Here is the 2017 version of this column. Here is the 2016 version of this column. Both of those focused on the formational and tactical recent history of MLS, juxtaposing each against the yearly and year-over-year trends.
Here is the 2018 version of this column, in which the story was less about diversifying tactical and coaching trends, and more about stratification within the league. There are definitely "haves" in MLS, and if there aren't precisely "have nots," there are certainly "have lesses." It was obvious when you saw big-spending teams like Toronto FC and Atlanta United put up monster regular-season point totals in 2017 and 2018, and it was even more obvious when you saw who was holding MLS Cup at the end of those two seasons.
It was also obvious when you saw Seattle repeatedly take the first half of the regular season off, then add a major piece in the summer window and truck through all comers down the stretch and into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. It was obvious when you saw LAFC better Atlanta's debut season points total. It was obvious when you saw Toronto FC come within inches of winning the Concacaf Champions League, too.
At least in 2018, though, you could look at league stratification and add "yeah, but..." because of the Red Bulls and Sporting KC. All-in, RBNY are not a small budget team (they are among the top investors at both the academy and USL levels, which costs many millions per year), and neither are Sporting KC (same reasons). But neither club was playing in the same financial ballpark as Toronto, Atlanta, Seattle, LAFC and the Galaxy.
And yet, last year at this time. the Red Bulls were holding another Supporters' Shield and had set a short-lived record for regular-season points. Further, Sporting had topped the Western Conference standings with 62 points.
In other words you could make a very real – and frankly very true – argument that mid- and low-budget teams had plenty of precedent for hanging with the high spenders.
It's more difficult to make that case after the 2019 season.
• LAFC set a new regular-season points record and smashed the old goal differential record. They did so while easing their way out of one big, failed transfer (Andre Horta, sold at a loss mid-season) and replacing him with an even bigger transfer in that same window (Brian Rodriguez).
• Atlanta struggled relative to their first two years, despite adding the reigning South American Player of the Year (Pity Martinez) on a record fee. They still had enough talent to win the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup, plus finish second in the East.
• Seattle sleep-walked their way through middle of the season – a change from recent years in which they sleep-walked through the first half – then, as usual charged down the stretch, into the playoffs and into their third MLS Cup appearance in four years. You'll probably recall that they won it.
• Their foes in that game were, of course, Toronto FC, who set their own transfer record on Alejandro Pozuelo. He made the Best XI and is generally a sorcerer. Turns out that 2018 regular-season collapse so many took joy in was a blip, not a trend.
While all of that was happening for the highest-spending clubs in the league, the Red Bulls saw their season-long points total drop from 71 (2018) to 48 (2019), a 23-point decline. Sporting dropped from 62 (2018) to 38, a 24-point decline. It seems like there is no more "yeah, but..." and teams noticed. So they spent...
Transfer fee spend in MLS by year:— 25 Stories That Made MLS (@25_stories) December 17, 2019
2015 - $28m
2016 - $31m
2017 - $59m
2018 - $60m
2019 - $132m
Quite the jump as MLS clubs are playing catch up.
To listen to MLS's first big transfer saga - listen to Ep 7 here. https://t.co/uDJv5yZ97V
They spent a lot. NYCFC, Atlanta, Toronto, New England, Columbus, Orlando City, LAFC, Minnesota United, Portland, FC Dallas, San Jose, Sporting and Vancouver have all made club-record purchases sometime within the past 12 months. We'll probably be able to add Philadelphia and the Galaxy to that list once the moves for Jamiro Monteiro and Cristian Pavon are done (I will sob real tears if the Union are unable to bring Monteiro back).
Of course, spending wasn't necessarily a guarantee of success. The Galaxy only managed to achieve mediocrity and Chicago couldn't even hit that mark. But if you didn't spend like the high-budget teams, your margin for error shrunk, and when your margin for error shrinks with titles on the line, you usually lose – something that's become increasingly true as more player acquisition devices and aggressive ownership groups have entered MLS.
Let's look at it this way: Since the Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) era really started in 2016, large-budget teams have won all four MLS Cups, two of the four Supporters' Shields, and one U.S. Open Cup. In 2019, they won all three of those trophies – and the Campeones Cup to boot. Does anyone think that trend is going to reverse itself in the 2020s?
Yeah... neither do I.
One other note I'm going to shoehorn in here before we move onto the awards section of this column: Spending wasn't limited to the roster. The English and Italians may say what they want about Frank de Boer, but he was the most successful Ajax coach over the nearly 25-year span from the glory days of the mid-90s to the Ten Hag era. Guillermo Barros Schelotto won back-to-back league titles with Boca Juniors, and coached them to a Copa Libertadores final. Matias Almeyda is the most successful Chivas coach of the past half-century.
Again: Spending big on a big-name head coach isn't necessarily a guarantee of success, but it certainly is a statement of intent. One of the most fascinating storylines for MLS nerds over the next decade will be seeing how homegrown MLS coaches like Jim Curtin, Chris Armas, Luchi Gonzalez, Freddy Juarez and a host of others perform against imports with major bonafides from around the world.
If you're looking for in-depth, team-by-team breakdowns of what happened in 2019 (complete with silly GIFs!), here you go:
Ok, now let's hand out some awards:
You've seen all the official awards that were announced in October and November. I'm not going to double up on those. Instead, I have my own (un)official awards I give out every year:
• Player of the Year: Carlos Vela, LAFC
For clarity: I consider all competitions for this award. So if a player had a great regular season but biffed it in the playoffs, that'd hurt.
And obviously it hurts Vela that LAFC didn't win MLS Cup, but he scored 2g/1a in two playoff games, and 2g/1a in three U.S. Open Cup games, and THIRTY-FOUR GOALS and 15 assists in 31 regular-season games. He had the best regular season in MLS history by a mile, and his cumulative totals of 38g/17a in official competitions over one calendar year is the best in MLS history by a mile.
Other arguments I'll listen to: None.
• Young Player of the Year (21 or under): Diego Rossi, LAFC
Once again, 22 Under 22 got it right. Rossi finished fourth in the regular-season in goals (16), then added one more in both the USOC and the playoffs, all while contributing nine assists across all competitions.
Other arguments I'll listen to: None. If Paxton Pomykal had stayed healthy all year and played like he did at the U-20 World Cup, or if Ezequiel Barco had stayed healthy all year and passed the ball like he did in the playoffs, there'd be some discussion. But they didn't.
• D-mid of the Year: Gustav Svensson, Seattle Sounders
When Svensson started in 2019 the Sounders were 17-4-4 across all comps, and unlike in years past, basically all of those starts came at d-mid. What made him so special? Let's say it's the way he embraced his role, saying that his job was “to pick up all the horse**** and pretty much cover wherever they’re not, but, I mean I’ve been doing that my whole life.”
Svensson did that throughout the regular season, then did much more than that in Seattle's run to MLS Cup, contributing 1g/3a en route to the title.
- Atuesta was the best d-mid during the regular season, and I initially had him as the overall winner. But I can't escape the fact that he had his worst game of the year at home against the Sounders in the Western Conference final. Availability matters, but so do big moments.
- Ring is just awesome and one of the most under-appreciated players in the league.
• Fullback of the Year: Anton Tinnerholm, NYCFC
Going with a front-foot 4-3-3 and need your RB to cover endline-to-endline? How about a mid-block 3-4-2-1 and getting out into transition? Looking to just stretch the field? How about just initiating attacks via ball progression? What about acting as a pure possession hub?
Tinnerholm can not only do all of that; he can do all of that at arguably the highest level of any fullback in the league. He is smart, he is skillful, he is athletic and he is relentless. And he works seamlessly with NYCFC's high-profile attackers:
- Hollingshead was essential as an inverted left back for Dallas, and spent a decent chunk of the season being their best finisher (6g/3a).
- Philly's back four was super-lopsided with Wagner pushing way, way up and holding a ton of responsibility for stretching the field and providing the final pass. He handled it all superbly on both sides of the ball.
- Leerdam was spectacular to open the season, then reliable throughout.
• Breakout Player of the Year: Miles Robinson, Atlanta United
This award is given to a player in his third year or beyond who evolves from "hey, he's a pretty good player with potential and his hometown fans love him" to "wow, maybe everybody in the league should pay at least some attention here, because he's doing work."
And for what it's worth, I will never give this award to a DP or a TAM player.
Robinson barely played his first two season in the league. In year No. 3, he locked down a starting job by February and was arguably the second most-important player on a team that won two trophies. He is a spectacular defensive presence in the air and in the open field, and has turned out to be a much better passer of the ball and reader of the game than previously thought:
- Blessing was a back-up right winger, a back-up left winger, a back-up forward and an emergency right back. And then he became the starting attacking midfielder/ball-winner/destroyer/key to the high press for the best regular-season team in MLS history. Honestly, just flip a coin between him and Robinson – I’m good with either.
- As with Young Player of the Year, Pomykal needed a few hundred more minutes, a few more goals and assists, and a few more games where he was clearly the best player on the field.
- Yueill was a revelation as an Atuesta-esque game-controlling No. 6 for Almeyda, but his breakout wasn't quite as undeniable as Robinson's.
- Abubakar and Elliott, like Robinson and Yueill, were products of the 2017 SuperDraft, and like Robinson they're both center backs. Both were essential to their respective teams, but neither were as good as Robinson.
• Acquisition of the Year: Ike Opara, Minnesota United
Ike justifiably won his second Defender of the Year award and was the single biggest reason a record-settingly poor defense in 2017 and 2018 turned into one of the league's best in 2019.
That's it – that's the full argument. I don't think you need to go any deeper than that.
- As mentioned above, Pozuelo is a sorcerer. His MLS debut was one of the most electrifying in league history, and he was wonderful in the playoffs.
- When Heber was on the field, NYCFC picked up points at a higher rate than LAFC managed, and his 15g/4a in ~1700 minutes across all comps is ridiculously efficient.
- Monteiro did for Philly what Pomykal did for Dallas, which was similar to what Latif Blessing did for LAFC. He was awesome and the Union must figure out how to get him back.
• Best Coaching Adjustment of the Year: Brian Schmetzer punishes Atuesta
Time after time after time throughout Western Conference final, Atuesta would drift out of Zone 14 and leave just enough room for Seattle to complete a pass and take a shot. Time after time after time, Seattle capitalized. Watch where all three goals were scored from:
Atuesta is still learning how to be a d-mid. Schemetzer and the Sounders provided a harsh lesson for him in a huge moment.
Other arguments I'll listen to: Greg Vanney uses Pozuelo as a False 9 vs. NYCFC
- It threw NYCFC off enough to break their rhythm and spread them out during the first half. Then in the second half, Pozuelo was in position to pounce on the mistakes the Pigeons made. Simple as that.
Best XI and Beyond
As usual, I have a different take on the Best XI than the official one, largely because I take "could this be an actual team?" into consideration. I also factor in performance in domestic cups, regional competition and the playoffs.
GK: Brad Guzan
LB: Ryan Hollingshead
CB: Eddie Segura
CB: Steve Birnbaum
RB: Kelvin Leerdam
DM: Eduard Atuesta
MF: Mark-Anthony Kaye
MF: Carles Gil
MF: Nicolas Lodeiro
FW: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
GK: Steve Clark
LB: Brad Smith
CB: Walker Zimmerman
CB: Maxime Chanot
RB: Julian Gressel
DM: Alex Ring
CM: Alejandro Bedoya
AM: Diego Valeri
FW: Raul Ruidiaz
LW: Jordan Morris
A few quick notes on the above:
- As I said, I take the whole year, not just the regular season into consideration.
- The only hard choices in the First XI were Wagner over Hollingshead and Pozuelo over Gil.
- I chose three different formations: A 4-3-3 for the First XI, a 4-4-2 box midfield for the Second XI, and a 4-2-3-1 for the Third XI. If I was being a little bit more fair, I'd have gone with two 4-2-3-1s for these teams, because after a couple of years of somewhat drifting away from that formation, damn near 3/4s of the league snapped back into it in 2019.
- I cheated by putting Gressel at RB, but since he played most of his minutes at right wingback I can live with myself just fine.
- The "whole year" thing matters, which is why Ruidiaz is in there ahead of Kacper Przybylko on the third team. Ruidiaz is insane in the playoffs – he's now got 7g/4a in six games over two years.
- Winning titles matters a ton, which is why you see so many LAFC, Seattle and Atlanta players on these lists. I wanted to throw a bone to someone from Montreal, who won the Canadian Championship for the first time in years, but they were so wildly up-and-down that there's nobody who jumps out. Saphir Taider came closest, but he wasn't even in the squad for the second leg of the Canadian Championship final. So, I couldn't do it.
- Availability is an asset, and therefore minutes matter. It makes me cringe to put anybody who played fewer than 2000 minutes on any of these teams, which should tell you all you need to know about Heber and freaking Ilsinho, who had the single best super-sub season in MLS history (all due respect to Alan Gordon's 2012).
- If I did a Fourth XI it would be Przybylko, and then about half RSL and half Minnesota United.
- I genuinely think the Galaxy will be better next year without Zlatan. He made a bad team mediocre, but it's a different blueprint to go from mediocre to outstanding.
And with that, 2019 is over and the decade is done. Hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did, and see you all in the Roaring '20s.