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.