Armchair Analyst: Massive midweek, mid-year MLS Q&A

First, please start with Tuesday's Mass Confrontation, in which Bobby Warshaw and I ask the big questions about each of the six midweek games:

Now... It's been a long white since we've sat down together for a Q&A, which means the time is ripe for you guys to shout Twitter questions at me and for me to do my level best in answering them.

Let's start here, since 2019's first El Trafico is on Friday (10 pm ET; ESPN, TSN2 — Full TV & streaming info):

For those who don't know:

  1. Sterling is a Quakes fan, so he reeeeeeally liked asking this question, and
  2. In 2017 FC Dallas pretty infamously melted down, falling from first to out of the playoffs entirely under a haze of bad body language and bad soccer

And that has been the tale of the tape for the Galaxy since the start of May. They've gone 4-7-0 in MLS play since then – about 1/3 of the season at a sub-40-point pace. It's not quite as bad as they were in 2017 when they "won" the Wooden Spoon, but this group has nonetheless been much closer to that sort of performance than they've been to "hey, we're a playoff team" week-over-week competence.

Then you look at the schedule, and it gets worse. On Friday they play LAFC, then they go to Portland, to Atlanta, and to D.C. United in the subsequent three weeks. By mid-August, things could be real bad, and then with games against Dallas and the second El Trafico wedged between a home-and-home against Seattle, then capped off by a trip to Colorado... by September this could be an honest-to-goodness crisis.

I don't think it'll get to that point, though. FC Dallas were a good and talented team who'd won the previous season's Supporters' Shield and U.S. Open Cup, then put together a nice run in the Concacaf Champions League. But as good and talented as they were, they were sooooo talented that they could drop their level five percent. They had to be more than the sum of their parts.

The Galaxy... don't. They're playing ugly, one-dimensional soccer right now, and it's getting less effective by the week, but I still think they have enough talent out there to just brute force a solution. They have at least one player (and maybe several more coming) who can just go out there and win a game all by himself.

I think that'll happen often enough over the next two months for the Galaxy to avoid a third-straight season outside the playoffs, and a second-straight almighty end-of-year collapse.

But also: This team is nowhere near as good as I thought they'd be, or as they should be. So I'm not going to entirely rule it out.

FC Dallas are one of the teams out in the West that look to be in some significant danger of dropping below the playoff line, and while there are myriad factors – they are damn near helpless without Paxton Pomykal; the defense conceded multiple goes in six of nine games from early May to late June; injuries and international absences stretched the roster paper thin – the problem in Frisco in 2019 is the same one they've had basically every other year this decade: They are not getting the kind of elite, front-line production a top team truly needs.

It starts at the No. 9 spot, of course. Jesus Ferreira has filled in admirably, but 1) it's not clear the 18-year-old is actually a No. 9, and 2) his .32 goals per 90 is not exactly the stuff that dreams are made of. Ferreira's a trooper, and he's going to get better in the coming years, but he's not there yet.

I bet, in the winter – as did Dallas – that last year's change of scenery and this year's full preseason would boost Dom Badji from an inconsistent and expendable afterthought to a reliable, mid-tier MLS No. 9. If you can score nine goals for Colorado, you could score 12-15 for Dallas, right?

Looks like that's wrong. Badji missed some sitters at the start of the season and has spent most of the rest of the year on the wing (to Badji's credit, he's actually slightly overperforming his xG, with five goals on 4.68 xG, and always puts in 100% effort no matter where he's played. I still believe in you, Dom Badji!). So he's not the answer, and neither is offseason TAM acquisition Zdenek Ondrasek, who has no goals or assists in 192 minutes and appears to be behind Badji, Ferreira and 16-year-old Ricardo Pepi on the center forward depth chart right now.

So yeah, personnel is an issue. Dallas's player development has been excellent, but their recruitment has been poor, and that doesn't just apply to No. 9s as both Santiago Mosquera and Pablo Aranguiz (two HUGE pieces who were supposed to be attacking difference-makers, but haven't been) have been disappointments by any realistic measure. FCD have spent a lot importing attacking players in the past three seasons, and literally none of them have delivered.

But beyond that there is a structural issue that my colleague Bobby Warshaw mentioned on Monday's Extratime: Dallas don't seem to have the same types of well-structured, repeatable, final-third kill patterns that they've developed so expertly playing out of the back and midfield. You can see that they become sluggish and uncertain both on and off the ball around the 18, and you can see it in their underlying numbers: Their 16.88 expected assists is sixth-worst in the league. They're not great at finishing the final ball, but they might be even worse at getting into position to provide it in the first place.

A Josef Martinez-level striker would help, of course. But Dallas are still in a transition year, and very much look like it right now. It's going to be a process to get them to the point where they're a smooth-running machine.

What Conor Casey's done is remarkable – the team's not just getting results, but they're doing so by playing fun and fast soccer, trusting their young players, and managing it against some of the very best teams in the league. They have an identity and a style, and it's working, and Casey deserves a ton of credit. And he deserves a ton of consideration for the top job.

But I don't think that they should take that "interim" tag off just yet, or even before the end of the season (which he should finish as the man in charge). This is maybe unfair to him, but life's unfair, and sports are unfair. If he's the right guy he'll continue to push through it and continue to get this team to show progress.

At the same time, Padraig Smith & Co. have to decide what kind of team they actually are and want to be. Right now it's all counterattacks and set pieces in Commerce City, and that goes against the Rapids Way™ as delineated in that op-ed a couple years back. Given the make-up of the team (pretty much every new addition over the past 12 months is better on the counter than in possession), the presumed upcoming budget and the spectacular failure of the hoped-for possession style of soccer under Anthony Hudson, it's easy to see which direction things are pointing.

tl;dr – Keep him on for the rest of the year, give him a fair shot at the job, but make sure there's a larger, sincere search for the full-time, non-interim head coach in 2020 and beyond. Manchester United fans will vouch for that.

I think Brian White is a legit, starting-caliber MLS center forward. I'm not yet sure if he's capable of being anything more than that, but I'm just about at the point where I'd be surprised if he's anything less than that.

He's brave, he's very much a right-place-at-the-right-time type of No. 9, he has better vision than most seem to realize, and so far he's proving to be a good enough athlete. He's never, ever going to dribble a defender, won't win a ton of foot-races and he might never score a goal from further than 10 yards out, but you don't need those things to be a reliable goalscorer. Bradley Wright-Phillips basically never did those things and he worked out pretty well, right?

Anyway, White's legit.

Get a coach who's actually interested in coaching and improving young players! If you can only win by buying completely finished products who were built in someone else's factory, you're not going to have a ton of success.

People always talk about RBNY's press as the market inefficiency that they exploited, and to a degree it is (which is obvious). But the more glaring one they exploited was/is their ability to develop players who wouldn't even make most teams' rosters. White is an example, but Aaron Long (who they might be about to sell for lots of money), is an even better one. Sean Nealis has given them real minutes this year, and Tom Barlow scored a game-winner against Atlanta.

"We will take any player and make him better" has been the RBNY culture since 2015, and it's won them two Supporters' Shields. Some other teams are starting to do the same:

  • San Jose under Matias Almeyda have a clear "next man up" approach
  • Minnesota United both with Mason Toye's recent explosion as well as a pair of rookie fullbacks giving them excellent minutes have found match-winning depth
  • Philly are willing to search the waiver wire, all of Europe and, of course, their own academy for answers

Here's the frightening thing, though: LAFC under Bob Bradley do all of the above and spend on the top-tier free agents. And their academy teams (which are still probably four years away from bearing first-team fruit) are among the best in their age-groups, and you know a USL affiliate is on the way. They will have more potential-laden players than they know what to do with.

Bradley's always prided himself on his ability to coach up young players. He did it 20 years ago with the Fire, he did it 15 years ago with the MetroStars, and he's doing it now with LAFC. When the best team in the league is doing that, it's not a market exploit anymore. It's just something you also have to do if you have any hope of keeping up.

Step 1 is "see the answer above." If you're not going to be buying the best players in the league (and those teams you mentioned clearly aren't), you have to figure out how to build them – or something close to them.

Step 2 is to lock in a workable tactical identity. The Red Bulls' high press was an A+ gambit at the time, but now that it's kind of old hat... I just don't know. I'm not sure what the next zig-zag is in the soccer world of us. But I feel like even a mediocre gameplan executed with absolute conviction is better than a great gameplan executed with any amount of uncertainty.

There needs to be clarity and buy-in.

So I think – and have written as much – that one of the main issues with the Fire over the past three-and-a-half years has been a lack of tactical identity, which has led to a certain lack of clarity on the pitch. There's just been a ton of game-to-game changes under Veljko Paunovic, and I think it's worn this squad down. They don't have a unifying principle, no north star to guide them out of rough seas and back into port.

When things get tough for the Sounders, they just tilt everything left, push that fullback up and try to get the ball on the foot of Nico Lodeiro as much as they can. When things get bad for Portland, they bring their line deep, invite you forward and annihilate you on the counter. When things get tough for NYCFC, they push those wingbacks way up high and ping long diagonals at them.

The goal in all of the above isn't just to have a thing to do, it's to force the opponent to react to what you are doing, to play your game, not theirs. You decide the terms of the engagement.

Ok, now answer me this: What do the Fire do?

Two transfer windows is a long, long time, but even projecting that far out it's hard to see a ton of needs. They seem to believe that they have their Diego Valeri heir in Tomas Conechny, and there's now a host of young (or young-ish) central midfielders behind Diego Chara. They are two-deep at both fullback spots, and four-deep at center back, and two-deep at 'keeper, and two-deep at center forward, and have four wingers (and a couple of center forwards who can/do play out there as well).

"Wing" is probably the answer I'd give if I absolutely had to at this point, but I don't think they will make any big splashes in the transfer/trade market either this window or next. Ride this group for the next 12 months at least.

I think they're probably the second-best team in the league right now, and better overall than last year. So... yeah.

The Fast Times at Ridgemont High scene in S3E1, right down to the use of "Moving in Stereo," had me screaming. It was a perfect subversion of/homage to the trope, and worked perfectly both as character development and plot development.

That show's not perfect, but it's a hell of a lot of fun.

I have moderate expectations for Andrew Wooten, who's been a journeyman striker but not much more than that at any point in the past decade. My expectations are significantly higher for Jamiro Monteiro, who has been damn near Best XI caliber in his 1263 minutes so far as a center midfielder/shuttlers/advanced destroyer.

He has fit perfectly into the pressing scheme in the same way that Latif Blessing has keyed LAFC's press, and like Blessing he provides more than just baseline competence in the attack: He is something of an actual playmaker, not just a destroyer. In fact my biggest criticism of Monteiro is that he too often goes for the hero ball instead of making smart passes, and would like to occasionally see him dial back his "Hey look at me I'm Zidane!" tendencies.

But that's a nitpick. He's a wonderful player and has been, thus far, a fantastic signing. Philly need him back badly.

For about the past six weeks – basically since Kevin Molino got truly healthy again and started looking the part – I'd heard that the Loons were going to move one of their wingers this window. Given this acquisition (Lod can play on the wing or in central midfield), my guess is we'll hear about the other shoe dropping soon enough.

In the immediate timeframe, though, Lod might be more necessary in central midfield. Ozzie Alonso limped off this past weekend grabbing at his collarbone after taking a nasty fall, and it didn't look great.

I'm not sure anybody's on the trading block, but here are the issues:

When that's your No. 10 and your winger corps, does it make much sense to play in a 4-2-3-1? Will getting Asad back simply fix things? Is Acosta – entering the final six months of his contract – ever again going to be the guy he was last summer, or was that a mirage (he had 8g/9a in 12 games over a two-month stretch last year, and has 15g/26 in in 105 other MLS games since the start of 2016)?

Here's my take: Go get Sebastian Giovinco (who apparently wants to come back to MLS) and pair him up top with Wayne Rooney in a 3-5-2. Arriola is a natural wingback, and Joseph Mora can handle the job on the left side. It is entirely possible to mix-and-match that group of center backs into a workable three-back system (which Ben Olsen's already been doing a bit), and while there's no clear spot for Rodriguez in this scheme, I'd argue that Rodriguez hasn't played well enough to be handed a clear spot regardless. Meanwhile it gives Acosta a no excuses chance to play as a true No. 10 underneath two of the more ruthless attackers this league's ever seen.

EDIT: If Acosta's still there, that is. The latest rumors have Sevilla seriously interested in the 25-year-old Argentine.

Whatever the look though, what's clear is that D.C. need to play with more urgency. They've been sleepwalking since April.

Philadelphia Union legend Eduardo Coudet! The Argentine had a cup of coffee with the Union back in 2010 (nine games) right at the tail end of his career, and became a head coach in 2015. Since then he's spent most of his career in his home country, first with Rosario Central (2015-16) and more recently with Racing (2017-current), with a brief stop at Club Tijuana in between.

And, well, he led Racing to the league title this past year, playing a pretty flowing and flexible 4-1-3-2 that often looked like a 4-2-2-2 and melded both some old-fashioned, Argentine central midfield playmaking with a more modern approach to how and where to draw a line of confrontation.

His would be one of the first names on my list if I were an MLS GM looking to make some calls about a head coaching vacancy. And while I don't think it's a given that he'd come to MLS, I don't think it's some impossible dream, either.

Now, as a content creator: My dream hire would be Jose Mourinho. Gimme dem clicks!

Stealing this from my buddy Tiago Estevao, who you should follow on twitter:

That about sums it up (though that graphic is from 2018, and in 2019 it's worth noting that Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool actually skewed away from the pure gegenpressing for which they'd become known, but... semantics. That image is worth thousands of words).


Have a great week folks, and don't forget to set your MLS Fantasy lineups!

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