The summer window is open and will remain open for the next two-and-a-half months. As always, there's shopping to do (and some of it – looking at you, New York Red Bulls – has already been done).
We looked at the Western Conference on Wednesday. Now it's time for the East:
The Reds have one of the deepest, most experienced, most explosive and most valuable rosters in the league. It's also been one of the most successful over the past five years, and they've now found manna from heaven – first in the form of Richie Laryea and then in the form of Ayo Akinola – twice over the past two seasons. Lareya answered some real questions about fullback depth, and the fact that he's devastating as a wingback sure helps a bunch, while Akinola introduced himself to the world this summer in spectacular fashion as a center forward.
The development of those two, as well as the likes of Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado before them, speaks to something that TFC have done well during the Greg Vanney years: Take potentially good players and turn them into actually good players.
Which is all by way of saying I don't think they're going to make any moves this summer.
My Suggestion: Now, whether or not you think they should make moves probably depends upon how shook you are by how slow and defensively vulnerable they looked throughout the MLS is Back Tournament. Mind you, this wasn't just that they momentarily turned Federico Higuain into Kylian Mbappe; this was that other East teams began actively game-planning against Toronto's slowness up the spine:
I'm not sure that outweighs the fact that TFC had one loss in their previous 19 games. The larger sample size means more. But that loss didn't mean nothing, and it's pretty clear that a number of the more important veterans on this team are a step (at least) slower than they once were.
Maybe, as with Akinola, Osorio et al, the answer to this problem can come from within.
New York Red Bulls
Kemar Lawrence called 2020 "a rebuilding year" on his way out of Harrison last autumn, and it's hard to argue with him too much. Luis Robles, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Michael Murillo were shown the door at the end of last season via one mechanism or another, while Tim Parker seems to have lost his starting spot. Alex Muyl has also been traded to Nashville for international roster slots and potentially some GAM.
The high-pressing, Supporters' Shield-winning juggernaut of 2018 is a distant memory at this point, and more changes are on the way. Two big ones have already arrived.
My Suggestion: The Red Bulls just spent a DP slot on 20-year-old Englishman Dru Yearwood, who's never scored a professional goal and never played regularly above League One. Yearwood will be added to the central midfield mix as, by all accounts, an all-action ball-winning destroyer.
The other addition 24-year-old Ghanaian center forward Samuel Tetteh, who's on loan (with an option to buy) from Red Bull Salzburg. Tetteh has also played some on the wing and some as a second forward, which I think will be position when he steps on the field in MLS – so long as Chris Armas sticks with some version of the 4-4-2 that's been on display all year:
The big issue is that the 4-4-2 hasn't really worked. First Jesse Marsch and now Armas have tried it for an extended period every year since 2016, and it's never clicked. It certainly didn't this summer, as first Columbus and then Cincinnati waltzed through those midfield gaps that Atlanta saw, but didn't quite have the talent to exploit.
My suggestion, then, would be to switch back to a 4-2-3-1 with Kaku as the No. 10. Hiding him at left wing does almost no good for this team and the press no longer reliably generates chances.
I'll say again that it's shocking at how linear Philly's progress has been under Jim Curtin. Each year they add a couple of points to their total, first climbing to the playoff line, then above it, and then notching their first playoff victory last year. They followed that up with this summer's semifinal showing in the MLS is Back Tournament – a performance that could maybe have lasted a round longer if they'd finished their chances.
Throughout all of this Curtin has had to mix-and-match pieces. Replacing Haris Medinjanin was this winter's big project, and the next big project might be coming real soon:
It's not just Brenden Aaronson, though. Center backs Mark McKenzie and Jack Elliott have both garnered serious overseas interest, and a potential trophy-winning side could be a couple of bags away from suddenly going into rebuild mode.
My Suggestion: I actually like the Union better when Jamiro Monteiro's the No. 10 and Aaronson plays either as a winger in a 4-2-3-1 or as a shuttler in the diamond. So if Aaronson does get sold this summer, my simple solution would be to move Monteiro back to that slot and get Homegrown midfielder Anthony Fontana into the XI as a shuttler.
Fontana's not as tidy on the ball as I'd like to see and, like Aaronson, he will run himself out of position on the regular. But it's part of the Union's DNA to live through "young player" mistakes. The payoff seems to quite literally be worth it.
And so unless they're planning to turn Homegrown d-mid Cole Turner into a center back (they might!), they're going to have to do some shopping in central defense. Given Ernst Tanner's connections, I would expect central Europe to be the place to keep an eye upon.
Hats off to the Lions, who just about buried five years of failure with a spectacular and unexpected runners-up performance this summer. The fact that they did it by playing gorgeous soccer throughout...
Hats off to the Lions, hats off to head coach Oscar Pareja, hats off to the whole club. It was fun to watch.
I am especially impressed that Pareja conjured this type of turnaround despite making minimal offseason changes. There was an obvious upgrade at goalkeeper and one of the center back slots, and Junior Urso is in the mix at d-mid. But that's not a lot, all things considered.
My Suggestion: This is where Orlando City fans start screaming about the lack of an upgrade at center forward. It seems clear at this point that Dom Dwyer is never going to be the guy he was five years ago, and while Tesho Akindele is a nice super-sub option, I think what we saw this summer is probably the ceiling for what a team can manage with him as the starting No. 9.
The Lions have a lot invested in three young players – Benji Michel, Daryl Dike and Santiago Patino – who can all play as the center forward (though Michel seems more likely to end up as a winger). Whether or not the front office makes a big move for a big-name No. 9 might depend on whether Pareja thinks he can turn one of those guys into a 15-goal scorer.
That's a lot to ask of any young forward. Given that this is a legitimate window of contention, it's not too difficult to imagine the Lions brain trust using TAM to get Dwyer under the DP threshold and then spending that open DP slot on a veteran, match-winning No. 9.
First, the good news: Jesus Medina looked like an MLS-caliber starting central midfielder – more of an 8.5 than a 10 or an 8 – for the first time in his three-years-long MLS career. He was adequate enough to avoid a complete crisis when the Pigeons were without Maxi Moralez, though they were clearly much, much better when the little Argentine was available. If Medina's "breakout" performance didn't quite answer that particular giant question, it at least hinted that the answer might lie within.
Now, the bad news: NYCFC, even when they were winning, looked like a shadow of the team they were last year en route to an Eastern Conference-leading 64 points. They don't move all that well, nor do they really move in concert. They countered the Reds to death (scroll up to the Toronto section and watch that video), but when they tried to press in unison...
My Suggestion: This isn't a personnel issue, as NYCFC brought back almost all of last year's roster. This seems to be more of a coaching issue, as the shift from Dome Torrent to Ronny Deila hasn't exactly been smooth. Nobody's sat down and explained Deila's tactical goals to me over glasses of rioja, but I don't think it's all that encouraging that they've thus far only looked comfortable attacking out of a low block and have generally struggled to create chances when they've been the ones carrying play.
Help has already, perhaps, arrived in the form of Nicolas Acevedo, the 20-year-old Uruguay youth national team defensive midfielder – though that's not exactly the position of greatest need right now. What they really need is for Alexandru Mitrita to level up and live up to that DP tag, or for Ismael Tajouri-Shradi to get healthy and stay healthy.
The wings aren't "thin" per se, but there's been a lot of variance in terms of performance and on-field productivity.
New England Revolution
The Revs suffered a cruel blow when playmaker Carles Gil went under the knife following their elimination this summer, likely ruling the Spaniard out for the rest of 2020. There is no replacing him like-for-like, and even hobbled as he was, Gil delivered:
The counterpress the Revs unleashed on Montreal, and then selectively throughout the rest of their stay, might have to become a more regular feature. The issue is that New England are a relatively thin team already, and any type of pressing takes up a lot of energy. Drop that into the compressed, shortened season they're staring at, and it's going to be a tough ask.
My Suggestion: Matt Polster came into MLS as a d-mid, left it as a right back, and might be returning as a d-mid once again. He's needed more at that spot – where both Scott Caldwell and Wilfried Zahibo have struggled – than as a right back, where Brandon Bye was one of the breakout players this summer.
Depending upon whether they see Polster as a No. 6 or a RB, as well as whether they think they can keep him healthy (he's had more than his share of injuries), central midfield is the place to watch. They've got more questions than answers there.
Nothing's changed since we last saw Nashville SC in March, and yet somehow everything's changed as they are literally in a new conference now. The ground shifted underneath their feet, so welcome to what I presume will be a permanent stay in the East.
My Suggestion: Getting Alex Muyl from the Red Bulls was a smart move. Muyl's not a game-breaker but he's an honest, two-way player who's been decently productive and most likely represents an upgrade to the players already on hand at right wing (David Accam's winner vs. Dallas notwithstanding).
That's not the real question, though. The real question is whether any of the three center forwards on the roster – Daniel Rios, Dom Badji and Abu Danladi – will make a compelling case that Nashville's front office shouldn't go buy a DP No. 9. They didn't seem to, and at halftime of Wednesday's game Nashville GM Mike Jacobs said "help is on the way."
He probably meant Muyl, and I'm guessing he meant a center forward signing as well.
It's hard to get too much of a handle on what Thierry Henry is trying to do, as the Frenchman's chopped and changed almost by the game during his brief stint as boss. Sometimes it's been a 5-4-1 with an inverted right wingback, and other times it's been a 3-5-2 trying to get on the ball and possess, and still other times it's been a Christmas Tree 4-3-2-1 playing in a mid-block. I'm not sure what the end goal is, or what they're actually supposed to look like.
However, I do know that it's a problem that the best chances they generated this summer fell to Samuel Piette, a d-mid who's been moved into more of a box-to-box role with the addition of Victor Wanyama. That might be a clue as to where to start...
My Suggestion: Piette's a good little player, but when sequence after sequence ends with him being asked to either play the last pass or take the shot, that's a place you can upgrade. Kevin De Bruyne's not about to walk through the Stade Saputo door or anything, but the Impact have signed big-name players before, and obviously Henry's got some pull on that side of the pond.
Beyond pulling in big players, settling on and implementing tactics, and keeping a locker room together, there's another question that Henry needs to answer as a manager: Can you get more out of talented players who have yet to live up to their potential? If the answer to that is "yes" when it comes to Anthony Jackson-Hamel, then maybe Montreal don't need to go shopping for a No. 9.
Barring that, though, they absolutely do need to go shopping for a No. 9.
The first team in league history to lose each of their first five MLS games! I don't think anyone saw that coming. Things have been not good for Miami thus far.
However, things have not been as bad as zero points from five games seems to indicate. There was a good long stretch against Orlando in the MLS is Back opener, one in which Miami were the better team:
There was also an entire half at D.C. in Week 2, and just about the entire second half against Philly in Game 2 of the group stage. And they played NYCFC even in the third game – it was a long-ball over the top that did it, not any sort of sustained pressure.
I think Miami are much closer to being good than they are to being Chivas USA-style tragic.
My Suggestion: Help is already on the way in the form of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who will presumably slot into the center of defense next to Nico Figal. That's maybe a more adventurous center back pairing than most coaches would prefer, but would also represent one of the more talented center back pairings in the league.
Now that they've added French World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi as he leaves Juventus? With just those two additions and nothing else, I'd expect this Miami side to be a playoff team. Gonzalez Pirez is a clear upgrade at CB, and Matuidi – whose movement off the ball out of midfield has always been dynamic and dangerous, which means he'd pair nicely with either Wil Trapp or Victor Ulloa – should be a huge boost in the engine room (provided he's still got his legs).
Here, I said some words:
Transfer window craziness is coming, and @InterMiamiCF are already dominating the rumor mill...— Extratime ⚽🗣🎙 (@Extratime) August 10, 2020
Is Blaise Matuidi a good fit for the expansion side? Here is @MattDoyle76's take 🗣️🗣️🗣️ pic.twitter.com/WmQkgdpxR2
Getting Matuidi as a TAM player means they can add a third DP. Everyone keeps saying "get a No. 9, get a No. 9!" but as I said in the clip above, I think chance creation is their real issue. A true No. 10 or a playmaking winger seems a better fit to my eye.
The gap between what D.C. United have been this year and what I thought they'd be is pretty, pretty wide. On paper their roster fits snugly into a 4-2-3-1 with very little confusion or ambiguity about who would or could play which spot. It just seemed like you could roll that XI out there and they'd be able to figure it out.
They definitely haven't. D.C. are just 1-2-2 through five games, and two of the big new additions – playmaker Edison Flores and right midfielder/winger/wingback Julian Gressel – have struggled to acclimate. United did get two results in their first two group-stage games, but those came more from catastrophic errors by Toronto and New England, respectively, than from anything United themselves did.
So yeah, I don't know. I thought their offseason additions were good and made sense.
My Suggestion: Just give it some time, I guess. Not everything comes together at once even when it looks like it should, and it is waaaaaay too early to declare this offseason's signings as failures.
That doesn't mean they should stand pat, though. D.C. have only three center backs on the roster and one of those, Frederic Brillant, turned 35 in June. They have only one left back on the roster in Joseph Mora, and he's going to miss time on international duty.
An immediate infusion of depth is necessary. It looks like Axel Sjoberg could be on his way to address the first need, but everything else is TBD.
So it's safe to say, after the MLS is Back Tournament, that Columbus have a very good idea of who they are and a very good idea of how to impose that on less-than-imposing competition. They humiliated FC Cincinnati, dispatched the Red Bulls with ease and then rose their reserves to a comfortable 1-0 win over Atlanta. It all looked very nice very often:
It didn't look as nice in the subsequent game when Adrian Heath unleashed Hassani Dotson on Darlington Nagbe, a ploy which totally took Nagbe out of the game and forced Columbus to find alternate routes through the midfield.
The Crew never really managed it. I don't think it's anything close to a crisis and it's not like Columbus have been found out, but they were clearly less comfortable adapting to what an opponent was doing to them than they were imposing their will upon inferior opposition.
My Suggestion: Their entire roster is set, to be honest, especially since Sebastian Berhalter showed the ability to come in and give decent minutes at the No. 6 role. I straight-up don't think they should make any signings this summer – they're good enough to compete with what they've got.
Reassess in January.
The team of constant flux shocked everyone (except me – I picked them to get out of the group. You're welcome, Cincy fans) by getting out of the group this summer. They did it by bunkering for their lives and being opportunistic going forward, and given everything we've seen out of this club over the previous 18 months, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
There will be something wrong with that if that's all Cincy are by the end of the year. Jaap Stam's now had 360 minutes and some PKs to look at his team, and I'm sure he has ideas.
My Suggestion: I still have no idea how to knit together a midfield that includes both Haris Medunjanin and Siem de Jong. Maybe a 4-3-2-1 ends up being the look with De Jong and Yuya Kubo underneath Jurgen Locadia, and with Frankie Amaya (something of a breakout performance this summer) and Allan Cruz (something of a disappointing performance this summer) flanking and protecting Medunjanin?
Then there's the Mario Gotze rumor, which is one that will not go away. For what it's worth: This is not just a case of Crew fans making stuff up for lulz on Twitter. There is real smoke here even if the move doesn't ultimately happen, though I remain unsure of how Gotze would fit into any current or potential formation given the talent already on hand.
Figuring that out – if it happens – is obviously job No. 1. Somewhere else high on the list should be making the Andrew Gutman move permanent.
From the highs of that opening-game win over the Sounders to the lows of that lightning-delayed meltdown in the third game against Vancouver, nobody had as obvious a summer of "well, that's the pain of tournament soccer!" as Chicago did. They pretty thoroughly and professionally outplayed the defending MLS Cup champs in game one, then still somehow went home after game three. None of the above was really expected.
Also unexpected was the fact that the Fire played primarily in a 3-5-2 after starting the season off in a promising-looked 4-3-3. Also unexpected was that Young DP winger Ignacio Aliseda barely featured, nor did Homegrown playmaker Djordje Mihailovic, who was on the receiving end of some pointed words from new head coach Raphael Wicky when it was all said and done in Orlando.
Things in Chicago could be worse – they have been worse for most of the past decade as a matter of fact. But they could also definitely be better.
My Suggestion: Francisco Calvo is wearing the armband for another club and still making the same types of mistakes he made in Minnesota:
That's when things started to fall apart for Chicago this tournament, and I still can't get over that play.
And then there was the moment when things finished falling apart:
Our sample size is almost four years long now. These mistakes aren't going to suddenly stop happening.
I wrote a whole column on what went wrong for and with Frank de Boer in Atlanta, and am mostly glad I never have to sit through Ben Baer trying to remind me whether we capitalize "De" on the first mention or second or whatever. It's something weird, and he's probably fixing this right now and is about to send me a Slack message that I will ignore.
Anyway, the roster is a Frankenstein's monster of mismatched parts. De Boer (de Boer?) got a lot of stuff wrong, but one thing I think he was right about was the formation: Neither Ezequiel Barco nor Pity Martinez is a true 10, and neither Ezequiel Barco nor Pity Martinez is a true winger. So I think having them on the "2" line in that formation, one in which they're asked to interpret space and put their individual skills to good use, is a smart move.
It just works a lot better when you've got the best center forward in league history in front of them.
But anyway, I've got no problems with the 3-4-2-1.
My Suggestion: We'll have to first see who the new coach is, as there's a decent chance they'll have a problem with the 3-4-2-1 and everything gets chucked into the trash. We'll have to see if Eric Remedi can get back into the lineup, and whether Jurgen Damm is the answer at right wingback/winger, and whether someone is going to teach George Bello how to defend. We'll have to see whether Emerson Hyndman can do enough on the defensive side of the ball to warrant starter's minutes, and we'll have to see what happens to the back line.
I don't think they should make any moves. Signing Erik Lopez to Atlanta United II was smart, and getting Cubo Torres for nothing makes sense, but it's not time to get tied down to long-term moves that might not work.
To be honest, the actual time for that was last winter, right before the Five Stripes made a lot of long-term moves that sure look like they're not going to work.
But that's crying over spilled milk now. It's a new era for Atlanta, and they've got to start getting these signings right again. No need to rush it.