Nobody’s perfect. I’m talking to you. I’m talking to myself. I’m talking to every single team in Major League Soccer. Flaws are part of life, and even the Supporters’ Shield winners among us can’t escape that reality.
As we’ve all experienced, I’m sure, those flaws have a way of coming to the surface during a pandemic. Routines have been smashed to smithereens. Chemistry comes from repetition, ideally in a game setting. The best ways to adapt and improve — training and, you know, playing soccer games — have been out of reach for longer than most teams’ offseasons.
Last week, I wrote about my MLS is Back Tournament dark horses. This week, I’m tackling my favorites in each group, busting out the magnifying glass in search of the flaws that could very well make their trophy dreams go kaput. Here we go, in order of group from A to F.
New York City FC: New coach, slow start
I don’t have any existential questions about the squad. The blue side of New York are deep. They’re talented. They’ve got a good mix of experience and youth. They’ve got an MVP candidate or three. There aren’t many clubs that wouldn’t swap groups given the opportunity.
That said, they’ve got a new coach. Again. A little consistency would be nice, huh? Ronny Deila lost both of his games at the helm back in March, but to be fair he’d had a grand total of two months with the team and 1-0 losses in Columbus and Toronto ought not spark too much concern.
Still, NYCFC can’t afford that to carry over to Orlando. Two losses and you’re almost certainly out, left to watch the rest of the tournament from home and in a hole as far the regular season standings go. Sean Johnson told us on Extratime that Deila didn’t come in trying to reinvent the wheel. That’s good, but with this squad, as Johnson put it, “We gotta put up a championship sooner rather than later.”
Seattle Sounders: Central defense & Nico Lodeiro
Sounders fans … sorry, supporters of the defending MLS Cup champions … are going to groan because they’ve got a pair of DP/TAM players back there in Xavier Arreaga and Yeimar Gomez Andrade, but this is all about nit picking and the pairing has just one game together, a 1-1 draw against the Crew on March 7.
Brian Schmetzer said this week that the club has spent the break fine-tuning the relationship between the two, as well as Shane O’Neill, but film and limited training are no substitute for game reps against the sort of strikers Seattle are going to see in Group B: Lucas Cavallini, Chris Wondolowski/Danny Hoesen. My feeling? They’ll be just fine, no worse off than everybody else.
The other concern I’d have is Nico Lodeiro’s fitness and form. This team became an MLS Cup winner when the Uruguayan arrived. He was the final and most important piece of the puzzle. Still is. What’s his status after tendinitis hung over his start to the season? As Schmetzer put it, is Lodeiro “back in the groove?” If he is, the Sounders might have another cup and $1.1 million in the bank.
Toronto FC: Jozy Altidore’s absence
I’m really searching here. The Reds are my pick to win the tournament. They’ve got it all. A championship-caliber squad, oodles of tournament experience and a manager who’s built a tactical foundation that can mix and match based on the situation and the opponent.
My only concern is the fact that Jozy Altidore hasn’t been training with the team. He returned to Toronto last week from Florida, where he was riding out the pandemic, and must wait out a two-week isolation period before rejoining full training. In other words, he won’t be on the training field with his teammates until early July at the earliest, giving him about a week to get ready for TFC’s opener against D.C. United on July 10.
To be honest, it might not matter. It’s not like the US international is walking into a squad that’s changed significantly. Other than Pablo Piatti, everybody knows everybody intimately. Plus, Toronto went to MLS Cup without Altidore last year and SuperDraft selection Achara was an absolute handful in his single start against NYCFC in March.
Minnesota United: Reliance on Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso
*** UPDATE (July 2): Ike Opara announced that he did not join his teammates at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando in order to rehab a preexisting condition.
Before I even write a word about the Loons, a word to my friends in Kansas City and Colorado. I already pegged you as tournament dark horses, thus you cannot be the favorite in Group D. Thank you, carry on with your day.
Now, the way I see it, as Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso go, so goes Minnesota United. The evidence is, well, self-evident. Without those All-Decade performers, Adrian Heath’s team set the wrong kind of defensive records and didn’t sniff the playoffs. With arguably the most dominant central defender and defensive midfielder in recent MLS history, they were the darlings of the league as they reached the postseason for the first time.
Opara is 31. Alonso is 34. They know their bodies, but the margin for error is small in Orlando. Three games, and the group is quietly stacked. What if one or both needs a little time to get up to speed? What if one or both picks up a soft tissue injury in the lead up or in a match? Hassani Dotson could fill in ably for Alonso, but the depth behind Opara isn’t quite as comforting.
What if both are good to go and dominant and all this concern is a moot point? Well then, Minnesota United might just make a deep run.
Atlanta United: Life without Josef
I figure Josef Martinez could score double digits right now. I wouldn’t bet against it. In Orlando, too? Even a torn ACL couldn’t hold him back from banging in goals, laughing haughtily at his rivals and staring down the cameras.
It’s a shame we won’t get to see that, but I’m just as fascinated by the prospect of Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco shouldering the load. I want to see what Matheus Rossetto can do. I wonder how much Frank de Boer can get from his wingbacks and whether Emerson Hyndman’s wonderful form will carry over. Can Adam Jahn quiet the folks who are already doubting him? Is Miles Robinson back to his Best XI best?
Thing is, none of those guys are Josef Martinez, and even though the Five Stripes are still favorites in Group E, it was always going to be an uphill climb without the league’s most voracious, intense goalscorer. His shoes are massive. Can someone or someones fill them?
LAFC: Carlos Vela’s status
*** UPDATE (July 6): Carlos Vela and LAFC confirmed that the reigning MVP will miss the Orlando tournament due to his family situation. His wife is pregnant with the couple's second child. ***
Is the best team in the league still the best team in the league without the best player in the league? The answer to that question is pretty obvious. What is less obvious is whether Carlos Vela will make the trip to Orlando. He’s training, that much we know.
Apart from that, I haven’t heard a peep. I don’t know. The silence is either deafening or a good sign for LAFC. What I haven’t heard is anybody say that Vela, whose wife is pregnant with their second child, will definitely join his teammates for the MLS is Back Tournament. That seems a little bit conspicuous, but what do I know? Again, nothing.
New right back Andy Najar had this to say this week, in a Facebook Live chat as reported by Diario Deportivo Diez: “I have Vela on my side – the best player in the league. I’m not worried about Chicharito.”
If Najar is right, I don’t see any real flaws with LAFC. Unlike some, I’m not that concerned about the center back depth chart. Tristan Blackmon and Eddie Segura got a good run of games last season, and I trust Bob Bradley’s ability to coax out the best in his chosen pairing. But if they don’t have Vela …