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. 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 and even 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.