And finally, during this strangest of years, the summer transfer window has opened. It's safe to say that finances around the world are in flux, so there's a greater amount of uncertainty than usual. So some things might not unfold as we expect.
But there is still work to be done, and thus there will be shopping.
West today, East tomorrow. Reverse alphabetical order yet again, just for fun:
The 'Caps exceeded expectations in July by getting out of the group stage at the MLS is Back Tournament, and doing so despite missing a clutch of their best players — guys like Lucas Cavallini, Tosaint Ricketts, Fredy Montero and Andy Rose had been key to a promising start to the season. Getting them "back" is a huge boost to their hopes in August and everything after.
Meanwhile, the departure of Inbeom Hwang seems to be imminent. I'll say that he's been an aesthetically pleasing and obviously gifted, as well as largely ineffective central midfielder. If they can move him on at a profit, that's a job well done, even if it does (in theory) leave a hole in central midfield.
My Suggestion: Sit on the cash and make no panic buys. Let's see if Yordy Reyna or Ryan Raposo can play underneath Cavallini in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1, and let's see if some combination of Russell Teibert, Leonard Owusu and Janio Bikel can do the necessary deep midfield work. Let's see if the wingers are up to the job. Give the offseason overhaul you just embarked upon a chance to work before making yet another big addition.
Roll with what you've got and reassess in January.
Sporting entered the MLS is Back Tournament as one of the favorites, and they often looked worthy of that lofty assessment. They were significantly better than Minnesota right up until Tim Melia's red card, and then while they had to struggle to get past Colorado, they did in the end score three goals and got past Colorado. They buried RSL. They controlled the entire game vs. Vancouver and outshot them by 30.
And then over the course of 20 minutes vs. Philly, they got cracked open repeatedly and a flagrant lack of speed through midfield and on the backline was exposed, just as it had been last year.
This team is not in danger of conceding two goals a game and missing the playoffs as they did in 2019, but they've got some obvious issues that still need fixing even after their big winter outlay.
My Suggestion: Peter Vermes has already started rotating some new faces into the mix, with Graham Smith replacing veteran Matt Besler at center back for the final few games this summer. It is probably time to get Jaylin Lindsey real minutes at right back again — Graham Zusi will not want to re-watch the highlights of that Philly loss — and there is, perhaps, a need to reassess the midfield balance.
Making the Gadi Kinda move permanent would be a good start.
San Jose Earthquakes
Since Matias Almeyda came on ahead of the 2019 season the Quakes have made shockingly few moves for a team that was coming off one of the worst seasons in league history back in 2018. There have been useful additions — Cristian Espinoza being the biggest, though Judson (despite a tough MLS is Back performance) and a few others also deserve some dap — but the vast majority of San Jose's improvement has come from guys who were already on hand leveling up under the new boss.
How far they can level up without a greater talent infusion remains to be seen, though.
My Suggestion: Andres Rios is 31 and has never been a prolific goalscorer for any of his clubs, at any level. Chris Wondolowski is 37 and seems to fit perfectly into his new super-sub role (please don't retire, Wondo). Danny Hoesen is... probably on his way out.
The 'Quakes were in for Alan Pulido this past winter before the Mexican international No. 9 signed with Sporting. I don't think it's crazy to expect them to keep hunting for an in-his-prime, DP-caliber guy at that role. In fact I'd be shocked if they didn't — though I'm not convinced any signing would come this summer. It does seem more like a winter thing, once a few of the pre-Almeyda signings — Hoesen, Vako, and the rumored-to-be-on-his-way-out Magnus Eriksson — are off the books.
I'm curious to see how the Quakes will address the No. 10 role if Eriksson does indeed head back to Scandinavia. I am a fan of their 18-year-old Homegrown playmaker Gilbert Fuentes (who is much more of an all-energy attacker than a pure No. 10), but he's missed the whole summer to this point with a broken clavicle suffered at the end of May. If he returns and plays real minutes in the regular-season, it's a signal that San Jose intend to look inwards rather than toward the transfer market.
"The Sounders are the Sounders" is something you hear a lot of around the league, and have for more than a decade now. It's short-hand for "they've got some great attackers, they've got a great goalkeeper, they've got a great defense and midfield, and sure, they're probably not going to play the prettiest soccer in the world, but they're not going to beat themselves and they will be there at the end."
Except the Sounders didn't look much like the Sounders in July, did they? I don't think that Garth Lagerwey's had very many misses as general manager, but we're a year into the Xavier Arreaga experience now and it hasn't been great. He brings real David Luiz energy to the pitch in everything he does, for good and for bad — and this summer it was almost entirely for bad.
My Suggestion: I'm almost never an advocate for panic buys or going after players at the tail-end of their careers, but it seems pretty clear that Seattle should at least consider an 18-month veteran band-aid at center back. Would Ezequiel Garay answer the phone, or is he headed back to Newell's Old Boys? What about old Concacaf friend Adrian Mariappa?
Those are just two of the veteran CBs who are currently out of contract and could, conceivably, be interested in a sojourn to the Pacific Northwest.
The rest of this roster is good-to-great, but Svensson, Nico Lodeiro, Stefan Frei, Raul Ruidiaz and Kelvin Leerdam are all in their 30s now. The window is closing, and they need an upgrade in the middle of the defense in order to keep it open a little while longer.
Real Salt Lake
For 90 minutes, in the first game of the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament, RSL looked like they knew exactly who they were. They pressed the hell out of Colorado, created turnovers all over the field and walked away with a commanding and richly deserved 2-0 win. Sure, they hadn't created quite as many chances as it felt like they created, but we can chalk that up to rust, right?
It turns out we couldn't. For the rest of RSL's stay in Orlando they were largely pretty clueless in attack, neither possessing well nor transitioning well nor overlapping well nor generating many chances nor winning a single game, and only scoring two more goals — both courtesy of San Jose's chaotic approach to defending rather than anything sustained or purposeful in terms of RSL's chance creation.
This is a long-running issue. Part of it is that Freddy Juarez is still a young coach who has clearly prioritized defensive organization over all, but part of it is that RSL's personnel just don't really fit.
My Suggestion: I think it's fair to assume that the original idea was to sell Albert Rusnak after this summer's Euros and then sort of reload at attacking midfield. Except this year's Euros are now next year's Euros, and Rusnak's going to be 27 next summer. Maybe we're not talking about a sale; maybe we're talking about building the team up around him?
If that's the case then there's solidity (or something potentially better than that) at the back and in deep-lying midfield, as Pablo Ruiz's minutes were promising this summer. But we don't know if Young DP winger Jeizon Ramirez will be worth that tag just yet, and Corey Baird — asked to go 1v1 a million times per game — was not put in a position to succeed. Meanwhile 31-year-old center mid Damir Kreilach might still be the best center forward on the roster.
If Rusnak's staying, I think the place to start looking is up top. If he's going, though, the shopping needs to begin with a playmaker.
You could see Portland's depth building throughout 2019, as Gio Savarese slowly (too slowly for my tastes, but still) began integrating and rotating a cast of early-20s contributors at a bunch of different spots. This wasn't a type of FC Dallas-esque "throw 'em into the fire" approach, but that's never been Portland's way.
And it's clear that "Portland's way" has paid off pretty spectacularly this summer, as Jeremy Ebobisse and Eryk Williamson both ascended to starter (and arguably "star") status, while a handful of other youngish players have earned roles as meaningful contributors. They are now two-deep at right back, two-deep at left back and four-deep at center back.
My Suggestion: Do nothing. Or, at most, comb the lower tiers of soccer here in the US for a destroyer and do a sign-and-loan for the rest of 2020 just in case something happens to Diego Chara and you need to fill out the depth chart behind him and Cristhian Paredes at the No. 6 spot.
Force me to target a spot for upgrade, though, and I'd aim at right back. Chris Duvall has been serviceable and Pablo Bonilla looks promising, but if you compare them to the right backs for recent MLS Cup winners and the contributions they made (Kelvin Leerdam, Franco Escobar), you'll see a clear gap.
I'll type it here, again, for everyone to see: I'm one of those folks who wrote off Minnesota United after Ike Opara had to pull out of the MLS is Back Tournament. I thought they'd be cooked without last year's Defender of the Year, but they proved me (and a lot of other folks) wrong. Ozzie Alonso doesn't quite have the range he used to, but he's still a top-tier MLS d-mid; Michael Boxall and Jose Aja stepped up at center back in Opara's absence; Jan Gregus was Best XI-caliber throughout the tournament; Hassani Dotson provided cover at three different spots, Romain Metanire still breaks the game open when he gets forward, and CHASE GASPER!!!!!
My Suggestion: Kevin Molino, on the other hand, is not — not really, or not reliably anyway. When he is he's an All-Star caliber attacker, but he's 30 now and I don't think it's wise to suspect he's suddenly going to be healthy and available more often.
That's the bad news. The good news is that, by basically all accounts, the Loons are on the verge of finalizing a deal with Boca Juniors to acquire playmaker Emanuel "Bebelo" Reynoso, who would immediately slot in as the No. 10. Between him and Molino, Finlay and Lod, Raheem Edwards and Marlon Hairston, (and maybe, at some point, Thomas Chacon), Minnesota will be packed with depth on the "3" line of Adrian Heath's 4-2-3-1.
They're also three-deep at forward, and have already added veteran CB/LB Bakaye Dibassy this window. So once Reynoso arrives, this team really does become one of the favorites for any trophy there is to play for.
I'll still say it: LAFC were the best team I've ever seen in MLS last year, and the fact that they scored like they did in the MLS is Back tournament despite not having Carlos Vela (and Adama Diomande) around speaks to just how much talent they've packed into this roster. They have more and better answers at all of the front six positions than anyone in the league once those two guys are back, and I don't even really think it's close.
They have a ton of questions at the back, though. LAFC weren't knocked out of the tournament because of errors — Orlando City straight-up outplayed them — but LAFC absolutely did make things harder on themselves with an error-prone right side of the defense and goalkeeper.
My Suggestion: Getting Andy Najar fully fit and, presumably, moving Tristan Blackmon to center back makes a lot of sense. Najar, if he can be the guy he used to be, becomes one of the best fullbacks in the league, while Blackmon seems a better fit, both physically and in how he reads the game, to be playing at center back.
But "Can Blackmon play fulltime at center back?" and "Can Andy Najar stay fit and be the guy he used to be?" are pretty gigantic questions for a team with designs on winning MLS Cup this year. They created a ton of room when they traded Walker Zimmerman this offseason, and might have yet more if they sell Diego Rossi this summer (I actually think they'd replace Rossi pretty easily; I am less convinced that would be the case should Eduard Atuesta go), and I don't think it'd be dumb to invest that in a top-tier, veteran center back who can do a lot of the organizing that seemed to fall by the wayside this summer.
As with Seattle, Garay would seem to be the best bet, though someone like Martin Caceres would make a lot of sense as well (his contract is up at the end of August).
I'll say that I'm still concerned about goalkeeper, though Kenneth Vermeer's performance against Orlando was at least a little bit reassuring.
There are now rumors about Agustin Almendra, the young Argentine central midfielder. And that would be fun. So would Gonzalo Higuain – there are rumors about him, too. And while it'd be fun to see him and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez up top in some version of, presumably, a 3-5-2, I'll go ahead and say that makes significantly less sense.
I'll also say that the return of Jonathan Dos Santos, who missed this summer's tournament, should help a ton.
But none of that should distract anyone from the fact that the entire backline was a mess, the vast majority of the team appeared to lack fitness, none of the young players on the team appear to have improved, and there does not appear to be an attacking plan beyond "get it to Cristian Pavon and hope he can do something."
Things are pretty bleak.
My Suggestion: First and foremost they have to address how they play. A team with this much attacking talent — and the Galaxy do have a lot of it — shouldn't be settling for cross after cross after cross, and shouldn't be getting entirely overrun in central midfield. Guillermo Barros Schelotto is probably feeling the pressure at this point, and truth be told he probably should be. It took Oscar Pareja five games to turn around Orlando City after five years; it should not take Schelotto two years (or more) even if the roster is less than ideal.
Which brings us to the point that the roster is less than ideal. Daniel Steres is a functional MLS center back, and Nick DePuy is maybe on his way towards being that as well. Giancarlo Gonzalez, however, matched his shocking El Trafico performance in last year's playoffs with an equally shocking display this summer.
The Galaxy need an upgrade in the center of defense.
It flew under the radar a bit, so let me say it out loud right here: The Houston Dynamo played good soccer this summer. It wasn't perfect and they have some obvious spots to upgrade — especially if they sell one or both of Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas, and my goodness I've written some version of that a lot over the past two years — but if I were a Dynamo fan I'd be encouraged by the early returns on the Tab Ramos era. They seemed to have a clear idea of how they wanted to play, and executed upon it well for extended stretches:
The attack, even beyond Elis and Manotas, is probably better and deeper than most folks realize. The Dynamo have also been quietly adding young pieces to the roster, first signing Homegrown playmaker Marcelo Palomino, and then grabbing midfielder Nico Lemoine and fullback Ian Hoffman. And moving Memo Rodriguez to a box-to-box role has been good.
I like the way this is heading.
My Suggestion: Central defense is not a strong point for this team, and I am certain there is shopping happening for that spot. But the real, immediate apparent upgrade available is that midfield role next to Memo.
Boniek Garcia played that spot this summer, and while Boniek's a legend, he's about to be 36. Tomas Martinez has had plenty of chances and never convinced. Palomino... I mean, maybe. But it's hard to go all-in on a 19-year-old who basically hasn't played in a year.
There is an obvious need and an obvious opportunity to go big on a DP in central midfield. It could be a pure 10 like what Minnesota's doing in pursuit of Reynoso, or — and I have to admit this intrigues me more — go for a box-to-box, destroying No. 8 to complement Memo and d-mid Matias Vera. Houston's wingers do a ton of the creative work, so it probably makes more sense to slot in a combative, ball-winning type in the middle of the pitch and live off transition opportunities.
Obviously FC Dallas have had the weirdest summer of them all (or maybe second-weirdest, since Nashville actually shifted conferences in the middle of this thing), which makes assessing them pretty difficult at this point. I did go back and watch the first two games of the season and I saw the same thing everyone else saw: A young a deep team capable of some excellent moments, but also lacking in final third precision.
Jesus Ferreira struggled in more of a midfield role and Paxton Pomykal, still recovering from offseason surgery, came off the game in both games. Zdenek Ondrasek kept up his hot streak, and youngsters Tanner Tessmann and Ricardo Pepi produced. There's plenty of potential, and plenty of reason to think that Dallas will be in excellent position to compete for a trophy by the end of the year.
My Suggestion: Of course, some of the cornerstones might not be around by then. Reggie Cannon told us on Extratime four months ago that he signed his contract extension with the idea that he would still be sold this summer, and as far as I know that's still the case. Pomykal has attracted major interest from legitimately big clubs in top five leagues, and now there's this:
The writing appears to be on the wall.
A lot of what they do in this transfer window hinges on what happens with those two guys, as well as what they think Ferreira's long-term role is. I still think he's best as a second forward in any sort of two-forward set, but that's not what Luchi Gonzalez plays. I'd also like to see him as an inverted right winger even though he doesn't really have the pace or 1v1 ability usually associated with that role.
Anyway, the quicker Dallas make a decision on their two young USMNT'ers, the quicker they'll be in position to figure out how best to compete and be the last team standing at the end of 2020.
After an encouraging last 22 games of 2019, and two wins in two games to start 2020, the Rapids came crashing back down to earth in July. The rock-solid defense was no longer anything close to that; the goal-a-game off of set pieces disappeared; and the team lost their composure at the end of an admittedly frustrating outing against Sporting KC, which put them up against it for the final game of the group (a credible 2-2 draw vs. Minnesota).
The Rapids rode a knife's edge even when they were playing well last season — the margins are just slimmer when it comes to teams who are so heavily reliant on set pieces. Bringing in Younes Namli was supposed to change that, but the early returns a mostly kind of meh.
My Suggestion: Jack Price at d-mid lacks range. Kellyn Acosta has range, but has never really found the ball enough to be a go-to guy as a No. 8 (and yeah, he wears the No. 10). Adding Namli to that mix has just made the Rapids too easy to play through, something that's been on display repeatedly when they've been together in central midfield this season.
The other issue is an obvious one: Jonathan Lewis needs to start. He has three goals in 74 minutes this season, and 11g/8a in 1,748 career minutes over four years. Yet since scoring a brace vs. the Red Bulls at the end of last August, he's started just twice in Colorado's subsequent 11 games.
This makes no sense. The other guys on the winger depth chart should be chasing him, not the other way around.