EDITOR'S NOTE: The non-playoff team blurbs were originally published in late November, while the blurbs of the teams eliminated in the play-in round and the first round of the playoffs were published in early December. The final eight blurbs are new.
At the time I'm kicking this column off, the 2020 regular season is over and the year has ended for eight teams. And so it's appropriate to take a look at the how and why, and the what comes next.
This column will quite obviously grow over the next few weeks as more and more teams see their 2020 come to an end. And then finally, an MLS Cup champion will be crowned.
And so in we go...
FC Cincy had a legendarily dysfunctional debut season in 2019. They chopped up and rebuilt damn near half their roster for their sophomore campaign. And they might've one-upped themselves in the dysfunction department regardless. A gif is worth a thousand words:
The best laid plans of mice and men, I guess. You have to give Cincy's front office points for ambition — they went out and got a coach and players with real pedigree, guys who were imported and some from within the league. On paper this wasn't going to be a playoff team unless almost everything broke right, but did anyone really expect almost everything to break wrong?
FORMATION & TACTICS: Ron Jans was supposed to be the head coach, and had his team playing in what looked like a 4-3-3 in the preseason, but then he and the club parted ways after he said some openly racist stuff. So Yoann Damet got his second run as an interim head coach at the start of the season, with the team coming out in a 4-1-4-1 and then a 4-2-3-1.
And then the Covid shutdown, and then Jaap Stam became the team's third head coach of 2020. And Stam cycled through a 5-4-1, a 3-5-2, a 4-3-3, a 4-1-4-1 and eventually finished with a 4-2-3-1, playing mostly out of a mid or low block.
They tried to possess and didn't hit a lot of long balls, but they didn't really have many ideas.
HIGHLIGHTS: Unquestionably, it was the back-to-back wins over Atlanta United and the Red Bulls in the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament, though the first-ever MLS regular-season Hell is Real rivalry win over Columbus certainly rates as well.
But yeah, back in July, with Stam on the sidelines for his second and third games in charge, Cincy did the job: they got numbers behind the ball, didn't make any catastrophic mistakes, and were opportunistic when moments presented themselves. And Frankie Amaya scored a worldie.
So they got themselves out of the group stage and into the knockout rounds, and then... were thoroughly outplayed by Portland in the Round of 16. But Steve Clark basically gave Cincinnati a goal, and it went to PKs, and any time you're into PKs you've got a shot, and... Portland won, of course.
But still, this was a more than respectable run even if it wasn't great soccer.
LOWLIGHT: If you want to pinpoint the moment where it all started to go really, really wrong for Cincy in 2020, here you go:
The Timbers had just gifted Cincy one goal, and were doing their damnedest to gift them another. If Jurgen Locadia — their star DP striker, an in-his-prime No. 9 who was scoring regularly in the Bundesliga at this time last year — buries that, Cincy are into the quarterfinals and Portland are going home.
Locadia literally has not scored since then. Cincinnati went 2W-12L-4D and scored just six goals in the subsequent three months. One goal every three games for a team that brought in two attacking DPs this offseason.
REVELATION: Here's what I wrote last year:
I don't think anyone on the roster earned that distinction. Some of the young guys – DP Alan Cruz, draft picks Frankie Amaya and Tommy McCabe, Celtic loanee Andrew Gutman – showed promise or had good moments, but nobody was a "revelation."
Cruz regressed to the point where it wouldn't shock me if he was gone this winter, and McCabe disappeared. Amaya and Gutman were both marginally better in Year 2 than they were in Year 1. Joe Gyau also worked hard.
Nobody, though, was a revelation.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Did you read the part about Cincy having scored just six goals in 18 games over the course of three months? That is the type of disappointment you get when Locadia and Yuya Kubo — the other DP attacker they signed this past winter — combine for just four goals in about 2400 minutes between the two of them. You can sprinkle TAM attacker Siem de Jong's 0g/0a in 800ish minutes on top.
All three of these guys have resumes that suggest they should be, at the very least, pretty good MLS players. Locadia sold for almost $20 million just two years ago! De Jong is just 31 and was a fringe Dutch national teamer!
None of them have even been replacement-level in 2020.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Amaya (CM): He's a ball-winning terrier with range, skill and real toughness, and should be a foundational piece. Tata Martino and El Tri have approached the Mexican-American, who has represented the U.S. at various youth national team levels.
- Gutman (LB): He's still on loan, and while he hasn't been perfect, there's been a real, noticeable improvement curve, and he's got some sauce on the ball and in the attack.
- Kamohelo Mokotjo (DM): The 29-year-old Dutch-South African d-mid arrived mid-season and has been energetic, at the very least. He and Amaya should be able to form a defensively solid central midfield.
- Gyau (W/WB): Gyau did lots of hard work as both a winger and a wingback. He's not a match-winner out there, but he soaks up lots of minutes with solid two-way play.
- Alvaro Barreal (LW): They brought the young Argentine in during the summer transfer window and he hasn't done much — 0g/0a in 330 minutes — but you don't spend that kind of money on a young attacker and not at least give him a chance to succeed.
Offseason Priority: They pretty obviously have to do some more roster rebuilding, and it starts with their DPs. As mentioned, Cruz regressed to the point where it's hard to imagine him being back and wearing a DP tag. It can't possibly be worth exercising whatever Locadia's buy option is given his lack of productivity, though apparently the loan is set to last all the way through next year. And Kubo hasn't looked DP caliber and doesn't really fit any position in the 4-3-3 that Stam pretty clearly wants to play.
So I honestly have no idea what they're doing, or could do.
Then they have to figure out central defense, and figure out if they want a No. 10 or want to use Amaya and **insert signing here** as free, pressing 8s, and they're not locked down in goal, either.
Lots of work to do. The conventional wisdom after their debut season was that the way that 2019 roster was originally constructed had set the team back years, and 2020's results seem to suggest the conventional wisdom was right.
After Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta left, it was time for a rebuild. A gif is worth a thousand words:
D.C. United charged into last year's offseason with what I thought was a pretty good rebuilding plan, targeting players who'd been proven, high-level contributors either in MLS or in Liga MX, all of them in their prime.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Because of all the injuries and underperformances they were all over the shop in terms of the formation. I thought it was going to be a straight-forward 4-2-3-1— to be honest, it should've been a straight-forward 4-2-3-1 even given said injuries and underperformances — but it usually wasn't. Sometimes it was five at the back, sometimes it was four, sometimes it was two up front, sometimes it was three.
No matter the formation or whether it was Olsen or interim head coach Chad Ashton, who is still in the mix to get the permanent job, D.C. were light on possession and attacking ideas, which was paired with one of the most porous defenses in the league.
That's how you finish next-to-last.
HIGHLIGHTS: D.C. won only five times all year, with three of them coming down the stretch under Ashton, so you could argue for that. You could argue for young Griffin Yow's late equalizer vs. Toronto in September, or younger Kevin Paredes' relatively consistent week-to-week performances.
But my favorite of D.C.'s trio of teenaged homegrowns is central midfielder Moses Nyeman, who put in a legit two-way performance against Cincy in mid-October:
Moses Nyeman vs FC Cincinnati— Sanjiv (@USMNTvideos) October 19, 2020
Kid is really good already. Ball recoveries, progressive runs, and set up the winning goal. Still 16.pic.twitter.com/mWfUeqbjmI
Maryland and Northern Virginia—basically the D.C. metro area—is one of the richest in the country in terms of local talent. The only real silver lining from this season is that it forced United to play more of the local kids and, perhaps, get the academy cranking out first-team performers.
LOWLIGHT: On October 7, D.C. went to the Bronx and got thumped 4-1 by NYCFC. It was their fourth loss in a row, and moved them to 2W-9L-5D on the season. They'd won just once since March.
Olsen was dismissed the next day. It was time.
It was also sad. Olsen is as deeply entwined with D.C. United as any player has ever been entwined with any team in MLS history. He's been a part, as either a player of a coach, of something over 70 percent of all United games, ever. When D.C. took the field on October 11 of this year, it was the first time since the 1997 US Open Cup final that he wasn't either on the roster or on the coaching staff.
REVELATION: Nobody. You could argue that the team leaning into the #PlayYourKids academy path is a bigger-picture revelation, but I need more data before I believe that. It could've just been forced by circumstance, as opposed to an active choice.
And while all three of Yow, Paredes and Nyeman had their moments, none were so good as to be a revelation. And as mentioned elsewhere, virtually all of the other additions disappointed.
Or maybe it was the spate of injuries that was the most disappointing. We never really got to see the version of Flores who kept Monarcas (RIP) alive in Liga MX back in 2019, or the version of Kamara who's been a goal machine in MLS. Gressel and Asad seemed unsure of themselves and their roles in a way they never, ever looked in the past. And basically everybody else on the team got hurt, too.
Or maybe it was the defensive underperformance that was the most disappointing? They conceded 38 goals in 34 games in 2019. In 2020 they shipped 41 in 23. Yikes.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Flores (AM/W): If he stays healthy, he'll be really good in this league. Maybe not quite Best XI, but not far off.
- Asad (W): We know what a healthy Asad can be in MLS.
- Gressel (W): We know what a healthy and played-in-his-proper-spot Gressel can be in MLS.
- Russell Canouse (DM): The only stretch of consistently good play D.C. have put together over the past four seasons came during the second half of the 2018 season when Canouse was the write-it-in-pen starter at d-mid.
- Bill Hamid (GK): Hamid had a tough year, but 2020 was a tough year for damn near everyone. He's still one of the better shot-stoppers in the league, and is in his prime.
Offseason Priority: Remember when Oscar Pareja was hired by Orlando City or when Bruce Arena was hired by the Revs? Both those teams were struggling—Orlando City to a near legendary degree—so everyone assumed a roster teardown-and-rebuild was incoming. And everybody assumed wrong.
This D.C. roster is much, much better than their record indicates, and so the question for any new coach should not be "who are you going to bring in to make us better?" but rather "how are you going to make the guys already here better?" There is real balance and talent in midfield, and thanks to the development of the kids and the return of Paul Arriola, there is legitimate depth as well.
Less so up top, where Kamara is now 31 and there's a collection of mismatched pieces behind him on the hodgepodge of a depth chart, and there's almost no depth to speak of on the back line. So there do, quite obviously, need to be some additions—maybe even a starter or two.
But if they get the right coach and get some luck with their health in 2021, this team's not as far away as 2020 made it seem.
Houston Dynamo FC
A new coach, a few new pieces, and a new, high-energy and attractive playing style. A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Dynamo hired Tab Ramos in an attempt to move out of the doldrums of the Wilmer Cabrera era, which was an attempt to move out of the doldrums of the Owen Coyle era, which was an attempt to move out of the doldrums of the late-stage Dom Kinnear era.
They did play better soccer. But they landed in basically the same spot they've been in since 2013.
FORMATION & TACTICS: It was mostly a 4-3-3 — though there was a brief, early-autumn shift to a 4-2-3-1 — that was based upon energetic and somewhat intricate possession play. Darwin Quintero, as an inverted left winger, would be the main playmaker, while the right winger would stretch the field. The dual 8s would be tasked with making late-arriving runs to get onto the end of crosses and pull-backs, and the center forwards would do center forward stuff.
The left fullback would generally push higher than the right fullback. Maynor Figueroa, at left center back, would be tasked with initiating possession quite a bit.
Defensively it was "pray for Matias Vera."
HIGHLIGHTS: The three-game winning streak in late-August/early September was pretty much the whole of it, since they only won one other game all season long. Granted, it was a commanding 2-0 Texas Derby win over FC Dallas, but man, for those three late-summer games, everything that Ramos wanted from the Dynamo seemed to be working. Look at how they massacred Sporting KC:
Incidentally, Alberth Elis had 2g/3a in just 112 minutes over the course of that three-game winning streak. Those were his final games in Houston.
LOWLIGHT: They went 0W-3L-3D in the first six games after Elis was sold, which... fair enough. It's tough to replace one of the best attackers in the league.
Then they got that 2-0 win over Dallas and looked good doing it. There were seven games left in the season, and Houston had proved they were able to beat playoff teams, and they were in control of their own destiny. A good run of form would get them to the postseason.
They went 0W-5L-2D with a -8 goal differential, with the absolute bottom coming from a 3-0 revenge loss at Dallas on Halloween. That was pretty much that.
REVELATION: There's one of two ways to go here. Door No. 1 is that this team, like D.C. and Cincy, played so poorly that nobody actually qualifies as a revelation.
Door No. 2 is that the death-spiral they went into after Elis's departure was something of a revelation. I knew how good Elis was—he was in that Jordan Morris/Diego Rossi/Cristian Pavon group of "best non-Carlos Vela wingers in MLS—but, my god, were Houston over-reliant upon him.
So the only revelation was a bad revelation. Oof.
DISAPPOINTMENT: I don't really think many long-time Dynamo fans expected this team to make the playoffs, but I do think many expected some progress both tactically and individually from the younger players. And while I'd argue that Ramos's team was much more aesthetically pleasing than any Dynamo side of the past eight years, it came with a very obvious cost: They left themselves open to an almost infinite amount of transition opportunities.
Houston allowed .57 xG per game in transition, as per Second Spectrum tracking data. That was the worst in the league, and the underlying numbers certainly did match the eye test, and that is why despite the aesthetic improvement, there was no W/L/T improvement to be found.
Two other fairly massive disappointments: Mauro Manotas managed just 3g/2a in 1330 minutes this year, as his regression from his 2018 heights picked up steam. That's not great.
The other one is that all of the above happened while Ramos, instead of skewing toward a younger group, didn't really play the kids. Nico Lemoine got just 163 minutes, while Marcelo Palomino got just 21. Erik McCue didn't play despite the central defense not being, uh, an area of strength.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Manotas (FW): He had a tough year but he's just 25 years old and is a proven goalscorer in this league.
- Vera (DM): Another 25-year-old, Vera's been an underrated ball-winner since his arrival, though he could obviously use some help back there.
- Memo Rodriguez (CM/W): Another 25-year-old who put in another solid year, this time as a No. 8 instead of on the wing. I think I like him better on the wing since he's too low-usage to be a commanding CM, but he's much more part of the solution than part of the problem.
- Adam Lundqvist (LB): The 26-year-old added value on the overlap and in possession, and wasn't an obvious, glaring negative defensively.
- Darwin Quintero (AM/W): He's 33 and isn't going to do the work defensively anymore, but he's still a masterful string-puller and final third match-winner, with 7g/10a in 1700 minutes.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They need to find a way to switch to a 4-2-3-1 in order to get Vera some ball-winning help in deep-central midfield. Station Quintero as the 10, move Memo back to left wing, offload Tomas Martinez and get a DP No. 8 — a Jan Gregus-type. Teams use the 4-2-3-1 as a way of hiding their playmakers defensively and of gumming up the middle to prevent counterattacks, so if you want to shave down those numbers in Houston, there you go.
This assumes that Manotas comes back and is happy and scoring goals again. This also assumes that Mateo Bajamich, the Argie 2nd division winger they spent seven figures on to replace Elis, actually does replace Elis to some degree.
They also need to upgrade most of that backline, but especially the central defense. It is a glaring need.
There is major surgery to be done in Houston.
They were arguably the model club, having a cadre of stars from home and abroad and three trophies in two years. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Did Atlanta United unnecessarily overcomplicate basically everything about their existence with an offseason sell-off of key contributors and by doubling down on Frank de Boer's vision for what he wanted from his team?
Did the offloading of those players, and the unhappy manner in which many of them left do serious (and perhaps irreparable, at least in the short-term) harm to the club culture?
This was a season of failure for Atlanta, the first they've tasted in MLS.
FORMATION & TACTICS: This is another team that was all over the shop, again thanks largely to injuries and roster turnover and coaching turnover. De Boer was dismissed after the team's belly flop at the MLS is Back Tournament, and while interim head coach Stephen Glass tried, nothing he did in the subsequent three months actually worked despite a still-respectable amount of talent in the locker room.
In the end it was, for the most part, a 4-2-3-1 with a pair of fullbacks tasked with pushing high and getting into the attack, and a pair of deep-lying central midfielders who mostly didn't.
Defensively they defended pretty low. There was nothing noteworthy about it, save for their overall regression in terms of how (not) well they scrambled.
HIGHLIGHTS: There were only two times after March when things looked good-ish, to the point that Atlanta fans had hope. One was the first game after the MLS is Back Tournament—the first game of the post-De Boer era—in which they came out and knocked Nashville around in a 2-0 win. It was Pity Martinez's best game of 2020, and one of his best games ever in a Five Stripes kit. It was also his second-to-last.
The other was a 4-0 dismantling of D.C. in early October thanks to the unstoppable combo of **checks notes** Brooks Lennon and Jon Gallagher. That was a paddlin', and was also Atlanta's second win in three outings, which had them very much in the playoff race with eight games left in the season.
They'd win one of them.
LOWLIGHT: That 1W-5L-2D stretch to finish out the regular season sure has a claim, as does the 0W-4L-2D stretch after that August win over Nashville. Any momentum they might've picked up from De Boer's dismissal was illusory.
But the real lowlight was the MLS is Back Tournament performance. Three straight 1-0 losses in which Atlanta not only weren't winning, but in which they weren't even dangerous. They had no ideas and generated almost nothing, and by the final outing—in which they lost to what was essentially the Columbus reserves—the writing was on the wall for De Boer and some folks in the front office had seen their own seats become undeniably warmer.
REVELATION: Young left back George Bello, an Atlanta academy product, probably wasn't good enough overall to warrant full-on "revelation" status, but I'm gonna toss this clip of him here anyway:
Bello clearly improved over the course of the season, and he is the type of talent who is still being monitored by Champions League clubs. This was the perfect year to live through the bad moments in order to get to the types of good moments his talent says he's capable of producing. I am not absolutely convinced he'll get there, but I'm more convinced than I was 12 months ago, which is progress.
Neither Lennon nor Gallagher, nor d-mid Mo Adams were "revelation"-level guys this year either, but all three looked like useful squad players or potentially even starters in the right set-up. That's not the type of personnel-related victory Atlanta were hoping for in 2020, but wins like that throughout the squad tend to add up even if the W/L/T returns aren't immediate.
DISAPPOINTMENT: There are lots. Losing Josef Martinez to injury for basically the entire season is an obvious thing to point to; if he doesn't do his ACL, they probably make the playoffs. That hurts bad.
All of those disappointments somehow pale in comparison to this one, though: Literally every offseason import underperformed. The Best XI-caliber players Atlanta shipped out after the 2019 season were, to a man, replaced by high-priced guys who did not live up to their billing. Not a single one!
That should chill Atlanta supporters to their bones. You can't be an elite team in this league if you repeatedly miss on signings, and going back a couple of years now—all the way to Barco—Atlanta have mostly done exactly that.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Josef (FW): He's freaking Josef. Even if he's only 90% of what he was before the ACL tear, that still makes him a top 3 center forward in the league.
- Marcelino Moreno (AM): The DP No. 10 was brought in mid-season and looked pretty good, all things considered. He didn't set the world afire, but when you pay many millions for an in-his-prime DP No. 10, you'd best be planning to build around him to some degree.
- Robinson (CB): They better hope the 2019 version of Robinson comes back in 2021.
- Bello (LB): Steady progress from an elite prospect. Can't knock it!
- Franco Escobar (RB): Escobar, like just about everyone else, struggled in 2020. But he's a proven, high-level player in MLS who's in his prime. The front office shouldn't make the mistake of sending him away.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They need to find the right coach, obviously. I'm not going to go and offer any advice since I was one of the ones assuming, two years ago around this time, that De Boer would work out just fine. But the difference from the Tata Martino era has been pronounced.
Within the roster itself, if we assume Josef comes back healthy then the two areas Atlanta most obviously need to address are central midfield and central defense. Maybe a new coach can make the guys already on hand look better, though I do have my doubts about many of them. Eric Remedi and Emerson Hyndman are probably not full-time starters in MLS (though both are paid as if they are), Jeff Larentowicz is pushing 40 and I'm still not sure what you would say it is Matheus Rossetto does, exactly.
Neither Fernando Meza nor Anton Walkes got it done at center back. Meza at least has a track record, but he's gonna be 31 at the start of next season and really, really struggled with the physical aspects of the league. It's hard to see that improving.
After years of fielding an entertaining, often explosive attack that was undercut by an error-prone defense, Chicago replaced their coaching staff after the 2019 season and for 2020 fielded a team with... an entertaining, often explosive attack that was undercut by an error-prone defense. A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Fire were, in a lot of ways, the same Fire. They played good ball under Raphael Wicky, and I had a lot of fun watching them.
It all often looked really good right up until the end. Then it just broke.
FORMATION & TACTICS: After toying around with a 3-5-2 andeven a 5-4-1 during the MLS is Back Tournament, Wicky had his team settle into a 4-2-3-1 with some 4-3-3 principles come August. The whole idea was to put as many guys as possible out there who can pass the ball and use that to unbalance teams via possession, as well as the occasional over-the-top offering to target man Robert Beric when the opposing defense started cheating toward midfield a step or two too much.
Almost everybody in the Fire's regular rotation could really spray, but especially the deep-lying central midfielders and both center backs. That often let them set the tone and, by mid-September, you could count on them to sort of command most games as they all built chemistry and got on the same page.
They were especially good when Beric would check toward the ball and bring the opposing defense with him, which gave the wingers and attacking midfielder opportunities to find open lanes and pockets of space.
HIGHLIGHTS: Their best run of results came in late September/early October when they went 3W-1L-1D over five games and gave themselves control over their own playoff destiny down the stretch.
Truth is, though, that there were highlights from almost every game. I'd argue the best they played all year was in a 2-2 mid-September draw vs. Columbus:
The Fire were dominant against a team that had, up until that point, not conceded more than once in a game all season. Chicago could've easily had five on the day.
Of course... they didn't. And they found a way to somehow cough up points at the very end, which was their season-long M.O.
LOWLIGHT: So after that 3W-1L-1D stretch Chicago had six games left in the season and were in total control of their own playoff destiny, right down to the final day of the season. They were clearly the better team in, I would say, four of those six games, and played the other two dead even. Just on balance of "how does this team look?" you'd have said "like a playoff team."
They won none of those games. And this is how their season ended:
That was with the score knotted at 3-3 at home on Decision Day against a very good NYCFC team. It was a win-and-you're-in situation for Chicago. And that's the magic their backline conjured.
REVELATION: Homegrown rookie center back Mauricio Pineda had a few of those inexplicable moments, but comparatively fewer than the guys around him. Pineda had been arguably the best player in college soccer (or damn near) for four straight years, and yet for a long time it seemed like Chicago didn't want to/weren't going to be able to sign him to a deal.
Then last year, with the addition of Wicky and sporting director Georg Heitz, the academy floodgates finally opened and Pineda was signed.
He slotted right into the XI, first at d-mid and then at center back, and added significant value at both spots. His transition from four years of college soccer was virtually seamless.
I will not be at all surprised if he's starting for the U.S. Under-23s in Olympic qualifying, and then at the Olympics themselves if the U.S. (finally) make it. He is that good.
Pineda's academy teammate Djordje Mihailovic deserves a shout here as well, as he shook off a disappointing 2019 and a rough start to 2020 by snagging a full-time role as a playmaking winger in Wicky's three-man front line. Djordje was one of the top open play chance creators in the league, and finished with 2g/7a in 1171 minutes. Those are very good numbers.
DISAPPOINTMENT: While most of the new signings worked out, young DP attacker Ignacio Aliseda left a lot to be desired. This is the second-to-last game of the season:
This type of play is how you end up with just 1g/2a in 1400 minutes despite playing for one of the league's better attacks.
Chicago's other starting winger, Przemyslaw Frankowski, had just 3g/1a in 1500 minutes. Neither did enough.
If they had done enough, all those late defensive breakdowns would've been less catastrophic and less determinative of the overall season outcome.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Beric (FW): I almost never vote players from non-playoff teams to the Best XI, but Beric was that good this year.
- Gaston Gimenez (DM): Gimenez mostly lived up to his DP tag, doing a regista's work in opening up the game and setting the tempo while adding value defensively.
- Alvaro Medran (CM): Medran is smooth and classy on the ball, and along with Gimenez was superb in dictating the game. He is one of the league's best pass-before-the-pass guys.
- Pineda (CB): He should be a foundational piece for a good long while, though he could probably use a more athletic and less error-prone CB partner than Francisco Calvo.
- Mihailovic (W/AM): He has what seems to be an intuitive understanding of the shape and tempo of the game in the attacking third. Getting him onto the wing, with more time and space to pick the final pass, was a smart move from Wicky.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Finding someone besides Beric to put the ball into the back of the net with some level of consistency should be pretty high on the list. Ideally that would be Aliseda, who one would hope is poised to make a leap in Year 2 (and one would also hope that 2021 will not present the same sort of off-field challenges that 2020 did).
As it stands, Fabian Herbers was Chicago's second-leading scorer with four goals. Herbers is a nice squad player who can fill in at a couple of spots, but if he's your second-leading scorer, you're leaving yourself vulnerable to heartbreak elsewhere on the pitch. You need things at the back to be locked down and to go mostly right.
Which brings us to the other obvious place to look: the back line. Perhaps some of the improvement can/will come from within. I would say the biggest change from the Veljko Paunovic era to the Wicky era thus far has been Wicky's willingness to let players play through mistakes, give them some consistency and the chance to earn reps. The Fire under Paunovic never improved year-over-year because he just never did that.
So Wicky's guys might. But it takes a lot of faith to count on that, and I have to imagine there's a bunch of shopping that'll happen this winter.
Real Salt Lake
Year after year RSL have somehow struggled through most of the season, turned it on at the end, then gotten over the top into the playoffs. A gif is worth a thousand words:
It just proved to be too much for them in 2020. Between the nature of the year itself, to the issues involving owner Dell Loy Hansen and the club culture, to the kind of questionable offseason signings, to the even more questionable managerial decisions from Freddy Juarez, RSL just couldn't make it over the hump.
And so when they got knocked down and it came time for them to really push themselves, the push never came.
FORMATION & TACTICS: 4-2-3-1 low block with, usually, some sort of a false 9 that tended to drift wide between the center backs and fullbacks rather than occupying the center backs in the A gap.
Neither fullback got high with any regularity, and they struggled to get out into transition via any sort of practiced patterns of play. A lot of what they did for a good chunk of the season came down to "let's hope the wingers can go full Messi off the dribble!"
They weren't a fun team to watch.
HIGHLIGHTS: It's hard to pick too many out of the pile considering they didn't win back-to-back games all year long, but they did have one of the most explosive and entertaining five-game runs in the league this season upon their emergence from the bubble.
First they pounded Colorado 4-1 (more on that one in a minute), then they went to Portland and got a 4-4 draw thanks to a pair of second-half stoppage time goals in the first game after the Hansen story had broken. Then they hosted Seattle and got themselves another point thanks to a 2-2 draw.
Of course, then they went to Minnesota and got crushed 4-0, but then they followed that one up with a 3-0 win over LAFC. It was wild and all-over-the-place in terms of performance levels on both sides of the ball, but RSL were mainly out there getting results against good teams and were solidly mid-table in the West. They were looking at another year of, perhaps, hosting a playoff game.
LOWLIGHT: From an on-field perspective, almost everything that happened after that LAFC win has to be on the list as RSL went just 2W-8L-2D over the final 12 games of the season as Juarez tossed out different lineups and formations and players in different roles every single game.
The first game of that 12-game stretch was the absolute worst, though. Because the first game of that 12-game stretch was at home against Colorado, and RSL had just crushed the Rapids 4-1, and after that commanding win, they went ahead celebrated yet another year of Rocky Mountain Cup dominance. Because how could the Rapids possibly bounce back from that, right?
Colorado smoked RSL 5-0. It was the first win for Colorado in Utah since 2007—before Rio Tinto stadium, which is damn near a teenager, was built. Kyle Beckerman had scored for Colorado in the Rapids' prior win in Utah.
That loss just seemed to crush whatever had been brewing for RSL. They'd scored 13 goals in the previous five games, and would score just nine more all season.
REVELATION: And once again, nobody qualifies unless you go the Houston route and say that the only revelation was a bad one.
In this instance it would be the personnel choices of Juarez. RSL have long been amongst the league leaders in terms of homegrown minutes, and have produced a steady stream of contributors from their academy—first in Casa Grande, now in Herriman. So it was natural to hope that Juarez would be to RSL what Jim Curtin has been for Philly or Luchi Gonzalez for Dallas: a homegrown coach who worked his way up from the academy to the first-team position and would then further expand an already open pipeline of players taking the same path.
Juarez's approach was basically the opposite. RSL academy products got fewer minutes than they have in years, as Justen Glad mostly lost his starting spot (I'm still perplexed), Corey Baird was in and out of the lineup, and then a whole host of guys from the next cohort down—David Ochoa, Luis Arriaga, Julian Vazquez, Chris Garcia and a few others—basically never got a sniff.
It makes zero sense.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Basically everything about the year, both on the field and off. We're now in Year 3 of Damir Kreilach being the best center forward on the roster despite the fact that he's a central midfielder, and DP No. 10 Albert Rusnak was less effective than he'd ever been, and DP No. 9 Sam Johnson was released a few weeks after an incident involving a firearm used at a house party held in the middle of a pandemic.
Throughout all of this a new ownership group still has not been found.
Just turn the page on 2020 already.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Kreilach (CM): He's really good at a number of spots! He's also approaching his 32nd birthday, so it'd be best to permanently ensconce him in central midfield and let him do the job he's supposed to.
- Rusnak (AM): 3g/2a in 1300 minutes from a DP No. 10 is yuck, but we've seen Rusnak—who's still just 26—put up real numbers before.
- Pablo Ruiz (DM): The little Argentine d-mid was pretty good in his 1300ish minutes of action in 2020, though I think there'd be some warranted worry about the defensive efficacy of him and Kreilach together in central midfield.
- Aaron Herrera (RB): Herrera didn't progress year over year, but he didn't regress as hard as most of the other players on the roster and remains one of the better fullbacks in the league.
- Baird (W/F): He's steadily regressed since his Rookie of the Year campaign, and will be 25 by the time next season starts. Two years ago he was considered better than Chris Mueller. He still has the talent to be that level of a winger in this league, and nobody else on this roster can say as much.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They have to figure out how many of these guys are going to be back—I have a feeling a lot of them will have new addresses in 2021. That might include Juarez, who has seen his team get steadily worse over the duration of his year-and-a-half at the helm.
They need to (finally) find a No. 9, or maybe just embrace the fact that Kreilach's their best bet there full-time. They need to figure out what to do in central defense. Nedum Onuoha has retired, Marcelo Silva has not looked adequate, and Glad might not be back. I was under the impression that he was out of contract, but the team apparently holds an option for next year, though I'm not sure why they'd exercise it if Juarez doesn't rate him.
Is Ochoa the answer in goal, and for how long? Will any of the other kids, including young DP winger Jeizon Ramirez, ever get real minutes? What level can Rusnak actually hit?
So many questions, though the biggest one is obviously the ownership situation. That's the one that most urgently needs resolving.
They said goodbye to Zlatan. They said hello to Chicharito. They gave Guillermo Barros Schelotto the chance to make it his team. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Chicharito "disappointed," to put it mildly. He has gotten and deserves a ton of the blame.
Same with Schelotto, who was given an unbalanced roster, but still one with a ton of talent to work with. He was unable to make that talent work, and is now out of a job.
Another year in the long and growing list of no good, very bad years the Galaxy have had since 2014.
FORMATION & TACTICS: It was almost always a 4-2-3-1, and almost always the default tactic was to sit deep, try to absorb pressure and then boot a long diagonal to Cristian Pavon in isolation, then hope he can bury the fullback and create a chance.
Because Pavon is awesome, this often worked.
When they were in possession Sebastian Lletget became very clever at sniffing out opportunities in the box, and did a nice job of finishing them off.
But mostly they were scattered, passive and disorganized on both sides of the ball.
HIGHLIGHTS: They came out of the bubble and rattled off four straight wins. All four of them were against playoff teams, and two of them — the first and last — were against crosstown rivals LAFC. Those had to feel particularly good given the 6-2 humiliation LAFC had inflicted upon the Galaxy in Orlando.
The first of those wins over LAFC was a showcase of what the Galaxy did best over that stretch:
Yes, what they did best was "win a corner kick." It was that kind of year for the Galaxy.
LOWLIGHT: It's hard to look past that 6-2 loss in Orlando, and I don't think anybody's really going to forget it. But on the heels of that four-game winning streak, LA grabbed a draw at San Jose on September 13, and then... went 2W-9L-1D in their final 12 games. Schelotto finally lost his job after the ninth of those 12 games, a 5-2 loss at Portland.
They played some of the most hapless, dispirited soccer in the league over the final two months of the season. The soccer was bad and the body language was worse, and when that happens, jobs are lost.
REVELATION: I want to put Julian Araujo here, but the young right back spent most of his time at right wing. I want to put Efra Alvarez here, but the young playmaker produced just 1g/2a in 720 minutes. I am still pretty high on both players, but neither played well enough for "revelation" status, and given the Galaxy's long track record of squandering their homegrowns, the clock is starting to tick.
If Araujo is losing minutes to Rolf Feltscher—who still has all the same strengths and weaknesses that have been apparent since he first arrived in Carson—how high can they actually be on him? If Alvarez can't get real minutes as a playmaker even as the attack is completely drying up during a lost season, will he ever?
DISAPPOINTMENT: Everything about the season, basically. But mostly Chicharito's obvious disengagement which, when combined with Jona Dos Santos's season-long, injury-related no-show, must've made things pretty grim on Victoria Street.
These guys were two of the most prominent faces of the past decade for El Tri—Chicharito has a real claim on "Most Beloved Concacaf Player, Ever"—and were supposed to be the same for the Galaxy. Instead we're now entering an offseason where it seems there's real talk of one or both moving on. Already.
But I think Schelotto was actually a bigger disappointment. I talked myself into the notion that they couldn't play flowing, pressing, modern soccer with Zlatan around; that he was just too old and immobile. And with him gone, Schelotto would implement a system that highlighted his team's obvious strengths and that while the Galaxy would've lost a lot in terms of pure talent at the No. 9 spot, they'd have made up for it in terms of teamwide chemistry and attacking versatility.
Wow was that wrong. So, so so so wrong.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Pavon (W): Well, assuming he's back, anyway. Pavon had a Best XI-caliber season and is in his prime. Do what it takes to keep him!
- Lletget (CM/AM/W): The veteran did a little bit of everything, as he's done for the USMNT as well.
- Araujo (RB): Now's the time, man.
- Dos Santos (CM): I think he'll be back, and if he's healthy, he'll be one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the league again.
- Chicharito (FW): Unless Chivas bail them out, they have no choice here. They've just got to figure out how to get the most out of him.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Well, they need a new head coach, and I suspect that means a global search that ends with a global-ish name. Schelotto was exactly that, having managed Boca Juniors to multiple titles and a Copa Libertadores final. So bear in mind that a global search and a nice resume doesn't necessarily mean a winning stint awaits in MLS.
Part and parcel of the coaching search has to be understanding what, exactly, Chicharito's problem was in 2020. Was he just unmotivated by Schelotto? Did he hate the (lack of) system? Is his heart not in it? The Galaxy have to figure that out real quick, because if they hire another coach who can't get anything out of their star DP, they're going to be in for a world of hurt.
They also need to do what it takes to keep Pavon. LA and Boca have been negotiating in the press with each other about him for a year now, and I have no idea how close (or not) they are to finding a number that works for all parties. It would be a crushing blow to lose him.
And then they have to figure out the defense. And goalkeeper. And maybe d-mid. Then the opposite wing from Pavon.
There's a lot of work to do.
They got better, right? A gif is worth a thousand words:
Things at the top level just ended up moving a little bit too fast for the 'Caps, who had their second straight massive offseason overhaul and were kind of repeatedly starting from square one, again and again and again.
At times it was genuinely promising. At other times not. In the end it all just moved a little too fast for them.
FORMATION & TACTICS: It sometimes seems like whatever Marc Dos Santos sees, he's going to try at least once. So you just go ahead and name a formation and I will nod my head and say "yup, the 'Caps gave that one a shot." Week after week after week it was something new and different, and it will probably not shock you to learn that this team was massively inconsistent.
On the defensive side of the ball there were two versions of the 'Caps. Version one was the attempt-at-being-a-pressing-team which was freaking flammable. If you turned on the TV early in the game and saw Lucas Cavallini & Co. 100 yards from goal trying to force a turnover, you were well advised to keep it on that channel because you were about to see goals. They tried—they really did!—to make the press work, but, my god, did it not.
The other version was a low block team that mostly conceded possession and TONS of shots, but tried to limit shot quality. They were better at that, and once Dos Santos embraced that and a basic 4-4-2 shape, Vancouver were generally decent-ish.
HIGHLIGHTS: Dos Santos embraced the above too late to get his team into the playoffs, but not too late to put together a tidy little 4W-3L-0D stretch to end the season and at least make it interesting.
The best of those performances was the 2-1 "home" (they were in Portland, remember) win over LAFC, a game in which Cavallini looked worth every penny Vancouver had paid for him:
You can see the "low block and hit in transition" ethos that they'd settled into by that point. It suits them.
There is also a strong argument for the Thomas Hasal Games from the MLS is Back Tournament. The homegrown 'keeper got onto the field and was just magnificent over the course of two-and-a-half games before eventually bowing out to Sporting in the knockout round. It was a lot of fun.
LOWLIGHT: They finished 4W-3L-0D. They started 5W-11L-0D. When you lose 11 of your first 16 games, you have dug yourself a pretty damn deep hole, and in the end it turned out to be too deep for Vancouver to climb out of.
There are two choices for rock bottom from that opening stretch. First would be the 6-0 loss at LAFC on September 23, a game which felt like it could've gone to 10 or 12 if the Black-and-Gold hadn't decided to back off after they missed the extra point. In a year full of lopsided blow-outs across the league, this one felt like one of the very worst.
The other option here is the 4-3 loss to San Jose to open the MLS is Back Tournament, a game in which Vancouver blew two separate two-goal leads and allowed Shea Salinas to go full Messi on the 98th-minute winner. It was an insane game.
And in case you just sort of glanced past it: Yes, Vancouver went the entirety of the regular season without recording a single draw, the first time that's happened for any team in the post-shootout era of MLS (2000-present).
The mildly amusing part to me is that the PK shootout loss to Sporting in the tournament? That's actually recorded as a draw in the record books—all shootouts are. So the one "draw" they had wasn't actually a draw and didn't really count (only group stage games from the tournament counted toward the regular season).
Hey look, I said it was mildly interesting. Nobody's forcing you to read this!
REVELATION: I love Michael Baldisimo:
He wasn't really on anybody's radar, but man can he spray the ball around. For a team heavy on wide attacking play, that is essential.
It looks like Dos Santos is not as enamored of the kid as I am, so Baldisimo would be well advised to go into preseason with an "I'm going to win the job" mentality in order to give the coach no choice. That'll mean adding a bit of extra defensive awareness and edge.
If he does that, we're not just talking about a starter, but a potential star.
DISAPPOINTMENT: I think it probably has to be Yordy Reyna, the former DP and Peruvian international who is now a former Whitecap. He should've been an easy fit in a No. 10 role, halfway between a second forward and a midfield creator, underneath Cavallini. Instead he mostly just sleepwalked through his final half-season in Vancouver (save for 20 scintillating minutes vs. Chicago) before being shipped out to D.C. for a solid chunk of change
Reyna was really quite productive with 6g/11a in about 1900 minutes in 2018, and I don't think anyone's ever seriously doubted his talent. It never even came close to working out for him under Dos Santos, though.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Cavallini (FW): I love him. He's not ever going to win a Golden Boot, but he'll be a reliable goalscorer who puts in the most honest shift in the league for the next half-decade.
- Baldisimo (CM/DM): They've got to find him at least 1500 minutes next year. I'll be angry if they don't.
- Cristian Dajome (W): He wasn't prolific, but he's in his prime, put up 3g/4a and works hard. He can be a starter on a playoff team.
- Janio Bikel (CM/DM): Can Bikel and Baldisimo work as a central midfield pairing in a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1? Not sure.
- Erik Godoy (CB): Godoy is a genuinely pretty good center back in his prime who won't lose a game for you if you don't ask him to try to do too much.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: If they're committed to that 4-4-2, then they have to find a better partner for Cavallini than soon-to-be 34-year-old Fredy Montero, who is a nice depth piece but not really a starting caliber player at this point in his career.
If they're going to move away from the 4-4-2 into more of a 4-2-3-1, then they need to find or develop a No. 10. Frenchman David Milinkovic got a bunch of chances there, but he kind of underwhelmed before a season-ending injury. Rookie Ryan Raposo, who I quite like, didn't get enough chances, though I'll admit he mostly underwhelmed in the ones he did.
And look, they probably need to sell left back Ali Adnan. As dynamic as he is going forward, he is a massive negative defensively and it's kind of insane to use a DP slot on a fullback. I'd argue he was out-performed by Cristian Gutierrez, anyway.
As with every team that finishes below the line, there are more questions than answers. So expect another busy offseason from the 'Caps brass.
I mean, they made the postseason at least. A gif is worth a thousand words:
So yeah, they took their time navigating a very irregular season and never looked comfortable doing so, but they did, in fact, make it to the other side. They just didn't stay for very long once they got there.
Never forget that being an expansion team is hard.
FORMATION & TACTICS: I had a lot of hope for Miami heading into 2020 in large part because of how much I'd enjoyed some of Diego Alonso's Liga MX sides, which had generally put a pretty strong emphasis on attacking wing play and overlapping fullbacks, and were often pretty pragmatic about their defensive shape and line of confrontation.
It was hard to see any of that this season in Fort Lauderdale. Alonso was all over the shop: back fours, back fives, back threes; three up top, two up top, or a lone forward with two inverted attacking midfielders and wingbacks. High lines, low blocks... you name it, he did it.
Combine that with the stop/start nature of the season, the constant injuries and absences, as well as the midseason roster moves, and it's probably no surprise this team had little chemistry and never generated any sort of momentum.
So the "formation & tactics" answer is "I don't know, whatever -- something different than whatever it was they did last time out."
HIGHLIGHTS: It took Orlando City until their sixth season to get a rivalry win. It took Miami until their sixth game.
Inter would get another dub against Orlando later in the season, but it was this one, both teams' first game following the MLS is Back Tournament, that seemed to suggest there was something brewing for Alonso & Co. Young Julian Carranza, who'd been a $6 million offseason investment, got a pair of goals, and Rodolfo Pizarro played maybe his best game of the year.
This kicked off a 3-2-2 stretch over the course of seven games. That's not incredible, but it's not bad! And with those big-name, big-money midseason additions, surely the best was yet to come.
LOWLIGHT: It's not fair to say "everything that happened after that seven-game stretch" since going 4-6-1 wasn't terrible, they picked up a couple of wins over playoff teams and kept losing by a single goal to, more or less, pretty good teams. Again: Being and expansion team is hard.
It's also tough to find a single moment to point to that would make you say "yes, unquestionably, that is the lowlight." The late goals they conceded to Atlanta and Montreal in mid-October, turning a win into a draw and a draw into a loss, probably come closest, but lack dramatic punch. Some of Gonzalo Higuain's misses have an argument, as do the early losses that piled up, but in general I would say the "lowlight' was the fact that the arrival of Higuain and Blaise Matuidi basically didn't move the needle for this team in the slightest.
Higuain, the league's highest-paid player, had just 1g/2a in 802 minutes. Matuidi, a generational midfield workhorse and World Cup champion, struggled in the regular season did this in the play-in round:
That's not an acceptable effort.
So if you forced me to point to one moment that says "hey, maybe this really isn't going to work," there you go.
REVELATION: Unquestionably, the one bright spot for Inter was the play of Scottish attacker Lewis Morgan, who arrived on a small fee and with small expectations from Celtic. The 24-year-old put up 5g/8a in 1950 regular-season minutes, and while he was at his best on the right wing in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, he was also effective when playing underneath a lone striker on the "2" line of a 3-4-2-1, which was one of Alonso's preferred formations.
I don't think Morgan projects as a Best XI talent, but he certainly looks the part of a "plays big minutes and gives real production for a good team"-level talent going forward.
DISAPPOINTMENT: There are so many. Nico Figal was supposed to be a borderline Argentine international but his defensive instincts are... worrying. Neither of their top two SuperDraft picks made a strong case to be foundational pieces. Obviously the overall performances of Higuain and Matuidi could go here, and while Pizarro was better -- and at times quite good -- he wasn't the MVP-type of talent that they paid for.
But all that pales in comparison to the 2020 seasons put together by Carranza and Matias Pellegrini, the young, high-priced Argentine imports. Those two goals from Carranza in the "highlights" clip of the win over Orlando City? Those are the only goals he scored all season in just 550 minutes of play. Pellegrini, a winger/attacking midfielder, had just 1g/4a in 1000 minutes across all competitions, and it's difficult to say what he does well. The combined transfer fees for the two players is reportedly around $15 million.
Alonso had a good track record of developing talent in Mexico. He showed none of that in 2020. That needs to change in 2021, or Miami are in huge trouble.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Higuain (FW): His finishing was poor but he worked hard, found chances and his link-up play was good. It wouldn't shock me if he came out of the gates on a tear in 2021.
- Morgan (W): He was probably a top 10 winger in the entire league, which is a huge compliment given how much wing talent there is in MLS these days.
- Pizarro (W/AM): So I called him an "AM" and he plays as a 10 and he wears the No. 10 even though he's not a No. 10. That's part of the problem, but he's still a very good player.
- Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (CB): LGP was the man down the stretch for this team and is a Best XI-caliber CB in his prime, even if he does remain gaffe-prone.
- Matuidi (CM): He'll be 34 at the start of next season and I'm not wild about listing him here, but given the way he's paid and the rest of the roster's composition, I don't see any other great choice.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: I really, truly think that Alonso needs to pick a formation and style of play, and just stick with that for a while. Given that Morgan and Pizarro are both better on the wings, and that Matuidi is a pretty natural No. 8, and that Higuain is an actual center forward, and that their fullback corps is probably league average or maybe slightly better... just throw a basic 4-2-3-1 out there. Drill the hell out of that system, learn to defend compact, and put your talent in a position to win games while simplifying things for the young players on the team (especially the center backs).
You see the big hole though, right? There's no No. 10, and you probably need one to play a 4-2-3-1 at a high level and win in MLS.
The nice thing about this league, though, is that it's filled with good blueprints for exactly that kind of thing. The true enganche -- playmakers who have free rein to run wherever they want, be creative and make the game -- has died out at the very highest levels of club soccer, but MLS is run by guys like Nico Lodeiro, Carles Gil, Alejando Pozuelo, Lucas Zelarayan and Maxi Moralez.
Miami need a guy like that.
They started hot-ish, held on for dear life, and found a way back to the postseason. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Montreal made the best they could out of a terrible situation in 2020. Make no mistake: Canadian teams had it worse this year thanks to the COVID-19 related travel restrictions. They spent months living out of hotels and, for long stretches, not being able to get home to see their families.
It was brutal and had to be soul crushing. And I totally get why Thierry Henry & Co. celebrated like mad on the final day of the season when they officially clinched a postseason berth.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Henry took a decidedly defensive approach to his first season in charge, often stuffing multiple defensive midfielders into attacking roles and habitually drawing a low line of confrontation and defending out of a low block, be it in a 5-4-1 or a 5-3-2 or a 4-3-2-1 or a 4-3-3.
In a lot of ways it was just a modern day version of catenaccio, though with the difference between the Impact's version and the classic version being that the Impact weren't particularly good at it. Even when defending in a low block they were prone to allowing massive gaps between the lines, and gave up a ton of high-level chances.
In attack they hit with speed out wide and occasional brilliance from Romell Quioto, but in general were not great at creating anything from possession.
HIGHLIGHTS: There is a strong argument for the start of the year, when Montreal won a Concacaf Champions League home-and-home and then took four points from two very good teams to start the regular-season. And there is a really good argument for their four-wins-in-six-games stretch from the final group stage game in the MLS is Back Tournament to mid-September. Five of those games were against the Reds and 'Caps, and one of those wins was a 1-0 over Toronto that put an end to TFC's 19-game regular-season unbeaten streak (in hilarious fashion).
But really it was that Decision Day presented by AT&T win over D.C. United and subsequent celebration that did it:
In the end it turns out they didn't need the three points, but they fought for them anyway, and got them despite playing a man down for a chunk of the match — on the road.
It was a moment that really seemed to crystallize that this team has bought into Henry's vision. And they played like it against the Revs two weeks later, though ultimately they came up short.
LOWLIGHT: Remember that four-wins-in-six-games stretch? If the Impact had been able to make it five-in-seven with a win over Vancouver — who they'd just beaten 4-2 — they would've won the Canadian Championship and booked another ticket to the CCL.
Instead they melted down, picking up a needless red card for the second straight game and kicking off a four-game losing streak, which was part of a larger two-wins-in-12-games stretch that damn near cost them a trip to the postseason.
Living in New Jersey for two months was not kind to them.
REVELATION: It's not often a 29-year-old gets to go down as a "revelation," but Quito was largely friggin' awesome as a No. 9 this year. He's a winger by trade and obviously had an unorthodox approach to playing as a center forward, but not so unorthodox that I'd call him a false 9. Dude really did get in there and battle against the league's CBs, and he produced: 8g/6a in the regular season, and another goal vs. the Revs in the playoffs.
This is just basic No. 9 stuff:
Everybody's always described Quioto as a "mercurial talent." On his day he can be one of the very best players in the league.
Under Henry in 2020, he had more days like that than ever before. I can't wait to watch him in 2021.
DISAPPOINTMENT: No one besides Quioto was anything close to a consistent attacking threat. The young wingers who'd been so promising in 2019 either didn't stay healthy or didn't earn Henry's trust and thus regressed, and the midfield lacked punch once Saphir Taider was sold in mid-season. Sam Piette was often the guy asked to be in the highest-leverage position to make the highest-leverage play, and while Piette is a fine player, he's not that. He finished with 1g/1a in about 2000 minutes.
You could argue, though, the bigger disappointment was the defensive woes. A team that buys a DP d-mid (Victor Wanyama) and plays in a low block shouldn't also be gappy, but they definitely were.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Quioto (FW/W): My guess is he'll head back out to the wing next year, but either way he's a clear top-end talent who can be devastating if Henry gets him to bring it every game.
- Wanyama (DM): The veteran wasn't one of the elite d-mids in MLS this year and needs help covering ground out there, but he can still spray. That ability to spread the field should be a cornerstone piece for this team.
- Luis Binks (CB): The young Englishman has already been sold to Bologna, but has also re-upped for another year at Stade Saputo. His distribution is a weapon, but he needs to take a step forward defensively next year.
- Zachary Brault-Guillard (RB): A rocketized overlapping threat who has enough skill to make some plays in the attacking third, Brault-Guillard should end up being a high-level weapon for a team with the likes of Binks and Wanyama to spread the field.
- Emanuel Maciel (DM): He got about 1,000 minutes, most of them next to Wanyama. Their skillsets seemed to be more overlapping than complementary, but every partnership is a work in progress.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: More than anything else they need to come out of this offseason with two plug-and-play center backs. Binks should still be a starter, but it's unlikely he's going to be in Montreal past 2021 and it's unlikely he'll play every single game, regardless. The Impact need to be prepared for his departure and just better in central defense, which has been an area of weakness for this team basically since 2013.
They have to somehow get that right. Binks was a nice step, but only a temporary fix rather than a generational solution.
And then they obviously have to figure out a way to replace the productivity of Taider in central midfield. As of now there is only one DP on the team, and it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if the Impact spend another one of those slots on a No. 10 or an attack-minded No. 8 to generate some goals and assists.
San Jose Earthquakes
Pure chaos. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Sure, it often made no sense and damn did it have a way of blowing up in their face, but good lord was it fun to behold. If I did Watchability Power Rankings, San Jose would be near the top. Maybe even No. 1.
If you're not entertained by the Quakes then I probably don't want to know you.
FORMATION & TACTICS: Did you know that Matias Almeyda's team uses a man-marking system? You did? Ok, well still, I'm going to ask you to take a look at this:
Everything in that video still applies, though the Quakes did a better job as the season went on of disrupting teams in the transition moments before they settled into their man-marking scheme (the Judson effect), which they usually picked up in a mid-block.
In attack nobody in the league is more committed to spreading the field and creating overloads out wide. Both fullbacks overlap all the time, and both wingers play with chalk on their boots. It's very difficult to be a compact defensive team vs. San Jose.
Almeyda prefers a 4-1-4-1, but it did kind of evolve a bit into more of a 4-2-3-1 (that they often called a 4-4-2) at times after Magnus Eriksson was sold.
HIGHLIGHTS: That analysis above was taken from the wild-as-hell 4-3 win over Vancouver in the MLS is Back Tournament, a game in which San Jose twice trailed by two goals and finally won 4-3 after Shea Salinas went full Messi eight minutes into second-half stoppage time. It was an absurd goal to end an absurd game.
But I think the real highlight was the come-from-behind 3-2 win over LAFC in the Quakes' second-to-last game of the season, which clinched a playoff berth. It had to feel cathartic for a number of reasons:
- LAFC had frequently humiliated San Jose in 2019, but it was the Quakes piling on the misery in 2020
- San Jose collapsed down the stretch in 2019, they played their best soccer down the stretch in 2020
- The wingers had gone ice cold late in 2019, but in this game it was a 1g/1a performance from Cristian Espinoza that sealed the deal
I'm not going to say they erased all the memories of that horrible collapse last year, but they did erase a lot of them, and did so in style. From September 27 through November 4, which was the date of that LAFC win, they went 6-2-1 with a +8 goal differential after being written off by basically everyone in late summer.
LOWLIGHT: So the reason they were written off by everyone in late summer... coming out of the MLS is Back Tournament they went 0-5-3 with a -21 goal differential. A MINUS TWENTY-ONE GOAL DIFFERENTIAL!!!!!! They lost games by 5-1, 7-1, 6-1 and 5-0 during that stretch. They set a league record for most 3+ goal losses in a season. It was, at times, complete insanity:
Again: If you're not entertained by the Quakes I probably don't want to know you.
REVELATION: Quakes fans will want me to mention Judson here, but we already knew Judson was good, right? So he doesn't count, and neither does the fact that Chris Wondolowski is an ageless warlock who will be scoring goals until he is 50. Marcos Lopez took a step forward in Year 2, but not a huge one, as did a few of the other 2019 arrivals. Cade Cowell was good, but not a season-changer.
J.T. Marcinkowski was both good and a season-changer. Veteran Daniel Vega had gotten 12 of the first 13 regular-season starts, and had gone 2-6-4 while allowing more than 3 goals per game and a save percentage hovering around 50% (the advanced numbers agree that Vega was... poor).
Marcincowski got his first start in mid-September and comported himself well in a 1-1 draw in the midst of that awful 0-5-3 stretch. Vega was back between the pipes in the next two games, which San Jose lost by a combined 11-1. And then it was Marcinkowski's job for good.
The 23-year-old Homegrown wasn't perfect, but the Quakes went 6-3-2 in his 11 starts and both the boxscore numbers (1.27 goals against on a 65% save percentage) and the advanced stuff (he was a mid-tier MLS 'keeper as per the analytics nerds) suggest he was a massive upgrade. He also bounced back well from his one truly abysmal performance, a 3-0 loss at Portland in mid-October.
It's always a question with young 'keepers. In Marcinkowski, the Quakes seem to have an answer.
DISAPPOINTMENT: My biggest disappointment is that Wondo said one more year instead of 10 more years. This guy will absolutely figure out how to be a useful 15-minute "poach us a goal" super-sub until he's 50.
I know some Quakes fans would say that their biggest disappointment is that it took Almeyda so long to finally go with Marcinkowski and to reinsert Florian Jungwirth into the XI, and they've got a point. That delay probably cost them a home game, though that would've robbed us from the show they put on at Sporting in the playoffs.
So I guess the answer is that after the mid-season sale of Eriksson, the Quakes didn't go out and get a replacement, and thanks to the injury to Gil Fuentes, didn't really have a ready-made Homegrown replacement for that role. Andy Rios got the bulk of the minutes and he was fine, but spent most of his time looking like what he was: a converted forward. Carlos Fierro got most of the rest of the minutes in that spot and actually scored a (hilarious) goal in the playoffs, but again mostly looked like a guy playing out of position.
Almeyda has made it clear he expects reinforcements this offseason. More on that in a bit.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Judson (DM): Diego Chara-lite is a high, high compliment. And one the 27-year-old Brazilian is entirely worthy of.
- Jackson Yueill (CM): Yueill ended up playing as more of a true No. 8 this year than acting as the regista he was last year, and was equally good but maybe not quite as influential.
- Espinoza (RW): One of the highest-volume chance creators and best crossers in MLS, and possessed of an endless engine. The knock is still the same, though: He needs to finish.
- Jungwirth (CB): The 31-year-old German has proved to be indispensable in the middle of that defense.
- Cade Cowell (W): The hope is that I'll be writing a lot about him in the "revelation" section in next year's version of this column.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: It looks like Oswaldo Alanis is coming back next year, and rookie Tanner Beason had some promising moments in central defense. I still, however, want to see them add another young and athletic CB. They also need a d-mid who can give Judson the occasional breather, as Luis Felipe has found it impossible to function at a high level in Almeyda's system.
Their fullback depth is good. Their wing depth is good, and potentially great if Cowell makes a leap and Salinas can hold out for one more year. So what it comes down to, really, is what they'll do at the Nos. 9 and 10 positions.
Can a 38-year-old Wondo still start for a pretty good team in MLS? Probably. If you're starting a 38-year-old Wondo, playing him 2,500 minutes and asking him to be your leading scorer, are you going to seriously compete for trophies? It's not impossible, but it's not exactly likely, either.
And then there's the 10, which in my mind is an even bigger priority. It is certainly possible to compete and win in this league without a great one. It just hasn't happened that way all too often in recent years.
New York Red Bulls
RBNY smash. Just not as effectively as they used to. A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Red Bulls are still, by a lot of metrics and the eye test, the most committed pressing team in the league. They're just not quite as good at it as they were a couple years ago, they still struggled to do stuff other than pressing and honestly sometimes their hearts weren't really into the whole pressing thing to begin with, maybe.
But they did make the playoffs for an 11th straight season, which is a massive accomplishment.
TACTICS & FORMATION: So I mentioned the pressing bit, which is largely what you think it is. Remember, too, that RBNY combine generally high and hard pressure with super direct play: win the ball, play it forward. They're not as insane about it as they were in 2017 and 2018 — or at least, they weren't; maybe that'll change next year —but it's still their DNA.
There were times, though, when they really did just kind of sit in a mid-block and invite teams forward. Fans mostly blamed that on the since-departed Chris Armas, but it happened under Bradley Carnell as well.
Formation-wise they were all over the place. Flat 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-4-1-2. It was a lot.
HIGHLIGHTS: I think you could maybe argue the back-to-back three-goal wins are there, or perhaps the 2-1 win on Decision Day over Toronto FC. That was part of a pretty decent home stretch in which they went 3-1-3 and pulled themselves out of the play-in round and into the playoffs proper (though the one loss in that stretch was a 5-2 Hudson River Derby humiliation).
But it really does come down to the kid. Here's Caden Clark's match-winning MLS debut:
There are few things Red Bull fans love more than inflicting misery upon Atlanta, and this one got them hyped.
LOWLIGHT: The final two games of their three-game stay at the MLS is Back Tournament and then their first seven games coming out of Orlando were just brutal. Yes, that stretch included a 1-0 win over NYCFC and a 2-0 win over D.C. United, but both of those were just brutal outings devoid of... pretty much everything, but most especially chance creation. It was a 2-4-1 stretch during which they scored four goals, two of which came off of goalkeeper errors.
Armas lost his job after the fourth of those seven games, a 1-0 home loss to a mostly injured, completely foundering D.C. side that had no business being in the game. Things did not immediately get better under Carnell — they lost two-of-three, including a defeat to Cincy — but they did eventually get somewhat better.
So that stretch as a whole, with the D.C. game in particular, are probably the right answer.
REVELATION: Caden Clark, right? He got a game-winner against Atlanta, scored a thunderbolt against Toronto the following week, and then became the second-youngest goalscorer in MLS postseason history with the opener in RBNY's 3-2 loss at Columbus. He definitely qualifies.
The other argument would be for Brian White, the third-year forward who is quietly building a "hey you should probably start this guy" resume. He had 5g/1a in 870 regular-season minutes, then came off the bench to score a goal in the playoffs. Across all MLS competitions (i.e., not US Open Cup or CCL) he's got 16g/3a in about 2500 minutes. For context, Gyasi Zardes had 13g/2a in about 2500 minutes in 2019, and three of Gyasi's were penalties. Bradley Wright-Phillips in 2017? 17g/1a in 2560 minutes.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Let's take a look at the 2020 incoming transactions...
With the exceptions of Clark and Stroud, no one on this list lived up to — let alone exceeded — their billing. I made a joke earlier this year that RBNY were following the 2017 Minnesota United/2018 Colorado Rapids blueprint for talent acquisition and... well it wasn't really, truly a joke. The imports of the last couple of seasons have almost uniformly been outperformed by guys developed via NYRBII in the USL Championship.
I think Kaku's season should go down as a disappointment as well. And the central defense's. These guys are supposed to be stars and leaders, but they didn't really look like it.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Clark (AM/W): For the one more year that they likely have him, he's a talent worth making a foundational piece.
- Florian Valot (CM): Bounced back from missing most of two seasons with matching ACL tears to post a quietly excellent year as a two-way central midfielder.
- Aaron Long (CB): Long, as mentioned, was not great in 2020. But he has been one of the best CBs in the league and can be again, and is in his prime. And it's clear that they're not going to sell him, so...
- Cristian Casseres, Jr. (CM): If new coach Gerhard Struber goes with the 4-4-2 diamond (or a 4-3-1-2), I love the idea of Casseres as one of the shuttlers. Though he, like almost everyone else, needs a bounce-back 2021.
- White (FW): I could see using him as a super sub if they were going with a one-forward set-up, but if it's two up top there is no reason not to have White as one of them.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Word around the league is that the Red Bulls are open for business. Almost everyone on the roster is available for trade and it shouldn't shock anyone if that includes Kaku, the lone true DP in the ranks (though they did pick up his option).
They need at least one more forward, and they need to figure out what they have in young Dru Yearwood, who spent most of his 650ish minutes looking slightly out of his depth. They need to figure out left back, which was a sore spot all year. They need to figure out if Sean Davis can play d-mid in Struber's system and they need to figure out if Kyle Duncan can ever add as much value defensively as he does in attack.
It seems like a lot, but here's the thing: This roster comfortably made the playoffs yet again, and did so despite not having any real top-tier DPs. And rectifying that should be the priority.
What would the Red Bulls look and play like if they had Nico Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz and Joao Paulo as their DPs? Or even just two guys at that level? It'd elevate the whole team, right?
I do not believe Struber — who is well-regarded both in England and on the continent — would've taken the job if he wasn't guaranteed a certain amount of squad investment, including DPs. So perhaps we'll see exactly what this RBNY core would look like with those types of players leading the way.
LAFC had a plan. It didn't work. A gif is worth a thousand words:
Last offseason they tried to do something they probably thought would be cool and fun — rebuild most of their defense — but in the end it was a pretty misguided and righteous self-own that ended up making them look kind of silly.
Rule No. 1 of running an MLS team is "Never give away a Best XI-caliber center back in his prime." (Red Bulls fans who are disenchanted with Long and may have kept reading will want to remember that.) In a season full of obstacles both expected and not, they never really recovered from the one they inflicted upon themselves via the Walker Zimmerman trade.
TACTICS & FORMATION: It was almost always super fluid and aesthetically pleasing 4-3-3 with overlapping fullbacks, an emphasis on possession and breaking lines with passes, and a super mobile front line. Even without Carlos Vela for most of the year, constant injuries in midfield and a revolving door at right back, the attack — led by Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi — was one of the league's best, and capable of some absolutely gorgeous stuff against good teams:
That is it. That is the platonic ideal of an LAFC goal, and I love it.
They didn't press as much in 2020, and obviously they were much less stout defensively than they had been. Individual talent matters.
HIGHLIGHTS: They still managed to be maybe the most fun team in MLS, though! And it started with one of the most fun CCL victories I can ever remember seeing. First they lost 2-0 at Club Leon, then atop the Clausura, in the first leg. They looked listless and rusty in doing so. That was pretty much that.
Then they did this:
There were other pretty great moments for LAFC — four-goal wins over each of their California neighbors sure do count for something — but this was one of the greatest continental victories by any team in MLS history.
And guess what? They've still got a chance to win the thing. LAFC face Cruz Azul in the Round of 16 in what has become a single-elimination tournament down in Orlando starting in mid-December.
Is 2020 crazy enough to have an MLS team finally break through in the CCL?
LOWLIGHT: LAFC had more lowlights in 2020 than in their first two years combined, including a couple of pretty awful El Trafico losses coming out of the MLS is Back Tournament, which came on the heels of a disappointing PK shootout loss in the quarterfinals of the tournament itself. And then there was taking just one point from their final two games, which consigned them to a road game at Seattle to open the playoffs.
But it was said road game at Seattle that has to mark the low point, right? Last year the Sounders came to downtown LA and rope-a-doped LAFC to death; this year, they just pounded 'em. Seattle scored early in the first half, they scored again midway through the second half and then when LAFC clawed one back to make it 2-1 late, it took Jordan Morris all of three minutes to find the coup de grace.
Given how badly LAFC had outclassed the Sounders in the Round of 16 back in Orlando in July, it felt like maybe the balance of power had shifted with these two teams. The subsequent four months proved that assumption to be very, very wrong.
REVELATION: BWP's got juice left in the tank! LAFC picked the 35-year-old up for basically nothing ahead of the season and he put up 8g/6a in just under 1100 minutes, leading the league in G+A/90 and putting together some turn-back-the-clock performances. He was a big part of the reason the attack kept humming even as Vela was sidelined and Brian Rodriguez underperformed in front of goal.
It really is the ideal situation for Wright-Phillips, who is brilliant at creating space for his teammates with his off-ball movement (watch the run he makes on that Rossi goal embedded above) and at finding space they create for him. He is an ideal second or third-fiddle in a cerebral, mobile attack — which is what LAFC have been almost from Day 1.
It's like with Wondo: I firmly believe BWP can keep scoring goals into his 40s because he's that smart. LAFC probably shouldn't plan to get more than 2,000 minutes out of him next year, but I'll be disappointed if they don't figure out a way to bring him back.
DISAPPOINTMENT: The biggest one has to be that they traded Zimmerman away without any apparent plan to replace him, and that gaping wound in central defense cost them points throughout the year. They finally brought in Colombian Jesus Murillo late in the season and he was good, but not Zimmerman-level good.
Even worse might be what happened at right back, though. Nashville fleeced LAFC out of $350,000 in allocation cash for the No. 1 spot in the allocation order, which LAFC then used on Andy Najar, presumably to fill the void created when they'd let Steven Beitashour walk after the 2019 season.
Najar started just one game and played in just eight, and was on the field for a total of 180 minutes. He was clearly just a shell of his former self, and LAFC declined his contract option after the season.
Just completely bizarre to break up what had been the league's second-best defense in 2019.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Latif Blessing (CM): The biggest reason LAFC couldn't press as much this year is that Blessing had to patch holes at RB, on the wing or deeper in midfield too often. Get him back as that destroying No. 10 and watch the press return.
- Mark-Anthony Kaye (CM): He makes the game look so smooth and easy on both sides of the ball, and is arguably the league's best two-way central midfielder when healthy.
- Eddie Segura (CB): Segura definitely wasn't as good in 2020, but that applies to almost everyone on this roster. Bob Bradley's got to figure out how to bring the Best XI-caliber version of the kid we all saw in 2019.
- Wright-Phillips (FW): Yes, they declined his contract option and BWP's technically a free agent. But my guess is they figure out a way to get something done.
- Vela (RW): Injured, soon to be 32 and not in top form? He still had 4g/2a in just 510 minutes in MLS competitions and lit Leon on fire in the CCL. He'll be back.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Ok, Vela will be back, but will Rossi? Rodriguez? What about young LB Diego Palacios or CM Jose Cifuentes, both of whom are full Ecuador national teamers? Where does Francisco Ginella fit in?
All of those are huge questions. My guess is that Rossi and Rodriguez will both be sold as soon as the transfer window opens on January 1, and that's fine — developing and selling these types of players is clearly something that LAFC have invested a ton of time and resources in. It makes sense for both who they are, and who they want to be, and it also makes sense for what the world of soccer is and how everybody but, like, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and PSG have to operate. Everybody but those four are selling clubs. In that context, everybody has to be replaceable to one degree or another.
Eduard Atuesta might not be, though. Vela's the best player but Atuesta was the most indispensable, as LAFC went 3-5-0 with a -6 goal differential when he didn't start. All five losses were by multiple goals. When he did start, LAFC were 7-4-6 with a +17 goal differential (all MLS competitions) and just one multi-goal loss.
As with Rossi and Rodriguez there are giant clubs in giant leagues preparing giant, eight-figure-sized bids for Atuesta. This is how the world of soccer operates.
We'll see what that means for LAFC in 2021.
They fought COVID-19, they handled some regression and they traded their leading scorer. A gif is worth a thousand words:
They had to dodge so much throughout the year, and at times it looked like that was going to be impossible. But they mostly did it — right until the very end, when they got completely crushed.
But 2020 represented an undeniable step forward.
TACTICS & FORMATION: Robin Fraser has very clear ideas of how he wants his team to play, usually keeping one winger high and wide with the other dropping in to be a playmaker, keeping the d-mid back as something of a regista and having his center forward play almost as a false 9, which then opens up gaps for the No. 10 — Cole Bassett, who you'll read more about in a minute — to make late-arriving, goal-scoring runs.
The point is to make the field as wide as possible and to force the opponent to defend from touchline to touchline, and they were often really good at it while playing out of what was nominally a 4-2-3-1, though as with any modern coach it turned into more of a 3-2-2-3 (or sometimes a 3-2-3-2) once they were really on the front foot, in possession in attack.
Forcing the opponents to defend wide also meant that the Rapids were pretty wide, and thus wide open to be counterattacked themselves. That was their main weakness, though I truly relished seeing Fraser sacrifice a bit of pragmatism for both principle and aesthetics.
HIGHLIGHTS: After a massive COVID-19 breakout within the team in late September, the Rapids missed a month of soccer. They got drilled in their first game back and then lost their second on a late, unfortunate own goal from Lalas Abubakar. All the good work they had done in the first part of September, which included that massive and unprecedented Rocky Mountain Cup win (scroll up to the RSL section, Rapids fans), looked like it was coming undone.
Now look again at that schedule the Rapids had coming out of their Covid-enforced hiatus: at Sporting, at Minnesota, home to Seattle, at Portland, then finishing at Houston. The first four are just a meat-grinder, and Colorado had already lost the first two, and all of a sudden their playoff dreams were slipping away.
They crushed Seattle 3-1 at home, then they went to Portland a won 1-0. They finished up the year with a 2-1 win at Houston.
Nine points out of that particular five-games stretch would've been a major accomplishment even under the best of circumstances. In these particular circumstances, with the playoffs on the line and rust to shake off and still figuring out life after Kei Kamara? The Rapids have a lot to be proud of.
LOWLIGHT: I'm not going to consider the road loss to Minnesota in the playoffs to be a lowlight, given that there was quite a bit stacked against Colorado even being in the playoffs in the first place. The simple fact is that they got drilled by a better team on the road. That's what's supposed to happen.
What's not supposed to happen is the listless, disengaged showing the Rapids put forth this summer in Orlando as they took just one point from three games, a run of poor form that carried on for three games into early September after coming out of the bubble. There was nothing fun or open or engaging about the way they were playing, and it seemed like the magic first Conor Casey and then Fraser had conjured last year had disappeared.
REVELATION: It can't be anyone other than Bassett, who won the starting job for good in mid-September just as the Rapids started charging up the standings (the two things are related).
I've had a lot of conversations about Bassett with MLS and USMNT-obsessed friends and we'd all come to the same conclusion: He's a good athlete and does a lot of things well, and is often in the exact right spot to help a sequence of play or snuff out an opposing sequence before it gets started. But it's not like he's a game-breaking athlete, and it's not like his touch or vision really pop off the screen, and it's not like he's such a great ball-winner that he's an obvious future d-mid. What, exactly, does he do?
Bassett's 2020 started in January when he scored a brace for the US U-20s in a 2-0 win over Mexico, a fact that I filed away as "interesting" but didn't really think too much of beyond that.
But it turns out the kid's true calling is making those late, box-arriving "Frank Lampard runs" from central midfield. He went for 5g/5a in 982 minutes and was one of the very best teenagers, at any position, in the entire league.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Trading Kamara was a risk worth taking in a lot of ways given where he is in his career relative to the rest of the roster, and how Fraser wants to play. And the Rapids did end up having a better record in the aftermath of that trade, and probably played better soccer.
But Diego Rubio produced just 3g/4a across all competitions this year. Since two of those goals came in the 5-0 blow-out of RSL, another way of framing this is to say that Rubio scored in just two of his 17 appearances. It is actually kind of remarkable that they made the playoffs with a No. 9 who gave them so little in terms of boxscore production, and speaks well of many of the rest of the attackers, as well as Colorado's continued dominance on set pieces.
Rubio had been a per-90 monster in his MLS career prior to 2020 with 26g/13a in about 4200 minutes, which isn't quite Best XI production though it isn't far off.
This was his first real chance to hold the job outright, though, and he mostly came up short.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Bassett (AM): For however long he's there, it's a good bet he'll be the nominal No. 10. But there is strong European interest for obvious reasons.
- Abubakar (CB): It was an up-and-down season from the Ghanaian, but there's little to suggest he won't be a foundational piece in the middle of that defense for the next half-decade or more.
- Jack Price (DM): Price will never be an elite defensive presence as a 6, but his distribution (excellent) and set piece delivery (best in the league) are worth the trade-offs.
- Sam Vines (LB): Arguably the second-best LB in the league from September onwards, the 21-year-old became a significant attacking threat on the overlap in Year 2 as a starter.
- Kellyn Acosta (CM): Now 25, Acosta looked better than he has since the first half of 2017, back when he was a CCL match-winner and a USMNT. He played himself back into a US camp for the first time in almost two years.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They're going to have to figure out what the market is for Bassett and Vines. For more and more MLS teams, "how much will we sell our Homegrown players for?" is becoming a larger and more important part of the job.
On-loan playmaker Younes Namli back for another. The Danish DP didn't put up huge numbers with just 2g/4a, but his ability to slip inside from the right wing and orchestrate attacks became a huge part of what was going right for Colorado. On-loan goalkeeper William Yarbrough might not be, as his was originally just a one-year deal. They need to figure that out.
But it really does come down to Rubio's spot as well as the left wing, which was split between Jonathan Lewis and Nicolas Benezet. For the fourth straight year, Lewis put up big per-90 numbers (5g in 750 minutes across all competitions), but for the fourth straight year he failed to lock down a starting role. Benezet, meanwhile, managed zero goals and 3 assists in a touch over 500 minutes.
It's a safe bet there will be new faces there, and it's a safe bet the guys who return will once again have to fight for playing time.
They won their second-ever MLS trophy. A gif is worth a thousand words:
It took them a half-decade of trying but the Timbers finally got themselves back to the top and they absolutely earned their perch there.
They just didn't get to enjoy it for long, as the unexpected — injuries and a home loss in the playoffs — put an end to their reign.
TACTICS & FORMATION: Portland went away from the "cross every time you have a sliver of daylight" rocketball that had been their only attacking idea in 2019 and toward a more varied attack that worked harder to get the ball into good spots to create good chances, almost always working out of a 4-2-3-1. They stationed co-leading goalscorer Jeremy Ebobisse out wide for the most part after winning the MLS is Back Tournament, though I'd argue they were more effective with him leading the line as a true No. 9.
After losing MLS is Back Tournament MVP Sebastian Blanco to an ACL tear in early September, Portland reverted to more of their familiar counterattacking stance. It says a lot about the talent on hand that they could lose a player of Blanco's caliber and remain near the top of the conference, though they were obviously much less dangerous once he was sidelined.
HIGHLIGHTS: There were some good moments, especially the frankly kind of hilarious way they would constantly go up a goal early against the Sounders and then just park the bus and invite 35 crosses from their frustrated Cascadia rivals. Those moments — two wins and a draw — had to feel good, especially after Seattle had smashed Portland 3-0 in both teams' first game out of Orlando.
But there is no question that the highlight of the season was winning the tournament itself, and doing so in a way that alternated between stylish (they ripped NYCFC apart) and pragmatic (they destroyed both Philly in the semis and Orlando in the final on set pieces).
So yeah, any time you get to do that with a major trophy — and I will forever count this summer's tournament a major trophy given how much that went into it and how seriously teams tried to win it — that's the highlight of the season.
The Timbers are champs.
LOWLIGHT: The obvious answers here are the ACL tears that ended the seasons of both Blanco and DP center forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda, who had entered a fine vein of goalscoring form. It is hard to lose any player. It is harder to lose a DP. It is damn near impossible to lose two DPs and still be a competitive team. Add Ebobisse's late-season concussion into the mix, and that's how you have a Timbers side that scored just twice in their final three games, including the playoffs.
But what had to be particularly frustrating on top of it all was the Timbers' inability to see out a result. Blanco and Niezgoda were huge losses, but that doesn't explain why and how Portland constantly conceded late goals which cost them so, so many points.
And so it was almost destined to be that way in the playoffs. Jorge Villafaña put the Timbers up 1-0 with a goal in the 82nd minute and that should've been that, but it obviously wasn't. Ricardo Pepi broke through the Portland backline three minutes into second-half stoppage, pinged his first shot off the post and then deposited his own rebound for the 1-1 draw.
It eventually went to penalties, where Dallas got the W. From Portland's perspective, it should never have gotten that far.
REVELATION: Eryk Williamson didn't follow Ebobisse's path from little-used rookie to occasional sub to emergency starter to regular contributor to hey, this guy's a borderline star, isn't he?
No, Williamson came out of nowhere to become not just a starter, but an essential piece of what made Portland great when they were at their best. He'd played just 234 MLS minutes across his first two years, but in Year 3 he was a write-him-in-pen starter:
Williamson not only drove the game forward and provided solutions in possession, but he did real work defensively to take some of the burden off of the timelines Diego Chara.
He was awesome. If he hadn't gotten hurt in that playoff loss to Dallas, he likely would've been in the current USMNT camp.
DISAPPOINTMENT: While Ebobisse and Williamson took massive steps forward, young Argentine playmaker Tomas Conechny was not able to join them. He got on the field for just 182 minutes and managed no goals or assists, and even without Blanco or with Niezgoda and Ebobisse injured and Diego Valeri solidly into his mid-30s, there was just no room for him.
Conechny is in his third year in Portland, so it was a surprise to see him so thoroughly buried down the depth chart. Maybe it's just not meant to happen for him there.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Chara (DM): At 34 he earned his first Best XI nod, looking and playing exactly as he did at age 28. I don't know, maybe he'll never age.
- Valeri (AM): At 34 he didn't quite earn a Best XI nod, but he looked and played almost as well as he did at age 28. I don't know, maybe he'll never really age.
- Ebobisse (FW/W): Here's a strange coincidence: Ebobisse's gotten two extended runs as Portland's starting No. 9 over the past three seasons. During the first of those runs, they made the 2018 MLS Cup. During the second of those runs, they won the MLS is Back Tournament. Weird!
- Williamson (CM): Just a hugely dynamic two-way central midfielder. He sometimes takes too many risks, but that's an acceptable flaw when you've got Chara backing you up.
- Yimmi Chara (W): The younger Chara, Portland's third DP, got off to a slow start but was arguably Portland's most consistent attacker from mid-September onwards.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The Timbers have already begun chopping and changing a bit, having traded Homegrown back-up LB Marco Farfan to LAFC for allocation cash with an eye on bringing in 23-year-old Argentine Claudio Nicolas Bravo to presumably challenge Villafaña for the starting spot. And Andy Polo seems to be sussing out some other options.
But really, it comes down to getting Blanco, Niezgoda and Williamson healthy, and probably bringing back Felipe Mora, and then figuring out the rotation and depth chart from there. Portland's roster is quite obviously championship-caliber when all the pieces are available, which is why they lifted a trophy this year. They don't really need to go out and get new pieces; they just need to get the pieces already in place fit enough to go.
New York City FC
A new coach, but largely the same style and of course the same, soul-crushing playoff exit. A gif is worth a thousand words:
NYCFC's first season under Ronny Deila finished the same way each of their previous four seasons, split between Dome Torrent and Patrick Vieira, face-down in disbelief after being eliminated early in the playoffs.
It's just who they are now. From a certain point of view you could argue "That's so Metro" now applies more to the blue side of NY than it does to the red.
TACTICS & FORMATION: Way back in February — roughly one million years ago — NYCFC came out in the CCL and played such beautifully expressive and risky soccer that it led certain fans to wax poetic.
That didn't last. In large part that's because NYCFC were pretty well flattened by injuries for most of the season, though Deila had a hand in some of the regression thanks to his tinkering with personnel and positions, as well as some of the principles of play.
But by the stretch run they did end up looking quite a bit like Vieira's version of NYCFC, with lots of positional fluidity, pretty sequences of play and a potent attack. Getting Maxi Moralez back was obviously the key, as he's a plug-and-play solution as the No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1.
HIGHLIGHTS: NYCFC came out of the MLS is Back Tournament playing pretty brutal soccer but were nonetheless able to rack up some wins, going 4-2-1 in eight games from August 24 through September 23. It was good enough to take the heat off of the manager, whose team had started 1-5-0 in his first six regular-season games.
Then they got a soft spot in the schedule and started to get right. D.C., Miami and Cincy fell in succession with the Pigeons scoring 11 goals across those three games, and then after a three-game lull, they finished out the season with four straight wins.
The biggest of those was a dominant, one-sided 5-2 demolition of the Red Bulls on the first of November:
This was a really, really good performance. The previous first-choice front line were all hurt (Heber), sick (Ismael Tajouri-Shradi) or gone for the next 18 months on loan (Alexandru Mitrita) and thus weren't even available, but NCYFC were still so good because their midfield was so good.
Back-up attackers or not, it didn't seem to matter.
LOWLIGHT: And then the playoffs came and it mattered a lot. NYCFC went down to Orlando and were largely the better team for most of the game. They battled back from conceding an unnecessary early goal, ripped away control of the game and peppered Pedro Gallese's net. It was a truly spectacular display of attacking soccer... right up until they shot.
Gallese stood on his head and produced save after save, and then somehow NYCFC actually became less threatening once they went up a man following Ruan's red card. They had done everything right, played some beautiful soccer, and... it just didn't matter.
You know what happened next. Here is the absolute pit of despair if you're an NYCFC fan:
I think it has to be the Rodrigo Schlegel save that will go down as the low point, but if you want to argue it's actually Moralez pinging his opening PK off the underside of the crossbar for the most predictable miss in shootout history that's the real bottom of a spike-filled pit, I won't push back too hard.
REVELATION: There was none. James Sands had a nice run and certainly made year-over-year progress, but definitely not a revelatory amount. None of the other young players — not even highly rated Uruguayan youth national team central midfielder Nico Acevedo -- got enough playing time to qualify.
A large part of that is because when Moralez (No. 10), Ring (No. 6) and Keaton Parks (No. 8) were all healthy there was just no question what the best three-man central midfield group was. So you could say that it was something of a revelation that these guys could be so dominant for so long together, but... they were a 64-point team in 2019, so not really.
I think this is something Deila got right, for what it's worth. That 64-point group deserved one last chance to run it back and see if they could win something, and while the new manager did tinker, he didn't deconstruct. My only real gripe with him was his insistence on playing Ring at left wing for a month, though even that was understandable when viewed from the lens of "let's just get our best players onto the field."
DISAPPOINTMENT: Heber has a fairly modest resume, but he was spectacular in 2019 and likely saved Dome's job. I think he was the clear third-best center forward in the league behind Josef and Zlatan, and then he opened 2020 by becoming the first MLS player ever to score a CCL hat-trick. A bigger, better 2020 would surely await.
In 12 other appearances before doing his ACL, he scored just one goal. He didn't look awful, per se, but just a touch off and lacking in confidence. And then he did his knee, and he probably won't be close to 100% again until he's in his 30s (he turns 30 next April).
Just so depressing on all levels. He was one of my favorite players to watch last year.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Ring (DM): Still a top five d-mid in the league, and a very good No. 8 as well.
- Anton Tinnerholm (RB): The league's best right back yet again, as important to NYCFC on both sides of the ball as any defender in the league can claim for his team.
- Parks (CM): Quietly took a step forward in Year 2 as both a tempo-setter and a line-breaking distributor, while adding a touch of goalscoring as well.
- Ronald Matarrita (LB): A top five LB in MLS who, while not quite as influential as Tinnerholm, was nonetheless essential for the Pigeons and bounced back mentally after last year's playoff metldown.
- Alex Callens (CB): The Peruvian international is perhaps the most underrated center back in the entire league, and put together probably his finest season thus far.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: I could've extended that list of five players to seven: Sean Johnson had an excellent year and is not going anywhere. Maxime Chanot had a rather poor year by his standards, but I expect he'll be back.
It gets dicey after that group, though. I love Sands but I'm not sure he fits into the best possible XI for NYCFC unless he takes a massive step forward as a distributor, or unless he displaces Chanot, or unless Deila goes to a 3-4-2-1. None of the front three who finished the season in the starting lineup — including Taty Castellanos, who's an invaluable pressing forward but who just doesn't put the ball in the back of the net often enough to lead the line for a title contender — are "build the team around him" types. All those spots are up for grabs.
Moralez is, of course, a "build the team around him" type and you could argue that City have done just that for the past three years. And they hit great heights, but he'll be 34 before a ball is kicked in anger next season and Father Time started knocking on the door this past year.
Perhaps Santiago Rodriguez will enter.
Regardless, the difference between NYCFC with Maxi and NYCFC without Maxi has been gigantic. They need to figure out a way to bridge that gap because the guy's not getting any younger.
For a while it looked really good and then it just fell apart. A gif is worth a thousand words:
It is impossible to deny that Toronto were really, really good for a solid chunk of the season, and that this roster is still really, really talented. But a few pieces got old, and a few other pieces got hurt, and it was just too much as a season's worth of legitimately good work was just washed away down the stretch and in the playoffs.
TACTICS & FORMATION: One of the things since-departed head coach Greg Vanney had been aiming at for a while was converting from a 4-4-2, which had been the primary formation of the Giovinco Years, into a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, with a pair of wingers flanking Jozy Altidore and ahead of Landon Donovan MVP winner Alejandro Pozuelo.
There was some of that in 2019, but Jozy couldn't stay healthy. There was some of that in 2020, but Jozy couldn't stay healthy and then the wingers couldn't stay healthy and didn't really deliver. And then everybody else got hurt, too.
But in general they tried to run a ball-dominant 4-2-3-1. At times it looked really, really good, but they basically never had the chance to use the same lineup more than twice in a row, and none of the wingers really made a case that they were of the caliber necessary to make the formation sing.
HIGHLIGHTS: From September 9 through October 18 they went 7-0-2 including a stretch where they posted wins over NYCFC, Columbus, Philly and New England on the trot. By the end of that run they were pretty massive favorites to win the Supporters' Shield, not just because of the amount of points they'd picked up but also because of how they'd done it. Here's what I wrote after that win over the Union:
Yes, we're officially at that stage where all eyes in the East are pointed toward Toronto FC. Maybe even all eyes in the league, given where they are in the standings (tied atop the Supporters' Shield race with the Crew), the play of Alejandro Pozuelo (staking a damn near irresistible claim on the title of best player in the league, and the now-obvious front-runner for MVP), their long-term form (only two losses and a +17 goal differential in their past 25 regular-season games dating back to last summer), and, well, who they're beating.
In the past three games they have faced NYCFC, Columbus and, on Saturday, Philadelphia. That is the cream of the Eastern Conference crop. The Reds took nine points.
As I said after last week's dominant second half against the Crew, Toronto have a gear that I do not believe the other teams in the East can hit.
I still don't believe I've seen any other East team play that well, but despite their glowing record and goal differential over the past 25 games, and despite the presence of Pozuelo and so many others with winning resumes and pedigrees, it was all unsustainable for the Reds.
All is not lost, though: They are still heavy favorites to become the 2020 Canadian Champions! The date for the final against Forge FC of the CPL is not yet set, but a win there sends the Reds back to the CCL.
LOWLIGHT: The loss to Nashville in the playoffs certainly qualifies, as does getting blown out by NYCFC in the MLS is Back Tournament knockout round. Losing three of four down the stretch — which started with a 5-0 humiliation at the hands of Philly, a result that completely swung the momentum in the Shield race — is right there as well. It all had to hurt.
But this was the lowlight:
Toronto were on an 18-game regular-season unbeaten run at that point, one shy of matching the league record... and this is what Pozuelo and fellow DP Pablo Piatti came up with? My mind is still reeling.
The Reds lost that game (which they'd otherwise dominated) and then lost the next as well. If they'd just taken a single point they'd have gone into Decision Day in control of their Shield destiny instead of needing a win and some help.
In the end they got neither.
REVELATION: AYO. AKINOLA.
Akinola had been a marginal USYNT winger who'd put up big numbers against weak teams but struggled to make any sort of headway against any of the higher-level competition the US had faced, and missed out on the 2019 US U-20 World Cup squad. His form with TFC2 in the USL wasn't much better, and while he'd shown flashes in 250 MLS minutes as a teenager in 2019, expectations for him heading into 2020 were nil. You could argue he was fourth on the center forward depth chart at the start of the season.
And then he got on the field and couldn't stop scoring. It began with a hat-trick against D.C. in Orlando, and by the end of the year he had 9 goals in about 1100 minutes across all competitions. And these weren't the goals of a forward on a heater; he was showing a high level of sophistication in how he was setting up and manipulating defenders off the ball:
He was absolutely a revelation and I'm still pretty surprised he didn't get the start over Jozy in the playoffs.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Nobody endures more hamstring injuries — that includes Akinola — than the Reds. One after another they managed to lose key players throughout the season, or see them hobbled to the point that they became shades of their former selves (as was the case with Pozuelo from mid-October onward). It is, at this point, an annual tradition.
But I really think the biggest disappointment has to be the production of the high-priced wingers. Piatti, a DP in his first (and only) year, had 4g/4a in about 1500 total minutes. Erickson Gallardo, a TAM signing in his second season, had 0g/0a in about 200 minutes and failed the eye test for every single one of those.
These guys were supposed to elevate the team and justify the formation switch. If either had been even a slightly above average MLS winger, Toronto probably would've won the Shield.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Pozuelo (AM): He's the MVP and he is a wizard. There are whispers of a godfather offer coming from the Middle East, and it would have to be gigantic for TFC to even pick up the phone.
- Akinola (FW): Line him up and keep him as healthy as possible. Jozy might be the DP, but he's going to have to get used to playing the Ilsinho role.
- Jonathan Osorio (AM/CM/W): I think the best way to use Osorio would be as an inverted winger with a stretch-the-field type on the right. But at whatever spot, he has to be out there.
- Richie Laryea (RB): Last year's revelation spent this year being one of the league's most dangerous attacking right backs, a legit game-changer.
- Chris Mavinga (CB): Mavinga might've put out more fires than any other center back in the league. He wasn't precisely dominant, but he was essential.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The Reds still look like one of the best teams in the league, and they still do have a lot of depth (in large part thanks to an academy set up that's starting to pump out legit first-teamers). But whoever the new manager is will have to handle convincing some long-time foundational pieces — Altidore, Michael Bradley and Justin Morrow, and perhaps Omar Gonzalez — that they, too, are now "depth."
Getting the right guy into the locker room to manage that dwarfs all other priorities. If they get that guy and adjust the lineup appropriately, I suspect TFC in 2021 will win things. If they instead settle for the status quo Toronto will still likely be very good, but will not top out as a title-contending team (save perhaps for the Canadian Championship).
In terms of personnel they obviously need a direct, goal-scoring, DP winger (I'd aim for a right winger so that Osorio can play inverted on the left) and a young, athletic center back to at least challenge Omar for that spot.
They won their first-ever trophy! A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Union have improved every year under Jim Curtin and the obvious next step for 2020 was going to be competing for some sort of title. They'd come close before with three trips to the US Open Cup final, but truly leveled up this year.
First they made it to the semis of the MLS is Back Tournament before losing to the eventual champion Portland Timbers, and then they went out and went 12-3-3 after league play resumed — often playing gorgeous soccer — which culminated with them clinching the Shield on Decision Day.
They just didn't quite stick the landing once they got into the playoffs.
TACTICS & FORMATION: The 2019 Union had been largely defined by their ability to wear teams down while playing out of a 4-4-2 diamond for the first hour, and then rip them apart over the final 30 minutes while playing out of 4-2-3-1.
There was still some of that, but there was much more of tossing the 4-4-2 diamond out there and letting it ride. That might've been a purposeful shift from Curtin, or it might've been a self-reinforcing cycle in that Philly generally played well in the diamond, and generally led more than they did in 2019, and so if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it mid-game.
What was something of a surprise is that they actually dialed the press back a bit when I thought — I think everybody thought — they were going to be kind of Red Bulls-y and crank it up to 11.
Instead they kept the ability to press, and kept their ability to build from possession, but became the league's best transition team.
HIGHLIGHTS: There were lots of them, including the 15-minute blitzkreig of Sporting in the MLS is Back quarters, the week-after-week mental and emotional consistency that's a hallmark of any Shield-winner, and the gigantic 5-0 win over Toronto that swung the momentum of the Shield race late in October. Philly had a truly fantastic season with few true lulls.
But nothing compares to your first, right? The Union went into Decision Day 90 minutes away from hoisting a trophy. They'd been in that spot four previous times, including their previous game (a 2-1 loss at Columbus in which Philly had coaxed a Team of the Week performance out of Eloy Room), and had come up short each time.
Not in this one, though:
They really earned it by dominating a very good New England team.
LOWLIGHT: They really earned their playoff exit by being dominated by a very good New England team.
One of the reasons I love that we award both the Shield and MLS Cup is that if you win both competitions, you immediately get canonized as one of the great teams in league history. It takes a lot to win the Shield — talent, depth and week-to-week consistency, as well as luck with injuries. It takes a lot of some different stuff to win MLS Cup — elite talent, favorable match-ups, a hot striker and serious luck with injuries.
Philly won the Shield because they had really good talent, really good depth, mostly avoided major injuries and were just locked in week after week. They got blown out in the playoffs because they could not handle New England's top-end talent.
Two different trophies for two different things. Philly were only good enough for one of them.
REVELATION: I kind of want to say Homegrown attacker Anthony Fontana, who got himself on a month-long heater and got the Union some points out of games that they weren't necessarily dominating, but I'm going to go with Jose Martinez instead. El Brujo is 26, and was on the fringes of the Venezuelan national team before coming to the Union. This guy wasn't a star — he had the profile of a depth piece, maybe a part-time starter for Philly.
How would he and a rotating cast of his teammates replace Haris Medunjanin, who'd been running that midfield without misplacing a pass for three years?
The answer was "seamlessly." This is his one-time outlet that puts Kai Wagner into space:
This guy who nobody had heard of at this time last year came into the league and was one of the top five d-mids, and a write-it-in-pen starter for the league's best team. He looks like a foundational piece going forward.
DISAPPOINTMENT: It's not just the playoff loss to New England, but how it happened. After being up for it week after week after week during the regular season and in the MLS is Back Tournament, they just... weren't vs. the Revs.
And I think what had to particularly sting is that this was the final outing for Homegrown attacker Brenden Aaronson, and quite likely for Homegrown center back Mark McKenzie as well. Philly created two Champions League players out of their academy, and both had looked the part for huge stretches of the year, and they got absolutely crushed by Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou.
As elite as Aaronson and McKenzie had been in the regular season, they weren't at that level when the postseason came along. It was tough.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Martinez (DM): A top five d-mid in his prime. They'll hope he can be for them what Diego Chara's been for Portland.
- Andre Blake (GK): Blake bounced back after a pretty poor 2019 season to win his second Goalkeeper of the Year award, and is still right in the heart of his prime.
- Jamiro Monteiro (CM/AM): The Cape Verdean international wasn't quite as prolific in terms of boxscore stats as last year, but is a consistent two-way game-changer either as a No. 10 or on the sides of the diamond as a shuttler.
- Sergio Santos (FW): He stayed a lot healthier in 2020, but was similar in terms of per-90 productivity; 4g/1a in 622 minutes in 2019, and 8g/2a in 1218 minutes in 2020. That's not quite elite, but that's really good. And his work rate is elite.
- Jack Elliott (CB): Yes, I know Jakob Glesnes eventually won the job over Elliott to partner McKenzie, but I still rate Elliott higher. Whatever happens, Philly should have few problems at CB next year.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: We know Aaronson's gone, which explains why he's not on the above list. I left McKenzie and Wagner off that list as well because it seems fairly likely that they'll both be gone this winter, too.
Will their replacements come from within (we know about Fontana and Elliott, but it's worth mentioning that Homegrown Matt Real was good in limited minutes at LB this year) or will Philly take some of their likely windfall and go shopping for another foundational DP-type player? It's a tough thing to balance since the Union very explicitly want to develop and sell players, so you don't want to block their path. But at the same time, wouldn't those young attackers look better playing in front of a Pozuelo or Lodeiro-type? And don't you need one of those guys to win an MLS Cup?
They need to figure out that balance.
The other notable absences: captain Alejandro Bedoya, who got a Best XI vote from me this past year, and striker Kacper Przybylko. Bedoya covers an unholy amount of ground and is about to hit his mid-30s; Przybylko has had two very good years, but seems to top out as "very good," is streaky (only one goal in his final 12 appearances in 2020) and at times seemed to have negative chemistry with Santos.
I'm not saying to kick both guys to the curb, but they're no longer "build around them" pieces.
Just the fifth expansion team to ever make the playoffs despite a preseason consensus they'd be pretty, pretty bad! A GIF is worth a thousand words:
Just the second-ever expansion team to win a postseason game... and they actually won two! Nashville certainly weren't pretty for a good chunk of the season, and there were a lot of points where it felt like it wasn't going to work.
But in the end it very much did. By any definition they had a massively successful debut season.
TACTICS & FORMATION: Nashville spent the vast majority of their time in a 4-2-3-1, though sometimes it was a 4-3-2-1 and at other times Gary Smith had no qualms tossing a low-block, 5-4-1 out there. This was the parked bus/bunker-ball a lot of folks pegged as Nashville's only real identity.
That view is incorrect. I'd argue Nashville were probably better playing on the back foot, but this team had the ability to unleash a pretty vicious and effective press, and got better at turning possession into useful possession as the season went along. A lot of that came via the veteran defensive midfield duo of Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy, both of whom were excellent throughout the season (when healthy -- more on that in a minute). Those guys worked very well together to both release wingers into space, and to limit turnovers and thus prevent Nashville from ever being susceptible to the counter.
Still, I will not argue against the fact Nashville were primarily a "set-pieces-and-counters" type of team in Year 1, and they were very, very good at that.
HIGHLIGHTS: There were a few of them. Their first-ever win, 1-0 over FC Dallas in mid-August, certainly counts, as does the 4-2 dismantling of Atlanta United a month thereafter. That outing, 10 games into their existence, marked the first time Nashville had scored more than just a single goal in any game. It would take them seven more games to do it again.
But it has to be either the 3-0 Play-In Round destruction of Inter Miami or the subsequent 1-0 shock win over Toronto in Round One. I'm going with the 3-0 not only because of what it represented about the respective status of the two 2020 expansion sides, but also because it felt like the first time all year a couple of the DPs delivered:
Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal spent most of 2020 looking... ok. There was a good amount of effort and some clever moments of skill, but there was also very little to suggest these guys could be difference-makers in high-leverage situations.
For 90 minutes against an overwhelmed Miami side, that changed.
LOWLIGHT: Nashville were up 3-0 in that game by the hour mark and Miami were offering neither any resistance, nor any threat going forward. It was a one-sided laugher and the hosts were in cruise control.
So why, then, was Godoy still out on the field? He's 30 and has a history — both recent and long-term — of leg injuries, and was coming into that game with a balky hamstring. Brian Anunga, meanwhile, had shown (and would show) he's a more than an adequate defensive sub for exactly those kinds of situations. If you're sitting on a late, multi-goal lead, this is the exact type of guy you bring in to see it out. Give your vets a rest.
Gary Smith did not give Godoy a rest. He left him out there until Godoy's hamstring once again gave out, despite the big lead and the bigger games coming up. There was no reason for him to still be on the field.
Nashville got the win over Toronto anyway with Anunga starting in Godoy's place, and then ran Columbus real close.
But they scored just one goal in those two games after having scored 12 in Godoy's previous seven starts (including the Miami game). His ability to spread the field with long diagonals makes Nashville exponentially more dangerous, and the lack of that might've cost them a miracle run to the Eastern Conference final.
REVELATION: Nashville struck gold in the SuperDraft, but not with the pick we all thought. No. 2 overall pick Jack Maher played just 127 minutes in 2020, as the top center back pairing of Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman and veteran Dave Romney was immovable. I still think the selection of Maher was defensible — if you can get an elite CB out of the SuperDraft you have to do it — though I understand why a large segment of the Nashville fanbase is pining for Daryl Dike.
Nine picks later they grabbed Canadian CM/RB Alistair Johnston, who came into the draft with the 'tweener tag. "Good player" everyone agreed, "but will he be good enough on the ball to run the game centrally? And if not, is he quick and fast enough to play as a fullback in the modern game?"
It turns out he is quick and fast enough to play as a fullback in the modern game. Johnston made his debut in that 1-0 win over Dallas, got into the XI the next time out and basically stayed there the entire season, including starting all three games in the playoffs.
He is not going to blaze down the touchline and hit pull-back after pull-back, nor is he programmed to whip in crosses from way out wide. He is just a reliable and no-frills ball-mover who limits his mistakes and doesn't get caught out. There's a lot to like about that.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Off the field, missing the MLS is Back Tournament surely qualifies.
On the field, let's go back to those DPs... the all-competitions boxscore numbers aren't great, and the underlying analytics agree with them. Take a look:
- Leal: 4g/4a in 1890 minutes
- Mukhtar: 5g/4a in 1390 minutes
- Jhonder Cadiz: 2g/0a in 450 minutes
That's a total of 11g/8a in 3730 combined minutes, which is just poor. Few teams can go as far as Nashville did this year with such limited contributions from the guys who are nominally supposed to be their best players, and the fact that they did, in fact, win two postseason games and give the Crew such trouble in a third is a credit to the entire roster.
But if this had been a "normal" year, I'm not sure they'd have been so lucky. You need your DPs to just brute force some wins here and there, and Nashville almost never got that out of this trio.
How it'll all work in 2021 is a massive question.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Zimmerman (CB): If there's one thing we should all know by now it's "Never let a Best XI-caliber CB leave in his prime." LAFC's folly was Nashville's gain, and they did the smart thing by locking Zimmerman up for the next half-decade.
- Romney (CB): If it ain't broke don't fix it, and the center back partnership is definitely not broken in Nashville. Romney was quietly very good in 2020.
- Daniel Lovitz (LB): The veteran provided better-than-solid and almost completely mistake-free two-way play.
- Johnston (RB): Solid, no-frills stuff on the left, and solid, no-frills stuff on the right.
- Joe Willis (GK): Solid, no-frills stuff in goal as well! Willis had been a pretty solid starter for a few years in Houston, then put together probably his best pro season in 2020.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: You can see a theme in the players to build around, right? All four starting defenders and the starting goalkeeper are in there, and both d-mids would be next on the list if I were to extend it to seven. I do worry about Godoy's injury history and McCarty's age — he turns 34 early next season and has logged a ton of miles over the past decade — but Nashville already have good depth at that spot including, in Anunga, a guy who could end up being more than just depth.
Almost the entirety of the attack is an open question. I think it's entirely fair to say "Mukhtar, Leal and Cadiz all deserve something of a mulligan since it's hard to come to a new league even in the best of times, and 2020 was definitely not the best of times." But it's also fair to point to the metric ton of new faces in MLS this year who actually did produce like actual DPs and wonder "why didn't our guys do that?"
Nashville have some other very good pieces in attack — I particularly like Daniel Rios — but I think you'd be hard-pressed to argue that, as a whole, the talent level in this front four is in the top half of the league. I actually think it might be easier to argue they're in the bottom quarter.
Finally, a playoff win in Cascadia. A GIF is worth a thousand words:
I don't think anyone in Frisco would tell you 2020 went exactly according to plan. A number of the Homegrown players who'd been central to 2019's success either got hurt, stalled out or, in Jesse Gonzalez's case, was released after domestic abuse allegations. The DPs once again underwhelmed. There were entire months when the attack went missing.
But they made the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, and actually won a round for the first time since 2015. Progress is progress, even if it doesn't come how you expected.
TACTICS & FORMATION: Luchi Gonzalez once again tinkered a bit, and with the arrival of Thiago Santos he really did seem to want to shift into a 4-3-3 as often as possible. But it's hard to play with a single pivot these days and so the 4-2-3-1 became something closer to the default formation as the year went on, though there was some 5-4-1 sprinkled in there and some 4-4-2 as well.
They were almost always more dangerous in transition than in possession largely because they've yet to establish coordinated off-ball kill patterns in attack.
This clip is from August 12, which was Dallas's first game in five months to that point:
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
You could give them a mulligan for it on that day. Two and three months later when the same sorts of passes were ending in the same sorts of non-threatening moments, I was much less willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Anyway, Dallas wanted to be a team that beats you with the ball, but they were almost always better as a team that beat you without it.
HIGHLIGHTS: And so that's how they played once they got to the postseason. Dallas did almost nothing for the first 75 minutes at Portland in Round One except absorb pressure (really well, it should be said). Then when Portland finally broke them down — it was a lovely goal from Jorge Villafana — Dallas were finally provoked into coming upfield.
At which point, youth was served:
Ricardo Pepi became, in that moment, the third-youngest goalscorer in playoff history. They'd go on to survive extratime, then win the thing after round upon round of penalties before Jimmy Maurer finally stoned Villafana.
It was a victory a half-decade in the making. Pepi was 12 the last time Dallas had advanced in the postseason. Think about that.
LOWLIGHT: For a month, from late September to late October, Dallas pretty much couldn't find the net with a map. They went 1-3-3 over a seven-game stretch with just three goals scored, and were shut out five times. DP forward Franco Jara and Gonzalez got into it on the sidelines and new attacking midfielder Andres Ricuarte added little. DP central midfielder Bryan Acosta, who returned from injury during that stretch, probably made the team less effective. Fellow DP Santiago Mosquera barely got on the field, and was ineffective when he did play.
That run cost Dallas home field advantage in the playoffs, and perhaps a chance at a more extended run deep into the postseason. Every team has a bad stretch, of course, but Dallas's tend to be deeper and more hapless on the attacking end than most other borderline elite teams.
That's because it has quite literally been years since the guys who are supposed to be Dallas's best players have actually been Dallas's best players. If it wasn't for the productivity they get out of their academy they would be in massive trouble each and every season.
REVELATION: And so let's talk about those academy kids! On any other team Pepi would, who put up 3g/1a in about 500 minutes as a 17-year-old, would be an easy choice as a revelation, but with Dallas he doesn't even make the top two.
No, the top two are 19-year-old central midfielder Tanner Tessmann and 19-year-old right back Bryan Reynolds in some order. Tessmann was considered a good-not-great prospect, and it was something of a surprise when he turned down a football scholarship to kick at Clemson in order to sign a Homegrown deal before the season. But it became pretty apparent pretty quickly that, thanks to his calm on the ball and Yueill-esque range of passing, he was going to play a major role for Los Toros Tejanos in 2020.
And so he did. That includes in the playoffs, as Dallas were clearly better once he got onto the field.
As for Reynolds...
When Reggie Cannon was sold mid-season, it opened up a starting role for the kid, and Reynolds grabbed it with both hands. The 19-year-old's a converted winger and you can see that in the clip above (and also sometimes in his defense, which remains a work in progress), in which he is just freaking awesome. There were a lot of those moments.
Cannon, by the way, is drawing interest from Benfica, Porto and Sporting CP in Portugal, as well as a host of other teams across the continent.
Reynolds is, too. There have already been credible reports of interest from the top teams in Serie A, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1, and I don't think anyone would or should be surprised if Reynolds is sold this winter for three times what Cannon went for, and to a much bigger club.
DISAPPOINTMENT: As mentioned, it's not always linear with Homegrowns. Or anyone, really, but it especially applies to kids trying to become meaningful pros.
Jesus Ferreira was really good in 2019 primarily playing as a false 9, but had just 1g/1a in a touch over 1,000 all-competitions minutes in 2020 while bouncing between attacking midfield and the wing. Brandon Servania became a regular starter in the second half of 2019, but in an injury-marred 2020 he started just four times and played just shy of 400 minutes. Edwin Cerrillo got off the bench only twice for a grand total of 17 minutes.
And then there's Paxton Pomykal. The 20-year-old had his breakout season last year, but played the final couple of months injured. He got offseason groin surgery, but then came back slowly and was rarely starting. Turns out he was carrying a hip injury as well, and wen under the knife in early September. The expected recovery time is supposed to be six months, but given he's now had four significant surgeries in four years, Pomykal's future is a massive question mark.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Matt Hedges (CB): His ninth season was one of his best, and Hedges remains one of the very best distributors in the league as well as an elite defensive CB.
- Ryan Hollingshead (LB): He came into MLS seven years ago as an athlete with some soccer skills and has developed into pretty clearly the league's best left back, as well as (arguably) the team's best finisher.
- Pepi (FW): I don't know how much longer he'll be in Frisco, but I think he made a pretty good case he should be the starter for the duration of his stay.
- Santos (DM): The veteran Brazilian was mostly effective, though I'd argue he needs some help and probably isn't suited to playing as a single pivot in a league as fast and physical as MLS.
- Tessmann (CM): He might be the next Adrien Rabiot or he might be the next Keaton Parks. Either outcome is great for Dallas, though as with Pepi it's an open question as to how long he'll be in Frisco.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: I think they're likely to be ok even if Pomykal never comes back (please let him come back!), and even if Jara starts over Pepi, and even if Acosta and Ricuarte keep being what they were throughout 2019. I also think they're likely to be ok even if they sell Reynolds this winter — which I totally expect them to do. Dallas, of course, have two additional well-regarded players coming through the academy at right back, plus third-year draftee John Nelson can play there and be just fine.
Dallas want to be more than just "ok" though, and they need an elite DP to make it happen. The last time they had an elite DP was in 2016, when Mauro Diaz was king of the world (and my heart), and they won the Supporters' Shield/US Open Cup double. They might've won a domestic treble if he hadn't popped his Achilles' heel just before the playoffs, but he did, and that's that.
There are rumors of an inbound South American winger. I have no idea who it'll be, but if Dallas add a Cristian Pavon or Diego Rossi-level talent, then they have a chance to jump from "just ok" to "oh man, they really might win some stuff!"
That's got to be the priority. Make sure they finally get it right with a DP, and a lot of avenues toward silverware open up.
Orlando City SC
For the first time, they weren't just relevant: they were actually really good. A GIF is worth a thousand words:
In 2020, Orlando finally took, with some amount of ease, the bumps in the road other teams surmount on a damn near yearly basis. It was a major step forward for a side that had never, in their previous five seasons, really come all that close to making the playoffs.
Did it end great? No, it did not. Does that really matter? No, it does not.
TACTICS & FORMATION: Three different versions of Orlando City in 2020. Version No. 1 was the unwatchable bunch back in March that had zero intent to play actual soccer. Those games were gross.
Version No. 2 was the gorgeous and glorious team we saw at the MLS is Back Tournament in July, a possession-heavy, ball-dominant team that made it all the way to the tournament's final based upon their ability to dictate games, spread the opposition out and rip them apart. They played arguably the best soccer in the league from an aesthetic standpoint:
We kept seeing that version of Orlando City right up until the end of August when Joao Moutinho got hurt. He had been the best LB in the league to that point, acting as a fulcrum for distribution and a force magnifier for attack while bringing just enough defensively. There was no replacing him like-for-like.
And so Version No. 3 was a low-block-and-counter bunch that shoved aesthetics into the bin and leaned into raw pragmatism.
That should've been no surprise. Oscar Pareja likes to get his teams to play pretty soccer, but doesn't demand it. Even his best FC Dallas teams would sometimes spend entire months defending in the 'keeper's lap. And when you're missing both fullbacks and then, at various points, the entire central midfield... pragmatism it is.
All of the above happened primarily out of a 4-2-3-1.
HIGHLIGHTS: There were more great moments in 2020 than there had been in the previous five years of Orlando City history combined. They got their first-ever rivalry win, in the opener of the MLS is Back Tournament, by 2-1 over Inter Miami in early July. A month-and-a-half later they got their first-ever win over Atlanta, a dominant 3-1 performance in which Daryl Dike broke out (more on him in a moment). Both of those had to be cathartic in an almost-can't-put-it-in-words type of way.
But the real highlights are what happened in this summer's tournament, when they played such beautiful soccer en route to an appearance in the final, and then clinching a playoff spot, hosting that game, and then winning it in very, very memorable fashion:
There's the whole damn shootout. I still can't believe it happened like it did.
LOWLIGHT: There... wasn't one, really? Usually you'd say losing a home playoff game would be it, but that doesn't really count as a lowlight if you've never been to the postseason before. You're playing with house money at that point. Same for losing the MLS is Back final against Portland. Orlando City certainly weren't "just happy to be there" but given everything the club had been through since 2015, I'm sure there was a big chunk of the roster, the fanbase, the front office and ownership group who were, in fact, just happy to be there. They finally had proof of concept this thing could work, so that's not a lowlight, nor is the loss really a disappointment.
The closest I can get are the Ruan and Pedro Gallese red cards against NYCFC in the opening playoff game. Pareja's one of the best coaches in MLS, but his teams have had a penchant for self-destruction in those moments over the years, and it has to be at least a little bit worrying said penchant traveled from Dallas to Tijuana and then all the way across the continent to Orlando.
They lost to the Revs as soon as those guys saw red. Mauricio Pereyra's subsequent red card against New England just sealed the deal.
I'm going with Dike.
I spent a lot of 2019 telling folks he should be the No. 1 SuperDraft pick, but even I didn't think he'd be such a game-changer in his rookie season. He is awesome:
He got his first start in Orlando's first game out of the MLS is Back Tournament, and scored his first goal. Then he scored two more the next time out. Then he picked up an assist, and then a couple of more, and so he just kept starting, and kept helping the team win, and kept making it possible for them to play that direct, 4-2-3-1 and skip the largely injured midfield. He gave them an escape hatch and allowed them to play the pragmatic soccer they needed to without Moutinho and Uri Rosell.
And then he leveled up again down the stretch, putting up 4g/1a in his last four appearances as the Lions secured home field advantage in the playoffs.
He finished with 8g/4a in 1,224 regular-season minutes. He was, essentially, a DP-level striker for the final three months of the year.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Dom Dwyer's three-and-a-half-year return to Orlando ended unhappily with 0g/1a in 124 minutes, though you could argue his injuries did open the door for Dike to get on the field and show his value.
But really, the issue is Nani's age and fitness. During the MLS is Back Tournament, after nine months of rest, he was probably the second-best player in the league. Afterward he definitely was not, and that's a similar trend to what we saw in his first season in MLS:
- Nani in his first 16 games of 2020: 6g/6a
- Nani in his final 10 games of 2020: 3g/0a
- Nani in his first 19 games of 2019: 8g/8a
- Nani in his final 11 games of 2019: 4g/2a
And to top it all off, he was terrible against the Revs.
This is why I was skeptical of signing him as a DP in the first place, and super-skeptical of giving him that guaranteed third year. He's 34 now, and basically becomes a replacement-level winger during the most crucial part of the season.
Pareja has to figure out how to manage his minutes in 2021 (MAKE HIM THE FLORIDA ILSINHO DAMMIT). And he definitely has to figure out how to stop him from taking PKs.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Dike (FW): An unselfish goalscoring No. 9 with good feet and vision, and quite obviously the physical tools to make it all work.
- Mueller (W): After a year spent terrorizing MLS as a right winger, he made his USMNT debut by picking up 2g/1a as a left winger. Kid's good.
- Pereyra (AM): Just a super-clever, classic No. 10 who rearranges the chess pieces and makes everything easier for his teammates. One of the league's best pass-before-the-pass guys.
- Antonio Carlos (CB): They purchased the Brazilian outright after he spent 2020 as one of the top six (or so) center backs in the entire league. He's a foundational piece.
- Moutinho (LB): As I said above, he was probably the best LB in the league before the injury.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Luis Muzzi has done a ton of good work over the past 18 months to turn this into one of the deepest and most balanced rosters in the league. I don't think they go into the winter with any glaring needs, though obviously they could use another ball-playing LB and some sort of back up plan for Pereyra.
Thus, on the whole I'd say their biggest priority is to figure out what they want to do with the now-open DP slot thanks to the departure of Dwyer. There are no super-obvious places to use that given the development of Dike, Mueller and Michel, the depth they have at deep-lying midfield and the fact Pereyra and Nani will be back as DPs. It's not air-tight — none of those guys is actually the best player in the league at their respective position — but it would take a lot of money with questionable ROI to potentially upgrade anywhere.
Given that, I think the offseason priority is just to make sure the culture they built in 2020 is what they bring back in 2021, and Nani is mentally and emotionally ready for a reduced role in order to keep him fresh for the playoffs.
They spent big. For a while they won big. And then they just got annihilated. A GIF is worth a thousand words:
Sporting put in a lot of really good performances, and unlike last year, they didn't just wipe out and never recover. They handled some injuries and some roster turnover, and while I'd argue that their top-of-the-West regular-season finish was something of a mirage, it wasn't completely a mirage.
But the end of their run was ugly, and spoke to some fundamental flaws in the team.
TACTICS & FORMATION: As always it was a 4-3-3, and that became something of a problem. When you play a 4-3-3 with a single pivot defensively, there are natural gaps to either side of that d-mid, and those gaps have to be filled by a center back stepping off the line and becoming an ad hoc second defensive midfielder. You can't be a reactive defender; you have to be on the front foot, especially if the midfield tries and fails to trap the ball against the sideline.
Fast forward to Sporting's 3-0 humiliation at home against Minnesota in the playoffs and... yikes:
They neither stepped to the space, nor pressured the ball, nor tracked the run. Ballgame.
Anyway, Sporting played a 4-3-3 and sometimes it was pretty. They are no longer a particularly hard, high-pressing team, and at their best they play some of the best build-from-possession soccer in the league. But they remain super vulnerable and while a lot of that came down to personnel, I do think much of it comes down to tactics as well.
HIGHLIGHTS: There was a point, in late summer, when it seemed like Sporting were going in the tank just as they had in 2019. They were shipping two goals a game and were getting gashed by anyone with even half-decent wingers.
Then they came out of that lull by going 6-1-1 in their final eight games. They weren't exactly facing murderer's row — only two of those wins were over playoff teams — but you can only beat the team you're playing, and that's what Sporting did. In this case, they did so thoroughly enough to claim the No. 1 overall seed and home field advantage in the West.
Strength of schedule did play a role in that, and I will not be convinced otherwise. But it's still a legit accomplishment.
Ok, I wrote the above before it dawned on me "Tim Melia in PK shootouts" was the actual right shout for Sporting's 2020 highlights. He stole young Thomas Hasal's thunder in the Round of 16 from the MLS is Back Tournament, then blanked the Quakes in the first round of the West playoffs.
In the entire history of MLS, Melia is first 'keeper to finish 3-for-3 in saves in a shootout. The only other time an MLS team lost a 3-0 shootout in three rounds: Chicago vs. Charleston in the 2010 US Open Cup.
The Battery's keeper that day? A young Tim Melia.
He is now 6-0 in his career in PK shootouts, and has the highest regular-season PK save percentage of any MLS 'keeper with a minimum of 10,000 minutes.
LOWLIGHT: It's either the first half of the playoff loss to Minnesota, in which they got gashed and just absolutely dismantled by that Loons attack, or the second half in which Minnesota sat back to absorb pressure and Sporting... still couldn't really generate anything.
Each 45-minute stanza was remarkable and entirely concerning in its own right.
REVELATION: It's not Gianluca Busio, per se. The 18-year-old has long been a highly-rated prospect in US youth circles, though exactly how highly rated is a matter of heated debate in those same circles. Some folks see a kid with good feet and a good engine who has the ability to make special plays. Others see a kid with good feet and a good engine who doesn't consistently impact the game to be a final third focal point.
And then he played d-mid:
Guys I'm pretty sure I've found Pirlo's first purchase for Juve... pic.twitter.com/UbNgvGqEqa— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) August 21, 2020
I like Busio infinitely more as a regista or even a ball-moving Jan Gregus-style No. 8 than as an attacker of any stripe. There's still defensive work to be done on his end, but 2020 represented a major step forward for the kid.
DISAPPOINTMENT: As mentioned at the top, Sporting finally spent big this offseason, bringing in DP No. 9 Alan Pulido. In his 13 starts across all competitions Sporting were 8-3-2 with a +10 goal differential. In the 12 games he didn't start Sporting were 4-5-3 with a -2 goal differential.
Pulido, who finished the year with 7g/5a in about 1,150 minutes across all competitions, was awesome when healthy and probably would've been in contention for Newcomer of the Year had he stayed available. But too often he wasn't, and Sporting suffered for it. That includes all 210 minutes in the playoffs.
The central defense was also disappointing. Maybe that belongs here instead.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Pulido (FW): Get him back, get him healthy and you've got one of the best forwards in the league. He won't win the Golden Boot, but he might do something insane like 15g/15a if you can keep him out there for 2,500 minutes.
- Gadi Kinda (AM): There were fairly modest expectations for the Israeli No. 10, and he exceeded all of them. Sporting exercised the purchase option on his loan, so he'll be in Kansas for a good long while.
- Khiry Shelton (W): Shelton had to spend too much time playing center forward with Pulido out, and he's not great there. When he could play on the wing, though, he was excellent.
- Johnny Russell (W): The Scot went ice cold at the end of the season and into the playoffs, which was obviously the worst time for him to have done so, and his inability to finish huge chances early against Minnesota might've sealed Sporting's fate. Still, he is in the top quartile of wingers in MLS, and should thrive next to Pulido more often next season.
- Melia (GK): Still one of the better 'keepers in MLS despite ending up all over Minnesota's end-of-year highlight reel.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Defense, defense, defense. They tried to fix it last winter by bringing in Roberto Puncec (who topped out as "fine") and Winston Reid (who did not), and I don't think anyone would too strenuously argue these two guys fixed what was wrong. Reid is already gone, as is club icon Matt Besler, and it wouldn't surprise me if Andreu Fontas was next out the door. That leaves Puncec and Graham Smith, or Puncec, Smith and Fontas should the Spaniard stay. That strike anyone as a center back corps that can lead a team to the promised land?
They need to go out and somehow, somewhere find a borderline Best XI-caliber CB. It is an urgent need, and one that could potentially vault Sporting into the ranks of the true contenders in 2021. If they figure out how to upgrade left back a touch as well, then they're probably gonna cook.
There might also need to be a come-to-Jesus moment about Ilie Sanchez's ability to play that single pivot role in the modern game. I don't know if that means new personnel or a new deployment of the personnel already on hand, but it's something they have to figure out this winter one way or another.
New England Revolution
They survived, and then they thrived. It was a big step forward. A GIF is worth a thousand words:
It wasn't as pretty as they'd hoped it would be, and there were a couple of moments where it looked like things were going to end badly. But the Revs survived the absence of their best player for basically the entire season, then got him back for the playoffs and were mostly awesome.
That's a pretty good blueprint.
TACTICS & FORMATION: It was a very 4-4-2ish 4-2-3-1 when Bruce Arena had his full complement of players to choose from. Carles Gil would nominally play as a right winger, but pinched in to become a playmaker, while Gustavo Bou was supposed to be in the middle of that "3" line but actually pushed up to play as a second forward.
By and large the approach was good at generating possession and chances even without Gil. But when Gil got fit and got back into the XI, the Revs bumped up a level or three and were terrifying for a good chunk of the playoffs. They were one of the best teams in the league at turning possession into useful possession, and rode that all the way to the Eastern Conference final.
Defensively they were much better and more mobile than last year, which allowed Arena to vary how deep he wanted his team to play, and even allowed him to bring that line up and press a good bit. This team was fun.
HIGHLIGHTS: In true Bruce Arena fashion this team saved basically all of their highlights for the postseason. I've written this before, but I'll go ahead and write it again here: New England mostly played good soccer throughout the year, but with Gil hurt, Bou slumping and/or hurt and their third DP, Adam Buksa, not really looking the part, they lacked the difference-makers to turn all the good work they were doing through midfield into goals on a consistent basis.
Given how thoroughly the Union had dominated the Revs during the regular-season, and the fact Philly had won the Shield, and that they were unbeaten at home, there's only really one clip to choose for this section:
They played their best games during the biggest part of the season.
LOWLIGHT: And then they didn't.
I'm not going to call the loss to the Crew in the East final a "lowlight" given a full-strength Columbus side, at home, is an elite team. You're not supposed to win three straight road games in the playoffs, and the Revs didn't, and that's no knock on them. The Crew were just a much better team on the day.
Instead I'll go with the season-long lowlight of not being able to defend set pieces, which is truly bizarre given Arena's history (his teams have always been very good defending restarts), and New England's overall size. They're not a huge team, but they're not small, either.
And so it's weird they were one of the worst teams in MLS in dead ball situations, right up until the very end. True to form, the only goal in their 1-0 loss to Columbus came on a recycled set piece after the Revs had failed to clear their lines.
REVELATION: Arena said from Day 1 in Henry Kessler, the Revs got their man in the SuperDraft. There was, according to the coach, nobody else on the board they actually wanted.
It was quickly apparent why he felt that way. Kessler is good in the air, and was, at times, a game-changing distributor for the Revs. But it's the way he reads the game and quickly jumps passing lanes that separates him, and led directly to New England's first playoff win since 2014:
Henry Kessler, twice.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) November 21, 2020
Impact forwards have to do more to bail out the defense, but the kid's impressive. pic.twitter.com/AkGR42sLek
Montreal have two chances here to get New England's foot off their throat, and both times they're on the verge of doing so. But Kessler pops up, wins the ball and plays directly to a teammate.
Look at what happens the second time: The kid hits a left-footed, one-time pass directly to DeJuan Jones, who sets up Bou for the winner.
Kessler also pocketed his college teammate, Dike, in the East semis. It should not shock anyone if he becomes a major part of the Olympic qualifying effort for the US U-23s.
DISAPPOINTMENT: It's kind of harsh to list Buksa as a disappointment, but that's where I've landed on this. His numbers weren't terrible — 7g/2a in 1948 minutes across all competitions — but that's back-up No. 9-type stuff. That's not DP-type stuff.
This is not DP-type stuff, either:
You go out and spend big on a DP No. 9 to win you the game in those moments. Buksa had his chance there, and couldn't do it. That was largely the story of his season.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Matt Turner (GK): The league's best goalkeeper for the third straight season, and a match-winner between the sticks both in the regular-season and the playoffs. The only question is how much longer will the Revs have him?
- Gil (AM/W): He's not quite a Lodeiro or Pozuelo-class player in this league, but he's not far off. And maybe in Year 3 in Foxborough, he'll get there.
- Kessler (CB): Delivered more than anyone could've reasonably expected in his rookie season, and should be a fixture back there for years to come.
- Tajon Buchanan (RB/RW): Talented, but struggled with end product as a winger. When injuries and circumstance conspired to move him to right back in the playoffs, he became a devastating overlapping threat.
- Andrew Farrell (CB): He finally became a full-time center back in his eighth season and his partnership with Kessler — at least from open play — was damn near perfect.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: They'll be getting Luis Caicedo back from injury after he missed the entire season, which will upgrade their deep central midfield. A rotation of him, Matt Polster and Scott Caldwell is very good — potentially among the five best in the league. They should also figure out how to add another big, young center back, and I don't think adding another naturally left-footed LB would be a bad idea, given that Alex Buttner spent a lot of time being unconvincing when he was able to get out onto the field.
You see who's not on the list, though, right?
It is hard to imagine the Buksa we saw in 2020 will be a "let's win things!" DP-caliber No. 9 in 2021. And as for Bou: If you need to finish off a limping Montreal team, or just smash the hell out of a wounded Orlando City side, he's your guy. You're in total control of the game and you're going to launch 20 shots? Get this man on the field.
But against stronger competition he becomes a liability. When New England played at Columbus they needed him to bother Darlington Nagbe even just a little bit, and he couldn't do it. They needed him to find some soft spots between the lines and he couldn't do it. They needed him to do literally anything to stop Columbus from taking complete control of the game, and he just did not do it.
They're going to build around these guys anyway — they're both under contract for next year. But I suspect there's a ceiling on how high the Revs can go with Bou and Buksa occupying two of their three DP slots.
For a while they were just barely hanging on, and then... A GIF is worth a thousand words:
There were three distinct phases of the Minnesota season. Phase 1 was the first two games, when they came out and blitzed Portland and San Jose, scoring eight goals in two games. Phase 2 was the MLS is Back Tournament and subsequent month after returning to play, when they were an ultra-defensive team just sort of scuffling along and in danger of falling out of the playoff hunt at any moment.
Phase 3 was the Bebelo Reynoso era. They floored the pedal and left their issues behind them, and it was awesome.
TACTICS & FORMATION: Adrian Heath keeps it pretty simple: they almost always play a 4-2-3-1, and generally do so in a mid- or low-block. They can press, and were frequently clever about unleashing it during the final month of the season and into the playoffs, but it was selective and purposeful, designed either to change the rhythm of the game or to exploit a sudden weakness in the opposition. It was basically never Plan A.
The big difference over last season was how they generated their attack. In 2019, because they had a healthy Ike Opara in the middle of the backline, they were able to let right back Romain Metanire push as high as he wanted basically as often as he wanted, which gave them some game-changing width.
Metanire had to stay home a lot more with Opara sidelined for all but two games, so Minnesota generated almost the entirety of their attack from the front four. For a while it was a struggle, and then Bebelo arrived, and it was not.
HIGHLIGHTS: The performance they put together at the MLS is Back Tournament deserves a shout given how low expectations were heading in without Opara and with Ozzie Alonso carrying a knock, and with new striker Luis Amarilla hurt as well. But the Loons were completely fine with the idea of just going into a shell and playing ultra-defensive soccer, and did so at a high enough level to knock out the eventual MLS Cup champions along the way. It wasn't pretty — save for a few moments from Chase Gasper — but it was effective.
Their close-season run was both pretty and effective, they scored 10 goals in their final five games and were unbeaten in their last eight.
But come on, it's those two playoff wins that are the bright shining light, and most especially the 3-0 demolition of Sporting at KC. This was a total beatdown:
That is a legendary way to get your first road playoff win, and the Bebelo/Kevin Molino combo was devastating throughout the playoffs. The Loons left no doubt who the better team was, and perhaps in 2021 this rivalry will no longer be so nice.
LOWLIGHT: Minnesota kept playing well into the next game, and just past the hour mark took a 2-0 lead at Seattle. The final 20 minutes of the game, however, were a disasterclass.
Brian Schmetzer threw the kitchen sink out there, brought on a bunch of subs and the Sounders ramped the intensity up to 11. Even as the game started getting away from the Loons, Heath kept three subs in his pocket and his team began wilting on the field. Will Bruin pulled one back for the hosts in the 75th minute, and by stoppage time Minnesota were running on fumes. Seattle scored twice, on a pair of corner kicks.
It is a mark of how thoroughly Minnesota exceeded expectations that losing at Seattle in the playoffs is the season lowlight. But given how it happened, and how close they were to pushing through to an MLS Cup appearance... that final 20 minutes is of a piece with the rest of non-Kirby Puckett-related Minnesota sporting lore.
REVELATION: I'm going to throw those Gasper clips in because I really had no idea:
If he learns to cross the ball he will instantly have a claim as the best LB in MLS. It's a massive "if" though.
The real revelation for the Loons, however, was the play of second-year goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair. The young Canadian, a top pick in the 2019 SuperDraft, got on the field after starter Tyler Miller was injured midseason, and it's a fair bet Miller's not getting that job back. St. Clair was a wall, putting up great boxscore numbers (eight shutouts and just 15 goals allowed in 16 starts across all competitions) that matched both the advanced analytics and the eye test.
His first 15 minutes against Sporting were particularly great. The Loons keep crushing the draft.
DISAPPOINTMENT: The draft pick who saved the 2019 season didn't make the type of progress they'd hoped for in 2020. Mason Toye was incredible across two months in the middle of last year, and his goalscoring propped up an otherwise listless attack.
The advanced numbers said what he was doing was unsustainable, and those numbers were right. Toye didn't get on the field much in 2020, and when he did he couldn't find chances and didn't do the kind of link-up work necessary to be the type of forward who plays big minutes even when he's neither finding nor finishing chances. Even with Amarilla hurt, Toye couldn't make a case for himself.
He was eventually traded to Montreal for a good chunk cash.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Bebelo (AM): His regular-season numbers were great: 1g/7a in 826 minutes. His postseason numbers were freaking unreal: 1g/7a in 253 minutes. He will rightly be regarded as a frontrunner for MVP heading into next year.
- Jan Gregus (CM): Quietly so effective on both sides of the ball, Gregus's precision distribution is an underappreciated weapon outside of St. Paul.
- St. Clair (GK): One of the very best shot-stoppers in the league, and limited mistakes for a young keeper — write his name in pen.
- Gasper (LB): He's good-to-great at everything you want from a LB (individual defense, collective defense, distribution) except for the final ball.
- Metanire (RB): He can be had 1v1 in certain situations but it's worth it given how much he brings to the table in attack and distribution.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: For a team that went so far and acquitted themselves so well in two competitions this year, as well as finishing top four in the West in the regular-season, Minnesota are facing a lot of questions this offseason. And they basically all come down to age or injury history or both:
Alonso is 35 and started just 11 games in 2020. Opara will be 32 before next season starts, and appeared just twice. Molino played as well as he ever has, but he's 30 and has an injury record that's a mile long. Will Amarilla be back given that his ankle gave out after just five starts in a loan stint? Michael Boxall had a very, very good year, but he's 32 and once you hit that age it's always an open question.
Of those five, only Boxall is guaranteed to return. I wouldn't be shocked if none of the other four did, though I wouldn't be shocked if all of the other four did. Figuring out what to expect out of those guys, and whether they want to bring them back next year, is the main job this offseason.
Then they can go throw a bag of cash at a No. 9. Bebelo-feeding Santos Borre, maybe, uniting both sides of the Superclasico?
It was the coronation of a dynasty, and then it wasn't. A GIF is worth a thousand words:
There were very long stretches of the year where it looked like the Sounders were going to do it. They didn't really have sustained trouble against anyone except the bunker-and-counter Timbers, and even when they came out flat against Minnesota they still had so much firepower that, in the end, it didn't matter.
They were sitting pretty and confident. Maybe a bit too confident, because they got freaking smacked in MLS Cup.
TACTICS & FORMATION: Brian Schmetzer's biggest strength as a coach is he doesn't over-complicate things. The Sounders operate out of a basic 4-2-3-1 with very straight-forward principles of play: Shape the game around Nico Lodeiro, and when he drops deep to find the ball, the wingers have to stretch the field. If there is a semi-transition opportunity, the fullbacks overlap in order to get to the endline and hit pullbacks.
There were times they fell in love with crossing the ball too much in the regular season (particularly against the Timbers), but they showed more patience with that as the year wore on and produced better patterns of final third play.
Defensively it was just a basic 4-2-3-1 that used all the standard defensive rotations. The one Achilles' heel was they had a habit of getting a little loose between central defense and central midfield, which almost killed them in the Western Conference final and then murdered them dead in MLS Cup itself.
HIGHLIGHTS: Just going to rehash the same blurb for Minnesota here, right? The Sounders played a lot of great soccer this year, ripping apart LAFC multiple times and spending most of the year up around the top of the Western Conference (they eventually finished second in the West on PPG). Their goal differential of +21 was second-best in the league, though to be fair a lot of that came from just ripping the Quakes from limb to limb.
But yeah, there's no question the highlight of the year was the late comeback vs. the Loons. For any fan that's an "I will forever remember where I was, forever, while watching that unfold" type of sporting event no matter what happened in the next round.
Loons fans, look away. Seattle fans, here you go:
Is it any wonder everyone felt like they were the team of destiny after this?
LOWLIGHT: Turns out they used up all their magic to get past Minnesota, because there was only one team on the field in MLS Cup. Seattle invented losing MLS Cup 3-0, and Seattle invented being shut out in three of their first four MLS Cup appearances. Columbus were just miles better in every facet of the game.
Schmetzer took understandable criticism for sticking with Alex Roldan (in his first year of playing the position full-time) at right back and Joevin Jones (not, uh, exactly looking up for it) in place of veterans Kelvin Leerdam and Gustav Svensson (in central midfield, which would've pushed Cristian Roldan to right wing). But it's like the mirror version of the criticism he took after Seattle lost in 2017:
I wonder if he kicked himself for not sticking with lineup that got them there then, which played into tonight’s decision. 2/2— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) December 13, 2020
The choices you make are always going to look bad in hindsight if you lose badly, and I really do think the scoreline had less to do with personnel and more to do with that gap between Seattle's central midfield and defense, and Lucas Zelarayan's ability to live there and make everyone in Rave Green absolutely miserable.
REVELATION: Nobody. Alex Roldan and Shane O'Neill at center back turning into capable squad players — or perhaps something more at times and in the future — doesn't really count as revelatory, and the rest of the roster is so packed with proven, "we know what they are" veterans that it was almost impossible for any of the kids to break through and earn anything approaching real and consistent gametime. Seattle's window of title opportunity is now, and Schmetzer understandably managed like it.
You could give Yeimar Gomez Andrade a shout, but given his pedigree, his price tag and Seattle's previous level of success in importing center backs, I don't think the fact he was one of the eight (or so) best CBs in the league really makes him a revelation. It's just the Sounders front office doing what they've basically always done.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Gomez Andrade saved his worst performances for the playoffs and could possibly earn a shout here, though he's certainly not the only one who's deserving of special mention. Jordan Morris was dominant in the playoff-opening win over LAFC and then couldn't make a single play over the subsequent three games, while O'Neill had maybe his best performance — ever — against FC Dallas (even outside of the goal), then spent a good chunk of the next two outings looking like the career back-up he's been.
But really, it was the effort level in MLS Cup. This is unacceptable:
You can argue Roldan shouldn't have been harrying Derrick Etienne, Jr. all the way back to the midfield stripe — I disagree with that, as I am of the "if you have an attacker pointed backwards, keep him going backwards and everyone else step up to push them deeper" school of thought — which is an acceptable point of view even if I disagree with it.
But what's not acceptable is neither Joevin Jones nor Joao Paulo covering for Roldan once he's committed to that course of action. This is a very basic defensive rotation, and even against average players it's deadly if you don't make it. Against Zelarayan?
Five Players to Build Around:
- Lodeiro (AM): Apparently he played hurt in MLS Cup, which partially accounts for his no-show. Up to that point he was in perhaps the finest run of form in his MLS career.
- Raul Ruidiaz (FW): An elite, match-winning MLS center forward who has a stellar playoff record despite the disappointment of MLS Cup.
- Morris (LW): Hit a slump at the wrong time, but deserved his Best XI selection this season and is one of the league's best wingers.
- Cristian Roldan (W/CM): Whether he's on the wing or at central midfield, he's been a consistent and often game-changing two-way player for the Sounders.
- Stefan Frei (GK): Still one of the five best goalkeepers in the league as he enters his mid-30s.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: More than anything else they need to sort out deep-central midfield, both in terms of personnel and tactics. Svensson is 34 before next season starts, and it seems likely he's gone. Joao Paulo was very good throughout most of the season, but he'll be 30 in March and is it really worth spending $1.25 million (the reported fee to turn his loan into a permanent transfer) and, presumably, a DP slot on him? I am on the fence there.
Wrapped up in all of this is how they want to use Cristian Roldan. When he and Morris are on the wings the Sounders are very good, but neither of those guys is a 1-v-1 threat. What would the Sounders attack look like if they had a Johnny Russell-type of right winger to balance Morris on the left, and could then move Roldan back to central midfield? I'd be itching to spend a DP slot on that type of player if I was Garth Lagerwey.
I am perhaps more sanguine about the central defensive depth chart than I should be, but I don't think it's wrong to suspect Gomez Andrade, O'Neill and Ecuadorian international Xavier Arreaga will all improve individually and collectively in 2021. That said, if Arreaga decides he doesn't want to return (I don't know if this is a legit possibility or not), then it becomes a spot they obviously need to fill this offseason.
Keep an eye on Leerdam as well. DeAndre Yedlin's in the final six months of his contract at Newcastle, and in both soccer and life you really can go home again.
They said, all year long, their aim was MLS Cup. A GIF is worth a thousand words:
Yeah man, they did it. Never saw much doubt creep into this team even when they were grinding through a pretty rough stretch in October. You could argue in the end, that stretch — which forced Caleb Porter to go down his bench a bit and get the tail-end of the depth chart some meaningful minutes — was exactly what they needed come MLS Cup.
They were deserving champions, and will go into next year among the favorites for obvious reasons.
TACTICS & FORMATION: When the Crew were whole and healthy and at their very best they were defined by both their desire and ability to control the tempo of almost any game, which came from having a collection of defenders and deep-lying midfielders who simply do not misplay many passes at all. This kept opponents out of transition, which was the point: If you're forcing the opposition to always attack against a set defense, you're not going to give up many goals.
This also kept them out of transition, which they were basically fine with since the Crew were also very good at using possession to break teams down and, in Gyasi Zardes, have an utterly reliable No. 9. If everybody in the attack is comfortable with the ball and knows the dance steps and is dancing them at the same rhythm, you will generate chances, and Gyasi will finish them.
The issues for the Crew came when there were too many absences, and when one of those "too many" was Darlington Nagbe in particular. Nagbe is the most gifted pure possession midfielder in league history, and you just can't press him. There is no replacing him like-for-like.
So Porter didn't try to replace him like-for-like. Instead he slowly got Homegrown d-mid Aidan Morris more minutes, and then come MLS Cup with Nagbe not able to play, Porter unleashed the kid on the poor Sounders. Morris is tidy on the ball but his real gift is winning the ball at midfield and then getting his team to go vertical — a much more direct approach. So that was the Crew's Plan B look, and I think we'd all agree it worked pretty damn well!
All of the above happened out of a 4-2-3-1 with fullbacks who pushed up to support the attack rather than overlap all the way to the endline.
HIGHLIGHTS: The start of the season was great, and there were some absolutely sterling performances at the MLS is Back Tournament before getting bounced by Minnesota in the knockout rounds. They also had more success against Philly than anyone else, handing the Shield champs a pair of one-goal losses.
But those weren't dominant, "only one team's on the field"-type of performances. The Eastern Conference final and the MLS Cup final itself were.
And of course, any time you hoist MLS Cup itself, that's the highlight of your season:
Lucas Zelarayan put in the greatest performance in MLS Cup history. The Crew put together the most dominant win in MLS Cup history. They did it against a team that was on the verge of having a real claim upon being a dynasty.
There is it is, Crew fans. Swish.
LOWLIGHT: They way they went out in the MLS is Back Tournament was rough. Minnesota just ripped Nagbe out of the game by using Hassani Dotson as an advanced destroyer and Columbus had no counter.
That performance combined with how poorly they'd fared without Nagbe during the regular-season combined with losing him just two days before MLS Cup and having to scramble with some sort of unproven replacement (it would've been Morris or journeyman Fatai Alashe) is a big part of why so many of us had Seattle as prohibitive favorites. Columbus hadn't really shown they had a Plan B, that they could compete against the best teams without Nagbe.
And then they did.
REVELATION: "What did you do in your third career, start, a month after turning 19?"
"I won two 50/50s that started goal sequences and pocketed Nico Lodeiro in MLS Cup."
If that's how you answer the above question, then by god do you count as a revelation. Here's the Aidan Morris experience from Saturday night:
He was the youngest starter in MLS Cup history, breaking Landon Donovan's record, and the third-youngest ever to play in MLS Cup after Freddy Adu and DaMarcus Beasley. That is pretty good company!
Expectations were high for Morris entering the season. It's safe to say even with minimal playing time, he exceeded them.
DISAPPOINTMENT: There was understandable disappointment in the locker room after the win that Nagbe and Pedro Santos weren't able to be there with the rest of the team to celebrate given health protocols. Jonathan Mensah was in tears. But that is a type of disappointment I think the Crew are willing to live with.
If you want to be a stickler you could say that 2-5-2 stretch from late-September to early-November, which ended their Shield hopes, qualifies as a disappointment. But when framed as "they needed that stretch in order to figure out a Plan B, which they then executed in record-setting fashion in MLS Cup," once again we've found a type of disappointment I am certain the Crew are willing to live with.
Five Players to Build Around:
- Zelarayan (AM): Had the type of MLS Cup performance you dream about when you pay a record fee for a player.
- Zardes (FW): Completely reliable and indispensable. Folks are finally appreciating his goal-scoring, but his off-the-ball work is a huge part of why Zelarayan and the wingers always have so much space.
- Artur (CM/DM): A true destroyer who's become much more than just a destroyer, even finding his goalscoring boots late in the season and into the playoffs.
- Mensah (CB): The captain. Rock solid in the back and a leader in the locker room. He wasn't at his best in the playoffs — he logged a lot of minutes this year, with little rest — but he was more than good enough.
- Luis Diaz (RW): Up until the playoffs he could've been considered a disappointment, but he found his form when it mattered most and was a constant threat up-and-down the right flank.
OFFSESAON PRIORITY: The thing about Columbus's roster is I could've gone about 12 deep on the "players to build around" segment because the vast majority of their roster is guys who are either in their prime or are just exiting their prime, and while their young players are all very good, none of them are "this guy's so good we've got to sell him now because the offers coming in are staggering."
Then there is the fact that, after what we saw from Morris, this team doesn't necessarily need to be built around Nagbe anymore. And of course with Nagbe around, it's not going to be built around Morris. That's a level of flexibility few other MLS teams can claim.
So as I see it, there are only two real worries. One is that none of the four (!!!) other center forwards on the roster has offered anything that suggests they can approximate what Zardes does, and with a busy 2021 coming up for the USMNT, that needs to somehow be addressed.
The other is Harrison Afful is now solidly into his mid-30s and it's definitely time to begin managing his minutes.
That's it, though. Porter and Tim Bezbatchenko did great work building this roster, and the Crew are here to stay.