Armchair Analyst: Which MLS team is most ready for a CCL run?

In answer to the question posed in the title of this piece: None of them. All five MLS teams are in varying states of flux – some don't have defenders, some don't have attackers, others are a little bit thin at midfield, and one, uh, lacks a coach – at this point in the year, smack-dab as we are in the middle of silly season.

But we should take a look anyway, because the Concacaf Champions League draw is on Monday and we need to get just a little bit of hype.

For what it's worth my editors asked me to rank these teams, but I refuse to do that because so much is still in flux. So instead I'm going to go by 2019 MLS regular-season finish.

Which means we start in Los Angeles...

LAFC

Everybody's got plenty to play for in the CCL. In and of itself it's the championship of the region, and it's also a ticket to the Club World Cup. Beyond that, no MLS team's ever done it before (you already knew that), so there's the "first to the mountaintop" allure.

LAFC already know all that, and they already have all that as fuel. It's probably enough, especially given the way a CCL title would turbo-charge the Mexican-American fanbase in Southern California. The people would notice, and the players, I'm sure, have already noticed that.

But they've got more fuel if they want it, because if LAFC take roughly the same 2019 group into 2020 and actually win this friggin' thing, then we all reopen the "Who's the best MLS team of all-time????" debate, and maybe (probably?) put them at the top of the list. They could point to their absurd regular season, and their CCL crown, and then to the playoffs and say "a healthy Seattle side simply got lucky to catch us when they did, with two of our starting midfielders injured and our starting center forward not completely fit."

It wouldn't erase what happened in the playoffs, but it sure would re-contextualize it. This is LAFC's chance to be remembered as the best MLS team of all-time, which I kind of felt was their goal all along last year.

What they need to do: Think about how perfectly balanced the three DPs (really four if you count Victor Vazquez, which you should) on that great Toronto FC team were. None of them overlapped and all of them made each other, and hence the rest of the team, better.

Now think about LAFC's DP situation. Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez play the same spot, so if Bob Bradley wants to get the both of them on the field, as well as Carlos Vela, he's got to play one of them waaay out of position and another on his less-comfortable side. Usually it was Vela as a false 9 with Rossi and Rodriguez taking turns playing right wing, as opposed to both's preferred spot on the left.

They ended up making each other worse. And I don't believe an MLS team is equipped to win the CCL if the DPs aren't out there at all times making each other and all their teammates better. As of now, Rossi and Rodriguez are redundant.

So yeah, I think that means they'll sell Rossi this winter and use that windfall to add a DP center forward. I keep asking them to break the bank for Gabigol, but if they only crack it open enough to get J.J. Macias instead, I won't complain. Either of them – or someone who plays like them, and at a similar level – would give LAFC the best attack in the region.

LAFC also very obviously need to add a bunch of midfield depth, as well as center back and right back. And they've got to figure out who their No. 1 goalkeeper is. There's a lot on their plate, but also a huge opportunity staring them in the face.

NYCFC

NYCFC | USA Today Sports Images

"It wouldn't erase what happened in the playoffs, but it sure would re-contextualize it" could very comfortably apply to the Cityzens as well. As is now custom, they fell right on their collective face in the Eastern Conference semifinals, this time self-destructing in the second-half of a 2-1 home(ish) loss to Toronto.

There would be no "best team of all-time" debate with NYCFC were they to win this, but it would function as a thousand-watt proof of concept moment for a club that's put together four straight good-to-excellent regular seasons, but exactly nothing outside of that.

Also, it would be hilarious if NYCFC won a continental title before Manchester City managed it.

What they need to do: Hire a coach! This roster is probably the most complete in MLS here in early December, and while now-former head coach Dome Torrent rode into the sunset complaining about the lack of investment... yeah, I just don't see it. Alexandru Mitrita was one of the biggest purchases in MLS history, and fairly frequently looked the part in the second half of the season, while Heber was an absolute steal (he was the third-best center forward in the league). They also brought in Gary Mackay-Steven, kept Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, purchased Taty Castellanos outright, and developed James Sands from the academy.

NYCFC were stacked, and still are stacked.

Can they figure out a way to bring Keaton Parks back? I don't know – apparently he really does have his heart set on Europe, and only on Europe. Are they significantly worse without the giant box-to-box midfielder? Probably not – Parks was really good, but not irreplaceable (if you can replace Yangel Herrera, you can replace Keaton Parks).

Offloading Jesus Medina will give them a little financial wiggle room to address that need, but the rest of it is all right there. If they get a good coach in (sadly, it looks like it won't be Gio van Bronckhorst), they will be among the Supporters' Shield favorites heading into 2020, and have as good a CCL shot as anyone north of the Rio Grande.

Atlanta United

Here's a question for you: If Atlanta were to do the thing here and win the CCL, would we consider them a dynasty? I think we'd have to, right? They'd have gone for MLS Cup (2018), U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup (2019) and CCL (2020). Four trophies over a three-year stretch with a lot of the same players doing a lot of the same things sure feels like a dynasty.

And the Five Stripes aren't going to be overawed by the moment. They beat eventual CCL champions Monterrey 1-0 last year, and then they beat Club America 3-2 for the Campeones Cup in an absolute banger of a match. I think if I was an Atlanta fan I'd have watched the replay of that one five or six times by now.

What they need to do: The best player on the field in the Campeones Cup? Darlington Nagbe. He was immense.

And now he's left an immense hole in central midfield, so far with no obvious replacement. Maybe it'll be Emerson Hyndman if they can get him permanently, or maybe Eric Remedi moves back into the XI, this time with Jeff Larentowicz sitting deep and shielding the backline. Both Hyndman and Remedi are solid-to-excellent players in certain roles, but neither can do what Nagbe did on that day.

Atlanta also, at this point, have basically zero defensive depth. That's a problem. So is the ongoing Julian Gressel situation, which looks like it might end with Gressel moving to a new team.

But the biggest problem is this: It's still not clear how to get the best out of their trio of DPs when they're on the field together. At times it was a 3-4-2-1 with Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez playing underneath Josef Martinez, and sometimes it was a 4-3-3 with both miscast as wingers, and sometimes it was a 4-2-3-1 with one of them as an underneath playmaker, and none of it quite worked, did it?

They won a lot of games on pure talent, but too often when they had the opportunity to get on the ball and work together to impose their will on the opponent – and just play them on the field – there were no answers.

Seattle Sounders

Brian Schmetzer and Nico Lodeiro at Seattle's MLS Cup victory parade | Seattle Sounders

Take LAFC's "best team in MLS history" argument above and just rearrange a few parts. For Seattle it's "we scuffled through most of the regular season because we had injuries – the best center back you've ever seen in this league retired in April because of one – and international absences, and were navigating what amounted to an entirely new era. Y'all are lucky that was the case otherwise we'd have done to you in the regular season what we did to you in the playoffs."

It's not a bad argument! With their MLS Cup win, they're now 15-1-2 when Nico Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris all start. It's very difficult to be better than that.

Also remember that their second-half surge in 2018 was literally the best half-season, in terms of points per game, in MLS history. If not for a couple of untimely injuries in the playoffs that year (including going down to 10 men at Portland, which allowed the Timbers to score), maybe we're talking about four MLS Cup appearances and three wins in four years?

What they need to do: Replace Victor Rodriguez. Then replace Roman Torres and maybe Kim Kee-Hee, and maybe figure out how to bring Brad Smith back. For a club that won ostensibly the most important game of the season a month ago, their backline is in a lot of flux.

They also need to add some central midfield depth, and figure out if Will Bruin is good to go as Ruidiaz's back-up to start the year. And what about Handwalla Bwana? Is he ready to contribute as an off-the-bench speed option on the wing? These are all boxes on the list to check.

In reality we'll figure out just how serious Seattle are about the CCL once we see what they do with their open DP slot this winter. Currently it's occupied by CB Xavier Arreaga, but they could very easily convert Arreaga to a TAM guy and go BIG on a third true DP. GM Garth Lagerwey has a long-stated preference for buying during the summer window – and honestly, given the Lodeiro and Ruidiaz signings, who can blame him? – but man, how terrifying would this team be if they added another DP in attack?

Lodeiro's Uruguay teammate, winger Brian Lozano of Santos Laguna, has been rumored to have MLS interest this winter. I'll just say that it would make a whole heaping ton of sense if that interest was coming from Seattle, who could then invent winning CCL for MLS clubs.

Montreal Impact

L'Impact have easily the most storied CCL history of these clubs, having made it to the quarterfinals in 2009 (they lost a blinder to Santos, 5-4 over two legs), and then all the way to the final in 2015. Throughout both those runs they filled Stade Olympique. The fans turned the hell out.

So this means a lot to them, from owner Joey Saputo all the way down. And new head coach Thierry Henry will want, very badly, to let everyone know from the first moment a ball is kicked under his watch that his team is there to play locked-down, buttoned-up, ruthless and regimented soccer. He will demand nothing less than the very best from his players (as was the case when he was basically player-coach for the Red Bulls).

It's a big and potentially revitalizing moment for a club that wasn't, in the end, able to build any real momentum from that 2015 run.

What they need to do: The Impact finished 18th in MLS last season, and only three teams conceded more than the 60 they shipped. It was a truly miserable second-half-of-the-year performance that did them in, after what had been a fairly promising and workmanlike first half. The only high spot past June was their hold-on-for-dear-life Canadian Championship win over Toronto, which is why they're here.

Montreal need a new defense, and they seem to know as much, since most of the guys who played last year are now gone. If they don't address that in a meaningful way, they will not just be doomed to fail in the CCL, but once again in the regular season. This is an existential thing.

So let's assume they're putting the bulk of their toil this offseason toward that. If that's the case, then job No. 2 needs to be figuring out how to balance the attack:

  • Ignacio Piatti is a soon-to-be 35-year-old legend who only managed to stay healthy for 757 minutes last year
  • Bojan Krkic is a career second-forward who doesn't seem to have a place on a team that looks built to play a 4-3-3
  • Maxi Urruti is a well-paid center forward who has six goals in his last 53 games
  • Lassi Lappalainen – who is awesome – is, like Piatti, at his best as a left winger

This roster needs work. I don't see how it's possible they could get enough done to actually compete for the CCL title this year, but if they manage it... damn will they have earned it.

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