Back in mid-August, which was only two months ago but seems like 20, I re-purposed my usual "One Big Question" column for the launch of this abbreviated, compressed and utterly irregular regular season. In the process, I stuffed this past January's "One Big Question" column in the trash because COVID-19 had disfigured the year in soccer beyond comprehension.
Feel free to look at that January column if you want, but for the sake of this column I will be taking a look at how or if the mid-August Big Questions were answered, or if they were even big questions in the first place.
Bear in mind that all of these were A big question, not necessarily THE big question.
And away we go:
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
What it was: Is there a way to get consistent match-winning performances out of Yordy Reyna?
What it should have been: Are the 'Caps gonna scrape together enough decent defensive performances to actually make the playoffs?
I still think the answer is probably "no," but as I'm writing this column the 'Caps technically sit above the playoff line in the West and certainly have a chance. Yet they're behind both RSL and the Rapids on points per game and just lost to the Galaxy, which makes it a real scrum at spots eight through 12. Those four teams and the Dynamo occupy those spots, and only one of them will get in.
Anyway, the Vancouver attack has put together a few nice performances and scraped together some goals, even with Reyna long-since dispatched to D.C. for a bag of balls. But defensively they're still a mess and have conceded 40 goals, which is second-worst in the league.
What it was: Are we going to see Jozy and Ayo up top together?
What it should have been: Are we going to see Jozy or Ayo stay healthy for more than like two games in a row?
Altidore has yet another hamstring injury, and could be gone for another month. There's a chance that we won't see him again in 2020.
Akinola has been magnificent when available:
Like Altidore, he missed a chunk of time this season thanks to a hamstring strain. He returned in early September, stayed healthy for six weeks and then missed the last TFC game with an undisclosed injury.
It says quite a bit about how good and deep Toronto are that they're top of the table even while having to deal with major injuries to major contributors at all levels, and is yet another reason why Alejandro Pozuelo is the obvious league MVP.
Sporting Kansas City
What it was: Is Jaylin Lindsey ready to take minutes from Graham Zusi?
What it should have been: Is Gianluca Busio ready to take minutes from Ilie Sanchez?
I've long been a Busio doubter. The Sporting Homegrown has been hailed in some circles as the next great attacking prospect coming through the US youth national team pipeline, and while there was always some obvious talent, he never affected the game as much as you'd want from a primary attacker. He also often seemed hesitant to pick the type of passes a playmaker needs to pick.
Then Ilie got hurt and Peter Vermes made what might have been a genius decision to drop Busio deeper into midfield:
Guys I'm pretty sure I've found Pirlo's first purchase for Juve... pic.twitter.com/UbNgvGqEqa— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) August 21, 2020
He wasn't great overall, but his distribution sure was, and while Sporting struggled throughout September it's hard to lay any of that at the feet of the kid. And what's more, once Ilie came back healthy and slotted in as the No. 6, Busio pushed higher upfield as a Free 8 and was more effective pushing into the attack than he'd been at any previous point in his career.
EDIT: As I was writing this column a press release from Sporting came through nothing that Zusi has had foot surgery and will be sidelined for five months. So yeah, the Lindsey question has suddenly gotten even bigger.
What it was: Will Gustav Svensson have to play center back?
What it should have been: What will happen to the attack when Raul Ruidiaz goes on international duty?
Credit to the Sounders for not overreacting to a miserable summer from Xavier Arreaga and the prospect of trusting Shane O'Neill for long stretches. First, it turns out that O'Neill has become pretty damn serviceable! He's not going to win Defender of the Year or anything, but he's been a reliable defender back there alongside (mostly) Yeimar Gomez Andrade.
Second... yes, Arreaga got benched and really did earn it. But he was also slowly re-integrated into the lineup, played pretty well his last few games, and then went on international duty and played well for Ecuador. He's also not about to win Defender of the Year, but he's also not as much of a catastrophe as he looked this summer in Orlando.
The issue is at the other end of the field. Will Bruin has failed to score in five game's worth of minutes this year and Seattle, in the three games since Ruidiaz left, have scored two goals, one goal and zero goals. They need their Peruvian star back, and they need him healthy.
San Jose Earthquakes
What it was: Is Cristian Espinoza a goalscoring threat?
What it should have been: Will they be an all-time defensive disaster, setting all sorts of records for defensive futility and suffering multiple losses by 5+ goals to the point where the entire club hierarchy seems to be on the chopping block, then -- thanks to a couple of personnel moves -- morph into one of the hottest teams in the league with an inexplicably stingy defense?
The answer to the first question is "no" and the answer to the second question is "yes."
San Jose are 4-1-1 in their past six games and have posted shutouts in three of their past four. The big changes: JT Marcinkowski in goal for Daniel Vega; Florian Jungwirth back into the XI; Jackson Yueill pushed higher into a No. 8 role, while Andy Rios has dropped back into a sort of pressing 10; Chris Wondolowski back up top as the starting No. 9; Carlos Fierro into the lineup playing the opposite wing from Espinoza.
The Quakes are fun and good again! I wish I had something more insightful than "Matias Almeyda is putting better players on the field now," but I really think it comes down to the fact that Matias Almeyda is putting better players on the field now.
Why did it take him so long? I do not know the answer to that. But you've got to admit it was wildly entertaining to see opponents try for a touchdown every single time out.
That said, I like this version of the Quakes better.
Real Salt Lake
What it was: Will one of the center forwards make a permanent claim on the spot?
What it should have been: Will they create any sort of identity or consistency in terms of how they want to play?
Gonna be a big old negative on both counts. RSL are just 4-6-3 since play resumed in August and have yet to register back-to-back wins this season. All the while, they're getting less of the ball and generating fewer chances as the season goes on.
Damir Kreilach, who I listed as one of the possible No. 9s, has been his usual excellent self, though not as a center forward. He's played a lot on the wing or, with Albert Rusnak gone, as a playmaker.
What it was: Can Cristhian Paredes rest Diego Chara a little bit?
What it should have been: Will it matter if he can't?
Chara's played 11 of Portland's 13 games in the two months since play resumed. They lost the two in which he didn't suit up -- shipping seven goals in the process -- so the answer to the Paredes question is "nope!"
Sebastian Blanco was the best player in the league this summer, and Diego Valeri is Portland's eternal MVP and one of the best No. 10s in league history. But for the 10th season in a row, Chara remains their irreplaceable man in the engine room. If his 34-year-old legs continue to hold up (and there really are zero signs he's slowed down), then the Timbers are in with a shout. If not, they're out with a whimper.
What it was: Can Sergio Santos and Kacper Przybylko complement each other?
What it should have been: Do the Union have enough firepower to compete if they don't?
Santos went dry for all of September and Przybylko hasn't scored in a month. At no point when they've been on the field together have they really looked like they're on the field together. Each has looked better either as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 or when paired with Andrew Wooten, who's often dropped off and become more of facilitator.
Fontana, a 21-year-old Homegrown attacking midfielder, has scored six goals in just 440 minutes this year, with all six coming since Sept. 12. His runs are ruthless and his finishing is ruthless-er. Head coach Jim Curtin definitely does not want us to compare him to Clint Dempsey.
"He has a knack for goals," Curtin said after that win over the Revs. "Again, don't run with this, everyone, as a headline, but I was just talking to Pat Noonan about this. Obviously Pat knows the player I'm about to mention as well as anyone, but his ability to arrive in the box at the right time and make plays, it reminds you of a guy who used to play here in Clint Dempsey, in that he just had a knack for being in the right place at the right time."
I'm sure Philly will continue with the 4-4-2 diamond once Jose Martinez is back, but I think there's a strong argument that they're at their best and most dangerous with Fontana as a goalscoring 10 and Aaronson as a playmaking winger in a 4-2-3-1, leaving either Santos or Przybylko to ride the bench.
Orlando City SC
What it was: Can Chris Mueller continue to progress?
What it should have been: Do they have enough depth to survive injuries and international absences?
Happily, the answer to the Mueller question was "yes." While he's cooled down a good bit over the past month (just 1g/1a in his last six games), he's on 8g/6a for the season, has a real Best XI shout and the underlying numbers all suggest that his current level of play isn't a blip; it's sustainable.
He's needed to sustain it because Oscar Pareja has been shuffling through the entire deck at almost every other spot on the field. His goalkeeper's gone on international duty; he's had injuries at both fullback slots (and I don't think anybody's fullbacks are as important to how the entire team plays as Orlando's are); he's had to deal with regular rotation and minor knocks in central defense; his entire starting central midfield has been out for one reason or another; Nani has been productive but not nearly as influential as during this summer tournament; and the starting No. 9 is a rookie.
There's been a lot to juggle, but this team has juggled extraordinarily well. They lost their first game back, and have now rattled off a streak of 12 unbeaten while going pretty damn far down ye olde depth chart -- and mostly playing good soccer despite that even if the goals have mostly dried up.
New York Red Bulls
What it was: Will Dru Yearwood be the midfield destroyer/ball-winner they've missed?
What it should have been: Will they generate and finish enough chances?
The answer to the Yearwood question thus far has been "no," and that has a direct bearing on the second question. The young Englishman has struggled to win a starting spot and has struggled to impose himself upon the game when out there, and as a result the Red Bulls are still struggling to generate those chances-via-transition that were the lifeblood of this team from 2015 through 2018. The press has not been a method of consistent chance creation.
At the same time, the striker corps has left a lot to be desired. Both Tom Barlow and Brian White have moments where their movement is excellent and they look the part of starting strikers in this league, but neither's put the ball into the net with any consistency this year. And if Samuel Tetteh, on loan from RB Salzburg, was brought in to supplant one or both, he's not convinced.
The Red Bulls scored eight goals over two games at the end of September. Since then they've scored five goals in five games. They'll make the playoffs, but if this is what their attack is, they're not going very far.
New York City FC
What it was: Can Heber be what he was last year?
What it should have been: Will the defense be good enough to get them results while the attack goes belly up?
Heber popped his ACL and, obviously, 2020 was the year from hell for him. I hope he comes back fully healthy next year, because he was one of my favorite center forwards in the league to watch.
But he wasn't the only casualty. Maxi Moralez has missed most of this year, and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi has had his usual spate of injuries. Alexandru Mitrita was loaned to a Saudi team in order to reunite with his family right, just as he was starting to look like an actual DP. Taty Castellanos has worked hard and fouled everybody within a five-mile radius of Yankee Stadium, but mostly hasn't delivered. Gary Mackay-Steven hasn't delivered at all, and Jesus Medina has been ineffectual.
That backline, though, has been one of the best in the league. It's not pretty these days for the Pigeons, but they've conceded just 19 goals in 19 games, and if you're doing that, you're giving yourself a chance to win.
Anton Tinnerholm has a real claim on Defender of the Year. Fullbacks never win it, but he should be strongly considered.
New England Revolution
What it was: Can they consistently create chances without Carles Gil?
What it should have been: Can they consistently finish the chances they create regardless?
A month into the restart it was looking pretty grim, as the Revs had scored just six goals in their first seven games back, with or without Gil. DP center forward Adam Buksa had been benched and DP second forward Gustavo Bou had regressed to the mean after his unsustainable finishing sort of stole the show in 2019. Bou's good, but he's not going to score a 25-yard banger every other game. Nobody in the world does that.
But the next seven games were better. The attack has been able to find the back of the net 11 times, with Bou, Buksa (slowly coming alive), Buchanan and Teal Bunbury all doing some real lifting. Meanwhile, Lee Nguyen is out there looking like it's 2014:
Pretty sure Lee Ngyen just earned himself Pass of the Week. And, intentional or not, what a finish from Teal! pic.twitter.com/88RvRrEyT2— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) October 11, 2020
I don't know if this is sustainable -- I have my doubts. But the Revs have done enough to make them virtual locks for another playoff appearance.
What it was: Is Derrick Jones as a No. 10 gonna be a thing?
What it should have been: Is the defense going to be good enough to ride it to the playoffs?
To be clear: Jones has spent a little bit of time as a No. 10, on the wing and as a false 9. I still think he'll end up being a No. 8, but wherever he plays his talent has been evident this season. Long-term, he's an important piece for this team.
But this version of this team is almost entirely about their defense, which has been one of the best in the league and arguably the best expansion defense, through 18 games, in MLS history. They've conceded just 17 times in their 18 games, and while the 2009 Sounders had a better defense in terms of the raw numbers at this juncture (they conceded just 16 goals), that came during the lowest-scoring epoch in MLS history. Back then teams combined for about 2.5 goals per match, while in 2020 it's at almost 2.9 goals per match.
However you want to slice it, Nashville's defense has been so good that their attack has basically been handed the entire year to sort things out, and now they kind of look like they're sorted. They scored more than one goal in a game just once in their first 16 outings, and have now put up back-to-back three-goal performances.
They're up to eighth in the East and have a five-point cushion between themselves and the playoff line.
What it was: Does Victor Wanyama need defensive help around him?
What it should have been: It should have been that. That was the right question.
But he doesn't cover much ground, and as a result the Impact have to protect him with guys that do. Even so they have a poor defensive record, as their 36 goals conceded is dead last in the East.
Minnesota United FC
What it was: Can Chase Gasper start finding the final ball?
What it should have been: Can they keep winning even if all their veteran cornerstones are injured or on international duty?
Gasper picked up both his first career goal and his first career assist in September, so you could argue that he's made progress -- though at this point it's just as likely that it's statistical noise. What really matter is that he's continued to be a lockdown left back, and man have Minnesota needed that over the past couple of months as there's been a significant amount of attrition throughout that starting XI.
Ike Opara still hasn't come back, Ozzie Alonso went down with a hamstring injury in late August, and Jan Gregus has missed time via both suspension and international duty. Tyler Miller got hurt and went out for the season, while Luis Amarilla and Ethan Finlay have both been in and out of the lineup.
And yet the Loons have not fallen apart. Things haven't been great, mind you -- they're just 3-5-4 in 12 games since play resumed -- but they gave themselves enough padding with their March and July results. Sometimes just scraping by is exactly what you need to do in order to just scrape by.
For what it's worth, in the process they seem to have found themselves a star in young Dayne St. Clair, who's been one of the league's best shot-stoppers since making his debut nine games ago.
Inter Miami CF
What it was: Will it be the 3-4-2-1 or the 4-2-3-1?
What it should have been: Will their big-name signings actually deliver and will their kids progress?
To answer the original Q: It's been a mix of both, as well as some 4-3-3 thrown in. The central midfield trio in that 4-3-3? Wil Trapp, Victor Ulloa and Blaise Matuidi. If you think that group sounds overly defensive and cautious and unlikely to create consistent danger... yup! You win a prize, but the prize is not a goal because Miami don't score many of those.
The bigger issue than the formation(s) is that Matuidi has been poor and Gonzalo Higuain has not finished. The idea throughout the summer was that this was a solid team consistently losing by a single goal, and that with those two veterans in town, all those one-goal losses would turn into wins. To be fair, a few of them have. To be equally fair, more of them have not, and with four games left Miami are below the playoff line and sporting a -10 goal differential.
More worrying in the long run is that none of their high-priced and/or high-expectations kids have hit. Matias Pellegrini is a part-time starter who has mostly become a full-time sub after being outplayed by Brek Shea. Forwards Julian Carranza and Robbie Robinson are second and third on the center forward depth chart in some order, while it does not seem entirely like an accident that the team has largely defended better with Andres Reyes sidelined.
Unlike Nashville -- who are going to make the playoffs -- Miami actually expected to make the playoffs. It will be, and should be considered a failure if they do not.
What it was: Will Jonathan dos Santos be fully fit and as influential as last year?
What it should have been: Was signing Chicharito a giant, honking mistake?
The answer to the first question: No!
The answer to the second question: Maybe!
Chicharito has one goal this year, in just shy of 700 minutes. He's been benched, at times, in favor of Ethan Zubak, who has two goals in just shy of 600 minutes. The Galaxy have gotten little from their center forwards.
LA got a massive win in the game from which that miss is from, but they're still bottom of the West on total points. As you can probably see from that clip, Chicharito doesn't look like he's quite rounded into full match fitness.
What it was: Is Brian Rodriguez ready?
What it should have been: Is Francisco Ginella ready?
Whether Rodriguez was/is ready or not (I'm leaning toward "he'll show he's ready as soon as he's back from international duty") is almost secondary to the concerns in central midfield, where Mark-Anthony Kay is out after a gruesome ankle injury and from whence Latif Blessing was mysteriously absent this past weekend as rumors swirl of a bid from Brazilian side Vasco da Gama (think of them as as the Tottenham Hotspur of Rio de Janeiro).
Ginella, a highly rated 21-year-old Uruguay youth international, has looked like a talented young central midfielder learning the ropes for a new team in a new league in a new culture this year. Sometimes he's been completely overwhelmed, and other times he's looked like a guy who will some day fetch $8 million on the transfer market. He is, at the very least, a damn sight better than Andre Horta.
What it was: Do they have a high-usage central midfielder anywhere?
What it should have been: Is Mauro Manotas broken?
Manotas has gone from 19g/1a in 2018 to 13g/8a in 2019 to 2g/1a in 1050 minutes in 2020. He has scored once since February. It is bad and it hurts me to watch this right now, because I am a Manotas fan.
There are plenty of other things going wrong with Houston (they never did find that high-usage central midfielder, and the central defense is a major problem, and I don't think they upgraded at goalkeeper), but if Manotas put the ball in the net at his usual clip it's a good bet that they'd be safely above the playoff line.
Instead they're dead last in the West on PPG and have won just once in their past 10 games. Obviously losing Alberth Elis hurt, but it shouldn't have hurt this much.
What it was: Will Julian Gressel settle in?
What it should have been: Will Julian Gressel, Ola Kamara, Edison Flores, and/or Yamil Asad settle in?
No, no, no and no. It should be so easy to plug those four guys into a basic 4-2-3-1, draw a low block and just hit on the break. That is the "OK, things are going bad, let's just keep it to basics and make sure we don't ship three then just be opportunistic" blueprint that works around the world.
D.C., mostly for injury reasons but sometimes for other inscrutable reasons, have not really tried that. I do not understand it.
Anyway, all four of these guys have been poor, and D.C. have been one of the two worst teams in the league. That finally cost Ben Olsen his job, and I wouldn't be entirely shocked if, at the end of this season and with a roster teardown coming, one or more of these guys gets put squarely on the trade block.
What it was: Who's the successor to Reggie Cannon?
What it should have been: Will the DPs play like DPs?
Just about the only pleasant surprise for Dallas in 2020 has been the play of Homegrown right back Bryan Reynolds, who seamlessly slotted into the position after Cannon was sold to Boavista. Reynolds has made a couple of "young defender" errors (he has trouble staying attached to the right center back), but those have been few while his attacking contributions have been myriad and sundry. He's a major threat to advance the ball off the dribble, and is already one of the best crossers in the league.
The guys he's crossing to have been not great, though:
A lot of the talk over the past few years has been about Dallas's "reliance" on Homegrown kids, and whether or not that is a good strategy.
I believe that is the wrong way to frame the discussion. The fact is that their DPs and the majority of their TAM-level imports have failed to deliver to such an extent that Luchi Gonzalez, and Oscar Pareja before him, have had no chance but to thrust the kids forward into major roles whether they were ready or not. That has been no different this season, one in which the Dallas DPs are Santiago Mosquera, Bryan Acosta and Franco Jara -- who missed that wide open header from five yards in the clip.
Dallas's academy products, as well as a few SuperDraft picks, have been good enough to keep the ship afloat while most of the veteran imports have underdelivered. 2020 has been no exception in that regard. You can make the playoffs like that, but you won't win much once you get there.
Columbus Crew SC
What it was: What's going on with Luis Diaz?
What it should have been: Can Lucas Zelarayan stay healthy and productive?
The Diaz question was a good one, though the Zelarayan question might be season-defining not just for the Crew but maybe the whole league. When the Argentine No. 10 was healthy earlier this year, Columbus didn't just look like the best team in the league; they literally were the best team in the league in terms of points per game and he had a strong argument for MVP.
But Zelarayan's played just six of 13 games since play resumed in August, has gone 90 just once and has just 2g/2a. He's been pretty good when he's been out there, but he hasn't been out there enough and "pretty good" isn't good enough for Columbus to compete with the likes of Toronto and Philly in the East. They have subsequently dropped from first to third in the past month, going 1-3-1 in their past five.
But look at Toronto's injuries, absences and under-performances, and then look at how Pozuelo papers over so much of those. Columbus need Zelarayan, from time to time, to do the same.
What it was: What happened to Auston Trusty?
What it should have been: Is Cole Bassett about to break out?
It's more difficult to do this blurb for the Rapids than for any other team for the very obvious reason that Colorado haven't played in a month due to a COVID-19 outbreak amongst the team.
It struck just as Colorado had gotten rolling, with three wins in four and only one loss in six. They'd climbed over the playoff line, and a huge part of that was the play of Bassett, bursting out of midfield to rack up goals and assists:
Bassett has already posted 4g/4a in just 565 minutes this season, and his ability to time those late-arriving runs out of midfield is sublime. He has been a match-winner for Colorado, and I did not see that coming.
For what it's worth, Trusty started three of Colorado's last five games, and looked solid for the most part. He's still young and there's still talent there.
What it was: Will Jurgen Locadia be a Josef-lite or an injury and hot/cold headache?
What it should have been: Basically that.
Technically Locadia hasn't been either an injury headache or a hot/cold headache. He's been a cold/cold headache, a nightmare of missed chances that only stopped after he did, finally, pick up a knock 10 days ago. The big man has one goal in 1075 regular-season minutes this year. It came back on March 1 and while Cincy's attack has been dysfunctional, he hasn't exactly been starved for service. He's simply found ways to miss chance after chance after chance.
It's hard to imagine Cincy will execute whatever the buy-out option is on his loan. Locadia's got a good pedigree (he was scoring regularly in the Bundesliga this time last year), is in his prime, has clearly worked hard out there and looks the part. But if you don't put the ball in the back of the net, you can't be a striker, let alone a DP striker.
This was always supposed to be a rebuild-and-reboot year for Cincy, and the hope was that Locadia would be a centerpiece for the next era beginning next year. Hard to imagine it plays out like that.
Chicago Fire FC
What it was: 3-5-2 or 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3?
What it should have been: Do they have enough depth to compete when guys get injured or leave for international duty?
First off, it turned out to be a 4-3-3 in attack that also had some 4-2-3-1 principles and operated as a 4-2-3-1 defensively.
Second off, it all took a while, but about a month ago it really started to click for the Fire. They generated good-to-great chances on the regular, defended high without conceding too many run-outs, and got improved play from both their youngsters and their DPs. It was fun to watch even when they were losing, and then eventually they stopped making soul-crushing individual errors and so they stopped losing. Their performances were good enough to get some wins, and win they did.
It hasn't been as good lately with multiple starters -- most notably DP d-mid Gaston Gimenez -- gone on international duty. Chicago have won just once in their past four, and that was the soft part of the schedule. Their final five games are a woodchipper.
What it was: Has Andrew Carleton seen the light?
What it should have been: Will there be anything at all positive to take out of this year?
There has been! There really has. It's just not Carleton, who spent the whole year on loan with Indy XI (he was very good at the USL Championship level) and doesn't seem likely to come back to Atlanta next year. A fresh start somewhere else probably makes the most sense for him anyway.
But Atlanta may finally have a Homegrown success story regardless, as 18-year-old left back George Bello has been good and consistently improved with reps:
His play has been the single best takeaway from 2020 for Atlanta. Selling Pity Martinez for a small profit and signing Marcelino Moreno as a DP No. 10 probably counts as a positive as well, as does Miles Robinson's return to health and the "hey, these guys are pretty good role players!" performances of Jon Gallagher, Mo Adams and Brooks Lennon.
But that's probably it. Atlanta's got another roster overhaul coming their way this offseason, and unlike the last one, this one's warranted.