I love this game. I love my job. I love sitting in my little basement office watching soccer, thinking and writing about soccer and – let’s be honest – tweeting about soccer (or the six pandemic words I hate) all winter long.
Champions League and Europa League weekdays are nice, especially with more and more Americans and Canadians involved. Coffee and European soccer on weekend mornings is part of my household’s routine. It’s a wonderful life. It’s a soccer utopia. It’s not enough for me.
I miss Major League Soccer. Transfer rumors, coaching changes and schedule announcements can only keep me going for so long. I need the real thing. I need games. The wait is two months, as of Wednesday. Two months. An eternity in pandemic days. The only consolation is that the Concacaf Champions League chops 10 days off our wait.
While we wait, we dream. We hypothesize. We speculate. We overreact. We assume. We imagine what April 17 and the 2021 season – hell, life itself – might bring. Anything could happen. Clearly … anything. I’m choosing to think about “anything” in a strictly positive way.
Here’s something I’m looking forward to seeing in 2021 from all 27 teams in MLS, in 50-ish words or less. As a “W” name, I feel for those who always bring up the back. Reverse alphabetical order, here we go!
NOTE: This column is meant to bring hope to every last one of us, no matter who you support. Our friends, family and neighbors in Texas need more than hope right now. The players of Austin FC, the Houston Dynamo and Dash and FC Dallas are living it, too, and raising money to help people who are without electricity, heat, food and shelter. Consider donating if you’re able.
A Designated Player No. 10. Someday, Tommy Scoops (@tombogert) will tweet: “Deal is done. ‘Caps have their man.” When will that be? No idea. Who will that be? No idea. I do know I want to see Deiber Caicedo and Cristian Dajome running off Lucas Cavallini in front of a Reynoso or Zelarayan type.
First of all, I’m looking forward to seeing how Toronto’s longstanding (and, in parts, aging) roster adapts to Chris Armas’ desire to press. Just in terms of pure swag, though, I want to see if Richie Laryea has another leap in his game. Let the man cook.
I really want to see if they hit on Remi Walter (d-mid) and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin (center back). There’s a lot riding on that. What I want most, however, is 2,000-plus minutes from Alan Pulido. He’s a double-double, Best XI presence … if he can avoid injury (and Tata Martino’s gaze) and play enough minutes.
I spend too much time around Anders Aarhus (Extratime producer, Seattle native and Sounders supporter). That’s why I am not writing about life without Jordan Morris (for now), Nico Lodeiro’s engine at age 31 or the next test for Brian Schmetzer. Two names: Shandon Hopeau and Ethan Dobbelaere. Give the Homegrown wingers a chance, Schmetz!
San Jose Earthquakes
Another (final?) year of Wondo. I’m not sure we’ll every truly appreciate Chris Wondolowski, the player, the person or the soccer story. He is, in my mind, a first-ballot National Soccer Hall of Famer. I know others don’t share my thoughts on the HOF’s mission. We’ll have to talk it out when MLS’s all-time scorer is eligible.
Real Salt Lake
Bobby Wood in MLS, as reported by The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal. I just want to see, you know? We’ve followed Wood’s career in Germany and watched him with the national team for a decade now. He’s one of the realest Extratime interviews we’ve ever done. He got paid by Hamburg, and now it’s time to play again.
This is going to sound boring … two new fullbacks. The Timbers believe 23-year-old Argentine left back Claudio Bravo has the potential to be best-in-class at his position in MLS. Mexican right back Jose Van Rankin has more than 200 games in Liga MX. Apart from that, this is a settled team. Get well, Sebastian.
Who takes Brenden Aaronson’s minutes? As I type this, I’m watching the Union homegrown buzz around for Salzburg in the Europa League. Will it be Anthony Fontana? He is the obvious depth-chart choice and an instant goal off the bench and in the starting lineup in 2020 (6 G in 509 minutes). Or will Ernst Tanner make a signing?
Can Oscar Pareja top Year 1? My instinct is to say, “Yes, of course,” but it’s also hard to replicate (let alone improve upon) what amounted to career years for so many guys. Plus, there’s no MLS Is Back tournament to build momentum. But really … Pato. Same concept as Wood, but slightly different profile. With Daryl Dike out on loan, there are minutes to be had.
New York Red Bulls
Gerhard Struber. I don’t really count the playoff match as a true introduction. It didn’t get a ton of hype at the time, but we get to watch the development of one of the game’s up-and-coming managers in real time. We get to see Red Bulls get back to their pressing roots. Oh, and Caden Clark. Watching him every week is going to be fun while it lasts.
New York City FC
What work gets done between now and the end of the transfer window? Alex Ring is gone, so is Ronald Matarrita. They sold Joe Scally. What happens next will tell us about their ambitions. Are they MLS Cup contenders, working behind the scenes to reload? Or is this it and might a drop to mid-table be coming? Is Extratime making much ado about nothing?
New England Revolution
Is playoff Tajon Buchanan the real Tajon Buchanan? I got a kick out of the young Canadian getting under Nani’s skin during the Revs playoff win. I’d get an even bigger kick out of it if those swashbuckling attacks and cheeky defensive moments carry over to 2021 and become the norm. Overlapping Carles Gil is a good job to have, if he can keep it.
What does second gear look like? For most of the second half of 2020, Nashville insisted they were more than a near-impenetrable wall. They insisted they could control games with possession. They insisted they could create from open play. They started to do it. They nearly knocked out the MLS Cup champions. The test in 2021 is determining whether that leap was a bug or feature.
Djordje Mihailovic. Montreal wanted him, and that’s a good start. It never seemed like the Fire placed full faith in their homegrown midfielder. In many ways, that’s understandable. One word: injuries. The MLS I want to watch doesn’t give up on young players. It finds the right situation for them to shine. Is this the right situation for Mihailovic?
You’d think the rumors around a playoff club/MLS Cup contender without a cut-and-dry starting striker would be stronger. Not so in Minnesota! Yes, Bebelo Reynoso is marvelous, but Kevin Molino is gone and the only pure forward on the roster is Foster Langsdorf. So what am I looking forward to? Seeing who Adrian Heath and Co. decide to sign and roll with in 2021.
Phil Neville, club manager? Gonzalo Higuain, franchise player? Blaise Matuidi, still got it? Matias Pellegrini, bust or slow acclimation process? So many questions, so many unknowns, so much to look forward to as Inter Miami officially become, as I wrote earlier this offseason, David Beckham’s team.
I’m looking forward to a better, happier, more productive Javier Hernandez. The man admittedly hit “rock bottom” in 2020. His personal life crumbled, and so did his soccer life. Does Chicharito still have it? He’ll have to prove it. He gets a pass for 2020, but it’s a one-time pass. The Galaxy need him to deliver, and he seems intent on doing it.
A full season of Carlos Vela (with kid gloves). Bob Bradley is going to be careful with Vela, and I appreciate that. LAFC and MLS missed his quality in 2020. His presence alone changes games and the league. It’s easy to take that 2019 season for granted, but I am well aware we may not see that sort of consistently blinding brilliance again. Best to appreciate every single moment as long as Vela is capable of delivering.
Ariel Lassiter or Christian Ramirez? What about Maxi Urruti? Fafa Picault? Mateo Bajamich? Tyler Pasher? The Dynamo have Darwin Quintero, on his day as special a player as there is in MLS, but after that it’s pretty open when it comes to their attack. Who will win Tab Ramos’ favor? Can he get enough out of his roster to make the playoffs? That’s his job.
What does Hernan Losada see when he looks at this roster? We don’t know Losada yet. We know of him. We know, in general terms, what he did at Beerschot. We know his reputation in Belgium was as a young, passionate, tactically astute manager who got more from his team than could rightfully be expected. Can he do the same with D.C.? How will he decide to go about it? Big questions.
Ricardo Pepi. David Gass is driving the hype train. I’m just along for the ride. Pepi scored a playoff goal as a 17-year-old and got a couple more in the regular season as Luchi Gonzalez eased him into the first team. So what’s the next step? How much time can he take from Franco Jara? Is 1,500 minutes and 10 starts greedy or just right?
(I’d have said Paxton Pomykal’s return, but let’s all agree to stay as silent as possible until he builds up a run of games and form. No need to rush him.)
I kept myself to two stadium openings, which isn’t to say the good people of Cincinnati shouldn’t be ecstatic, too. It’s just that the blue and orange side of soccer in Ohio didn’t have to fight for their team’s very existence. When Crew fans walk into that shiny new stadium, they’ll carry the past on their shoulders, scars included. You can’t move concrete, but you can hang championship banners on it.
Incremental progress. Snore, but seriously. The Rapids have been building and improving steadily. Bit by bit, piece by piece the roster is deep and talented. Do they have a Vela, Higuain or [fill-in-the-blank big-name or big-price-tag star]? No, they don’t. Incremental progress. In 2020, it was a playoff appearance. In 2021? Why can’t they push into the West’s top four?
A fresh slate. Extratime has become a FC Cincinnati podcast. That’s how much news they’ve made, both good and not so good. What the club needs most is a fresh slate. They can’t escape their baggage from two rough years in MLS, but they can look at the table and see themselves even with everybody else. Add Brenner, maybe Lucho Acosta and a new stadium to the mix, and why can’t 2021 be the year they turn it around?
Fewer brain farts. Let’s just say that when it came to decision making and make-or-break moments the Fire were … gassy. Too much? Fine. Chicago didn’t get that much credit for it, but they controlled games in 2020. They just didn’t finish them. What could this team, now recruiting from every corner of the globe, do with a little focus?
The first home match at Q2 Stadium. I’ve been to a lot of “firsts” for expansion teams. First games. First home games. Stadium openings. They’re all special, but there’s nothing like walking into the building you’ll call home for the first time. The Q2 is Austin FC’s home. The first look feels like a dream come true.
Can George Bello be the next Reggie Cannon? MLS starter —> International success —> Europe. I would say Bryan Reynolds, but Reynolds’ rise and sale was truly meteoric. Meanwhile, Bello quietly became a starter for Atlanta United in 2020 at 19, and in 2021 he’s got an opportunity to take an even bigger leap under a manager who knows what it takes to make the jump to Europe.
Feel free to drop a dose of positivity in my Twitter (@andrew_wiebe) mentions. I’d love to hear what you’re excited about in 2021. Stick to MLS and your club, or take it way beyond our little soccer world!