Wayne Rooney - DC United - May 15, 2019
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Wiebe: The four biggest storylines for the rest of the 2019 MLS season

MLS is back. Did you miss it?

We had to make due with a truncated league slate in Week 16, but it’s back to the grind this week as the remainder of the regular season looms. I’ll have your Five Questions for Week 17 come Friday morning. On Tuesday, we’re talking storylines, the narrative rails on which the remainder of the 2019 campaign will rumble along.

I could go micro here, but I’m not Matt Doyle and nobody’s got time for 6,000 words on a Tuesday morning. So macro it is – four overarching story arcs that will define the 2019 big picture in Major League Soccer, at least until the new playoff format throws a wrench in all those well-laid plans.

Can LAFC and Carlos Vela make history?

Vela and his teammates celebrate another goal | USA Today Sports Images

In 2017, Toronto FC set a new MLS record for points with 69. That was nice, but the 2018 New York Red Bulls (71 points) were even better. This year’s LAFC squad are on pace to blow the MLS records for single-season success out of the water.

Here are the benchmarks, in case you forgot, from last year’s race for history between the Red Bulls and Atlanta United.

Most points: 71 (2018 RBNY)
Points per game: 2.13 (1998 LA Galaxy)
Most wins: 22 (2018 RBNY)
Best goal differential: +41 (1998 Galaxy)

Below is how LAFC would end the season if their current pace held. I’m no mathematician; this is not an exact science and I’m not rounding. It’s just to give you a feel for LAFC’s supremacy through 16 games and what it would mean to the league record book if they keep it up.

Points: 78.54 (record)
Points per game: 2.31 (record)
Wins: 23.38 (record)
Goal differential: 55.25 (record)

The eye test confirms what the numbers tell us. Bob Bradley and John Thorrington built something utterly dominant. Thanks to Andre Horta’s move back to Portugal, they’ve now got another Designated Player slot to work with as well. More on that in a second.

Since we’re extrapolating out LAFC’s collective success, we might as well do the same for Carlos Vela’s individual brilliance.

Cracklitos has 16 goals and 10 assists in 16 games. In a word, absurd. Josef Martinez set the single-season goal record just last year with 31, a record I figured would be safe for at least a couple years. Maybe not.

Should Vela’s pace hold, he’d end the season with 34 goals and 21.25 assists. Let’s say 34 and 21 to make it nice and clean. That’s not just a new single-season goal record. It would be, by far, the most productive attacking season in league history.

Sebastian Giovinco holds the goals scored and created record for a single season with 38 back in 2015 (22 goals, 16 assists). Only Giovinco has ever hit the 20-goal, 15-assist threshold in MLS. Only Carlos Valderrama and Sacha Kljestan have dished out 20 assists. Vela, should his pace hold, would go for 55 combined. It’d say that’s preposterous, but…

“The great players in all sports rewrite everything,” Bradley said earlier this year. All eyes will be on Vela and LAFC to see if that’s true through October and beyond.

Biggest signing (or sale/trade) in the summer?

Wayne Rooney at his D.C. United unveiling | USA Today Sports Images

Here’s the haul (highlights only) from summer 2018…

Here are some names from summer 2017: Paul Arriola and Russell Canouse (DC), Tomas Martinez (HOU), Jonathan dos Santos (LA), Samuel Piette (MTL), Dom Dwyer and Yoshi Yotun (ORL), Larrys Mabiala and Bill Tuiloma (POR), Kelvin Leerdam and Victor Rodriguez (SEA).

All of which is to say, difference-makers are coming to Major League Soccer. Some might be departing as well, if the offers are good enough.

Those players can change the complexion of a club, and by extension the league. MLS’s secondary transfer window opens on July 9. The rumor mill is going to be out of control in the best possible way, especially with Nashville and Miami (!!!) in the mix.

Which non-playoff teams could jump above the line?

Portland's Brian Fernandez | USA Today Sports Images

Will this year’s version of 2018 D.C. United – or Seattle Sounders, all due respect – please stand up? As of June 25, 2018, Ben Olsen’s team were dead last in MLS on 10 points. Seattle were hovering just above the basement on 12.

How’d they end up? Pretty good, you might remember, thanks in large part to the arrivals of Wayne Rooney and Raul Ruidiaz in the summer transfer window. As for everyone else below the playoff line this time last year, tough luck – perhaps of their own making – and an early offseason.

Like D.C. and the Sounders, someone is going to make a run. There’s plenty of opportunity to do so, especially with another postseason spot up for grabs. It’s worth noting that had seven teams made the playoffs last year, the Montreal Impact and the LA Galaxy would have snuck into the field as well.

Through Week 16, no club is more than eight points out of the playoff field. The gap in the Western Conference is even tighter: Just four points separate Real Salt Lake in seventh and the Colorado Rapids in 12th. Everyone has reason to believe, with varying degrees of credibility, that they’ll be this year’s second-half darling.

I’ve ranked the 10 teams most likely to make the jump. It’s an inexact science, but here we go. Remember, if one goes up, one must come down…

  1. Portland Timbers – Home-field advantage + games in hand + Brian Fernandez = playoff team
  2. San Jose Earthquakes – They’re hard to play against. Don’t bet against Matias Almeyda.
  3. Chicago Fire – They have enough talent, though that didn’t matter last year.
  4. Sporting Kansas City – Can you tell that I think the West is deeper? If Sporting get healthy…
  5. Orlando City – Consistently inconsistent! Maybe Nani can drag them there.
  6. Vancouver Whitecaps – Can they get more from their attackers? If yes, maybe playoffs!
  7. New England Revolution – Add another Carles Gil type, and I’m moving ‘em up past Orlando.
  8. Colorado Rapids – I reallllllly want to believe, but that backline still makes me nervous.
  9. Columbus Crew SC – Season is slipping away. Unless they make a huge summer splash…
  10. FC Cincinnati – Too much to ask in Year 1. They’ve lost 10 of 11 games, by the way.

Most likely to go from good to great in the East?

The Philadelphia Union aim to become East elites | USA Today Sports Images

First things first, are there any “great” teams in the Eastern Conference right now? Not just better than the rest. I’m talking truly great.

I suppose Philadelphia could count given their top-of-the-table position, but they’ve also got just one more win than Atlanta and Montreal and their best wins are home against the Red Bulls (best performance of the season), Montreal and FC Dallas. They are good, no doubt. To me, they haven’t yet proved they’re great. That may yet come.

To simplify this exercise, here are the tiers, modeled after Matt Doyle’s season preview format, which was stolen from Zach Lowe. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

The Alphas (Unquestioned top dogs)

  • Doyle’s preseason picks: RBNY, ATL
  • My picks, through Week 16: None

The Contenders (Good but not yet great)

  • Doyle’s preseason picks: DC
  • My picks, through Week 16: PHI, ATL, RBNY, NYC

The Playoff Pack (Safely in the playoff picture)

  • Doyle’s preseason picks: MTL, CLB
  • My picks, through Week 16: MTL, DC

The Bubble (This could all fall apart, or it could work out…)

  • Doyle’s preseason picks: PHI, CHI, NYC, TOR
  • My picks, through Week 16: TOR, CHI, ORL, NE

Open Questions (Not where you want to be!)

  • Doyle’s preseason picks: ORL, NE, CIN
  • My picks, through Week 16: CLB, CIN

For the purposes of this question, I’m defining “good” as Contenders or the Playoff Pack. That means there are six teams, in my mind, that could go from good to great. Let’s rank them in reverse order of the likelihood of that happening…

6. Montreal Impact – Great on their day, but not at the level of the rest of the East elite. Let’s revisit this when/if Nacho Piatti is back to full strength. Home-heavy slate the rest of the way could make this take look dumb.

5. D.C. United – There’s something missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Ben Olsen has a good team, no doubt, but the highs of late summer/fall 2018 may not come to pass this year.

4. New York Red Bulls – Doubt the Red Bulls at your own peril. That slow start (for the club and Bradley Wright-Phillips) brought the doubters out in droves. Chris Armas wasn’t happy about it, and his team started reeling off results. Still some questions remain: Will Michael Murillo be sold? Can Brian White carry the goalscoring load? Will Kaku stay engaged and produce in big moments? Will Kemar Lawrence stay healthy?

3. New York City FC – They’ve lost just one game all season, tied with LAFC for fewest in MLS. Heber changed the attack. Maxi Moralez is an elite chance creator. They’re experienced and balanced in midfield and on the backline. They need to get more from Alexandru Mitrita (two goals in his last three games) and Jesus Medina (buried on the bench). They’ve got the potential to be great if Dome Torrent can get the best from the group.

2. Philadelphia Union – I was tempted to drop them. Then I remembered they haven’t gotten much from Marco Fabian yet – long live Ilsinho, king of the No. 10s – and Andrew Wooten might just bring some consistency in front of goal. If they play like they did in the second half against the Red Bulls two weeks ago, I’m ready to say this team can be great.

1. Atlanta United – Groan all you want. They’ve got the best goalscorer in the conference, the best defense and Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco ready to break out. Frank de Boer got a lot of criticism for the Five Stripes’ slow start, but I think they’ll be on top come Decision Day presented by AT&T.

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