Welcome to the first podcast in our expanding network: The HPS MLS Pod.
Hosted by contributing writer Harrison Hamm, the HPS MLS Pod will cover a wide range of topics from America’s top domestic league.
This week, Harrison Crow from American Soccer Analysis joins to talk a wide range of MLS topics:
- The two Harrisons discuss the most underrated teams in MLS, including RSL, Houston, and Columbus (1:00)
- Then, they ponder the active soccer players most likely to eventually break Chris Wondolowski’s scoring record (37:15)
- To finish, they each bring up their favorite players to watch in MLS, and discuss what exactly makes a fun player (56:30)
The spring trade window ended a couple of weeks ago, halting most major MLS transactions until the summer. That window, in which out-of-season European players also become available, has grown in importance in recent years.
For some teams, this summer and the following winter window could prove crucial, with possible major acquisitions on the horizon. Holes in their rosters need filled, and tough decisions need made. Without successful windows, their futures could get murky.
Let’s take a look at some of those clubs and how they might navigate their path forward.
TFC has taken four points from their last six MLS games. It’s becoming an open question in Toronto: Is this simply a case of a talented team with a couple of missing pieces, or is this a fatally flawed roster that should take bigger steps to revamp?
That question will dictate how TFC approach the next couple of transfer windows. It’s likely that general manager Ali Curtis falls somewhere in between the two angles, though I’d bet that he tilts toward the former viewpoint. Toronto still has high-level talent and a fair amount of depth. Tearing it down, amid the prosperous early weeks of Alejandro Pozuelo and the closing years of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, would be an unnecessary step.
But Curtis has to fill big holes, and given the general emptiness in the Eastern Conference, he can act fast this summer with playoff contention as a possible prize. He should put at least one defender on the intra-league trade market (Eriq Zavaleta being the clearest candidate) and spend Targeted Allocation Money on an upper-tier center back. Then, he should seek out a difference-making attacker who fits with Pozuelo and Altidore.
If he has any cash left after that, he should look for full back depth, a defensive-minded midfielder to play the Benoit Cheyrou substitute role, and a striker to back up Altidore (Jordan Hamilton ain’t it).
Easier said than done. But all we can do is speculate, because we have no way of knowing how much money Curtis has at his disposal. All we know is that he has no Designated Player slots available.
It could prove a damning indictment of TFC’s core Curtis fills those spots this summer or winter and Toronto still can’t quite put it together the way they could two years ago. That would be a troubling situation. But the Reds might also be on the verge of legitimate trophy contention, only one or two starting-caliber pieces from a deep playoff run. The next couple of windows could be as important for TFC as any other MLS team.
As an Alberth Elis transfer looms, the Dynamo are winning soccer games. They’re second in the Western Conference on points-per-game, and while they’ve enjoyed a heavy concentration of home matches to start the year, they have showed a promising competence three road games.
Elis could be transferred for a heavy profit as early as this summer — a standout Gold Cup performance for Honduras could fast-track the process. When he leaves, the Dynamo will have to replace him.
Memo Rodriguez dampens some post-Elis concerns. He has been a revelation this season.
Non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minute so far (min. 500 minutes). Keep in mind that Giovinco was at 1.10 in what was the greatest season of all-time back in 2015. pic.twitter.com/0CWmzzrDSz— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) May 20, 2019
With Mauro Manotas and Romell Quioto still around, the Dynamo could toss out a Memo-Manotas-Quioto front three, which doesn’t sound too bad. But Memo isn’t a chance-creator himself, and Quioto is off and on, ruffling some feathers with his attitude. Tomas Martinez, still not much of a No. 10, won’t make up for attacking deficiencies. With a system built heavily on the front three, they need Elis, or a player like him, to stick around.
The process of finding an Elis replacement could start this summer. It will be a big step for a Dynamo organization tasting the potential of sustainable success for the first time in years.
The Crew’s solid start to the Caleb Porter era proved fleeting. Columbus have lost seven of their past eight games after winning four of their first six, dropping to seventh in the Eastern Conference.
They don’t have the attacking abilities to stick around the elite, and now they might play themselves into a battle for a playoff spot. Their trade for David Accam at the spring trade deadline will help some, but the Crew know Accam isn’t the long-term answer — they subsequently traded him to 2020 expansion club Nashville SC, so they essentially rented him for the rest of the season.
That shrewd piece of business indicates that club president Tim Bezbatchenko has a bigger bit of maneuvering up his sleeve. The Crew have a DP slot open, so it’s reasonable to assume that it will be filled at some point by a high-caliber winger. A player at the level of, say, Minnesota’s Darwin Quintero would significantly elevate this Crew team. The question is whether they will shell out.
Federico Higuain’s age and decline (he’s 34 and taking steps back) only furthers the need for reinforcements. It seems that the Crew will have a hard time finding much success in the Eastern Conference until they bring in a new talent or two.
When Ernst Tanner took over as Philadelphia Union sporting director this winter, there was reasonable concern over new changes he might implement. The Union were coming off a season in which they showed real promise, with a squadron of young players and a playoff berth. Given the history of this franchise, taking any steps to change a move in the right direction comes with a certain apprehension.
But even the most optimistic of Union fans (a rare breed, mind you) could not have anticipated the success their team has enjoyed to start this season. Philly is verging on elite, winning four of its past five games and sitting atop of the Eastern Conference, ahead of D.C. United on goal differential. They play with confidence and skill.
Tanner’s original vision of a pressing, 4-4-2 diamond team hasn’t quite come to fruition. The Union want to play on the ball, first and foremost, an ideology that most effectively capitalizes on their personnel. Jim Curtain cultivated a willingness to play with possession last year, as Philly figured itself out and nurtured an identity.
Creating a model for success
They will continue to develop and coalesce. The process, so to speak, is still in the early stages. But seeing the Union successfully combine its own younger talent and newer transfer pieces is a beacon of hope for MLS teams that want to take this kind of approach. (Looking at you, RSL.) It is possible to win while processing in this league.
Philly have certainly been fun to watch. A willingness to play actual good soccer drives their success — they move with and without the ball, they play on the attack, and they pass and combine to create their chances. The diamond formation they play (that part of Tanner’s vision they stuck with) can be fairly complicated to use with a system like the Union’s, but Philly accomplish it without muddling things too much.
How Philly is doing it
Last weekend against Toronto FC is a perfect example. The Union won 2-1, a quality victory against a likely playoff team, and proved versatile enough to successfully implement a game-plan counter to Toronto’s strengths.
Philly watched Toronto’s midweek loss in Atlanta and took notes on the Five Stripes’ approach. Atlanta United had focused entirely on surrounding TFC’s midfield and cutting off central outlets, sacrificing space on the wings in order to restrict Toronto’s outlets in the middle.
TFC, hampered by a rested midweek lineup, struggled to respond on that Wednesday. They tried to play through wingback Ashtone Morgan in possession as a response to Atlanta’s central focus, but Morgan lacks the ability on the ball to play such an important role.
Seeing this, the Union implemented similar principles. Their diamond formation is perfect for what they intended to do — invert midfield shuttlers Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro even more than usual and restrict TFC’s overloaded midfield, forcing the Reds to hit difficult switches and play through the flanks more than they wished.
It was a risk, but a calculated one; the changes of direction and ball movement required to break down the Union are tough to accomplish. With Jozy Altidore starting on the bench, TFC couldn’t do it.
Figuring out how to complicate things for opposing teams is part of Philly’s evolution. Once they accomplish that, they’re able to play the way they want to play. They can pass with a purpose, swimming around the area occupied by the forwards (particularly Kacper Przybylko) and dribbling right at the spine of the defense. Watching for more dual-creator minutes, with both Marco Fabian and Hype Train American youngster Brenden Aaronson on the field, will be fascinating.
Everything was not seamless in the Toronto game — Alejandro Pozuelo was as active as ever, and perhaps the result would have been different had it not been for TFC’s defensive ineptitude — but nothing is designed to be seamless. The Union will continue to put themselves together at the back, where they play plenty of younger studs.
With quality moves in the transfer market — Przybylko, Fabian, Monteiro, left back Kai Wagner — and a willingness to develop their own talent, Philly have assembled a deep depth chart. They play with a real identity. It looks like we can safely say that the Union will be sticking around.
FC Cincinnati, somewhat out of the blue, fired manager Alan Koch on Tuesday. Koch had been with the club in the USL and helped it hit the ground running for their first MLS season. He is now the quickest manager fired by an MLS club in their debut season.
You don’t usually see quick triggers in this league. Hot-seat watchers across MLS (having a busy couple of weeks) assumed Koch had more time, and I admittedly hadn’t even considered the possibility of a managerial change this early in the season.
Cincy have looked pretty competent, for the most part, or a least more competent than you’d expect for a team canning their coach 11 games in. They haven’t been played off the field, and they don’t have defenders who may as well lay down and let the other team score, like the Colorado Rapids do. Koch sets his team up well enough to stay in games.
But scoring goals is as important or more important as stopping them, and Cincinnati do not do much of that. Koch loves his defensive midfielders so much that he plays them as his primary attackers. Unsurprisingly, Fatai Alashe and Eric Alexander are not piling up the goals and assists. FCC have scored a total of one goal since March 30, and have been shutout in five straight games.
Personnel part of the problem
The personnel, clearly, is a bit of a problem. There are holes all over the roster. Gambling on Fanendo Adi and Darren Mattocks as starting forwards has not gone well; in a combined 854 minutes, Adi and Mattocks have just one goal on the season, with Adi missing time due to injuries and a DUI arrest. Deciding on the correct defensive midfielders has proven a tough task for the tinker-y Koch, who also has no one to trust as an attacking facilitator.
While the backline has been the most stable element of the team, Koch hasn’t done the rest of the squad any favors with his constant changes and inability to settle on consistent personnel. He is constantly playing players out of position and revamping the team’s lineup game-to-game, erasing any chemistry or identity that might develop.
Koch’s tinkering was ultimately his downfall. Players started to lose support. Adi summed up all of FCC’s problems in a host of golden quotes provided to Cincinnati Enquirer writer Pat Brennan.
“We don’t have an identity yet. Of course, we’re a new team and a bunch of new players but we change formation and, you know, it’s no good … Obviously, we’re playing a lot of players out of position and this is something we need to identify.”Adi to Pat Brennan
Everything Adi said was relevant. He may as well have written this article for me. Koch realized he didn’t have the greatest personnel (he said as much) and compensated by changing everything all the time, trying to conjure some winning formula.
That never works. Jurgen Klinsmann tried it for the USMNT and you already know that didn’t work. Koch still put Cincinnati on the field with legitimate, hard-to-break-down organization (more than some MLS managers can say), but it’s hard to win when your manager switches everything up all the time. FCC muddled through a bunch of clean sheet losses and gradually fell down the standings, never producing a concrete identity or a favored group of players.
The final straw…
The final straw, evidently, was the loss in San Jose last week. The Quakes dominated for the first 45 minutes and held a 1-0 lead when they took a second yellow card, giving Cincy 40 minutes to equalize or take the lead against 10-man opposition. The game finished 1-0. FCC barely managed a significant chance on goal.
And thus went the organization’s confidence in Koch. General manager and club president Jeff Berding will look for another manager (David Moyes’s name is swirling), hoping to revive what they seem to perceive as a sinking ship.
Koch was an issue, but it was shocking to see him gone so soon, especially given the personnel Berding produced. FCC built this team in a way that was set up to fail; they spent too much (the Nick Hagglund trade is and was comical), they didn’t sign enough real attackers, and they left depth chart holes all over the place. It’s hard to fault Koch too much given the roster he had.
Now, they move on. They’ll need a more concrete style and lineup, and a manager who is able to maximize the talent at his disposal. We’ll see if this gamble pays off.
Lionel Messi’s free-kick golazo against Liverpool could go down as one of the Argentine’s most memorable goals. It came in a high-pressure situation and from a distance that few other players would have been able to hit. The ball flew as though it knew it was hitting upper 90 from the moment Messi’s left foot wrapped around it.
But the rest of Messi’s performance — in which he floated around with eyes on every move Liverpool made, and, one tends to forget, scored another goal — suitably sums up his latest career move: He is Barcelona now. Part of this heavy responsibility is induced, with players like Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Neymar and Dani Alves moving on in recent years. But Messi is arguably more important now for Barca than he’s been his entire career.
Messi is seeing the field and moving off the ball at his highest level. He has always had ridiculous vision, but the way he knows exactly what play to make at every moment is incredible. When he receives the ball in any sort of space, he knows there are two options to create something in attack: Dribble through defenders and advance the ball into good areas, or free another player into space. Most players at the Champions League level make a productive play most of the time. Messi makes the best play.
Barcelona need him to do exactly that. The majority of their attacks start with Messi doing stuff. His presence allows Barca to play out of pressure and guarantee that something positive will happen. More than ever, he creates stuff to compensate for a weaker team around him.
Barcelona more reliant on Messi than ever
It’s amazing that at 31 years-old, Barcelona are more reliant on the Argentine to produce than they’ve ever been. Messi accounts for 50% of their xG (via shots and assists). As Statsbomb pointed out, Messi is first in xG per 90, xG assisted, deep progressions, and passes into the box.
Messi is, right now, considerably better than the best of his peers. At WhoScored, of qualified players, he statistically outpaces Kylian Mbappe (second overall) by the same margin that the PSG star scores over 20th place (Edinson Cavani).
Eden Hazard is considered the best dribbler in the Premier League. Messi completes more dribbles per game. Ronaldo is considered one of the best strikers of all time. Messi scores more. He just does everything better than everyone else.
Is Messi the GOAT of the GOATs?
Seeing transcendent modern athletes make mid-career adjustments is one of the most enjoyable parts of watching them. LeBron James added the stepback three. Mike Trout, famous for improving significantly at something every year, made himself into baseball’s smartest hitter and changed his stance in center-field to get to more balls. Sidney Crosby transferred so much of his hockey IQ to locking down the center of the ice that he became one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL.
Messi is at or above the levels of those three, for his sport. Outside of Tom Brady, he is probably the only major team sport athlete playing right now who is secure in his place as the greatest in his sport’s history.
(Others arguably are, but are not definitive the way Messi is. Crosby is better than Wayne Gretzky by this point, I’d argue. LeBron is close to Michael Jordan, at the very least. Trout has a very low-key, but real argument for the being the greatest legitimate — i.e. clean — baseball player of all time. Men’s tennis has three active players who are very close to each other in the GOAT discussion, but that’s not a team sport.)
It is fascinating drawing parallels between Messi and other genius greats. Most comparable are LeBron and Crosby, who play in sports that similarly emphasize fluidity, vision, and refined skill. Based on box score stats, it does not stick out as obvious that any of the three (each north of 30) is playing a higher level than they have before,. But each has reached a point that they are more intelligent and more refined than they have been before. That has made them even more dominant in a lot of ways, especially the slightly younger Messi and Crosby.
Messi is the primary reason Barca won La Liga this year and now look like the favorite to win the 2019 UEFA Champions League Final. He is miles ahead of everyone else. It will be fascinating to see how he continues to evolve and improve his game.
With April ending, the contrast between MLS’s Eastern and Western Conferences is as apparent as it’s been in a while. LAFC leads an upper tier of teams out West that looks much more solidified than a rocky East, which has not produced a clear favorite.
Today we’ll look at what happened in April in MLS, starting with the Colorado Rapids, who became the first team to fire their manager this year.
What now for the Rapids?
It seems like we’re asking this question every year. Colorado have been a disaster through nine games, picking up just 0.22 points per game and shipping goals — they’ve conceded a monstrous 24 in nine games, on pace for 90 over the entire season. Yet again, the roster lacks talent, the backline has no one capable of stopping the ball, and the coaching staff failed to do anything close to maximizing the group.
Anthony Hudson, perhaps exasperated with his job, eviscerated his players after another loss on the weekend to Atlanta United. He said there was a “massive gap in class” between his players and the rest of the league.
“The only way it’s going to be a quick fix is if you wave a magic wand at it and throw lots of money at it. Clearly we’re not doing that.”
He’s not wrong that the Rapids lack talent. He would go on to point out the Rapids disastrous DP situation — in which they are paying a huge contract to an average, aging goalkeeper who spends a lot of his time commentating Champions League games miles from Colorado — and how Colorado are paying players who aren’t with the team, like the sunk cost of Shkelzen Gashi, once seen as a franchise player.
But Hudson’s comments primarily served to excuse his poor job managing this team. He tried to get them to play with the ball and on the front foot, but his pet 4-4-2 diamond formation never coalesced, and the shape did little to help the backline. It’s possible to make up for subpar personnel as a manager. Hudson couldn’t do it.
Now, the Rapids have to scour the market and make a real, aggressive signing. It can’t be a 31-year-old European or a goalkeeper.
Columbus need something else
The Crew, who at one point sat at the top of the Eastern Conference, have lost four straight games, the worst ongoing stretch for any team outside of Commerce City. In those games, they’ve scored just one goal.
It’s not a secret that Columbus desperately needs a DP winger. Justin Meram fell off a cliff last year in Orlando and hasn’t climbed out. Robinho is fine, nothing more. Pedro Santos has actually looked a bit better this year, but his decision-making in consequential areas remains pretty terrible. Federico Higuain, now 34, is declining.
The Crew defend well and have a manager who knows what he’s doing. They would be definite contenders with a real piece in attack.
It’s getting harder to doubt the LA Galaxy
Galaxy have won seven of their nine games this season, including six of their last seven. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is obviously the focal point. He’s scoring in most of their games and looks, uh, motivated — judging by his belligerence toward RSL center-back Nedum Onuoha last Sunday — which is probably a good sign, as long as he doesn’t get suspended.
It’s reasonable to look at the Galaxy and not see a world-beating, wound-together team. Romain Alessandrini is out until September. Relying on Rolf Feltscher (who did not have a great game against RSL) to whip crosses to Zlatan is not a wonderful bet. Their game-plan is to get the ball to Zlatan, period.
That is, evidently, not a terrible game-plan. Guillermo Barros Schelotto seems to recognize the process he’s looking at here, and he’s trusting younger players like Uriel Antuna and Diedie Traore (more Traore at left back, please!). They don’t fall over themselves every time they try to defend, which means they’re winning games now.
Philadelphia might quietly be the best team in the Eastern Conference
I write this the day after the Union beat a hapless FC Cincinnati midweek to go top of the Eastern Conference. Philly have figured out how to effectively use their new 4-4-2 diamond formation, playing high up the field and pinning opponents deep with central ball movement and dribbly wingers. There is finally attacking depth. With Brenden Aaronson and Marco Fabian they have to players who can competently play at the top of the diamond. Both Aaronson and Fabian on the field means dual creators.
Since a loss-loss-draw start to the season, Philly have won five of seven games and taken 16 of a possible 21 points. Their options in attack are impressively versatile considering the nature of the formation; in addition to Aaronson and Fabian, they have thrown Fafa Picault, Cory Burke, Jamiro Monteiro, David Accam, Ilsinho and Kacper Przybylko out there for significant attacking minutes. The Union have not had this in the past.
Somebody has to win the East, and Philadelphia has as good a shot as anyone as of now.
When a 21-year-old Luciano Acosta arrived in D.C. on loan from Boca Juniors three years ago, questions of his longevity swirled. An eventual transfer to Europe or back to South America loomed as almost an expected outcome. Much would depend on his success in MLS, of course, but players in his situation are often seen as short-term core pieces.
It is a set-up unique to soccer, and can be tricky to handle for fans who understandably want to see their good players stick around. There might be another talent around the corner, acquired with funds from the previous star, but that new talent might not be as good as the old. In Acosta’s situation, DC United supporters naturally were wary of an Acosta departure, even from the beginning. Their club has little history of spending in the transfer market.
Since his initial arrival, Acosta has emerged as a legitimate superstar in this league after a couple years of middling production, and now, at 24, is looking at an imminent move to Europe. It will be a bigger fee and a bigger club than expected at the beginning, with a January PSG move falling through in the final hours and reports indicating that Manchester United and Lyon are interested.
But what if D.C. United don’t want to see him go? What if they view him as a core player for years to come?
Can DCU keep Acosta?
D.C. will at least shoot their shot in this arena. They have apparently tabled a “competitive” contract extension, according to ESPN’s Sebastian Salazar, that could secure Acosta’s services for years. It would be a major move, one that would set a new and fascinating precedent amid MLS’s growth into a selling league.
Convincing him to stay might be completely unrealistic. Legendary clubs are on high alert. At 24, the time is now for Acosta to establish himself in a big league and potentially challenge for first team minutes immediately. A player with Acosta’s age, skill level and background has not chosen to remain in MLS above a European move before.
It seems unlikely that Acosta would want to stay at this point. But if he did, an interesting hypothetical would present itself. D.C. might have trouble declining a big-money offer from Manchester United even if the alternative is retaining their star player, and thus extending their years of contention with Wayne Rooney. MLS, and its fans, might jump at the opportunity to complete a lucrative transfer, one that ups the league’s reputation internationally.
It’s hard to argue that keeping a superstar around is a bad outcome. Of course, that changes if the superstar doesn’t want to be around. But consider a scenario in which Acosta desires an extension in MLS. That would solve the thorny dilemma fans face in seeing a top player depart, and help assure DCU contention in the future. MLS would surely be thrilled with a legitimate superstar, at 24 years old, choosing to stay in the league.
But that is not the scenario that presents itself, and understandably so — even the most devout MLS advocate would have to agree with Acosta’s decision to head overseas and test himself at a big club. In the abstract, proclaiming a move to Europe as positive is not the greatest approach, but in Acosta’s situation this looks like the right move.
If and when it happens, it will be another stepping stone in MLS’s quest to become a true selling league. Acosta will be the latest in a varied string of players to move overseas, and will surely not be the last. Assuming he leaves for a fee (and a fairly significant one), it will be another feather in MLS’s cap, another player who proves the league’s viability as a destination for young players looking to transition to bigger things at some point. It is a good path, and one that will cultivate a positive international reputation for the league.
Still, it can be hard to convince skeptical fans that getting rid of a young star player is actually a good thing. To retain trust, DCU have to use the funds they acquire for Acosta. That means going out and getting another Acosta, and making another profit. It also means investing in their own youth development and trusting players out of their academy — which, to their credit, they have improved in the last couple of years.
One clear benefit of being a selling league is the theoretical sustainability of it. Buy low, enjoy a couple of good and fun years out of a player, and sell on for profit. If you can go through that process with a Homegrown player (a la Tyler Adams, Alphonso Davies, etc.), that’s even better, because it means you’re buying at zero, not simply buying low.
This is MLS’s future, and Acosta is only the latest example. More and more candidates within MLS — both younger stars like Alberth Elis and Homegrowns like D.C.’s own Chris Durkin — will likely depart for Europe at some point.
Teams have to sustain that cycle to be competitive. D.C. are already staring down the next stage of the cycle.
Every season, we watch for players who make significant leaps — whether from a squad player into a legitimate starter, or from above-average to elite — and for underrated players who provide instant impact in their debut MLS season. Let’s take a look at some early season standouts.
Latif Blessing, LAFC
One of the symbols of LAFC’s much-discussed success this season, Blessing has sprouted from a useful utility player and super-sub into a starting-caliber midfielder. He is one of LA’s most important players, flourishing as a savvy, comfortable No. 8 who hits direct passes and covers ground.
He dips and glides into tiny gaps, transporting the ball forward and controlling the midfield alongside Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye, whose talents fit seamlessly together. Blessing has learned to parlay natural craftiness and speed into a refined, difference-making player. It has been a joy to watch.
David Accam, Philadelphia Union
Calling Accam a “breakout player” might not quite fit the definition, but it has been nice to see him show shades of what he once was before falling off last year. In three starts and five games this season, the Ghanaian has a cool three goals and two assists, easily beating his 2018 total of one goal. He looks more confident and more willing to make stuff happen. The pop and zing of Chicago Fire days is seeping back into his game.
He’s not a guaranteed starter at this point, nor does he look like an elite player yet. He was on the bench in Philly’s loss to the Galaxy last week. But with playing time and more opportunities, we could see something closer to that elite status.
Memo Rodriguez, Houston Dynamo
An injury knocked him out of the Dynamo’s win against the Earthquakes last week, but Memo has four goals in 200 minutes, a very impressive output. He knows how to put himself in positions to take advantage of the rest of the attack and find space at the back-post.
Rodriguez’s development into a crafty winger who can score goals is quietly a huge storyline for the Dynamo. Alberth Elis’s looming departure — whether this summer, this offseason or another time — will open a hole at a winger position, and threatens to derail Houston’s dream of contention almost as soon as it started. It is still undoubtedly win-now mode for the Dynamo, but Rodriguez’s emergence softens the blow.
Low-spending Houston will be thrilled with another player they can tout as a success of their youth development, and a player who could preclude them from having to target an Elis replacement in the transfer market. Rodriguez went from mainly playing USL minutes to US Open Cup starts and MLS sub appearances to more consistent MLS starts this season. That is a repeatable track, mirroring that of Mauro Manotas.
Victor Ulloa, FC Cincinnati
Ulloa has a starting job in Cincinnati, and while FCC are still a bit of an uncertain phenomenon, he is holding down well. The system there — an organized defensive shape that prioritizes solidity down the spine — fits his abilities well. There are less distribution responsibilities and more focus on locking things down in midfield.
Along with Ulloa, others in Cincinnati could slot in here. Allan Cruz looks like a solid player. Spencer Richey, now in full possession of the goalkeeper job, has been very good.
Gianluca Busio, Sporting KC
With three goals in three games, Busio, 16, has made an instant impact for SKC. But the simple fact that he is playing meaningful minutes for an elite MLS team is wild at his age. He looks like a refined player already, understanding his role and not overstepping.
Peter Vermes will continue to trust him, and Busio will continue to carve out a spot in the midfield rotation. Watching him develop his vision on the ball, and willingness to hit line-breaking passes, will be the next step.
After seven weeks of MLS, the Western Conference is nosing ahead of the East, reversing a trend from last year.
LAFC and the Seattle Sounders are likely the two best teams in the league (a case can be made LAFC is certainly the best), easily outpacing eastern leaders DC United and the Columbus Crew. With an undefeated Houston Dynamo, a CCL-free Sporting KC and spry FC Dallas, the West looks like it could produce a superior group of seven playoff teams.
At the bottom, however, the difference is stark, and could be spark an East revival. The floundering New England Revolution are the only bottom-tier East team that fits the profile of a true last-place contender. Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls will surely sort themselves out enough to accelerate up the standings. Hectic, draw-happy NYCFC could rise as well.
Five East teams are out of the playoffs as it stands, with each team having played between five and seven games: the four mentioned above, plus eighth-place Chicago Fire. Let’s go over each one, and evaluate whether they can overtake the playoff teams:
The Fire are a confusing team. They theoretically have at least some attacking talent, enough to win games and challenge good teams. Nico Gaitan arrived as a new DP talent not too long ago. With CJ Sapong playing either up top or on the wing as a target scorer, Chicago have versatility.
But watching them, it’s hard to discern what they’re trying to do, or any consistency to their approach. Aleksandar Katai’s role is ambiguous. The midfield can pass, but there is little connectedness, and the front four is all over the place. They have to sort themselves out before they can maximize their ability.
New York Red Bulls
Rumors of Thierry Henry taking the managerial job notwithstanding, the Red Bulls have underperformed to start the year. They’ve managed just one win from their first six games, and now will lose Kaku for (presumably) a significant stretch of games after he went a little bonkers in Kansas City.
One of their biggest keys to getting back on track is Cristian Casseres Jr. in midfield. The Red Bulls need strength and ball-winning out of his position. Stability there could rub off on the backline.
If the Fire are difficult to figure out, NYC are doubly so. Discerning what Dome Torrent is trying to do is impossible on a game-by-game basis. With five draws from six games, this is an oddball team. No one really knows what to expect from them.
It will be interesting to see how Torrent manages the playing time of his wingers. Alexandru Mitrita, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Jonathan Lewis, Jesus Medina and Valentin Castellanos are competing for the same minutes, and once Heber takes the starting forward job, none of them will be able to play as a false 9. Right now, it looks like Mitrita and Lewis are the favorites to start, though Castellanos had his best game in MLS last week in Minnesota.
Atlanta’s road win over New England will inspire renewed confidence in a Five Stripes team enduring a sluggish start to the season. Winning against the Revs is far from a difficult task, but there were positive elements to take.
Most notably, Ezequiel Barco produced a breakout performance. With Hector Villalba starting on the left side, Barco had space to maneuver and generate chances. His confidence looked as high as it’s been in MLS. More performances like that would be a boon for Atlanta as they deal with complacency and Pity Martinez’s injury.
New England Revolution
The Revs are a few classes below the rest of these clubs. Outside of a 2-1 home win over Minnesota on March 30, New England have very publicly struggled. Brad Friedel, looking a lot worse now than he did in the early days of his coaching tenure, blamed MLS’s structure for his managerial deficiencies.
The attack, as ever, is marginally good enough to get the Revs into the playoffs with a strong midfield and stout defense. Those things, reader, are not happening in New England. The midfield is a revolving door, particularly when Wilfried Zahibo plays, and the backline is leaky and mistake-prone. A high-energy press will nick them points, but teams figured the Revs out a long time ago, and they aren’t organized enough at the back to keep the ball out of their net.
LAFC, at five wins and a draw in six games, sit atop the MLS standings. They picked apart D.C. United in a marquee weekend matchup, winning 4-0 and upping their goal differential to a monstrous +14. They’ve won their last two matches by a combined 9-0. Their attacking nuance and creativity sets them apart.
How LAFC is dominating
Carlos Vela is staking a very real campaign for being the best player in the league, leading MLS in both goals and assists. Diego Rossi is second in goals, and Latif Blessing is tied for second in assists. LA attacks with firepower and has found balance down the lineup, freeing the Vela-Rossi attacking combo to run into space and combine.
Blessing, though, has been a big difference-maker. Having started the season as an every-position utility player, Blessing is now a ball-moving number 8, rotating the ball everywhere and slithering into half-spaces. He has grown exponentially as a passer, and begun to realize how his dribbling abilities unlock passing opportunities.
Next to Mark-Anthony Kaye, Blessing patrols large swaths of the field and puts the ball in good areas with help from Eduard Atuesta, a calm, competent presence on the ball. If we learned anything from the We are LAFC documentary on ESPN+, it’s that Andre Horta won’t be much of a factor for this team in the future, but the emergence of Atuesta and Blessing have assuaged concerns over a missed opportunity with Horta.
Central midfield had often been LA’s weakest point in their expansion season, especially after a devastating Kaye injury in July. Opponents sliced through it, and the slow, over-aggressive center back tandem of Walker Zimmerman and, for the first half of the season, Laurent Ciman was not the right personnel to deal with it. With Blessing, Kaye and Atuesta, LAFC now have one of the best passing midfields in MLS.
The backline has solidified as well. Zimmerman is in the USMNT pool. Eddie Segura, LA’s biggest off-season get, has proven a valid starter. Jordan Harvey and Steven Beitashour are experienced MLS vets manning the flanks. Tyler Miller is growing into a top 10 goalkeeper in MLS. It’s a deep starting XI all the way through.
But the front three, with Vela, Rossi and either Christian Ramirez or Adama Diomande, shreds opponents. Vela darts inside from the right flank and fills space behind the center forward, cutting in on his magical left foot and probing outside the box. With Rossi seeing everything Vela sees, the attack hums at a pace too fast for MLS defenders.
Rossi is a clinical finisher who knows who to put himself in goal-scoring positions, only he does it off the wing — adding a runner, poacher and creator to an attack revolving around Vela and the striker. Diomande and Ramirez make the right runs and see chances as a result.
This all happens without sacrificing too many bodies going forward. Bob Bradley has the well-oiled machine he wants, and has found exactly the right role for his superstar in Vela. LA look like the league’s best team as others (like the Red Bulls and Atlanta) drop unexpectedly. They have the depth, system and top-tier talent to stick at the top of the Western Conference.
Three matches into the 2019 MLS season, NYCFC have three draws. They look like a team finding themselves, playing for the first time without David Villa and dealing fully with the loss of Yangel Herrera in midfield. Domenec Torrent is theoretically trying to implement something, though what exactly that is has not been made clear.
Let’s look at three big NYC questions:
Is Heber the answer at striker?
Having played mostly with placeholder false 9s up top this season, NYCFC have found the player they want to take over at striker: Heber, a 27-year-old Brazilian who arrives from the Croatian top division. He projects as a center forward, though Transfermarkt lists his primary position as left wing, prompting some concern about whether he can seamlessly slot in as a striker.
His scoring record is positive. He scored nine goals in 15 league appearances prior to leaving for New York, and last year he scored 16 in 23. The Croatian league’s level is much lower than that of MLS, but scoring could translate.
The Outfield broke down Heber’s strengths and pointed out his savvy movement and soft feet, which will be important at condensed Yankee Stadium. As The Outfield mentioned, Heber has to coalesce with the rest of the attack more effectively than Jo Inge Berget, who mostly struggled last year.
If Heber proves a competent scorer and passer, NYC could simplify their attack, discarding the intricate combination play and instead basing their attack around the movement of a true striker.
What’s the system?
The short answer: No one knows. Torrent wants to possess the ball, but he’s not the same build-out-of-the-back proponent as Patrick Vieira, and his implementation has been a bit messy.
NYCFC want to jam the ball into the final third and then rotate the other team into submission. Skill players make it work, to an extent, but the lack of a centerpiece striker makes finding the end product hard. No one on the field is able to make something of whatever clever combination play they create while pinning the opponent into the final third.
The other by-product of this rough outline is that the game tends to fly off the handles. The opposition — especially better, faster ones, like LAFC — break into space left by NYC players who wander forward. Torrent has to reconcile these questions.
How do they solidify the midfield?
With Herrera gone, NYC has tried to pigeonhole players like Ebenezer Ofori into box-to-box midfield roles next to Alex Ring. No one has been able to handle it. Herrera was a difference-maker, able to win every duel and clean up in front of the backline. Teams speed through the midfield much more easily without a dominant presence.
Ring is one of the league’s better d-mids, but he can’t do everything, especially with the responsibility the system places on him. The emphasis on final third possession opens counter-attack opportunities, which are difficult to deal with solo.
They need a talented ball-mover and ball-stopper. James Sands, the young Homegrown, should continue to receive opportunities ahead of Ofori to prove he can fill the void.
The trend of MLS clubs chasing aging European players is dying out — many teams have realized the impracticality of it and the ways that younger players help in the short and long terms. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and Andrea Pirlo were failures in MLS.
That doesn’t mean that teams shouldn’t jump at the chance to sign players like Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Rooney and Zlatan are MVP candidates. David Villa is one of the best Designated Players of all time. There will still be a pipeline for players who are worth the money.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some future high-profile candidates to make the move stateside, and whether teams would be smart to pay big money for them.
Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona
It will (hopefully!) be a while until the world’s greatest player is at a point where he is considering leaving Barca. His current otherworldly level indicates he’s not ready to relinquish his title for a good long while. But if that ever happens, his soccer IQ and style of play suggest that he could dominate, to some extent, for another decade-plus if he wanted to.
Unlike other stars, he is not motivated by the glitz and glamor — Messi has a wife and kids in Barcelona and might not see the reasoning behind moving to America for a couple of years to finish his career in MLS. Money probably won’t be much of a factor.
But Beckham will surely try hard to persuade him. Messi would have an opportunity to try something new in a nice country with less fanfare than many other places in the world, especially Argentina, where he still has a lot of family and could want to return at some point.
Remember that if his international aspirations continue deep into his career, Argentina will call him up no matter what. He could be playing on Mars and they’d put him in the squad. So if it’s 2026 and a 39-year-old Messi is chilling and hitting magnificent through-balls for Inter Miami, he could plausibly stick around North America and take one last go at a World Cup.
Bottom line, Messi to America would be the best case scenario for the sport here. Beckham knows that too and may be the person with enough clout to make it happen one day.
Mario Balotelli, Marseille
Long rumored as a potential MLS transfer target, Balotelli is still just 28, somehow, and scoring goals in Ligue 1 for Marseille. He’s a character, and you can never have too many of those.
He might want to stick around a bit longer in Europe while he’s still kicking — the Italian has scored five goals in the last seven league games he’s played — and his club is playing well. Marseille is nipping at Lyon’s heels for third in Ligue 1, winning five of six before a loss last weekend to PSG.
A big-market, popular team like a post-Rooney D.C. United could look in Balotelli’s direction at some point.
Antoine Griezmann, Atletico Madrid
Griezmann has said multiple times that he would like to finish his career in MLS. Nabbing him while he still has some juice left — he’s 27 now, so plenty of time — would be a big win for the league and whichever team wins his services. He will want to go to a big market, like David Beckham’s Miami team, the LA Galaxy, LAFC or perhaps NYCFC, though the Light Blues might have to get a real stadium first.
He would certainly score plenty of goals in MLS, assuming he is a reasonable age and reasonably motivated by the time he arrives. Having a World Cup win under his belt could positively influence his decision — it means he’s already reached the sport’s pinnacle, taking some pressure off.
James Rodriguez, Bayern Munich
Constantly the center of rumors, James is still on loan from Real Madrid at Bayern Munich. He’s only 27, but he could be drawn by another star, or perhaps the promise of leading his own team in a city like Miami. He will draw Colombian fans wherever he goes, and his age means he has plenty of good years left. He might be a reach, but this would be a very nice get for MLS.
Cristiano Ronaldo, the subject of rape allegations in Nevada, did not make this list. He was once rumored as a potential Miami Beckham target, but that tapered off once those allegations were revealed. Ronaldo will want to distance himself — hence why Juventus is going to Asia instead of America for their preseason tour this summer.
His ongoing quality could hold back an MLS move as well. Ronaldo is still easily second-best player in the world and will hope to stick around and challenge Messi for as long as he can — Ronaldo is notorious for being heavily motivated by his personal rival.
Gregg Berhalter’s second USMNT camp looms in March, with his first chance to get a look at European-based players in his new system. It’s a big opportunity for fringe young players to show they belong in Berhalter’s modern tactics, and for stalwarts like John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood to protect their spots.
Perhaps most interesting is the defensive midfield position. The depth chart there depends on Berhalter’s opinion of Michael Bradley, who played 84 minutes in the January friendly against Panama, and how he sees Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams fitting into this team. This month’s camp should reveal Berhalter’s thinking further, but let’s look at the depth chart as it stands.
1. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC
Bradley is on top by virtue of his status as a definite defensive mid — McKennie could be a No. 8, and Adams could be a No. 8 or a right back still — though Bradley continues to ruffle the feathers of USMNT fans. He is perfectly capable at the international level in spite of persistent criticism, and he will give way to younger guys soon enough.
2. Weston McKennie, Schalke 04
While Schalke grinds through deep struggles in the Bundesliga (and potential Champions League Round of 16 elimination against Manchester City), McKennie is driving up his future transfer fee. He will surely play in the central midfield at the highest levels, though whether his role is as a defensive or a box-to-box mid will depend on who plays next to him and how his team is set up. McKennie could excel as part of a tandem alongside Adams or another player like Cristian Roldan or Russell Canouse.
Right now, he looks like a No. 8. Part of his development (he’s still only 20!) will be expanding the defensive nuance and awareness that will allow him to play as a 6 at the highest level.
3. Tyler Adams, Red Bull Leipzig
It’s not a definite that Adams will be a No. 8 with the USMNT, much less a true defensive midfielder. He was fantastic last year as a wingback for the New York Red Bulls in their complex press-and-possession system, and as Berhalter emphasizes pinching his full backs into midfield and having them facilitate possession.
Adams is approaching world-class in midfield for a high-level Bundesliga team, and he’s always looked best centrally. But with this iteration of the USMNT, right back has to at least be in consideration for Adams.
4. Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
A favorite of Berhalter from Columbus and a constant figure of the post-Trinidad USMNT, Trapp’s passing and soccer IQ can help the national team. His propensity for damaging turnovers and lack of international-level athleticism makes it unlikely that he will ever be a go-to option at the top level, but he has attributes that others in the pool don’t have. He’s also experienced as a leader at the club level.
5. Russell Canouse, D.C. United
Canouse needs a standout season in D.C. to separate himself in a crowded pool. He must not have made the greatest impression at the January camp, given that Berhalter did not give him a minute in either of the friendlies against Panama and Costa Rica.
Others, like Roldan, will factor in at some point. The US are stacked with midfielders who can play in a double pivot — Sebastian Lletget, Alejandro Bedoya, Marky Delgado, and plenty more will be around, as will younger guys like Keaton Parks and NYCFC‘s James Sands and assorted European-based players. Growing definite No. 6 depth will depend on McKennie and Adams’s development, and where they slide into Berhalter’s system.
1. D.C. United look legit
A 2-0 win to start the season against Atlanta United will drive DCU hype. Luciano Acosta was fantastic as D.C. looked cohesive and smooth, sitting tight against ATL as Frank De Boer’s side tried to keep the ball. Paul Arriola was a renegade up and down the right flank, combining with debuting right back Leonardo Jara.
Whether this level of success is sustainable remains to be seen — after all, ATL rested Pity Martinez and Julian Gressel until the second half. This start indicates that D.C. could challenge the elite class of the Eastern Conference, especially as Atlanta and the Red Bulls deal with the CONCACAF Champions League.
2. Adama Diomande pokes out ahead of Christian Ramirez in LAFC’s striker battle
Diomande scored the winner for LAFC in a 2-1 win against Sporting KC at home, exciting the LA crowd with a stoppage time rocket. Ramirez started the game up top before Bob Bradley subbed in Diomande in the second half as LA looked to score a big home win. He delivered at the last moment.
It’s a disappointing result for Sporting, who netted the first goal and looked to scrape out at least road point against a fellow conference elite. Peter Vermes started the same lineup that dominated Toluca at altitude on Thursday in CCL, a bold move that nearly paid off. Roger Espinoza’s late second yellow damaged their chances.
3. FC Cincinnati aren’t there yet
FC Cincinnati lost 4-1 in their inaugural match against the Sounders. Their first goal was iconic (see below), but Seattle blitzed them after Leonardo Bertone’s ridiculous volley smash. The Sounders torched FCC’s right side, with Eric Alexander on the wing and Alvas Powell at right back. Alexander is an average-at-best center midfielder, out of place on the wing, and Powell seemed almost apathetic.
4. Darwin Quintero will be in MVP contention
Minnesota somewhat quietly won 3-2 at Vancouver. This was a nice win for the Loons to start the year. Darwin Quintero led the way; he scored once and assisted Minnesota’s two other goals, essentially driving the bus for a team that relies heavily on his attacking production.
It’s a good sign for the Loons that striker Romario Ibarra had a goal and an assist after Adrian Heath gave him the start up top over Designated Player Angelo Rodriguez. Perhaps even more crucial is the consistency of the Jan Gregus-Ozzie Alonso midfield pairing.
5. Keep giving the Rapids home games in March
The Colorado Rapids hosted the Portland Timbers and drew 3-3 in a wacky snow game. True snow soccer games are a rarity, but when they happen it is gorgeous. The goals and the VAR controversies made it that much better.
Watch and enjoy the highlights:
You don’t see that every week!
With Gregg Berhalter’s second USMNT camp approaching, and his first with European-based Americans, let’s look at what’s going on with the US’s top exports.
Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund
Christian Pulisic is out with a thigh injury and was not in the 18 for Borussia Dortmund’s game against Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday. Dortmund are in the midst of a competitive title race with Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, and their focus will likely be centered on the league for the rest of the season, as they look likely to lose to Tottenham in the Champions League Round of 16.
The biggest recent news for Pulisic, though, was Chelsea’s ban on signing players until 2020. Pulisic will still go at Chelsea this summer, but this looks like good news — it means less competition once he arrives in London. With the Blues struggling mightily (and chaotically) under Maurizio Sarri, Pulisic promises to step right into the starting lineup.
Weston McKennie, Schalke 04
A starter for a poor Schalke 04 team, Weston McKennie will reportedly have an MRI on a thigh injury he picked up in a Champions League Round of 16 loss to Manchester City. It could threaten his availability in the second leg against City — Schalke are only down a goal — as well as in Gregg Berhalter’s March camp and friendlies.
He would be a big loss for Schalke if he isn’t back for the second leg against City. He was vital in the Champions League group stage:
Tyler Adams, Red Bull Leipzig
Tyler Adams has started playing big minutes for Red Bull Leipzig. He went 90 in a 3-1 win over Wolfsburg last week and has, by all accounts, excelled as a box-to-box midfielder. Whether he is a right back or a midfielder long-term is still a question, but his performances in the middle of the park for Leipzig indicate that he can play the position at a high level. He’s yet another success story of the MLS (in this case, the New York Red Bulls) developing talent who can succeed in Europe.
Here’s an every-touch video from a game against Stuttgart, in which Adams picked up an assist:
DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle United
Now a teammate of Miguel Almiron at a Newcastle United team starting to poke their heads out of the relegation battle, DeAndre Yedlin starts every week at right back. Rafa Benitez’s side won 2-0 against a 10-man Huddersfield this weekend, though that was not exactly a tough ask, considering Huddersfield are firmly planted in last place.
Yedlin could face a battle for his starting right back position with the USMNT, though he remains the probable starter heading into the March international break.
Buying or developing young players and then selling them on for profit is the new ethos of MLS clubs (read: Miguel Almirón record-setting transfer to Newcastle).
The benefits are growing clearer as players like Miguel Almirón (above) and Alphonso Davies head to Europe:
- MLS teams add significant funds to use on youth development and player acquisition
- Both domestic and international players will see MLS as a destination for growth
- MLS’s international reputation will increase
Today, we’ll look at the players who could be next to go to Europe and continue the cycle.
Alberth Elis, Houston Dynamo
Rumors swirled about Elis going to Fenerbahce in Turkey this winter, but the two sides couldn’t agree on a price and the deal fell dead, at least until the summer transfer window. Big performances in the Concacaf Champions League and this summer’s Gold Cup for Honduras could further increase the 23-year-old’s value.
As a fast, skillful winger, Elis excels in counter-attacking systems that release him into space. His goal-scoring production is elite in MLS, though he can be streaky; he went cold for much of the second half of last year.
Ezequiel Barco, Atlanta United
MLS’s most expensive signing was a dud for much of 2018. By the end of the season, he was mostly a sub as Atlanta shifted to a three-at-the-back, and Tata Martino much preferred Julian Gressel. Off-field situations overshadowed much of Barco’s debut campaign.
He’s still only 19, though, and with Almirón sold to Newcastle and a new manager in the fold, Barco could see his role increase again. He was a prized prospect worldwide when Atlanta originally signed him, so chances are European teams will continue to think highly of him when ATL decide to start fielding offers.
Luciano Acosta, D.C. United
Acosta came within a thread of being sold to PSG at the end of the January transfer window. The French juggernaut will likely continue tracking the Argentine’s progress on a promising D.C. team, with Wayne Rooney continuing to prop him up. His scoring numbers skyrocketed when Rooney arrived last summer, and they promise to continue climbing in 2019.
Diego Rossi, LAFC
Alongside Carlos Vela at LAFC, Rossi put up 12 goals and nine assists in 32 games last year, scoring three goals and four assists in his first three games. Rossi, who will turn 21 in early March, scores his goals by slashing in from the wing and combining with Vela and Adama Diomande.
A Uruguay international who came through Penarol’s youth system, he fits the profile of a player who will draw the attention of European clubs. The rumors haven’t quite started yet, but continued elite production alongside a perennial MVP candidate in Vela will give LAFC some decisions to make.
Reggie Cannon, FC Dallas
Cannon, at the age of 19, carved out a regular role as FC Dallas’s regular starting right back last year and excelled, starting 33 games and emerging as one of the league’s top full backs. He earned a call to Gregg Berhalter’s initial USMNT January camp roster for his efforts.
Now 20 and firmly entrenched in the US’s right back pool, Cannon should start to gain attention from bigger clubs. FCD, prepping for an increased emphasis on youth this season, could look to sell for the right price at some point. A best XI-level performance this season, which is in the realm of possibility, could accelerate the process.
The biggest question in the MLS Eastern Conference this season is whether anyone can challenge Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls for the top two playoff spots. Right now, I wouldn’t put money on it.
TFC sold Sebastian Giovinco, marking a new era for the team that fell so far last season. This is a contract season for Jozy Altidore, and one has to wonder if this is his last go in Canada. New GM Ali Curtis brought in Laurent Ciman to anchor the central defense and Terrence Boyd to likely be the backup forward. Rumors abound as to who their third DP will be. It’s an important season for TFC, and they still have the talent and infrastructure to win a lot of games.
Keeping up last year’s second-half Wayne Rooney magic could be a difficult task for DCU. But they kept Luciano Acosta (though one has to wonder if he is fully motivated after nearly being transferred to PSG) and they brought in Boca Juniors right back Leonardo Jara on loan.
Ernst Tanner, brought in this off-season as Sporting Director, will have Philly playing a 4-4-2 diamond formation and pressing, big changes after they kept the ball and played a 4-2-3-1 in a resurgent 2018. The Union’s ability to contend depends upon their ability to execute Tanner’s ethos.
I’m inclined to believe the Fire are more likely to finish last than first. They finished 10th last year, after all, and unless Grant Lillard emerges at center back, they haven’t helped their leaky defense. But a midfield three of Dax McCarty, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Djordje Mihailovic could feast, if Veljko Paunovic lets it.
Caleb Porter is in charge. It will be odd watching the Crew managed by anyone other than new USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter. But Porter will be pragmatic, and he has capable pieces across the roster. Left back Milton Valenzuela’s torn ACL hurts pretty badly, though, and they still won’t have scoring from the wing until Justin Meram snaps out of his funk or Pedro Santos figures it out. I wouldn’t bet on the latter.
Maximizing what could be Ignacio Piatti’s final MLS season is Montreal’s most important task — they will have a hard time replacing arguably MLS’s best winger when it comes to it. It will be interesting to see whether Remi Garde maintains counter-attacking tactics, or if he emphasizes more pressing with Maxi Urruti leading the line as one of the league’s top defensive forwards.
New England Revolution
The Revs couldn’t figure out how to do anything more than press last season, so once teams solved them, New England started losing games and never stopped. There is a lot of uncertainty with how Brad Friedel will put together his attack with new transfers Carlos Gil and Juan Fernando Caicedo in the fold. Their biggest weakness could still be passing out of midfield, as well as central defense.
Orlando City SC
One would have a difficult time arguing that Orlando upgraded their roster after last year’s tire fire of a season, especially considering the transfer of Yoshi Yotun to Cruz Azul. But there are a number of younger Homegrowns and USL transfers on the roster, and they jettisoned the entire defensive core. If James O’Connor can put the pieces together, OCSC could at least do some good things.
The newest expansion club spent most of their time buying defenders and defensive midfielders. Their numerous overpays in trades (notably spending nearly $600,000 in value on Nick Hagglund, a brutal blunder from the front office) does not inspire confidence that FCC signed any of the right players. They could prove people wrong, but I doubt it — Cincy are most likely going to be pretty terrible this year.
Editor’s Note: The 2019 MLS Eastern Conference preview will post on Tuesday.
Like last year, the MLS Western Conference is wide open. The Sounders are aging in important positions, but still look like one of the best teams in the conference. LAFC need one of Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta or Andre Horta to provide the defensive awareness in midfield they lacked after Kaye went down with a major injury last year. The trio of FC Dallas, Portland and Sporting KC looks as intriguing as ever.
So, we’ll take a look at the seven top West contenders, roughly in order of how good each projects to be in 2019.
With Chad Marshall now 34 and Ozzie Alonso in Minnesota, it feels like the Sounders are approaching the end of an era. They will face questions about defensive depth (particularly with the Waylon Francis trade and Nouhou overseas rumors) and how to integrate Jordan Morris with Raul Ruidiaz up top, but Seattle have the elite talent to make a run. We’ll see if they do the thing where they suck until July and then do a complete 180°.
LA’s attack promises to be one of the best in the league again. It will be interesting to see how Bob Bradley splits playing time between Adama Diomande and Christian Ramirez — Diomande likely will see the majority of minutes, but Bradley can easily swap if either goes on a dry spell. LA will count on young defenders Lamar Batista and Eddie Segura to replace Laurent Ciman next to Walker Zimmerman on the backline, with 35-year-old Dejan Jakovic possibly the starter to begin the season.
Coming off an MLS Cup run, Portland always have one goal: Keep Diego Chara healthy. At this point everyone can see how much worse the Timbers are when their Colombian defensive midfielder is not in the game. They haven’t made many major moves this offseason, outside of letting defenders Liam Ridgewell and Alvas Powell go. Coaxing high-volume attacking production out of Sebastian Blanco is another of the Timbers’ eternal puzzles.
It’s a youth movement in Dallas, as the offseason focus has been on playing and counting on Homegrowns like Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferreira. New manager Luchi Gonzalez was previously the academy director (under the late Fernando Clavijo, RIP). Such lineup fixtures as Maxi Urruti, Roland Lamah, Maynor Figueroa, Victor Ulloa and Tesho Akindele are out, ushering in a revamped FCD team.
Sporting Kansas City
Trading Ike Opara was a gamble, though they did receive a robust sum of allocation money in return. Peter Vermes needs Spanish center back Andreu Fontas, for whom they paid a hefty transfer fee, to step seamlessly next to Matt Besler. Watching trade acquisition Kelyn Rowe in the midfield as a creator will be fun.
Houston finished ninth last season, admittedly, but with Juan David Cabezas back in defensive midfield full time and Matias Vera joining him, the Dynamo could return to 2017 conference finals form. Mauro Manotas continuing his dominance from last year and Alberth Elis aiming to prove his worth to potential overseas suitors could net Houston some goals. The defense remains a question mark, but Cabezas will help and they acquired real competition this off-season. Age is the biggest concern on the backline.
I came close to excluding the Galaxy, who are trying to skirt league rules and play with four Designated Players, and throwing Real Salt Lake in here instead. But Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes that difficult, given his status as arguably the league’s best player. LA have the pure talent to slip into the playoffs despite defensive woes, and manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto has an impressive pedigree.
Exchanging highly-paid veterans for youth has defined NYCFC’s first off-season under coach Domenec Torrent.
The David Villa era is over, raising important questions about NYC’s long-term direction. Torrent, the mercurial Pep Guardiola disciple, is attempting to implement his vision, though his exact goals are thus far unclear.
A Look at NYCFC Off-Season Transfers
The Spaniard has a penchant for tactical ambiguity, at least based on a rocky half-season in charge. He rotated attackers at high frequency and emphasized throwing numbers forward with the ball, often sacrificing defensive solidity and coherent possession. NYC’s off-season acquisitions — including 19-year-old Juan Pablo Torres, 24-year-old Romanian attacker Alexandru Mitrita, and 21-year-old Keaton Parks — are apparently aimed at continuing this attacking, pressing, on-ball ethos.
Villa and 28-year-old striker Jo Inge Berget are gone, along with veteran winger Rodney Wallace, star midfielder Yangel Herrera (who was injured for most of 2018 and is now in La Liga, still on loan from Manchester City), and lead-footed midfielder Eloi Amagat, who looked vastly out of his depth in 430 minutes.
With Homegrowns James Sands and Justin Haak in the fold, NYC are noticeably younger. But how they will line up remains a question mark, and Torrent’s tactical inclinations are equally as hazy as they were in August, when the Light Blues plummeted below Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls in the standings.
Replacing Villa and Berget up top could be accomplished with a false 9, which Torrent tried at times last season with Maxi Moralez and Jesus Medina. They will have to decide whether Mitrita fits such a role, or if a player like Ismael Tajouri-Shradi should play up top or out wide. Mitrita is a Designated Player has a fairly good goalscoring record in Romania (some Mitrita goal scoring highlights below), indicating NYC consider him the answer at striker.
Did NYCFC Do Enough to Catch-Up?
This off-season’s moves are difficult to identify as positive or negative beyond “David Villa is gone and that’s obviously bad.” Mitrita is a bit of a wild card, coming from an obscure league. They could consider further reinforcements.
As ever, NYCFC’s prospects come down to Torrent. He has to be willing to put his best players on the field (that means starting Lewis) and maintain some continuity in personnel and style. NYC were streaky last season. Less tinkering will decrease chaos.
Before they approach the elite tier of the Eastern Conference again, Torrent has to concede those points. Patrick Vieira was able to consistently keep NYC in that elite tier with a beautiful, intricate possession system. Following Vieira was always going to be difficult, but Torrent arrived with high expectations. Those expectations won’t disappear.
On Tuesday, as the NBA trade deadline began to envelope American sports headlines, rumblings of a New York Red Bulls transfer swirled. NYRB are apparently in on 18-year-old Danish forward Mathias Jorgensen of Odense BK in the Danish league, with Chris Armas confirming interest on Thursday.
Jorgensen has experience with Denmark’s youth national teams and has made appearances in 13 of Odense’s 20 games this season, though he fell out favor as the Danish league hit their long winter break, which ends this weekend. It’s hard to predict whether he would step into the first team immediately or gain minutes at Red Bulls II as Bradley Wright-Phillips monopolizes striker minutes.
If the deal goes through, Jorgensen would likely compete with 22-year-old Anatole Abang, who is back from various European loans after appearing 25 times in 2015 and 2016 at the MLS level, to back up BWP. Abang’s arrest last month for marijuana possession throws a wrench into that proposition, though.
The Red Bulls’ Offseason So Far
The big-money transfer of Tyler Adams to Red Bull Leipzig (where he is thriving!) remains the biggest winter move for NYRB. As Armas spends his first off-season implementing his managerial principles, NYRB are putting the pieces in place to stay near or at the top of the Eastern Conference. Kaku, around whom rumors perpetually abound, appears to be staying after fierce Club America rumors and some wild messaging from his agent.
The Red Bulls fortified defensive depth by trading a fourth-round SuperDraft pick (essentially pennies) to Orlando for Amro Tarek. They had declined veteran center back Aurelien Collin’s option, and the situation with Fidel Escobar (whose loan from a Panamanian club has expired) is uncertain. Promising center back Hassan Ndam was selected by FC Cincinnati in the expansion draft.
Waiver draft speedster Marcus Epps will arrive from Philadelphia, and two Homegrown signings (Jean-Christophe Koffi and Omir Fernandez) round out the Red Bulls’ transactions. In training camp, they hope that 19-year-old Cristian Casseres Jr. can fill the central midfield void left by Adams, or at least display some potential to hold them over.
Who Won the Transfer Window: The Red Bulls or Atlanta United?
This will be the predominant question in the Eastern Conference, given the Red Bulls and Atlanta United were far and away the top-two sides last season. Both promise to remain elite, even as Adams and Miguel Almiron (who went to Newcastle United on a record transfer) depart on huge transfer fees. Atlanta’s signing of Pity Martinez easily bests anything the Red Bulls have done this winter, and new center back Florentin Pogba (brother of Paul Pogba) looks like he could be starting-caliber in MLS, at least.
The Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield last year and won’t have to adjust to a new manager, as Atlanta are doing now with the hire of Frank de Boer. Both teams will deal with (and prioritize) the Concacaf Champions League in the early parts of the season, possibly inhibiting MLS form. The Five Stripes project as the better team, though the Red Bulls’ ability to conjure quality young players out of the woodwork prolongs usurpation possibilities.