Armchair Analyst - 2019 - season recaps - day 1

Armchair Analyst: MLS 2019 Season Recaps – The bottom eight

Some of these teams were eliminated about five minutes after the season started, but that doesn't mean the season meant nothing for them. There was experimentation, breakthroughs, disappointment, struggle... and a bunch of outgoing and incoming personnel.

Let's write some epitaphs.

  • Part I: Teams 24-17
  • Part II: Teams 16-9
  • Part III: Teams 8-1


FC Cincinnati (#24)

FC Cincinnati set all kinds of records in the USL for regular-season accomplishments and fanbase. So they decided to import all of that – and a big chunk of the team – for their big jump to MLS. A gif is worth a thousand words:

They won the Wooden Spoon, set the single-season mark for goals allowed and negative goal differential, scored the fewest goals in the league and missed badly on most of their signings.

It took them 11 games to replace their head coach and shift GM Jeff Berding, who'd had final say on the roster, to a non-soccer role. Things got ugly quick for FC Cincy, and stayed ugly for a long, long while throughout the season.

FORMATION & TACTICS: The big hint that things were going to be bad came just about 10 days before opening weekend when whispers started coming out that then-head coach Alan Koch had completely scrapped the team's tactical and formational approach... for the second time that preseason. They were a group in flux before they were even a group.

Under interim head coach Yoann Damet and then full-time replacement Ron Jans they acquired a bit more clarity, and finished the year playing a pretty standard 4-3-3 that was often much more of a low-block 4-5-1. It was Catenaccio in a lot of ways, as they settled into a pure counterattacking stance for the final months of the year.

That was the right choice.

HIGHLIGHT: That final stretch of the season was probably the highlight since they went 1-1-3 with three shut outs and some real spoiler-y pain inflicted upon Montreal, Chicago and D.C. United ahead of the playoffs. There's also Leonardo Bertone's stunner of a goal in the season-opener, the first point in club history at Atlanta and the first win in club history a week later against Portland – a 3-0 destruction.

But I'm calling the 2-2 draw at Columbus in mid-August the high point. Yeah, they blew a 2-0 lead, but a point on the road in the first-ever Hell is Real Derby in MLS? Cincy fans were justifiably hyped:

The team didn't travel well but the fanbase sure did. I'll be circling the dates for Hell is Real as soon as the schedule comes out, because they both felt like playoff games. It's awesome.

LOWLIGHT: From the end of March til the middle of September they went 3-20-2. I refuse to pick just one moment from that stretch.

REVELATION: I don't think anyone on the roster earned that distinction. Some of the young guys – DP Alan Cruz, draft picks Frankie Amaya and Tommy McCabe, Celtic loanee Andrew Gutman – showed promise or had good moments, but nobody was a "revelation."

DISAPPOINTMENT: A ton of ink was spilled on the number of USL players Cincinnati brought with them into MLS, but I swear to you those guys weren't the problem. The problem was they spent wildly on MLS veterans who were either career underachievers, injury-prone or clearly on the downslope. Spending a ton of xAM to acquire Fanendo Adi and using a DP slot on him was just...

Look, RBNY bring a ton of USL players into their first team every year, and every year they make the playoffs. There's talent to be found at that level. But you have to put them into a functional scheme and that scheme has to have legitimate top-end talent as the focal points. For most of the year, Cincinnati had neither.

The big disappointment was the way the roster was built.

PLAYERS TO BUILD ON IN 2020: CM Alan Cruz, CM Frankie Amaya, CB Maikel van der Werff, LB Andrew Gutman

This section usually runs five or six names long, but this is as far as I'm willing to go with it for Cincy right now. Cruz and Van der Werff are clearly starting-caliber MLS players (Cruz might be more than that if they slot him in as a destroying, Yangel Herrera-esque No. 8 fulltime), and Amaya and Gutman both have the potential to be that and more (even though they didn't often show it).

The rest of the roster has guys who could get there if the circumstances are right. Jans is going to have his work cut out for him.

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They need to rebuild that attack, which will be tough since they brought back so many players for 2020. Can Amaya be a chance creator, or is he a deeper-lying player? Will any of the wingers show that they can regularly produce in MLS? Is Emmanuel Ledesma – easily the best attacker on the team this year – coming back? What will shake out with regard to Adi's unfortunate situation?

Will they sign another DP? Will they draft well? Will they develop the young players, or figure out which of Bertone or Caleb Stanko is the right No. 6? Can Greg Garza stay healthy?

I've got about another 50 questions. The one thing I'll say is this: The 2018 Quakes had 21 points, three fewer than 2019 Cincy. The right coach and the right attitude can make a gigantic season-over-season difference.


Vancouver Whitecaps (#23)

In a lot of ways the 'Caps were more like an expansion team than Cincy, since Cincy had roster and coaching continuity while Vancouver rebuilt almost the whole damn thing. A gif is worth a thousand words:

I've seen Marc Dos Santos-coached teams before. I've watched him win in USL and NASL, and so have his former bosses like Bob Bradley and Peter Vermes. His teams have almost always played technically sound and tactically smart if unadventurous soccer.

This... wasn't that. Things started off ok enough for the 'Caps through 15 games – 4-6-5 isn't a disaster by any stretch – but then they just kept getting worse and worse.

All the new stuff that was supposed to work didn't.

FORMATION & TACTICS: Dos Santos was all over the place with formations. There were 4-3-3s, 4-2-3-1s, 4-5-1s, 5-4-1s, 3-5-2s and just about every stop in between.

By the end of the year – which was decent, with a 2-1-1 record in their final four games – they'd settled almost fully into a 4-3-3 with a very, very low block. The 'Caps often wanted nothing to do with the ball and as a consequence they gave up eleventy-billion shots per game, per Opta.

HIGHLIGHT: They handed LAFC their first loss of the year, which was a major accomplishment. And they picked up one Cascadia Cup win on the season, beating Portland 1-0 on May 10.

But it was that wild, back-and-forth, late-September 4-3 win at the Galaxy that had to be it. This was easily the most fun 'Caps game of the year for neutrals:

Make sure you watch that whole highlight package because some of those goals are utterly hilarious, especially the game-winner.

LOWLIGHT: July has a claim. They started the month off with a 6-1 loss at LAFC, then 3-0 vs. Sporting, then 4-0 at New England... and then they were outshot 32-6 in a 3-1 home loss against the Quakes.

But then, a month later, they made a return visit to San Jose and surrendered a league record 43 shots, including 19 on target (another league record) in another 3-1 loss.

The 'Caps were absolutely battered and if not for Maxime Crepeau's heroics this one could've ended 10-1.

REVELATION: Crepeau! The former Montreal Homegrown and future Canadian No. 1 wasn't always lights out, but he was often very good and absolutely looked the part of a (very busy) starter in MLS. He pitched five shutouts and made a staggering 114 saves in his 26 games.

He's just 25 and has a bright future.

DISAPPOINTMENT: Most of their big offseason imports, other than maybe Inbeom Hwang, Ali Adnan and Erik Godoy (who, while not outright disappointments, were still definitely less effective than advertised). A list:

Those were all supposed to be high-end starters, the spine of the new-look 'Caps. They were uniformly subpar, and I'm not sure I expect any of them to be back. Even Montero – who's been successful in MLS before – scored just four open play goals in 2100 minutes as a No. 9. That's catastrophic.

Your rebuild's not going to go great if the guys who you're building around ain't it.

PLAYERS TO BUILD ON IN 2020: CM Inbeom Hwang, LB Ali Adnan, CB Doneil Henry, GK Maxime Crepeau, W Michaell Chirinos, FW Theo Bair

I will say this straight up: I don't think Hwang added enough at any spot, and Adnan is a massive liability defensively. I wouldn't be surprised if either end next season in the "disappointments" list of this column.

But they've both got talent, as do Henry, Crepeau and late-season addition Chirinos. There is the foundation of something good here, provided Bair progresses and they get two or three BIG signings correct.

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Those two or three BIG signings, one of which should be at d-mid (they need to go after a pure ball-winner) and at least one of which should be a goalscorer.

Even so, that might not be enough for 2020. The 'Caps finished 10 points ahead of Cincy in the standings, but believe it or not the underlying numbers liked Vancouver even less than FCC. This looks like a team that needs to be smarter about how and where to draw their line of confrontation, and then be more ruthless about getting out on the break when opportunities present.


Orlando City SC (#22)

Another year, another rebuild! This time Orlando City's new brain trust mostly went overseas in search of new talent that they hoped would finally pull them into the playoffs. A gif is worth a thousand words:

The Lions have looked everywhere over the years – USL, loans from other MLS teams, European DPs, South American TAM guys, Homegrown signings – to try to rebuild their roster and compete. And to be fair, they really were more competitive this year than they'd been in 2018. They improved.

They also finished third from the bottom and understandably decided to part ways with head coach James O'Connor after the season. The improvement was real but not particularly significant, and the second half of the season was filled with indicators that 2020 would be more of the same.

FORMATION & TACTICS: It was usually a 4-2-3-1, though sometimes it was a 4-3-3 and there were some flirtations with a 4-4-2 and a five-man backline from time to time.

Tactically Orlando were somewhat limited by their personnel, as whenever they tried to push upfield and attack they couldn't defend. But when they sat in a deep block intent on just defending, they were never able to effectively attack. They were always two different teams doing two different things and never figured out how to knit the whole thing together.

HIGHLIGHT: That U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal win over NYCFC when the fans went berserk and sprinted around the whole stadium in order to be on the scene for the deciding penalties:

It was truly freaking awesome.

LOWLIGHT: Everything after mid-August. OCSC had gone 9-11-7 – not great, but not terrible and well in the race for the final playoff spot – and made a very credible run to the Open Cup semifinals. There was real belief in the fanbase that this was the year they'd get to taste the postseason for the first time.

They went 0-4-4 over the final eight games of the season and finished eight points off the pace.

In truth, though, the warning signs were there much earlier, as in the previous nine games they'd won just three times and weren't putting the ball in the net with any sort of regularity.

REVELATION: Ruan is awesome to watch. The Brazilian wingback/fullback is Marvell Wynne-in-his-prime-level fast, and there were times when the 24-year-old was a serious weapon on the overlap. His final ball still needs a ton of work, but the dude is just a rocket, and whoever the new coach is needs to figure out how to get the best out of him.

DISAPPOINTMENT: Chance creation and finishing. Dom Dwyer has gotten (and has deserved) a ton of criticism for his form in front of goal, and none of the other center forwards on the roster could do enough to pick up the slack.

But there were serious problems with their feast-or-famine creators as well. Nani, for example, had 8g/7a through July 7, the first 19 games of the season. Over the final 15 as Orlando City fell out of the playoff race he had just 4g/3a. Chris Mueller was a regular and produced regularly through early July, but fell out of the rotation right around then (for no apparent reason, it should be noted). New DP Mauricio Pereyra arrived and... didn't do much.

Equally disappointing has to be the fact that so, so many Orlando City cast-offs had good, productive seasons elsewhere.

PLAYERS TO BUILD ON IN 2020: W Nani, AM Mauricio Pereyra, RB Ruan, CM Sebastian Mendez, CM Cristian Higuita, W Chris Mueller

Nani and Pereyra are DPs under contract for multiple seasons, so Orlando City – whoever the new coach is – have to be all-in on them no matter what. There's obvious talent to be seen, but some worrying signs that whenever those two guys play together, the Lions are way too vulnerable defensively.

I still love Higuita, and would like to see him and Mendez in central midfield. Mueller and Ruan on that right side should be a nice combo.

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Find the right coach. They'll start Year No. 6 with Coach No. 4, and while this isn't a complete roster by any stretch, they should have a decent amount of flexibility and a decent amount of talent.

They also have to figure out what Dwyer's future is. He turns 30 next year and has failed to hit double-digits in two of his past three seasons. The trend is worrying.


Sporting KC (#21)

They decided to punt their years-long identity as a vicious high-pressing team to go all-in on dominance through possession. And at first, it looked so, so good. A gif is worth a thousand words:

I understand why Peter Vermes made the decisions he did, even given how risky they were. All you have to do is watch the highlights from that Toluca series to know why Vermes thought his Sporting side could do real, meaningful things with the ball.

But that didn't last long. As soon as anyone got injured Sporting went in the tank, and they didn't manage to pull their way out of it for an extended period at any point in the season. And now they're looking at the start of a new era.

FORMATION & TACTICS: As always, it was the 4-3-3. As mentioned, it was a new-look 4-3-3 with a lower line of confrontation and a more pronounced emphasis on holding the ball and doing stuff with it.

Truth be told, Sporting had been drifting pretty solidly in the direction of pure possession over the past five years anyway, so this was a natural endpoint, from a certain point of view. They had guys all over the pitch who could pass and move, so why not add one more dude with Barca roots – while sacrificing the best CB in the league – and give it a whirl?

HIGHLIGHT: Literally the first games of the year were as good as it got for Sporting. They beat the brakes off of Toluca by a margin and, more importantly, in a way that no MLS team had ever done to a Liga MX side. As the tweet says, volume up:

Yes, the Toluca fans were jeering their own team. But you don't get to that point unless you're being passed off the field, and any time you're "Ole'ing" your own team, you're appreciating what the opponents are doing more than just a little bit.

At that point, having just demolished Toluca, coming off a 62-point season and a trip to the Western Conference Final, we all thought Sporting were a top-three team in the league.

LOWLIGHT: They definitely, definitely weren't, and it became apparent by mid-April that this team just wasn't going to be able to defend at anything near a high enough level to justify the identity switch. They conceded four at San Jose, four more vs. New England – which is when alarm bells really started to sound – and then three more to Atlanta in late April/early May. This was all while getting humiliated out of the CCL by Monterrey.

And it turns out that, and not the team who'd gone and did the thing in Toluca, is who Sporting were.

The absolute low point was a 7-2 mid-September loss at LA. Sporting had an outside shot at making the playoffs at that point despite their defensive and finishing struggles, but... that was that.

REVELATION: Nobody. Almost all of the veterans backslid, and none of the young players revealed themselves as "lock it in"-level replacements.

DISAPPOINTMENT: The whole entire season, to be honest. Daniel Salloi probably deserves special mention – his finishing was a horror show – as does Ilie, as does Krisztian Nemeth, as do a handful of others.

But the real one was Andreu Fontas. The former Barcelona CB was supposed to replace Ike Opara in the lineup and be one of the keystone pieces of this new era of Sporting football, but he couldn't stay healthy long enough to leave any sort of positive impact on the regular season, and even when he was healthy he couldn't really defend. It was Vadim Demidov-level stuff out there, and the Opara-for-Fontas swap (it wasn't a direct swap, but that was pretty much the deal) turned out to be a very, very bad one for Sporting.

PLAYERS TO BUILD ON IN 202: W Johnny Russell, MF Felipe Gutierrez, MF Roger Espinoza, GK Tim Melia, AM Gianluca Busio

Russell was probably the only player on the roster who can look himself in the mirror and say "I played at least 90% as well in 2019 as I did in 2018." He's a stud, and Gutierrez is close behind.

Espinoza and Melia are two of the veteran core who took a step backward in 2019, but not catastrophically so. And Busio... I'm still lukewarm on him. He's clever in the final third, has skill and work rate for days, but is too often sloppy or passive with the ball. There were times late in the season where he looked like a real answer, but there were many other times – both for his club and during a disappointing run with the US U-17s – where he looked like a giant question mark.

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: New center forward, new center back, maybe a new d-mid as well? The fact is the underlying numbers still really liked a lot of what Sporting did, and with even average finishing from their attackers they could've made the playoffs (or at least hung in the race until the very last weekend). I don't think the entire system is broken.

But they had a lot of guys out there who regularly lost their individual battles. It was brutal.


Columbus Crew (#20)

The Crew were saved! They've got a new owner and a new stadium on the way! And so it almost doesn't even matter what happened on the field in 2019! A gif is worth a thousand words:

Yeah ok, everything still probably felt pretty good in Crewsville. The team had a million injuries and absences throughout the season, but they played better late in the year, signed an exciting young DP and have a pretty clear path forward on and off the field.

Is it lousy to miss the playoffs? Sure. But 2019 counts as a success in central Ohio. It just does.

FORMATION & TACTICS: At the start of the year it looked like Caleb Porter was going to keep a good chunk of what Gregg Berhalter had left over, but as the injuries piled up Porter understandably cut bait and moved toward what was his preferred look over his half-decade in Portland: A mostly deep-lying, counterattacking 4-2-3-1.

Sometimes it was much more of a 4-5-1 and sometimes you could've called it a 4-3-3, but for the most part the Crew in the second half of the season were about keeping you in front of them then using their speed to hit on the break. And it worked.

HIGHLIGHT: They had a surprising number of wins over playoff teams, including season sweeps of Atlanta and New England. But "Hell is Real" was legit, and Columbus just pounded FC Cincinnati in Cincy in the second of the clubs' two meetings in 2019:

This doubled as the coming-out party for newly arrived Luis Diaz, who is a blur on that right flank. It was a really good day and a really good reminder of who the older brother is in the league's newest rivalry.

LOWLIGHT: From April 13 to July 13 they went 1-13-1. Yes, you read that right.

This was the "injuries and absences" portion of the season, one in which Columbus found each and every possible way to lose games – usually late and by a single goal. It was uncanny, and often times unwatchable.

But that somehow wasn't even the worst of it. The worst of it came during a six-game stretch from mid-August to mid-September when they were desperately trying to claw their way back into the playoff race.

Five times in those six games the Crew took a lead into second-half stoppage time. They only won two of those. It was brutal, it was self-inflicted, and it sealed their non-playoff fate.

REVELATION: If you have a DP tag you probably don't deserve to get "revelation" status, since DPs are expected to produce. Diaz certainly did, and so too did... Pedro Santos? Really?

Really. The Portuguese winger, who scored exactly one goal in his first 47 appearances (regular season and playoffs), went for 11g/6a in 33 appearances in 2020. He produced bangers on the regular, and his two-way work – he was excellent defensively – shouldn't be overlooked.

Neither should his underlying numbers, however. Just as it was right to assume he would progress to the mean after his first 47 games, it'd be smart to assume he'll regress back toward the mean after his 2019 season.

DISAPPOINTMENT: Milton Valenzuela's season-long injury. He was arguably the best left back in the league in 2018 as a 20-year-old, but never got onto the field in 2019 after doing his ACL in preseason. Hopefully he'll make as dramatic and effective a return as this season's Comeback Player of the Year, Jordan Morris, who suffered a similar injury before the 2018 season.

Artur and Wil Trapp both probably qualify here as well.

PLAYERS TO BUILD ON IN 2020: RW Luis Diaz, LB Milton Valenzuela, RB Harrison Afful, AM Pedro Santos, FW Gyasi Zardes, CB Aboubacar Keita

So here's the thing: With the presumably healthy return of both Valenzuela and Afful, do Artur and Trapp return to form? Do we start seeing more of Berhalter's old system? And with Aboubacar Keita's passing out of the back – people are sleeping on that polished left foot of his for some reason – as well as a proven goalscorer in Zardes (a solid 13g/2a season), maybe Columbus tilt back in the direction of positional play rather than pure counterattack?

I could list goalkeeper Eloy Room and CB Jonathan Mensah here as well. The Crew are stacked with very good players...

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: ...but they don't have a single superstar, do they? I like Diaz a lot, but I don't think he's going to get to "best player on a championship team" level. Nor will Santos, nor will Zardes, nor will anyone else on the roster.

The Crew have three DPs but all three are guys who can be bought down with TAM. They need to swing for the fences on a left winger who can give them 15g/10a.

Also, above I asked "Do Artur and Trapp return to form?" Right here I'll ask "Do Artur and Trapp return at all?"


Houston Dynamo (#19)

Best start to the season in team history! Worst middle of the season in team history! A gif's worth a thousand words:

By the middle of May, Houston were 7-2-2 and Dynamo fans were feeling it in a very real and occasionally loud way. They're usually a fairly quiet and amiable bunch, but in mid-spring whenever I (or anyone else) pointed out that the schedule had been very favorable and things were about to get very real, nobody wanted to hear it.

They should've listened. The team fell off a cliff at the end of May and never climbed their way out. In the process Wilmer Cabrera understandably lost his job.

FORMATION & TACTICS: It was a 4-3-3 that often played as a 4-2-3-1, and while it was supposed to be more possession-heavy, the Dynamo were once again a much more comfortable team on the counter under Cabrera.

And then when interim head coach Davy Arnaud took over it was kind of a mid-block 4-4-2 with lots of counterattacking principles.

But what does it matter? Those guys are gone and aren't coming back. Tab Ramos is here for 2020, and expect his team to play a fairly aggressive, front-foot 4-3-3 with an emphasis on third-line, progressive passes. I've had my issues with how Ramos's U-20 teams have played in the past, as well as some of his squad selection, but this most recent group balled out and worked as a unit.

If that's what the Dynamo are going to be in 2020, fans should be happy.

HIGHLIGHT: Houston coming from behind to humiliate the Galaxy on Decision Day presented by AT&T has become something of a tradition, one that neutrals around the league truly enjoy:

There was a lot to like about that performance from Houston fans. And of course it had to be bittersweet – where had that been throughout the summer, after all?

LOWLIGHT: The summer. June, July and August were abysmal, as Houston went 2-12-2 to drop out of playoff contention and into also-ran status.

The lowest of the low points came on July 27 and August 3. Houston had just beaten TFC at TFC on July 20, so it felt like they were heading into a two-game home-stand with some momentum. They lost the first 1-0 to a then-struggling Seattle side, and the second 1-0 to a thoroughly struggling Chicago side. "They've got momentum" switched to "oh no they dead" over the course of 180 minutes.

Cabrera was fired 10 days later.

REVELATION: Memo Rodriguez was very, very good with 7g/5a in a touch under 1400 minutes. He's not a focal point in any sense, but he's smart about sneaking to the back post and taking advantage of the space guys like Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis create. He is, at the least, a difference-making attacking sub.

DISAPPOINTMENT: Elis is still the same exact player he was when he arrived three years ago. Manotas followed his excellent 2018 season with a pretty good 2019 campaign. Both guys are still in Houston now, though it's not clear for how long.

The Dynamo might've missed their chance to either A) build a legit contender around two exciting, productive young players, or B) sell them at the height of their value. Or A and B both.

Not great.

PLAYERS TO BUILD ON IN 2020: FW Christian Ramirez, W Memo Rodriguez, DM Matias Vera, CB Aljaz Struna, LB Adam Lundkvist

So obviously I'm operating under the assumption that Elis, Manotas and Romell Quioto are all gone next year. If they're not, they belong here. Maybe Tomas Martinez does as well, but I'm not exactly sold on that (though if Ramos wants to press, I could see Martinez as a good fit in that system).

That's a pretty decent core, and can be better than that if Ramirez – who had 5g/1a in 672 minutes after arriving from LAFC in a midseason trade – keeps up that kind of productivity. But he's a hot-and-cold finisher, so it's a question.

It's also a big question as to how many guys across the roster will be back in any capacity. Ramos should have a mandate to go after his guys, so this could be a year of chop-and-change in H-town.

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Figuring out what to do about Elis and Manotas is, without question, priority No. 1. Priority No. 2 is to figure out if they're actually acquiring Darwin Quintero, and whether he'll be a winger or a play a free role as a second forward.

That's a lot to figure out.

From a 10,000-foot vantage point, they've got even more work to do. Houston have to build an actual academy as well as make that USL relationship with Rio Grande Valley functional rather than just ornamental, and Ramos has a chance to be for this team what Oscar Pareja was for FC Dallas a decade ago.

The Dynamo are a really, really interesting project for the next few years.


Montreal Impact (#18)

Montreal figured it out a little too late in 2018. They started bunkering and countering about three weeks later than they should've, and so they just missed the playoffs. But surely they'd take that into 2019, right? A gif's worth a thousand words:

What a weird, weird season this team had first under Remi Garde, and then under Wilmer Cabrera (who was recycled to the Impact about a week after he was fired by Houston). For a long while they were pretty good when they sat deep, had some guys who made plays, and even looked like they were set to survive the loss of Ignacio Piatti.

It wasn't pretty, but it was effective enough to have them at 9-7-3 through 19 games, and looking at a schedule with nine of their final 15 at home. FiveThirtyEight had them with better than a 90% chance of making the playoffs.

They went 3-10-2 as the team fell apart from the inside out. It was a disaster.

FORMATION & TACTICS: Mostly a 4-2-3-1 that was kind of a 4-5-1 and sometimes a 4-3-3. The impact didn't have the discipline or chemistry – or, to be honest, the counterattacking chops – to sit deep and be deadly as they had in the past, but this really was their best look. Any time they tried to come upfield they got shredded no matter who they were playing against, and were actually better against teams that pushed numbers forward, like Philly or Dallas, than they were against the league also-rans.

HIGHLIGHT: And yet, come September, guess what they did? They beat TFC in the Canadian Championship and earned themselves a berth into the Concacaf Champions League:

This win broke a three-year stranglehold for the Reds and gave the Impact a return to the tournament that they've always valued highly. It was a big, great moment for the club, and one that speaks to the fact that yes, they did have some talent in the room.

LOWLIGHT: Eleven days before that, with a playoff berth still staring them in the face, they lost 1-0 at home to FC Cincinnati. Yes, Cincy bunkered, and they were much better drilled than they'd been earlier in the year when they were a flaming train wreck of a defensive team, but... how? How do you get shut out 1-0 at home by an expansion team with the worst defense in league history while you're in the midst of a playoff race?

Montreal didn't do the old "one, two, three, CANCUN!" and hang 'em up at that point, but that was it. That was their season.

REVELATION: I really liked what I saw of Lassi Lappalainen, the 21-year-old Finnish international who arrived late in the season on loan from Bologna and produced 5g/1a in about 670 minutes. Based upon small-sample-size productivity and the simple eye test, I had him sixth on my 22 Under 22 list for 2019.

If he comes back, and if Piatti comes back and is healthy, the Impact are set to have an absolutely devastating winger duo next year.

DISAPPOINTMENT: Who, exactly, is going to play center forward? Anthony Jackson-Hamel has refused to make any kind of progress over the past two years after a promising 2017 season, and Maxi Urruti was just brutal in 2019 with 4g in almost 2500 minutes. He's still waaaaay too prone to pulling up from 30 yards and letting fly directly into the stands even when he's got good options around him.

PLAYERS TO BUILD ON IN 2020: W Lassi Lappalainen, W Ignacio Piatti, CM Saphir Taider, DM Samuel Piette, RB Clement Bayiha

The first four are self-explanatory. Bayiha, meanwhile, is a young (20) Homegrown right back who got on the field here and there throughout the season and looked both lively and filled with potential. He'll make mistakes – all young players do – but so did, for example, Reggie Cannon when he first got starter's minutes, and now he's a full international who's on the verge of being sold for millions this winter.

Note that Bojan Krkic is not on this list. The former Spain international can really only function as a second forward in a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2, so as I said at the time they acquired him: I don't get it.

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: One of the things Cannon had that Bayiha probably won't is a stable, proven pair of center backs on the back line with him. Montreal have struggled at that spot throughout the past few years, cycling through replacement-level players and never finding one pair that could lock things down for an entire season. It's been a struggle.

It was especially apparent this year as goalkeeper Evan Bush regressed. Montreal have a lot of holes to fill, but center back(s) is(are) the most important one(s).

Oh, and head coach. As I write this, they still don't have one.


Chicago Fire (#17)

The Fire spent a lot of time playing great soccer! They created a ton of chances, knocked the ball around a lot and could go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the league on their day. A gif is worth a thousand words:

Look man I have no idea what I saw. I just know that it was compelling even if it didn't make a whole lot of sense.

Chicago played some of the best ball in the league this year, and they played some of the worst ball in the league. That's how you miss the playoffs.

FORMATION & TACTICS: For the first two-thirds of the year Veljko Paunovic – stop me if you've heard this before – tinkered constantly with his team's shape, formation and tactical approach. As a result the Fire were wildly up-and-down and spent a ton of time playing from behind. That's what happens when your tactical approach is purely reactive.

For the final third of the season he scrapped that and went to a straight-up 4-2-3-1 pretty much every week, one in which they possessed a lot, built chances through the midfield and stopped bleeding as many sloppy goals.

HIGHLIGHT: From May 18 to July 27 Chicago played 12 games and managed to win only once, but what a win it was. They absolutely sonned Atlanta United by 5-1 on July 3 at home, and it really was spectacular.

This was the "it's gonna work!" moment, especially with a pretty manageable schedule coming up. But they wouldn't win again until August 3.

LOWLIGHT: On August 24 they went to New England having won three of their previous four and staring at a home stretch that was friendly enough. A win would've been great, but all they needed was a single point. Win at home, draw on the road has always been the path to the postseason, right?

Chicago had that draw right up until the 86th minute. Then Francisco Calvo gave it away to Gustavo Bou about 30 yards from goal, and two seconds later the ball was in the back of the net.

If Chicago had held onto that result they'd have made the playoffs.

REVELATION: Brandt Bronico has the best argument. The unheralded third-year central midfielder won himself a starting job as a two-way disruptor, filling gaps on both sides of the ball and generally adding value all over the field. He proved to be relentless (and, kind of hilariously, has tried to create his own hashtag).

DISAPPOINTMENT: I'm personally disappointed that Schweinsteiger – one of my favorite players of all-time – spent his final season at CB. I think Chicago fans are more disappointed that it took 20 games for the team to find a left back, and that none of the young players really took a step forward, or that Nemanja Nikolic spent most of the year unable to hit the broad side of a barn.

PLAYERS TO BUILD ON IN 2020: CM Brandt Bronico, LB Jonathan Bornstein, W Przemyslaw Frankowski

There are other guys I could list here – attacking midfielder Nico Gaitan, winger Aleksandar Katai, forward CJ Sapong – all of whom had pretty good seasons. But of that group, I'm not sure who's going to be back and I wouldn't be entirely surprised if it was 0-for-3. Dax McCarty would definitely be on this list after another good season, but he's already gone.

The limited number of actual defenders on the team from this past year are all questionable as well. It looks like a full rebuild is coming.

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Veljko's back for a fifth go-round (Ed. Note: That changed on Wednesday, when Paunovic was let go by the Fire), as is GM Nelson Rodriguez – though Rodriguez will reportedly be moving over to the business side of things full-time and no longer has say on the soccer side of things.

So it looks like Veljko and whoever comes on as the technical director (or director of football? Or sporting director? Not sure what title they'll go with) basically have a full roster to rebuild and a giant stadium to to fill as the Fire head back downtown to Soldier Field. There are going to be a lot of moving parts and a lot of things they have to get right, and only one chance here to make another first impression on the fans in the urban core.

They need adds everywhere, especially if they don't bring back those veterans mentioned above. Center back is an area of special concern, as is d-mid and that's probably where I'd start. I'll finish, though, with a little p.


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