Armchair Analyst: Eastern Conference position battles ahead of MLS is Back Tournament

Back in the preseason I listed nine position battles to keep an eye on. Now we've long digested two games back in the winter, and are at the start of what amounts to a Preseason 2.0. It's just June, but 2020 has already been a whole trip. This year has contained decades.

And it's going to contain what feels like a whole other year of soccer. We are, as I said, in Preseason 2.0, and this time I'm going to give you a position battle to watch for on each and every team. The East is coming today, and the West arrives later this week.

We're going with reverse alphabetical order just to mess with Atlanta fans. Here we go:

Toronto FC

Jonathan Osorio vs. Marky Delgado (No. 8): It's wild to me that Osorio might not actually be a starter, but if Michael Bradley is back and playing as the No. 6 (he is, and will be), and Alejandro Pozuelo is playing as the No. 10 (I don't see why he wouldn't be), and there's a DP winger on one side and a TAM winger on the other – or maybe a veteran winger (Nick DeLeon) or a promising rookie (Achara) – that means one of these two guys sits. The fact is that Delgado has started more games than Osorio in two of the past three years (including 2019), and his greater defensive range might be necessary in midfield alongside Bradley and Pozuelo.

Osorio could still end up starting on one of the wings, mind you. But that's not his best position and it's not an ideal allocation of resources given how much Toronto have spent on those spots.

Philadelphia Union

Mark McKenzie vs. Jakob Glesnes vs. Jack Elliott (CB): By some measures Elliott was one of the best defenders in the league last year, thanks largely to his strength in the air and his distribution. He really was excellent.

But in the first two games of the season, he was on the bench. McKenzie started at left center back and Glesnes, a new arrival from Scandinavia, was at right center back. And yeah, Glesnes provided what was the moment of the young season with that ICBM launch vs. LAFC:

I think McKenzie gets the benefit of the doubt here because the Union are intent on playing their academy kids and then selling them. He's one of their crown jewels.

But McKenzie also knows the deal: You have to fight for your spot. Elliott's learned the same, and Glesnes will be in for a rude awakening if he doesn't take the hint.

Orlando City SC

Chris Mueller vs. Benji Michel (wing): Nani was suspended for the first two games, so when the Purple Lions played a 4-2-3-1 – which is, I think, the formation Oscar Pareja would like to use – both of these guys were on the field. But Nani's back, and you can go ahead and write him in at left wing in ink.

That leaves Mueller, who has Orlando City's only goal of the season, or the Homegrown Michel, but not both. It's worth noting that when Pareja switched to a 3-5-2 for the second game of the season, it was Michel who started with Mueller coming off the bench.

New York Red Bulls

David Jensen vs. Ryan Meara (GK): Poor Ryan Meara. He had a spectacular first-half of his rookie season, then he got hurt, then he found himself backing up newly-arrived veteran Luis Robles, and then he ... stayed in that role for the rest of the decade (save for a one-year pitstop on the other side of the Hudson).

That's a long time to sit. But it looked like this season would make it all worth it, as Meara had the inside track on the No. 1 kit, despite the arrival of Jensen. It was Meara's job to lose. And in the final game of preseason, he lost it. Not because he played poorly, but because he picked up an injury, and so Jensen got the first 180 minutes of 2020 for the Red Bulls.

Your guess is as good as mine re: who gets the next 180.

New York City FC

Jesus Medina vs. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (RW): I can't believe this is an actual contest, but Tajouri-Shradi's injury issues and a new coach with something to prove have opened the door for Medina to maybe possibly kinda live up to that DP tag. He actually started four of the five games NYCFC played (all competitions) back in the winter and while he wasn't great, Deila found enough reason to keep running him out there.

Tajouri-Shradi has been a much, much better player over the past two years, but so far in 2020 he seems to be behind Medina on the depth chart.

New England Revolution

Teal Bunbury vs. Cristian Penilla (LW): Both of these guys started New England's first two games, but with Carles Gil healthy again and the other two attacking spots owned by Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa, there's only room in the XI for one of them. 

Penilla is the more natural winger, and he presents a threat off the dribble in a way that Bunbury just doesn't. But Bunbury's been in these types of scraps before and come away with the job, and Bruce Arena's always loved his veterans. I think Penilla's the odds-on favorite here, but don't be shocked if it goes in the other direction.

Nashville SC

Daniel Rios vs. Dom Badji vs. **New Signing** (FW): Two games, two pretty promising performances in a lot of ways, but no points and only one goal scored. We have said over and over again on Extratime that Walker Zimmerman might actually be the best center forward on the team, and the actual crop of No. 9s did nothing to convince us that we were wrong about that after the first two games.

Of course, we haven't seen much of Rios yet. The 25-year-old Mexican is a center forward in the "all he does is score goals" mold, and while that type of description is usually meant as a knock, in this instance it's definitely not. Nashville's midfield can do work – they thoroughly outplayed the Timbers in Portland – and move the ball around. It looks as though Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal will be able to create chances.

Let's see if Rios can finish them. If not, then "New Signing" – our guy Tom Bogert says that PSV center forward Maxi Romero is the current target – is probably the best bet.

Montreal Impact

Bojan Krkic vs. Romell Quioto (2nd FW): We only got to see Montreal play once with new DP d-mid Victor Wanyama, but his presence seemed to force Thierry Henry's hand. The manager switched from the 5-4-1 (sometimes a 3-4-2-1) of the first four games of the season to more of a 3-5-2 in the first leg against Olimpia. Krkic wasn't available for that one, so Quioto started as something resembling an-old fashioned second forward up top alongside Maxi Urruti.

It seems like Urruti is the starting No. 9. It seems like Wanyama, Samuel Piette and Saphir Taider are the starting central midfielders. And that makes it seem like there's only one job available to split between Bojan and Quioto.

The other thing: Maybe Henry scraps the 3-5-2 and goes back to the 5-4-1 with both Bojan and Quioto out there. If that's the case, then one of Wanyama, Piette or Taider goes to the bench. But I don't think that's super likely.

Inter Miami CF

Julian Carranza vs. Robbie Robinson (No. 9): Miami invested nearly $6 million on Carranza, a 20-year-old Argentine youth international center forward who missed the first two games of the year. However, he's now healthy.

Miami invested the SuperDraft's No. 1 pick on Robinson, who started the first two games of the season, assisted on Miami's only goal and looked very, very good for 45 minutes at D.C. United before coming off with an injury. Like Carranza, he's now healthy.

Both of those are significant investments. Scoff if you must, but nobody knows better than Paul McDonough (he drafted Cyle Larin, Julian Gressel and Miles Robinson) what type of talent the SuperDraft can provide. And while Carranza probably has the inside track because money, Diego Alonso already benched Carranza's more expensive and celebrated countryman, winger Matias Pellegrini, back in March.

If neither of them make the case? Well, Miami's still got a DP slot to use and Edinson Cavani is out of contract...

D.C. United

Yamil Asad vs. Ulises Segura (LW): D.C. had some struggles in the first two games of the season, both in terms of figuring out their shape and developing any sort of attacking patterns in the final third. Part of that seemed to be down to playing Gressel – a right winger or right back or right wingback, depending on who you ask – as a No. 10 for a bit. And part of that was shunting newly-arrived DP playmaker Edison Flores out to the wing, where he can play but not where he should play for this team.

By the second game of the season Flores was playing more as a 10, while Gressel seemed more as a pure right winger. That means there's one spot for either Asad or Segura.

I can't imagine there's a world in which Segura is the better choice, but this is 2020 and strange things have been happening left and right.

Columbus Crew SC

Vito Wormgoor vs. Aboubacar Keita (CB): Wormgoor, who was brought in this offseason, started the first game of the year at left center back. The 20-year-old Homegrown Keita, who started most of the second half of last season, was a starter in the second game of 2020 with Wormgoor unavailable.

I don't think this is actually a position battle. I'm pretty sure that when everyone's healthy, Wormgoor is ahead of Keita on the depth chart. But this is the closest thing the Crew actually do have to a position battle – the rest of the XI is written in ink – so there you go.

FC Cincinnati

Siem de Jong vs. Frankie Amaya vs. Allan Cruz vs. Haris Medunjanin (MF): FC Cincy hired Jaap Stam as head coach, and his teams have always preferred a 4-3-3. That means one of the above guys has to sit.

I think it's Amaya who's most likely to end up on the bench since coaches tend to gravitate toward older players, but I have no idea how you could play De Jong and Medunjanin in the same midfield without becoming a defensive sieve. And "becoming a defensive sieve" is exactly what a team that just set the single-season record for goals conceded and negative goal differential wants to avoid.

I love Medunjanin, but ask anybody on that Union team from last year and they'll say they had to do twice as much running to cover for him. De Jong's simply not going to do that.

Chicago Fire FC

Djordje Mihailovic vs. Ignacio Aliseda vs. Luka Stojanovic vs. Fabian Herbers (LW/AM): Mihailovic started the first two games of the season as a playmaking left winger, but Chicago just spent a lot of money on Aliseda, a young DP from Argentina, to play that spot.

Mihailovic can also play as a No. 10, but that's what Stojanovic was brought in for, and Herbers started the first two games of the season there. 

There's probably only room for two of these guys, or maybe only one if Raphael Wicky decides to go to a 4-2-3-1 with Gaston Gimenez and Mauricio Pineda in a double pivot. All of them can play in multiple spots, so this one really does feel like a free for all.

Atlanta United

Anton Walkes vs. George Bello (LWB): There are much, much more pressing questions about Atlanta, but this is one to keep an eye on as a canary in the coalmine. If it's Walkes at left wingback in Frank de Boer's 3-4-2-1, that likely means they've conceded the fact that they'll need to defend with five back quite a bit. It'll also mean that they're not expecting to have enough of the ball to really weaponize the wingbacks by creating width and penetration.

If it's Bello, that means caution is being thrown to the wind. The 18-year-old was supposed to get a few thousand minutes last year, but injuries robbed him of basically the entire season. And when he did get back on the field both for the US youth national teams and in preseason, his defensive struggles were unmissable. He's a net defensive negative at a spot where you don't see that all too often.

Pushing into the attack, however, Bello has the potential to be a game-breaker. We'll see if De Boer decides that's what Atlanta needs.

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