And, pause. It's the only sustained break of the year, before MLS gets back into action for the second half of the season. Let's take a quick peek at each team at the Gold Cup break.
Will the South American Player of the Year show up? Pity Martinez has been playing for Atlanta United this year, but the dominant, award-winning, Copa Libertadores-champion 2018 version of Pity Martinez has not. The broader question for Atlanta is whether they can score enough goals. Part of that comes to tactics and style. But it also comes down to the big-money signing making plays when the moments arrive.
Can they overcome the goalscoring yips? The Fire are second in MLS in expected goals per game, yet only seventh in actual goals scored. A depressing amount of the misses have come in key moments in close games. One could muse about whether Bastian Schweinsteiger and Francisco Calvo is a sustainable center-back pairing, or if the outside backs are playoff-caliber, but everything else is pretty moot if you don’t score the ball when it’s on the doorstep.
MLS leaders in xGoals per 90 (minimum 700 minutes played, based on @AnalysisEvolved data):— Colin Etnire (@ColinEtnire) June 14, 2019
1. Zlatan Ibrahimović (0.92)
2. Carlos Vela (0.83)
3(t). Chris Wondolowski (0.72)
3(t). Nemanja Nikolić (0.72)
5. Dom Dwyer (0.70)
Not bad company for the @SJEarthquakes captain...
Who deserves to stay next year? FC Cincy could still make the playoffs, but it would probably require defending for their lives and hoping to steal goals. I can’t imagine that’s how the next permanent head coach will want to play moving forward. Going for short-term wins might be at odds with building a long-term future. I imagine interim manager Yoann Damet or whoever they hire will use the last 18 games to implement principles of play and see who grasps them.
Is it really that easy? The Rapids have gone from being a two-points-in-11-games team to a 13 points-in-five-games team… without making any huge player acquisitions along the way (compared to something like Portland's move for Brian Fernandez). Does trading for a decent center back and a fast winger and deciding to play on the counter really change that much? Is the potential swing within a group of players always that big? If the Rapids keep pushing into the playoff hunt, there’s going to be some serious postmortem work to be done from folks around the league.
Columbus Crew SC
What’s the midfield look like? Federico Higuain is out. They don’t have an obvious central playmaker replacement. It looks like Pedro Santos is going to get the job. Pedro Santos is not Pipa Higuain. How does Caleb Porter adjust? Will they press higher? Does he flip the triangle, and go with a single pivot behind two combative box-to-box players? And how does Artur, one of the brightest young midfielders in the league, get back into the lineup?
Is Lucho Acosta a star? When Acosta plays like a best XI player, D.C. United are an MLS Cup contender. When he doesn’t, they stumble. On top of that, reports suggest his contract expires at the end of the year. D.C. need to decide if he’s worth big-time money, or if they should move him on.
Do they have enough attacking talent? My eye test says Dallas are one of the best teams in the league. They are well-coordinated and play with conviction. But you can’t ignore the tale of the tape. Seattle have Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz; Portland have Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Brian Fernandez; the Galaxy have Zlatan; LAFC have Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi; Houston have Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas; Dallas have… Michael Barrios, Paxton Pomykal, Pablo Aranguiz and Jesus Ferreira. Are those four as good as the other attacking groups in the West? Maybe. But the burden of proof is on them.
Can they keep Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas through the secondary transfer window? The suitors already started inquiring about Elis over the offseason; Houston rebuffed them. It’s difficult to think that clubs aren’t lining up for Manotas, too. A 24-year-old center striker with a nose for goal and the power to blow by defenders generally garners a decent sum. I doubt Houston want to sell them, but there’s a number for everyone. The Dynamo, with Elis and Manotas, can play with anyone (especially in a single elimination game). Without them... it may be a very different story.
Can they maintain enough gas in the tank? This much is clear: If LAFC are healthy and fit, they have a better chance to win the American treble than any team before them. Their ownership should probably start to buy the champagne now to get the advance bulk rates. But we’ve also seen teams across the world get off to those types of starts and fizzle out. They run over everyone for the first few months of the year and then run out of gas or get injuries in the final third of the season. Bob Bradley needs to be diligent about planning his practice sessions and managing his players’ minutes.
Who provides the width? The Galaxy’s ideal lineup contains four center midfielders – Jonathan dos Santos, Joe Corona, Sebastian Lletget, and Favio Alvarez. Lletget might start on the right sometimes, but he prefers to tuck centrally. The fifth attacker, Uriel Antuna, likes to run behind (I’m not sure if he likes to run behind as much as the Galaxy need him to run behind since Zlatan Ibrahimovic prefers to check back into midfield). That leaves the wide play to the outside backs.
I suppose this question isn’t as much “who” provides the width as the more blunt question: “Are the people providing the width good enough?” Rolf Feltscher and Jorgen Skjelvik each dug themselves pretty deep MLS holes with their play last year. They’ve both been better this season, and I think they both have the talent to do it, but the jury is still out. If they can’t do it, the task moves to the 20-year-old left back Diedie Traore and 17-year-old right back Julian Araujo.
Minnesota United FC
Will Angelo Rodriguez and Darwin Quintero build an on-field relationship? It feels like watching Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston circa 2003. Separately, they were both wonderful to behold. You wanted their relationship to work because you knew how beautiful it could be. But it always looked forced when they were together. It’s been mostly the same for Rodriguez and Quintero. They have both looked better when the other hasn’t been on the field. Hopefully the recent U.S. Open Cup win over Sporting KC was the launching point. If it works, they could be dominant. If it doesn’t, the Loons could be left scrambling below the playoff line.
Can Ignacio Piatti finish his Montreal career with a bang? Piatti started the year with three goals in three games (to get to 100 goals + assists in his MLS career), then missed the next 10 games with an injury. He's out again now, with an expected layoff of 2-3 months. Truth is, Remi Garde might be able to patch the team together well enough to make the playoffs without Piatti. They have gone 6-5-2 when the Argentine has been out hurt. But it would be hollow, if not overshadowed, if Piatti doesn’t return to his normal self. "Nacho" has become such a big part of their organization that it would be tough to overcome the emotional letdown if he doesn’t return to form.
New England Revolution
Can Juan Agudelo actually play as a box-to-box midfielder? If you haven’t watched the Revs in the last couple years, yeah, this is actually a thing. Bruce Arena has turned "Swagudelo" into a hard-working, ground-covering, passing center mid. And Agudelo has been pretty dang good at it. He’s been effective at both shielding the back four and also helping the attack transition forward – the two elements the Revs’ midfield needed the most.
Who plays next to Alex Ring at center midfield in the 3-4-3 formation? Most of the season, it’s been Ebenezer Ofori or Tony Rocha. Ofori and Rocha provide the minivan options. They are solid defensively and conservative in their passing. But there’s also another option Dome Torrent could use, the top-down convertible option. Torrent could put Maxi Moralez next to Ring, and play Ismael Tajouri-Shradi on the right wing.
I can’t imagine Torrent is in a rush to mix things up at the moment – NYCFC are 5-0-3 in their last eight – but I’d say those results have been flattering. If the results do start to turn, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Torrent put the top down. Moralez doesn’t provide the defensive instincts of Ofori, but Tajouri-Shradi + Heber + Alexandru Mitrita with Moralez behind them... that’s sexy.
New York Red Bulls
Can they still force the game to be played on their terms? The reason the Red Bulls have won two Supporters’ Shields in four years is that they play the game a certain way, a way that others don’t like to play, and they could force that game onto the opposition. Whenever the Red Bulls met another top team in 2018 – whether it was LAFC or D.C. United or Atlanta United or Philadelphia or Sporting – the Red Bulls ran them off the field. People couldn’t hang.
This year, Chris Armas has attempted to add some new ideas. I think everything he’s done has been worthwhile – amid their success, they’ve still failed to win an MLS Cup. But it can only work if it’s added to what the Red Bulls already do well; they can’t lose their competitive edge. That edge has come and gone this year. They revived it against Dallas, Atlanta and Real Salt Lake. But they’ve also looked a little slow in other games. It’s TBD if they can do it as automatically as they used to be able to do.
Is Chris Mueller a legit star or just the occasional flash in the pan? Orlando have been playing well and James O’Connor has built a cohesive team, but you can’t ignore the talent gap the Lions have compared to Atlanta, D.C., Toronto, Chicago and NYCFC. With Dom Dwyer struggling, Sacha Kljestan getting aged out and Josue Colman heading back to Paraguay, Orlando need a non-Nani game-changer. (To take it one step further, the same could be said for the USMNT. Gregg Berhalter needs natural attackers. There isn’t anyone like Mueller on the Gold Cup roster.)
Who scores the big goal? It’s the same question that Philly had last year. The Union are good; that’s pretty clear at this point. But winning big games takes more than being good. It takes big moments. Who is the Union player who scores two goals against Atlanta on the road in October? Can Kacper Pryzbylko step into the role? Can Ilsinho maintain his form until then? Will Marco Fabian show up?
What happens when teams sit deep against them? The Timbers have 16 of their last 21 games at home. I can’t imagine many teams will go to Providence Park at this point and try to control possession. Portland will have to be the aggressor, which isn’t something they’ve shown they can do in the past year and a half. Their main competitors in the West – Houston, Colorado, Vancouver, RSL, and Minnesota – are all pretty good on the counter, too. I don’t quite have the guts to say Portland won’t make the playoffs, but I will say that if I were a coach going into Providence Park, I’d feel confident about my sit-and-counter plan.
Real Salt Lake
What’s at the root of the inconsistency? I’ve never followed a team and been so unsure of what to expect on any given night. In RSL’s last 35 regular-season games, 10 of them have been decided by three goals or more. RSL won five of those and lost five of them. They can beat anyone, as we saw in their victory at LAFC in last year’s playoffs, and they can lose to anybody. When they are good, you wouldn’t want to change anything about them. When they are bad, you want to cut the whole team. I struggle to dissect anything about the team given the coin flip of which RSL shows up.
San Jose Earthquakes
Will the man-marking system work as well after teams have seen it once? A big part of the effectiveness of Matias Almeyda’s man-marking defensive system is shock factor; nobody else in the league uses it, so the first time San Jose’s opponents see it, it catches them off guard. In the second half of the season, all of the Western Conference opponents will have already played the Quakes once. They won’t have the element of surprise in their favor anymore.
Can anyone replace Chad Marshall? Marshall’s defensive contributions were clear: The Sounders secured four shutouts in six playoff games en route to their MLS Cup win in 2016, then conceded the third-fewest goals in the regular season in 2017, then conceded the second-fewest goals in 2018. One would expect their defensive numbers to take a hit without the best defender in league history.
But Marshall was so good that he also improved their attacking output. The Sounders could send their outside backs + one defensive midfielder forward, leaving just three players behind the ball. All of those gorgeous overloads in the wide areas were because they could rely on Marshall to put out fires. Xavier Arreaga, the Sounders' new DP center back, might be good, but is he that good?
Sporting Kansas City
Can Matt Besler and/or Andreu Fontas stay healthy? The first iteration of this question read: Will the injury plague subside? But when you look at SKC’s roster, they actually have decent cover for everyone except Besler and Fontas. Missing that duo, though, makes everyone else look worse.
And it’s not that Botond Barath and Graham Smith can’t play center back in MLS, it’s that they can’t play it the way Besler and Fontas do; Besler and Fontas are fantastic passers, and SKC’s style depends on center backs who can pass from the back. SKC could probably survive with just one of Besler or Fontas, and the other could become the primary passer, but it’s tough to recover from losing both.
Do they have enough pace? In full disclosure, the key question for TFC probably revolves around Jozy Altidore’s health. It seems pretty clear that TFC are cooked if Jozy goes out with another long-term injury. But I don’t want to do injury concerns for back-to-back teams, so we are going to No. 2 on the Reds' checklist: Toronto might have the slowest starting XI in MLS (along with the Galaxy).
Toronto are so good at passing, the lack of speed is not always an issue. But we’ve already seen one team, RSL, squeeze the life out of Toronto’s midfield because they knew TFC couldn’t knock it over them. You would think teams will copy RSL’s approach. I’m not sure what they'll do to counter it.
Will Fredy Montero or Joaquin Ardaiz play like a DP? The ‘Caps might be the most split team in the league — they defend like Harry and attack like Ron. The defense turned from a liability to a strength. Marc Dos Santos was always going to focus on the team’s defending first. The early plan required elite attackers to make plays to create goals. They haven’t done that.
Vancouver have scored the fewest goals in the West; Montero only has two non-PK goals this year, and Ardaiz has yet to find the net. It’s a bit unfair to put the lack of goals on the strikers at this point, but it’s also not wrong to say they haven’t been as good as Vancouver have needed them to be, or that Vancouver would have more points if the strikers had been more clinical.