We are four weeks into the season. It’s certainly too early to make any sweeping assertions. I’m not sure about anything at this point. But I’m also not too vain to say that I have some random bold thoughts bouncing around my head (it’s sports!). It’s usually safer to keep those things to oneself, but screw it (it’s sports, after all!). These things are fun to talk about. Here are five bold statements that I think might be true after the first four weeks of the season.
- Bobby Warshaw
I’m just here to tell Bobby if his thoughts are dumb.
- Matt Doyle
Nico Gaitan will be to the Fire what Nico Lodeiro has been to the Sounders.
BW: Remember 2016, when the Seattle Sounders started the year 6-12-3, then went on an 8-2-3 run to finish the regular season and ended up winning MLS Cup? In between those two things, Nico Lodeiro showed up. Since the arrival of the left-footed, versatile, Uruguayan international attacking midfielder, the Sounders have consistently competed for trophies.
The Chicago Fire have their own left-footed, versatile, Argentine international attacking midfielder on the way. And Nico Gaitan’s resume is equal to, if not better than, Lodeiro’s. There’s no reason to believe Gaitan, who is only a year older than Lodeiro, couldn’t have the same impact on his club. (Okay, maybe the Fire’s defense is the reason. Lodeiro had Chad Marshall and Stefan Frei behind him. Those pieces help en route to an MLS Cup. But Gaitan himself could be just as great as Lodeiro).
MD: Not dumb, per se, but not exactly a perfect comparison for Gaitan in terms of what he’ll bring to the Fire (he definitely won’t control the game as much as Lodeiro does for Seattle), and I don’t love it as a comparison in terms of providing the Fire what they need.
Gaitan should provide an immediate boost to the attack (which has looked pretty good despite some disappointing finishing), and that’ll be nice. I think he’ll also give Veljko Paunovic the excuse he needs to switch to a 3-5-2, with Djordje Mihailovic becoming the No. 8 and Bastian Schweinsteiger moving to sweeper.
Maybe Darwin Quintero’s a better comparison in terms of how Gaitan will impact the team?
FC Cincinnati have a chance to change how clubs build their rosters.
BW: Remember this past offseason, when everyone was mocking FC Cincinnati’s roster building? They had compiled too many defensive midfielders, people said. (For the record, they have fewer (5) than the Portland Timbers had on their roster (6) in 2018.) They didn’t have enough attacking talent, people said. Four weeks into the season now, FCC sit second in the East.
Maybe FCC weren’t noobs. Maybe they were ahead of the game. They were never going to bring in a Carlos Vela or Sebastian Giovinco this season. If you can’t sign one of those players, you have to find a different competitive advantage. Sporting Kansas City have used continuity and consistency of a core group. The Red Bulls have used intense pressing.
FCC appear to have found another route: center backs who can clear the crap out of headers, multiple players who can dominate set pieces, a solid team culture, and a few undervalued attackers who can crush it on the break. It hasn’t exactly been the La La Land of soccer performances so far, but it’s a clear plan that’s worked to this point.
Maybe instead of wondering what FCC were doing, we should wonder what X number of other teams have been doing?
MD: It’s waaaaay too early to make anything close to a definitive statement here, but it was clear from the off that FCC were prioritizing solidity and locker room chemistry in how they built their roster. Obviously the early returns are impressive.
Just being hard to play against is a good identity for an expansion team and that’s what FCC are at the moment. Add a playmaker like Kenny Saief falling into their laps, and I think the fans should be happy.
We should think about Toronto in the top tier of the East again.
BW: Jozy Altidore's back, and he looks like he means business. Michael Bradley’s league form has improved. Jonathan Osorio is hitting his prime. Drew Moor is fit and ready to refocus the leaky backline. Justin Morrow is healthy again, too. And Alejandro Pozuelo should bring some juice. Add in the TBD winger that they are planning to bring in. Not to mention the redwood this team has on its shoulder. Toronto FC have already grinded out a couple results and shown they aren’t going to back down from a fight this year.
Toronto might not be their 2018-level good again, but I’d be worried if I were anyone else in the East.
MD: No way will I trust this team to be a top tier Eastern Conference side until they prove that they can defend without tripping over each other every time down the field. It’s 12 solid months of lamentable defensive play from TFC, and none of the new additions help with that.
And here’s the thing: Pozuelo will make this team prettier and more dangerous, and Osorio continues to play well, so both those guys have to start. So does Bradley… but Bradley, in terms of defensive presence and field-coverage, isn’t what he was two years ago.
This group might score 70 goals. They might give up 70, too.
Nacho Piatti is the league MVP and it's not even close.
BW: MVP = Most Valuable Player.
Valuable, as in what you offer your team, as in what your team would be without you. We covered this one on ExtraTime last week after Nacho Piatti joined the 100 Club:
Here’s the exercise: Take whatever player you’re thinking might be MVP — take that player off his team — does that team still have a chance to make the playoffs?
Maybe Piatti is not the most outstanding player. That’s fine. But can we all just agree that he’s the most valuable to his team? Any conversation about league MVP needs to have an BNP (But Nacho Piatti) in parenthesis by it.
MD: If that’s how we’re defining the award (and for what it’s worth, I prefer “Player of the Year” rather than “MVP”) then the five most important players in MLS are, in order:
I spit hot fire!
D.C. United are the best defensive team in the league.
BW: The numbers make a pretty compelling case on their own: D.C. United are the only team yet to concede a goal in 2019. But it’s more than that. Teams usually have one bread and butter way to defend — pressing, mid block, deep block, etc. Ben Olsen’s group can do all of them. They press for a few minutes, then they drop back into their own half for a few minutes, then go press again.
They switch back and forth depending on the situation, and look well drilled and comfortable in all of them. I’m not sure where they could be vulnerable. There’s a concern that the individual defenders might not continue to perform at the same elite level they have through the first three games, but I’m also pretty sure the tactical preparation has both helped with it and could cover up for it.
So yeah, D.C. United might be the best defensive team in the league.
MD: I’m actually not gonna push back against this one – I think Bobby’s probably right, especially since the Red Bulls have lost some of their identity and since Sporting KC have sacrificed a bit of their defensive solidity in pursuit of a little more quality distributing from the back.
One thing I want to emphasize here is how much D.C.’s improved central midfield play and fullback play have helped shield what isn’t, on paper, one of the league’s most intimidating center back duos. Bobby’s right to praise Ben Olsen’s ability to use different schemes, but let’s also dap up the United front office for bringing in the types of players who can be high functioning in all of them.