MLS 2019 – Season Preview Part 2
Last week we took a look at the general state of the league as well as what to look for from Eastern Conference teams this season. So lets wrap up the preseason look with the Western Conference teams. Training camps are nearly complete and in fact numerous teams have already been playing competitive matches as part of the CONCACAF Champions League. Round of 16 matches started with the first legs being held last week and the second legs are over the next three days. Five MLS teams are still in play with their second leg matches and current score noted.
Toronto FC hosts Independiente tonight down 4-0. Clearly Toronto is in a tough spot.
Houston Dynamo hosts Guastaloya tonight up 1-0. Right where you want to be.
NY Red Bulls host Atletico Pantoja tomorrow up 2-0. Red Bulls are in great shape.
Atlanta United hosts Herediano on Thursday down 3-1. Not a good spot but in that crazy stadium with those fans don’t count them out yet.
Sporting KC is away at Toluca on Thursday up 3-0. Sporting should move on.
So some interesting MLS related matches the next several days to build up to the MLS season which begins this Saturday. Should be a fun season and lots to look forward to for the fans especially with the playoff format. With the expansion of new teams the last several years, the playoffs will be expanded to include 7 teams from each Conference with the highest ranked team having a first round bye. And the highest ranked teams will get to host all playoff matches. But to me the biggest, and most exciting change, is that every match will be single elimination. No more home-and-home rounds. This has two benefits. First, the obvious one is that it creates a lot of match intensity. A team can’t sit back on the road and hope to defend to a scoreless draw or even a 1-0 defeat hoping to ramp it up on the home leg. There are no tomorrows. Secondly, even though there are more teams in the playoffs since the structure is geared to all single elimination matches the MLS Cup final will end up being held November 10th, a month earlier than previous seasons. This will be better for the players and fans alike.
Ok on to the 2019 Western Conference!
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
No other team in the MLS has potentially improved itself this past offseason than the Rapids. The clubs management went out to address the teams shortcomings and they did so in depth. The Rapids had the second worst goal differential in the entire league last season. That alone keeps you from being in the playoffs let alone any kind of a real contender. To improve in that area they started where they should. In the back. Comeback player of the year candidate Kortne Ford will be back from an injury shortened 2018 campaign. Ford played locally at the University of Denver and lead them to their first ever NCAA College Cup in 2016 and signed as a Homegrown Player in January 2017. If he is healthy and stays on the field, coupled with Sam Vines, Axel Sjoberg, and Deklan Wynne they should have a much improved back four. And speaking of the back its hard to look past the very back. This will be the final professional season for keeper Tim Howard. Howard is still a capable keeper but if he wanes over the long season they have a good backup in Clint Irwin.
But the biggest change for the better was bringing in Benny Feilhaber. Coupled with Kellyn Acosta and Johan Blomberg the midfield should be much better at transitioning the ball forward. In the final third look for Feilhaber to be the key playmaker in the final third. And the two new front runners will be Kai Kamara and Diego Rubio. They should find more space with the improved midfield and will be the main targets in the final third.
There are a lot of new faces and that always takes some time. But if manager Anthony Hudson can find the right combinations and shorten the learning curve they should flirt with the playoffs and potentially finish in the upper third of the conference.
The best news for Dallas fans is that this year they will be a young and deep side. The bad news is that they are mostly unproven. Coupled with a new manager in Luchi Gonzalez it will be an interesting season. Of late Dallas has had a problem with playing acceptably during the regular season. Well enough to make the playoffs but then they have been quite disappointing. Perhaps the youth movement will turn this around. Gonzalez was a former Dallas Academy director so knows full well the young products being brought forward. They have one of if not the best MLS academies around and have produced numerous stars such as Weston McKennie and Kellyn Acosta. Last year they brought forward Reggie Cannon who is back this season and they have three potential stars in waiting in Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferriera, and Brandon Servania.
With the back being lead by center back Matt Hedges and keeper Jesse Gonzalez they should again flirt with the playoffs. As always, youth and inexperience is a mixed bag. The positive being yonger legs and eagerness to learn and improve. The downside is they are more prone to mistakes. If nothing else they will be a fun team to watch.
2018 was a very odd season for the Dynamo. They were playing decently in MLS and quite well in the US Open Cup. So well that they went on to win the Cup. Unfortunately, as soon as they won that their MLS wheels fell off. And its hard to get too excited that the “pit crew” will put a better set of wheels in place for 2019. Starting in the back they have two keepers in Joe Willis and Micheal Nelson. Never heard of them? Well don’t worry you are not alone. While certainly capable, after all they are professional soccer players, they are just not of the high quality you would like to build your team around. Then there is the defense. When your defense is lead by a 36 year old you may be in trouble. Now in this case that 36 year old is somewhat of unusual case. Who doesn’t like DeMarcus Beasley and to be able to play at the level he does at his age is just flat inspiring. But its a long season and you just have to think that Houston is going to give up a fair number of goals.
So the question becomes can they score enough to counteract that? Alberth Elis and Maruo Manotas are really top shelf forwards. No opposing defenses look forward to playing the Dynamos. And midfielders Tomas Martinez and Matias Vera will find plenty of dangerous balls to Elis and Manotas. Unfortunately thought opposing attackers love playing the Dynamos. Here’s what they face. Two defenders with a combined age of 71. one defender coming off an injury, and a fourth who has never played and MLS game. Yikes!
This team is really hard to handicap. If the defense finds some legs and they continue to score they could finish well up the table. But if things don’t go well or they have any injuries, especially in the back, then they could finish well down the table. If nothing else Houston fans have a really cool stadium to go to.
The question in LA will be two fold.
1) Can FC repeat its record breaking first season?
2) Will FC maintain bragging rights for the LA area.
Well the short answers are maybe and probably. FC has a perennial top manager in Bob Bradley, elite talent, and proven winners. Typically any of of those facets is enough to get your playoff consideration but when you have all three it has to put you in the MLS Cup conversation. Last year much of the strength was the play of Benny Feilhaber, Aaron Kovar, and Joao Moutinho who have moved on. So how does Bradley replace those quality minutes? Andre Horta, last summer’s Designated Player signee, had half the season and a full offseason to get acclimated to the players around him. He should be the key midfielder with support from Lee Nguyen and Eduard Atuesta.
Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, Latif Blessing, Adama Diomande, Cristian Ramirez and Rodolfo Zelaya are among the most talented front 6 in the league but the issue for Bradley will be to keep them all happy as there just isn’t a way for all of them to find the field at the same time. And you can expect that Walker Zimmerman will be a mainstay in the back so no minutes will come from there. One option that Bradley could use is a three man backline to allow him to use more attacking players. That approach certainly has merit but its not without risks.
Last year no team played any better or attractive soccer when they were clicking. But their style leaves little margin for error so when its not clicking it does leave them ripe for upsets from less quality teams. An early season thing to watch for will be if they try and maintain a bit more midfield possession. If they do that while keeping the foot on the gas they will be a very entertaining team, likely be well positioned for the playoffs, and a legit Cup contender.
Lets get right to the bragging. Zlatan Ibrahmovic came to the MLS as a Designated Player with a one year contract and promptly scored 22 goals in 27 matches. Not bad for a guy coming off a major knee injury. But the Galaxy fell short of the playoffs losing on the final match day. Zlatan has set two goals for this season. He resigned this winter to first and foremost bring a Cup to Galaxy fans. Having won a major trophy at each stage of his career he found that not even making the playoffs to be “totally unacceptable.” His second goal is also pretty direct. He says “I see myself as the biggest threat in the whole league for any opponent” followed up with “I will break every record in the MLS this season.”
Given that Atlanta’s Josef Martinez set the mark last season with 31 goals its not that big of a stretch. Doubtful but then this is Zlatan Ibrahmovic we are talking about.
The troubles last year were mostly in the backline which was porous to put it mildly. They simply can’t be that bad again this season and their new manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto (coming in from the Boca Juniors one of the biggest clubs in this hemishpere) will start his focus there. His job will be to mold the team together in a much more focused fashion. If he can do they they will probably finish in the top handful of teams in the Conference. If he can’t then they could fall short of the playoffs for a third straight year.
Minnesota United FC
For their first two years the club has taken a slow but steady approach to building a competitive side. This past offseason they have opted for a more aggressive approach. With a clear #1 goal to allow fewer goals. They finished last season tied for dead last in goals allowed. In their quest to fulfill that, Minnesota went out and signed midfielder Jan Gregus as a Designated Player, signed defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso, traded for center back Ike Opara, and acquired former Arsenal goalkeeper Vito Mannone and French Ligue 1 right back Romain Metanire.
Gregus in the attack will require opposing defenses coverage giving more space and opportunity for Darwin Quintero. Alonso and Opara and the rest were brought in with one specific end objective. Bring a playoff spot home to soon to open Allianz Field. They will need a crisply organized team, a key summer signing, and a fair bit of luck to accomplish that. But the Loons should at least provide their fans with some good matches in their new home and hopefully still be in the hunt come the last couple weeks of the season.
What’s there not to like about a team with rabid fans, a sweet stadium, and a lumberjack who saws a off a slice of tree every time they score a goal? Well there’s always the gloomy Pacific Northwest weather but it doesn’t deter Timber fans much. They had a solid regular season last year and then kicked it up a notch in the playoffs making it all the way to the final. Unfortunately nobody was going into a packed Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta and walking away with the Cup.
In his second year with the club, manager, Giovanni Savarese will have his work cut out for him to repeat last season. For starters, long time fan favorite Liam Ridgewell has moved back to England (Hull City) losing their locker room leader. Few players in the league have as a devoted fan following as did Ridgewell. But the returning core of Diego Valeri, Diego Charra, and Sebastian Blanco will provide plenty solid soccer for the Timbers. In some games they well may be the best three players on the field. Savarese will have to pull some strings tightly to keep his side playing strong this season. They are not a deep club and injuries could spell trouble for them. A summer signing is most likely needed to give them much of a playoff shot/run.
But here is where Savarese could earn his keep this season. Providence Park is undergoing a massive facelift. Adding 4,000 additional seats and other features will be a great boon to the Timbers, their fans, and the city of Portland. But that expansion is not without its downside. The work is not scheduled to be completed until late spring meaning the Timbers will open the season with 12 straight away matches. That is a tough stretch to a season start. If Savarese can find a way to get some points from those matches the club could be in good shape down the stretch where they finish with a home heavy schedule. But if not they might find themselves in too big a hole to dig out of.
Real Salt Lake
Real is a really well run club. Manager Mike Petke has the team playing the game for the fans and club ownership is investing strongly in their academy. The side will feature some long time veterans shoring up the defense with keeper Nick Rimando and midfielder Kyle Beckerman. But the real strength of the team is how interchangeable their parts are in the midfield and attack. Designated Player, Sam Johnson may be the target up top but they don’t really have any star players in their front 6. What they have is a group of guys who dance around all over the field and you never know from one rush to the next who you will see where. Its very fun to watch and a bitch to defend.
Petke will keep that same approach for this season. His problem will be to try and find a back four to provide some consistency. Communication is so key to the back line that lots of player rotations make it very difficult to maintain your shape under pressure and in the different attacks the opposition throw at you. If Real can find a group of four who gel together that will make them much harder to break down.
They should finish somewhere right around the playoff cutline and then who knows. Remember last season? RSL took the last spot in the Western Conference. Upset LAFC in the first round, and gave Sporting Kansas City all they could handle in the Conference Semi-Finals.
San Jose Earthquakes
Well lets get the obvious out of the way first. They were the worst team in the league in 2018 and it wasn’t particularly close. In fact they only managed 21 points in their 34 matches. Seven points below the next worst club. Ok so they have no place to go but up in 2019! Unfortunately they are very unlikely to move up enough to make any run to the playoffs and should finish several spots out of the running. But that doesn’t mean Quake fans don’t have reason to be excited. They have several.
Number one on the list would be the hiring of their new manager, Matias Almeyda. A former defensive midfielder for Argentina club River Plate as well as earning 35 caps for the Argentine National Team. And with 8 years coaching experience, most recently with Guadalajara in the Liga MX, he will bring a wealth of experience to San Jose.
Number two on the list would be Avaya Stadium that boasts the “Worlds Longest Outdoor Bar.” So if your team is floundering …..well there are other options to keep you occupied.
And last but not least is a guy named Chris Wondolowski. That’s with 2 w’s not three for those who recall the famous jersey gaff when playing a match in July of 2013 against the Belizean National Team. In the first half Wondo wore a jersey with his name misspelled as Wondowloski. All he did in that first half was to score three times. At the half he changed into a jersey with the correct spelling. He didn’t score in the second half. But Quake fans will have their attention glued to Wondo early this season. He sits at 144 goals, one short of the record of 145 held by a player most will know. Landon Donovan. Every time San Jose goes on the attack fans all focus will be in the penalty area watching to see him score one of his famous poach goals. And rest assured Quack fans when the season is over your beloved Wondo will sit atop the all time record list.
So while they probably don’t have a playoff spot this year, they will show plenty of spirit and its clear that ownership is committed to building a playoff team in the very near future. 2020?
The Sounders are the other Pacific Northwest team. And like the Timbers their have some committed fans. But the fans are tiring of the Sounders notorious slow starts followed by midseason surges to push them into the playoffs. For one thing, the league as a whole is too competitive anymore and a really slow start can bury you. But there is reason to expect those slow stats to be a thing of the past. Last year injuries and a tough schedule with the extra matches for CONCACAF Champions League dogged the team and they really didn’t start to play well until July. Things should be different this year.
Jordan Morris, a local from Mercer Island, is only 24 and is yet to reach is prime. A healthy Morris can stretch defenses and create havoc. Sounder fans are hoping to see him return to form this year. Joined in the attack by Raul Ruidiaz, Victor Rodriguez, and Nicolas Lodeiro the Sounders should score plenty. At the other end of the field they will again rely on Chad Marshall at center back and keeper Stefan Frei. A solid pairing for sure. But perhaps the key to the team will be how the midfield engine performs. With Swedish national Gustav Svensson and US national Cristian Roldan manning the defensive midfield they will provide the needed support to the defense and the bridge to the attack. Roldan is often overlooked but he is a quality player.
Seattle should easily make the playoffs and may well fight for the top spot in the conference. A deep playoff run and an MLS Cup are certainly within reach.
Sporting Kansas City
They head into the 2019 season with high expectations. While they have a limited budget compared to the bigger sides from the coasts, manager Peter Vermes has a habit of pulling the right strings at the right time to always field a solid team. Last year the strings were pulled to the tune of a conference first place. But they performance in the playoffs was just not quit enough and they fell to the Timbers in the Conference Championship. Its the unfortunate part of sports and playoffs. One team wins and one team loses. So Vermes has looked to find some more tenacity for this season.
So out were Diego Rubio, Ike Opara, Khiry Shelton and Cristian Lobato. And in come fresh faces Rodney Wallace, Erik Hurtado and Kelyn Rowe. While not superstar names, Vermes has a proven knack for getting solid talent without paying big dollars. He also has a budding young star in the making in Ginaluca Busio. If Busio comes on this season look out. Although I suspect he’s still a couple of years away from making a big impact. He turns all of 17 in late May.
The defense, which only allowed 25 regular season goals last season, will again be run by keeper Tim Melia and defenders Matt Besler and Graham Zusi (a name familiar to Baltimoreans as a University of Maryland star). Rodger Espinoza and Felipe Gutierrez will be charged with orchestrating the midfield and linking to the attacking players. Hurtado, Krisztian Nemeth, Johnny Russell, and Daniel Salloi give Vermes plenty of option up top and he will use them all.
Sporting should again be one of the top handful of teams in the West and may push for a top three side. If they can find a way to have a bit more finish in the playoffs they could be in for a special season.
For years, the Caps were known as a team that played boring, defensive soccer and was interested mostly in getting a result than playing attractive soccer. The problem is they played boring soccer but didn’t get many positive results. But there is a new structure and manager in place and the hope is that they will switch to an attacking play and score goals. New manager Marc dos Santos will have a fun albeit challenging job to pull that off.
The roster looks like more of an expansion team than a makeover of an established team. 21 players that were with the club last season are out and there are 15 new players from 12 different countries. Talk about a diverse group! So dos Santos will try and keep things simple early in the season to let the players figure out their roles and how they best fit. But the one player they had that was truly worth watching last season is gone. Teenage phenom Alphonso Davies has gone to Germany to play for Bayern Munich. While he has not gotten much time with the first team yet, the training he is getting will pay huge dividends down the road for the Canadian National Team. Well ok but for Cap fans that and a dollar with buy you a cup of coffee.
With such a huge roster turnover it will be hard for opposing teams to plan for their matches with the Caps since they don’t know what to expect. That’s the good news. The flip side is that their fans don’t know what to expect either so best to enter the season with limited expectations. Don’t look for them to be playing in October.
So there you have it. Just 4 days from the opening kickoff as the MLS begins its 24th season with 24 teams. Has a nice ring to it and pretty clear that the league approach to growth is spot on. Should be a fun season!