Most of these teams made the playoffs. A few of them just missed. The collection of emotions on display ranges from "bitter disappointment" to "satisfied at the measurable growth on display."
Let's write some epitaphs.
Montreal Impact (#15)
They brought in a new coach and a new collection of veteran talent with impressive, mostly European pedigrees. And they missed the playoffs. A GIF is worth a thousand words:
It's not like everything went wrong for the Impact. They improved upon 2017's point total, jumping from 39 to 46, and their 14 wins was tied for their second-most as an MLS team. For most of the second half of the season they were a tough out, and beat some good teams, and played effective (if not necessarily entertaining) soccer.
But they still missed the playoffs for the second straight year, and were eliminated in the first round of the Canadian Championship.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Remi Garde had to play around a little bit in the first half of the year, but by early June he had his side settled into a low-block, counter-heavy 4-3-3 that emphasized getting the wingers out into space, and featured some wonderful late-arriving runs from the central midfielders. Montreal was very content to let their opponents carry most of the game, and it's easy to understand why: They went 11-6-4 over the last five months of the year.
HIGHLIGHT: Like I said, they beat some really good teams – a 2-0 over Sporting KC and a devastating 4-1 over the Union both come to mind. But on September 1 they faced a RBNY team that hadn't lost by multiple goals to anyone in the past 11 months, a stretch of 40 games.
Montreal annihilated them. The final score was 3-0 and it wasn't that close.
For the record: That was the best regular-season team in MLS history, and the Impact turned them into a smoking crater. It was one of the best performances any team put in against anyone all season long.
LOWLIGHT: Exactly four weeks after the above, Montreal went down to Buzzard Point to play a surging D.C. United side and... got turned into a smoking crater themselves, ending up on the wrong side of a 5-0 dismantling. This was arguably the worst game they'd played all season long, and it came in what was essentially an elimination game.
Sure, the Impact won their next two, but 1) the loss itself, and 2) the magnitude of it – which United used as springboard for the remainder of their schedule – meant that was that for 2018.
REVELATION: 24-year-old Samuel Piette probably qualifies here. He'd been good in a handful of games to end 2017, and came out of the gates slow in 2018, but his ability to lock down the spot in front of the central defense was one of the keys to the Impact's second-half surge. He looked the part of a long-time midfield anchor.
DISAPPOINTMENT: April and May. They played nine games and lost eight of them, most with a whimper. The fact that it took Garde so long to figure things out defensively was no bueno.
The other big disappointment has to be that so few young players made any sort of progress. Their best lineups down the stretch usually featured seven, and sometimes eight starters in their 30s. That's not the age profile of team you'd expect to improve year-over-year.
Piatti, at age 33, had his best MLS season. Piatti, at age 34, has said he will be having his last MLS season. There is real urgency to get it done this year.
Silva, Piette, Taider and the newly acquired Urruti are all good fits around him. I've never been high on Urruti – his finishing is below par and his shot discipline is mutinous – but he works hard off the ball and doesn't mind being a third wheel. If they can make him a little bit more selective re: pulling the trigger, he could be a great add.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The defense needs a lot of help, given age, underperformance and injury concerns. They collected a lot of mid-30s European band-aids who weren't quite good or durable enough to get over the hump in 2018, and it's hard to imagine that strategy will work any better in 2019.
They need to get it right on the backline, and can't wait 'til the season's half done to do so. Otherwise they'll have wasted the entire Nacho Piatti era, which would be a crime.
Vancouver Whitecaps (#14)
The 'Caps put together a new attack, and a new midfield and a new defense, and it seemed like that sure was a lot of changes to make for a team that made the playoffs in 2017. And then they didn't make the playoffs in 2018. A GIF is worth a thousand words:
Vancouver were smart to get Kei Kamara as their center forward, because he was much more suited to the "hit a lot of long balls and cross it a ton" approach that they were kind of married to. But the rest of their changes – form midfield all the way back to goalkeeper – really did not work out, almost at all.
There were a number of long winless skids and they were almost uniformly poor against the league's good teams.
FORMATION & TACTICS: They often called it a 4-2-3-1, and sometimes they actually played a 4-2-3-1, but in reality it was much more of a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1 with Yordy Reyna playing just underneath Kamara. When those two guys, along with Cristian Techera and Alphonso Davies were able to get out onto the field together they were a devastating counterattacking team that caused problems for almost everyone.
But they had to play a really deep block to do that, and the defense in 2018 wasn't good enough play a deep block and deal with the opposition having so much of the ball and creating so many chances. The 'Caps coughed up 67 goals because they couldn't get pressure to the ball in midfield, they did a bad job of winning 50/50s, they couldn't execute simple defensive stuff – I'm talking about basic headed clearances – in their own box, and goalkeeping was a big, big issue.
HIGHLIGHT: Just after it was announced that Davies had been bought by Bayern Munich for a league-record transfer fee (which will last only until the Miguel Almiron transfer is made official, but still), he annihilated poor Minnesota United with 2g/2a in a 4-2 home win.
It wasn't the boxscore numbers, though. Look at these freaking goals:
There was no signature win for Vancouver in 2018, and no trophy, and Carl Robinson lost his job, etc. etc. etc. But there was very much an "I was there when..." type of night, and this was it.
Davies will be carrying the banner for his first professional team all the way across the globe at his second professional team, which just so happens to be one of the five or six greatest clubs in the sport's history. It's a pretty big deal.
LOWLIGHT: From July 28 to September 1 the 'Caps went unbeaten in six and put themselves in position to make a real playoff push. They then went on to lose four of their next five – three of those losses were at home – to basically end their season by mid-October.
The very worst was a 2-1 home loss to Dallas on September 23, a game in which Vancouver bizarrely just couldn't defend set pieces. If they'd won that game, which they should've, they'd have made the playoffs.
REVELATION: Let me give you another Davies highlight:
BOW DOWN TO YOUR CANADIAN KING!!!!
Davies is spectacular.
DISAPPOINTMENT: The defense, man. They decided to ship out Tim Parker – or maybe they were forced to as Parker used his leverage – and none of the replacements were able to form any sort of respectable partnership with Kendall Waston. And defensive midfield was a season-long carousel, and Jake Nerwinski did not progress in his sophomore season at right back, and there was a carousel at left back, and their goalkeeping situation was never, ever, ever even average.
You can't be a low-block, counterattacking team if you can't defend in your area.
I'm not sure how much money I'd bet on any of the above players (save Teibert) being around to start next season, and I'm not sure how much I'd bet on Teibert being a starter under new head coach Marc Dos Santos. But I had to look at the roster and pick five names, so there you go.
For what it's worth, I think Teibert and Felipe could be interesting together in central midfield, and Reyna's a good-not-great MLS attacker. Nerwinski has looked game over two years at RB.
Blondell is a much, much bigger question mark than any of them, but he's entering his prime and they spent a lot of money on him. My hunch is he'll get a chance to win (or lose) the starting No. 9 job.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: This is a total overhaul of an offseason. As it stands with their current roster, they have only one player (Reyna) who's unquestionably a starting-caliber MLS player.
Dos Santos has a great reputation and his teams have played good soccer. He'll need to work a miracle in 2019 to get this team competitive, but I don't necessarily think the season to come will be about getting 50 points and another quick trip to the playoffs. I think it'll be about building a young core, getting a number of the previously marginal starters to improve as individuals, and building a structure that can make the whole greater than the sum of its parts in 2020 and beyond.
LA Galaxy (#13)
They got Zlatan! They spent an obscene amount of money on defensive midfield and the backline! They missed the playoffs! A GIF is worth a thousand words:
Once again the Galaxy went for some glitz and some glamor, and hey, Zlatan produced. But most of their other acquisitions did not, and the defense was legendarily tragic for the majority of the season. The Galaxy played in more wild, open, entertaining soccer games than pretty much any non-playoff team in MLS history because their offense was so potent and their defense was so non-existent.
And so they missed the playoffs, and another coach was replaced, and things aren't so great in Carson.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Create a wheel of formations, spin it, and throw a dart. Whatever it hits is something the Galaxy tried in 2018.
After Sigi Schmid was replaced by interim head coach Dom Kinnear (who may or may not be back in 2019), they settled into a pretty standard 4-4-2 that would occasionally press high, but more often stayed in a middle block that tried to keep the game in front of them. There was absolutely nothing fancy or revolutionary about this, but it mostly worked because damn this team has a lot of attacking talent.
I can offer no words to improve this highlight.
LOWLIGHT: LA were on death's door in mid-September, looking very much like their season was done. Then they won three of four, picking up a draw in the other, while RSL melted down. And so they entered Decision Day just a point behind the Claret-and-Cobalt, needing only a home win over a Houston side who were playing like they'd packed up and headed to Cancun in late September. RSL head coach Mike Petke said his team needed a miracle to make the playoffs.
And then LA took a 2-0 first-half lead, and cruised into halftime. And then in the second half, Petke got his miracle.
The Galaxy crumbled, giving up three unanswered goals to lose 3-2, at home, on the final day of the season, with the playoffs on the line. It is the single biggest final-day choke job I can ever recall in this league.
REVELATION: Got to drop down to Los Dos in the USL to find one. Efrain Alvarez, who was 15 to start the season, lit up the second division with 12g/3a in just 17 games. He's a spectacular finisher at any age.
Alvarez didn't get any MLS minutes, which is kind of understandable since the attack was never really the problem for the Galaxy and he's an absolute passenger defensively – Zlatan's the only one of those they can afford. But at the same time, they've got to start matriculating their academy kids to the first team or more and more of them will be lost to European teams who can sell the dream.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Losing Alex Mendez – who is a better overall prospect than Alvarez – to Freiburg will probably be this year's biggest long-term L. But from a more immediate perspective it has to be that their offseason recruitment strategy was so, ah, not good. They spent a lot of money, especially in defense, for guys who were not MLS-caliber players.
Oh, and Gio Dos Santos needs a shout here as well. We might actually brand this i as the "Gio Dos Santos Disappointment of the Year" award.
Lletget and JDS formed a nice central midfield pair, and whoever the head coach is next year should keep that in place. And Alvarez should play. And Steres isn't going to win any awards, but he doesn't make many mistakes and plays hard. That's a fine five-man group, especially since it includes the most productive per-90 striker in league history.
It doesn't include either Romain Alessandrini or Ola Kamara. Both guys are very good-to-great MLS players, but for one reason or another there's plenty of evidence to doubt they'll both be back. And that's fine since they're both excellent trade chips who can be used to strengthen areas of real need on this roster.
Or maybe I'm wrong and they will both be back. If that's the case, this team will once again need to score damn near 70 goals to compete for a playoff berth.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They should probably hire a head coach at some point.
Real Salt Lake (#12)
RSL decided to go all in on the weirdness in 2018. A gif is worth a thousand words:
They came out of the gate slow and looked like they'd be dead by May. They then produced a four-month-long hot streak that put them solidly into the playoff picture. They then poop-scooted across the carpet for the final six games before getting a Decision Day reprieve thanks to the Galaxy's collapse against the Dynamo. And then they went to downtown L.A. and beat LAFC in the knockout round before giving SKC hell in the West semifinals for good measure.
They did all of this while rotating between a rookie winger and a veteran box-to-box midfielder as their center forward. Tide goes in, tide goes out, you can't explain it.
FORMATION & TACTICS: If it wasn't a 4-2-3-1 in every single game it was, at least, damn close to that. RSL were determined to use the whole width of the field and rely upon the 1v1 abilities of their wingers, as well as the playmaking ability of Albert Rusnak in the No. 10 spot to break down teams that were stretched.
Defensively it was mostly a middle or low block. To be honest they look like a team that could and should press more – I'm surprised that didn't become a part of their nature in 2018.
HIGHLIGHT: They didn't just go to LAFC and beat one of the Western Conference favorites. They did so on the strength of one of the all-time great playoff goals:
I watched that game in the studio with my colleagues. When a great goal is scored, Calen Carr stands up, puts his hands behind his neck in surrender cobra pose, and walks around in circles. The better the goal, the more circles Calen does.
Zlatan's got five circles. Damir Kreilach got four. It was an amazing goal and an amazing moment.
LOWLIGHT: For a month we hyped up the home-and-home between RSL and Portland as essentially a two-game series to determine who'd claim a playoff spot. RSL had been playing better ball than the Timbers, and while they weren't outright favorites, they weren't outright underdogs, either.
They got annihilated in both legs, 4-1 at home and 3-0 at Portland in their final game of the season. RSL needed that Decision Day miracle because they were brutal in the two biggest games of the regular season.
REVELATION: RSL's academy is excellent – easily one of the best in MLS – and they've produced a number of heralded, productive pros (some of whom are now, sadly, plying their trades for teams that aren't RSL). It is a conveyor belt of talent, and most of it is identified early and fast-tracked.
Nobody saw Corey Baird coming. I mean, he was a former US U-17, and he was a star a Stanford, but nobody really thought he'd be more than a middling MLS player who could give back-up minutes on the wing, or maybe as a second forward.
He gave RSL starter's minutes and production with 8g/5a in 1900 minutes on his way to easily winning Rookie of the Year, playing primarily as an off-the-shoulder center forward who would flare wide. That's not his natural spot, but damn he made it look good, and I hope that he gets a call in for January's USMNT camp.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Not every academy kid is going to hit and that appears to be the case for LB Danny Acosta, who once again made his way to Petke's doghouse and can probably be found right now on the trade block.
I think that was probably a bigger disappointment than seven-figure offseason center forward signing Alfredo Ortuño.
Rusnak's really good, and Savarino's really good, and Baird's really good, and Bofo Saucedo's really good, and they're all under 25 years old. RSL should build around them and flip Joao Plata, who's as inconsistent as he is talented.
Kreilach was superb as a false 9 this year, but he's really a No. 8. Of course, they're flammable when he and Kyle Beckerman play together in deep midfield, which is an ongoing problem. Lennon, meanwhile, was superb as an overlapping fullback, and showed enough promise (along with a lot of naiveté) defensively to make it his long-term home.
It's weird not to list Justen Glad here. He didn't make the kind of progress he needed to in his third year as a starter, but he was still better than the other options. Still, it seems like he'll have to fight for his job this preseason. Maybe that's not a bad thing.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Both Baird and Kreilach were stopgaps at center forward, and so that's a big need for the fifth consecutive offseason.
I think they can survive if they don't hit a home run there, though. They can't survive if they try to make the Kreilach/Beckerman central midfield pairing work in 2019, and they no longer have Sunny as a potential answer. A killer No. 6 with range is probably the first item they'll be shopping for on January 1.
Philadelphia Union (#11)
After years of careful, methodical talent development and the cultivation of a style, they made the playoffs for just the third time ever! And they made the U.S. Open Cup final for the third time in five years! A GIF is worth a thousand words:
Philly have an ethos (build from within) and a budget (not a ton!) and that is something they've had to work around and through over the duration of their MLS existence. In 2018 they made it a strength, building via academy products and draft picks and a few shrewd transfer market pick-ups in producing the club's best season, all while playing pretty soccer.
Of course, they got drilled 3-0 in the Open Cup final and 3-1 in the Knockout Round. So fans aren't exactly delirious with joy. But progress is progress.
FORMATION & TACTICS: It was almost always a 4-2-3-1 that at times played more like a 4-2-1-3 with both wingers getting high and No. 10 Borek Dockal dropping a little bit deeper to conduct the team in possession. And they were a very possession-oriented team, spending a good chunk of the year looking very Crew-ish in terms of distributing from deep midfield, breaking lines, and pushing both fullbacks high.
It was pretty and it was mostly effective. If either of the guys who were supposed to score goals this year – C.J. Sapong and David Accam – had delivered even 75% of what was expected, they'd have had a home game in the Knockout Round instead of a short, frustrating and fruitless trip to Yankee Stadium.
HIGHLIGHT: At the start of August it looked like they had about a 2 percent chance of making the playoffs, and had instead gone all-in on the Open Cup. Sure, they'd been playing good soccer, but because of a lack of goalscoring punch and depth it hadn't been winning soccer, really.
Over their next 10 regular season games they went 7-2-1 with wins over NYCFC, D.C., Seattle and Sporting KC, clinching a playoff spot along the way. It was that rain-soaked 2-0 win over Sporting, with a Player of the Week performance from Jay Simpson of all people, that really stood out:
Four days before that they'd ended the Sounders' league-record winning streak, and had done so in Seattle.
That was a great week for the Union.
LOWLIGHT: The very next game they played was the Open Cup final, and Houston introduced them to the woodshed.
On a macro level Philly were a better team than the Dynamo in 2018, but on a more granular level the Dynamo were a nightmare match-up for the Union. They just waited for a few passing breakdowns from the Union, got out on the break and won 3-0.
I think for a lot of folks the loss didn't just feel like a bad loss, but a repudiation of the Union's style of play. I wish it wasn't so.
REVELATION: Mark McKenzie wasn't even a starter in his one season (2017) at Wake Forest. But he worked his way into the XI by early May and mostly stayed there, and at age 19 was the youngest starting CB in MLS in 2018 (and one of the youngest in league history). He then put in an outstanding showing for the US U-20s as they slammed the rest of Concacaf en route to the regional championship.
McKenzie's usual partner was 20-year-old Auston Trusty. Both guys are Union academy products. It's a big deal for a team that kinda seems to want to be the Ajax of MLS.
DISAPPOINTMENT: In 2017 Sapong had 16 goals. In 2018 he had 4. In 2017 Accam had 14 goals. In 2018 he had 1.
That's ridiculous. Jim Curtin deserves a medal for figuring out how to get his team to compensate for such a lack of productivity from two guys who were supposed to do the heavy lifting.
For a mostly young team that accomplished a bunch of 2018, they're in a state of flux for 2019. New GM Ernst Tanner has put his thumb on the scale to tilt this team away from juego de posición and toward gegenpressing, which means most of the veterans should be worried about their jobs (and Dockal, who led the league with 18 assists, won't be back).
McKenzie and Trusty will be, though, as well will Rosenberry (who had a bounce-back year a after a tough 2017) and Blake. So will Jack Elliott, who will push both McKenzie and Trusty for their jobs.
Of the veterans I think only Bedoya, who was the league's best No. 8, is secure going into next year. Maybe Fafa Picault as well.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They've already made one signing – Brazilian forward Sergio Santos – have cleared out a bunch of cap space, and are reportedly looking to clear more.
So there will be a bunch of new faces even if the organizational philosophy (build with youth, build from within, build on a budget) stays the same. Meanwhile the on-field philosophy will drastically change, and with that being the case, the obvious priority is for Curtin and the roster as a whole to buy into the new system and make sure they're ready to execute as soon as the whistle blows on opening day.
Columbus Crew SC (#10)
Even though they didn't win any trophies I think it's fair to call 2018 a win for Crew fans. A gif's worth a thousand words:
For the fifth straight year Columbus played highly structured, mostly entertaining, and highly effective possession-based soccer. They weren't great – their finishing let them down too often – but they were smart and committed and well-drilled and tough to break down every single week. And at the end of it all, they won a couple of playoff games, sold their goalkeeper to Manchester City for a record fee, and sent their coach to the USMNT.
And next year, they'll be in Columbus to try to do it all over again.
FORMATION & TACTICS: You can just read my column about Gregg Berhalter going to the USMNT. Bullet-pointed version:
- 4-2-3-1 in attack
- Push the fullbacks high
- Lots of diagonals from the d-mid to spread the field
- Wingers tucked in
- One-touch finishes for the No. 9
- 4-2-2-2 in defense
HIGHLIGHT: The win at D.C. United in the Knockout Round was nice, but...
Been a really good autumn for Columbus.
LOWLIGHT: From mid-August to mid-October they went 2-4-3, dropping from a top four spot in the East to the fringe of the playoff race – it looked for a minute like they might not even make the postseason. They lost to Orlando. Orlando!!!
It felt a lot like they were going to lose everything during that stretch, but of course they didn't.
REVELATION: It's never really a shock when a fullback excels in Berhalter's scheme, which puts them in position to have a ton of say over how and where the game's played – especially in the attacking third. But Milton Valenzuela walked into the XI as a 19-year-old and was arguably the best left back in the league. Other young South American imports got more hype (pretty much all of them did, to be honest), but over the course of the season few were better or more valuable than Valenzuela.
They've got to bring him back, keep grooming him, and then sell him for a substantial profit. Because he's really good, and as Steffen's move to Man City shows, folks out there are watching the Crew and have their checkbooks ready.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Pedro Santos is, by all accounts, a great person and teammate, and every time he's on the ball he looks the part of a high-caliber player. He has soft feet, good vision and game sense, and he pretty clearly understood his role in Berhalter's system.
And he ended the year with 1g/7a in 2500 minutes across all competitions. If his production had been commensurate with his salary and expectations the Crew would've finished top three in the East.
I could've probably gone 14-deep on this section. Higuain's got another year left on his contract, Zardes showed he can be a go-to goalscorer in this league in the right system, Artur is a stud, and Valenzuela's already been covered. Trapp might have overseas interest, but I think he stays in Ohio.
The defense is also mostly set. Whoever the new coach is should tweak Berhalter's system rather than installing something entirely new.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: "Whoever the new coach is." Right now it seems like that'll be Caleb Porter, but "seems like" isn't "is." They have to take care of that.
They also have to figure out the winger situation, as Justin Meram had a nightmare season while Niko Hansen – who I quite like as a through-the-lines, Ethan Finlay-type – was up-and-down before getting injured. They're reportedly in for a youngish Brazilian named Robinho (no, not that one) who can maybe be part of the answer.
But it's only a "maybe" about a spot that was the difference between them being a pretty good team, and one that was a legit contender.
D.C. United (#9)
They were just too far from the playoffs. Even with all those home games, no way could they make it. A GIF's worth a thousand words:
Turns out all it took was one pretty, pretty big signing, getting a couple other guys healthy, 14 home games and one of the biggest second-half-of-the-season turnarounds in MLS history to get D.C. back into the playoffs and – this feels more important on a longer timeline – back to relevance in their home market. Games at Audi Field felt like an event.
It was weird and thrilling and weirdly thrilling to see United balling out again, and to see them in front of a home crowd that was going berserk on the regular.
FORMATION & TACTICS: They started off the year in a 4-1-4-1 but by mid-summer were into a 4-2-3-1 that revolved around Wayne Rooney, who was a pure center forward and a false 9 and a playmaker and a trequartista all at the same time. The game flowed both to and through him, and he made everybody on that roster better.
D.C. were at their best down the stretch when they were pressing high, bringing both fullbacks upfield and letting the wingers dive inside. Injuries took their toll with the compressed schedule, but I've got to think that's what they'll look like in 2019 as well.
HIGHLIGHT: ARE YOU KIDDING ME:
ARE YOU KIDDING ME! ARE YOU KIDDING ME! ARE YOU KIDDING ME!
LOWLIGHT: You fell victim to one of the classic blunders!
The most famous is "Never get involved in a land war in Asia!" but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!"
And third, of course, is "Never go against Zack Steffen in a PK shootout in the playoffs!"
REVELATION: Lucho Acosta, until Rooney arrived, was an ultra-talented individualist who produced more footwork-related highlights than goals or assists, and was very quietly being shopped. Lucho Acosta, after Rooney arrived, played MVP-caliber soccer while producing And-1 Mixtape-style highlights just about every single weekend.
Was it a revelation or a mirage, though?
DISAPPOINTMENT: Truth is nothing about 2018 was disappointing for D.C. except the early playoff exit. I suppose you could argue that Yamil Asad's slow recovery from a midyear injury is there, or Zoltan Stieber's meh productivity, but that's picking nits compared to the real disappointment experienced by almost every other team this season, relative to expectations.
It'll be disappointing if they don't add a third, killer DP in the winter, and/or if they don't bring back Asad. But that's future tense.
The core looks pretty much set for next season, doesn't it? They have depth in attack – save for center forward, which they need to address – and midfield and in central defense and at 'keeper.
The biggest trick is going to be figuring out what position to spend that DP slot on. I don't think it's the dumbest thing in the world to consider moving Arriola to RB and going for a high-level, goalscoring winger.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Have I mentioned they need to use their third DP slot? Guess I have. OK then...
They also need to figure out how to bring Asad back, and Kofi Opare for that CB depth, and what's the best long-term position for Chris Durkin, and everybody in the league needs LB depth, and it's a liiiiittttle bit worrying that Acosta seems to be negotiating a salary increase via passive-aggressive Instagram posts.
But those are all manageable things.
Portland Timbers (#8)
It all went according to plan. A gif is worth a thousand words:
It wasn't always pretty, and a few of the gambits they took – both head coach Gio Savarese and the organization as a whole – didn't really work out, and my god did they dance with the devil pretty much throughout the playoffs.
But guess what? In they end, they were there. And yeah, they lost MLS Cup, but just making it that far is a hell of an achievement. They got to where they wanted to go even if the path they took wasn't always what they'd intended.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Savarese had to bounce through quite a few formations, starting in the 4-2-3-1 and then moving to a 4-3-2-1 and making pit stops at a 5-4-1 and a 5-3-2 along the way. There might even have been one or two others that I'm just not recalling, but regardless of formation: When they were staying deep and countering, they were one of the league's best teams. When they tried to do literally anything else, they were vulnerable and lost a lot.
By the end of the year it was back to the 4-2-3-1 pretty much full-time.
HIGHLIGHT: On November 8, 2018, the Timbers went up I-5 and played their hated rivals, the Seattle Sounders, in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals. Portland lost the game 3-2.
If MLS lasts 1000 years and the world doesn't get sucked into a black hole or melt into a puddle, this team will never suffer a better, more entertaining, more utterly triumphant loss:
This was the Dairon Asprilla game and the Sebastian Blanco game and the "they didn't know away goals don't count in extra time!" game all at the same time. It was hilarious and inexplicable and the type of thing that fans will still be talking about decades hence.
I cannot explain what I saw. Neither can anyone else.
LOWLIGHT: August and September weren't kind to the Timbers, as during a 10-game stretch they went just 3-6-1 and put themselves in a position where they could have missed the playoffs.
In large part it was because Savarese was trying to find a plan B, some sort of approach or formation in which the Timbers could have more of the ball and use it more to both create chances and dictate how the game was played. But any time they opened themselves up like that, they got burned.
REVELATION: The closest would be Jeremy Ebobisse, whose insertion into the starting lineup down the stretch played a big role in pulling out of that late-summer nosedive and then plowing through the West in the playoffs.
The second-year center forward doesn't put up monster stats, and he (like everyone else in green) laid an egg against Atlanta in the Cup itself. But when he plays well they win, and for the most part when he played, he played well.
DISAPPOINTMENT: It's either that it took so long for Ebobisse to earn his way into the XI – which meant the Timbers had to rely on an inexperienced forward in the season's biggest games – or that Savarese was so slow to push him into the XI to capitalize on his talent – which meant the coach had deprived him of valuable experience heading into the season's biggest games – or that veteran No. 9 Samuel Armenteros was so ineffective that they eventually had to go with another option there.
I think Andy Polo should probably qualify as a disappointment as well. He's a 24-year-old, in-his-prime international winger who gave them all of 1g/2a in 2000 minutes across the regular season and playoffs.
The first three guys on the list are easily the three best players on the team, and all are into their 30s – Valeri and Chara turn 33 early in the season, while Blanco will be 31. None looked like they were slowing down in 2018, but Father Time is undefeated. Savarese needs to manage minutes.
Guzman and Villafana are in-their-prime internationals who mostly looked the part down the stretch. There will be, I'm sure, chopping and changing (and a new DP) at other positions, but I'm pretty confident those five will look the same.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They need to figure out what to do with that DP slot: Will they attempt to upgrade at Polo's position or at Ebobisse's? It'll be one or the other (and there will be reinforcements coming – competitions for places – at both spots regardless of whether it's wearing a DP tag or not).
The other priority is center of defense. One of the reasons Portland could only really absorb-and-counter is because they had no speed back there. Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala (who was repeatedly exposed in the playoffs) are both under contract for next season, and neither will get any younger this winter. I think it's fair to wonder how that all shakes out, especially since the younger options on the roster weren't able to push either out of the lineup.