The 2020 MLS season is starting this week. Let’s jump into some of interesting storylines and questions.
What will see from Thierry Henry in his debut season?
Montreal, with Thierry Henry in his first season as manager, is one of the handful of MLS teams that has already played their first competitive game of 2020, in the Concacaf Champions League. They picked up a respectable 2-2 first leg draw against Saprissa in Costa Rica, setting them up for a successful home leg.
Henry is still a relative unknown as a manager. The roster is a bit all over the place, so it’s hard to know exactly what direction Henry will take them. They played a wacky 5-2-3 for stretches in the first leg against Saprissa, to some success. Their attackers — Romell Quioto, Ballou Tabla, Lassi Lappalainen — can play in transition. Henry will want to unleash them.
The backline will likely have trouble. Playing a sit-deep-and-counter system with a problematic defense can be a risk. With a diverse and deep cast of players, Henry can mix and match and try different styles to fit his team together. This should be the first year of a multi-year project.
Nashville’s quest to not get run over
The approach from expansion Nashville SC was simple: build a solid enough team that will not get embarrassed and go from there. That essentially means they will have a good defense but a nonexistent attack, if things go the way most people expect.
Nashville seems to have noted the defensive struggles of previous expansion teams and tried to move in the opposite direction. They dropped a significant amount of allocation money on Walker Zimmerman, one of the best central defenders in MLS. In midfield, they will roll with a defensively-stout Dax-McCarty-Anibal Godoy partnership. The veterans in this team will ensure that Nashville won’t get blown out to start their MLS tenure.
Is this the year for Orlando?
Every year seems to be the same old story for Orlando City: a promising team, with multiple positive acquisitions and a coach trying to put his stamp on the club, but a disappointing season. Something always goes wrong. A young transfer disappoints, or the defense collapses.
The main reason that this year could turn out differently is the presence of Oscar Pareja, entering his first season as Orlando’s coach. Pareja should have much more promising ideas than Adrian Heath, Jason Kreis and James O’Connor ever did. His track record of coaxing internal improvement out of his teams is promising.
For Orlando to make the playoffs this year, they will need a handful of new acquisitions to prove they were worth the price. Mauricio Pereyra, acquired midseason 2019, had three assists in 394 minutes last year. He is supposed to be the guy at the No. 10. New midfielder Junior Urso should form an interesting partnership with the underrated Sebastian Mendez. Antonio Carlos, on loan from Palmeiras with an option to buy, will be trusted to lock down central defense alongside Robin Jansson.
It will be interesting to see how much Pareja is able to get out of this team. If it all comes together, the playoffs are certainly within reach.
Portland’s forward conundrum
The Portland Timbers have lacked pure attacking firepower in the past. With Diego Valeri getting older, Brian Fernandez out of the picture, and Sebastian Blanco too often on an island, they took significant steps this offseason to bring in reinforcements. They brought in two DP attackers — striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda and winger Yimmi Chara — and a TAM forward in Felipe Mora. This is in addition to the existing core of Blanco, Valeri, Jeremy Ebobisse, Andy Polo, and Dairon Asprilla.
Giovanni Savarese’s problem is fitting all of this together. There are three outright center forwards on the roster now in Niezgoda, Mora, and Ebobisse, and while the young and promising Ebobisse has played on the wing in the past, he is better up top. It seems that Chara and Blanco are set on either wing, with Valeri in between them. Savarese could try to force two forwards on the field with a two-striker set-up, but that could be slightly impractical tactically. Teams that need a young forward should be inquiring about Ebobisse’s availability.
There is also the question of Savarese’s tactical approach. The Timbers were one of the league’s most frequent crossing teams last year. That is never a good sign. They have to figure out some plan to improve their output in the final third.