We're in the stretch run of the season and this is the time that every person in club shows what they are made of. Below you will find players or members of technical staffs who either need to step up their production levels or continue doing what they're doing for their teams to succeed.
Atlanta United: Tito Villalba
Every team needs someone to stretch the field. It’s difficult to be a possession team if you don’t have the space to keep the ball. Frank de Boer has decided it’s not going to be Josef Martinez. It’s not part of Pity Martinez or Ezequiel Barco’s game. Villalba is the only one with the pace and mindset to make runs behind the opposing defense, or to pick up the ball and dribble straight at the heart of the defense. De Boer needs to find a way to get Villalba on the field, and Villalba needs to repay that faith when it comes.
Chicago Fire: Djordje Mihailovic
The Fire need about 2.22 points per game to make the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs by my calculations. Is it possible? Sure. Is it likely? LAFC have earned 2.25 points per game this year. It might be time for Chicago to look toward 2020. On their roster, they have what would be either a foundational piece, a valuable asset, or just a decent squad player. It would be nice to know going in 2020 which of those categories Mihailovic fits into.
FC Cincinnati: Ron Jans
Cincinnati sit at the bottom of MLS. The team that held in the honor in 2018… is the current third-place team in the Western Conference, the San Jose Earthquakes. The main difference for the Quakes… is the head coach. Nobody expected Matias Almeyda to be able to take the current roster into a playoff position, yet here we are. The coach is the most important signing a team makes. Jans, the recently announced new coach of FC Cincy, will get a quarter of the season to set his culture leading into 2020.
Colorado Rapids: Padraig Smith
The Rapids general manager said last month, “As I’ve said all along, we’ve been building this roster with an eye on 2020." It's a fine (and probably smart) choice, but if you're going to sacrifice the present — and I feel comfortable with this situation as a Sixers fan — you need to deliver on the future. It doesn't decrease the pressure, it raises it. Smith has two transfer windows, including this current one, to round out his squad. The present roster is close to being a playoff contender, but Smith has to hit on the final pieces or else it’ll be more of the same.
Columbus Crew SC: Gyasi Zardes
I asked Matt Doyle for help on this one:
“It’s Gyasi. I’m sure he’s heard the talk, seen the clips, watched the analysis… the idea behind all of it is that he’s just a tool the Crew use to put the ball in the net, and he can only do it because they make it easy for him. It’s all about what they do for him in spite of his limitations.
Now Pipa Higuain is injured, and it’s not so easy any more, and Gyasi’s being paid like he’s the very best player on the team. Can he actually be that? Can he start opening up the game for his teammates?
Good, solid data point in his favor vs. RBNY, for what it’s worth.”
FC Dallas: Anybody shooting the ball
Dallas are really good — maybe one of the best in the league — from their own goal to the other team’s penalty box. Inside the box… they are 10th in the Western Conference in goals scored. They leave points on the table because they neither generate (ranked 10th in expected goals per game in the West) nor finish at a high rate. If Dom Badji, Jesus Ferreira or Santiago Mosquera can get sharper around the goal — and they are three players that appear to have another gear if it can get unlocked — then we could talk about FCD realistically competing with the big dogs in the conference.
D.C. United: Russell Canouse
Paired with the rise of Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta last year was the elite play of Canouse. Rooney might be driving the car, but Canouse is the engine. The defensive midfielder covered a ton of ground and won his duels and made decisive passes. He hasn’t done any of those as well this year — and now he’s out for several weeks with a collapsed lung. If D.C. hope to secure a home playoff game, they need Canouse near his best again.
Houston Dynamo: Matt Jordan
This is a key moment in Houston Dynamo history. It’s the third year with the Alberth Elis, Mauro Manotas, and Romell Quioto trio. While they are one of the more exciting attacking groups in the league, they’ve been trending downward since making the Western Conference Championship in 2017. Manotas and Elis have reportedly received interest from elsewhere, including recent rumors about Cruz Azul making a bid for Manotas. Jordan, the team’s general manager, did well to acquire high-level talent in the first place. Now he has to decide:
- Whether he lets Manotas and Elis leave and takes the money at the expense of the playoffs in 2019 and...
- If so, how he reinvests the money to help the Dynamo become a more consistent playoff team.
LAFC: The outside backs
Teams are going to (and should!) clog the middle against LAFC from here on out. They are going to tighten their midfield and back-four lines and suffocate the space Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi like to attack. It will leave space for the outside backs to attack (we already saw this in El Trafico). LAFC haven’t been great at taking that space yet, although the second goal against the Revolution is the perfect picture of what they need to do. It will be interesting to see who plays both right and left back down the closing stretch of the season. Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey are the trusted incumbents, but Latif Blessing and Mohamed El-Munir are quicker going forward.
LA Galaxy: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
I’ve lost hope that the Galaxy will be something more. They are not a well-functioning, flowing team. They are a Moments team. They stop the other team and then get the ball forward for Zlatan to do something amazing. As such, they need the Swede to continue to do amazing things. If he doesn’t win the moments, as he did against LAFC, the Galaxy don’t have much else going on.
Minnesota United FC: Ike Opara
To be honest, I had Darwin Quintero in this spot until Sunday afternoon. Then the Loons beat Portland without Quintero and I had to rethink it. Minnesota have officially become a counterattacking team, similar to how Portland made their run to MLS Cup in 2018. They control the game by controlling the space. If you’re going to cede space like that, you need:
- Someone who can attack on the counter. We saw what happened to Montreal without that. Minnesota appear to have multiple options, even if Quintero is the best one.
- A center back who can eat up service into the box. Opara has been a monster this year, and they need him to continue to be excellent.
Montreal Impact: Ignacio Piatti
Prior to Piatti’s return, the Impact had gone 4-8-1 since the start of May. They had held their heads above water without their best player for as long as they could, but they started to run out of ideas. The Impact are only going to make the playoffs if they return to their defensive identity, and they can only buy in to the defensive identity if they have someone who can create on the counterattack. Piatti is the answer.
New England Revolution: Luis Caicedo
For all of the fun, free-wheeling soccer that the Revs have been playing since Bruce Arena got to town, Luis Caicedo has been the hub. He’s started 10 of the Revs' recent 11-game unbeaten streak. He doesn’t necessarily need to step up as much as simply continue his good form. Everyone else in the attack gets to float and/or chase the ball, but Caicedo holds his spot; he provides the foundation for everyone else to have freedom. If Caicedo struggles, it could bring down everyone else, as well.
NYCFC: Maxi Moralez
Again, this is another case of someone who doesn’t need to improve, but rather continue his excellence. The Argentine’s value to the team was pretty clear in NYCFC’s 3-1 loss to RSL this weekend. He’s both the brains and the maestro of the team. By my eye, NYCFC are mostly a talent-based attack at this point. They don’t have clearly defined patterns through the final third; instead, they have talented players who have built good relationships and have found connections that work for them. They need the talent to continue to play up to their standards; the most important person in that group is Moralez.
New York Red Bulls: Sean Davis
For all the conversation about “Who are the Red Bulls now?” they are the same team they’ve been when the game is right for it. When they play other good teams, they press and kick and win second balls. When you do that, you have to win duels. For the first five years of the pressing era, they had natural, elite ball-winners in the middle in Dax McCarty and Tyler Adams. Davis isn’t a natural ball-winner; he’s more of an all-around midfielder. In this group, though, he takes on more ball-winning responsibility than ever. If the Red Bulls are going to get deep into the playoffs, they need Davis to take his game, especially his ability to sniff out second balls, to the next level.
Orlando City: Dom Dwyer
If Dwyer had been “stepped up” all year long, we would probably be talking about Orlando as a playoff team. Tesho Akindele has been good, but he can’t hit levels that Dwyer can offer. Orlando have the biggest game in their MLS era on Tuesday in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal against Atlanta; it would be a good time for Dwyer to find his finishing touch.
Philadelphia Union: The strikers
It’s still the same story for the Union — good soccer that generally dominates the game, but still the lack of a cutting edge around the goal. This season still has the feeling that it’s going to end in the playoffs after Philly have 65% of possession, play gorgeous soccer, outplay the opponent, but miss three sitters across the top of the six-yard box. They need a striker — Andrew Wooten, Kacper Pryzbylko, Fafa Picault or Sergio Santos — to step up as a consistent scorer. He doesn’t need to score bangers, he just needs to score the obvious ones.
Portland Timbers: Jorge Moreira
You’ve heard the line — can the Timbers score against a compact defense? Maybe the likes of Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri, or Brian Fernandez can make a big play, or Jeremy Ebobisse or Cristhian Paredes can get onto the end of a cross. But if the Timbers want to attack the problem systematically, they need to get the outside backs more involved. When the ball gets to the wide areas and the Timbers don’t have space to attack, they don’t have the movements to create space. They need at least one of the outside backs to create overloads via overlaps/underlaps. Moreira looks like the more likely of the two.
Real Salt Lake: Kyle Beckerman
This is the one I left until last because I didn’t feel great about the answer. My first iteration had Sam Johnson, as his vertical running makes RSL a more tactically sound team. Then I put Jefferson Savarino, as he is the one that can win any game on his own. Then I put Albert Rusnak, as he’s the one that opens the game for his teammates. Then I stopped thinking so hard and remembered that games are won and lost in the middle of the field. RSL haven’t been particularly hard to play against through the middle in the last couple years. Beckerman has been fine, but not quite the Best XI player he once was. When he’s confident, breaking up players and connecting passes, RSL are hard to beat. He is be the X-Factor (for as weird as it is to call Beckerman an X-Factor for the club he built) for the playoff run.
San Jose Earthquakes: Florian Jungwirth
Cristian Espinoza, Vako, and Jackson Yueill have been fantastic, and perhaps in the top-five in their position in the league. But I wonder how much of their ability to perform comes down to Jungwirth’s steady play in the back. Paired almost perfectly with the Quakes' rise has been in the inclusion of Jungwirth into the lineup. He reads the game well from his spot as the free-man in the man-marking system, and he's confident in possession when building from the back. It’s nearly impossible to hide or get protected in San Jose’s system, and Jungwirth’s improved performances over previous seasons is a huge reason the Quakes have rocketed upward.
Seattle Sounders: Xavier Arreaga
Trivia question: Who wore the biggest shoes in MLS history?
Answer: Chad Marshall. Metaphorically, at least. Nobody left larger shoes to fill after a midseason departure in league history than Marshall. Last year, he was a runner-up for MLS Defender of the Year; this year, the Sounders were 5-0-1 before Marshall got hurt. Roman Torres had been getting the nod since Marshall retired, but Torres will miss a couple months with a suspension. It’s Xavier Arreaga time.
Sporting KC: Peter Vermes
It’s been a hell of a run for this version of Sporting Kansas City. Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza, Seth Sinovic, Tim Melia and Benny Feilhaber have given the city some incredible moments. But Vermes has to ask himself some hard questions moving forward. Sporting need around 1.81 points per game to make the playoffs — Sunday’s win at Seattle is certainly a tease. They also have young, exciting prospects (Gianluca Busio, Jaylin Lindsey, and Gedion Zelalem) who could use minutes. One trait of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United was that he always stayed ahead of the downturns and never got emotionally tied to players. Something went wrong for Sporting this year; Vermes needs to figure out what it is, and if this group of players can move past it.
Toronto FC: Michael Bradley
Fact: Michael Bradley has been underrated and underappreciated by American soccer fans. It was wrong of people to suggest he didn't deserve his spot in the national team for the last 10 years.
Also fact: Michael Bradley needs to show that he's still an elite player. He hasn't had a great stretch of games for over a year. It's not wrong to say he might no longer be the same player, especially in terms of energy and mobility. Toronto have the pieces to win MLS Cup, but that’s assuming Bradley is still the same player he was in 2017.
Vancouver Whitecaps: Inbeom Hwang
Through the first 11 games, I wanted to buy up every piece of Hwang stock on the continent. He was gliding around the field picking out teammates with ridiculous outside of the foot passes (okay, he only did it a couple times, but I was hooked). Since then, it’s been mostly downhill. He has the ability (potential?) to be one of the best players in MLS — a Vako-esque rise, though in a different way. The ‘Caps are starting to think about next season, and it’d be reassuring for everyone heading into 2020 to know that their best player is settling in.