Armchair Analyst: Your questions answered! A massive kick-off mailbag

There are just a few days until the 25th season of Major League Soccer kicks off. Lots of folks thought the league would never make it anywhere near this far. It's kinda fun to look back on columns like those and chuckle – especially after an offseason in which 10 teams set transfer records, meaning we've seen an influx of talent (mostly from Latin America) into MLS like never before.

That almost league-wide influx of talent, combined with expansion and expected growth from young players, means it has been more difficult than ever to do my Tiers of MLS piece, which will be coming on Thursday. There are plausible paths to very good-ness if not necessarily greatness for most of the 26 teams out there, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's save that for Thursday.

Now, as is standard for this point in the (pre)season, there are plenty of questions. I will do my best to answer some of yours.

Sigh. Yeah they probably are. Good lookin' out, Kim.

You are not wrong to think that, and I am surprised more folks don't see it that way.

Why would you ever, ever want to go on the road for a meaningful game in a league as skewed toward home-field advantage as MLS happens to be? Home-field advantage has always been more pronounced in MLS than in most other leagues worldwide, and that didn't change in 2019 when home teams took nearly 1.8 ppg. That's lower than 2017's absurd 1.94 ppg, which in retrospect might have been the high-water mark for MLS home field advantage, but is still higher than Liga MX or any of the big five leagues in Europe.

It's even more pronounced in the playoffs. Yeah, LAFC and NYCFC both fell on their faces last year, but home teams went 9-4 all the same. Over the past decade in one-off games (the play-in round and MLS Cup itself) home teams are 29-14. And in MLS Cup, it's 7-2, with the only two road wins coming courtesy of one of the worst calls in league history (Portland 2015) and after being held shot-less and needing the greatest save in league history (Seattle 2016).

Yes, part of this is the tail wagging the dog, in that teams don't necessarily win because they have home-field advantage; they have home-field advantage because they win. And yes, home-field advantage does not make you invincible.

But we have a decade of data that says it's a meaningful boost during the most important part of the season. 

LAFC press. RBNY, in the second half of last season, seemed to jam the accelerator back down to early-2018 levels. Sporting KC pressed this preseason. Inter Miami manager Diego Alonso has selectively pressed throughout his managerial career. FC Dallas turned pressure into goals in big moments last year, especially when playing from behind, and added one of the best pressing wingers in the league in Fafa Picault. New Houston coach Tab Ramos has said he wants to press. Philly jettisoned Haris Medunjanin – by some measures their best player – this past offseason because they want to press higher and harder with younger, more mobile players, and that's what they tried to do in the preseason.

D.C. United seem set up to press with a mobile 4-2-3-1, including a "3" line of attackers who are not at all unwilling to put in the dirty work (even without Paul Arriola). NYCFC have pressed a ton over the past few years, and in Taty Castellanos have maybe the very best pressing forward in the league.

That's about a third of the league who I think will either counterpress or high press outright. And that's not even counting San Jose, whose man-marking scheme is automatically a sort of pressing scheme no matter where Matias Almeyda has his side draw their line of confrontation.

I think this is the direction MLS will head in for this year at the very least, and I'm curious to see how it shakes out. It's much, much more difficult to press in North America than it is in Europe because of climate, elevation and travel, so there could be a pretty serious amount of attrition for teams that go all-in on it (as I think we saw with LAFC's spate of injuries at the end of 2019).

For what it's worth: Each of the past two Shield winners were pressing teams. No pressing team, however, has ever won MLS Cup by employing that style. Even Atlanta in 2018 were a sit-and-counter group by the time the playoffs arrived, and Sporting didn't really press RSL at all in 2013.

The subtext here is that 2019 was notable for its uniformity, especially after a half-decade in which teams had become more and more daring with both their tactical approach and their formation, as well as where they drew their line of confrontation. Which is to say that 2019 was overstuffed with 4-2-3-1 mid-block teams that were waaaaaay too willing to settle for crosses.

There will still be a lot of teams – maybe a plurality of the league – that play that way. But my guess is that Frank de Boer goes all-in on the 3-4-2-1 once he gets Miles Robinson back to 100% fitness, and Philly are absolutely committed to the 4-4-2 diamond. Bruce Arena's been tinkering with a 4-3-3 in preseason, but I bet that'll end up being a 4-4-2 with a box midfield by the start of April. Almeyda's kept everything behind closed doors (which I hate) this winter, but what's leaked out has suggested he's at least tinkering with a 4-4-2. Chris Armas has experimented with two-forward looks throughout preseason.

Gio Savarese hasn't trotted out a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2 yet, but he's now got three true forwards and it's been suggested that he's planning to play with two up top at times this year. I think Alonso will play a 4-3-3 in Miami, as will Ramos in Houston. Dallas might end up looking more like a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1 now that they have Thiago Santos to act as a true No. 6. Thierry Henry, in his debut as Montreal's manager, played a counterattacking 5-2-3 mid-block with a false 9!

Here's how Orlando City's preseason look has been described to me:

Pareja’s first-choice lineup seems to be sort of a hybrid 4-4-2/3-5-2, with Ruan as the nominal RB but bombing up the right flank, Benji Michel as the LM but doing a ton of work defensively, Miller as a stay-at-home left back, Pereyra as something of an old-style inside-right playing in midfield, and Nani in a free-role forward spot.

I haven't gotten to see them yet, but that sounds fun.

I think we'll have more tactical and formational variety in the league this year. I'm looking forward to it.

I don't disagree on Jose Cifuentes, who at this point is probably much more of a box-to-box, find-the-ball-and-win-it type of central midfielder than he is a conduct-and-protect DM, which is Eduard Atuesta's job. Now, I'm not saying that those rumors about Mark-Anthony Kaye being sold to Club Brugge are true, but I don't think Cifuentes came here to sit, and Kaye is definitely good enough to walk right into the XI for any team in Belgium, so maybe do the math there...

As for replacing Atuesta, I think we got a taste of it in the first leg of the CCL series against Leon with Francisco Ginella occupying that spot. I'm guessing this would be a like-for-like replacement after Atuesta is sold, which I'm guessing will be this summer.

The world's biggest Gedion Zelalem fan has checked in. From what I've seen and heard out of NYCFC he does not seem to be in their plans, so I'll set his minutes total at 250 and smash the under.

For what it's worth, the transition Zelalem needs to make is the same one Atuesta, Ginella and Jackson Yueill have made/are making. At some point you have to do more than just receive the ball well in traffic and play a nice, long diagonal. You have to create and take space, you have to be physical, and you have to actually defend.

This stuff can be learned, but Zelalem's career trajectory doesn't exactly instill confidence.

Relatively low, I think. McKenzie just turned 21 years old Tuesday (happy birthday, Mark!) and while he's gifted, he's still pretty clearly a work in progress. His reads remain a beat too slow against top teams, and he's not quite an off-the-charts athlete – like Zimmerman – to make up for it.

To be clear: McKenzie will be two years younger at this point in the 2026 cycle than Zimmerman is right now, so I don't think there's any need to rush him. Hopefully he'll have a strong U-23 qualifying tournament, a strong regular season, and a break-out Olympics and can push the issues, but I'm not going to panic if one or all of those things don't happen.

I also think I just rate Zimmerman a little bit higher than you do. He's like an old tractor out there, able to fill a lot of different roles with not much fuss. My guess is we'll see that from him in Nashville this season.

Chucky Lozano, Edson Alvarez and Diego Lainez.

Oh wait, you asked for USMNT players. Hmm. Other than Bobby Wood it's tough putting together a list, though it might be time for Matt Miazga to bring it back home soon. Ethan Horvath as well.

I guess those will be your three.

I don't think I actually have expectations for him in large part because he's such an unknown as a manager, as well as the fact that Montreal have an unbalanced roster that's almost constantly in flux. It's hard to have expectations in that situation.

I do have hopes, though. I hope that he establishes both a style and a culture in Montreal that allows young players to improve and in-their-prime players to become local icons. To be honest that's what should have happened with Ignacio Piatti, and it's a damn shame that it didn't. That man was one of the most entertaining players in league history.

So I think the best way to look at it is this: I hope he can do for Montreal what Almeyda seemed to do for San Jose last year, or – better yet – what Patrick Vieira did for NYCFC in 2016 or what Oscar Pareja did for FC Dallas in 2014.

Make it all competitions and I'm in – dude's got one of those assists already. Pity definitely struggled in Year 1, and I wouldn't have been at all surprised if there was no Year 2, but from what I've heard he was a total pro in preseason and then he showed as much against Motagua.

For what it's worth, as meh as he was in 2019, he had 7g/11a in all comps. So yeah I'll hit the over on 10g/10a.

If at any point in the past decade you'd have offered me "Peter Vermes + transfer window resources" I'd have said "65 points." Now, I'm not sure Alan Pulido is the guy I'd have targeted with those resources, but at the same time, had you put Pulido on last year's Sporting team, or the one before that, or the ones before that, you're looking at a 15-20 goal scorer (maybe 25 goals in 2018 when they were legitimately awesome).

But as I've pointed out a million times this offseason: I'm way less worried about the attack than I am about the defense, which gave up 67 goals last year. Roberto Puncec better be good, or they're in trouble. Again.

Lotta daylight between those two choices.

My guess is Nashville end up between 40-45 points, right around where Orlando City were when they came into the league in 2015. The difference is that the Lions did it with an impressive attack and a very, very questionable defense, while Nashville should flip that. I'm convinced Nashville's defense – their three-man central midfield and core of veteran CBs – will hold up well throughout the season, which means they'll never suffer the kinds of humiliations that hit FC Cincy or Minnesota United fairly regularly in their debut seasons.

I don't think they'll score much, though.

Columbus by a long shot. The Crew were one of the better teams in the East in the second half of last season, and all they did this offseason was drop a mill on Darlington Nagbe, set a new club transfer record for Lucas Zelarayan (who should compare favorably to Maxi Moralez), snag another veteran CB, and get Milton Valenzuela – arguably the best attacking LB in the league – back from injury.

I don't have them in that top, top group, but they're leading the pack that's chasing the alphas.

I might just pick the Rapids again? They were fun as hell in preseason, and they should be younger and faster at a few spots than they were last year. Add in a head coach in Robin Fraser, whose view of how to play the game is one that I like, and you have a team that should be fun waaaaaaay more often than not.

And yes, a lot of Rapids fans are upset that I picked them to finish 11th in the West, which absolutely does feel low compared to last year. But after looking at the underlying numbers, and after watching a bunch of film from late 2019, and after pondering their irreplicable success on set pieces... l mean, almost everybody else in the West spent big to get better.

Somebody's got to fall a bit, right? 

All that said, I wouldn't be surprised in the least if Colorado make like a 7-to-10 point jump and were comfortably in the playoffs this year. They have enough to do it, even if I remain iffy on the defensive capabilities of their central midfield.

Lots of teams are talking that talk but the only ones really walking it right now are FC Dallas, who could end up starting as many as six Homegrowns any given weekend.

Of course, what makes Ajax Ajax is that they don't just develop their guys: they sell 'em.

Depends upon whether or not Manotas sleeps through half the season again.

Let me put it this way: When Atlanta United's season was in danger of falling apart last year, Josef Martinez scored in 15 straight games and almost single-handedly willed them to hold together and climb back up the table. When Houston's season started falling apart last season, Manotas scored three times in a 15-game stretch during which they went 3-10-2 and fell out of the playoff race.

This wasn't entirely or even mostly his fault – the team was falling apart around him and I'd argue that the regressions of Alberth Elis, Tomas Martinez and especially the since-departed Romell Quioto were all more extreme over that stretch. But it was at least partially his fault, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that the Manotas of 2018 and 2019 was better than the one we saw in 2020.

In him and Elis Houston have two of the more underappreciated, high-upside players in the league. But one of the reasons they're underappreciated is that they go three months at a time of just kind of showing up.

If those two guys (and Martinez and Darwin Quintero) figure out how to put together 25 strong showings this year, Houston can cook. It's a major "if" though.

Did it make Jesus Medina impossible to bench?

I don't think Alexandru Mitrita has lived up to his DP tag, but he's still pretty obviously a starting-caliber winger in this league. If he can make a leap to "yeah, no doubt this guy is a DP" and Heber (my favorite center forward in the league) stays healthy, then NYCFC are probably outright Shield favorites, provided Ronny Deila doesn't tinker too much.

Let's end with this one, since it really is the Year of the Newcomer. And rather than one I'll give you five:

  • Joao Paulo looked legit on both sides of the ball for the Sounders in his debut
  • I have heard very good things about Junior Urso out of Orlando City camp
  • I have always been a gigantic Lucas Cavallini fan
  • Edison Flores was one of my favorite players in Liga MX the past couple of years
  • I don't think it's wild to expect at least 25 goals from Chicharito

All that said, I'm most interested in seeing what happens with Rodolfo Pizarro. He has been an uber-talented but mercurial attacking midfielder throughout his career, mostly in a support role.

The same thing applied to guys like Javier Morales, Federico Higuain and Diego Valeri before they came to MLS and had teams built around them. Pizarro has the talent to join that club, and Miami bet $12 million that he could. Those are high stakes, and it's going to be fun to see if they hit their number.

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