Armchair Analyst: One big question for each MLS team, revisited

In an ongoing effort to hold myself accountable, it's time to revisit some of my thoughts and observations from way back in early March, just before the 23rd season of Major League Soccer kicked off. And so it's time for a look at what I felt were big questions for each of the 23 teams taking the field this year.

I've enlisted the help of my colleague, Bobby Warshaw, to add his two cents on both what happened through the season's first five months, and what will happen over the next three.

Read the original version of this column from March 2.


Atlanta United

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: What happens at central midfield?

It turns out this wasn't much of a question at all as, if anything, Atlanta have been better in central midfield than they were in 2017. And while they've missed Darlington Nagbe since his injury, it hasn't been a catastrophic loss.

I'd still argue it was a BIG question, but in the end it had an easy answer.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: How do they reintegrate Barco?

Ezequiel Barco violated a team rule. He’s been suspended and wasn’t in the gameday roster for the last three MLS games. Atlanta United needs to get him back into the team because 1) $$$ and 2) he has the ability to help their MLS Cup push.

Given Barco's undeniable upside, Atlanta fully firing could be truly scary. Yet failure to properly reintegrate Barco might not just diminish their trophy odds – which would have to be the best in the league right now – but perhaps even damage them if squad chemistry is unbalanced in the aftermath.


Chicago Fire

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Who creates the chances?

This was not as big a deal as I thought it would be. Still big, to be sure, but not season-defining, in large part because Bastian Schweinsteiger has looked good when he's played as sort of a No. 10; Nemanja Nikolic has poached well; and Aleksandar Katai has conjured a few goals out of nothing.

Another way of putting it: The offense hasn't been the problem.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Are there any tricks left in the bag?

Chicago’s winter didn’t go as planned. They had a few holes to fill and only brought in one significant contributor (Katai). Yet they've managed to hang around the playoff line.

They used a variety of quirky formations and playing styles, from a 3-5-2 with Schweinsteiger as sweeper to man-marking in midfield. But the pixie dust appears to have worn off, as the Fire have lost six in a row.


Colorado Rapids


This was the right question to ask, and it turns out the answer was "No." Other than a brief hot streak from the since departed Dom Badji, they've not had a consistent scorer this season (and to be fair, a big part of that is because they haven't had a consistent chance creator).

For what it's worth, I think they kind of biffed it by not going after Christian Ramirez. He'd have answered a big need for them, and his consistent production in the league would've removed some of the, uh, let's call it "guesswork" that's led to a slew of questionable signings over the past few years.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Who do they want to be?

They appeared to be a strict 3-5-2 team. They made their winter signings to fit a 3-5-2 system and spent the first 20 games in sit-and-counter mode. Then Kellyn Acosta showed up and they switched to a 4-4-2 diamond with Acosta as a shuttler. The diamond is the most possession-oriented formation possible.

Are they a 3-5-2 team built around three big, bulky center backs? Or are they a diamond team built around mobile, possession-based midfielders? They need to set a path forward, for both their current players and future signings. They aren't likely to make the playoffs, it's about picking an identity for 2019.


Columbus Crew SC

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: How do you replace 30+ goals?

  1. Trust the system
  2. Get Justin Meram back

This really was the big question for Columbus, and they've gotten answers both predictable and familiar.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: What Justin Meram will show up?

Crew SC need help producing goals. They recently went on a five-game streak during which they got shut out four times. I love their playing style (system!), but it also depends on players executing plays when they get to certain spots on the field.

Nobody other than Gyasi Zardes and Federico Higuain has produced at least four goals-plus-assists in 2018. The team above Columbus in the Eastern Conference standings, the New York Red Bulls, have six players at that mark.


D.C. United

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Can the defense be respectable?

This was indeed the biggest question, and the answer – until the last five games – was "no." Through 14 games they'd given up 29 goals, which would put them in the neighborhood of "worst defense in league history."

In their last five games, they've conceded just seven. Not incredible, but definitely respectable. And with a bunch of home games coming up, and the possible return of Bill Hamid (it's been a good window for returning heroes), I think things are going to get better for this D.C. side.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Can Wayne Rooney match the price tag?

D.C. have been better than their points suggest. It’s looked largely like a team that needs someone to lift the team to the next level in that indescribable you-just-know-it-when-you-see-it, Nico-Lodeiro-Seattle-2016 kind of way.

Wayne Rooney is being paid to be that guy, one with the ability and intangibles to rally the group. The playoffs aren’t out of sight - the 2011 SKC group faced a similar situation with the midseason opening of Children’s Mercy Park, and made the playoffs despite longer odds at the halfway mark - but Ben Olsen really needs Rooney to be sharp.


FC Dallas

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: What happened and why does it keep happening?

So we kiiiinda know the answer – the locker room broke because offers from overseas were made for certain guys, and the team didn't handle it well. Fernando Clavijo addressed it pretty directly, and Oscar Pareja's talked around it a bit, and Kellyn Acosta and Mauro Diaz and Walker Zimmerman are all gone. Do the math.

Overall they're perhaps a less talented team than last year, but also a better one, and the powers that be deserve credit for learning from their mistakes.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: What’s life like without Diaz?

Dallas has been very good for 24 of the past 30 months. Their differentiating factor was Mauro Diaz. Diaz is gone now and Dallas is venturing into a new world.

Do they fully commit to a grind-and-fly™ style, with two combative defensive mids and four pacy attackers? Or do they try to have someone fill Diaz’s playmaking role, perhaps new signing Pablo Aranguiz? Can they do either well enough to compensate for Diaz’s absence?


Houston Dynamo


So this was the right question, but applied to the wrong facet of the team. "Plan B" in attack was to hold the ball more, create more chances via possession, and play better soccer – and they mostly did all that.

Plan B for losing Juan David Cabezas, last year's team MVP, for all but 36 minutes of the season was "curl into a ball and die slowly."

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: What form will Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto be in?

This team’s success begins and ends with Elis and Quioto. When Elis and Quioto are on, the team is nearly unstoppable. When they aren’t clicking, though, everything Houston does stumbles. It’s a simple equation, but probably the hardest one to solve.



MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Can the central defense hold up?

This really was the right question to ask, and it's still kind of open. Laurent Ciman and Walker Zimmerman have been mostly pretty good, but are capable of some questionable decisions trying to step into the play – Bob Bradley asks them to be super aggressive – which has led to some bad moments.

Nonetheless they are fourth in the West as an expansion team, and while the defense hasn't been great, it's been pretty good.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Will the midfield experiment work out?

We recently saw LAFC trot out a starting midfield of Lee Nguyen, Benny Feilhaber, and Carlos Vela. Yes, Nguyen and Feilhaber formed the “defensive” part of the triangle. Andre Horta, another attack-minded midfielder, will probably join the group at some point. It’s long been assumed that an MLS team needs a sturdy defensive midfielder to be successful. LAFC head coach Bob Bradley is putting that to the test. He’s attempting to play a proactive style that makes a defensive midfielder irrelevant.

Bradley might change the way we think about the game of soccer. Or it might fall flat on its face and we say “Well, obviously.”


LA Galaxy


A) This was the right question, and B) still an open one. LA are one of those teams that has pretty much never looked like they add up to the sum of their parts, especially on the defensive end.

That can be glossed over against bad teams with a Zlatan-centric attack. But when he's not available, or when they're playing a good defensive side, it tends to be a different story, and so far the Galaxy lack the chemistry necessary to make up for that.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Can the defense stop making elementary mistakes?

I use the word elementary for a reason. They aren’t just mistakes – I tend to give players a break for normal mistakes because I understand how hard the sport/job can be. But the Galaxy’s defensive errors have been outside the spectrum of normal. They’ve been basic errors that we can reasonably expect professional players – especially those who are part of the most expensive backline in the league – not to make.

The Galaxy attack is able to score enough goals that if the defense is anything above heartbreaking then the team has a legit shot to make a run.


Minnesota United FC

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Will they improve in Year 2?

Through 23 games they have 28 points, which is six better than last year's pace, so it's probably fair to say they've improved. It's also fair to say that pretty much all of said improvement comes down to Darwin Quintero coming in, taking a few weeks to get settled, then dousing the whole league with kerosene and lighting a match every time he set foot on a soccer field in the month of July.

That makes sense. Talent is usually the decider, and Quintero's got a ton of it. But it's a worry that few of the holdovers are playing better in 2018 than they did in 2017, and it's an outright catastrophe that the defense is still giving up 2 goals per game despite Bobby Shuttleworth's weekly heroics.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Can Angelo Rodriguez make fans forget Christian Ramirez?

Minnesota used their second-ever Designated Player slot on Colombian striker Angelo Rodriguez. They subsequently traded away fan favorite Christian Ramirez for up to $1 million in allocation money. Given their roster makeup, the outlay might well go toward a defensive mid or center back and strengthen the team. But it will leave Minnesota fans with a clear thought: Couldn’t we have used the original money on a defensive player and still kept Ramirez?

It’s always risky signing a new player; it’s more risky when that player replaces a club stalwart. And it’s always difficult when a team isn’t winning; it’s more difficult when the team isn’t winning and the fans’ favorite player gets traded away. 

Minnesota are going for it – a good thing. But they also raised the stakes on themselves. 


Montreal Impact

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Can this team defend set pieces?

Still a big, fat negative! The Impact have conceded 10 set-piece goals, second-worst in the league. And they've gakked up five penalties – tied for second-worst in the league – for good measure.

If they could defend restarts at all, they'd be comfortably in the playoff picture.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: What does Ignacio Piatti need?

In Montreal’s nine wins this year, Piatti has 6 goals and 7 assists. In the 15 games Montreal hasn’t won, Piatti has 5 goals and 2 assists. It’s not complicated to figure out what makes Montreal tick. If you can get Piatti going, you will probably win. If you ask yourself “What’s best for Piatti?” then you’ll probably answer the question “What’s best for the Impact?”


New England Revolution

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Is this the year for Juan Agudelo?

I had the right question ... but asked it of the wrong 20-something former USMNT striker. Teal Bunbury beat out Agudelo for the No. 9 spot and has not relinquished it, posting a career-best 11 goals (and counting) in a touch under 1,800 minutes. Since July of last year he's got 18 goals in a little over 2,800 minutes, which corresponds to basically an entire season's worth of minutes for an MLS striker.

Bunbury's been good. He's thoroughly answered this question (and his scoring has helped paper over some more pressing concerns).

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: How well will Michael Mancienne acclimate?

New England have a thing they are very good at: pressing. And a couple things they struggle with: defending once the press gets broken and passing out of the back. Mancienne has the ability to maintain the former and improve the latter. If the Revs can continue to press as well as they do while improving their weak points, they will be a front-runner for one of the final Eastern Conference playoff spots. 


New York City FC

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Can they get enough from the wings?

Answered with a resounding "Yes," thanks to great work from Jesus Medina, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Jonathan Lewis. Even when David Villa got hurt for a few months, the NYCFC winger corps kept producing.

It was the right question to ask then. It stopped being the right question to ask the moment Yangel Herrera got hurt.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Will they work out the bugs?

New head coach Dome Torrent started making adjustments as soon as he arrived. He turned NYCFC from the most dogmatic team in the league to a pragmatic side able to adjust to any opponent. They’ve used multiple formations and playing styles, sometimes within the same game. At times, they’ve looked wonderful and nearly unstoppable. At others, they’ve looked confused and mediocre. 

They have 11 dress rehearsals left in the regular season before the playoffs come. Will Torrent decide on a single plan? Will they be able to adequately adjust between a few? Or will they be stuck somewhere in the woods? 


New York Red Bulls

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Can the youth movement work?

That was the right question to ask, and so far the answer's a resounding "Hell, yeah!" Tyler Adams has been probably the second-best d-mid in the league, Sean Davis has been a rock as a zone-moving No. 8, both fullbacks have responded, and Aaron Long's made a real leap in his second year as an MLS starter.

The bummer for RBNY is that injuries have devastated this team's depth and flexibility, as Florian Valot and Kyle Duncan have both been lost for the year to injury while Vincent Bezecourt has also faced time on the sidelines.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Evolve or carry on?

The Red Bulls are 6-1-0 against the other top six teams in MLS. They are tied with Atlanta on points per game. But there were rumblings when new coach Chris Armas took over that he might want to insert a few wrinkles to the game plan, particularly adding more possession play. 

It would be cool to see this Red Bulls team combine their relentless intensity with calm passing, but it might also be an impossible paradox. One couldn’t blame Armas for trying to improve his team, but you also couldn’t blame him for staying out of the way.


Orlando City SC

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Will we remember this offseason as one of the best rebuilds in MLS history?


BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Is 2018 salvageable or is it time to look to 2019?

The Lions went all in on 2018. They made multiple moves to give their fans their first playoff appearance. It, um ... hasn’t worked out. They’ve lost 12 of their last 13 games, changed coaches and traded away one of their major additions. At the same time, they are still only six points below the playoff line.

They still have a chance to creep into the playoffs and one could understand why they might push for it. But years can be wasted by sacrificing the future for a single season. At some point, Orlando need to create a real, sustainable plan for long-term success. I wouldn’t blame them for going all in on 2018, but I worry it could continue a cycle of myopic thinking.


Philadelphia Union

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Is Borek Dockal the No. 10 they've been needing?

This was the right question, and Dockal's answered it in the affirmative with 5 goals and 9 assists in about 1,600 minutes – very good numbers, if not quite All-Star caliber. They likely would be All-Star caliber if anybody else on the Union could put the ball in the damn net.

In the original column, I had a second question: How good could Auston Trusty be? And it turns out that both he and Mark McKenzie are pretty, pretty good! The Union have flipped conventional wisdom on its head by starting a pair of 19-year-olds in central defense and 1) competing for a U.S. Open Cup title, and 2) competing for a playoff spot.


BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Do David Accam and CJ Sapong have a good game or two in them?

The Union made waves in the offseason when they sent boatloads of allocation money in exchange for David Accam. He put up 22 goals + assists in 2017 and seemed like a good bet to make a dangerous partnership with striker CJ Sapong (21 goals + assists in 2017). Prior to the season, Doyle wondered whether Borek Dockal could complete the attacking trio.

Well, Dockal has carried his weight, but Accam (1g, 0a) and Sapong (3g, 1a) have both fallen flat. If Accam and Sapong can provide just a few game-changing moments, the Union should be able to get over the playoff line.


Portland Timbers

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: What formation will they use?

The answer was "all of them except the one I figured they'd look at." Based upon their preseason I felt like the Timbers looked best in a 4-4-2 diamond, but we haven't seen that at all once the games got real.

Instead it's been a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-2-1, a 5-3-1-1 and a 3-5-2. Gio Savarese has stressed having a compact backline and a vicious counterattack, and it's impossible to argue with a man whose team is unbeaten in 15 games.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Will someone figure out an antidote?

The Timbers play the same way and do the same thing every game. They vary the formations between 5-3-2 and 4-3-2-1, but the principles remain the same. It’s worked 15 times in a row. But in doing the same thing every week, they haven’t prepared much variety to their game.

If someone figures out how to beat their game plan – and LAFC might have dropped some hints in their recent Open Cup game – Portland might be in trouble. The Timbers don’t have an obvious counterpunch available.


Real Salt Lake

MATT'S BIG QUESTION: Will Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando fight off Father Time?

They're batting .500. Rimando's been very good, and Beckerman has repeatedly showed his age – he should not be a 90-minute player every single week anymore.

In retrospect, though, center forward was a much bigger question for this team. And remains so.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: What’s the right midfield balance?

RSL need to stop leaking goals – they’ve conceded the most goals of any team in a playoff spot right now, tied with Montreal – if they hope to make the playoffs. The point of emphasis should be the protection provided from the midfield.

For most of the year, they’ve used Kyle Beckerman next to Damir Kreilach. Kreilach isn’t a natural defensive midfielder and Beckerman has never been at his best left alone to cover ground. As a result, RSL often gets overpowered in midfield, specifically on movement from opposing midfielders into goalscoring positions.

Beckerman, Kreilach, and Rusnak are the three most talented midfielders on the team, but they don’t appear to fit well together. Is there a certain alignment that works? Or does head coach Mike Petke need to switch the personnel? 


San Jose Earthquakes

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Can the defense defend?

Nope! Forty-one goals conceded in 22 games is not the worst in the league, but it's among the worst in the league. Left back has been a particular issue, as has defensive midfield, as has goalkeeper, as has centra– you know what? I'll just say that right back Nick Lima's been good and the rest of the situation back there needs a bit of workshopping.

It's all been much better lately with just six conceded in their last five games, though that's come at the expense of their attack. By holding numbers back, they've given up any pretense toward consistent possession or offense (Jesse Gonzalez howlers not withstanding).

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Will Wondo break the scoring record?

The Quakes aren’t making the playoffs. The players are basically playing for their jobs at this point. But that’s morbid, so I want to focus on the optimistic outlook. 

Chris Wondolowski is now five goals away from tying the MLS all-time goal scoring record. He’s been in and out of the starting lineup recently, but you wouldn’t know it from his demeanor. When he’s gotten on the field, he’s been every bit as passionate as when he scored 27 goals in a season. I don’t have many biases in MLS at this point, but I want Wondo to get that record.


Seattle Sounders

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Is this the last dance?

Yup. I mentioned Clint Dempsey, Chad Marshall, Osvaldo Alonso and Roman Torres in the original version and of those four I think only Marshall will be back next year. Age and injury have robbed the other three of their greatness to the extent that the "last dance" spent a lot of time looking like it would be no dance at all.

But the Sounders are doing their second-half charge up the standings again, so these guys will, I think, get one last trip to the postseason. This time, though, they'll mostly be supporting players for a younger, more dynamic core.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: How deep was the hole?

It appears the Sounders are set to do it again. After another slow start to the season, they are making another run to make the playoffs. Ozzie Alonso is back and healthy, Nico Lodeiro is back and healthy, Kelvin Leerdam is back and healthy, and Raul Ruidiaz is in. They’ve already won four in a row. They are going to pick up a lot of points in the second half of the year. They will be one of the six best teams when the playoffs start. It’s only a matter of picking up enough points to fill the gap they left themselves.


Sporting KC

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Goals? The attack in general?

They clearly had the answer to this all along, even without the goalscoring No. 9 I (and just about everyone else) thought they needed. Maybe Krisztian Nemeth is that guy now?

Regardless, SKC have one of the most potent attacks in the league, and have gotten major contributions from both wings and from central midfield. They are a hell of a lot of fun to watch surging forward at pace.

And they are a bloody mess defensively. They are bizarro SKC. Nobody saw this coming.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Can Krisztian Nemeth play forward?

We know Nemeth can play forward. He did it a bit the first time he was with SKC and then a little with the Revs. But can we play forward at the level SKC need and expect? When he banged home double digit goals in 2015, it was mostly as a winger. SKC already have wingers in Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell; they will want Nemeth to play striker (unless Salloi moves to stiker, in which case the question becomes “Can Daniel Salloi play forward?”).

If Nemeth puts home 7 or 8 goals from a center striker position, it could round out SKC’s attack and make them a major threat in the West.


Toronto FC

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Will there be a CCL hangover?

Literally the biggest CCL hangover in MLS history. Granted, the injuries had as much/more to do with their early-season death stroll, but the "90 minutes, every single game" mentality that fueled this team last year died on the pitch in Guadalajara.

They are just starting to get that back now. And it might be too late.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: Do they have enough fight left?

It’s been a helluva two-year span for Toronto. Make it to an MLS Cup final and...lose. Make it back to the MLS Cup final Defeat two of the best teams in Mexico to make it to the Champions League final then...lose. It’s emotionally exhausting just thinking about it. 

The start of the season didn’t go as planned, largely due to an injury bug. But the band is back together now and they’ve looked pretty good. It’s not out of the scope of possibility that they can put together a crazy run to make it into the playoffs. The margins are slim, I just wonder if they have enough left in the emotional tank to scratch and crawl in moments when they *absolutely have to at this point* take points.


Vancouver Whitecaps

MATT'S ORIGINAL QUESTION: Is this the year for Alphonso Davies?


But here's the other part I had from the original:

The other big question for Vancouver is "Will the central defense be as good without Tim Parker?" That's actually a bigger question than the Davies one.

And so it remains. The 'Caps have conceded 46 times in 23 games, and are one of only four teams in the league to concede 2 goals per game or worse. So it doesn't matter that Davies has gone supernova – Vancouver's not making the playoffs anyway.

BOBBY'S NEW QUESTION: How good can Davies get before he leaves?

Vancouver might make the playoffs, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we say that’s the story up there right now. It’s all about Alphonso Davies. At the end of the season he’ll be going to Bayern Munich and I want to see how good he can become between now and then. Specifically, will be good enough by the time he leaves to earn playing right right away? The rest of the season doesn’t really mean anything to Davies, but it also means everything. If he continues to grow as a player, it’ll give him a chance to hit the ground running in Germany. Every game between now and then matters for his development.