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Harrison Hamm

Analyzing Each of the Eastern Conference’s Best Teams

July 19, 2019

At this stage of the MLS season, we can confidently place a group of five teams at the top of the Eastern Conference hierarchy:

Other playoff contenders — notably the Montreal Impact, Toronto FC, Orlando City SC and the New England Revolution — will hang around, but the existing group of five will be tough to challenge.

To handicap the race, let’s take a look at each of the East elites, including what they do well and poorly and how they’ve played in recent weeks.

D.C. United

DCU sit second in the Eastern Conference, barely a nick ahead of a threatening group of three — Atlanta, NYRB, and NYCFC. D.C. are in danger are falling further behind.

Even as they stick around in the upper tier in the conference, it grows harder and harder to proclaim them as legitimate contenders. They’ve won just twice in their last 10 games.

Luciano Acosta is suspended currently for a red card, and has generally taken a step back from last season’s ascent to stardom. They haven’t scored at the rate most expected despite Wayne Rooney’s continued excellence.

By the time Acosta is transferred elsewhere (which seems like an inevitability, whether this window or next), D.C. will be severely missing attacking creativity. In fact, they’ve been missing attacking creativity even with Acosta in the lineup. D.C. rank in the lower tiers of shots per game and xG per game. They lack difference-makers — players who can find the ball and pick out passes that others don’t see. 

Acosta has been a difference-maker in the past, but this season his productivity has waned. DCU don’t have other players who can both fill in when Acosta’s production dips and, most importantly, help boost the Argentine. They need a secondary creator.

Lucas Rodriguez is a dribbler, but he’s not a passer or an adept connector. Paul Arriola is a workhorse. The deeper midfielders have yet to find ways to impact further up the field the way players like Cristian Roldan in Seattle have.

D.C. have to surround Rodriguez and Arriola with players who can move the ball and keep D.C.’s attack from faltering. Rodriguez, while electric on the ball, has an xGChain/96 figure of 0.96, lower than that of Gyasi Zardes. Arriola is a high-caliber player, but similarly lacks the ability to find difference-making passes. 

Above all else, D.C. need a shake-up. They’ve clearly stagnated. We’ll see what this transfer window brings.

NYCFC

NYC lost twice in MLS in the last couple of weeks, to the Portland Timbers and the Red Bulls. In between those, they sandwiched a penalty-kick defeat in the US Open Cup quarterfinals against Orlando City.

Pigeons fans need not worry too much about these recent setbacks. The Red Bulls loss had a fluky feel to it — NYRB scored their goals on a penalty-kick and a bizarre, controversial referee mismanagement situation. NYC had dominated much of the New York Derby. They had their chances against Portland, losing 1-0 despite dominating the xG battle. Penalty shootouts are basically coin tosses.

In general, City look like one of the league’s better teams, and hold games in hand on most of their Eastern Conference rivals. Their attack is deep. Younger options have emerged in midfield alongside Alex Ring; most notably, Keaton Parks has become an important starter, and James Sands will continue to have a role. Maxi Moralez is a legitimate MVP candidate. 

Dome Torrent has his team spreading opponents out, sending the fullbacks forward, and thriving off of diagonal switches in the attacking third. It is an effective formula, but they have to be careful to prevent the well running dry. 

Atlanta United

Have Atlanta adjusted to Frank de Boer’s system? I’m inclined to say that they have, to a certain extent. They’ve worked their way back up to third in the Eastern Conference, and they have started to improve in midfield. Justin Meram has shown flashes of pre-Orlando City Justin Meram.

But when they win, defending and Josef Martinez make the difference.

Ezequiel Barco and Hector Villalba are still injured. With Brek Shea out for the year and Mikey Amrbose battling thigh problems, they don’t have a left back. Pity Martinez has not yet transformed into a world-beating superstar, and it’s hard to see that happening any time soon. They have a ceiling now that they didn’t have in the past.

The five-game win streak they ripped off at the beginning of May appears to have been a product of a weak schedule; they took four of a possible 15 points in the five games prior to Wednesday’s 5-0 demolition of 10-man Houston.

De Boer should roll with the 3-5-2-ish formation he tested against the Dynamo. Julian Gressel is best used as a wingback, and a three-at-the-back is the only way De Boer can fit the center back trio of Miles Robinson, Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Michael Parkhurst together. Pity’s defensive apathy would be most effectively sheltered in a second striker role.

Atlanta will keep trying to find the best version of themselves.

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls, contrary to previous NYRB seasons, look set up to succeed in the playoffs instead of the regular season. They took some time to coalesce this year — a process that makes sense, considering the departure of Tyler Adams, injuries on the backline, Champions League congestion, and Kaku’s going off the rails at various times — and now they are motoring along at a reasonable pace.

It’s hard to see them going on a run and challenging for first in the conference, barring some big signing of a winger. Reigning Defender of the Year Aaron Long has been the subject of transfer rumors this summer. If they sell, they make things very difficult for themselves this season.

But aside from Adams’s departure and Bradley Wright-Phillips’s decline to super-sub status, not too much is different about this Red Bulls team from previous iterations. They play a similar style and press the ball well. In the waning BWP years (and first Brian White year!), they’ll want to make a serious run in October.

Philadelphia Union

The current top team, Philly have been better and more consistent than every team in the East except for (arguably) NYCFC. They have the look of a bona fide elite, though the recent injury of Jamiro Monteiro has stunted their recent form.

They may be a bit overrated in some areas. Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie haven’t had seasons to write home about, though Jack Elliott has been very good at center back. Andre Blake is perpetually the most overrated keeper in the league. The signing of journeyman American Andrew Wooten at striker is unlikely to be a serious difference-maker.

In general, though, the Union are legit. Ilsinho is a weapon off the bench that other teams don’t have. Kai Wagner has been one of the league’s best left backs this season. The diamond formation has worked wonders, and continues to produce quality possession. They will face a battle to finish at the top of the conference.

HPS MLS Pod Episode 6 with Evan Weston

July 13, 2019

It’s time for another HPS MLS Pod!

Joining Harrison Hamm this week is Evan Weston, the television voice of Orlando City SC. Topics discussed include:

  • Orlando’s wild win over NYCFC in the US Open Cup quarterfinals (0:30)
  • Orlando’s improvement this season and future direction (10:00)
  • The attack, and Chris Mueller’s potential USMNT contention (30:00)
Listen to “HPS MLS Pod Episode 6 with Evan Weston” on Spreaker.

Complete MLS Midseason Award Picks

July 12, 2019

With the MLS season just past its halfway point, now is as good a time as ever to do some awards. We’ll do the real awards and mix in plenty of other player and team prizes.

Let’s go!

MVP: Carlos Vela, LAFC

This one is as consensus a selection as you’re going to get. Carlos Vela has a ridiculous 19 goals and 12 assists in 19 games, on pace for the best season in MLS history. He is the best player on the best team. He does so much beyond scoring that he has left little debate as to who the best player in the league is.

Finalists: Maxi Moralez (NYCFC), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)

Moralez has 6g, 11a as NYCFC’s fulcrum. The Light Blues have two losses all season and are tied for the Eastern Conference lead on points-per-game.

Zlatan is second in the league in goals and dictates everything that makes the Galaxy successful. He also dictates everything that holds them back — he does little defensive work and has an outwardly poor attitude.

Defender of the Year: Walker Zimmerman, LAFC

It’s hard not to give this award to Walker Zimmerman, who has clearly been the best defender in the league. His performance earned him a regular starting job in the USMNT’s Gold Cup backline.

Finalists: Miles Robinson (Atlanta), Larrys Mabiala (Portland)

Coach of the Year: Jim Curtain, Philadelphia

Philly has risen to first-place in the Eastern Conference with a defined style of play, emphasizing the strengths of its players and playing quality possession soccer. Jim Curtain’s trust of guys like Brenden Aaronson has spurred the Union’s surge.

Finalists: Bob Bradley (LAFC), Matias Almeyda (San Jose)

Goalkeeper of the Year: Stefan Ffrei, Seattle Sounders

I had a hard time coming up with a clear top contender for this one. Stefan Frei has continued to be solid in Seattle, so I’ll give it to him.

Finalists: Sean Johnson (NYCFC), Maxime Crepeau (Vancouver Whitecaps)

Newcomer of the Year: Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto FC

Alejandro Pozuelo has easily been TFC’s best player, with seven goals and eight assists so far in his debut season.

It would be a very good bet, though, that Portland forward Brian Fernandez will have this award on lock by the end of the year. The Timbers promise to win a good portion of their home game slate in the second half of the season, and Fernandez has been scoring at a goal-per-game pace.

Finalists: Fernandez, Kacper Przybylko (Philadelphia)

Most Improved Player: Latif Blessing, LAFC

Latif Blessing has been a Best XI-level performer in midfield for LA. He has gone from a super-utility player to one of the league’s best ball-moving and ground-covering midfielders in the league. Fellow LA midfielder Eduard Atuesta would’ve been a reasonable pick here as well.

Honorable mentions: Jackson Yueill (San Jose), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Atuesta, Lamine Sane (Orlando), Memo Rodriguez (Houston)

Best team: LAFC

I mean.

Honorable mention: Philadelphia Union

Worst team: FC Cincinnati

Cincy have lost 13 of their 19 games and are the running favorite for the Wooden Spoon. They went to Minnesota and got annihilated 7-1 on June 29. As they continue to search for a coach, their roster is in a “tear it all down” stage.

Honorable mention: Columbus Crew

With Colorado and New England starting to figure themselves out, it’s been an especially bad year for Ohio teams.

Biggest surprise: The rise of the Union

Watching Philly transition from an interesting young team to a clear MLS elite has been a joy. They’ve done so through a well-crafted style of play, the growth of several players, and smart signings (Kai Wagner, Kacper Przybylko, Jamiro Monteiro, Sergio Santos). We await the rise of Marco Fabian.

Honorable mentions: LAFC’s complete dominance, San Jose’s turnaround, Orlando’s new foundation

Biggest disappointment: Columbus’s plummet

The Crew started the season competently and then tumbled harshly to the surface, pushed off the ledge by a rash of injuries (Milton Valenzuela, Federico Higuain, Harrison Afful) and static coaching. As much as Caleb Porter wanted to run it all back, it just wouldn’t work. Big changes are on the horizon in Columbus.

Honorable mentions: Houston’s road stagnation, Toronto’s slow first half

Team that should improve: Portland Timbers

This is the easiest answer: Portland have a few games in hand on most Western Conference teams and will play the vast majority of their remaining matches at home. Sitting ninth in the west now, the Timbers should rise at least a few spots by the end of the year.

Honorable mentions: New York Red Bulls, Sporting KC

Team that might regress: Montreal Impact

Montreal are fourth in the east now, but feel the heat of NYCFC on their back. NYCFC have four games in hand and are just one point behind the Impact. The Red Bulls and possibly Toronto FC (with Omar Gonzalez and one or two TAM attackers arriving) could overtake the Impact as well and toss them out of the playoff race.

How the Seattle Sounders Have Maintained Contention in the Western Conference

July 3, 2019

Additional writing contribution by: Cheuk Hei Ho

For the last handful of years, we’ve known roughly how the Seattle Sounders play.

Their 4-2-3-1 is relatively straightforward. They revolve around Nicolas Lodeiro, who handles as much possession responsibility as any player in the league, and set up shop in the final third, with wingers milling about and the full backs charging forward. They aim to switch the field and create overloads.

The Sounders have managed to start the season well for once. They now sit third in the Western Conference and will be in the middle of a competitive top four. Their system is similar to what it’s been in the past, but there are always adjustments to be made and kinks to iron out. The loss of Chad Marshall to midseason retirement hurts.

Let’s take a look at how they’ve played this season and how they project for the rest of the year.

Lodeiro’s heavy role

In any discussion about the Sounders, Nico Lodeiro is at the forefront. He consistently ranks in the top handful of MLS players in touch percentage, and this season, he outpaces Jonathan dos Santos by 0.5%. 

Possession wise, he is involved in ~43% of Seattle’s open play possessions, the top three percent among all qualified attacking central midfielders. His role in the Sounders’ attack has maintained 2016 levels of importance, though he isn’t quite taking over the league the way he was back then.

But while Lodeiro remains the Sounders’ undisputed most valuable player, his contributions have waned over time. His influence on Seattle’s chance creation is worsening, indicating that he may be less effective as a creator. Seattle still relies on Lodeiro to create, as shown by the 3.2 times increases of the xG per possession. However, his influence in chance creation is inferior to a league’s average attacking central midfielder, who would boost the xG per possession for his team by 3.7 folds. Any decline in Lodeiro’s efficiency should worry the Sounders.  

It should be noted that his touch percentage is higher this year than it has been any other MLS season, despite his decreasing positive effects on Sounders’ possessions. His work rate only grows, and he will continue to keep heavy amounts of the ball, but lesser efficiency could be a by-product.

Seattle may be working to maximize the involvement of Cristian Roldan, particularly the Lodeiro-Roldan two-man game. As Roldan has grown into a high-level MLS central midfielder, his on-field relationship with Lodeiro has smoothed into a fruitful interchange. When Lodeiro drifts in and out of the midfield, Roldan fills his spot and hits incisive passes as a forward-thinking No. 8.

Roldan is involved in ~3% more of Seattle’s possessions this season compared to last year. Moreover, his involvement increases the xG per possession to ~100%, 90% better than it did last year. Interchanges between Roldan and Lodeiro have become a regular feature of Sounders’ attacks.

via GIPHY

That was not the greatest shot quality, but it is fairly representative of many Sounders’ attacks.

Roldan’s increased responsibility can explain Lodeiro’s seemingly decreased effect on Seattle’s chance creation; when Lodeiro doesn’t participate in ball movement, Roldan takes over his job. When both players start, the percentage of possessions involving only Lodeiro but not Roldan decreases by three percent while the percentage of possessions involving only Roldan but not Lodeiro increases by two percent compared to last year. Roldan, in other words, has taken noticeably more responsibility.

via GIPHY

Lodeiro, as a result, becomes less critical for the Sounders: Seattle’s possession with the attacking midfielder (Lodeiro) and the left central midfielder (Roldan) increases the xG per possession by 240% and 50%, respectively. Both scenarios rank about average compared to everyone else in a 4-2-3-1. But when combing both positions together, the xG per possession jumps to >300%, top 25% since 2016. There are some declines from Lodeiro, but the Sounders have also rerouted their attack this season.

Build-up play 

In general, the Sounders aren’t a possession-dominant team, they control only ~49% of the possession per game. Building up from the back isn’t their thing; the Sounders start ~43.8% of the possessions from their initial third, right about average in MLS. Perhaps they should knock that number down even more; they create only 0.3 xG per 100 possessions from the initial third through open play, worse than 97% of the teams. They are also very careless with the ball: 3.9% of the opponent’s final third possession come from Seattle’s mistake in the buildup, the 10th highest since 2016, constituting 9.2% of xG the Sounders concede this season.

There is one saving grace: Stefan Frei’s play-making ability:


Based on his accuracy of the 12 types of passes defined by distance and direction, Frei is the 8th best among all qualified keepers since 2016. This season, his participation increases the xG of Seattle’s build-up by ~58%, top 12% in MLS. 

Seattle bases its attack on disjointing defenses and then pouncing. Transition situations offer optimal opportunities for that approach, so it makes sense that the Sounders excel at counter-attacking (and do well to prevent opposition counter-attacks); ~14% of their xG come from transitional attacks — possession that starts in their own half and finishes within 20 seconds, the 14th highest percentage since 2016. Moreover, transition plays increase their xG per possession by 48%, the fifth highest in MLS. 

The Sounders are equally good at defending in transition: fewer than 4% of the xG they concede comes from transition, the second fewest since 2016. 

There are multiple reasons for their aptitude in defensive transition. They are sufficiently tidy with the ball, completing 78% of their open play passes in the opponent’s half, 17% above average. They are also decent at attacking loose balls, hitting ~7% of their mis-passes in the opponent’s half, about 20% above average. The Sounders have another secret weapon that prevents the opponent from hitting in transition:

More than 73% of their activities are done on the flank, the third highest in MLS. Counter-attacking from the flank is always difficult: the distance is longer and the angle is more complicated.

Transition play is a theme for Seattle this year; even though their counter-pressing isn’t elite, it elevates the quality of their possessions. Counter-pressing increases Seattle’s xG per possession by ~220%, the highest since 2016. 16.8% of Seattle’s xG also comes from counter-pressing possessions, again highest in the last four years. 

In addition, they are uniquely able to push and pull opposing teams in the attacking half with methodical passing and movement. Lodeiro runs and relocates more than any other player in MLS. We’ve touched on his widespread role already — he’s at the center of everything. By the time Seattle advance the ball into the final third, they will have already battered through the opposing midfield and thus unlocked opportunities to pour numbers forward and create overloads. 

Much of their direct, on-goal production comes from the flanks. They bomb their fullbacks forward and let the wingers — particularly Victor Rodriguez, whose role only grows — feast on jumbled defenses, either by slicing inside or outnumbering opposing fullbacks. Once Rodriguez, or any other fullback or winger, finds the ball on the touchline near the 18-year-old box, they have built-in options: the crafty Raul Ruidiaz lurking around the six-yard box, Roldan making a late run at the top of the 18, and Lodeiro popping up wherever.

Because their attack is so focused on transporting the ball from Roldan and Lodeiro’s distribution to overloads on the wings, the Sounders often find success by switching play. When they hit switches, they are more than two and a half times more likely to score. Switches are a common foil against pinned defenses, and they are especially valuable for Seattle, given the ease with which they disjoint defenses and create odd-man situations. 

In addition, the Sounders cross the ball well; for all the possessions that enter the final third, crossing increases their quality (xG per possession) by ~240% times, top 3% since 2016. When they drag defenders to the overloaded flanks, space opens in the box for a striker and a winger crashing back-post. Will Bruin is great in the air. Ruidíaz may be a little short but Jordan Morris is an underappreciated header of the ball: he wins 46% of headers, better than >75% of qualified wingers since 2016. Crosses have become a focal point of their attack.

Conclusions

Even as Lodeiro’s effectiveness has hit a slight decline, the Sounders have shown significant improvement in multiple attacking areas. They are one of the most effective crossing teams in the league. They dominate the transition phase of the game. Roldan-Lodeiro interchanges spur the attacking phase of their game. 

Focusing on what they do well, and improving specifically at those elements, has resulted in their establishing themselves as a clear Western Conference contender. They did not sleepwalk through the first half of the season, as they famously have in the past. While Chad Marshall’s retirement hurts, they look like a lock to finish at least in the conference’s top three.

Tactical Notes on Polarizing USWNT and Areas of Improvement for Finals

July 3, 2019

The USWNT advanced to the 2019 World Cup final by the skin of their teeth. The 2-1 win over England was a rollercoaster of VAR, a penalty save, and time-killing.

England was not the US’s toughest opponent — France was. The final against either the Netherlands or Sweden should not be as difficult as the quarters and semis were. But this is a knockout tournament and anything can happen.

Two of the US’s best players (Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle) nurse tricky hamstring injuries, though both players have indicated that they will be healthy by Sunday’s final.

Some tactical notes from the wild win over England and how the US can improve as they head into a pressure-packed final. I’ll end with some final notes on the importance of the team in general.

Tactical notes

Phil Neville wins the strategy game over Ellis

US coach Jill Ellis did not play her best strategic cards. She set the US up in a base 4-3-3 and allowed England to control the tempo of the game, playing heavily up the right flank through star right back Lucy Bronze and searching for diagonal switches. Too often, England disjointed the US with interplay down the right flank followed by a switch to a wide open Beth Mead. They created their goal through such a pattern of play.

The US’s biggest weakness became a leaky midfield. Without strong ball-winning and ground-coverage down the spine, Ellis’s team allowed England to transition possession into the attacking half too easily. Passes into advanced midfielders (like Nikita Parris, who was influential) unlocked meaningful attacking sequences. 

Julie Ertz has to be better as the US’s defensive midfielder, and whoever plays alongside her — most likely two of Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Sam Mewis — have to be stronger. The US have to be smarter with their pressing triggers and trapping. Much of that falls on Ellis.

Credit to England’s Phil Neville for setting his team up for success.

2. Improvements in possession

England would not have controlled the game to such an extent had Ellis designed a more effective possession shape. When the US took the ball in their defensive half, they spread wide and trusted the center backs to carry the ball forward and lead distribution. Lavelle, who has good vision and ideas, should be on the ball deeper. The full backs have to have more of a role.

It was bizarre watching the US set up when Becky Sauerbrunn or Abby Dahlkemper had the ball. The formation was an exaggerated 4-3-3, with the midfield barely visible. Ertz ranged forward consistently, which works only when the US actually get the ball forward. They did not do that well enough.

To possess the ball, you have to have a discernible midfield. Ellis appeared overly concerned with the flanks, which makes a fair bit of sense against an English team that loves its overloads and switches, but the way she set the US up with the ball resulted in low-percentage long balls. There has to be more meaningful possession.

3. US destroys opponents in transition.

The US thrive in transition play and counter-pressing. Losing the ball in your own end against the USWNT is death. The wingers are skillful and Alex Morgan is a cerebral hold-up striker, particularly when she finds the ball in tight spaces around the 18-yard box. Tobin Heath, despite a subpar performance against England, is arguably the US’s best overall player, and disintegrates hopeless defenders off the dribble with regularity. The US will combine and overlap with ferocity, and whip deadly crosses into the box once they’ve thoroughly disjointed you. 

Whichever team the US face in the final will be at a real and noticeably talent deficiency. All of the US’s opponents in this tournament have been. Against England, talent won out.

4. Press good, but Rapinoe was missed.

Starting Christen Press on the left wing proved a downgrade to Rapinoe, though Press did score the US’s first goal. Rapinoe is a better passer and connector, and was scorching hot heading into the semifinals. Press sometimes misses passes and runs. She does track back well and did in this game.

5. US good and killing the clock

It will be interesting how aggressive Ellis is willing to be against the Netherlands or Sweden. The US’s 4-1-4-1 defensive shape (which sometimes looked like a flat 4-5-1) was conservative, and Ellis designed it to flummox a possession-happy England. It mostly succeeded in that goal.

That defensive set-up proved helpful once the US resorted completely to time-killing mode after Alyssa Naeher’s heroic penalty-kick save. It was bold to carry the ball to the corner as early as the US did, but it worked, and England barely generated any meaningful chances late in the contest. France ran into similar problems.

Major Implications

Let’s take a moment to recognize the pressure on this USWNT team.

They’ve ruffled plenty of feathers this tournament, from celebrations against Thailand and England to Rapinoe’s political activism to the enduring fight for equal pay. Everyone expects them to win, and plenty may delight in their losing — curmudgeonly Brits, and hardcore Trump supporters who hate Rapinoe, and men who refuse to accept equal pay.

A loss in the final should not diminish their multiple worthy fights, but in the brutal, volatile world of public opinion, a defeat would undoubtedly be devastating. Primarily, it would be used as ammo by opponents of equal pay. However flawed (both morally and economically) arguments against equal pay are, they will hang around. 

The pressure mounts on a team that is becoming a phenomenon. It is not often that we see an international side this controversial and polarizing. The spotlight will be on when they take the Lyon field for the World Cup final.

Five MLS Coaches Potentially on the Hot Seat

July 2, 2019

Three MLS coaches have already been fired this season.

The New England Revolution are much better off. Bruce Arena simplified the approach and players no longer feel the pressure of playing under Brad Friedel.

The Colorado Rapids have improved dramatically.

FC Cincinnati are no better than they were when they cut Alan Koch loose, but they have yet to hire a replacement and are trusting a roster of borderline MLS players.

Other teams could follow suit if results start to falter this summer. The coaches hot seat list is less foretelling now than it was last year, when four coaches were eventually let go. But teams have shown a growing willingness to switch managers. Here’s a look at the hot seat list as it stands.

1. Adrian Heath, Minnesota United

Heath has been on the hot seat for at least two years. He has never been convincing as an MLS manager, dating to his time with the inaugural Orlando City SC, and has slipped by as Minnesota manager since 2016 on the basis of the Loons’ poor roster talent. 

Minnesota sit in a playoff place after a 7-1 annihilation of FC Cincinnati. With a solid foundation in positions where MNUFC have historically struggled, expectations are growing. Heath should face pressure to win with Darwin Quintero and the effective Jan Gregus-Ozzie Alonso midfield pairing. A losing streak that further diminishes confidence in Heath could see the Loons finally moving on.

2. Greg Vanney, Toronto FC

The clock is ticking for Vanney, whose TFC have won just once since the beginning of May. Toronto inexplicably missed the playoffs last year and are hovering at the red line this year despite a talented, star-filled squad. The outlines of the 2017 treble team are there. It might be hard for general manager Ali Curtis to keep Vanney around if TFC remain a middling team.

There are missing pieces in Toronto — they badly need a center back or two and could use another DP forward, likely a winger. But they should be better than they are.

3. Veljko Paunovic, Chicago Fire

Start with this:

Pauno’s Fire have never been great outside of a fruitful 2017 stretch when they played good-looking possession soccer with Bastian Schweinsteiger at the forefront. Since, they’ve toggled between styles and schemes and have struggled to maximize the aging Schweinsteiger, who takes up a valuable DP slot while playing out of position at center back. 

Chicago are mediocre, and Paunovic’s tinkering doesn’t help. It’s hard to see the Serbain crafting an identity out of his current squad. When the Fire move past their current core (which is aging), they shouldn’t entrust Paunovic to lead them forward.

4. Mike Petke, Real Salt Lake

It’s important to note that I do not write this with any inside information, just purely speculation. Beyond Paunovic, not too many coaches stick out as sitting on an especially warm seat. Petke might just be the perfect coach for this growing RSL team, with their heavy emphasis on Homegrown players. He may have upped his credibility with Real’s management further with last year’s surprising win over LAFC in the playoffs.

The only scenario that could see RSL losing faith in Petke as their coach of the future is if they remain below the playoff line and stagnate the development of players like Jefferson Savarino and Aaron Herrera.

5. Caleb Porter, Columbus Crew

It would be hard not include the coach of a team that has lost 10 of its last 12 games. The Crew are in a freefall and things have only worsened with injuries (Federico Higuain, Milton Valenzuela) and Gold Cup absences (Wil Trapp, Gyasi Zardes). They tried to keep things the way they were under Gregg Berhalter and fared well early in the season, only to plummet since.

A deep rebuild is probably coming. Columbus should make some players available for trades and transfers and start scouring the market for new signings. If Tim Bezbatchenko decides he needs a new leader to head up a rebuild, he could show Porter the door.

HPS MLS Podcast Episode 4

June 26, 2019

New episode of the HPS MLS Podcast is live!

Joining Harrison Hamm today is Dummy Run.Topics include the USMNT’s win over Trinidad, a balance between the present and the future, changes to Gregg Berhalter’s so-called System, and overreactions to preceding friendlies.

  • Our confidence in the US’s ability to win the Gold Cup, and whether that means anything (4:00)
  • Changes to Berhalter’s system (10:50)
  • Christian Pulisic’s role (27:00)
Listen to “The HPS MLS Pod Episode 4” on Spreaker.

MLS All-Star Team: Did the Selection Process Get it Right?

June 25, 2019

MLS unveiled its full All-Star team on Monday.

In total, 26 players will go to Orlando to play Atletico Madrid, 11 of which were selected by fans. Orlando City SC coach James O’Connor picked 13. Commissioner Don Garber added two special picks — young FC Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal and RSL goalkeeping legend Nick Rimando, who will retire after this season.

All in all, it’s a pretty good team, and most of the players who should have made it made it. There are snubs, per usual, and smaller-market teams will rightfully complain that higher-profile players made it over more deserving guys. Bastian Schweinsteiger should not be on this team if we’re considering pure performance this season.

But it makes sense that fame and fan recognition takes precedence in some cases. This is a showcase for MLS against a high-level European team. MLS has plenty of motivation to let Schweinsteiger into this team ahead of, say, Jack Elliott, even if Elliott has been miles better than Bastian this season.

MLS All-Star game compared to other American pro sports leagues

And MLS’s All-Star Game does not carry the importance and prestige of other American all-star games. It’s not common to discuss an MLS player and say he’s a “three-time All-Star.” That statement in itself would not indicate that the player is very good, the way that it would if you were talking about the NBA or NHL. 

Most importantly, All-Star selections don’t significantly affect a player’s salary and contract like they do in the NBA, at least to public knowledge. In the grand scheme of things, Houston Dynamo fans can deal with a deserving Alberth Elis missing the team.

With that in mind, we’re looking today at the players who should have and shouldn’t have made it.

Attacking Selections and Snub

Elis is the biggest snub that comes to mind. The forward selections from the fan XI were Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Vela. Those three are fair and deserving, though Elis has been a bit better than Rooney this season. Elis has five goals and six assists in 400 fewer minutes than Rooney, who has eight goals and five assists. 

From there, O’Connor added Josef Martinez and Chris Wondolowski as coach selections. Martinez has 10 goals and is arguably the third-best player in the league. Wondo has caught fire in recent weeks. It’s hard to justify Wondo over Elis, Mauro Manotas, and others, but it’s nice to reward Wondo for breaking the scoring record. No quibbles there.

11 players make up the midfield, seven of whom are outright attackers (eight if you include Paxton Pomykal). The fan XI picks were, as expected, big-market stars: Nani, Pity Martinez, Ezequiel Barco and Jonathan dos Santos.

Nani and dos Santos have been very good this season and deserve spots. The same cannot be said for Martinez and Barco. Atlanta’s voting bots are effective.

Deserving players get recognition

It was nice to see James O’Connor add six deserving players with his coach’s picks. Diego Rossi, tied for fourth in the league in goals, made it, as did NYCFC star Maxi Moralez, who is second in assists with nine. O’Connor recognized the efforts of LAFC workhorse and play-driver Mark-Anthony Kaye, and made sure to add the league’s best defensive midfielder: Diego Chara.

Nicolas Lodeiro is in the team. He is consistently one of the league’s most valuable players and the Sounders are third in the west, so his spot is safe. O’Connor also included Toronto FC’s Alejandro Pozuelo, who looks like an instant superstar. Pozuelo has 5g and 8a already.

Credit to Don Garber for making Pomykal a commissioner’s pick — Pomykal was deserving regardless as one of the league’s best No. 10-ish players. A few guys, like Diego Valeri, Alejandro Bedoya, Latif Blessing, and Eduard Atuesta were unlucky miss out. 

Fans whiff on two backline selections

The seven players who will make up the defense were primarily deserving selections, except for two: Schweinsteiger, based on his performance this year, and fan XI pick Graham Zusi. But, as mentioned before, it’s hard to argue against the draw of Schweinsteiger as a superstar. 

Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Walker Zimmerman were the other two fan XI selections. Zimmerman is the running favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, and Gonzalez-Pirez remains an elite center back in this league. In addition to those four, O’Connor added Red Bulls right back Kemar Lawrence, Minnesota left back Romain Metanire and FC Dallas center back Matt Hedges. Quality picks.

It was disappointing to see that DaMarcus Beasley did not receive a selection in his final season. Elliott, Kelvin Leerdam, and Nick Lima were other contenders.

The retiring Rimando will be the third goalkeeper, added as a career honor. Brad Guzan and Andre Blake are the other two keepers — neither would have been my selections, but the goalkeeper pool is crowded, and there haven’t been many that have set themselves apart. 

Top to Bottom Ranking of MLS Players Who Earn $2M or More

June 15, 2019

With MLS salaries now public, we again have the pleasure of knowing how much each player makes, and how much each team spends. Much can be done with this information, even with the knowledge that it might not be quite perfect.

We’ve already looked at underpaid and overpaid MLS players. Today, we’re ranking the 19 players who earn $2,000,000 or more in guaranteed compensation. The list excludes Giovani dos Santos and Yura Movsisyan, who no longer play in MLS, and Gyasi Zardes, who due to a clerical error was originally reported as earning more than $2M.

For the most part, these are good, top-tier players who are important for their teams. Considering they are paid vastly more than the rest of the league, they should be.

1. Carlos Vela, LAFC, $6,300,000

Shouldn’t be much surprise here — Vela is the league’s best player and plays for its best team. He’s on pace to set a record for most combined goals and assists in a single season.

2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, LA Galaxy, $7,200,000

Zlatan is the league’s second best player, scoring the second-most goals on the season (11) despite playing fewer minutes than the others in his vicinity. He is everything for the Galaxy. Not many surprises here, either.

3. Josef Martinez, Atlanta United, $3,058,333

These first three were easy — they are the best three players in MLS, and are a tier ahead of everyone else. Martinez is third in goals.

4. Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle Sounders, $2,502,500

Lodeiro runs everything for the Sounders. He consistently leads the league in various statistics that show he is active in basically every attacking possession. If MLS had publically-available tracking statistics, Lodeiro would probably lead in distance run by a wide margin.

5. Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto FC, $3,800,000

Pozuelo has been a revelation for TFC in his first 12 games, with five goals and eight assists. He looks like a centerpiece.

6. Wayne Rooney, D.C. United, $3,507,500

He doesn’t outright dominate games like some others on this list, but Rooney is fourth in the league in goals and is clearly pretty important for D.C. United.

7. Ignacio Piatti, Montreal Impact, $4,443,333

Piatti is aging — Montreal have to start planning for their post-Piatti future — but he is productive when he plays, and has been one of the league’s best wingers for almost a half-decade.

8. Nani, Orlando City SC, $2,486,250

Some (read: me) were skeptical of Nani when Orlando first shelled out big bucks for him. But for now, he is proving people wrong. He has a cool eight goals and four assists in 979 minutes for a mediocre Lions team. Orlando will need at least a couple more years of that sort of production to extract full value from the 32-year-old.

9. Jonathan dos Santos, LA Galaxy, $2,000,000

I had compiled most of my list when I realized I forgot dos Santos, a game-controlling d-mid who rivals Lodeiro in touch percentage leaderboards. The Mexican international has proven a crucial piece for the Galaxy.

10. Jozy Altidore, Toronto FC, $6,332,250

Altidore guarantees goals when he is on the field. He remains inexplicably underrated by too many fans outside of Toronto.

11. Maxi Moralez, NYCFC, $2,000,000

NYCFC have played eight games with both Moralez and Heber in the starting lineup. In those games, Moralez has three goals and eight assists and Heber has six goals and three assists. The Pigeons have five wins, three draws, and zero losses. Those also happen to be their last eight games.

12. Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers, $2,420,000

Valeri hasn’t had a crazy statistical season — partially due to the Timbers’ huge run of home games to start the year — but it’s hard to rank him much lower than this.

13. Nicolas Gaitan, Chicago Fire, $2,197,504

Perhaps this is underrating Gaitan, who has a very nice reputation, but he hasn’t blown opponents out of the water just yet. Two goals and five assists in 763 minutes is a pretty nice haul, though.

14. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Chicago Fire, $5,600,000

The Schweinsteiger-is-a-center-back experiment is not my favorite thing. Bastian isn’t what he used to be.

15. Albert Rusnak, Real Salt Lake, $2,001,667

Rusnak is a highly-coveted attacking midfielder who is early into his prime (at 24 years of age) and starts for the Slovakian national team. He has maintained relatively consistent production in 71 starts for RSL since arriving before 2017.

16. Carles Gil, New England Revolution, $2,337,500

There haven’t been many bright spots for the Revs, but Gil is one. His left foot can be magic.

17. Marco Fabian, Philadelphia Union, $2,274,087

We haven’t seen much of Fabian this year — he’s under 500 minutes due to injuries, a suspension, and Mexico duty. Brendan Aaronson is making a credible run at his job.

Fabian, though, will be an interesting card for the Union to play in the second half of the season.

18. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC, $6,428,571

Bradley would have been higher on this list a couple of years ago. He isn’t quite the d-mid he once was, but he is still a workhorse and can do the job at a high level for TFC.

19. Tim Howard, Colorado Rapids, $2,475,000

We covered Howard in the overpaid/underpaid article. The gist: he is MLS’s most overpaid player, by a wide margin.

Ranking MLS’s Most Overpaid and Underpaid Players

June 14, 2019

The MLS Players’ Association released salary cap data on Wednesday.

It is one of two times a year that fans are allowed to see how much their teams’ players make, and thus judge how well clubs spend money.

The release can spark some discontent in locker rooms given the disparities in salary between superstars and role players. Top-tier players earn millions, while younger guys on minimum contracts make $56,250 per year. It can be an awkward dichotomy.

Based on the newest salary release, here are the players who are the most egregiously overpaid and underpaid, judged based on their production as compared to their compensation. There are no metrics that go into deciding this, outside of data to help show whether a player is good or not.

MOST OVERPAID

1. Tim Howard, GK, Colorado Rapids ($2,475,000)

Howard is paid vastly more than any other goalkeeper in the league — Brad Guzan is behind him at $740,000 — for production that does not come close to equalling his exorbitant salary.

The Rapids’ decision to vastly overpay Howard handcuffs them elsewhere. Damaging contracts to below-average players are a primary culprit for the current state of the team.

Goalkeepers, by nature of the position, are much easier to find at lower costs than other positions, like NFL running backs. There is no reason to pay one millions of dollars.

(Note: I did not include players like Shkelzen Gashi and Yura Movsisyan in the “overpaid” section because they do not technically play for Colorado and Real Salt Lake anymore, even though Gashi and Movsisyan most certainly are overpaid.)

2. Gyasi Zardes, FW, Columbus Crew ($1,471,667)

The Players’ Association has lowered the initial estimate of Zardes’s contract by about a million since they first posted the salaries, but the amount the Crew are paying Zardes remains noticeably high. It is hard to justify the striker’s status as a Designated Player.

The scoring was there last year, at 19 goals, but there is reason to believe that he will struggle to reach that mark again. Gregg Berhalter’s system assured that he would receive sufficient goal-scoring opportunities. Zardes’s xG+xA/96 has declined from 0.73 in 2018 to 0.47 in 2019. He touches the ball less than any player in the league, with the lowest touch percentage in MLS among field players two years running. Only goalkeeper Tyler Miller gets more touches this year.

Other forwards have similarly low possession numbers, but Zardes is unlikely to compensate with consistently high on-goal production. The decision from Crew president Tim Bezbatchenko to invest so heavily in Zardes was surprising.

3. Jorgen Skjelvik, CB, LA Galaxy ($1,066,667)

Skjelvik, a lumbering left-sided defender, is less damaging at left back than he is at center back. WhoScored rates him as having played left back in all 12 of his starts this season, a welcome departure from his frequent shifts in the middle last year.  

Still, Skjelvik is the second-highest paid defender in MLS, behind only the Dynamo’s Kiki Struna, who has been perfectly competent in his first MLS season. The Galaxy would probably be okay with ditching that deal.

4. Roland Lamah, MF, FC Cincinnati ($806,250)

Cincinnati selected Lamah in the expansion draft, a curious decision considering their reluctance to spend on high-caliber attackers (Kenny Saeif already appears to be gone, and Fanendo Adi has been predictably unproductive).

Lamah managed a cool 19 goals and nine assists in two seasons at FC Dallas, but provided little in the way of creativity or attacking production. He has a goal and two assists in 1,097 minutes this season for a dry FCC team.

5. Zoltan Stieber, MF, D.C. United ($787, 500)

Stieber, a 30-year-old Hungarian, has lost virtually all of his playing time this season. He’s appeared in eight of DCU’s games, but only started two of them, and has only played 235 minutes.

MOST UNDERPAID

1. Latif Blessing, MF, LAFC ($103,125)

Few could have foreseen Blessing’s sudden development into a top-tier MLS midfielder. Blessing covers ground and teleports to various spots on the field, combining with skillful attackers and hitting incisive passes.

Midfield partner Mark-Anthony Kaye ($177,811) could just as easily have taken this spot; it was a toss-up between Blessing and Kaye here. They both will find themselves discussing a big-money at some point in the near future.

2. Paxton Pomykal, MF, FC Dallas ($105,000)

As you’ll see, many of the underpaid players on this list (and in general) are American or American-developed. The best ones will be sold to Europe for big bucks eventually — Pomykal is on that pace — and other elite players will receive lucrative contract extensions, a la Aaron Long.

Pomykal’s breakout season as FC Dallas’s orchestrator comes on a salary similar those of backup goalkeepers Brad Stuver and Alec Kann. FCD have declined in the games since Pomykal left for the U-20 World Cup; they’ve missed Pomykal’s ball-movement and calm distribution. The 19-year-old looks as comfortable on the ball as any other American in the national team pool.

3. Julian Gressel, MF, Atlanta United ($133,000)

Gressel wears the armband for Atlanta and continues to do everything for them, playing every position and acting as an offensive and defensive fulcrum. He is among MLS’s best crossers of the ball. He could step into a top-tier European league and hold his own right now. That chance may very well come.

Pretty incredible value for a SuperDraft pick from Providence.

4. Reggie Cannon, RB, FC Dallas ($80,250)

It is hard to comprehend that Cannon, a high-level MLS right back who plays every week, is paid as low as $80,000 while players like Francisco Calvo are in the hundreds of thousands. The success of Cannon and Pomykal and all of the Homegrowns like them should inspire teams to focus on cultivating that level of low-cost talent.

5. Jackson Yueill, MF, San Jose Earthquakes ($190,000)

Yueill has taken responsibility as the Quakes’ midfield orchestrator and tempo-setter; he has an impressive understanding of how to move the ball effectively, and covers sufficient ground. It is no coincidence that the Quakes’ improvement this season coincided with Yueill’s insertion into the lineup.

USWNT Celebration Controversy Means Little

June 12, 2019

The USWNT steamrolled Thailand on Tuesday. The final score, a ghastly 13-0, is the most lopsided in World Cup history.

Alex Morgan scored five and six other players scored at least one. It was one of the most thorough blowouts in the history of high-level soccer — the USWNT had 40 (40!) shots, 20 of which went on target, compared to Thailand’s total of two. The US kept 73 percent possession. Expected Goal stats for the game are wildly disproportionate.

Reason for controversy?

It would all be more enjoyable if postgame conversation centered on the game itself instead of the controversy surrounding it.

Critics argue that the US celebrated their goals excessively, and shouldn’t have pressed the gas so hard late in the game, with the result virtually assured after the first 20 minutes. Various pundits (and keyboard warriors) expressed concern for the emotional well-being of the embattled Thai players, and cited sports morality platitudes.

Arguments that the US shouldn’t have run up the score, or at least should have relaxed a bit in the second half, are inherently flawed, and have admittedly received less support. Goal differential is the primary group-stage tiebreaker. While it is unlikely that the US won’t win Group F, a calmer 4-0 or 5-0 defeat of Thailand could have jeopardized first-place. Sweden, the US’s most threatening competition, plays Thailand too, and could have stolen first on goal differential with a point against the US. There are practical reasons for winning by as many goals as possible.

The US would arguably show up Thailand even more by passing the ball around and slowing the game down. This is the World Cup. Thailand aren’t there to concede a few goals and then chase Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle around for an hour. The US have earned the right to enjoy an utter disembodiment of an opposing team. Most of those players won’t have another opportunity to pot an easy goal and assist in a World Cup match. Morgan’s New Star Soccer-type scoreline of five goals, three assists puts her in pole position to win the tournament’s Golden Boot already.

In a way, stacking goals is a measure of respect toward a completely overmatched Thai team. It shows that the US treated them as legitimate enough opposition to try all the way through. Thailand can say they went to the World Cup and competed against a full-strength top team.

The celebration controversy is more legitimate. Led by Megan Rapinoe, the US celebrated ecstatically every time they scored. It was a bit excessive, particularly when they reached double digits and went on stretches in which they scored every couple of minutes. There’s no reason to joylessly walk back to the center circle, but they would have been better off leaving it to smiling and high-fiving teammates.

However, it is difficult on the surface to criticize players for celebrating World Cup goals. People taking serious umbrage with the celebrations come off as the Fun Police, similar to curmudgeonly baseball men who lament bat flipping or old Canadians who hate the Carolina Hurricanes. The USWNT debate should not be as big a deal as it is — celebrating important soccer goals is not a major occurrence, unless you blatantly disrespect the other team or do something that extends beyond the simple act of celebration.

The sudden prominence of this controversy only serves to take away from the national team’s accomplishments. Critics who say the US celebrated too much have a point, but a point that means little in the larger context of the World Cup. Life will go on, the US will probably continue to win. None of these debates should have the power to pull away from the actual soccer.

The US play Chile on Sunday.

USMNT Panic Mode: Confidence in Gregg Berhalter’s System Begins to Dissipate

June 10, 2019

We’re back in USMNT Panic Mode.

Gregg Berhalter’s US, not long ago a beacon of optimism, have lost a pair of ugly friendlies and looked bad and unpromising in the process. The much-heralded System has taken a hit as Berhalter deals with a huge and largely unimpressive player pool. Faith in Berhalter among an exasperated and pessimistic fan base is eroding already.

Disastrous friendly results erodes confidence

The US capitulated against Venezuela in the final pre-Gold Cup friendly, and fell flat in a 1-0 loss to Jamaica’s B-team a few days prior. The 3-0 loss to Venezuela was arguably the ugliest of the entire post-Trinidad Dark Ages.

At this point, it’s hard to see the US making much of a dent at the upcoming Gold Cup. Berhalter’s tactical ideas, while well-thought-out, might not fit the player pool.

We’ve learned that implementing a complex system and tactical identity at the international level is nearly impossible, and only a few of the world’s best managers have accomplished it. For the US to rebound and win competitive games, Berhalter has to find a balance between his preferred identity (which is positive and smart!) and a certain pragmatism.

The System isn’t working

A troubling trend, though: The System hasn’t worked all that well yet. Clearly, it wasn’t enough to avoid a pair of terrible losses against teams the US should beat. Players look confused and passive. The personnel has been lacking — the Wil Trapp USMNT experience needs to end — and even the players who should be playing at this level (Paul Arriola, for example) haven’t played well. Berhalter pulled some Klinsmann-esque excuses out of his hat.

Managers have to approach their jobs with an eye toward maximizing the players they have at their disposal. It’s fair to question, early in the process, whether Berhalter is doing that. We can’t be sure until we watch them in the Gold Cup (and maybe not even then), but perhaps the US isn’t built to play with high-volume possession, or re-press with the sort of energy Berhalter desires.

Venezuela and Jamaica controlled play and had little trouble infiltrating the US’s midield. Without ball-winners in midfield — in addition to the presence of Trapp, who can not defend at the international level — Berhalter’s team rarely won possession in good areas. The game in general looked difficult for overmatched US squads.

Those friendlies do not inspire much confidence. They indicate future issues with a tactical approach that may be too complex to be workable at the international level, especially for a player pool that has struggled with it.

Is it the System or the players?

Perhaps things will be different when Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley play. The US played an experimental lineup against Jamaica. We know already that Berhalter is a smart, cerebral coach who has a vision for this national team, and is unlikely to commit further Klinsmann sins. Calls for patience are not unwarranted.

It’s okay to still be optimistic that Berhalter will figure things out and put the US on the path he so clearly envisions. There are young players who will fill the many gaps of the Lost Generation (the effects of which plague the current team). Berhalter — we can hope — understands the flaws of his approach and will soften his emphasis on Guardiola tactics.

A balance has to be found. The Gold Cup approaches fast.

The HPS MLS Podcast Episode 3

June 6, 2019

New HPS MLS Podcast is up.

This week, Harrison Hamm is joined by Will Conwell of Stumptown Footy, who is on to talk about the Portland Timbers, their home opener, and how they project for the rest of the season.

  • (0:00): What the atmosphere was like at the Timbers’ home opener, and how the additions to Providence Park looked.
  • (5:00): The Timbers’ rocky start and how they’ve stabilized.
  • (11:15): How new DP attacker Bryan Fernandez will continue to be utilized, and how Giovani Savarese may assemble his attack.
  • (19:50): The pros and cons of a 4-4-2 diamond formation.
  • (25:30): Where might the Timbers look in the summer transfer window?
Listen to “The HPS MLS Podcast Episode 03” on Spreaker.

Ranking All 24 MLS Teams by Watchability

June 5, 2019

With most MLS teams having played close to half of their games, we have a pretty good idea of how they play. We’ve learned that the Philadelphia Union are pretty good, aesthetically. Other teams don’t quite reach that level.

So, in an unscientific and subjective format, let’s rank each MLS team based on how fun they are to watch, including factors like on-field ability, the amount at which they score and concede goals, and the general aesthetics of their stadium and broadcast.

1. LAFC

This shouldn’t be a huge surprise — LA score a ton of goals and have been far and away the best team in the league this season. Their games are chess matches, with opposing managers scheming to find little advantages, and plenty of goals are scored, though the Black and Gold score most of them — they tout a ridiculous +26 goal differential.

It helps that they have Carlos Vela, the best player in the league.

The only thing holding them back is a mid-to-low-tier local broadcast and a basic set of uniforms. Everything else, including the stadium and atmosphere, is on point.

2. Atlanta United

Atlanta obviously have plenty of talent and can roll out fun lineups that play pretty good soccer. Josef Martinez has a high entertainment value, with his utter determination to score and occasional outbursts of frustration when he doesn’t.

Also: Julian Gressel is my favorite player in the league.

3. Toronto FC

TFC have had a tough past few weeks, but goals are usually scored regardless of whether they are winning or losing. Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore are great and TFC’s defenders are a lot less great. We’ll get to watch Omar Gonzalez try to solve that puzzle now.

Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio are still elite midfielders in spite of Toronto’s struggles. TFC have advantages in some other areas as well — BMO Field looks good on TV (with good lighting and a solid camera angle) and TSN is the best local(ish) broadcast in MLS.

4. LA Galaxy

That the Galaxy are this high despite poor lighting at their stadium and below-average local commentators is a testament to the draw of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and an interesting team around him. Watching Zlatan yell at teammates and score nice goals, coupled with the Galaxy’s ongoing tactical puzzle, is objectively fun.

5. Philadelphia Union

Philly tend to play open, entertaining games, with a pass-first mentality and skillful attackers. Brenden Aaronson is fun to watch. Jim Curtain plays the kids.

In addition, they have a national TV-level play-by-play commentator in JP Dellacamera and they are one of the only teams in MLS to play a 4-4-2 diamond formation.

6. Seattle Sounders

Nicolas Lodeiro is one of my favorite players to watch in MLS. He makes an impressively concerted effort to find the ball everywhere and dictate as much as he can. Cristian Roldan has taken lessons from him.

Outside of that, Seattle are elite, wear good uniforms, and play at a stadium that looks good on TV (including a nice, wide camera angle).

7. D.C. United

D.C.’s recent skid knocked them down a peg or two, but they have a defined style that prioritizes attacking, with elite attackers to execute it. Luciano Acosta has skill moves and vision. Wayne Rooney is Wayne Rooney. Audi Field is a nice stadium.

8. San Jose Earthquakes

Matias Almeyda’s Earthquakes are the only team I can think of on the entire planet that plays an outright man-marking system, so that goes a long way toward upping their watchability. In addition, they have Chris Wondolowski, the pair of Jackson Yueill and Tommy Thompson, good uniforms, and a top-tier local broadcast. If they won more games, they might rank a bit higher.

9. Portland Timbers

It helps the Timbers here that they played a really game a couple of days before this article was written — Portland lost 3-2 to LAFC in one of the highest-quality matches of the season so far.

The Timbers sit deep and counter, which can make for bad soccer, but they go about it in a way that maximizes their strengths and frees the league’s best transition attack. Diego Chara, the league’s best d-mid, is a joy to watch both defensively and with the ball in space. Brian Fernandez has an eye for goal. Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco are great, and I am firmly on the Jeremy Ebobisse train.

10. Minnesota United

I ranked Minnesota pretty low in my recent MLS local announcer rankings, but upon a couple of recent watches, I’ve softened my opinion a bit — Kyndra St. Aubin is an above-average color commentator, and Jamie Watson is a very useful sideline reporter.

No longer playing on the University of Minnesota football field helps the Loons in these rankings, as does the presence of Darwin Quintero. I like watching that attack, and the Jan Gregus-Ozzie Alonso midfield has been solid. If only Minnesota wore uniforms that took advantage of what could be a nice-looking color scheme.

11. New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls haven’t lost since May 8 and now sit fourth in the Eastern Conference. They are officially good again, which means we get the same press-y NYRB with interesting tactics.

The gray home jerseys have turned out pretty well.

12. Sporting Kansas City

Sporting, though they remain mired in a tough stretch, play pretty good soccer and have Johnny Russell, one of the most electric players in the league. Their uniforms are good and their stadium looks good on TV. They might have been a couple spots higher had this ranking been done earlier in the season.

13. Vancouver Whitecaps

There aren’t many MLS teams that jump out to me as especially poor to watch. That is a good thing! So this part of the list is pretty tight, and a lot of it comes down to what I happen to be feeling right now.

On that note, I’ve enjoyed watching the Whitecaps this year. I’m a fan of In-beom Hwang, their midfield orchestrator, and have been mesmerized at times by attacker Lass Bangoura. Lucas Venuto, while RSL-level inconsistent, can be joy to watch when he wants to be. Ali Adnan is a very nice right back.

Their stadium is great to watch on TV. The field is brightly-lit, the turf glows, and uniform colors stand out. And TSN, as mentioned before, is a fantastic broadcaster.

14. FC Dallas

On one hand, FCD have good and fun youth (Paxton Pomykal, notably) and play attacking soccer. On the other hand, though, their stadium is one of the worst for TV viewing, with a poorly-lit field and a subpar atmosphere, and their games have a tendency to slow down at times. They do have a top-tier local broadcast, however.

15. Houston Dynamo

Houston have Alberth Elis, who is one of the most fun players to watch in MLS, though he can switch off at times. They can be pretty interesting tactically. But like Dallas, some of their games tend to slow down (perhaps due to Texas heat?). The Dynamo’s local broadcast is mid-tier at best.

I will say that Mauro Manotas is quietly a very fun player to watch.

16. FC Cincinnati

Being bad a lot of times doesn’t help in these types of rankings, and FCC are certainly bad. Goals aren’t an especially common occurrence in Cincy games — FCC have scored just 12 goals in 15 games this year, which is extremely bad — and they are losing a lot right now as they figure themselves out under Yoann Damet. I will say that I’ve enjoyed recent Frankie Amaya minutes.

17. Columbus Crew

Like SKC, the Crew would be higher here if I had done this list in late March. But alas, the Crew are falling fast right now and have evidently lost whatever Berhalter carryover magic they conjured in the first month of the season. MAPFRE Stadium’s TV aesthetics are bottom-tier, right alongside FCD’s Toyota Stadium.

18. NYCFC

The Pigeons have good attackers, an interesting style of play, and high quality home uniforms. Holding them back, as you might guess, is Yankee Stadium, which is obviously tiny and thus makes for a poor viewing experience. Find a stadium!

19. Real Salt Lake

RSL get credit for playing the kids and having a very good home broadcast, but they don’t get consistent production from their mercurial attackers. Not enough to set them apart from some teams above them.

20. Montreal Impact

Like RSL, I can’t find enough to slide them above some teams. The Impact play a fairly basic defensive style of play. Their system isn’t horribly regressive, but it’s not quite beautiful soccer. They do have a nice-looking stadium, a TSN broadcast, and Ignacio Piatti.

21. Chicago Fire

The team itself is okay viewing (with Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger in there as passers, the Fire can’t be too difficult to watch), but I ranked the local broadcast at the very bottom, and Chicago’s stadium has pretty terrible aesthetics.

I also can’t haven’t come around on the “Aleksandar Katai is good” hill.

22. Colorado Rapids

The only reason Colorado find themselves above last place is a recent stretch of good results under Conor Casey. Perhaps the Rapids will be respectable now! Then again, we said that at times last year. Never count out the persistence of Rapids futility.

23. Orlando City SC

A few reasons for OCSC’s low ranking: the camera angle at their stadium is too low to the field, the team is mediocre and not particularly exciting, and I don’t like purple. That’s about all I have to say about the Lions here.

24. New England Revolution

Their home games are kind of depressing, with the massive MLS 1.0-style football field and crappy turf. The team is similar in feel to what it’s been for the last couple of years. It helps that their local broadcast is pretty solid, but Bruce Arena has a job to do to turn this ship around.

The HPS MLS Pod Episode 2

May 30, 2019

In the second episode of the High Press Soccer MLS podcast, host Harrison Hamm is joined by MLSsoccer.com writer Tom Bogert as they discuss their selections for the MLS All-Star game and which players have impressed.

  • Goalkeepers (0:00 — 5:27)
  • Defenders (5:27 — 13:30)
  • Midfielders (13:30 — 23:50)
  • Forwards (23:50 — 30:18)
  • If the All-Star game were important and competitive, what would the ideal XI be? (30:18 — 40:41)

Listen to “The HPS MLS Podcast Ep 02” on Spreaker.

Picking a 2019 MLS All-Star Starting XI

May 29, 2019

Voting for the 2019 MLS All-Star game has already started, and will continue until June 13. Fans pick 10 players — an 11th will be determined by FIFA19 — and the rest of the roster is selected by Orlando City coach James O’Connor.

Given the recent history of All-Star voting, it is unlikely that the fan XI will actually produce the best players at each position. Atlanta United players will dominate. MLSsoccer.com gives fans an unrealistic 3-4-3 formation as the base, tilting votes toward attackers. Fan voting is inherently fraught.

Regardless, it’s fun to pick the most deserving players, even if most of them probably won’t earn fan XI spots. We’ll go through today and do exactly that, including tons of honorable mentions, just for fun. Let’s go.

Goalkeeper: Stefan Frei (Seattle Sounders)

Similar to much of last year, there isn’t a goalkeeper who jumps out as an obvious pick here. Stefan Frei earns this spot by virtue of being the best in the league.

Zack Steffen hasn’t been out of this world and his team has lost seven of its last eight games (two of which came without Steffen). We’ll give this spot to the reigning Goalkeeper of the Year champ.

Honorable mentions: Tyler Miller (LAFC), Evan Bush (Montreal Impact), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Daniel Vega (San Jose Earthquakes)

Defenders: Walker Zimmerman (LAFC), Jack Elliott (Philadelphia Union), Kelvin Leerdam (Sounders)

Only selecting three defenders (and thus possibly excluding a defensive position or two) is not an ideal set-up, but I was at least spared from having to mine out a left-back, often the toughest task in these debates.

Walker Zimmerman seems to be the frontrunner for Defender of the Year, leading the backline of the best team in the league. He is more disciplined stepping out of the back this year and has partnered effectively with Eddie Segura, an All-Star contender in his own right. Elliott has played every minute for the Union.

Kelvin Leerdam is a clean, solid right-back who knows how to connect play on the ball and defend in space. He steps into midfield when needed for the Sounders, and he understands his role.

A few of the usual center back names nearly made it on here: Ike Opara in Minnesota, Matt Hedges in Dallas, and Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez in Atlanta, namely. In addition, I gave serious consideration to Montreal stalwart Zakaria Diallo, Vancouver’s Doneil Henry, and Seattle’s Kim Kee-Hee.

FCD youngling Reggie Cannon, Whitecaps golazo-scorer Ali Adnan, LAFC vet Steven Beitashour, Minnesota newcomer Romain Metanire, Orlando wing-back Ruan, and versatile San Jose defender Nick Lima deserve a mention at right back.

And, for the record, if I had to include a left-back, I’d throw in the Impact’s Daniel Lovitz, the Red Bulls’ Kemar Lawrence, or D.C. United’s Leonardo Jara.

Midfielders: Latif Blessing (LAFC), Mark-Anthony Kaye (LAFC), Nicolas Lodeiro (Sounders), Alejandro Bedoya (Union)

I included two LAFC midfielders in this spot, and yet Eduard Atuesta remains one of my biggest snubs here. LA’s midfield is fantastic. I mentioned Blessing in this article a month ago, and Kaye is an engine alongside Blessing and Atuesta.

Nicolas Lodeiro is the same Lodeiro — he gets on the ball a ton, dictates everything, and creates on-goal chances. This time, the Sounders are actually good early in the season, so Lodeiro deserves a starting spot. Some other attacking midfielders in contention here: Darwin Quintero (Minnesota), Alejandro Pozuelo (Toronto FC), Paxton Pomykal (FCD), and Luciano Acosta (D.C. United).

Alejandro Bedoya is not as obvious a selection as Lodeiro, but he deserves to at least be in the mix. He is an important part of Philly’s success with the 4-4-2 diamond, playing as a shuttler and helping transport the ball to the attackers. Cristian Roldan, Darlington Nagbe, and Jonathan dos Santos deserve shouts as No. 8s.

It feels weird not having a true No. 6 here, but Kaye can very capably fill that role, and one could argue that he is a 6 anyway. Diego Chara is always in contention.

Forwards: Carlos Vela (LAFC), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy), Alberth Elis (Houston Dynamo)

Carlos Vela is the best player in MLS and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is right behind him. Those two are pretty secure in their spots here.

Alberth Elis is secure as well, with four goals and six assists in 854 minutes and a role as the best player on one of MLS’s best early teams. His talent and performance this year in spite of the fewer games he’s played than others elevate him over productive attackers like Orlando’s Nani, Sporting KC’s Johnny Russell, and D.C.’s Wayne Rooney.

Dynamo teammate Mauro Manotas comes second to Zlatan among center-forwards — he has six goals and four assists this season as Elis’s partner in crime.

Honorable mentions: Josef Martinez (Atlanta), Jozy Altidore (TFC), Diego Rossi (LAFC)

Three Players Who Will Have to Prove Themselves at USMNT Gold Cup Camp

May 24, 2019

The USMNT’s 40-man preliminary roster for the Gold Cup was, for the most part, expected. It is a healthy balance between outright starters, fringe contributors and experimental youth.

Gregg Berhalter will have his first quality opportunity to evaluate his players and their fit in his system. Nearly half of the preliminary roster won’t stick around for the Gold Cup itself, but every player has at least confirmed a spot on whatever massive whiteboard Berhalter has in his living room.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some players who have the most to prove this summer.

Darlington Nagbe, Atlanta United

Darlington Nagbe was not named to the January or March friendly rosters due to heavy workloads with Atlanta United, so this will be Berhalter’s first opportunity to see him in US colors. Having been a regular starter with both the 2017 Trinidad Disaster team (he went 84 minutes that October night) and the Dave Sarachan Dark Days team, Nagbe has yet to have a chance to impress in Berhalter’s system.

At 28, he could be a nice veteran squad option. He in theory fits Berhalter’s desire to play on the ball — his calling card is that he never loses possession, with clinical decision-making and clever movement in tricky areas.

His confidence seems to be growing in Atlanta, particularly this season. Nagbe has been more willing to push the ball forward and make late runs into the box. A certain conservativeness on the ball has been the constant knock on him, and he seems to be improving some of those elements.

Nagbe has doubled his xB% from ~6% last season to ~11% this season, per Cheuk Hei Ho of American Soccer Analysis, meaning he is more active in possession. He hasn’t influenced the attack a huge amount still — per Cheuk, his involvement in possession lowers the likelihood that Atlanta produce a quality chance, and his shot numbers are the lowest of his career — but for Nagbe, simply getting involved more is a form of aggression for him.

Reggie Cannon, FC Dallas

Reggie Cannon did not make the March roster, one of the more notable snubs from that camp. That, inherently, means he has a certain amount to prove.

Cannon doesn’t really fit the heavy possession role Berhalter wants his right back to play. With FC Dallas, he is an up-and-down type, a player who is more likely cover space linearly on the touchline instead of spending a significant amount of time inverted in possession. That is likely the primary reason that Berhalter has prioritized Nick Lima over Cannon in the early days of his USMNT tenure.

The system we’ve seen in the first few friendly games isn’t set in stone, though, and it shouldn’t be. Versatility is necessary based on the opponent and personnel. Perhaps there will come a time that Cannon’s skillset is advantageous.

Regardless of stylistic concerns, Cannon is 20, an everyday MLS starter, and a promising right back, a position that has historically lacked for the US. He will be around.

Tyler Boyd, MKE Ankaragucu

Fresh off a one-time switch from New Zealand, Tyler Boyd arrives at this Gold Cup camp with a chance to put himself on the US’s list of speedy, field-stretching wingers. Berhalter likes those, and he liked Boyd enough to leave Kenny Saeif off of this prelim roster.

Boyd has been producing in the Turkish league, with six goals and four assists in 14 games. He’s 24, so he’s not really young, but wingers who can score are valuable in perpetuity, and Berhalter’s system needs a player who can dribble in space and create chances for himself. Corey Baird, who has at times looked like the frontrunner for that job, doesn’t have effectiveness on the ball to score at Boyd’s rate.

It will be fascinating to see whether Boyd can steal a job out of this camp and potentially start a Gold Cup game. That seems like a big jump for a 24-year-old who has been largely unknown to the wider US Soccer stratosphere up until recently, but it seems like a definite possibility.

HPS MLS Pod Ep 1

May 23, 2019

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)
Listen to “HPS MLS Pod Ep 1” on Spreaker.

Three MLS Teams with Difficult Transfer Decisions Looming

May 21, 2019

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.

Toronto FC

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.

Houston Dynamo

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.

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.

Columbus Crew

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.

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