Armchair Analyst: One big question for each MLS team, revisited

Back in mid-January I pondered one big question for each of the 24 MLS teams just entering the 2019 preseason. Nine months later, we're into the home stretch and a lot of those questions have been answered.

Let's take a look at what they were, how/if they were answered, and what the big question actually was...

Atlanta United

What it was: What formation will Frank De Boer have his team play?

What it should have been: What formation will Frank De Boer have his team play and will there be an outright player mutiny in the middle of the season?

Atlanta's season, with regard to their formation, really has been some sort of Ouroboros that snaked its way through everything before ending up back where they started: In a 3-4-2-1. Everything has changed over the course of the season, but everything has also kind of stayed the same, and they just had an August that any team in league history would envy.

Coming back to the 3-4-2-1 – which at the start of the season didn't seem to suit anybody – has been a big part of solving their problems, and it sure looks a lot more natural now than it did in March. That's made it easier to play, and thus easier to win, and as is always the case, winning has solved a lot of the issues that seemed existential when the team wasn't winning. And thus the Five Stripes staved off the mutiny that sure did look like it was brewing by the end of July.

Chicago Fire

What it was: How much do Dax and Basti have left in the tank?

What it should have been: How much does Nemanja Nikolic have left in the tank?

Nikolic's got 11 goals – he's actually scoring at a better per-90 clip than last year – but his months-long dry-spell kind of doomed Chicago, who otherwise played some very good soccer. That includes Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger, both of whom have been very good mostly throughout the year.

But... yeah:

I'll also say that Nikolic's decline in terms of defensive contribution is one of the reasons Schweinsteiger's playing at CB rather than central midfield. The Fire's midfield has to do a ton of running to make up for the lack of front line defense, and Schweinsteiger just can't quite do it anymore. So it's had a cascade effect on the overall team's ability both on and off the ball.

FC Cincinnati

What it was: Can Fanendo Adi lead the line in the 2019 version of MLS?

What it should have been: Can this team defend literally at all?

Adi is no longer an MLS-caliber player as his numbers (1g/0a in 695 minutes) continue to bear out, and Cincinnati's attack is the worst in a league as a result of their previous front office's poorly thought-out spending. He was the wrong target for the wrong era of MLS.

But the bigger problem has been the defense, which has already helped set the record for worst goal differential in MLS history (-43) and is three goals allowed away from setting the record for worst defense in MLS history (they're on 72 goals allowed with five games left). They've conceded multiple goals in nine straight games, so I'm kind of expecting them to at least tie the old mark of 74, set by Orlando City last year, on Saturday at Montreal.

Colorado Rapids

What it was: Do they have enough mobility in central defense to play Jack Price as a No. 6?

What it should have been: How long will they stick with Anthony Hudson?

The original question was a good one, as Colorado went out and got Lalas Abubakar on loan at the end of the spring transfer/trade window and he's made a difference. But the bigger difference has come from the top-down as dismissing Hudson has given this whole roster a breath of fresh air and allowed them to play free, fun, attacking yet cohesive soccer first under interim head coach Conor Casey, and now under Robin Fraser.

The Rapids were 0-7-2 with a -12 goal differential when Hudson was relieved of his duties. They've gone 10-7-4 with a +6 goal differential since then. That's a playoff-caliber clip for nearly two-thirds of a season.

Columbus Crew

What it was: How much of Gregg Berhalter's system will Caleb Porter keep?

What it should have been: How long until we all realize that this is going to be a pure transition year?

At first it looked like Porter would keep a pretty good chunk of Berhalter's system, but by about the middle of April it was almost entirely gone. Columbus don't hit those big diagonals to overlapping wingbacks as often as they used to (read: hardly at all), their wingers operate differently, and the d-mid doesn't drop back between the center backs with such regularity.

Porter's hand was probably forced by a bunch of unfortunate injuries, and the Crew have started playing better over the past six weeks. But this season, it turns out, wasn't about this season: It was about preparing for next season.

FC Dallas

What it was: Which of the kids will create?

What it should have been: Which of the veterans will finish?

This was the story of Dallas's first 24 games:

Nobody could find the back of the net.

Over the past three games Zdenek Ondrasek has started to live up to the billing, having scored four goals and added two assists. If he keeps that up, they'll make the playoffs. If he doesn't, they won't – because nobody else is going to be able to do it.

D.C. United

What it was: Can Steve Birnbaum organize the back line?

What it should have been: Was that real?

Folks kind of forgot that in 2016, D.C. played absolutely gorgeous, flowing soccer down the stretch to charge into the playoffs. They scored almost three goals per game and did so with style, and with guys who were under the radar in terms of their quality.

In the 2017 version of this column I asked "was that real?" about that run. Anyone who remembers the 2017 version of D.C. United will tell you emphatically that it was not.

In retrospect I should've asked the same question about D.C.'s wonderful 2018 stretch run. I thought it would be more sustainable because the talent was more proven – Wayne Rooney is Wayne Rooney, Paul Arriola is good, the central midfield is good, and it sure did look like Lucho Acosta had turned the corner around this time last year.

Nope.

Once again, instead of building on a great stretch run and taking that momentum into the next season, D.C. have cratered. They look nothing like that 2018 team, and if they get to the playoffs (they probably will thanks to last weekend's win), it'll be because Birnbaum and the rest of the defense have been so adept at just getting numbers behind the ball and limiting mistakes.

What United fans saw last autumn, it turns out, wasn't real. Just like in 2016.

Houston Dynamo

What it was: Is that the ceiling for Mauro Manotas? Or an aberration? Or just one more rung on the ladder?

What it should have been: Can they bounce back from a disappointing 2018 regular season or is a hard downward slide on the way?

Nothing worked for Houston in 2019. Even counterattacking and set pieces (where they'd been dominant in the past two years) did nothing for them this year. The home-heavy early schedule masked some underlying problems that eventually cost Wilmer Cabrera his job and is likely leading to an offseason overhaul.

Manotas, who regressed, was part of the problem. But I think he'll actually be very good next year – just not in Houston. This upcoming window has to be the one where he's sold.

Regardless, full credit to Manotas for being a gamer and continuing to produce even after a couple of rumored deals fell through.

LAFC

What it was: Who is Andre Horta?

What it should have been: Who is Latif Blessing?

I honestly think that LAFC would've been running away with the Supporters' Shield even if Bob Bradley hadn't discovered, three games into the season, that Blessing was meant to be the "No. 10" in a maniacally pressing three-man midfield. Blessing is:

  • Third in recoveries among field players
  • Eighth in tackles attempted
  • Third in tackles won
  • 25th in chances created from open play
  • Second in fouls won
  • Fourth in fouls won in the attacking third

This is an absurd cross-section of statistical dominance. LAFC were able to cut their losses with Horta in large part because Blessing made him utterly, entirely expendable (and because he wasn't any good).

LA Galaxy

What it was: Can Guillermo Barros Schelotto play a 4-3-3 with this roster?

What it should have been: Can this team improve enough defensively to keep floating Zlatan Ibrahimovic?

Both of those are open questions. The 4-3-3 has looked better since acquiring Cristian Pavon – funny what adding a full, in-his-prime Argentinean international will do – as they've become less reliant on just bending in a million crosses per game. It's been a step forward.

But they're still under water in terms of their season-long xG and just... how they look. They can't push numbers forward without getting exposed at the back, and it continues to be a struggle.

It does start at the front, with Zlatan. He's still remarkable in the 18 but they're defending with 10 any time he's out there, and it shows:

The Galaxy lost again on Wednesday night, going down 2-1 at Colorado. So they're still in eighth in the West, no longer have a game in hand and are 6-12-2 since the start of May. Maybe this is just who they are?

Minnesota United FC

What it was: Will Angelo Rodriguez be worth it?

What it should have been: How much will Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus improve the defense?

First off, the answer to that preseason question is "no," but in the end it hasn't ended up costing the Loons their season because of this guy:

Mason Toye has solved some problems for this team.

Opara, Alonso, Gregus and Vito Mannone have done the same, and done so with problems that were bigger and longer-standing. Only six teams have conceded fewer goals than Minnesota's 39 this year, and in any context that's good. In the context of conceding 141 goals over the previous two seasons, it's freaking stupendous.

Montreal Impact

What it was: Will Maxi Urruti finally show some shot discipline?

What it should have been: Will they buy into another year of sitting deep and hitting on the counter – especially if Ignacio Piatti finally gets old?

The answer to that second question is a resounding "no," as head coach Remi Garde lost the locker room as his team lost its defensive shape and will to compete after losing the club's best-ever player to what's essentially been a season-long injury. And then Garde lost his job.

People forget this (and I get why given how poor the Impact have been in 2019), but this team played the last two-thirds of last season at a 60-point clip. They did it by dropping everyone behind the ball and relying upon Piatti's brilliance on the break. Without Piatti, and without any sort of locker room cohesion, that proved to be an unsustainable plan. They've shipped 56 goals this year, second-worst in the league.

As for the the original question... nope. In 28 games, all as a center forward, Urruti has put just 19 shots on target and scored just three goals. If there's one clip that defines this season for Montreal it's Urruti pulling up from 35 yards and letting fly directly into the stands.

New England Revolution

What it was: Do they have the horses to press?

What it should have been: Do they have the will to compete?

It was clear, by about July of last year, that Brad Friedel had burned his team out. And then by the end of March this year, he was out there giving some spectacularly bizarre quotes:

Six weeks later he was gone, and New England have lost just twice since then. Players always say that team spirit and comaraderie matter a ton – they are the intangibles that hold a team together through the tough times, and the Revs didn't have it under Friedel.

They got it immediately under Mike Lapper, and then amplified it under Bruce Arena. They are above the playoff line and, in the words of Arena, should make the playoffs. He's probably right.

(That said, the underlying numbers say what the Revs have done since May is unsutainable, and their recent skid – just one win in six – is evidence that those numbers ain't lying. It's just that nobody behind them in the playoff race is actually making a run.)

NYCFC

What it was: Are we gonna see a false 9 as the default lineup?

What it should have been: Will Dome Torrent eventually create a team-wide identity?

To be fair I really think you could call both Heber and Taty Castellanos false 9s to a degree. Both do a lot of true center forward work, but they end up doing a lot of "other" work as well, and Heber in particular has been spectacular at all of it.

But the bigger/biggest question was whether Dome would eventually stop tinkering and start drilling in some game-to-game principles that could get everybody on the same page. It took him a while – it wasn't until about mid-April that he decided his team needed to build around quick hits out of central midfield with a keen eye for transition opportunities, and players praised the Spaniard for simplifying, game-to-game, what they were doing as a team.

So now they are arguably the second-best team in the league. Dome took apart a beautiful machine when he arrived last season, but what he's put together now may actually be better.

New York Red Bulls

What it was: Does Sean Davis have another level?

What it should have been: Was last year the end of an era?

I think two things have happened here:

  1. Tyler Adams was sold, and Bradley Wright-Phillips hit the end of his line, and a few key players – Kaku, Aaron Long, Michael Murillo, and Kemar Lawrence – regressed year-over-year (with an eye, perhaps, on overseas moves)
  2. It's hard to play 1,000 miles per hour, charging head-first into every 40/60 ball like it's a 60/40, for five straight years. There is a reason that Marcelo Bielsa, for example, almost never makes it to Year 3 when he's managing a club.

Underlying this is that I really do think the loss to Atlanta in the playoffs – and specifically the way they lost to Atlanta in the playoffs, by going out and giving up on the press that had repeatedly killed the Five Stripes – did something irreparable to team morale. I don't think this group has ever quite looked the same.

Davis didn't have another level, for what it's worth.

Orlando City SC

What it was: Should we still be fascinated by Cristian Higuita?

What it should have been: Should we still be fascinated by Dom Dwyer?

Player Goals Expected Goals G-xG
Daniel Salloi 0 7.45 -7.45
Dom Dwyer 5 9.3 -4.3
Darwin Quintero 8 12.07 -4.07
Pity Martínez 3 6.8 -3.8
Kei Kamara 11 14.62 -3.62
Danny Hoesen 5 8.58 -3.58
Juan Agudelo 3 6.48 -3.48
Teal Bunbury 5 8.39 -3.39
Robinho 0 3.35 -3.35
Alberth Elis 7 10.17 -3.17

If Dwyer had finished at his expected rate then Orlando City would have 6–8 more points and would be above the playoff line.

(And yes, Daniel Salloi has been cursed by an evil sorcerer.)

Philadelphia Union

What it was: Can Haris Medunjanin fit into a high-pressing 4-4-2 set-up?

What it should have been: Can a high-pressing 4-4-2 set-up bring the best out of this roster?

So the answer to the first question is "against not-so-great teams, absolutely." But that leads us to the second question, and I'd argue the answer to that one is "no." The Union are once again better in a 4-2-3-1, and that's in large part because it gives Medunjanin a deep-midfield partner with range.

It also frees up the wingers to be devastating:

Philly's flexibility has served them well over the course of the season, but I think for myriad reasons the 4-2-3-1 is still their best look.

Portland Timbers

What it was: Can Cristhian Paredes make the leap?

What it should have been: Can they survive their wonky schedule?

Every team in recent MLS history that's started their year with a long road trip and finished with a long home stand has actually benefitted heavily, in terms of form and PPG, over the second half of the year. For Portland it's been more of a struggle as, once they figured out how to play on the road, they immediately returned home and realized that... they don't really know how to do the "home field advantage" thing all that well. They have struggled – badly at times – at breaking down bunkered-in defenses.

They're still going to make the playoffs, but they might be the only ones of the 14 postseason participants who'd be happy to spend the whole thing on the road.

Real Salt Lake

What it was: Is it time to move on from Joao Plata?

What it should have been: Can the defense improve enough?

RSL gave up 58 goals last season, which was one of the worst marks in the league and the very worst of any of the playoff teams. This year, through 29 games they've shipped 35, which is tied for the third-best mark in the league. Given their remaining schedule those fans should expect to see at least one home game in Sandy come the postseason.

Everton Luiz has been an excellent under-the-radar acquisition, Justen Glad and Aaron Herrera have both made huge year-over-year leaps, and everything else has been good enough.

Since the Gold Cup break "good enough" has morphed into "elite" as RSL have gone 8-3-3 with only eight goals allowed in 14 games. They have been playing their best soccer since 2013, and climbed up to second place in the West after Wednesday's win.

San Jose Earthquakes

What it was: Will they man mark?

What it should have been: Is Matias Almeyda a miracle worker?

First of all: they have man marked, and it's been unique and mostly effective (except for when they play LAFC). Since the start of April they're among the league leaders in both actual goal differential and xG differential, as well as PPG. They have put themselves in a position to go from one of the worst seasons in league history on PPG to maybe hosting a playoff game.

Nobody saw this coming. But really nobody saw this coming:

The Quakes ball out. They are one of the most relentless and relentlessly entertaining teams in MLS, and have been for five-and-a-half months.

That said, their road woes are real and pronounced. Following Wednesday's loss they've now dropped four straight away from Avaya and are staring down trips to NYCFC and Atlanta in the next 10 days.

San Jose have been a great, fun story this year. But there's no guarantee that story continues into the postseason.

Seattle Sounders

What it was: How does Jordan Morris fit?

What it should have been: What happens if Chad Marshall gets old?

The Morris question was a good one, and I'll argue that over the past few months he's started looking like an actual winger and not just a wide forward with speed. He's been a match-winner in big games, including a fairly memorable Cascadia trip to Portland.

But the Marshall question is looking like the definitive one. They went 5-0-3 with eight goals conceded in his eight games before he retired in May. They are 8-9-4 with 37 goals conceded in their other 21 outings.

It turns out that replacing the greatest center back in MLS history isn't easy.

Sporting KC

What it was: Will they once again push Graham Zusi so high?

What it should have been: Will going all-in on possession cost them their playoff streak?

Wait, no... that's not it.

What it should have been: Will offloading Ike Opara in favor of Andreu Fontas cost them their playoff streak?

Wait, no... maybe this...

What it should have been: Will betting on a pair of No. 9s with one double-digit goals season, combined, in their 20 years of professional soccer cost them their playoff streak?

Ooof. That's probably it, but also...

What it should have been: Has Daniel Salloi been cursed by an evil sorcerer?

OK, let's just move on.

Toronto FC

What it was: Can Jonathan Osorio take the keys to the car?

What it should have been: At what point of the year will they finally look like they've come out of preseason?

Jozy Altidore's given them some moments, man:

And to be fair, they have ground out a just-good-enough 5-2-4 stretch since mid-July. They're going to make the playoffs, and they might even host a game.

But even against Cincinnati last weekend, in a game they won 5-1, they didn't do it for 90 minutes. In truth they didn't do it for more than 30.

On talent, this team should be one of the very best in the East. By underlying metrics and the eye test, they definitely aren't.

Vancouver Whitecaps

What it was: Does Anthony Blondell have anything to offer?

What it should have been: Will any of these moves work?

Remember Anthony Blondell? Probably not. And that's the answer to that first question.

The answer to the second question is somehow more depressing. Here's Vancouver's obituary for 2019:

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