruvian international should fit nicely as a shuttler in the diamond and delivers a deadly set piece.
- Jonathan Spector (CB): Solid-if-unspectacular first season in MLS organizing the defense.
- Scott Sutter (RB): Another solid-if-unspectacular veteran defender who's had a respectable year.
- Bendik (GK): Cooled off after his hot start, but he looks comfortably like one of the half-dozen or so best 'keepers in the league.
Offseason Priority: Three new DPs. Rivas is gone, Yotun can be bought down with TAM, and Kaká bid Orlando an emotional farewell. With those spots opening up, some other big-money contracts coming off the books (my guess is that Antonio Nocerino, Giles Barnes and Cristian Higuita won't be back), and the presumptive windfall from Larin's presumptive sale, OCSC are going to have a chance to import a truckload of Best XI-caliber talent.
It's been three years of frustration. Next season should be a hard reboot.
(Should I mention the James Rodriguez rumors or no?)
They limped out of the gate, which killed their season. A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Union weren't as bad as they looked for the first two months of the year, and cobbled together some passable defensive performances and a few nice upsets. But if you take just four of the first 24 points on offer you're probably done, even in a playoff structure as forgiving as what we have in MLS.
FORMATION & TACTICS: It's been a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-4-1 for about 99 percent of the time. The big shift from 2016 to 2017 was how much more they used central midfield – specifically Haris Medunjanin – to push the ball forward, rather than having the fullbacks do it. Part of it is that Medunjanin is just fun, and the other (sadder) part of it was that Keegan Rosenberry regressed massively.
Because of the above, Philly didn't cross the ball much in 2017 despite having a physically dominant center forward and a pair of wingers who are dangerous at the back post.
HIGHLIGHTS: They followed that eight-game winless skid to start the year with a 6-3-1 jag into the Gold Cup break, the final game of which was a 1-1 draw at Sporting KC – a very nice result. At that point in time you could just about talk yourself into the Union being a fringe playoff team.
LOWLIGHT: But they weren't. They went 2-5-4 on the other side of the break, and that was pretty much that. The lowest point of that stretch was certainly a 3-0 home drubbing by Montreal on August 12, during which Blerim Dzemaili – an experienced, elite, goalscoring, playmaking central midfielder – went wild on the Doopers.
It was hard for Union fans to miss the fact that what Dzemaili brought Montreal was exactly what Philly have been missing for literally their entire existence.
REVELATION: Rookie center back Jack Elliott was a fourth-round pick who turned into a starter by mid-April. He's had a few rough patches, but for the most part he looks like a guy who can/should/will be an important backline building block for a long time.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Of course, at this time last year so did Rosenberry, Richie Marquez and Joshua Yaro. All three had disastrous campaigns, though, and that – more than another ho-hum season from Roland Alberg, or the what-did-you-expect-from-a-fourth-tier-striker performance of Jay Simpson – is the biggest disappointment in Chester.
It's hard to have a lot of confidence in the future if the guys who are supposed to be the future don't improve.
Five Players to Build On:
- C.J. Sapong (FW): Had a career season (14g/5a). Anything good the Union do flows through him.
- Elliott (CB): Hold your breath and hope he can continue his improvement curve.
- Medunjanin (CM): His distribution from deep and calm on the ball are so much fun. That said, it's not a great idea to build too much around a guy who turns 33 in Week 1 of next year.
- Alejandro Bedoya (CM): The 30-year-old as arguably been the league's best No. 8 over the second half of the season.
- Andre Blake (GK): Bounced back after a rough start to the year. He's a match-winner for as long as they have him.
Offseason Priority: They need to figure out how to coax more improvement from within, especially Rosenberry and Marquez. And one way or another, they need to find a way to get a true playmaker onto the field, whether it's a traditional No. 10 sitting underneath Sapong or more of a wide weapon who drifts inside, a la Seattle's Nico Lodeiro.
Guys like that don't just grow on trees, of course. It either takes luck (via the draft) or money (via a DP-caliber signing) to get it done.
If Philly don't manage it, there's no real way to look at the returning roster and say "yes, that's a playoff team in 2018."
So about that 2016 playoff run... gonna build on that, right? A gif is worth a thousand words:
If the Impact could defend set pieces they'd have beaten Toronto FC last November, but instead they lost the most spectacular playoff series in league history. And then they brought back mostly the same team, except a year older at some key spots, and adding the excellent Blerim Dzemaili in May and the promising Samuel Piette in August wasn't enough to make up for the raft of other shortcomings baked into the roster.
So... here they are, on the outside looking in.
FORMATION & TACTICS: They were all over the place in 2017, flitting from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 to a 5-3-2 to a 5-4-1 and a few other stops in between. The goal was always to get Dzemaili and Ignacio Piatti out on the run, and when they did that they were devastating. When they didn't, they were meh. And throughout, they spent too much time playing on the edge defensively, often preferring risky tackle attempts at midfield rather than solid, structured team defense.
HIGHLIGHTS: A four-game August winning streak, powered by Dzemaili and Piatti, that made it feel like all the parts were sliding into place, that even with a questionable defense the Impact would be able to just outscore a bunch of teams and blaze a trail to the playoffs.
I really thought they were going to do it. I'm lucky I'm not a betting man because I'd have lost a bundle.
LOWLIGHT: Eight of the nine games since then (the only exception being an outlier of a 5-3 win over Toronto FC). Montreal have gone 1-8-0 since mid-August as their season has cratered. There have been some awful, dispiriting moments in there, but the one that really felt like "welp, this actually isn't going to happen" is the 3-2 home L they took against Minnesota United on September 16.
It was so bad, owner Joey Saputo wrote a letter to the fans.
REVELATION: It turns out Anthony Jackson-Hamel can ball a little bit! The Homegrown center forward – who's in his fourth year, and at age 24 is not a kid, and yes, MLS teams have to do a better job of getting these guys on the field younger – finally got regular playing time, and definitely made the most of it. He racked up 9g/4a in 1047 minutes, displaced the ineffective Matteo Mancosu, and if he doesn't get a fair chance to win the starting job outright in preseason, I'll scream bloody murder.
DISAPPOINTMENT: The way the midfield never quite clicked like it did at the end of last year? Mancosu? The Adrian Arregui era? Ambroise Oyongo's injury? Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla making noise about wanting out? The defense? All of the above?
Probably "all of the above." But really, from my point of view, the biggest disappointment is that this is the first time the Impact really stayed with year-over-year continuity of the type that, in most places, breeds better chemistry and better results. But for whatever reason in Montreal, in 2017, it did not.
Five Players to Build On:
- Piatti (W): He's getting up there, but he's still a Best XI candidate and a freaking magician.
- Dzemaili (MF): He's a modern, mobile No. 10 who has produced (7g/10a in 1850 minutes) at a high level.
- Jackson-Hamel (FW): Dude's a bulldozer up front whose work opens space for the rest of the attack. And he obviously knows where the goal is, too.
- Piette (DM): Perhaps lacks a bit of range and quickness, but he reads the game and passes the ball well. At just 22, he should be a long-time part of this midfield as a true No. 6.
- Oyongo (LB): If they get him back and healthy to start next season, then LB will not be the sore spot it was in 2017.
You can't give up 50+ goals and make the playoffs in the East. You just can't.
12-2-3 at home, tied for second-best in the league. 0-13-3 on the road, dead last. A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Revs drastically underperformed their talent level and their underlying numbers, their defense got worse, they're one of a half-dozen teams to replace their coach mid-season, and they've missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. All while their roster has moved from "young and promising" to "hey these guys can fairly be described as 'aging' in a few spots."
Things did not go according to plan. Nope nope nope.
FORMATION & TACTICS: All over the place. They started in a diamond 4-4-2, went back to the old 4-2-3-1, played a flatter 4-4-2, shuffled guys into and out of certain spots, toyed with a 4-4-1-1, did a 4-1-4-1...
They did play fewer long balls, and spend less time in the attacking third, all in a concerted effort to build more open-play, open-field chances. It kind of worked on one end, but I also think that was a contributing factor to their defensive flammability.
HIGHLIGHTS: The 3-0 win over Toronto FC on June 3. It moved the Revs to 5-5-5, but with a 3-1-1 record in their previous five and gave them some momentum. They were playing soccer that was both pretty and effective, and were picking up points vs. good teams.
LOWLIGHT: The four-game losing streak following that win over TFC is actually probably it, since it flushed any momentum the Revs had right down the toilet.
But that's not what folks will remember, since it was a basic, run-of-the-mill four-game streak. Those happen all the time. No, what folks will remember is the 7-0 loss at Atlanta on September 13, in which they became the first team in league history to fail to attempt a single shot. They conceded inside 90 seconds, got an early (crappy) red, and just packed it in.
Long-time head coach Jay Heaps was fired the following week.
REVELATION: Nobody even comes close here, but I'll say this: Teal Bunbury had a borderline feisty season, bagging 7g/1a in a shade under 1200 minutes and looking, at times, like a winger who could complete plays.
He has nearly 12,000 MLS minutes, and this was his highest-scoring season since 2011, so take it with a grain of salt.
DISAPPOINTMENT: The fact that they wasted Lee Nguyen's best year yet disappoints me, as does the fact that they once again never gave Juan Agudelo an extended run at center forward despite generally A) playing better, and B) getting better results when he plays there.
But... nah. The big disappointment was that tire fire of a defense, which has shipped 59 goals despite a multi-million dollar spending spree to bring in Benjamin Angoua, Antonio Delamea and Claude Dielna (yes, multi-million dollar). That's worst in the East, and third-worst in all of MLS, and there's a decent chance they'll tie or maybe even break the long-standing season record for most road goals conceded.
Honestly if not for FC Dallas, the Revs' defense might be the most disappointing thing in the whole league.
Five Players to Build On:
- Nguyen (AM): Nguyen just turned 31, so there's a solid chance his productivity is about to drop. But damn was he good this year.
- Kelyn Rowe (MF): In a sane world he's a fulltime, modern attacking central midfielder. In New England, 2017, he spent a lot of time at left back.
- Agudelo (FW): For my sanity, please just give him one full year as a starting, lone No. 9. I bet you won't regret it.
- Diego Fagundez (MF): With 6g/7a he's had his most productive season since 2013 despite lineup and positional inconsistency.
- Scott Caldwell (DM): He quietly does a job if you use him as one of two d-mids in a double-pivot, or as a shuttler in the diamond.
Offseason Priority: Defense again, I guess? Figuring out what, exactly, to do with Xavier Kouassi? Sorting out what do do with all their mismatched front-line parts? Got to think they acquired Krisztian Nemeth for a reason, but I'll be damned if I can tell you how he's supposed to fit with all the other guys already in the fold. Doubly so if they bring Bunbury and leading scorer Kei Kamara back.
I don't know what's going to happen with this team, but I'm leaning toward "fire sale." They have some pieces other MLS teams would love to scavenge, and they themselves have overpaid a lot of imports who probably have to play in order to justify the salary commitment.
I mean, I still just can't believe this. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Dallas were easily one of the five best teams in the league, and probably one of the three best teams in the league right up until the moment they weren't. The locker room fell apart immediately after the Gold Cup and they death-spiraled into a 1-7-6 stretch that left them out of the playoffs in spite of a 5-1 Decision Day thrashing of LA. It turns out you probably can't take three months mostly off and still make the postseason.
tl;dr: The only team in MLS history to have back-to-back 60 point seasons brought back their entire core, added two now DPs, and missed the playoffs. What the hell, man.
FORMATION & TACTICS: It started out in a box 4-4-2, though there was some 4-2-3-1 in there as well. And then, once Mauro Diaz came back, there was more and more 4-2-3-1, and at first it worked. And then it didn't. And then it just got worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and...
Dallas were always able to absorb and counter in the previous three seasons, but that dried up. And when they tried to possess the ball, they repeatedly turned it over and got gashed at the back. The team that was in first place in mid-July just completely disappeared from there on out.
HIGHLIGHTS: The 180-minute battle with Pachuca in the CCL is definitely up there, but for my money it was the 3-1 win over Toronto on July 1 that marked the high-water point. Dallas blitzed the Reds like nobody's been able to manage all year, and with Diaz back a month at that point and rounding into form... my god, they were about to run away with the West, right?
LOWLIGHT: July 29 to the present. Los Toros Tejanos gakked up a 4-0 home loss to Vancouver to close out July, and I wrote it off. Then they lost a few days later at Philly, and meh. Home draw vs. Colorado after that, followed by a loss at Sporting? Not great, Bob!
And it just kept going. I doubt any of the fans, players or staff are particularly happy with anything that's happened over the last three months. It's inexplicable.
REVELATION: Soul-crushing sadness.
Five Players to Build On:
- Diaz (AM): I think he'll be back, and even in the midst of every bad thing that happened, he's still a magician.
- Jesse Gonzalez (GK): It'll have to go down as a character-building season for the US international.
- Matt Hedges (CB): Had an awful second half of the season, but this is still a former Defender of the Year in his prime. You can win – Dallas have won – trophies with Hedges as the backline anchor.
- Michael Barrios (W): Was one of the few who never looked like he took the foot off the gas. I think he'll be back, and he'll be good.
- Paxton Pomykal (MF): Got 140 minutes and looked mostly pretty good. Expect him to get over 1000 next year, split between central midfield and the wing.
Offseason Priority: They have to figure out who really wants to be there, because a lot of guys played the second half of the season like they had one foot out the door. Maxi Urruti said as much, and at various times we saw Carlos Gruezo, Kellyn Acosta and Walker Zimmerman get benched. That's a lot of talent to replace, or perhaps "rehabilitate" into their previous form. One way or another they have to figure out what to do at all those spots.
That's without mentioning the Cristian Colman-sized elephant in the room. He's the guy who was supposed to put them over the top, but he managed just 2g/1a in 959 minutes, and even when Urruti couldn't find the goal with a map Oscar Pareja wouldn't use him.
Man that was close. A gif is worth a thousand words:
RSL had two different seasons. The first season was about playing open and passive and unaccountable, taking embarrassing losses and dropping to the very bottom of the table. The second season was about playing fast and intricate, entertaining, attacking soccer that damn near peeled them off the bottom of the table and carried them all the way up above the playoff line.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Both under Jeff Cassar and Mike Petke it was a 4-2-3-1, though often times under Petke it turned into more of a 4-2-1-3 with both wingers advancing high as hell, especially playing off of a False 9.
Everything they did in the season's final 15 games, during which they went 8-4-3, was about creating movement and angles in the final third by mostly keeping the ball on the ground. They were a lot of fun.
HIGHLIGHTS: The two wins to kick off that run, one on each side of the Gold Cup break. The first was 6-2 at the Galaxy, and the second was 4-1 at Portland. RSL were simply irresistible in both of those games, and it felt like bigger things were coming.
Ok no I'm totally lying, this was the highlight:
LOWLIGHT: RSL always struggle in Texas, but holy hell did they STRUGGLE this spring. On May 31 they went to Houston and lost 5-1, then four days later lost 6-2 at Dallas. Petke blew his top.
Honorable mention: The 1-0 loss at Colorado in Week 32 in which RSL bent in 50 crosses and took 30 shots but couldn't find the equalizer. If they had, they'd be in the postseason.
REVELATION: The entire youth movement. Justen Glad is a rock in central defense, Danny Acosta's a difference-maker at left back, Jefferson Savarino's already an international winger and Brooks Lennon is probably gonna get there. And that's not even mentioning playmaker Albert Rusnak, who's certainly going to get overlooked for a leaguewide honor but in most seasons would have a strong argument for Newcomer of the Year.
This team has a young core to build around that folks around the league are rightfully envious of.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Yura Movsisyan just has not worked out for this team. He wasn't fit at the start of the year and ended up playing just over 1400 minutes, scoring only seven goals. If they'd gotten DP-caliber production from him they'd probably be hosting a Knockout Round game this week at the very least.
Five Players to Build On:
- Glad (CB): One of the early front-runners for Defender of the Year in 2018, but there will be offers. Glad and the RSL front office are going to have to sit down and figure out a career blueprint this offseason so there's no miscommunications.
- Rusnak (AM): As worthy a successor to the great Javier Morales as anyone could've wished for.
- Savarino (W): Another player for whom there will inevitably be offers, the 20-year-old Venezuelan is a Piatti-esque individual talent off the dribble (though he's not quite at that level as a finisher just yet).
- Joao Plata (W): I had my doubts as to whether or not he'd buy in, but he clearly did. Plata didn't put up huge numbers (7g/5a), but his inventiveness was always on display and, at 25, he's just entering his prime.
- Acosta (LB): He chirped Clint Dempsey, which was fun. The 19-year-old has some growing up to do (he was very quietly benched by Petke at one point, and it wasn't for his play), but his talent is unmissable.
Offseason Priority: Figuring out if they can pry Lennon from Liverpool permanently is high on the to-do list, as is dealing with a trio of veterans (Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran) heading into free agency. Don't be shocked if one or more of those guys doesn't return.
But really, Job No. 1 is figuring out how and where to unload Movsisyan, then finding a fulltime, go-to No. 9 to do the job up top. If they find that then RSL are the obvious candidate to be the non-playoff team that makes a huge jump in 2018.
You don't "win" two wooden spoons in a row, climb all the way to third in the Supporters' Shield race, and then get to complain. A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Fire never looked, in the second half of the season, anywhere near as good as they did in the first half, which included an 11-game unbeaten run, some scorching hot goalscoring via David Accam and Nemanja Nikolic, and arguably the prettiest damn build-up play in the league. They claimed that as their identity and even though it didn't get them through the tape first, it got them A LOT closer than anybody had a right to expect.
My stock answer, last winter, when people asked me what I thought about Chicago in 2017 was "I know they'll be better, but I'm not sure if they'll be good." Turns out they were, for the most part, very good.
FORMATION & TACTICS: There was a little bit of 3-4-3 at times, with Bastian Schweinsteiger dropping into a pseudo sweeper role, but for the most part it was one version or another of a 4-2-3-1 with Nikolic up top and everyone else pinging the ball around from touchline to touchline.
Chicago were particularly good when they were able to get both fullbacks, Matt Polster on the right and Brandon Vincent on the left, way upfield. When they did that they used the whole field, which created lane after lane after lane for Nikolic to run into en route to winning the Golden Boot.
HIGHLIGHTS: They won eight of nine from May 13 to July 1, finishing the run off with back-to-back 4-0 wins vs. Orlando and Vancouver. That was enough to put the Fire atop the Shield race for the first time in more than a decade.
Obviously they didn't stay there long, but that's an idea of how good this team was when everything was clicking, right?
LOWLIGHT: Wednesday night. Chicago had some bad times during the summer and early autumn, but nothing was worse than what the Red Bulls did to them in Bridgeview in the Knockout Round. The 4-0 loss was, very briefly, the worst in Knockout Round history (thanks, Quakes!), and it's hard to believe a team playing their first playoff game in half-a-decade could come out so flat.
REVELATION: Polster and Vincent. Polster had been a talented if erratic central midfielder over his first two seasons, while Vincent had been only ok as a rookie left back. In 2018, both became true attacking weapons and were mostly on the right side of "solid" defensively.
Fullback is a tough spot to fill in this league, but it looks like Chicago won't really have to worry about that for quite a while.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Can we list the Knockout Round performance here again or no?
That gets one shout, injuries to Accam and Schweinsteiger get another, and the brittleness of the central defense gets a third. There's a decent chance Nelson Rodriguez will do as much shopping this coming winter as he did in last year's window.
Five Players to Build On:
- Nikolic (FW): Golden Boot winner in his prime. Write his name there in pen.
- Dax McCarty (DM): He delivered just about everything that could've been asked of him. He's 30 and has a lot of miles on his legs, but it doesn't look like he's lost a step.
- Vincent (LB): Needs to work a little bit on his footwork when in 1v1 defensive situations, but his improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 suggests a guy who's serious about his craft, and serious about getting better.
- Polster (RB): He's a superb passer of the ball, which makes his unorthodox approach to the position – he cuts inside a ton – makes him an unusual weapon.
- Schweinsteiger (CM): Given his age (33) and injury history (lengthy), it's a risk to bring him back. But man, when he was healthy, he elevated the whole damn team.
Offseason Priority: They'll have to figure out the Accam and Schweinsteiger situations, cull some of the roster (which could open up two max salary slots), and sign a bunch of their Homegrowns. Center back Grant Lillard – a big, athletic center back – is the exact type of guy Chicago were mostly missing this year.
If they do all of the above correctly, they can likely bring back all three DPs and add a DP No. 10. In which case we probably start talking about the Fire as 2018 Shield contenders from Day 1.
Well, they did hold off the competition in the race for that last Western Conference playoff spot. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Like the Fire, everybody's going to remember the Quakes for their awful last game of the season, and in this case it's a little bit more fair. San Jose were outrageously bad on the road for a playoff team (for any team, really), finishing with a -28 goal differential away from Avaya Stadium in the regular season, and then getting five dropped on them at BC Place in the Knockout Round.
This roster needs work.
FORMATION & TACTICS: They did a little bit of everything, partially because they had two different coaches with two vastly different philosophies (Dom Kinnear was "defense first, last and always" during the first half of the season, and Chris Leitch was definitely not that during the second), and partially because this is a roster assembled by committee. There's no through-line in trying to understand why this particular group, which features so many players with overlapping rather than complimentary skillsets, was put together.
By the end of the year it was mostly a 4-4-1-1, but I'll say this: They were most fun in mid-summer when they played a 3-5-2 featuring Homegrowns Nick Lima on one flank and Tommy Thompson on the other.
HIGHLIGHTS: They took seven of the final nine points on offer in the regular season, including a nice 2-1 home win over Portland and a nice-and-not-replicable 1-1 draw at Vancouver. And then there was Marco Ureña's dramatic Decision Day winner against Minnesota United to clinch the playoff spot, which was wild:
This decision day graphic illustrating the fight for 6th in the west is excellent (by funkipus on /r/MLS) pic.twitter.com/dMM0zNavjc— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) October 23, 2017
LOWLIGHT: Kinnear's a club legend, so letting him go has to be up there, as does the raft of multi-goal road losses in the second half of the season. The Quakes really did have a knack for playing well, conceding a bad goal, and then totally losing their minds while shipping three more in the blink of an eye.
Which is exactly what happened in the Knockout Round game, which indeed goes down as the true lowlight of their season.
REVELATION: Lima, probably. He was well in the Rookie of the Year race before picking up a mid-summer injury that limited him to just 64 minutes over the season's final two-and-a-half months.
David Bingham's nosedive is up there as well. He was one of the better 'keepers in the league over the last few seasons, but had a terrible start to 2017, got benched, and never came back into the lineup.
Five Players to Build On:
- Valeri "Vako" Qazaishvili (F): The midseason DP signing was productive, putting up 5g/3a in less than 800 minutes. Here's the issue, though: His best position is clearly second forward, and that spot's currently owned by Chris Wondolowski.
- Florian Jungwirth (CB): Held the backline together with toothpicks and duct tape for months at a time.
- Anibal Godoy (CM): When he's locked in he's a difference-maker, but maybe lacks the discipline to be a true No. 6.
- Lima (FB): Can play either on the left or the right, and had fewer "rookie moments" than most players in his position. They lost a lot when he got hurt.
- Thompson (MF): He still doesn't offer enough end product, but he's a skilled and committed two-way player who does good work driving the ball out of midfield and opening up space for his teammates.
Offseason Priority: There really is a lot to sort out. I'm not sure there's a true No. 6 on this team, and both Vako and Wondo play the same spot, and they've got to figure out how to get Jackson Yueill on the field, and defensively there are obviously major, major issues. Plus, all year long, their goalkeeping was not good enough.
I think it starts with Leitch and GM Jesse Fioranelli sitting down and deciding what formation they want to play, and then making moves from there. It will be a busy winter in San Jose.
There's no need for a silver lining. When you make the playoffs as an expansion team, the whole thing's silver. A gif is worth a thousand words.
Ok but yeah, it maybe didn't end the way that they wanted it to. So it goes – sport is pain, and nobody knows that better than Atlanta fans.
That said, this group has raised the bar for expansion clubs in the latest MLS era, and I think they'll have redefined A) how you build a roster, and B) how you build a fanbase. The Five Stripes played fun and fast and exciting soccer and, without importing a world-renowned superstar, set a new league record for average attendance at over 48,000 per game.
That's the blueprint, folks.
FORMATION & TACTICS: It was primarily a 4-2-3-1 that sometimes, on semi-rare occasions, turned into a 3-4-3. Regardless of which it happened to be at the moment, Atlanta did their work out of high pressure with overlapping fullbacks and a strong emphasis on transition moments. They basically didn't practice possession at all during the year, but still led the league in that stat because they were so quick to the ball all over the field.
It was simple and straight-forward and quite often utterly irresistible.
HIGHLIGHTS: From September 10 through 27 they played six home games at the brand new Mercedes Benz Stadium. They won five of them, drew the other, and posted a goal differential off 22-3.
To be fair: The teams they were crushing were mostly cupcakes. But the point stands that nobody since the 1998 Galaxy were as good at just going out there and dropping four on inferior competition.
LOWLIGHT: That insanely packed part of the schedule clearly took it out of 'em as they finished the year going 0-1-3 in the regular season, then flamed out against Crew SC in the Knockout Round. That was at home in front of 67,000 very sad fans.
It turns out they really were flat-track bullies, and didn't beat a single playoff team after the Gold Cup break. The all-out pressure that unnerved lesser teams wasn't enough against the better clubs in MLS.
REVELATION: The fanbase. There's a lot of other great stuff to put here – Josef Martinez's scoring; Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Yamil Asad doing all sorts of fun attacking midfield stuff; Tata Martino getting this team all on the same page from literally Game 1 – but the first thing people talk about when they talk about Atlanta United is the fanbase.
Can they break 50,000 in 2018? I don't see why not.
DISAPPOINTMENT: The fact that a rookie and a center back took the first two attempts in the PK shootout against Columbus. How was that not Villalba, then Almiron in the first two spots? Why was Martinez subbed off with five minutes left?
I still don't understand what happened there.
Alternate disappointment: If they'd managed to win just once in three tries against lowly D.C. United, they wouldn't even have been in the Knockout Round in the first place.
Five Players to Build On:
- Almiron (AM): Assuming they don't sell him, he's a front-runner for 2018 MLS MVP.
- Martinez (FW): Assuming they don't sell him, he's a front-runner for 2018 Golden Boot.
- Villalba (W): 13g/11a and he's an afterthought given the guys around him, but the dude's a Best XI-caliber talent.
- Brad Guzan (GK): Was probably the league's best 'keeper after his mid-year arrival, and should have multiple good years left.
- Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (CB): Assuming they don't sell him, he's a front-runner for 2018 Defender of the Year.
Offseason Priority: Yeah folks, it's not even subtext: Atlanta are going to be taking a lot of calls on the guys above this winter, and everybody's got a price. If they get offered double or triple what they paid for Almiron, or something absurd for Martinez (who never really got a run of games as a center forward at Torino – they used him on the wing)... I mean, you're bad at business if you don't at least listen.
They'll also have to make some calls to Velez Sarsfield with regard to Asad, who spent this past year in Georgia on loan. He's clearly worth bringing back, but at the same time, they have cost-effective alternatives like Julian Gressel and Andrew Carleton.
If Carleton doesn't become a regular part of the attacking rotation next season Atlanta fans will riot, and they'd be right to. Same for Chris Goslin in central midfield.
Fourth straight year on the road in the Knockout Round. Guess how that ends? A gif is worth a thousand words.
SKC were, in a lot of ways, the same team they've been for the last six years. And they won another trophy – the US Open Cup, again – which means, by definition, this was a successful season.
But once again the guys they added around the core group were not able to push this team forward in the postseason, and there was neither enough depth or fitness (!!!!) for them to keep pace with the top of the West down the stretch. It's the same movie in KC, again and again and again.
FORMATION & TACTICS: 4-3-3 high press, though it's evolved a bit. The 2010-2012 era SKC team was about sending in a million crosses to the back post; the 2013-2015 era team was about having Benny Feilhaber sending runners through; and the last two years, it's been about trying to combine in and around the final third.
Once again they were excellent defensively and poor in attack.
SKC's core is aging. It's not clear there's enough talent in their up-and-coming group to keep this team at their typically competitive level in the years to come, but for one night, at least, Blessing and Salloi were nails.
LOWLIGHT: Everything that happened after the Open Cup. And really, who could've seen that coming:
Take final 10 games of each reg season and then playoffs since Sporting KC won MLS Cup in 2013. 44 games total. They've won 11.— Brian Straus (@BrianStraus) October 27, 2017
REVELATION: That Dom Dwyer was expendable. I mean, I get it – Dwyer didn't exactly light it up with Orlando City, and at some point the SKC braintrust needed to see what they really have in Diego Rubio.
And there's a chance that Rubio is a late-bloomer, but at this point here's what he is: A soon-to-be 25-year-old No. 9 who has a grand total of 25 top-flight goals. He did go for 6g/2a in 1010 minutes this year, which isn't bad, but none of those goals was against a playoff team and, including the Knockout Round, he scored once in his final six games.
DISAPPOINTMENT: The attack.
Five Players to Build On:
- Ike Opara (CB): Finally had a healthy year, playing a career-high 2700 minutes, and was mostly dominant (if he doesn't win Defender of the Year I'll be shocked). Oh what might have been had he not lost half-a-decade to injury.
- Matt Besler (CB): Opara's partner turns 31 before next season, so he's closer to the end than the beginning. But you don't break up a partnership that shipped just 29 goals.
- Tim Melia (GK): He's the unquestioned No. 1, and will probably win Goalkeeper of the Year.
- Ilie Sanchez (DM): The one homerun of an offseason acquisition, Ilie was steady and smart in shielding the backline – though like everybody else, he faded down the stretch.
- Roger Espinoza (CM): He's over 30, and not quite what he was two years ago, and chances are this is going to be his last "elite" year. That said, he remains a two-way force in central midfield.
Offseason Priority: They've got to either find new, young difference-makers on the transfer market, or on the waiver wire, or via the SuperDraft. Or they've got to take the guys already in the system and start getting more productivity from them, be they kids like Blessing and Salloi, or higher-paid, in-their-prime guys like Rubio and Gerso. Some of the weight has to be lifted from this aging core.
They also need to add depth in central defense. It'd be foolish to expect another 2700-minute season from Opara again (his previous career high was 1542), and some strategic squad rotation – backline, midfield, up front, wherever – could keep them fresh and avoid a fifth straight late-season collapse.
Vancouver never, ever looked like contenders, but they were one of the last eight teams standing. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Preseason projections are for suckers, as is having the ball. The 'Caps turned the first mostly on their ear by finishing third in the West, and then lived by the second as they grabbed just 41.5 percent possession in 2017, the lowest number for as long as we've been collecting data.
They absorbed, they countered, they ran, and sometimes they scored. If you gave them attacking set pieces anywhere within that span, they probably dropped one on you there as well. Vancouver weren't pretty and weren't dynamic but they generally made few errors, won a playoff game, and just kept on doing what they do right until Clint Dempsey sawed them in half in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals.
FORMATION & TACTICS: You could call it either a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 – it doesn't really matter. What does is that they played smushed into their own end and then used diagonals from the central midfield to get the wingers out on the run, or long-balls from the fullbacks to skip midfield and find center forward Fredy Montero directly.
Yordy Reyna, who got on the field midseason after recovering from a broken foot, turbo-charged everything a bit with his pace, finishing, and ability to combine both with Montero and with the wings. The idea was to get him and at least two other guys out on the run, and in large part it worked.
HIGHLIGHTS: There are three obvious contenders. First would be the CCL quarterfinals, way back in the winter, when they were supposed to get worked by the Red Bulls but instead turned the tables and eliminated RBNY.
The second would be a prolonged summer stretch from July 5 to September 23, 13 games during which Vancouver went 8-2-3 and climbed all the way to the top of the West. They went +12 during that time, and put themselves into a commanding position in terms of claiming the No. 1 seed in the conference.
The third would be the 5-0 destruction of San Jose in the Knockout Round. That's the one I'm going with.
LOWLIGHT: Watching the wheels fall off immediately after that as they took four points in those final five games, falling to third, is probably up there. Especially since they blew a lead at Portland on Decision Day.
But really, it was the playoff series vs. Seattle. Vancouver took "bunker-and-counter" to its logical conclusion but simply refusing to attack, and managed just one shot on goal over the two-legged series. The team that had won 5-0, like, a minute ago did not show up.
It was a dispiriting ending, and it's not been lost on fans that this team has now made the conference semis twice, and played 360 minutes, and scored zero goals.
REVELATION: Right back Jake Nerwinski felt like a reach when he was snagged with the No. 7 pick in the 2017 SuperDraft, but he fit right in:
He proved he's not just an athlete, registering five assists in his 1700 minutes, and looks like a guy who they should be able to build with and through for the better part of a decade, provided he recovers from the hamstring injury that saw him off in the second leg against Seattle.
The 'Caps have invested quite a bit in their academy program, have won titles and plaudits at various age-groups, and have a talent-rich area of the continent to mine. Yet somehow they're getting almost nothing from that group, and unless Davies makes a big jump next year, it looks like they'll continue to get almost nothing.
There's no reason for this. Vancouver have had one of the most comprehensive academy systems in the league for nearly a decade. Why has it stalled?
Five Players to Build On:
- Tim Parker (CB): At age 24 he evolved into one of the league's better CBs, and should be a long-time starter at BC Place.
- Kendall Waston (CB): The Costa Rican int'l wasn't perfect, but he was damn good and a lot more disciplined – zero red cards – than in previous seasons.
- Nerwinski (RB): They found a diamond in the rough, and now have to hope he has the same improvement curve as Parker.
- Reyna (AM/FW/W): He's in the prime of his career and can line up just about anywhere in the attack, save for center forward. He's probably not quite good enough to be the best attacker on a title-winning team, but is an ideal sidekick.
- Davies (MF): The 17-year-old is an electric talent, and was the on 'Cap who gave Seattle trouble. They've got to get him on the field for 2000+ minutes next year.
Offseason Priority: Probably re-signing Montero is Job No. 1, though Fredy's age – he's 30 – sort of separates him from the rest of the core. Still, if you told me they could get him at a reasonable fee on a reasonable, two-year contract with a mutual third-year option, I'd probably say "that sounds fine."
Bigger picture, this team has to figure out how to break opponents down by using the ball or, no matter how good their defense is, they'll never get out of the 45-to-52-point rut they're in. You know they're never going to be that bad, but they're also never that good.
And fair warning: This was a down year for the West, which the 'Caps appropriately took advantage of. I suspect next year will not be a down year, which means there won't be a cushion for teams that struggle to come out and play.
They took a big, risky, philosophically worthwhile gamble. And then, once the playoffs shook out, they ended up where they always do. A gif is worth a thousand words:
I would never have made the Dax McCarty trade, and I would never have believed that RBNY could cobble together a respectable defense despite missing Gideon Baah and Aurelien Collin for, functionally speaking, the entire season. And I definitely would never have come up with the ingenious formational shift that hid so many of this team's flaws and played directly to their strengths.
God, I really liked a lot about this team, and I bet if they bring the core back for one more year they'll give themselves a shot at more silverware. But that's not a give because, as these Red Bulls always do, they came up a goal short in both the US Open Cup and then in the playoffs.
FORMATION & TACTICS: It started off as the Red Bull Gobal™ 4-2-2-2 high press, and then morphed into the 4-2-3-1 of the last two years. Except that 4-2-3-1 didn't function quite as well without McCarty, and man, did it feel like New York were in trouble.
Then Jesse Marsch trotted out what I still call a 3-3-3-1, a formation designed to basically envelope the opponent, force a bunch of turnovers and always give Sacha Kljestan multiple passing options in the final third.
Once they hit on that they were very, very good.
HIGHLIGHTS: Pretty obviously it's the 4-0 destruction of Chicago in the Knockout Round, which was one of the best games any team played in MLS this year. They got their wingbacks forward, they attacked from angles with the inside wingers, Kljestan was lethal and the defense was solid. Road teams usually get their clock cleaned in the Knockout Round, but not on that night.
Worth a mention as well is the USOC final – just the third Cup final of any sort this team's played in. I think that if Daniel Royer had been healthy and available, they'd have won it.
LOWLIGHT: Not winning it, maybe? That stung, I'm sure.
But really, it's the first leg against Toronto FC in the playoffs, just after that 4-0 over the Fire. It's still wild to me that RBNY came out so flat and mistake-prone, and Jesse Marsch was understandably at a loss.
REVELATION: Enjoy Tyler Adams while he's here, folks:
Dude is following the same path Matt Miazga took, I'd wager. He was "good and promising" in the first half of the season, "the best right-sided player in MLS" in the second half of the season, and outplayed Michael Bradley as a central midfielder in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
At just 18 he has nearly 6000 professional minutes. The Red Bulls do development right.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Bradley Wright-Phillips is the greatest regular season goalscorer in MLS history, but for the third straight year his inability to put away clear chances doomed New York in the playoffs. Kljestan became the first player in MLS history to lead the league in assists twice in a row, but was a non-factor against TFC before getting sent off. Ironman Luis Robles made an uncharacteristic error on TFC's first goal, which set the tone for the following 170 minutes.
I'd bring 'em all back and give them one last shot at a Cup. But I'd also understand, at least a little bit, if one or more of the above guys was working elsewhere in 2018.
Five Players to Build On:
- Adams (CM/FB): I still think he projects better as a wingback (he was utterly dominant) than as a center mid, but he's still just 18 so there's plenty of room left to grow in either spot.
- Aaron Long (CB): Last year's USL Defender of the Year was mostly rock-solid at CB all season long.
- Royer (W/AM): 12g/3a in just under 1900 minutes is elite for a winger in this league (even a "winger" who doesn't really play on the wing), and he's in his prime at age 27.
- Felipe (DM): As long as Marsch isn't going anywhere, Felipe's not going anywhere. Did underrated work as a lone d-mid most of the season.
- Wright-Phillips (F): There is a danger that this is the year Father Time catches up – BWP turns 33 in March. But his contract is guaranteed through 2019, and it's not like he's shown any signs of slowing down (24 goals in 42 games across all comps in 2017).
Offseason Priority: Add two top-tier center backs to this current group and I think they're still playing, while I'm busy writing this segment about TFC. That's how highly I think of the RBNY core talent. Their entire offseason plan has to be about identifying those guys and bringing them in to pair with Long, assuming they stay with three at the back (not a given).
They're also probably going to add another DP-quality attacker. Whispers are that they are going to SPEND for that guy, but those are just whispers at the moment, so New York fans will have to stay patient.
Somewhere in there they have to figure out what Kljestan's future is. His brother, Gordon, works in the Galaxy front office, and his old coach, Bob Bradley, is the LAFC manager. And Kljestan's from Southern California. And, in Muhamed Keita, RBNY brought in a guy this summer who's maybe kinda supposed to be Klejstan's replacement. And we know expansion teams have tons of TAM and GAM to throw into trades.
We can see the writing on the wall here, right? I still wouldn't trade him, but "better a year early than a year late" seems to be the RBNY model.
They spent a good chunk of the season playing the best soccer in the league. It was beautiful and inspiring and magical. A gif is worth a thousand words:
It just came at the wrong time of the year. NYCFC were bordering on "juggernaut" up until the Gold Cup break, with a +.50 expected goal per game differential (for those who don't speak analytics nerd, that reads as "REALLY FREAKING GOOD"), but were never quite the same on the other side of it.
Or in the playoffs. At least they got their first postseason win, but they definitely expected to claim at least a series win in 2017.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Patrick Vieira tinkered less in 2017 than he did as a rookie head coach last year, opting for a 4-3-3 almost exclusively.
And by god, when it was clicking it was thunderous. They could still string together huge, intricate passing sequences as they did in 2016, but they also added some good, hard, high pressure to unnerve the hell out of teams with shaky backline distribution.
Nobody passed the ball more, and nobody got their fullbacks higher up the pitch. This was modern soccer, and for about 3/4s of the year they were the most fun team in the league to watch.
HIGHLIGHTS: There were lots of good moments, but the 2-0 win at RBNY on June 24 had to be the best of them – it felt like the balance of power in that rivalry had suddenly and truly shifted.
And the thing about it? It's not like it was the NYCFC DPs who dominated the match. Rather, it was cast-off left back Ben Sweat who got a goal and an assist.
NYCFC were proving they could win without David Villa carrying the whole load, and they were doing it in their rival's house. The sky blue patch of the metro area surely enjoyed that quite a bit.
LOWLIGHT: There was a September dry spell that basically just handed the Supporters' Shield to TFC, but for real it was the first leg of the playoff loss at Columbus, a 4-1 destruction that the Cityzens couldn't dig out of in Leg 2. They hit the woodwork, they lost their composure in front of net, they napped through second-half stoppage. They let themselves down in just about every conceivable way.
If I were an NYCFC fan I wouldn't have slept a wink since that night.
REVELATION: Did you realize that Sweat had a 1g/6a in nearly 2200 minutes at left back? People out here acting like NYCFC are dead if they sell Ronald Matarrita this offseason didn't watch enough of this team this year.
There are other players on the roster better than Sweat, obviously. But there aren't a whole lot of left backs in MLS better than him, and at age 26 he's A) in the prime of his career, and B) very cap-friendly. Plus in Kwame Awuah they have a ready-made back-up at the spot.
But really, it was the whole second half of the season from wingers Rodney Wallace and Jack Harrison, both of whom had been so good in the first half. They both disappeared as a malaise settled over the team, and I thought Jonathan Lewis should've gotten more minutes:
The rookie had been a regular in the month-and-a-half leading up to that video, then played a grand total of 20 minutes for the rest of the season. Maybe I should've kept my mouth shut about him?
Regardless, Lewis provides a ready-made solution should NYCFC feel compelled to sell Harrison, and rumors have it that offers are piling up.
Five Players to Build On:
- Villa (FW): Probably won't win the MVP, but 22g/9a and two more goals in the playoffs is pretty decent! He'll turn 36 next month, but my guess is he's got 3000 good minutes left in those legs.
- Callens (CB): I don't care about the petulance against the Crew. This dude was a rock at the back, and should continue to be so.
- Alex Ring (DM): At age 26 he's in his prime, and for most of the year he was a top 3 d-mid. They've got to bring him back.
- Maxi Moralez (AM): I had my doubts, and his numbers – 5g/9a – don't jump off the page. But he was solid and smart, and made the game easier for everybody around him.
- Lewis (W): I'm busy cornering the market on Jonathan Lewis stock.
Offseason Priority: If they bring back the core, and then add a high-quality DP in place of Pirlo, then this team is the way-too-early-for-this-opinion-to-mean-anything 2018 favorite. There's just too much good stuff here, and they'll have the chance to add a super-meaningful piece, and to address some depth concerns at center back.
All of the above means they've got to bring Ring back, and they've got to figure out if they feel comfortable selling Harrison or Matarrita or neither or both, and the big one: They've got to figure out how to get another year of Yangel Herrera in the Bronx. The 19-year-old Venezuelan is one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the league, and there is every chance Manchester City will decide that the next step in his progression should be a loan to Girona of La Liga.
NYCFC should move heaven and earth to prevent that from happening. They need him.
Diego Valeri LeBronned this wounded team to the top of the West in the regular season. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Valeri wasn't strictly a one-man show, but he came damn close as the rest of the roster turned into the Walking Dead around him. Portland had injuries to their 'keeper, all their center backs, a fullback, their defensive midfielders, both wingers, and their main center forward.
This team shouldn't have held together like it did, but Valeri is a sorcerer.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Their 4-2-3-1 became a 4-4-1-1 with Valeri eventually flying free as a second forward, sneaking to the back post to nod home goal after goal and generally be the MVP. If anybody else wins it this year it'll be a travesty.
They were middling in terms of possession, but created a lot of chances via the break. They did cross the ball a little too much – fifth in the league – and they weren't very good at it – 14th. But part of that was just trying to diversify their game a little bit while coping with so many absences.
HIGHLIGHTS: From July 23 through the end of October Portland went 8-3-2, never fell below the playoff line, and eventually snuck all the way up the ladder into first place. At one point in that stretch, Valeri scored in nine straight games, and across the whole period of time he had 11 goals and four assists.
Did they ever look like an irresistible force? Nah. But they kept getting the results they needed, and claimed homefield advantage because of it.
LOWLIGHT: Squandering homefield advantage.
Portland's season ended 2-1 on Sunday night, and with Houston missing 3/4s of their starting defense as well as their No. 1 'keeper... I know the Timbers had ridiculous injury issues, but so did the Dynamo. No way Portland should've walked away from that game with only one goal.
REVELATION: There wasn't one, really. The Timbers were/are mostly a veteran team, and it's safe to say that their championship window slid a little bit closer to "closed" this year – particularly after Diego Chara broke his foot in the first leg against Houston. He'll be 32 next year, as will Valeri.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Injuries injuries injuries.
That said, it has to be worrying to see Alvas Powell regress in his fifth year with the team, just as he's supposed to become a focal point. And while Sebastian Blanco was nowhere near a "disappointment" in a vacuum, Timbers fans would be forgiven for casting a longing gaze toward some of the other, less-hyped newcomers elsewhere in MLS this season.
Five Players to Build On:
- Valeri (AM): Can he do this again? Probably not. But he'll still be great.
- David Guzman (DM): Had a solid all-around debut season as a Felipe-esque midfield noodge. If Chara falls off somewhat, Guzman becomes the second-most-important player on the team.
- Darlington Nagbe (DM): He is what he is at this point – keeping possession, scoring a couple of golazos every year, and always leaving you with the feeling that he's delivering about 40% of what he's capable of.
- Chara (DM): It's a broken foot, it's not like his leg's come off. He should be fine, but they should also manage his minutes.
- Blanco (W): Was significantly better in the second half of the season with 6g/5a in the final 16 games. Not Best XI-caliber or anything, but still very good.
Offseason Priority: They've got to get Chara healthy, then they've got to figure out if Fanendo Adi's ever coming back, and then they've got to look at their central defense. Four of the first five names on the depth chart (Liam Ridgewell, Larrys Mabiala, Lawrence Olum, Roy Miller) are on the wrong side of 30, and the other one (Gbenga Arokoyo) is coming off an Achilles rupture.
Expect significant movement there.