Tier 6: The Challengers
Los Angeles FC, New England Revolution and D.C. United
These teams were not in the playoffs last year (whether because they didn’t qualify or because they didn’t exist), but made just enough improvements in the offseason to stay out of the bottom tier. They might even surprise people and finish in the top six this season.
MLS’s newest club should be pretty solid in their first season. Mexican national team star Carlos Vela will be the centerpiece of the attack, playing off the wing in a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3, and he’ll be joined by Uruguayan young DP Diego Rossi, former Sporting KC renegade Latif Blessing, and Costa Rica hero Marco Urena. Add Benny Feilhaber back in a creator role and they’ve got a pretty good attack.
Walker Zimmerman and Laurent Ciman are top-tier MLS center backs, and LA are stacked at right back (Steven Beitashour, Jordan Harvey, Omar Gaber, 1st-round pick Tristan Blackmon). Bizarrely, though, their midfield is barren. Aside from USL veteran Mark-Anthony Kaye and replacement-level journeyman Callum Mallace, they do not have any deep midfielders on the roster as of this writing.
Feilhaber could theoretically play deeper, and top draft pick Joao Moutinho is considered a midfielder by some, but before we anoint this team has a playoff contender, they have to have a serviceable midfield.
New England Revolution
Brad Friedel is managing the Revolution, a partnership that does not seem likely to end well. So far, it hasn’t been great. Their best player held out after a trade request and is now unhappily with the team. The attack, as ever, is filled with mismatched pieces even after Kei Kamara was traded. Depth is lacking in central midfield, especially if French signing Wilfried Zahibo doesn’t work out, and given the Revs’ track record, Zahibo probably won’t be a star.
Oh, and the defense will be an issue again. Friedel has his work cut out for him.
The talent exists. A core squad of Nguyen, Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez, Scott Caldwell and Andrew Farrell could make the playoffs if they are given a supporting cast and are managed well. Those things haven’t happened in recent Revs history, though, and the Nguyen situation throws a wrench in things.
D.C. had a quiet, but productive, offseason. They traded for Frederic Brillant from NYCFC to play in the central defense. They acquired Costa Rican Ulises Segura to add much-needed creativity to the midfield, taking some of the load off Luciano Acosta. Venezuelan international Junior Moreno will compete for a box-to-box role.
Their most publicized move of the offseason was trading for Yamil Asad’s rights and then signing the former Atlanta star. It cost them a considerable amount of money, but it was worth it. Asad was extremely productive for the Five Stripes last season, and played an underappreciated role in their attacking success.
Asad completed 649 passes in the attacking third, second in MLS, and led his team with 53 key passes. Impressive considering the presence of No. 10 Miguel Almiron. He had seven goals and 13 assists in 31 starts, becoming one of the most productive passers from the wing in MLS. Asad can get to the touchline and put the ball in the box, but he also can combine in and around the final third, creating space for others to take advantage of whether by making the final pass or shooting.
His vision will be huge for a D.C. team that lacked creativity in the final third. With Patrick Mullins and Darren Mattocks competing for playing time at striker, finishing could be the downfall of this team.
Tier 7: Questions abound
Minnesota United, Colorado Rapids, Montreal Impact and Philadelphia Union
Ummm, not so sure about these four. Colorado could go a number of directions. I have no idea what goes on in Montreal a lot of the time. The Union are about what they’ve always been. Minnesota just plain stink. For each team, I pose the biggest questions revolving around their 2018 prospects:
Will the backline be good enough?
We all remember Minnesota’s 18 goals-allowed start to their 2017 expansion season. There is no Vadim Demidov in this year’s squad, but none of their four defensive spots are especially secure.
Michael Boxall is mediocre. Brent Kallman is maybe just above Boxall’s level. Jerome Thiesson is good enough, I guess. Francisco Calvo was okay last year, but he can’t salvage bad performances around him. Marc Burch and Tyrone Mears are 33 and 35.
Incoming Cameroonian Bertrand Owundi Eko’o will try to win a spot, and rookie center back Wyatt Omsberg was a steal at the No. 15 selection (MNUFC had a great draft). Neither Eko’o nor Omsberg is a sure thing, though, and on a team with question marks across the roster, it can be tough for new players to settle.
What do you do with Abu Danladi and Christian Ramirez?
This isn’t a bad problem for Adrian Heath to have: Danladi and Ramirez, who have been the Loons’ most promising players, play the same position and are hard to fit on the field at the same time. This is something they’re going to have to account for, and if it means sitting Ramirez, so be it.
How will the 3-5-2 work out?
New coach Anthony Hudson prefers to use a three-at-the-back formation, and he wasted no time implementing it, as the Rapids used a 3-5-2 formation in their CONCACAF Champions League loss to Toronto FC. It resembled more of a 5-3-2, consistent with the defensive inclinations of recent Rapids past.
Defensive midfielder Jack Price looked capable, and the wing-back pair of Edgar Castillo and Marlon Hairston was athletic enough to cover ground on the flanks. Colorado played defensively, but they created some chances against the TFC juggernaut, forcing turnovers high up the field and allowing for actual attacking third possession. While they lost the first leg 2-0 and would bow out in the second, their attacking exploits can provide some hope for Rapids fans.
Will anybody score or create goals?
If Dominique Badji doesn’t start the season as a starting striker, Englishman Joe Mason will. Badji specializes in sprinting behind backlines and then missing breakaway chances, and Mason, well:
any time you can burn an int’l slot on a center forward who’s averaged 5 goals per year at a lower level than MLS, you’ve gotta do ithttps://t.co/7RMiKXalhJ
— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) February 18, 2018
I don’t think the Rapids will score a ton this year.
How long can they ride Ignacio Piatti?
Piatti has been one of MLS’s very best players since 2015. The Argentine has 17 goals and six assists in each of the last two seasons, plus 4 goals and 2 assists in five playoff games in 2016. He dribbles through defenses, creates like a top-tier No. 10, and is one of the league’s top goalscorers.
Problem is, he’s 33, and with Blerim Dzemaili back to Italy after just one half-season in Montreal, the Impact would run short of attacking options should Piatti get injured or be hit by “Father Time.” He was the primary reason for their 2015 and 2016 playoff runs, but for an Impact team that couldn’t put it together in 2017, he will need to be great once again for them to have a shot at the postseason.
Will the defense hold up?
New center-back Zakaria Diallo will miss several months with an achilles injury, further depleting a backline that lost Laurent Ciman to a trade. With Victor Cabrera (who has struggled so far in his MLS career) and Kyle Fisher left as possibly their best options in central defense, manager Remi Garde will have to make something of a roster that doesn’t look all too promising.
Will they conjure real improvement out of their in-house guys?
A problem that has epitomized the Jim Curtain Union has been a lack of development and natural improvement by players on the roster. Keegan Rosenberry went from a Rookie of the Year contending right-back to a backup last year. Josh Yaro has plateaued. Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez are solidly fourth and fifth on the depth chart.
There are some real promising players on this roster. Najem, Auston Trusty, Derrick Jones, Fabian Herbers and Eric Ayuk are among the younger guys who will have an opportunity to contribute this season. The Union need to find a way to get the best of them.