It's hard to believe, but the 2020 regular season is about to start, finally and for real. For some teams — FC Dallas and Nashville SC, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC — it already has started. In a way it's kind of started for everyone since everyone did play those two regular-season games back at the tail end of winter, and 24 of the 26 teams played three "regular-season" games during the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament.
Ok, why am I wasting time trying to cobble together a lede that you're going to skip right over? Let's just get to the tiers.
So, so much has changed, but this hasn't: these teams are mostly in the order of where I think they'll finish, but what really matters is the tier designation. Onwards:
Tier I: They've won something recently
Nobody would be shocked if any of these teams won another thing again.
LAFC were the best team in the league last year by a mile. Then they put together a miraculous CCL performance to top Club Leon -- at that point the best team in Liga MX -- and looked set to contend for that title. Then COVID-19 hit.
Then they went to the MLS is Back Tournament without Carlos Vela and scored a bajillion goals in five games. Along the way they exorcised a demon:
If you're a top eight team without the best player in the league, and then you get the best player in the league back, I'm comfortable still having you in the top tier here.
What needs to happen: It's worth noting that a game after exorcising a demon last year (finally winning El Trafico), they got knocked out of the playoffs. Then, this summer, a game after exorcising that demon, they got knocked out of the MLS is Back Tournament. What I'm saying is that there's a pattern here and LAFC obviously need an exorcist.
What they won't need is more attacking help.. Even if they sell Diego Rossi (and maybe Eduard Atuesta as well), it's not about the attack. It is quite obviously, at this point, about LAFC's defense. Can they not break down when the pressure is on? Can they actually pitch a shutout in a big game? Do they have the individual quality to win the individual moments that cost them so dearly both this summer and last autumn?
I'm leaning towards "no" for what it's worth.
Potential breakout player: If it's not Tristan Blackmon at center back then they might be in a spot of trouble. I know Blackmon's mostly played at RB in his brief career, but he has the size and athleticism you'd want at CB and seems destined for that spot given the arrival of Andy Najar as, presumably, the full-time starter at RB.
This is the type of positional shift that makes sense. Eddie Pope, the best USMNT CB ever and still, in my opinion, the best American CB in MLS history, began his career as an old-fashioned RB. There have been dozens of players to follow his FB-to-CB positional evolution in the subsequent 24 years.
If Blackmon's not next, or if there's not some new, high-level arrival, I just don't think the right side of that LAFC defense is good enough to make the plays they need to in high-pressure situations.
The Sounders famously took advantage of LAFC's naivete in last year's playoffs, ruthlessly exploiting Zone 14 thanks to an all-timer performances from Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz. Those two guys are back, as is most of the rest of the crew who hoisted the team's second MLS Cup last autumn. That's also a big chunk of the group who put together the best half-season run in league history on the back nine of the 2018 regular-season, and we're looking at a similar format here.
Look, I know the Sounders were shockingly error-prone this summer. But they're still the Sounders and it's going to take more than one bad July to fill me with a quorum of doubt about this team. Seattle usually stinks in July anyway, right?
What needs to happen: One of the CBs has to be good. Xavier Arreaga, save for his Western Conference final performance against Vela, has been a disappointment (and has heard it very loudly and clearly from his teammates). Shane O'Neill has never lived up to his early potential, though he wasn't exactly bad this summer. Yeimar Gomez Andrade... more data needed.
If Gomez Andrade is a "write-him-in-pen" CB then that solves a lot of problems for the rhythm section Brian Schmetzer Orchestra, especially since that would, in theory, allow Schmetzer to use Gustav Svensson only sparingly at CB.
It's a massive "if" though.
Potential breakout player: Let Handwalla cook! It seems like Handwalla Bwana and Shandon Hopeau are going to get more run at right wing, and here's the thing in that spot in Schmetzer's 4-2-3-1: You don't have to do a ton aside from defend hard and be smart about taking the space that Lodeiro, Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris and the deep-lying central midfield will create.
I loved Bwana's goal against the Fire. There will be more of those available.
I was relieved to look back at July's "Tiers" column and remember that I'd put Portland in the second tier, listed as "Contenders." Good job, Matt!
The idea was that they're filled with veteran match-winners, have made deep runs in knockout tournaments before, are good on set-pieces, have no qualms about playing out of the bunker and are devastating on counterattacks. And to be fair, they definitely counterattacked their way through the semifinals and final, and each of the four goals they scored in those two games were off of set pieces.
But there is now more to this Timbers team:
Portland are still at their best when they're out on the run or punishing teams on restarts, but there is more depth and dynamism in their midfield than their used to be, and asking the fullbacks to spend less time on the overlap has solidified a previously shaky-looking defense. Even with Steve Clark coming back down to earth (he was not as good this summer as he was down the stretch last year), it didn't matter. The Timbers were still the ones hoisting a very deserved trophy.
What needs to happen: All of that newfound depth and versatility has to be real. It very much looked real this summer, and I have only the tiniest kernel of doubt that it is. We have a large enough sample size at this point to know that Jeremy Ebobisse is, in fact, a starting caliber center forward, and Jaroslaw Niezgoda looked to be of similar quality or better.
We know Cristhian Paredes is a pretty good MLS player from the past couple of years. We know the same of Bill Tuiloma. Yimmi Chara hasn't been DP-caliber yet, and maybe he'll never be, but he's not going to be bad. And then there's Diego Valeri either in the XI or off the bench... this is all very good, and none was close to a sure thing before the season.
Obviously the centerpiece of all this is the rise of Eryk Williamson, a very different type of central midfielder from Paredes or Diego Chara, and who's allowed Gio Savarese to be more flexible with both his tactics and his personnel.
Potential breakout player: Young right back Pablo Bonilla is going to get his chances, and has already gotten some run backing up veteran Chris Duvall at the spot. That, right there, is the entire RB depth chart for this team, so he absolutely will play.
He was pretty good in July. We'll see over the next few months if he can be more than that.
Orlando City SC
"What did Orlando City win?" you rage.
"My heart," I answer, as I gaze lovingly at yet another synchronized, methodical yet ruthless 15-pass back-to-front build-up resulting in a clear chance on goal.
Rarely in MLS history has a team gone from a total disaster to a total joy to watch so quickly, but like all neutrals, I am here for it. Good soccer is good entertainment, and Orlando's success this summer was build upon good soccer:
What needs to happen: Truth be told, Orlando don't really belong at this tier because they lack both the overall depth and the depth of match-winners as the other three teams. Nani can be magic, and Mauricio Pereyra makes everybody 10% better, but the best chances for the Sounders fall to Ruidiaz, Lodeiro and Morris. For LAFC it's Vela, Rossi and Bradley Wright-Phillips. For Portland it's Sebastian Blanco, Valeri and either Ebobisse or Niezgoda.
For Orlando it's Nani, and then maybe Pereyra, and then... who?
There's a reason why Orlando City fans are screaming for a DP No. 9. Even though I'm the world's biggest Daryl Dike fan, I totally get it.
Potential breakout player: I am the world's biggest Daryl Dike fan, so...
I do think he has what it takes to be a high-level MLS forward sooner rather than later. How soon is now, though?
Tier II: Contenders
Stuff has to go a little bit more right for this bunch than for the group above them.
The Reds had only one loss in their previous 18 MLS games across all competitions entering the knockout round against NYCFC -- a team that they've owned in big moments. And then the Cityzens just murked 'em:
Last year in the playoffs they got through all the injuries and inconsistencies and lineup permutations right up until MLS Cup, when it finally came crumbling down. It was still a massive achievement to get as far as they did.
This summer, despite having fewer injuries to battle through (though still a shocking amount), the end came much quicker and more emphatically. TFC have an obvious Achilles' heel.
What needs to happen: They also very obviously have one of the best and most talented attacks in the league, especially in the aftermath of Ayo Akinola's breakout summer. In each of the three group stage games they created more and better chances, and only some shocking lapses at the back -- and one huge Matt Turner save -- stopped the Reds from taking nine points from three games.
I understand being shook by that NYCFC loss and how gappy and slow the backline (and d-mid Michael Bradley) looked, but I don't know. I don't think it's panic button time or anything. If they can zip it up a little bit on their set piece defense and start rotating in younger, fresher legs for Bradley on the regular, I do suspect a lot of these problems solve themselves.
Potential breakout player: Liam Fraser can potentially be that guy at two spots, as both Bradley's understudy/heir at d-mid and as a ball-playing fill-in at center back. He's not super fast or physical, but he's not slow or small, either.
Nor is he particularly young. It's time for him to get minutes.
They opened the season by drubbing both Portland (on the counter) and San Jose (on set pieces) on the road. But then they had the MLS is Back Tournament without Ike Opara, and surely it would be three-and-out, right?
For the first 60 minutes against Sporting KC it looked that way, but then everything changed. It didn't matter that Opara was out, it didn't matter that Kevin Molino, Roman Metanire and Luis Amarilla all were some variation of injured, and it didn't matter that it was only rarely pretty. The Loons just kept grinding out result after result, all the way to the semifinals where they were finally outclassed by Orlando.
But if you made the playoffs last year, and you added depth this winter, and you've picked up a bunch of wins against Western Conference playoff teams already, and you made it to the semis of this summer's tournament, and you're about to get the best CB in the league back...
Ok, Loons. Underdogs no longer no matter what the situation.
What needs to happen: Opara and the rest of that recovery-room gang being close to 100% fit would certainly be a help, as would Ozzie Alonso continuing to play like he's in his prime.
But the big thing would be Emanuel "Bebelo" Reynoso coming in and being a top-tier No. 10 right from the jump. US media are reporting a 3.5-year, $4 million deal; Argentine media are reporting a 4.5-year deal for a little more than $5 million.
What everyone seems to agree upon, though, is that Bebelo is coming to the Twin Cities.
Potential breakout player: Jacori Hayes is older than what we think of for "breakout" players, but he got his first real shot at playing time this summer and mostly did very well with it. He's a tidy, hard-working central midfielder who can buy some rest for the likes of Alonso and especially Jan Gregus, or play in a more advanced role when Adrian Heath decides to go without a traditional No. 10.
Every good MLS team has veteran grinders they can bring off the bench and slot into important minutes. Hayes fits that mold for Minnesota.
The Union have continued their years-long evolution toward being a full-time pressing team, and while there's been progress it would be a lie to say it's been linear. They only rarely pressed their way to goals this summer, and only rarely truly controlled the games themselves (though they generally did a nice job of controlling the game state).
But even with all the changes and evolutions, and even having trusted more and bigger minutes to younger players than almost anybody else in MLS, they made it all the way to the semis. Along the way they showed they still know how to knock the ball around and create some beautiful goals:
Only some sloppy set-piece defending and a missed penalty kept them from the final.
What needs to happen: The defense needs to be better. Andre Blake was superhuman in July and no 'keeper in the world continues that kind of shot-stopping form indefinitely. Philly's rotations, especially when they were playing in the 4-4-2 diamond, were often a beat slow.
Beyond that it's the forward pairing. Sergio Santos and Kacper Przybylko both had good individual moments, but they didn't work in tandem all that much. What is the point of going with two forwards if they don't make each other better?
Potential breakout player: If Brenden Aaronson gets sold (and it seems like that could be happening soon), I think the obvious choice becomes fellow Homegrown Anthony Fontana. The 20-year-old -- he's actually a year older than Aaronson -- isn't quite as technical or creative, and I do think he projects as more of a No. 8 even though Philly have often used him as a pressing No. 10.
But either way, getting the kids on the field is the Union's m.o. If Aaronson goes, Fontana will get a lot of minutes. Hell, if Aaronson stays he'll still probably get a lot of minutes.
Columbus Crew SC
For three games the Crew played beautiful, devastating soccer and just steamrolled three of the weaker teams in the East in Cincinnati, RBNY and Atlanta. It is a major step for every good team to be able to impose their will upon lesser teams, and the Crew were rightly getting a lot of love for that.
But it is a bigger step to impose your will upon good teams who are set up specifically to disrupt you, and Columbus couldn't quite pull that off against Minnesota in the Round of 16:
It's pretty obvious that if you let Darlington Nagbe set up and receive the ball inside your midfield shape, he is going to ruin you. The Crew had no real answer when Minnesota didn't let him do that.
What needs to happen: Caleb Porter needs to figure out a counter to that. It could be having Nagbe push higher and letting Artur drop deep in order to split the center backs, or to actually have Harrison Afful drift inside and become an ad hoc holding midfielder while Nagbe drops deep, plays through the first line of the press and pings short passes that Afful can turn into long diagonals.
The other thing that really needs to happen is one of the wide guys has to be an elite MLS winger. Pedro Santos probably isn't it, and Luis Diaz has struggled this year after a promising debut half-season. Youness Mokhtar had some promising moments in July, then got hurt. After that it's just depth pieces.
Even if one of those guys really hits, Columbus still don't have top-tier firepower. This is a system team, and system teams have a smaller margin of error.
Potential breakout player: Aboubacar Keita is a potential solution to the "what happens when Nagbe gets pushed out of midfield and can't run the show?" question because his left foot is, at times, devastating. Please, come squeeze the midfield against this guy:
Great pass from Aboubacar Keita on his debut for the Crew. pic.twitter.com/Eflb6BW2DC— Eliot McKinley (@etmckinley) July 4, 2019
He's just 20 and is thus inconsistent, but the talent's there. The reps will be there over the next few months as well.
Sooooo if you've been scrolling through and watching the clips above you'll see one where NYCFC just dismantled poor Toronto, and another where they themselves were dismantled by a rampant and precise Orlando City side. Those clips tell the story: NYCFC have generally looked dangerous when they've been able to sit deep and counter, and have generally been ineffective in coming upfield and using the ball to create chances as they did last year under Dome Torrent, and for most of the preceding three years under Patrick Vieira.
It is safe to assume that they are still going through a transition period under new head coach Ronny Deila. He has opted for a more defensive look through midfield — Alex Ring is now playing higher as a destroyer and the unadventurous James Sands is mostly sitting in front of the central defense to protect them — and whatever overall picture he's trying to draw has been hampered by injuries, inconsistency in front of net and the type of 2020ness that everyone else is going through.
Last year at this time they were a nearly complete work of art. Now they are back to being a work in progress.
What needs to happen: Whatever vision Deila has needs to come to fruition sooner rather than later, and — honestly, this is more important — Heber needs to start scoring again. NYCFC weren't actually that bad against Orlando by any stretch (though they were disappointingly sloppy and stretched at the back), and probably outplayed Philly. Their early-season results were more about playing a man down and going cold when they had looks.
Even if they're only 80% of what they were last year this is still comfortably a playoff team. But they won't get there if their Brazilian No. 9 doesn't start converting a decent amount of his looks.
Potential breakout player: Do we consider Sands to have already broken out? If not, then it's him. He's totally non-flashy, but almost totally reliable at doing the boring, destructive stuff you want from a No. 6 (though he's so conservative in his passing I'd argue he plays the role like an old-fashioned stopper rather than as a modern d-mid).
If we feel that Sands already broke out last year, then the obvious answer is Uruguayan central midfielder (or perhaps defensive midfielder) Nicolas "Cacha" Acevedo, a Uruguayan youth international who was one of the stars of last year's U-20 World Cup. I'm not sure how both of those guys and Ring get on the field at the same time, but given the fixture congestion, they won't necessarily have to.
Sporting have played five "regular season" games this year and have won four of them. The only one they lost was a game they were absolutely dominating before they went down to 10 men and fell apart. I am wary of putting them too high up in this tier -- and won't make the same mistake I made in July of bumping them up to the top tier -- but the way they were torn apart by Philly in the quarterfinals shouldn't overshadow the fact that this team has already won a lot more than they've lost, can create chances against anyone, and have a couple of match-winners in attack..
The most important of them thus far has been Alan Pulido, who really has changed the way Sporting can play:
I am still worried about Sporting's defense and their very slow midfield, which I think top teams will exploit. But I also think they'll piledrive most bad or even mediocre teams, and I also expect that said defense will improve some over the course of the next few months.
What needs to happen: The advanced metrics generally liked Sporting last year even as they were falling apart. That tells me the system is still good, and the execution within it is what was lacking. Generally this meant they were a step slow getting pressure to the ball, and weren't coordinated enough to drop their line and prevent breakaways in those moments. So they were looking at run-out after run-out after run-out.
They need to fix that. Sporting can't let games get stretched and open, as they simply lack the ability to scramble in defense. Any time their opponents get them moving around a little bit, they're toast.
Potential breakout player: Gianluca Busio's got all the buzz over the past couple of years and Jaylin Lindsey's return from injury and obvious utility at both fullback slots create an opening for him, but of the relative youngsters on Sporting's roster, it was unheralded 22-year-old Homegrown central midfielder Felipe Hernandez who really caught the eye this summer. Hernandez chewed up ground defensively, won the ball back at a good clip and advanced the ball ably when KC were in possession.
It was encouraging.
Tier III: Flawed But Fun*
(*) Ok, some of these teams aren't actually that much fun. We'll get to them in a bit.
New England Revolution
This team is for sure fun, though probably an order of magnitude less so given the absence of playmaker Carles Gil for the next few months. New England aren't a team with a ton of attacking ideas without him, so they'll have to do more of the "turning defense into offense" stuff they've become increasingly good at under Bruce Arena.
There's probably not going to be anything particularly flashy about the way they play: it'll be a 4-4-2 with two DP forwards, and two central midfielders, one of which will be more 8ish and the other more 6ish. It does seem like Brandon Bye has license to push up as high as he wants, which is pretty great.
But in general expect competence and not a whole lot of flair from this bunch.
What needs to happen: Adam Buksa needs to actually be a DP-caliber center forward. The big Pole looks the part when he's holding the ball up and linking play, but he does not look the part when he's running. Buksa's lack of footspeed was pretty unmissable, and is why the narrow win over Montreal above wasn't a 4-0 destruction. He honestly could've had a hat-trick.
The other thing is that Matt Polster has to look like the kid he was in 2015 when he came into the league and immediately started winning everything as a game-controlling d-mid. Polster's bounced between that role and right back in his career, and since the 2017 playoffs he's played a grand total of about 700 professional minutes.
He showed a lot of talent in his first three years. He needs to find it and show it again... and to stay healthy.
Potential breakout player: The best bet is some sort of "replacement by committee" when it come to plugging the hole Gil leaves on the right wing. Of the options on the roster, it seems like Arena's highest on second-year pro Tajon Buchanan, who is not a like-for-like Gil replacement but can still be a game-changer when combining in the final third.
San Jose Earthquakes
The Quakes were the second-most fun team to watch in MLS last year, and are no lower than third this year. Their man-marking scheme makes every game of theirs stand out relative to the rest of the league, but they also play a wide-open possession/attacking scheme in which both fullbacks push forward and both wingers get chalk on their boots and everything is going a thousand miles per hour.
If you're not entertained by this club, I worry for you.
But if you're a fan of this club and you're not worried about the way they can be and have been undone by individual mistakes, then yeah, I worry for you, too. Roll some dice enough times and you'll end up with snake eyes eventually, and that's what happens with San Jose's defense. Tommy Thompson or Nick Lima pushing too far up on the overlap? Urp. Magnus Eriksson not getting pressure to the opposing outlet? Uh oh. Judson a step late to close? Oh boy. Guram Kashia getting drawn upfield? Catastrophe.
I don't care, though. I'll happily watch every game they play because every single one of them is fun.
What has to happen: If all the wingers get hot at the same time then you get what happened from April 20 to August 3 of last year: a 10-2-5 stretch that covered exactly half the season. San Jose were a mess before mid-April (any new coach deserves at least two months of system implementation before we judge them, so I'm not going to ding them for that) and were still controlling most games in August and September.
The issue was — and I know I've written this a thousand times, but you're going to have to read it again, Quakes fans — that nobody but Wondo could score.
Well, now Wondo is coming off the bench as a super-sub, which is great. But what's better is that Cristian Espinoza, Vako and Shea Salinas have all been dangerous, and even Carlos Fierro is contributing a bit.
Matias Almeyda's attacking scheme is designed to put the high-leverage moments at his wingers' feet. Twelve months ago they didn't deliver. This summer they largely did.
Which version of them is real?
Potential breakout player: There's been rumblings about Eriksson all summer long, and now it seems like he's on the verge of a return to Scandinavia.
The best bet to replace him might be Vako as a No. 10 (which I would never, ever do), or it might be rookie SuperDraft pick Jack Skahan. But I'm going to roll the dice on 18-year-old Homegrown Gilbert Fuentes, who's played a bunch at the USL level and was probably going to get some minutes this summer before a broken collarbone ruled him out. He pops up in the right spots:
Fuentes plays as a No. 10, though he plays it more like Latif Blessing does than like an old-school playmaker. Kid's a bundle of energy, closes everything down and generally wins his duels. He's not a visionary passer, but in Almeyda's system the No. 10 doesn't have to be (Eriksson is not).
In his history as a head coach Almeyda's always bet on his own ability to develop young talent. So I'm going to bet on it as well.
Inter Miami CF
I really do think that the part of the season where everyone gets to laugh at Inter Miami is over. They added a best XI-caliber center back in Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and a World Cup-winning, Serie A-winnning, ball-winning No. 8 in Blaise Matuidi, and these two guys are high-level starters for literally any team in MLS. The fact that they're high-level starters in areas of clear need for a Miami team that's been in every game they've played despite losing all five... like I said on Extratime, I think if you take the team that's already in place and add these two guys, you have a playoff team.
Understand that while Matuidi's best known for his pressing and ball-winning, he's always been a dynamic two-way player who can change the game with his movement out of central midfield. The two guys playing those spots, Wil Trapp and Victor Ulloa, generally don't do that.
Matuidi making the deep midfield more dynamic should have a knock-on effect of making the attack more dynamic and thus taking some pressure off of Rodolfo Pizarro et al. It was a good signing, even if Matuidi exited his prime about 18 months ago.
What needs to happen: If Matuidi can play 75 percent of Miami's games and be 90 percent of the player he was for Juventus this year, he will be in the discussion for Best XI. If he plays 15 of Miami's 18 games, he will probably be more than just "in the discussion."
It is a major "if" for a guy who's already 33 years old and has logged a ton of miles, though.
Beyond that, getting Matuidi on a TAM contract means that Miami still have the powder dry on a third DP slot, and can go one of two ways: A proven finisher (what everyone else says they need) or a proven chance creator (what I say they need). Pizarro is not a true No. 10, and young Argentine winger Matias Pellegrini — a Young DP — struggled getting into high-leverage spots for the most part thus far. A real playmaker changes that, while at the same time generating tap-ins for one of the young center forwards.
Potential breakout player: One of the two young center forwards, Julian Carranza or Robbie Robinson. Robinson won the starting role back in the winter and looked good, but then missed the MLS is Back Tournament for undisclosed personal reasons. Carranza got his shot and didn't impress, but didn't exactly look out of his depth, either. Everything in Miami's attack was just pretty unpolished.
Getting a veteran DP and in the process pushing two young talents they've invested so much in down the depth chart, while at the same time not addressing the fact that you're not creating enough high-quality chances in the first place... boy, I don't know.
Colorado were one of the trendy darkhorse picks heading into this summer's tournament but we saw just how fragile their adequate-ness is. Once they stopped scoring on set pieces, and once they started making a few too many mistakes at the back, they were meat. The identity that they had last year is one that they have to make their own again in 2020.
They have the pieces to do it, of course (that is why they were able to do it last year... duh), and their second-half fight-back against Minnesota United in the third group stage game showed that some of 2019's spark is still present.
What needs to happen: Said spark needs to turn into a blaze every single week. Colorado were missing some urgency against RSL and got stomped in the first game of the group stage. To their credit they fought back against Sporting and nearly took a remarkable point, and then did take a very good point against Minnesota. So they've still got it.
But we saw what happens when they don't bring it from the kick. This team doesn't have enough talent to take parts of any game off.
Another thing that needs to happen: The central midfield needs to tighten up. They haven't been as hard to play against in 2020 as they were down the stretch last year.
Jonathan Lewis must start on the bench behind an underperforming international TAM player— Michael Karsner (@michaelkarsner) August 18, 2020
Ok, you know what? Let's just move on.
Potential breakout player: Is Cole Bassett the guy to answer that need in central midfield? I kind of have my doubts, as the 19-year-old has looked kind of overwhelmed in his 62 minutes on the field this year, and more unsure of himself than he has in either of his previous two seasons. Perhaps he's just not quite sure of himself in Robin Fraser's system.
The only other almost entirely unknown quantity on this roster is 19-year-old Argentine winger Braian Galvan, who arrived this summer for free and has very limited pro experience. He was on the fringes of Argentina's U-20 national team, which is a nice bullet-point on the old C.V., but is hardly a guarantee of anything.
I told you Nashville wouldn't be horribly bad! I told you! And ok, they are definitely not much fun — they defend deep in banks of four (you can say "they bunker" if you'd like) and then hit on the counter, and they're also dangerous on set pieces. But nobody is paying this team to be pretty at this point. The fans just want "competitive" and thus far, the players are buying in.
And why not? Walker Zimmerman is a Best XI-caliber CB in his prime and Dave Romney is looking like a CB the Galaxy should definitely not have let walk away for zilch. In front of them are a pair of grizzled veterans who can still ball, and most importantly can still pass the ball. A lot of the counterattacking danger Nashville have conjured has come from the feet of Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy.
They're not going to beat themselves. They're going to make you beat them, and as Dallas learned, that's not going to be very easy to do.
What needs to happen: I've seen enough from Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal, the young(ish) playmakers Nashville spent some bucks on last winter, to be comfortable saying that this team should use their third DP slot on a true center forward. GM Mike Jacobs was on at halftime of the first game against Dallas and promised that help was on the way.
Part of it arrived in the form of RBNY winger Alex Muyl, acquired for an international roster slot. But I think another bit of help is going to be a center forward who can get goals.
Potential breakout player: Alistair Johnston wasn't quite "awesome" but he was very, very promising last week, first as a sub for 23 minutes and then as a starter for 66. The Canadian rookie SuperDraft pick was tidy and comfortable on the ball at right back, and showed a level of patience and calm in letting plays develop that you don't often see from kids coming out of college.
Johnston played mostly as a holding midfielder at Wake Forest, and you could see those skill translate. He made a pretty eloquent argument for more playing time.
I was very encouraged by what I saw from this team's new 4-3-3 during the MLS is Back Tournament, though there are some obvious roster upgrades needed. I'm not sure Wilfried Zahibo counts as one, but I understand the impetus to trade for the big Frenchman, who presumably will split time with Boniek Garcia as the No. 8. Zahibo is a forgetful defender (devastatingly so), but he's a pretty decent passer and if you protect him with Matias Vera, there's a chance things will work in possession.
Things already looked to be working pretty decently in attack last month:
If that midfield trio starts clicking then that attacking trident could start scoring goals for fun.
The Dynamo are far from a guarantee, but if you want to pick a darkhorse that plays fun soccer and has a shot at doing some damage, you could do worse.
What needs to happen: Notice I didn't really mention the defense?
To be entirely clear, they weren't bad in July! Yes, they gave up three goals to LAFC, but basically everybody gives up three to LAFC. And yes, they had a late meltdown against the Galaxy, but these are the type of things that happen when you're on the edge of being a quality side, rather than completely there. And the hope is that they can play through it and gain from cohesion and chemistry what they lack in raw talent.
But what happens with Zahibo will be key. He is a clear downgrade from Boniek defensively, and Tab Ramos has to understand the trade-offs of putting him out there.
Potential breakout player: I think Memo Rodriguez has already broken out, so he doesn't count. I'm not sure any of the younger players are going to get enough playing time to actually crack the public consciousness, but if I had to bet on one it'd be 20-year-old midfielder Nico Lemoine. He's been listed and has primarily played as a winger, but might end up sliding central into the middle of that 4-3-3 as a battling, scrappy two-way midfielder.
Even with Zahibo's arrival there are minutes to be found there.
The very worst team at the MLS is Back Tournament played like they didn't want to be there and like they couldn't stand their coach, and now they don't have to worry about either of those issues. It is a fresh start for the Five Stripes, I suspect.
I do not think that means everything is fixed, and certainly without Josef Martinez they are a much worse, much less dynamic soccer team. Atlanta fans flamed me for saying that they would fall apart without him, but guys... I was right. Stop booing me. The man's greatness covered up so many of the blemishes of last year's team.
Still, even without him this year's team has talent. Not as much as the 2019 version, but certainly enough to at least compete for a playoff spot as long as everyone pulls in the same direction.
What needs to happen: Everybody need to pull in the same direction. The stories of locker room disunity under Frank de Boer are already legendary, and the exodus of top players like Nagbe, Gonzalez Pirez and Julian Gressel suggests that there was more wrong than just a misfit coach. Things were grim.
That's all got to be left in the past for this group to have any shot at a collective future. There are still plenty of guys here who were part of the MLS Cup-winning 2018 side, and $30 million worth of Argentine playmakers, and a few new arrivals who should spark... something.
Whoever the new coach is — and yeah, it's good that Atlanta's brass seem to be taking their time with this, since they have to get it right — has to command the respect of the whole roster and put a team out there that plays like it.
Potential breakout player: I still think it's George Bello. His defending was tragicomic, but that's true of a lot of young defenders. It's worth playing the youngs through the rough patches in order to come out on the other side with an elite talent. Philly with Brenden Aaronson and Dallas with Reggie Cannon seem about to have that pay off for them in a big way.
Atlanta did well with Miguel Almiron on this. Now they've got to do it with one of their own.
Dallas are a playoff team from 2019 who returned the vast majority of their side, and added a number of on-paper reinforcements to boot. And that makes them, on paper, a better team than they were last year.
And so maybe I'm overreacting to their four games so far in 2020, all of which were at home and none of which were particularly impressive. There is every chance that Dallas should be moved up one more tier, especially since this team has already shown an ability to evolve and adjust under Luchi Gonzalez.
But something doesn't look quite right. It's unfair for me to knock them down here, probably, but I'm going with my gut on this one.
What needs to happen: Let's start here:
This is such a good ball from Hedges -- he's hit a bunch of these to the pockets tonight -- but for some reason Dallas are nowhere near ready to exploit it w/ quick, coordinated off-ball movements. pic.twitter.com/S1OJt13Gqj— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) August 13, 2020
This ball from Matt Hedges immediately put Nashville under pressure, compromising their shape. But then... absolutely nothing. Early-season rust? Sure. But also, this was Dallas's issue last year as well: they could build out of the back really, really well, but when it came time to put together some final third patterns, it was too often scattershot and ineffective. To borrow a phrase from a friend: It never feels like they're about to score.
Gonzalez isn't the first young coach whose team has struggled with this part of the game, and won't be the last. I am still high on him in general and high on Dallas's long-term plan.
I'm probably wrong to have them in this tier. But my gut just keeps talking to me, so I'm gonna keep listening.
Potential breakout player: It seems very likely that Reggie Cannon has played his final game for his hometown club, and that means there's a job open at right back. I think Bryan Reynolds going to get the first crack at it, and given that the 19-year-old is a high-level talent, I'm going to guess he makes the most of it.
Real Salt Lake
This is the other team in this group that's just not a whole ton of fun. RSL were, two years ago, when they snuck over the line and into the playoffs thanks to a Decision Day miracle courtesy of Houston. Last year they were much more buttoned-up and reserved and compact en route to another playoff appearance, once again replete with a win and trip to the West semis.
That team generated just enough offense to beat the bad teams, and that was enough. So far this season RSL have taken the field six times and won only once. They've only even scored in three of their outings. Whatever magic they had last year has not carried over.
What needs to happen: I've written a million times already that they have to figure out who their center forward is. They also have to figure out what their central midfield rotation looks like, and who's going to be on the wings.
Then they have to figure out how to make what's happening on the wings actually work. Too often in July it was a case of getting the ball to Corey Baird — who is good off the ball but not great on it — and asking him to go 1v1. That was not a good plan.
As with Dallas there is a chance I'm more down on RSL than I should be, as this is (mostly) the group that made the playoffs each of the past two years. As with Dallas, I am going to listen to my gut here. I think the struggles we've seen are real.
Potential breakout player: If it's not Young DP winger Jeizon Ramirez then they're in at least a little bit of trouble. It's probably too much to call him a direct replacement for the departed Jefferson Savarino, who scored the game-winner against Portland in last year's knockout round, but... he pretty much is.
It is trite to say "you don't buy a DP to sit him," since so many DPs — especially Young DPs — are subs of some sort now, and young players should be given time to adjust to new surroundings. But this is a straight line from Savarino to Ramirez here. RSL need the kid to hit.
Tier IV: The Long-Shots
These teams seem fairly broken. That is not to say "broken beyond repair," though. And be aware that I had Orlando City in this group before last month's tournament.
This is MLS. Things can change quick.
Thierry Henry's Impact have been all over the joint in terms of where they draw their line of confrontation, how many defenders they use, how they use their wingbacks, whether or not they actually use wingbacks, how many d-mids they use, what formation they use... it's been a lot.
They have won twice in nine games. They have lost four of their past five, though they did somehow make it out of the group stage of the tournament.
This isn't a super-talented roster, one that's able to pick up different concepts and execute them at a high level amidst the churn of so many game-to-game adjustments.
What needs to happen: I think the Impact pretty clearly need to simplify. Pick an approach — formation and general principles — and stick with it until you're, at the very least, above average at it. Chopping and changing every time out... Montreal looked worse in their ninth game under Henry than they did in their second. It's not great.
I did think they looked pretty good in their eighth game, though! That 1-0 win over D.C. United wasn't just a case of D.C. struggling, but also of Montreal putting them under real, sustained pressure. There are things to take from that one.
Potential breakout player: Gonna go with Zachary Brault-Guillard, who was central to Montreal's early-season success:
I'm not sure the 5-4-1 is necessary, but I'm also not sure it's not.
It took Jaap Stam one game — one very, very bad game — to figure out he had to go back to the five-at-the-back deep block that Ron Jans used late last year to stop the defensive bleeding. It was a 5-3-2 and two straight shutouts against Atlanta and RBNY after getting spanked 4-0 by Columbus (Hell got super real, super fast), and then a fairly credible 1-1 draw before a 5-3 loss on penalties to the eventual champs in the Round of 16.
Humiliating rivalry loss or not, I'm pretty sure almost every Cincy fan would've signed up for that. Having pulled if off while seeing some of their younger players (Frankie Amaya, Andrew Gutman) get good minutes and put in good performances was some icing on the cake.
What needs to happen: Jurgen Locadia needs to be a $20 million (or at least a $10 million) striker. Loca got himself healthy, got himself on the field and got himself a goal last month. I think fans will consider that a pretty big victory.
There obviously has to be more to come from him. If he's going out there every week and being a one-man wrecking crew on the break, then FC Cincy have every chance to just sit back, absorb and counter their way to relevance.
Potential breakout player: I'm gonna pretend Amaya hasn't really broken out yet even though I think he kind of has. Still, despite a golazo, some very good two-way play and a nose for the ball defensively and in possession, most of his other age-group peers are getting more press and more dap.
I get it, since guys like Aaronson, Sands and Paxton Pomykal play on playoff teams and Amaya, thus far, definitely does not. But keep your eyes on this kid.
New York Red Bulls
They're still a direct, pressing team, but there's five years of film on that press now, and the talent level across the league has gone up. Meanwhile RBNY's overall talent level has definitely dropped over the past two years and they're now solidly into a rebuilding phase.
It is their first real rebuilding phase in a decade, as for the duration of the 2010s they were able to evolve or reload. But there's been an exodus over the past 18 months, and something of an influx as well.
What needs to happen: The influx has to work. Dru Yearwood has arrived to win the ball in central midfield, something RBNY don't do as well as they used to. Samuel Tetteh is here to score goals, another thing that RBNY don't do as well as they used to.
Even if those two guys are major answers, the Red Bulls will still have major questions. The biggest is "can they stop melting down in the second half of games?" All last year they were giving leads away, and they tried very hard to do the same in Week 1 against FC Cincy. In Week two RSL battered them for the entire second half before getting a deserved equalizer.
In the first game of the group stage an Atlanta team that, uh, weren't exactly setting the world alight nearly found a late equalizer. Then the Crew and Cincinnati just cruised.
This team looks lost and I'm not super optimistic about them becoming found.
Potential breakout player: It has to be Yearwood, the 20-year-old English central midfield destroyer who arrives on a Young DP deal. Here, watch some stuff:
All I've seen are YouTube highlights and Wyscout clips. I've also read some quotes from new sporting director Kevin Thelwell and head coach Chris Armas. It seems like they'll be asking a lot of this kid right from the jump.
You know, and I know, and the whole league knows what D.C. are going to do: Sit deep in a 4-2-3-1, maybe play an extra d-mid somewhere out there, absorb everything and make the game ugly, rely upon Bill Hamid for a few big saves, and then see what happens on counterattacks and set pieces.
With just a few exceptions (most of 2014, as well as the second half of the 2016 & 2018 seasons) this is the way they've been playing since about 2008. There is nothing fancy or unexpected about it, it's just a question of whether they can execute it better than you can execute whatever you're trying to do.
Last year they did it. So far this year... no.
What needs to happen: The big thing I noticed this summer was that, for the most part, D.C.'s players weren't really sprinting. When you move off the ball it should be with a purpose, and even if you know you're not going to get the pass, you have to understand that you're dragging an opponent out of position, which should then allow a teammate to pop into a pocket to receive a pass.
There wasn't a lot of that from United this summer. As a matter of fact, there was hardly any of it. And so any time they did actually get on the ball and try to build something, they were rather easily closed down and turned over.
It was all so static. These guys have to move for each other.
Potential breakout player: 17-year-old winger Kevin Paredes got on the field a bit this summer and didn't look out of place against grown men. He didn't have any "wow!" moments either, and even with the compressed schedule it seems unlikely he'll get enough run to truly break out.
But there aren't a lot of 17-year-olds who get regular minutes. It seems like he'll be one of them, and that's noteworthy.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
I've gone back and forth on the Whitecaps a couple of times already this year. They weren't actually as bad as the scoreline of that Week 1 loss to Sporting suggested, and then they got a Week 2 win at LA. They shipped seven goals in the first two games of the group stage and hardly generated any danger of their own (their three goals vs. San Jose were almost entirely gifted by San Jose themselves), then annihilated Chicago in the final 15 minutes of Game 3 in order to advance.
Once they advanced the thing that everyone thought would happen, happened: They gave up a million chances to Sporting. There was a touch of magic in the air as Thomas Hasal kept the 'Caps in it right up until the shootout, and... ok, something to build off of, right? Get all those missing players back and Vancouver might have something.
I'm thinking no. Vancouver's regular season restarted on Tuesday night and they got absolutely crushed by Toronto in a 3-0 win that could've been 6-0 if the Reds had been a little sharper. The 'Caps never really threatened.
What needs to happen: Lots of stuff, but let's just focus on central midfield for a sec:
Kind of incredible how Owusu and Gutierrez just sort of drift right past Piatti and put Teibert in a situation where he has to defend 1v2 in Zone 14... pic.twitter.com/dFd1dLnkTO— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) August 19, 2020
If you're going to be a counterattacking team — and if there's evidence the 'Caps intend to be anything but that, I've yet to see it — you have to defend well in a low block. Vancouver don't. They limit neither the quality of chances they concede nor, especially, the quantity of chances.
It's a bad mix.
Potential breakout player: Hasal! He might end up being the busiest man in the league over the next few months. Reps, baby!
Chicago Fire FC
In retrospect I probably reacted too hard to that group stage win over the Sounders, which came off a failed clearance and a set piece. Chicago did look legitimately good for most of those 90 minutes, but also, the Sounders have a habit of making certain teams look good when they just leave it in second gear.
Anyway, Chicago have played five times in 2020 and have won once. They've lost three of them, and it would've been four if Justin Rennicks hadn't posted one of the worst misses of the season in Week 2. New head coach Raphael Wicky has not-so-quietly called out one of his young attackers (Djordje Mihailovic) and quietly kind of benched another (Ignacio Aliseda).
Oh well. Ten years of mostly losing soccer wasn't going to go away all at once. There was going to have to be a process, and it might as well start now.
What needs to happen: If the central midfield clicks — most notably the duo of Alvaro Medran and Gaston Gimenez — that could go a long way toward taking the pressure off of a number of the other areas on the pitch. Medran is a 26-year-old No. 8 with 80 La Liga games under his belt and a Real Madrid pedigree; Gimenez is a 29-year-old fringe Argentina national team d-mid. These are the types of players that are supposed to be able to run the joint in MLS, right?
So far... no.
To be clear, these guys haven't been the problem. But they haven't been good enough to paper over the other problems that are happening elsewhere on the field, and that in itself is a problem.
Potential breakout player: Mauricio Pineda was far from perfect at the tournament, but he showed significant promise and a midfielder's eye for distribution from the backline:
Well they've got him now and he's a hell of a lot of fun. pic.twitter.com/CROTnL38R0— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) July 14, 2020
They need Pineda to be excellent to be quite honest, as none of the veteran center backs on the team have shown the ability to hit a consistent top level in MLS.
Five games, five goals, two points, zero wins. The Galaxy play a 4-2-3-1 that is sometimes a 4-3-3, and they push both fullbacks way up high and they hit a lot of crosses toward the general vicinity of where they hope Chicharito will be.
Individually they have been incredibly mistake-prone at the back, and in midfield they have not done a great job of closing down space or winning the ball. When they do get on the ball, they're not great at transitioning quickly to exploit a scrambling defense or to play through the lines despite the fact that they do have a number of very good passers of the ball and a bunch of cagey veterans.
Their overall talent level is maybe in the top half of the league, but hardly elite. This team can't just brute force their way into the playoffs like they did last year.
What needs to happen: Almost all of the above (save the formation) needs to change, but if you want to start with one thing it should be giving away cheap goal after cheap goal after cheap goal. They need to cut it out.
Look at this:
- There is no pressure on Tristan Blackmon as he carries the ball upfield.
- Giancarlo Gonzalez ball-watches instead of tracking Bradley Wright-Phillips' run.
- David Bingham spills the rebound.
- Emiliano Insua ball-watches instead of tracking Diego Rossi's run.
There is no high-level tactical breakdown of that. This is all just basic stuff.
Potential breakout player: Cameron Dunbar put in a good shift in the group stage opener before basically disappearing for the rest of the event, which confuses me some. But it seems he's higher up the pecking order than Efra Alvarez, and while Julian Araujo looked like a high-level right back prospect at this time last year, Rolf Feltscher is, apparently, irreplaceable in Guillermo Barros Schelotto's scheme, so it doesn't look like Araujo's going to get much time there.