There’s a thing that happens in sports that annoys me every year. We see teams make big signings and we get pumped about the team’s expectations. The flames are stoked and contenders are picked at the beginning of the year, but then at the end of the season some of the said contenders underperform, and pundits look back and say “I can’t believe that happened.” Sometimes it’s random events or injuries, but other times it’s a factor we could have seen happening. Every team has an Achilles heel they need to either fix and cover, and a team’s success often depends on their recognition of it.
Let's take a look at some of the top 2018 MLS Cup contenders and where it could go wrong. First up, the Eastern Conference contenders. We'll get to the West on Thursday.
Toronto FC: Psychological obstacles
It’s hard to find a weakness with Toronto FC. They are returning 10 of 11 starters from the most accomplished team in MLS history, and potentially upgraded in the 11th spot. I generally think they could use a winger to break down packed defenses — something that I hope for the sake of American tactical development comes more often this year — but they could probably just push Sebastian Giovinco out wide to run at defenders 1v1. Their biggest concern may be injuries, but that’s a cop out and is true for any team anywhere.
Rather than anything that happens on the field, Toronto could have a psychological obstacle to overcome. It’s been a wild run of emotions for their top players over the last 24 months. For most of the squad, it involved going from an extreme low of losing an MLS Cup in a penalty-kick shootout to regrouping and dominating an entire MLS season. The emotional toll that takes should not be understated. For their main cogs, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, it also involved a World Cup qualifying failure. Regardless of the idea that these guys are paid to show up and work hard every day, the last two years around the Toronto locker room have required a ton of emotional capacity.
It’s natural for humans to take a break at some point. Let's not forget that athletes are humans. Players can say all the right things and do their best to defend against it, but it’s hard to fight that basic human instinct to relax. That psychological battle is compounded by the fact that they will be competing in the CONCACAF Champions League starting before the season. Winning the tournament is likely one of their main goals heading into the season and it will most likely dilute their focus. Either they advance in the CCL and it distracts them, or they lose and they feel disappointed. Either outcome will be taxing on their minds.
Should we expect complacency from the MLS champs? Maybe not. Bradley and head coach Greg Vanney are certainly aware of the possibility and will be diligent about any potential issues. But we also shouldn’t be surprised to see an emotional dip.
New York City FC: Institutional knowledge
New York City FC is another team that appears to be very nicely balanced from the front to back with talent all over the field. However, they could still have the same problem that haunted them the last two years: a lack of steel in the back. “Steel in the back” is a bad soccer cliche, so let me re-frame the concept.
There’s a clear trend over the 22 years of MLS Cups: every single champion has had a domestic player starting at center back. What does that mean in reference to 2018? Why does having a domestic center back matter? Domestic players bring institutional knowledge. They understand how to navigate certain moments over a long season. When the team goes down a man against an emotional Columbus team at the end of the year, they have a better understanding of the situation.
David Villa and head coach Patrick Vieira offer plenty of experience, but it always helps to have a guy who’s been there and done that at center back. Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens have the ability to win a championship for their team, but it remains to be seen if they have the strange intangible that’s been ever-present in MLS winners.
Atlanta United: Chemistry
Atlanta United could be the most enjoyable team to ever step foot on an MLS field. But it could also stumble through the year. Their big-money acquisitions could be as difficult to mold together as they are exciting.
Let’s use a similar situation to everyday life to understand the experience. Think about when you start a new job at work, or you go with your partner to meet their friends. You take your seat at the table and you try to catch on to the conversation. What’s your role in the group? Who makes the jokes? Do you try to keep the conversation flowing? Imagine if you’re stepping into that party with “star socialite” label on your head and everyone expects you to be the life of the party. Sometimes it goes perfectly, but sometimes it’s super awkward. Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe, Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba could all create magic — head coach Tata Martino has certainly worked with similar situations in his career — or they could struggle at times over when to take control and when to defer.
Similar to all the situations I’ll discuss: Would I bet on it to happen? Not necessarily. But it could happen, and it could lead to a bad cycle of uncertainty and questions.
Orlando City SC: Ability to defend
Head coach Jason Kreis and the Orlando staff have overhauled their roster in a big way this offseason. They added Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram, Josue Colman and Oriol Rosell, among others. I was skeptical of all of the pieces fitting together until Rosell came along, but the former Sporting KC man is the glue that could bring together all the attacking prowess. The only problem, as plenty have pointed out, is that none of those names play in the back four. They gave up the sixth most goals in 2017, nine more than any of the playoff teams in the East, and have subtracted rather than added to their central defensive quality by trading away Tommy Redding.
Sometimes improving your attack can also improve your defending. If the Lions can take care of the ball better — specifically by asking Yoshi Yotun and Kljestan to simplify their passing to limit turnovers — the opposition will get fewer opportunities on the ball. But sometimes improving your attack can also leave your defense exposed. If you have a high-powered, free-wheeling attack but don’t have the defenders to deal with the vacant space, it could get tough.
I never want to say the only way to be a good defending team is to sign better players. Yet if the team has either subpar defenders or not good enough defending tactics, they are generally below the red line come the MLS Cup Playoffs. Instead of applauding the $1.05 million in allocation money they sent to Columbus for Meram, we could be wondering why they they didn’t spend money on a center back.
Sorting out a defensive philosophy will surely be at the top of Kreis’ to-do list this preseason. There have also been hints that he and general manager Niki Budalic are not done signing players this offseason, with a center back likely atop their hopeful additions.
In stopping at four teams, it’s not suggesting the other clubs in the East don’t have the ability to make a run. The list stops at four teams because the premise of this revolves around expectation as much as anything. If any of the other seven teams put together a deep playoff run, we shouldn’t be surprised. But at this very early point, these look like the most likely contenders in 2018 from the East.