‘Twas an abbreviated weekend with only five games due to the international calendar. Matt Doyle covered all of the weekend review needs with his column. I want to look forward with 24 Takeaways today. As teams go into the final stretch, what is everyone's bar for success? What would make a successful outcome at this point?
Win MLS Cup. It's that simple for Atlanta United. Whenever there's a trophy available, it's win or bust for the Five Stripes. It's the ultimate compliment you could give a club. They are the only team in this category in the league.
Make the playoffs. It's a long shot at this point, and that's their own fault. It wasn't a rebuilding year — they returned more than half of their usual starting lineup, including the spine of their team, plus the coaching staff. If the Fire miss the playoff cut this year, it will be the sixth time in the last seven years that they finish on the outside.
Don't be the worst. Here's the list of the five lowest points-per-game seasons in MLS history:
- 1999 MetroStars — .47
- 2013 D.C. United — .47
- 2001 Tampa Bay Mutiny — .52
- 2005 Chivas USA — .56
- 2018 San Jose Earthquakes — .62
FCC are currently at .62 points per game. They can't quite fall below .47, but D.C. United won the U.S. Open Cup that year so they get a pass. Cincinnati are in a race with 2018 San Jose to the "worst team in modern league history" title. FCC need four points from their final five games to get >.62 for the whole season.
Decide who are Caleb Porter players. Porter is a different coach with a different philosophy than Gregg Berhalter. Berhalter prefers a more defined system; Porter allows more improvising. Berhalter wanted players in Columbus who could execute his system; Porter needs players who can improvise. It's not about figuring out who is good or bad, but rather who is more comfortable in certain philosophies. Artur, for example, was an elite midfielder under Berhalter but hasn't been as good under Porter. By the end of the season, Porter needs to figure out if Artur — and Wil Trapp, Harrison Afful, Gyasi Zardes, Pedro Santos, and Jonathan Mensah — can play at the same level under a new style or if they need to move on.
Grasp the basic tenets and terms of Robin Fraser's philosophy. Fraser essentially has a prolonged preseason heading into 2020. (...and with a pretty good team. The Rapids have recorded 1.72 points per game over the last 18 games; that, over the full season, would put them second in the West.) During a preseason, you usually spend the majority of the time mastering overarching principles: What do we want our culture to be? Who are the leaders? What is our base defensive shape? How do we plan to create chances? If a new coach feels good about those basics going into opening weekend, he will be happy; any added layers would be larger success. Fraser has a chance to handle those basics during 2019 so he can start a few steps ahead in 2020.
Make the playoffs. This one stems beyond Dallas, too. I had one person within the league tell me that Dallas making the playoffs or not is a landmark event. Dallas is carrying a flag and teams are watching. They've utilized young domestic players more than we've ever seen before. They have made three under-21 Homegrowns key cogs of the team, and used up to six on some nights. Every team wants to play young players — kids are fun and bring huge asset potential. Most clubs usually get nervous about putting them on the field, though. If Dallas make the playoffs, it will be statement that the plan can meet both long-term and short-term goals.
Make the Eastern Conference Final. It's been a weird year for D.C. Hot start, then a slow decline, then Lucho Acosta falls out of the lineup, then Wayne Rooney announces he's leaving at the end of the year, then some more stumbling... but now most recently they crushed Montreal in the biggest game of the year to date. None of that changes the original expectations on this D.C. team, returning two MLS Best XI players. A trophy always would have been a nice bonus for 2019, but anything less than being in contention for a trophy isn't enough.
Sign Miguel Herrera as the new coach. But, honestly, that probably won't happen so I'll say this — allocate all assets toward hiring the right coach. Take whatever money is bucketed toward potential transfers and salary increases and switch them to the "Manager" line on the spreadsheet. Spend whatever it takes to get a coach in the "Big Time" bucket. The Dynamo don't need more players; while more talent would help, this roster is talented enough. They are at least as talented as San Jose, who made the turnaround the Dynamo are hoping to replicate. The Dynamo, though, need their own Matias Almeyda.
Win MLS Cup. Winning hardware should be, and used to be, the benchmark for the Galaxy every single year. This year isn't an exception. Any team with Zlatan Ibrahimovic + Cristian Pavon + Jonathan dos Santos should be disappointed if they don't lift a trophy. Unfortunately, the first step is making the late push to even make the playoffs, as the Galaxy currently sit below the playoff line.
Win Supporters' Shield + Win MLS Cup. I've said recently that winning the Supporters' Shield at their historic pace would be enough to cement their place in history. If you break the points record by 9+ points and the goal differential mark by 15+ goals, then you should be considered the best team ever, regardless of what happens in single-elimination games in the playoffs. Recently, however, LAFC have fallen off their blistering pace, failing to win the last three games. If the Black and Gold don't blow away the points record, then they need MLS Cup to make a statement. Put another way: If they don't prove they are the best single-season team ever, after how good they've been to this point, it would be a letdown.
Make the playoffs. Should the bar be higher for a team with Ike Opara, Ozzie Alonso, and Darwin Quintero? Maybe. They've climbed as high as second in the West this season. Minnesota is a team that certainly could make MLS Cup. But it's tough to say that a team that has yet to make the playoffs in its time in the league needs to do more than experience a playoff game.
Win the Canadian Championship. Montreal take on Toronto in a two-leg series, September 18 and September 25. The Impact are in a playoff scrap right now, but they should prioritize winning the trophy that's right in front of them. They have better odds of beating Toronto over two legs than navigating an entire playoff schedule. And beating rival Toronto to hardware is always a success.
Make the playoffs. The team with the largest jump in Success Bar from 2019 to 2020 will be the Revs. Next year, under Bruce Arena and with the increased investment that seems to be coming, they need to compete for a trophy. This year, a playoff game will be a suitable ending.
Make the Eastern Conference Final. Here's the question with NYCFC that I couldn't figure out: Are NYCFC in the "should win a trophy every year" category? They were in that category to start 2018. It's a weird moment for analyzing NYCFC — it's important to give them credit for sitting at the top of the East, but not overdoing said credit for climbing back to a position they should have been in all along.
New York Red Bulls
Make the Eastern Conference Final. It's tempting to write that anything less than an MLS Cup at this point is a poor season. Red Bulls fans, who have celebrated three Supporters' Shields in the last six seasons, are dying for an MLS Cup. RBNY are one of three original clubs that have not won one yet. But I can't quite put the bar that high for RBNY at the moment. They lost their best player, Tyler Adams, and did not effectively replace him. Bradley Wright-Phillips, 34, hasn't been fit for most of the year. Their current five most talented players are the four defenders and goalkeeper. The expectation for Red Bulls is to be perennial Eastern Conference contenders, but it's not more than that this year.
Stay within the playoff race until Decision Day. Orlando never needed to make the playoffs this year. They needed to reset and rebuild. They've done that. Their four best performers this year — Nani, Robin Jansson, Ruan and Sebastian Mendez — are all new. The team has solid defensive shape, a hard-working mentality, and decent attacking ideas. With some more execution around goal, they would have exceeded expectations and made the playoffs. If they can give their fans some excitement on the last day of the season, that'd be a good 2019.
Win a playoff game. Philadelphia are a tough one for this conversation. In a lot of ways, it feels like they overachieve when they compete at the top of the conference. Yet, they have made the playoffs three of the last four years and the U.S. Open Cup final in three of the last six years. At what point does an overachieving year become an average year — and then potentially an underachieving one? I don't think the Union have hit that inflection point yet. They have yet to win a playoff game in club history. It would be a successful year to hit that mark, but they are close to pushing themselves into the next tier.
Make the Western Conference Final. Sans a catastrophic problem, like Diego Chara or Diego Valeri getting hurt, the Timbers should be expected to make the conference final every year. This year, I would call it more of a letdown than most years to accomplish anything less. They have an elite center back, an elite defensive midfielder, and three elite attackers.
Real Salt Lake
Get a home playoff game. The West is wide open this year; it's more open than it's been in recent memory, and probably more open than it will be again. Four different teams have held the No. 2 spot in the last five weeks. Real Salt Lake have put together the best performances of those four teams lately. They also have the softest schedule down the stretch. Remember, too... a home game tends to mean a win for RSL — they are 21-5-5 at home over the last two years. In saying they should get a home playoff game, we are also saying they should win a playoff game.
San Jose Earthquakes
Win a playoff game. If you had told a San Jose fan that they the Quakes would make the playoffs this year, they would have taken it without a second thought. Anything more would have been icing on the cake. The expectations have been raised midseason, though. San Jose were one of the best, if not the best, team in the league through the middle third of the season. They have a special thing going right now; it would be a disappointment at this point if they don't make it to the Western Conference semis.
Make the Western Conference Final. Same as Portland. Does it make it harder to get to the conference final after losing Chad Marshall to retirement midseason? Yes. But I don't think it's mutually exclusive to say achieving a goal is both impressive and the expectation.
Sporting Kansas City
Win a playoff game. Is this going to happen these year? Probably not. It'd be wild if Sporting KC make the playoffs at this point. Sometimes in sports, you just fail. If there weren't failures, the winning wouldn't mean so much. Sporting have rarely failed under Peter Vermes; they've made the playoffs eight straight years, the third longest stretch in the league. For SKC, anything less than a playoff win is a poor season. They have to take this one on the chin.
Make MLS Cup. Toronto still have the highest total salary bill, according to the numbers released by the MLS Players' Association. You do that for one reason: filling the trophy case.
Find Inbeom Hwang's best position. He's the foundational piece. He's the player the formation should be built around. He's played just about every spot across the midfield and attack this year, though. Marc dos Santos needs to have a clear idea of how to use Hwang heading into the offseason, because it will influence how the club recruits and builds out the rest of the team.