Given the new realities about spending power and youth development throughout much of MLS, it feels safe to say that the past few years have represented, in many ways, the start of a new era. Part and parcel of that – or maybe "the bedrock foundation of that" is a better way to put it – is that there is more competition up and down the roster for starting spots, rotation spots, gameday 18s and so on.
This is not necessarily true of every team. Seattle, for example, seem to have a clear-cut XI, as do Columbus, as do a few others. But many teams have at least one or two spots that look like they're up for grabs, and I'm gonna dive into the ones that are most intriguing to me.
And in we go:
Nashville's No. 9
I am pretty sure, at this point, that Gary Smith is going to start his pair of veteran deep-lying midfielders, Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy. I am almost equally sure that Randall Leal and DP Hany Mukhtar will start somewhere along the "3" line in the 4-2-3-1. My guess is that Leal will be on the left and Mukhtar as the 10, with David Accam as the other winger. But I wouldn't rule out a more conservative look with Leal and Mukhtar on the wings and Derrick Jones as a third CM, nominally the "10" but really more of an advanced No. 8.
But it's the battle up top that has me most intrigued right now, because I think that regardless of how Nashville set up that midfield, they will create at least a few chances. The question is who will do the job of putting them into the back of the net, and thus far...
SMITH: Ríos fit in really well with the "first group". Each forward has different qualities. Ríos has great holdup play and passing, Danladi has pace, and Badji is really the only player who hasn't had a chance up front. Says Badji is a mix between the two. Ríos fit in well.— Ben Wright (@benwright) February 9, 2020
...thus far Smith still seems to be weighing his options.
Earlier this preseason it looked like Dom Badji had the upper hand, but a minor knock has kept him off the field for a bit and it's tough to deny Abu Danladi's talent (if he can stay healthy, which is basically the "if" that ended his career in Minnesota) as well as Daniel Rios's productivity in the USL.
My money is on Rios, who produced 41g/5a in about 5000 USL minutes over the past two years (all competitions), a very healthy rate that puts him up there with guys like Christian Ramirez, Cory Burke and Brian White who transitioned from lower-level superstars to MLS regulars.
It's not a guarantee, of course. There are plenty of guys who scored for fun in USL and then just couldn't cut it in MLS. But Rios's underlying numbers were also pretty promising, and his track record includes several years as a pretty consistent goal threat at the second level in Mexico as well.
Sporting KC's midfield trio
After last year's disastrous season Peter Vermes promised major additions on every line, and then delivered. Alan Pulido is Sporting KC's record signing and write-it-in-pen starting No. 9, and it's a good bet that Roberto Puncec was brought in to be the starting right center back next to Matt Besler. Those two needs were easy to identify and there were very obvious, if expensive, ways of going about filling them.
It was harder to figure out their midfield.
• Starting d-mid Ilie Sanchez has been invaluable since he arrived a few years ago, and was arguably the league's third-best d-mid, behind only Tyler Adams and Diego Chara, in 2018. But he fell off hard in 2019 as Sporting struggled to compress the field, which shined a bright light on his lack of field coverage. Sporting were trying to win last year by exerting constant control of the game by using the ball, but that left them more vulnerable than ever when they lost posession, and Ilie's not really made for transition-heavy contests.
• Year after year there is an argument to be made for Roger Espinoza's inclusion in the "who's each team's most important player?" list. But he's 33 now, and SKC's tactical approach became less about their re-press (which Espinoza excels at) and more about positional play, discipline and technique with the ball (where he's, um, less good). Espinoza spent a lot of time disconnected from the other midfielders last year.
• Felipe Gutierrez wears the No. 10 and plays that spot a bunch, but isn't really a pure playmaker (he has five assists in two years), and often seems more comfortable in a box-to-box role, or even as a regista.
• The major addition is Israeli playmaker Gadi Kinda, a 25-year-old who arrived on loan from one of the bigger clubs in the Israeli league and has mostly played as a No. 10. It is a loan – Sporting don't seem to have gone all-in on this move like they did for Pulido and Puncec – but I don't think they brought him over to be a spectator.
At some point it'll become clear what the best triumvirate happens to be, and one of these four guys will end up on the bench. Vermes's tactical approach will, of course, go a long ways in dictating that. Can Kinda press? Will they close enough space ahead of Ilie to keep the Spaniard from being overwhelmed physically in transition moments? Does Roger have enough left in the tank?
Bear this in mind: Sporting were a 62-point team in 2018, and they look stronger on paper this year than they did that year.
Of course, they looked pretty good on paper last year, too.
Where does Darwin play?
The answer to this question will in large part be determined by how much defensive work Tab Ramos can coax out of Darwin Quintero, who in the past couple of years expended an amount of defensive energy I'd file as "not much." Let's see how that worked out in Minnesota last year (volume up)...
Quintero spent a lot of the second half of last year coming off the bench for very understandable reasons.
Regardless, Houston didn't bring Darwin on to sit him, and Ramos has talked about wanting to play a front-foot, aggressive 4-3-3, presumably with Darwin on left wing. But there's already been whispers about Houston that maybe that's not the best idea, and playing him underneath a lone forward with two dedicated ball-winners behind him in a lower-block 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1 makes more sense.
It is a hard thing to find the right balance between how you want to play and how you're able to play. Ramos might have to thread that needle before he's even coached an official first-team game, and what Darwin is/isn't able to do will go a long way toward determining how Houston can play in 2020.
Philly's No. 10... and No. 6
Let's start with the second one of those, because the job of replacing Haris Medunjanin – the No. 6 battle – looks like a good old mano a mano battle between two newcomers, Slovakian Matej Oravec (the current front-runner to win the job) and Venezuelan Jose Martinez. Philly are leaning even harder to their high-pressing, 4-4-2 diamond identity this year, and that means one or both of these guys will be asked to not just win the ball, but to command the entire midfield and be the lynchpin in terms of guiding the team to keep its shape.
Whoever wins the job will instantly become one of the most important players in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The No. 10 is less a "who's better?" question than it is a "how ready is Brenden Aaronson?" question combined with a "how much has that role evolved?" question. Aaronson, a 19-year-old Homegrown playmaker, had something of a breakout season in 2019 and at times looked like a legitimate star. He's comfortable and brave receiving the ball in traffic, has superior vision and regularly gets the ball to attackers in stride and in rhythm. That all sounds like a No. 10, right?
Right, but also he had just 3g/2a in 1850 MLS minutes last year, and when the moment came – against Atlanta in the playoffs – he was not able to finish 1v1 vs. the 'keeper. He might be better and more comfortable deeper in the midfield, and in fact that's where he's played thus far this preseason.
That leaves the No. 10 job to record-signing Jamiro Monteiro, who returns to Philly after playing there last year on loan. He wears the No. 10 and so far he's playing there in the preseason despite the fact that nobody's ever going to write sonnets about his first touch or vision, and despite the fact that his shoot/pass rubric is sometimes tilted too strongly in the "shoot" direction. There are times where I imagine that has to be frustrating for the front line.
But Monteiro is an absolute menace defensively in the same way that Latif Blessing and Paxton Pomykal, two other slightly non-traditional No. 10s are. Monteiro just chews up ground, challenges everything, wins a bunch of them, and creates turnovers. Every single one of those turnovers then becomes a transition opportunity, and transition opportunities are the lifeblood of modern, pressing soccer. In the words of Jurgen Klopp, "No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter pressing situation."
Monteiro creates more of those counter-pressing situations than Aaronson, so it makes sense to put him higher up the field. He'll almost certainly be Philly's No. 10, and that tells you a ton about what the Union are trying to do from a tactical perspective.
Alexandru Mitrita v. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi v. Taty Castellanos
Mitrita is NYCFC's record signing and a DP. Tajouri-Shradi has been, when healthy, one of the league's very best wingers and just a lethal presence in the attacking third. Castellanos has been a jack-of-all-trade who might be best as a false 9, but has played well underneath Heber in a 3-4-2-1, and has had a few decent moments on the wing in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1.
Heber's going to start, and Maxi Moralez is going to start, and so far in the preseason it's looked mostly like a 4-3-3.
Bear in mind that Castellanos only arrived at NYCFC's training camp earlier this week after helping Argentina's U-23s qualify for the Olympics. Bear in mind, as well, that he's good enough to play for Argentina's U-23s, who just qualified for the Olympics.
Bear in mind as well that it was Tajouri-Shradi who showed up in the playoffs for NYCFC last year, and pretty consistently in big spots throughout his two years in the five boroughs
We'll get a for-real look at what new coach Ronny Deila feels the depth chart is next Thursday when NYCFC open their CCL run against San Carlos.
Other positional battles to keep an eye on
Julian Gressel vs. his own versatility: Right back? Right winger? No. 8? No. 10? Left winger? All of the above? Do D.C. United have cloning technology?
Rolf Feltscher vs. Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy RB): Guillermo Barros Schelotto trusted both of these guys so little last year in the playoffs that he played Giancarlo Gonzalez out of position at RB instead. Gonzalez went on to have one of the worst individual defensive outings in MLS history as LAFC targeted him over and over again, so GBS probably wants a mulligan on that one.
Araujo had moments where he was superb last year, but also had "young kid" moments where he fell asleep and cost the Galaxy points. This really comes down to "is Schelotto willing to live with those moments in the short term in exchange for the long-term gain?"
Almost everything about FC Dallas's front five: A reminder that this is what I have Dallas's depth chart at right now:
Paxton Pomykal, Bryan Acosta and Brandon Servania are all hurt right now, but all three were starters the second half of last season. If Fafa Picault scores, he'll start, but that's always been an "if" with Fafa. Pomykal could end up as a left winger, or Jesus Ferreira could. Or Ferreira could end up back as a false 9 – "the American Firmino" as my good friend Calen Carr calls him – or as a playmaker. Ricardo Pepi might win the job, or somebody could beat out Michael Barrios on the right wing, or Zdenek Ondrasek could go cold/not offer enough defensively.
Luis Amarilla vs. Mason Toye (Minnesota United No. 9): Toye's journey from non-factor to one of the hottest strikers in the league last summer probably saved MNUFC's season. Last year he had to beat out a DP to win the job, and this year he'll have to beat out an on-loan (with option to buy) TAM signing.
Amarilla has promised 25 goals. Toye has not made any promises that I'm aware of, but has been productive in preseason. Game on.