Armchair Analyst: One big question for each MLS team as the 2020 season restarts

Usually the midseason version of this column is "one big question, revisited." I write the original "One Big Question" in January, then sometime around the end of August/beginning of September I take a look at how the question was answered, if it was answered, or if it turned out to be a big question in the first place.

But given everything that's happened in 2020, that project seems pretty futile. So let's pretend this is January, let's pretend this is the original One Big Question column, and I assure you that we'll revisit when the season's about 75% done – sometime around Indigenous People's Day here in the US (Thanksgiving in Canada).

Bear in mind, as always, that this is A big question, not necessarily THE big question.

And so, in the now-standard reverse alphabetical order ... away we go:

Vancouver Whitecaps

A Big Q: Is there a way to get consistent match-winning performances out of Yordy Reyna?

It might be stupid to consider this an unanswered question at this point given that Reyna is 26 years old and has been in the league for four years. But despite putting up 20g/17a in 5222 minutes (a very good, if not quite elite ROI), he's still only a part-time starter. It would be unfair to call him a bust, but it would be a lie to say he wasn't capable of more.

And he should be capable of much, much more playing next to/underneath Lucas Cavallini in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 or some version of a 5-3-2. Reyna is a second forward with some center forward tendencies and some midfield playmaker tendencies. Cavallini is a bulldozer of a No. 9 who can and will clear a path for Reyna to get on the ball and create.

This is a special play: 

He's the only one on the Whitecaps who can make it. It would change a lot of things if he made it – or something like it – more often.

Toronto FC

A Big Q: Are we going to see Jozy and Ayo up top together? 

Toronto have spent two years and millions of dollars to cobble together the pieces needed to play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, giving Jozy Altidore two wingers to run off of him. And to be entirely fair, players like Nick DeLeon, Pablo Piatti and Tsubasa Endoh have had their moments.

But Jozy's always been open about the fact that he prefers to play up top with a partner in a two-forward system, and Akinola – both fast and wise beyond his years in understanding how to move off the ball in order to take advantage of superior chance creators – seems like the perfect partner for Jozy. I've said it before and I'll say it again that I got some real "Jozy and Charlie Davies" vibes from their too-brief time on the field together this summer.

Given that nobody on Toronto ever stays healthy for more than 90 minutes at a time, I'm sure we'll see plenty of the 4-3-3 and plenty of two-forward set-ups. But I wouldn't be shocked at all if, by the end of the season, it was Jozy and Ayo together up top and the shift to the 4-3-3 got pushed back another season.

Sporting KC

A Big Q: Is Jaylin Lindsey ready to take minutes from Graham Zusi?

Zusi, who's never had A-plus athleticism, turns 34 tomorrow and has logged nearly 30,000 hard minutes for club and country over the past decade. And last month during the MLS is Back Tournament, all of the above was pretty plain to see. Philadelphia exploited a lot of things about Sporting's defense, but one of the most obvious was Zusi's fading ability to get to the right place at the right time to make the right defensive play.

Lindsey had begun taking some FB minutes as an 18-year-old:

He looked like he was going to take many more as a 19-year-old, but he blew his knee out last March and we haven't seen him with Sporting since then.

We've seen him plenty in USL, though. Lindsey carved out about 1200 minutes last year, and logged another 90 back in March. He's fit again, and hopefully for Sporting that means he'll be pushing his way into the XI again.

Seattle Sounders

A Big Q: Will Gustav Svensson have to play center back?

The 33-year-old Swede, who was arguably the best d-mid in the league last year, really does not want to have to do so. He has been vocal in his disdain for play at CB, and that's entirely understandable.

But it might just be what's best for Seattle right now given how unsettled the rest of the central defense is, and given that Joao Paulo + Cristian Roldan is not only a good deep-midfield partnership, but also makes room on the right wing for Handwalla Bwana and/or Shandon Hopeau.

As with everything else during this shortened and crowded season, I'm sure we will see all sorts of different permutations in terms of personnel (if not necessarily formation, given how wedded the Sounders are to the 4-2-3-1). But I do think that given their current construction, Svensson's going to be spending some time on the back line.

San Jose Earthquakes

A Big Q: Is Cristian Espinoza a goalscoring threat?

Espinoza, the 25-year-old DP right winger, is a good-and-energetic two-way player. If he's not quite a top-tier MLS chance creator, he's not far from that lofty perch.

He also scored just two goals in 2500 minutes last year. His inability to put the ball in the net – his and the other wingers' inability, to be fair – was, more than anything else, what doomed the Quakes down the stretch in 2019.

In 2020 he has two goals in 590 minutes. That's not great, but it's an order of magnitude better than what he did last year, and his game-winner against the Fire was particularly encouraging. This is a vicious run and an even more vicious finish:

Teams are squeezing San Jose when the Quakes are in possession now, and it's up to Espinoza and his opposite winger to find those moments, get into the open field and punish them.

They didn't last year, and so they missed the playoffs. If they do it this year, they'll make the playoffs. Simple as.

Real Salt Lake

A Big Q: Will one of the center forwards make a permanent claim on the spot?

The list:

  • Douglas Martinez: 23-year-old Honduran by way of Real Monarchs, seems to the be the current starter. Excellent pressing forward, but doesn't do much in hold-up play and his finishing is iffy.
  • Sam Johnson: 27-year-old Liberian DP. A true center forward. All he does is score goals, which is both a compliment and definitely not a compliment.
  • Damir Kreilach: The 31-year-old Croatian No. 8 is probably the best all-around No. 9 on the team, combining excellent hold-up and aerial play with surprisingly good goal-scoring instincts. But he's got zero speed, which is a problem for a team that so often plays on the counter, and is also trying to use the press as a weapon from time to time.
  • Giuseppe Rossi: The 33-year-old Italian-American is almost definitely the best pure soccer player on this list, but he's been injured most of the past decade, basically hasn't played soccer in two years, and is much more of a second forward than a center forward.
  • Corey Baird: The 24-year-old is definitely more of a winger, but he hasn't been effective there this year and he was fun as a part-time No. 9 two years ago. He's probably not really in contention here.

I have no idea where head coach Freddy Juarez will land. He's certainly got options, but it would be better if he had one guy who was just head-and-shoulders better than the rest.

One thing to consider: Baird is good, and there are two other DPs (No. 10 Albert Rusnak and winger Jeizon Ramirez) on the "3" line of RSL's 4-2-3-1. Seems like you would want a No. 9 who could, first and foremost, create space for those guys to work.

Portland Timbers

A Big Q: Can Cristhian Paredes rest Diego Chara a little bit?

Chara is 34 and just spent the past month looking 25. He remains one of the fastest, quickest and most indefatigable destroyers the league has ever seen. Given his brains, there's no reason to think Chara can't keep doing this for another few years.

But there are plenty of reasons to think he won't keep doing this on a compressed schedule if he doesn't get some rest. Even Chara must get some periodic rest.

The 22-year-old Paredes, meanwhile, seems to have lost his No. 8 spot to Eryk Williamson, a more dynamic player both on and off the ball. I think Chara's role is probably the right role for Paredes, who Portland purchased outright this past winter. He might now be considered the heir apparent at d-mid.

Philadelphia Union

A Big Q: Can Sergio Santos and Kacper Przybylko complement each other?

One of the foundations of any two-forward set-up is supposed to be the interplay between the two forwards. One drops, the other stretches; one holds, the other flares wide; one challenges for the header, the other, having had hundreds if not thousands of practice reps, gets an early read on where the second ball will be won.

Santos had a strong summer, but did so mostly playing through the lines off the midfield. Przybylko straight-up looks much more comfortable as a lone No. 9 in a 4-2-3-1.

It says a lot about Philly that they got as far as they did without these two guys ever quite getting on the same page. If they want to go even further – to the point that they're the ones lifting the trophy instead of thinking about how close they came to knocking out the champs – these two guys can't just co-exist. They have to make each other better.

Orlando City

A Big Q: Can Chris Mueller continue to progress?

There's a lot to like about Mueller, the energetic, third-year winger who seems to have come into his own playing on the right side of Oscar Pareja's 4-2-3-1. He was good all summer in terms of picking his spots and contributing on both sides of the ball:

There are moments where Mueller looks like a player who'll end up ascending to – not just toward – All-Star status and maybe a spot in the USMNT rotation.

Then there are moments where his first touch just utterly fails him. Mueller is so smart about popping up in the right places in the build-up and has a natural flair for one-twos, but way, way too often all the good work gets undone by slop. It's why he's more comfortable out wide where there's a little more room to operate.

But the best wingers in the league become secondary No. 10s when they pinch inside (saw a bunch of that from Nani this summer, right?). If Mueller's going to join their ranks, he's got to clean it up.

New York Red Bulls

A Big Q: Will Dru Yearwood be the midfield destroyer/ball-winner they've missed?

Yearwood, who was reportedly excellent in League One but basically didn't get on the pitch for Brentford in the Championship, comes with a DP price tag, big expectations and a lot of responsibility. The young Englishman was brought to Harrison with, presumably, the explicit mandate to hunt and destroy – something RBNY's midfield duo of Sean Davis and Cristian Casseres haven't managed at a high enough level the past year-and-a-half.

It is hard, it turns out, to replace Tyler Adams:

There are obviously other issues for this team to worry about, but a big one is that they just haven't created as many transition moments. Yearwood's job is to fix that.

NYCFC

A Big Q: Can Heber be what he was last year?

He was the third-best center forward in MLS last year, behind fellow one-named wonders Zlatan and Josef as he produced 15g/4a in about 1700 minutes across all competitions. NYCFC picked up points at a better-than-LAFC rate when he was on the field. I love him and he is awesome.

But he hasn't been as awesome this year. NYCFC have clearly been better when Heber's been available, but 1) that's been sporadic, 2) they haven't been that much better, and 3) he, individually, has not been quite as good. He's produced 3g/2a in about 500 minutes – still excellent – but that comes with the giant caveat of all three of those goals coming in the same game, way back in Concacaf Champions League play in February against tiny San Carlos of Costa Rica.

Another way of putting it is this: Heber's made eight appearances in 2020. He's failed to score in seven of them.

New England Revolution

A Big Q: Can they consistently create chances without Carles Gil?

This is obviously the big question for the Revs. Gil was their best player by a mile and they fell apart in multiple ways this summer without him:

To be clear, I do think the Revs will figure out how to play out of the back without Gil. The arrival of Matt Polster will help, Brandon Bye has made a big step forward as a high-usage fullback and most of their CBs can really pass the ball. They also added midfielder Tommy McNamara and winger Kekuta Manneh via trade on Monday morning, giving some new looks and options for head coach/sporting director Bruce Arena.

But Gil was the only real chance creator on the team. Unless the Revs are playing in transition constantly, I think they're going to struggle.

Nashville SC

A Big Q: Is Derrick Jones as a No. 10 gonna be a thing?

I'm a big Jones fan and I wouldn't be all that surprised if he had a Willimason-esque breakout. The two were on that same 2017 U-20 USMNT, mostly taking turns in central midfield alongside Adams. There was a lot of talent in that trio.

But I'm not sure I see Jones' talent best used as the most-advanced midfielder in a central three, which is how Steve Guppy used him against FC Dallas on Wednesday night and again on Sunday. Jones is smooth on the ball and receives it well in traffic, and is obviously physical enough to play in the toughest parts of the field. But he doesn't create danger off the ball with his movement and he doesn't finish plays off. You need at least one – preferably both – to be a No. 10.

If the idea is a temporary "let's muck up the midfield and not get beat" type of thing, then fair enough. But Jones is 23 now, and was a difference-maker for that great U-20 side. Sure would like to see him in that role sooner than later for Nashville.

Montreal Impact

A Big Q: Does Victor Wanyama need defensive help around him?

Wanyama is a sit-and-spray regista in the mold of a Haris Medunjanin or a Michael Bradley. You can win with that in MLS, as both Medunjanin (to a degree) and Bradley (everything there is to win) have shown. But both guys have often been surrounded by other midfielders who've done a lot of the defensive running for them.

Thus far that's been the case with Wanyama in Montreal, and the one time there really wasn't anyone to fill the gaps, it got ugly quick:

Thierry Henry has, thus far, been ultra-conservative in his midfield choices, and Montreal's attacking output has suffered as a result. If Wanyama could do just a bit more of the heavy lifting in terms of tracking and ball-winning, it would open up the opportunity for the Impact to become a much more dynamic team.

Minnesota United

A Big Q: Can Chase Gasper start finding the final ball?

Gasper had a few of these moments on the ball last year, where it was apparent that he wasn't just a rugged defensive fullback. He could be smooth receiving along the sideline, and he had pretty good feet, and he would fairly frequently make good progressive passes.

This, though? Did anybody see this coming?

Fanendo Adi sure didn't. And poor Ruan's still looking for his ankles.

Gasper's now an elite defensive LB, an important possession hub, and a guy who's just entering his prime. But if you watch that Orlando City clip again you'll see that his cross ... gets blocked. A lot of his crosses get blocked, and too few of his passes in the final third hit the mark.

If Gasper improves his final ball then he's ... probably the best LB in the whole league, I think? 

Inter Miami

A Big Q: Will it be the 3-4-2-1 or the 4-2-3-1?

Ok, chances are it'll be some of both. Diego Alonso has never been an ideologue when it comes to formations. We've already seen a good chunk of that this year as he's toggled between the two listed above, as well as a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-3. It's more about principles of play than formation or even "system."

But every team has a particular formation they're most at home in, and at some point Alonso's going to have to go in one direction or another. Newcomer Blaise Matuidi could be effective in either, though I think he would be more dynamic making late-arriving, shape-breaking runs out of the 4-2-3-1.

Of course, that only works if the "3" line is creative enough. So far they really haven't been – which is why I think the DP slot they saved by making Matuidi a TAM player should go for a true No. 10 or a playmaking winger (with Rodolfo Pizarro as the nominal No. 10) rather than for a proven, veteran, goalscoring No. 9.

What I'm saying is "please buy James."

LA Galaxy

A Big Q: Will Jonathan dos Santos be fully fit and as influential as last year?

It got lost in all the Zlatan hype, and the "Will Chicharito replace him?" hype and the "haha Chicharito's not replacing him" schadenfreude and so on and so forth, but Jona was one of the very best midfielders in MLS last year. He played some as a box-to-box No. 8, some as a holding No. 6 and generally did everything in his power to knit together an otherwise dysfunctional midfield and backline while hitting the pass-before-the-cross about a million times.

He has been badly missed in 2020.

He's also now 30 years old and coming off a not insignificant injury. Chances are he will be something close to what he was last year, as 30 is not exactly over the hill, but Jona playing the best all-around soccer of his life was a big reason why the Galaxy even approached respectability last year. If he's only 90% of that, it could mean a much larger than 10% drop in the team's overall effectiveness.

Unless, after a year-and-a-half, Guillermo Barros Schelotto actually has come up with a system and a method for implementing it. That's the big question for LA, by the way.

LAFC

A Big Q: Is Brian Rodriguez ready?

Brian Rodriguez didn't come to LAFC to sit, and Diego Rossi didn't score seven goals in four games this summer because he wants to stick around LA for a while longer. Ask anyone in the league who's the most likely MLS player to get sold for many millions of dollars this summer and it's Rossi; ask anyone around the league who's the "young" (I'm considering 22 Under 22 eligible to be "young") attacker most ready to step in and step up and score goals and bag assists for a title-contending team, and it's Rodriguez.

There are at least some – including Oscar Tabarez, the legendary head coach of Uruguay's national team – who consider Rodriguez to be the better player right now. Or at least who consider him to be more talented, and thus more worthy of inclusion with the full national team despite being a full two years younger.

But there's a difference at the club level in the other direction, and it's not small. Rodriguez has been dangerous and pretty good with 2g/3a in 795 minutes this season. Rossi has been "whoa someone's really about to drop $20 million on this man" with 9g/2a in 796 minutes.

Maybe Rossi won't leave and this will be a different question – i.e. "will Brian Rodriguez be ok with coming off the bench for the rest of 2020?"

I don't think that will be the case, though. I think, even with the world in turmoil and the transfer market in flux, Rossi's too good and too productive, and former MLS players are doing too much good work on the biggest stage for him to be ignored. I think he's gone.

And that means Rodriguez best be ready.

Houston Dynamo

A Big Q: Do they have a high-usage central midfielder anywhere?

Matias Vera has been a very good destroying/protecting d-mid for this team for the past two years, and given his age (he's just 24) there's not a lot of reason to think he's going to drop off. But also, given his age, there's not a lot of reason to think that he's going to suddenly add passing range to his game.

Memo Rodriguez was smart and productive off the ball as a winger last year, and has been smart and productive off the ball as a No. 8 so far this year: 

Memo's good defensively and good in the final third, but he's not much of a distributor from central midfield and he doesn't get on the ball a ton. Almost all of that responsibility has fallen to the legend himself, Boneik Garcia.

Boniek's an all-timer, and can still be very good in stretches. But he's weeks away from his 36th birthday and the years are really beginning to show. They need a guy to do for them what Jona did for last year's Galaxy, or what Mark-Anthony Kaye does for LAFC: Get on the ball a ton and call some shots for the rest of the team.

D.C. United

A Big Q: Will Julian Gressel settle in?

Gressel was and remains one of the best crossers of the ball in MLS history. It shouldn't be lost, though, that he was often crossing to one of the most aerially-dominant center forwards in MLS history, and often doing so in a wide-open, attacking system. A good chunk of his time in said wide open, attacking system came at wingback – probably his best position – or at fullback.

Ben Olsen's system isn't, uh, so wide open. You'd probably want to call it "ultra-conservative" and/or "fairly static," and while Ola Kamara is very good in the air, he's no Josef. He also hasn't been available for most of the minutes D.C. United have played this year.

On top of that, Gressel's been asked to play either as a central midfielder or a true winger in what's almost always a 4-2-3-1. He can certainly do either, but I'm not sure he can do either at a high level in a system where he's asked to do so much more of the creative lift. Gressel was a specialist in Atlanta; so far with D.C., he's been asked to be the fulcrum.

It hasn't been pretty.

FC Dallas

A Big Q: Who's the successor to Reggie Cannon?

You've probably read our guy Tom Bogert's report that English Championship side Barnsley have lodged a serious bid for Cannon. Now long-running FC Dallas blog 3rd Degree are chiming in with some je ne sais quoi:

Cannon, one of the best right backs in the league, is almost certainly in his last few days with Dallas. He joined the FC Dallas academy a decade ago, won multiple age-group titles, went to college for a year, spent his first year with Dallas on the bench, and then clawed his way up the ladder all the way to the national team. The next step is obvious, and is obviously a feather in Dallas's cap.

The good thing about having a great academy is that you don't have to look far for the next replacement. Dallas do have veteran Brazilian Bressan on the roster, but he's much more of a right center back than a pure right back. If they want an overlapping threat, it's most likely one of the two Homegrowns, Bryan Reynolds (a 19-year-old converted attacker) or Eddie Munjoma (a 22-year-old who signed this past winter after a stellar four-year college career at SMU). John Nelson, a 2019 SuperDraft pick, could also factor into the conversation.

The answer lies within. If it's one of the younger guys, I hope that the current FCD braintrust is as patient about letting them play through early rough patches as they were about letting Cannon do the same early in the 2018 season. It paid off – quite literally – in the end.

Columbus Crew

A Big Q: What's going on with Luis Diaz?

Diaz, a livewire 21-year-old Costa Rican international right winger who just so happens to be an excellent crosser of the ball, was something close to a revelation down the stretch last year for the Crew. Any touch he got was going vertical and he was determined to mow people down in transition. Often that determination paid off, and he was pretty much a nailed-on starter by August.

He definitely hasn't been in 2020. He's started four of Columbus's six games, and made it the full 90 only once. He was subbed at the half in their Round of 16 elimination against Minnesota and he's got just one assist in 317 minutes this season.

This is a guy most thought would be top 10 in this year's 22 Under 22, or even top five. He certainly looked it over the final two months of 2019 even as Columbus were struggling. Now that they're not struggling he just looks kinda lost.

This is actually a really big question. If Columbus are going to win something, they need Diaz to be dynamic and productive and the secondary creator after Lucas Zelarayan. It hasn't happened.

Colorado Rapids

A Big Q: What happened to Auston Trusty?

Two years ago, during his age 19/20 season, Trusty wasn't just an "every game" starter for a playoff team: He was an every game, every minute player for the Union. The big lefty wasn't perfect, but exactly zero 20-year-old center backs in the world are perfect in their first season, and for most just getting minutes is a huge step. Getting all the minutes for a winning team? Sky's the limit.

Trusty lost his starting job mid-way through the 2019 season, displaced by Mark McKenzie and Jack Elliott. He didn't respond well, and was traded for a boatload of allocation cash to the Rapids this offseason.

And now, somehow, he's 22 years old, in his fifth year as a pro, and has fallen to fourth on the center back depth chart for a playoff hopeful. The Rapids are not a playoff team; they're a team just fighting to get into that discussion. They've taken the field five times this year and Trusty has played once, for just 28 minutes. I'll just be kind and say the rust was apparent.

This isn't the way things were supposed to go for him. It's not "too late" by any stretch, but the trajectory is very, very discouraging.

FC Cincinnati

A Big Q: Will Jurgen Locadia be Josef-lite or an injury and hot/cold headache?

For the record, my vote is "elite goalscorer in spite of his miss of the century that was topped just two weeks later by poor Raheem Sterling." But my colleague Andrew Wiebe sounds a note of caution:

His skills grab the eye, but if you look at his career, he's never been the kind of player Cincy need him to be re: consistent or 10+ production.

This is true. The big man looks the part, but he's never put up elite numbers outside of the Eredivisie.

That said, he had 4g/1a in 526 minutes with Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga last autumn. That's very good. And he's got two goals in about 140 MLS minutes so far. That's a rate even Josef would envy.

I really do think he's going to be worth every penny. I worry more about how they'll line up behind him, and whether or not they can balance that roster.

Chicago Fire

A Big Q: 3-5-2 or 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3?

I was pretty shocked to see Chicago come out in a 3-5-2 for the MLS is Back Tournament, especially since they'd spent on a Young DP winger in Ignacio Aliseda and given that Djordje Mihailovic was so effective as a playmaking left winger early in the season. Add in that Przemyslaw Frankowski is most at home on the wing, and that C.J. Sapong and Robert Beric aren't the most intuitive forward partnership ... yeah, I didn't think the 3-5-2 was coming.

And it shouldn't last. Chicago created almost nothing over the course of three games, with their only goals coming from a misplayed clearance and a set piece. They had moments when they looked good on the ball while advancing into the final third, but they had zero ideas once they got there. That's not surprising from a team with no true No. 10 and all their wingers either on the bench or playing wingback.

Raphael Wicky's got to go back to what he was trying to do back in March during the first two weeks of the season.

Atlanta United

A Big Q: Has Andrew Carleton seen the light?

Look, chances are that Atlanta are done with Carleton, the Homegrown playmaker who had trouble taking the kind of off-field approach that would get coaches to trust you enough to get you onto the field. There are only so many chances you can get, and only so many bridges to burn, and Carleton went through a lot of matches.

On top of that, he's small, slow and lacks physicality. So if he's going to make an impact at the pro level, he was going to have to figure out how to be tidy, how to make the correct defensive rotations, and how to turn his prolific vision and passing ability into a steady thrum of one-touch, tempo-setting play through the midfield.

Don't look now, but...

Carleton has been excellent with Indy XI in the USL Championship since the restart. His numbers aren't eye-popping – three assists in 435 minutes – but all three assists have been spectacular. Watch those clips to get a feel for the passes he's hitting, the combinations he's making and the work he's doing off the ball (I love the sequence that starts at 46 seconds). You'll also notice something new about the game: He's actually winning the ball back for his team every now and again. He might've won it back more in that two-minute highlight reel than he did in his previous two years of soccer combined.

The other big thing is that Carleton is suddenly much, much more secure on the ball than he was the past few years. Think about the guys his age who actual play midfield minutes in MLS – guys like Paxton Pomykal, Brenden Aaronson, Frankie Amaya and Ezeuiel Barco. If you want to get the ball from them, you generally have to earn it.

That wasn't the case with Carleton, who for all his skill and low center of gravity, was too often sloppy with his touches in traffic and too easily pushed off the ball. At the beginning of the restart, I'd say that was still true of him. But for the past three or four games running he's been much, much less prone to giving the ball away (or having it taken from him). His most recent outing – a 1-0 win over Pittsburgh in which he had the game-winning assist – was probably his best in this regard.

Look, chances are this isn't a big question at all, but I have trouble giving up on a player who can pass the ball like that. If he really has added some level of defensive commitment, as well as ball security to the mix, he's not just a USL player. It means he's an MLS player.

Maybe it'll finally happen for him in his hometown.

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