Armchair Analyst: NYCFC's surge & your Qs answered in the mailbag

Most of the deals that had been more than rumored – ones that were actually pursued – didn't get done before the close of the transfer window last night.

This is the way every year, in every window. Some deals get across the line, and many (most) do not.

But the balance tilted more heavily in the direction of "didn't get done" this year than I (and everyone else) expected, and I'm not sure why. Maybe the addition of a seventh playoff team in each conference creates less of a sense of urgency to make a needle-moving deal early in the season, or maybe the addition of discretionary TAM just made it harder to dot all the Is and cross all the Ts – you saw the hoops FC Dallas and D.C. United had to jump through with regard to Marquinhos Pedroso, right? Maybe teams are hesitant to add new, larger contracts to the books with the new CBA coming next year.

Maybe it's any/all of the above, or none of it. This is the kind of thing that'll become apparent only in hindsight.

Nonetheless, some deals got done earlier in the window. Of the new arrivals who've already made their bows, you could argue that nobody's had a bigger effect on their team's fortunes than New York City FC's Brazilian striker Heber.

In his four starts the Cityzens have gone 3-0-1. In their previous 22 games across all competitions they went 4-9-9. He has 2g/2a in his four games. The immediate dividends in terms of the standings, the boxscore and the eye test are all apparent.

This is from his first start and is the best example of what he's doing out there that's changed the game for his side:

He makes that diagonal run across the opposing backline about 30 times a game, and you can see that he drags defenders with him when he does it (which happens even when he doesn't get on the ball). That simple bit of movement opens up space underneath for NYCFC's other attackers; Alexandru Mitrita in this case, but also Maxi Moralez, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Taty Castellanos have all benefited from more room.

It's not anything complicated, and the intricate, ball-dominant build-ups of the Patrick Vieira truly are a thing of the past now. But simplicity often wins in this game, and having a mobile, unselfish, productive center forward who can run the channels, finish and link play is about the simplest starting point there is for building a winning team.

The other part of NYCFC's turnaround is that Heber has seemed to have a calming effect on head coach Dome Torrent. The head coach has now mostly stopped his "tear it down and rebuild it every single week" ways, sticking to a low-block, counterattacking 3-4-3 (that often plays as a 5-4-1) over the past three weeks. Having a spare center back has given them more solidity in a spot where they needed it, and it's been worth sacrificing the extra attacker since the wingbacks on both sides (but especially Anton Tinnerholm on the right) get forward to good effect.

That's meant less exposure in central midfield and off turnovers generally. It's an approach similar to what James O'Connor has used in Orlando to pull the Lions off the bottom of the standings, and it's paying dividends in both places so far.

Now let's take a few Qs:

Actually, yeah. They went 0-for-2018 on their signings and there's just no coming back from that on such a short timeframe, and then they went in the other direction for 2019 – they shopped local, and got some guys who I think will help in the short-term (Kei Kamara) and long-term (Diego Rubio and Keegan Rosenberry are good MLS players) on relatively cheap deals. They've also been promoting and playing their own academy kids (CM Cole Bassett's the best of them, but 19-year-old LB Sam Vines looks useful as well) and have been shrewd about picking up what I'd consider to be "distressed assets" in Kellyn Acosta and Jonathan Lewis(*).

(*) The Lewis deal hadn't officially been processed yet at the time of publication, but I'm pretty sure it's done.

Acosta is still just 23 and was a high-level starter on a team that won silverware. Lewis has 3g/5a in 775 MLS minutes, which is productive by any standard. Rubio, in ~3000 MLS minutes, has 18g/9a. Rosenberry's a fringe US international. Kamara's still scoring goals. The kids are alright.

This is a core for 2020 and beyond that makes sense on paper, and has delivered in this league before.

The next steps of the plan:

  1. Get out from under the 2018 contract albatrosses
  2. Find an actual d-mid and at least one very good CB
  3. Hire the right head coach

I'm sure Conor Casey will get a look – maybe it'll be him in the end. Maybe not.

Regardless, when you look at what a mess 2018 was, I'd argue that the direction they've taken in 2019 has made a ton of sense, up to and including the reported Benny Feilhaber deal (which netted them a young CB in Abdul Rwatubyaye). Got to tear down before you can rebuild entirely, but they're nonetheless acquiring the pieces for an effective, long-term group. 

Pretty easily Luchi Gonzalez, and not just because he's done my favorite thing (#PlayYourKids). He's freed up creative players to actually be more creative, rather than the very linear (and effective, mind you) style that they'd played under Oscar Pareja. He's gotten superb two-way form out of Carlos Gruezo, who'd been purely a destroyer to this point in his MLS career – and I think Dallas will profit (literally) from that. He's juggled injuries and underperforming veterans without any real backsliding, and I've also liked what I've seen of his ability to game-plan for and through an opponent (the counterattacking 5-4-1 at Atlanta was particularly inspired).

I think Gonzalez is a future USMNT manager.

In between the lede and this Q, the paperwork cleared on the Crew's acquisition of Philadelphia Union winger David Accam. In theory Accam is the high-level goalscoring winger Columbus need to bump their attack from "distressingly static and punchless" to "among the league's best," but that was the Union's theory when they acquired him before last season, and we all saw how that worked out.

That said, Accam's been excellent so far in 2019 with 4g/2a in 337 minutes, and should slot in perfectly as an inverted left winger (Justin Meram's old spot).

I think this move has the potential to help Columbus a ton. I'd actually have hesitated to make it if I was Philly, simply because I wouldn't have wanted to help a fellow Eastern Conference team.

LAFC have won just once in their past four, but that's an aberration. By the eye test and underlying numbers they're by far the best in the league, and are on track to become the best team in league history.

Through 11 games – 1/3 of the season – they're +17 in expected goals (per Opta) and +18 in actual goals. Last year's Red Bulls, those of the record-setting 71 points, were +18 and +29 over the course of a full season. The 2017, domestic treble-winning TFC side were +16 (expected goals) and a model-shattering +37.

I think LAFC will eclipse all those marks and win the Supporters' Shield if they stay mostly healthy. And remember: This is a group that's been playing most of the year without their starting No. 10 (Lee Nguyen) and their starting No. 9 (Adama Diomande). How many teams could withstand losses like that... and actually play better?

In the other direction, I think FC Cincinnati have a large hill to climb. It's tough to go better than 1 ppg as an expansion team, and so far they're finding that out.

Seattle are suddenly three deep at LB after reacquiring Joevin Jones, which is not something that happens with any sort of regularity in MLS. It's safe to assume one of Brad Smith or Nouhou Tolo isn't long for the Pacific Northwest.

Nothing's going to happen between now and the next transfer/trade window, which opens in mid-July. Best guess is that Nouhou – who's had European interest – is going to be shopped overseas, while Garth Lagerwey et al will be able to exercise the purchase option on Smith's loan.

That's just a guess, though. All three of these guys would have significant interest if they were shopped within the league, and to be honest all three are starting caliber.

Brian Schmetzer's got a good problem on his hands.

Further down the I-5, Gio Savarese also has a good problem. The acquisition of Argentinean attacker Brian Fernandez from Necaxa (reportedly for somewhere around $10 million, or roughly two Lucas Melanos) was the biggest at-the-wire move of this window, and suddenly the Timbers are spoiled for choice in the attack.

There are two options: A 4-2-3-1 with Fernandez at the right wing, Jeremy Ebobisse up top, Diego Valeri underneath as the 10 and Sebastian Blanco at left wing. This makes sense because Ebobisse's been productive, while Valeri and Blanco would get to play their natural roles.

I'd argue that it also puts Fernandez in his best role. In the Apertura he played 15 games, primarily as a center forward, and grabbed 4g/2a. In the Clausura he's been primarily a right winger (though he's also played a bit as a second forward in a 4-4-2) and, in 15 games, has grabbed 12g/3a.

But the Timbers pointedly referred to him as a forward in their press release – not a winger, or a midfielder, or even the generic "attacker" – which points pretty obviously toward the other option.

It'll be interesting to see where this ends up. It is, as I said at the start, a good problem for Savarese to have, especially since the Timbers are already on a roll and looking like they've solved the defensive issues that bordered on a crisis at the start of the season.


And that's it for this 'bag. Thanks for the Qs and my apologies to those of you I didn't get to. Talk soon!

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