Virtually every MLS team has places in their starting XI that are competitive. Whether it’s a weakness or not, there are bound to be important positions without obvious holders.
A good example would be the ridiculously crowded central midfield in San Jose. Fatai Alashe, Darwin Ceren, Tommy Thompson, first round draft pick Jackson Yueill, Marc Pelosi, Anibal Godoy, and recent acquisition Florian Jungwirth all are in serious contention for the two central midfield positions in Dom Kinnear’s 4-4-2. There are no obvious frontrunners here.
Knowing Kinnear, he’ll probably start two defensive-minded players (like Alashe and Ceren) and isolate young creators Thompson and Yueill on the bench. But it’s almost impossible to know who will start in March.
This is the case for more than a few clubs. Here are some of the other notable preseason battles, organized by position:
— New England looks like possibly the only team with multiple potential starters at goalkeeper. Bobby Shuttleworth, Brad Knighton, and Cody Cropper could all be considered by Jay Heaps for the starting job, although the first two seem to be the frontrunners. It remains a weak position no matter who wins out in the end, though.
Some others: Jorge Rodrigo Bava and Matt Lampson in Chicago, Zack Steffen and Brad Stuver in Columbus, and (maybe, although unlikely) Joe Bendik and Josh Saunders in Orlando. Bava, Steffen, and Bendik are the likely winners right now.
Also keep an eye on D.C., as Bill Hamid (who I consider to be the best keeper in the league) has been injured of late. Travis Worra and Charlie Horton will compete there. Elsewhere, John Alvbage is untested in Minnesota, so Patrick McClain could get a shot there as well.
Not entirely sure what is going in Atlanta, as Alec Kann, Alexander Tambakis, and Alex Kapp are the only listed keepers on their current roster. Brad Guzan will arrive this summer after the Premier League season ends, but until then, they don’t appear to have a starting-caliber player.
— Full back is one of the weaker positions in the league, so there are more than a few holes looking at every team’s roster.
We will see if Nick DeLeon can win a job in D.C. converting from midfield to right back. Graham Zusi’s switch to right back makes things interesting for Saad-Abdul Salaam in Kansas City, despite Abdul-Salaam’s great season last year. In Dallas, it’s hard to tell who will start at either position, with the likes of Atiba Harris, Maynor Figueroa, Anibal Chala, and Hernan Grana on the roster.
Orlando City is basically a hot mess right now, although it seems likely that Brazilian international PC will be the starter at left back. Fabinho will look to keep his left back spot in Philly against new acquisition Giliano Wijnaldum. 22-year old Nick Lima will challenge the status quo in San Jose, and we could see New Zealand international Kip Colvey get more time at the position as well. It will come down to Brad Evans and Oniel Fisher in Seattle after Tyrone Mears was traded to Atlanta.
— At center back, it’s probably a bit more clear-cut across the league. The exception is Minnesota, who basically have a mish-mash of defenders I haven’t heard of, so I’m not completely clear on what we’ll see from them.
New England are untested at the position (they have more international acquisitions who I have not watched play), although it looks like Cote d’Ivoire international Benjamin Angoua and Slovenian Antonio Mlinar Delamea are the starters. It will come down to Alexander Callens, Maxime Chanot, and Frederic Brilliant for NYCFC, and the list of players battling for a spot next to Jonathan Spector in Orlando is long: Seb Hines, Tommy Redding, Jose Aja, and David Mateos.
— San Jose is the obvious example in center midfield, but there are other places where multiple players have shots at starting jobs. Russell Teibert and Christian Bolanos could start for Vancouver with the departure of Pedro Morales — although in different places. Jay Chapman may enter the lineup for Toronto FC as the main central creator.
Philadelphia’s carousel at the position includes Alejandro Bedoya, Warren Creavalle, Brian Carroll, a healthy Maurice Edu, newly-acquired Bosnian Haris Medunjanin, and Roland Alberg. I don’t even know what to say about Orlando, who have options ranging from Kaka to Antonio Nocerino to Servando Carrasco.
Sean Davis and Tyler Adams is a highly-publicized battle for the spot on the Red Bulls vacated by Dax McCarty. It could come down to Ricardo Clark and Oscar Boniek Garcia for the final position in the Dynamo’s midfield, and the same goes for Jeff Larentowicz and Chris McCann in Atlanta.
— Atlanta United have a good-looking stock of wingers who will all get playing time at some point or another. Hector Villalba and Miguel Almiron have been the starters for a few months now, but players like Yamil Asad, Julian Gressel, and Jacob Peterson will push them for time.
Arturo Alvarez and John Goossens are both in contention for a place on the opposite wing from David Accam in Chicago, and Lamar Neagle and Patrick Nyarko are among the contenders in D.C. Orlando, again, is hard to judge, so I won’t try.
Illsinho will look to win a starting job for Philadelphia. Youth talent will be competing for a slot opposite Joao Plata for RSL, with Brooks Lennon, Sebastian Saucedo, and Jordan Allen in the mix. Sporting signed DP Gerso Fernandez, but still have Zusi, Roger Espinoza, and others playing for wing jobs.
— Vancouver have one of the more intriguing preseason battles at forward. They signed Peruvian Yordy Reyna to add to an attack that features Kekuta Manneh, a few Costa Ricans who have yet to put it all together, and the goal-averse Erik Hurtado. With rumors circulating about Giles Barnes returning to England to reunite with his old Dynamo coach Owen Coyle, the Whitecaps don’t have anyone to play center forward. Unless they sign someone for that role (as they should) Hurtado will have to prove his worth at the position.
Diego Rubio, Cameron Porter, Latif Blessing, and Daniel Salloi are among the obscure reserve SKC forwards battling for a job behind Dwyer. San Jose’s Danny Hoesen, Marcos Urena, and Quincy Amarikwa all want the starting center forward job alongside Chris Wondolowski (Hoesen is the favorite). It will also be interesting to see how much playing time highly-touted rookie Jeremy Ebobisse gets behind Fanendo Adi in Portland, and whether the Duke product eventually makes Adi expendable.
C.J. Sapong will look to fend off newly-arriving English forward Jay Simpson for the starting Philly job; Simpson is currently the presumptive starter. The dynamic surrounding the crowded Revolution attacking corps will be intriguing to follow, especially as Heaps implements his 4-4-2 diamond. Abu Danladi, like Ebobisse, will push the starter Christian Ramirez for playing time in Minnesota.
Mauro Manotas and Erick Torres are in a tight battle for the starting role in Houston, and it’s hard to make out which player has the advantage.