Armchair Analyst: A long look back on 2018 in MLS

Here is the 2017 version of this column. Here is the 2016 version of this column.

Both of those focused on the formational and tactical recent history of the league, juxtaposing each against the yearly, and year-over-year trends. For example the high press, which was exclusively the domain of Sporting KC for the first half of the decade, became a more widely used and understood approach come 2016. In 2017 it was about breaking lines with the ball and transitions.

In 2018? I think we'll remember this year a little bit more for growing stratification amongst the teams, as the elites became more elite and the tail end of the table became, um, less elite.

Another way of putting it: We're truly into the TAM era now. That means everybody has access to more funds, and the teams that really understand how to use those funds – teams that know how to target, acquire, integrate and develop the right players on the international stage while building and maintaining their core from within – created real separation from the teams that, so far, don't.

It makes sense if you think about it. TAM was introduced in 2015 and gave MLS clubs access to a different level of player on the world stage. Most MLS teams took advantage of that by spending... not well. The smart teams learned from their mistakes and now have the institutional knowledge to mostly spend on the right guys at the right spots, while the laggards are still throwing good money after bad.

So that's how we get stratification.

It's not just about talent, though. It's about the flexibility that sort of talent collection gives, and having coaches who are good enough to take advantage of it. We saw it with the Supporters' Shield champion Red Bulls, who spent the first half of the season playing in the highest and most vicious press this league has ever seen, shifting their focus from connecting passes almost entirely toward winning 50/50s. But in the second half of the season, they shifted back towards being a team that uses the ball, and in the process scored one of the prettiest team goals in playoff history:

And we saw it in the playoffs with the MLS Cup champions Atlanta United, who took one of the best and most dynamic attacks, scrunched it into a shell, and became a sit-and-counter playoff team that took few risks and allowed zero open play goals en route to a title in front of 73,000 fans.

The Red Bulls' ability to toggle between pressing and possession led them to 71 points, which is the best regular season in MLS history. Atlanta's ability to toggle between possession and counterattacking led them past the Red Bulls in the playoffs and to the Cup.

Other teams had really good years. Sporting KC's season – 62 points and a +25 goal differential – is usually enough to at least be in the Shield hunt. Seattle had the best half-season PPG in league history from July onward thanks to their league-record winning streak. Portland went 15 unbeaten, and then made a Cup appearance. Houston tried to be flexible and couldn't, but embraced their countering nature in the US Open Cup and gave the home fans a trophy to celebrate.

I still don't know what to say about Toronto FC besides "injuries and complacency and maybe some chemistry issues," but they won the Canadian Championship and we'll see them in the CCL. I suspect they'll look closer to the 2017 version than the nightmarish 2018 version of themselves.

If you're looking for in-depth, team-by-team breakdowns of 2018 and what's to come in 2019, here you go:

Let's jump in and hand out some awards:


Ok you've all seen the official awards that were handed out in November and December. I'm not going to double up. Instead, I have my own (un)official list of awards I give out every year.

• Player of the Year: Josef Martinez, Atlanta United

Just like last year, the league MVP is also my player of the year. Here's a bit of why:

For clarity: I consider all competitions for this award. So if you have a regular season superstar who biffed it in the playoffs, that'd hurt his case.

Josef, of course, did not biff it in the playoffs. He won the Golden Boot, won the regular season MVP, then put up 4g/1a in 400 playoff minutes, including 1g/1a in MLS Cup to win the MLS Cup MVP award.

He's got a solid argument for "Best individual season in MLS history."

Other arguments I'll listen to: Miguel Almiron, Tyler Adams

  • You could make an argument that Almiron was actually the better, more-important player for Atlanta. It's a really good argument, but not as good as 35 goals and two MVP awards
  • Adams gets in here because of my "the starting d-mid on the best team is, by default, always in the Player of the Year race"

• Young Player of the Year (age 21 or under): Alphonso Davies, Vancouver Whitecaps

Davies, at 17, put up 8g/11a and got sold to one of the world's biggest teams (Bayern Munich) for a league record fee (reportedly $13 million, which could reportedly rise to $22 million if he hits certain incentives).

Here's what Bayern Munich manager Niko Kovac said about Davies this past week: "If I compare him with our other U23 players, then he is already ahead of all of them. He has to adjust still, that's clear, but he has quality and we will not stand in his way if he can help us."

He made me scream five separate times during the course of this particular game:

He's the most exciting Homegrown player in league history. I pray, for the sake of all my Canadian friends, that John Herdman gets the best out of him.

Other arguments I'll listen to: Adams

  • Truth is I originally had Adams at the top of this list, but he's about to win another award so I decided to spread the love.
  • This was a banner year for young players, by the way. In the past, guys like Milton Valenzuela, Reggie Cannon and Auston Trusty would've been in the mix.

• D-mid of the Year: Adams, RBNY

The starting d-mid – the hardest position on the field – on the best regular season team in league history, one that made it to the CCL semifinals and the Eastern Conference Championship, was a 19-year-old. There are a lot of wild things that happened in MLS this past year, but that might be the wildest.

Adams was not perfect in 2018, as it was his error that led to the only goal in the CCL semifinal series against Chivas. But his improvement curve over both his young career and the course of this particular season was staggering, and his ability to morph into more than just a destroyer is one of the big reasons Chris Armas had the ability to morph his team into more than just a high-pressing juggernaut.

I can't wait to see how he adjusts to the Bundesliga.

Other arguments I'll listen to: Diego Chara, Portland Timbers

  • If Chara had played more than 50 percent of his minutes at d-mid, he probably gets the nod here. Make sure to see him in person when the Timbers swing through town next year, by the way – when he's in full flight, he's a sight to behold.

• Fullback of the Year: Kemar Lawrence, RBNY

Over his four-year MLS career we've, at times, seen Lawrence as an attacking force, able to push up and down the left flank, hit third-line passes, whip in low, useful crosses, and even take the occasional set piece. We've also seen him as an integral part of the defensive scheme the Red Bulls used from 2015 through 2017, whether they were playing out of a 4-2-3-1 or that weirdo 3-3-3-1 they put to such good use in 2017.

What he was in 2018 was different, and a level above all that. Lawrence's ability to not just own his flank – he is easily the best defensive LB in MLS, in the traditional sense – but also serve as a pseudo backstop with his ability to track back behind his own central defenders... the dude is a scheme-defining player in this league. Breakaways almost don't exist when he's on the field.

The way the Red Bulls pressed this year doesn't happen without a fullback like Lawrence. And there is only one fullback in the league like Lawrence.

Other arguments I'll listen to: Graham Zusi, Harrison Afful

  • You could say the same about SKC's attacking scheme – it doesn't work without a fullback like Zusi, and there's only one fullback like Zusi. But 1) the Red Bulls were better than SKC, and 2) there were times this year when Zusi was a liability defensively. So Lawrence gets the nod.
  • Afful could be here in perpetuity. He's maybe the foremost example of a two-way, modern, overlapping fullback.

• Breakout Player of the Year: Mauro Manotas, Houston Dynamo

This award is given to a player in his third year or beyond who evolves from "hey he's a pretty good player with potential and his hometown fans love him" to "wow, maybe everybody in the league should pay at least some attention here, because he's doing work."

Manotas put up 25g/2a in 37 games across all competitions. Did you know that?

Also, do you remember how he just freaking destroyed the Union in the Open Cup final, at home, to give Dynamo fans their first trophy in more than a decade?

Game over, man. Game over.

Dude's always been an xG machine, and this past year he found his finishing boots (and head – he actually learned how to head the ball). He was awesome, and if you're looking for a longshot, darkhorse team to back heading into 2019, you should consider the Dynamo.

Other arguments I'll listen to: Lucho Acosta, Aaron Long, Daniel Salloi

  • Acosta was the most entertaining player in the league for a solid two months, but was that sustainable? Even if it wasn't, 10g/17a is one hell of a blip.
  • Long won Defender of the Year for the second time in three seasons (he was USL Defender of the Year in 2016). You could make really, really good cases for either of these guys over Manotas.
  • Salloi has less of a case, but deserves a shout for coming into his own with 16g/8a across all competitions for that fun and high-powered SKC attack

• Acquisition of the Year: Wayne Rooney, D.C. United

There's more to this than just "of the new guys, who was the best player?" Last year, for example, I gave it to Tata Martino, since his acquisition as head coach did more than anything else to define who Atlanta United were.

And I think it's safe to say the same about Rooney in D.C. He was great in and of himself, as 12g/7a in 1641 minutes is David Villa-esque per-90 productivity. And Rooney, along with Russell Canouse, Bill Hamid and a home-heavy schedule, changed D.C. United from the last-place team in MLS to Knockout Round hosts. 

That "home-heavy schedule," though... man, I don't think those crowds exist like THAT without Wayne Rooney. I still don't have the words for this:

Every single game there felt like an event. It radiated through the screen.

In general I'm in favor of shopping for the Almirons of the world, but Rooney, like Villa before him, makes a really compelling pitch to keep the pipeline of early-30s world-class Euros flowing into the league.

Other arguments I'll listen to: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Bob Bradley, Tim Parker, Eric Remedi

  • Yes, Zlatan and the Galaxy choked on the last day. But he posted the best G+A per 90 in league history. That's not a good enough argument to win, but it's one I'll listen to.
  • Bradley's effect on LAFC was similar to Tata's with Atlanta last year, and LAFC actually had the better regular season.
  • Parker's acquisition gave RBNY an in-their-prime, athletic CB pair that was the league's best (and should continue to be)
  • Without Remedi I don't think Atlanta have the flexibility to become a sit-and-counter team. His ability to destroy in front of the CBs and then help launch counters allowed Tata to change things up for the playoffs.

• Best Coaching Adjustment of the Year: Tata goes to the counter

I think being a counterattacking team goes against how Tata wants to play, and it goes against how most of his players want to play. I think it took a lot of sacrifice from certain guys – a willingness to play more simple, and/or to come off the bench, and/or to play different/new positions. It was nowhere near as fun to watch as the high press they blitzed teams with in 2017, or the intricate possession game they played throughout the 2018 regular season.

But they got murdered by the Red Bulls whenever they tried to possess the ball against them, and needed to accept that fact. Some coaches (looking at you, Patrick Vieira) couldn't. Tata did.

Do Atlanta fans care that their team played ugly, regressive soccer en route to winning MLS Cup? A playoff run that included the second leg in Harrison during which they completed just 49 percent of their passes, literally the lowest completion percentage we've ever measured in any MLS game?

Nope! They care about "en route to winning MLS Cup." As they should.

Other arguments I'll listen to: None 


Best XI and Beyond

As usual I have a different take on the Best XI than the official one, largely because I take "could this be an actual team?" into consideration. I also factor in performance in domestic cups and the playoffs.

FIRST XI

GK: Stefan Frei
LB: Kemar Lawrence
CB: Aaron Long
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez
RB: Graham Zusi
DM: Tyler Adams
CM: Diego Chara
RW: Sebastian Blanco
AM: Miguel Almiron
LW: Ignacio Piatti
FW: Josef Martinez

SECOND XI

GK: Luis Robles
LB: Milton Valenzuela
CB: Chad Marshall
CB: Michael Parkhurst
RB: Harrison Afful
DM: Osvaldo Alonso
RM: Alejandro Bedoya
AM: Nicolas Lodeiro
LM: Alphonso Davies
FW: Bradley Wright-Phillips
FW: Wayne Rooney

THIRD XI

GK: Tim Melia
LWB: Edgar Castillo
CB: Tim Parker
CB: Walker Zimmerman 
CB: Matt Besler
RWB: Julian Gressel
DM: Ilie Sanchez
CM: Jonathan Osorio
AM: Lucho Acosta
FW: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
FW: Sebastian Giovinco

A few quick notes on the above:

  • As I said, I take the whole year – not just regular-season play – into consideration.
  • I chose a diversity of formations (4231 for the first team, 442 diamond for the second, 352 for the third), which is a semi-fair representation of the variety in MLS this past year. That said, it's still primarily a 4-2-3-1 league, with more than half the teams playing in that formation as their default.
  • The "whole year" thing is important when considering the two TFC guys on the third team. Remember how good Osorio and Giovinco were in the CCL? And then they went ahead and dominated the Canadian Championship as usual.
  • That said, I hate including guys from teams that didn't make the playoffs. Overall only six of the 33 players here missed the postseason.
  • Yes, that should tell you exactly how great Piatti's been for Montreal over the years. I hope he wins at least one trophy before he returns to Argentina.
  • Minutes matter. Including anyone with fewer than 2000 minutes on either of the first two teams makes me cringe – and yes, that should tell you exactly how great Rooney was for D.C.
  • Where there was any doubt, the player from the better team got the nod (which explains Parkhurst over Besler for the 2nd team).
  • I've gone this whole column without mentioning anyone from NYCFC except Villa, who's gone, and no one from FC Dallas except for Reggie Cannon. Both teams had really good point totals, and I could've made a case for Matt Hedges, Anton Tinnerholm, Maxi Moralez, Carlos Gruezo and Cannon. But it felt like all of them were somewhere between 4th and 8th best at their respective spots this season.
  • Carlos Vela, Wil Trapp, Remedi (too few minutes), Kaku, Diego Valeri, Cristian Roldan, Kim Kee-Hee, Damir Kreilach, Keegan Rosenberry, Borek Dockal, Zack Steffen, Manotas and a few others all got strong consideration.

And now I've had my say, and now 2018 is done. Head to the comments section below to give me your two cents, and I'll pop in from time to time over the next few days for some back-and-forth. Happy holidays, everybody!

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