Armchair Analyst: A massive mid-preseason MLS mailbag

Preseason results don't mean that much. But they also don't mean "nothing," and I'd say that this week, in particular, is the week that you should begin actually caring somewhat about what your favorite team's preseason results are.

This is especially true of the five teams – Atlanta, RBNY, TFC, SKC and Houston – who will take part in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League, which starts in a week. With that in mind, let's dive into our first mailbag of the year:

I don't think it's precisely true to say that "everyone" is counting the Dynamo out, but it's natural to expect them to be something of an afterthought given that they missed the playoffs last year by putting together a regular season of mentally weak, chronically disinterested soccer. Nobody was worse in the last 10 minutes of games:

This table was compiled by u/tavi805 of /r/MLS. Houston just didn't have the will to see the game through.

On top of that, their most dynamic (if not necessarily their "best" player), Alberth Elis, spent at least part of this offseason pining for a European sale.

That's not the greatest mix in the world, and I suspect it's easy to see why folks would be/should be/are at least a little bit skeptical of Houston's chances. Not all critics are haters.

With all of the above as a giant caveat, let me offer this: I actually kind of like Houston's chances to be a 2015 Impact-style darkhorse. They're a very similar team – sit deep and counter with blazing speed and a match-winning winger. Elis has the talent to not only be Houston's unquestioned best player, but also the next eight-figure transfer out of MLS. Want to earn that cash and cred? Best place to do it is on the continental stage in the quarterfinals against Tigres UANL, the biggest-spending team in North America.

Juan David Cabezas is, as you said, one of the biggest keys. They're very high on fellow d-mid Matias Vera, a new arrival. Together, they should be able to lock things up in the middle.

Of course, none of that will matter if the central defense is as, um, questionable as it appears on paper. Kiki Struna has already gotten himself red carded once this preseason and has the disciplinary record of someone who'd be a liability in certain CCL situations, while Maynor Figueroa's expiration date came and went sometime back in 2015.

You can't bunker-and-counter effectively if you can't defend in your own area, and right now that's my biggest concern – easily! – for the Dynamo. There is a good chance Gignac will feast.

Ok, this guy's counting the Dynamo out. Fair enough, Ivan.

On paper Atlanta's got the best team in the league, and are the biggest preseason favorites since the 2011 Galaxy. Given they've got guys with a certain level of international knowhow as well, I'm not all that concerned about their on-field CCL learning curve.

What I am at least somewhat concerned about is Frank de Boer's approach. Open, fluid, possession-heavy soccer is often punished in Concacaf. Herediano, who they'll face in the Round of 16, probably aren't good enough to punish that. Monterrey, who they'll face in the quarters should both teams make it (they will), most certainly are.

You're right that Toronto are a team in flux without Giovinco, and that the Red Bulls look yet again to be one high-level attacking piece short. That said, it wasn't just the Giovinco Show last year for the Reds, and maybe Omir Fernandez can break through in a big way for the Red Bulls. Or perhaps the new guy, Mathias Jorgensen, will waltz right into the side and make a difference.

I think you're wrong on SKC as they have plenty of depth pretty much everywhere. What they don't have – stop me if you've heard this one before – is a match-winning No. 9. Eighth time is the charm, I suppose.

They've already spent a lot of it. Go check out this Q&A Peter Vermes did with The Blue Testament about the way the Sporting roster is constructed. Here is a revealing snippet:

Vermes did qualify there is a reason Sporting KC have been able to have so many players over the max budget charge when last year’s salary budget was just over $4 million (the nine players in question made $8,725,859.78 last year).

“To be fair,” Vermes continued, “the reason why we can do that is because we’ve also I think made some really good deals with other teams where we continue to find ways to accumulate more money. TAM (Targeted Allocation Money), GAM (General Allocation Money), what have you, which allows us to have more of those players at that mid-level salary.”

That's what I mean about SKC having plenty of depth. We saw it last year as they actually improved in September and October, and I don't think things will be any different this year despite the increased workload demanded by their CCL participation.

I just worry about their finishing. I remain kind of shocked they haven't gone all-in on a guy who puts the ball in the net. I think it could cost them multiple titles this year.

They've wagered quite a bit that they'll be able to replace Adams with the combined contributions of Venezuelan U-20 international Cristian Casseres and D.C. United Homegrown Jean-Christophe Koffi (whose rights they traded for last year). Holdover Marc Rzatkowski might get some minutes in Adams's role as well.

This is a very good thing. If I was a Red Bulls fan this would make me happy. Say what you want about developing and selling your best players within the league and outside of it – at least it's an ethos.

When this team moves on from the likes of Sacha Kljestan or Dax McCarty or Tyler Adams, it's not a surprise and it's not a mystery what comes next. The Red Bulls are who they are in terms of that regard, and it should surprise no one if they sell Casseres or Koffi for a few million dollars 12-to-24 months from now. Hell, I'll be more surprised if they don't.

As for "looking to improve..." they need a winger(*) who can win them a game. Maybe that's Jorgensen or Fernandez. Maybe Daniel Royer has another gear (I don't think so). If they have that guy and Casseres/Koffi's up to the job of replacing Adams, this team will once again be right there with Atlanta United.

If they don't have that guy, they'll still make the playoffs. But last year's record-setting regular season will feel very, very far away.

(*) Or maybe a center forward. Bradley Wright-Phillips is about to turn 34 and slumped badly during the second half of last season and into the playoffs. It's not unlikely that 2018 was his last great year.

Let's leave the CCL behind for a bit and move to one of the most interesting teams coming into 2019, thanks to a front office change (Earnie Stewart to Ernst Tanner), a tactical change (possession to press) and a formation change (4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 diamond). Of course all of the above has come with an apparent upgrade in attack, as both Sergio Santos and Marco Fabian were high-profile gets by Philly's standards.

If literally everything clicks – if Santos is worth the money and Fabian is healthy; if the diamond highlights Haris Medunjanin's passing as much as it highlights Alejandro Bedoya's and Derrick Jones's two-way play and field coverage; if the young center backs make a huge leap to Parker/Long level and the two new fullbacks hold their own – then I can see a path for Philly into the top three in the East. This could be a 60-point team.

This could also be a 35-point team. Fabian could get hurt, Santos could be a dud and the diamond could be too narrow to be effective. Medunjanin could get old, or the CBs could prove to be too young to play with so much space behind them. Every conceivably good idea they bet on this winter could, in the end, be a bad one.

I think only the Fire have a greater gap between their ceiling and floor. Almost nothing with the Union, in terms of where they finish, would surprise me

Yes. To be clear: Bastian Schweinsteiger should be used as a No. 8 in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. Put him in central midfield with Dax McCarty and Djordje Mihailovic, and with solid young players like Brandt Bronico, Mo Adams and Jeremiah Gutjahr as back-ups... I love that midfield depth chart. I like (not love) their front line. They'll get a lot of the ball, and they'll score goals.

I am perplexed by their backline. If I was a Fire fan, I'd be beyond "perplexed" and more toward "apoplectic." They look very much like they can be bullied in the middle (MLS is still filled with giant, physically dominant center forwards) and very much like they'll be naive out wide.

But maybe it all works! The defense doesn't have to be perfect – that attack is going to score a million goals as long as Schweinsteiger stays healthy and Veljko Paunovic doesn't tinker his team into a lack of chemistry – they just have to mostly hold together as they did in 2017. It's conceivable.

If the conceivable becomes the reality, then the Fire really could be a 60-point team. You're laughing, but they were a 55-point team two years ago and this current side is more talented in attack.

Just as conceivable, though, is that a few of the over-30 crowd miss significant time due to injuries, and the defense never clicks, and goalkeeper continues to be an issue, and everything compounds into Wooden Spoon-worthy misery.

My guess is it doesn't get quite that bad. But yeah... worry about that defense.

With three weeks left in the preseason it looks like 19-year-old Homegrown Paxton Pomykal has the inside position in the race to be FC Dallas's No. 10. I don't love Pomykal as a No. 10 – I think he's better as a winger – but he recognizes space quickly, has good feet, and is a very mobile very good two-way player. That matters to a team that's expected to press, and plays away from Pablo Aranguiz's strengths.

Jesus Ferreira and Brandon Servania are a little bit down the depth chart at forward and defensive midfield, respectively. I'm actually curious to see if they spend the first half of the season with North Texas SC, FCD's new USL team, just to get them a bunch of reps. If that happens, Ferreira might score 300 goals by July.

The thing to keep an eye on with regard to Servania: What happens to Carlos Gruezo in the summer transfer window? There has been significant, long-standing interest in the Ecuadorian international, and my hunch is that Dallas want to get Servania a dozen USL starts this spring, then sell Gruezo in the summer. That would potentially open a spot in the XI.

But right now the takeaway is this: Pomykal is probably a starter unless he blows it in the next three weeks.

This might be a make-or-break question for FC Cincinnati, who have shockingly few true attackers, a million d-mids and two million defenders. On top of all that, whispers out of their camp suggest that head coach Alan Koch has already decided to toss some of the team's tactical foundation from the first three weeks of preseason.

So I don't know what's the best formation or approach to get the most out of Emmanuel Ledesma and Fanendo Adi. I don't know if they have the right personnel around those guys to make sure the 3-4-3 isn't a really disconnected 5-4-1, or that the 4-3-3 isn't a bunkered up 4-5-1. I don't know if they have the cap or roster flexibility to fix the things that might go wrong.

In terms of recent expansion sides, this group looks much more like Minnesota United than LAFC or Atlanta.

Absolutely. Both a national team-caliber players (though neither's a starter IMO), and both are great locker room guys, and both are just entering their prime, and both have contributed to an MLS Cup win, and both would command similar salaries on the international market. I get some of the skepticism about Morris's contract – he's been injured most of the last two years, and he's not going to be playing his natural position of center forward this season – but the negative reaction in some quarters to Roldan's was laughable. Anybody who's seen him play should know he's worth what the Sounders gave him.

Now they'll need him to prove it, because let's face it: deep midfield is his now that Ozzie Alonso is gone. My biggest question about the Sounders isn't Morris's health or Chad Marshall's. It's whether or not Roldan can do the job of bossing central midfield for 90 minutes at a time, week after week.

He has to be more than just a good player now. He has to be absolutely miserable to play against. I think he's got it in him.

First of all, it's more than two. Second of all...

I've maintained all along that the Timbers can make a larger gross and marginal improvement by adding a DP winger rather than center forward, but all the reporting I've read, and all the leaks out of that front office say they are absolutely fixated on getting a DP No. 9 to lead the line. I doubt that urge will dissipate even as they move onto Plan D.

(Ed. note: This was written on Tuesday. On Tuesday night, Univision Deportes and ESPN reported that the Timbers have made a bid for Tigres and Chile striker Eduardo Vargas.)

Like many Timbers fans who got in my mentions, I am somewhat surprised at the shape of the team's offseason – there have been no truly noteworthy additions (though there's some indication that Claude Dielna is expected to start at center back). Chemistry and cohesion are generally undervalued traits with regard to team-building, so I'm not convinced this has been a bad offseason.

But the clock's ticking on the era of the two Diegos, and they're maybe just a piece away from capping it with a second trophy of some sort. They know that, and so big move (or two) is coming.

And we'll end with this one.

For the record, I like what Padraig Smith and Anthony Hudson have done this offseason as they attempt to dig themselves out of an avalanche of bad signings from last winter. They went hard on MLS-proven vets like Benny Feilhaber, Kei Kamara and Clint Irwin, while opportunistically snagging younger vets like Keegan Rosenberry and Diego Rubio (a process they began last year when they grabbed Kellyn Acosta midseason). They will not, in 2019, be caught off-guard by the travel, the various climates, the different types of turf or the speed/quality/intensity of the league.

There is real MLS knowhow in this roster now.

There is also youth and potential. Acosta is still relatively young, as is Kortne Ford, as is Andre Shinyashiki. Homegrowns Cole Bassett, Sam Vines and Matt Hundley are all truly young. You don't have to look hard to see a good core – one that'll last a few years, with potentially a few high-dollar transfer coups along the way.

But this year is too soon to expect it to materialize into a winner. The questions at goalkeeper, center back and d-mid are huge. The decision to cast Nicolas Mezquida (four assists in five years!!!!!) as the No. 10 is bizarre. Kamara and Ford are both hurt already. The cap remains a mess. Hudson may not be an MLS-caliber head coach.

It'll be a better year than last year, and you won't have to squint too hard to see still better years coming on the horizon. But keep your hopes and expectations reasonable for 2019.

That said, both Bobby Warshaw and David Gass picked the Rapids to make the playoffs this season on Monday's ExtraTime:

Listen to the latest episode:

Rapids 2019! Feel the hype!

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