It has been the longest offseason in years but we are finally, this week, turning the page. That's right, preseason is beginning!
In accordance with past tradition, it's time to start rolling out my usual slate of preseason preview content. The first of these, as usual, will be "one big question for each team as preseason begins."
Note that this is just A big question, not necessarily THE big question. Though in some cases it can, in fact, be THE big question, even if we didn't know it at the time.
Western Conference reverse alphabetical order today. East to follow tomorrow.
Away we go...
A Big Question: Will Marc Dos Santos commit to a consistent formation and tactical approach?
The 'Caps had a bunch of games over the past two years in which they were really quite decent, but they were almost always followed up by games in which they were really, really not. I think it's fair to blame some of that on the personnel, as nobody's going to confuse the 2019 or 2020 'Caps with 2017 Toronto FC just in terms of raw talent. A bunch of it, though, falls on the coach.
We're entering Year 3 of the Dos Santos era and I'm hard-pressed to tell you what his principles of play are and what his preferred formation is, because the answers so often changed from game-to-game in Years 1 and 2. Once a thing started working exceptionally well -- think Michael Baldisimo's ability to open up the field with pinpoint diagonals -- the 'Caps... just immediately stopped doing that thing. It's been hard for me to wrap my head around.
The fallout is a team that's too often been confused and reactive, which is not a way to consistently win soccer games.
Dos Santos needs to just pick a thing and try to get his team to do it really, really well week after week. Once they've gotten that part down, then you can start adding wrinkles.
A Big Question: Is Gianluca Busio going to earn that No. 10 in the boxscore?
The list of teenaged domestic No. 10s in MLS history is not long. Busio's name is now officially on it:
Busio, who is still just 18, is entering his fifth year as a pro. He has looked the part of a useful midfielder at a couple of different spots over the past two years, and you could clip together a pretty decent highlight reel. While he's looked a useful pro, he hasn't really looked like a creative hub who can pull apart an opponent with incisive passing in the attack, or a box-arriving, goalscoring predator, or a high-usage game-controlling genius.
In short, he hasn't really looked like a No. 10, either for his club or at the US youth national team levels. A level of game-breaking ruthlessness has been missing.
A Big Question: Will one of the homegrowns hit?
This is kind of a weird question to ask of a Seattle team that's technically one of the most successful in MLS history when it comes to producing high-end homegrowns. DeAndre Yedlin and Jordan Morris both joined the Sounders Academy at 17 and spent their final couple of developmental years there before going to college and eventually signing MLS deals. You know what each has done since then.
Seattle deserve credit for this. Identifying and integrating high-level talent is something every great academy does (Sergio Busquets didn't get to Barcelona until he was 17), and it's a valuable box to check. But it's different from taking a kid all the way from the youngest academy teams — or even from the early teens — and progressing them through the system all the way to the first team.
And that's a box Seattle haven't checked despite investing heavily in their academy and putting together a team that, in 2019, became the first MLS side ever to win the GA Cup Champions Division:
A bunch of the players from that team have signed MLS deals, but none have broken through into the first team with any sort of regularity. Certainly, none seem to be on anything close to the track that Busio's on with Sporting.
That's got to change in 2021. Seattle need that proof of concept moment with their academy and, more tangibly given the injury to Morris and departures of multiple regulars this offseason, they need guys who can soak up some minutes in key roles.
San Jose Earthquakes
A Big Question: Are they going to get battered in the air again?
Put aside the questions about Matias Almeyda's man-marking defensive scheme, which has so often been gashed by good teams over the past two years. Put aside, as well, San Jose's "guys who used to play for Matias" recruitment strategy (which I don't actually have much of a problem with, since Eduardo "Chofis" Lopez profiles as a good MLS player if he has the right motivation, and Eric Remedi literally has been a good MLS player in the not-too-distant past). Put aside as well the fact that, sooner or later, Chris Wondolowski is actually going to be too old to do the damn thing anymore.
Instead, answer me this: How much will any of that actually matter if San Jose continue to be the worst team in the league at defending set pieces?
San Jose conceded a league-worst 14 goals from dead-ball situations in regular-season play in 2020. Then in their one playoff game, at Sporting, they conceded two more off of corner kicks.
Being inadequate on restarts puts a very hard cap on how high you can climb in the modern game.
Real Salt Lake
A Big Question: Does Bobby Wood have anything left?
I understand why people have dismissed Wood. He had one truly outstanding season in the 2.Bundesliga a half-decade ago, coupled it with some very clutch (and weirdly underrated in the fanbase) USMNT performances, and then signed a monster contract with Hamburg.
He uniformly failed to live up to that contract. First he couldn't put the ball in the net regularly in the Bundesliga, and then he was loaned out and eventually marginalized by his club — he wasn't allowed to train with the first team for a while — in their fight to climb back up into the first tier. Hamburg have basically dared him to walk away throughout it all, but he hasn't. Would you walk away from life-changing money?
You would not.
The good news, from a soccer perspective, is twofold. First is that Wood's contract ends this summer and he's reportedly signed a pre-contract with Real Salt Lake. Second is that he's finally getting on the field again for Hamburg, and actually scored this past weekend. It was his first goal since November of 2018.
It wasn't really that long ago, though, that Wood was scoring goals like this for the USMNT in World Cup qualifiers:
He's scored twice against Mexico in official competitions. He's bagged goals against Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama in meaningful games. He's scored in friendlies against the likes of Germany, the Netherlands and Colombia. Wood might not have been quite good enough to be a Bundesliga starter, but the guy can play and he's still just 28.
I'm ready for a redemption arc. RSL fans are very, very ready for a real No. 9. Let's hope this story has a happy ending.
A Big Question: How fast can Sebastian Blanco get healthy, and how close to 100% will "healthy" be?
You may think that this is THE big question for Portland, but that's wrong. The big question is always "is this the year that Diego Chara finally gets old or injured?" Even the health of Blanco, who was deservedly named the MLS is Back Tournament MVP last summer, is secondary to that.
But the health of Blanco is still a massive question for the obvious reason: He was an MVP-caliber player when healthy last year. The Timbers still proved to be pretty good — sometimes very good — without him, but there was a big gap between "very good" and the team that stormed through Orlando in July and August. The absence of Blanco almost entirely explains that gap.
There are other questions with this team, of course, but I don't think we need to overcomplicate it. Will Blanco be back soon? When he is back, will he be the Blanco we saw last summer?
If the answers to both of those are "yes" then the Timbers are an apex predator in 2021, so long as we can kick THE big question down the road into 2022.
A Big Question: Is Thomas Chacon ever going to be anything?
This is going to be Chacon's third season in St. Paul. He arrived on a big number, with a big rep from Uruguay's youth national teams and with a DP tag. Since the summer of 2019, he has appeared all of six times in league play, for a grand total of 257 minutes. He has no goals or assists, and for a good, long while it seemed like Adrian Heath was working hard to move on from him.
“We’ll see. We’re getting tight to the windows closing in South America, a little more time in Europe. We’ll see," Heath said, way back on Oct. 1, of sending Chacon out on loan. "We’re openly pursuing it at the moment.”
Two months later it was this:
“We’re actively looking to getting him out on loan as we speak,” Heath said. “Europe continues to play. Thomas has had an incredibly frustrating season. I don’t want to get to March where Thomas is here and not in the team. We want to get him on loan. We’ve been speaking to a couple clubs in Europe, we think we’re close on that. When the window opens in Europe in January, we’re hoping Thomas can get there and play.”
It's now almost March. Chacon hasn't gone out on loan, and it would take a leap of blind faith to assume he'll be a regular in 2021 after barely getting off the bench in 2019 and 2020.
Still, in some segment of the multiverse he does, in fact, get some playing time. If that slice of reality happens to be our own -- and with Kevin Molino gone, there are minutes to be won in Minnesota -- that could end up being a very big deal for the Loons.
A Big Question: Will Greg Vanney go with a back point or a double pivot?
I'm pretty sure Vanney spent the final three years of his Toronto tenure wishing he could regularly line his team up in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. Something that, one way or another, made use of wingers.
He'll get his chance to do that in LA, in large part because of the way the roster is already structured and in larger part because he's not just cooking dinner; he's shopping for the groceries as well. Expect LA to have a front three with fullbacks that push up to support, but maybe actually overlap all the way to the endline for pullbacks and become ad-hoc playmakers or even outright attackers. They will play how Vanney wants them to play.
What happens in that central midfield is a legitimate question, though. Vanney had Michael Bradley in Toronto, and Bradley almost always played as a pure back point. He has Jonathan dos Santos in LA, and Jona has mostly been used in a double pivot throughout his career. However, his range of passing suggests he'd do well as a back point if that's how the manager wanted to deploy him.
The other obvious variable is Sebastian Lletget, who's been awesome for the USMNT in a free 8 role:
He has not been as productive for the Galaxy, and I think that's mostly because he's often been asked to be a natural No. 10. He's not a natural No. 10. That means he can't play there in a 4-2-3-1.
He's also not a natural partner for Jona deeper in midfield in that formation, as they'd lack a little bit of range and bite (we've actually seen that repeatedly when Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Sigi Schmid before him attempted to play these guys together in deep midfield).
The more I think about it, the more I feel like my brain has already answered this question: It'll be a 4-3-3 with a back point.
A Big Question: Will they go proven or potential for their next DP?
I admire LAFC's approach to signing and developing young players from basically anywhere and everywhere. It's paid off with a record-setting Supporters' Shield win and a trip to the Concacaf Champions League final in their first three years, and they've largely played spectacular and aesthetically-pleasing soccer along the way.
But by signing Brian Rodriguez to that third DP slot late in 2019 instead of going with a proven, DP-caliber No. 9, they might have cost themselves a trophy or two or three or...
I've been saying since last autumn that they should go after Sergio Aguero when they opened up a DP slot, and I still stand by that. He's out of contract this summer, and while he's battled injuries this season, he's looked like his old self when fit and is just 32. That is not too old.
But they don't even have to go that hard. Forget Kun or Edinson Cavani if that's too much ... imagine what the LAFC attack would look like with a Raul Ruidiaz-level center forward who's flanked by Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. Doesn't that make more sense than bringing on another young project?
A Big Question: Can they stop opening themselves up and getting gashed in transition?
Houston showed a lot of promising ideas under Tab Ramos last year, and I generally like the way that they're trying to play. They've also spent the offseason upgrading their backline and adding some potentially interesting pieces in attack and midfield.
It won't matter, though, if they can't stop letting teams get out in transition against them. The Dynamo were a sieve over the final two months of last season, consistently conceding goals after turnovers in bad spots with 1) no ability to apply immediate ball pressure, and 2) too many numbers caught forward.
Here it is, the final goal of the final game of Houston's 2020 season:
There was a lot of this.
A Big Question: Who's going to be the starting center forward?
They brought in Franco Jara last year and the veteran was okay at best, scoring 7 goals in about 1600 minutes across all competitions. When those are the numbers you put up, you're leaving yourself open to competition.
Competitor No. 1 is Jesus Ferreira, who suffered through a miserable 2020 (1g/1a in about 1050 minutes). The 20-year-old Ferreira, who'd been pretty good as a false 9-ish No. 9 in 2019, was pretty bad playing basically every role except for the No. 9 in 2020. He then started 2021 by putting up 2g/3a for the USMNT in a January friendly while playing, once again, as a false 9ish- No. 9.
It's worth noting that Ferreira has switched numbers this year. He used to wear No. 7. Now he wears — you guessed it — No. 9.
Competitor No. 2 is Ricardo Pepi. As a 17-year-old he put up 3g/1a in about 500 minutes, including a clutch playoff goal at Portland to pave the way for FCD's eventual advancement. Pepi looks the part of a true No. 9 and mostly plays like one, though it's worth noting that Luchi Gonzalez actually had him playing underneath Jara down the stretch a good bit.
Pepi's 18 now and has been a goal machine at every level. I don't think he's interested in waiting his turn.
This is a free-for-all, as far as I'm concerned. I don't know if there's a clear favorite.
A Big Question: Are they going to go out and get a No. 9?
So far the answer really, really seems like it's "no." There hasn't been a peep out of Colorado about potential new signings or even guys they've scouted, and given that they're not a big-spending club by any measure, there's a chance that the writing is on the wall here.
And maybe they don't really need to go out and get a new No. 9. Diego Rubio's per-90 production has been very good over the course of his MLS career, even if he fell off hard in 2020, and he's a full-fledged Chilean international. Plus his mobility and playmaking are useful for a team that wants to get goals from its central midfield and wingers.
Still, it seems a very obvious place to upgrade, especially considering that a lot of Rubio's superb per-90 productivity can be attributed to some unsustainable numbers (8g/6a in 781 minutes) as a late-game sub for a fantastic Sporting KC side. Take out that season and Rubio's productivity is ... not great. Just 21g/11a in about 4400 minutes, which is not really starting caliber for a team with ambitions beyond just making the playoffs in 2021.
A Big Question: Are they going to try to dictate the game via possession?
I'm operating under the assumption that Josh Wolff's team will be similar to Gregg Berhalter's teams, given that Wolff worked as Berhalter's assistant for more than half a decade. The way that Berhalter's teams played in Columbus, and now play for the US, is heavy on using the ball to disorganize opponents.
The shape that Berhalter's US team generally tries to get into now is a 2-3-2-3 with the ball on the foot of the deepest-lying central midfielder. For the US lately, that's been either Jackson Yueill or Tyler Adams. Presumably for Austin that will be Alex Ring:
Ring has been one of the best defensive midfielders in the league for several years now, but I'm not sure if this role suits him. He used a lot of the ball for both Patrick Vieira and Dome Torrent -- less so under Ronny Deila, which is maybe why he became tradeable — but he was never the game-organizer. That more often fell to Maxi Moralez, or even Keaton Parks or sometimes one of the fullbacks.
In Austin, if they are indeed going to dictate the game via possession, I think he'll have to be the guy in that role.