MLS at the all-star break: big picture thoughts on the 2022 season
August 09, 2022
MLS IS AT THE All-Star break which is well beyond the half-way point, but still it gives us the chance for introspection as to the dominant themes in the country’s top domestic league. It’s been a good season, so far, in terms of the levels of investment and the playoff race remains wide open.
Obviously, the top story has been the Seattle Sounders winning the CONCACAF Champions League and finally building a case that the league has closed or is close to closing the gap between itself and Liga MX.
But the level of imports and exports has been promising. Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi are eye-openers with LAFC. Gareth Bale, Georgio Chiellini, and now Denis Bouanga have made LAFC perhaps the most powerful roster in the history of the league.
In terms of export quality, young Americans are continuing to come out of the league (albeit after an expected downturn after the heavy exporting in 2021 and early 2022 meant that the well needed to refill a bit). Austin Trusty his off to a nice start in Birmingham City, Gaga Slonina fetched a big sum from Chelsea, and Matt Turner finally moved to Arsenal.
The success of the league’s young players with the United States U-20 team this summer was also huge in that it showed these players could respond to pressure and deliver qualification in must win games with ease. It bodes well for the future.
Another thing to pay attention to is the ability to sell players who were brought into the league as expensive imports on the younger side. Over the past five seasons, the league’s teams have emphasized importing younger players (many from South America) as opposed to older European players with big names. But the selling point to these players is being able to then sell them to the top leagues in Europe and show players MLS can help them get to the highest levels. Miguel Almiron was the first of such sales in this time span, but it needs to be regular.
With NYCFC moving Taty Castellanos to Spain, it helped - same with Adam Buksa. But increasing these types of sales is important for the league and its teams.
The league also needs to work on increasing the relevance of its teams in the country’s big markets. The Red Bulls are consistently in the playoffs, but still don’t generate much in the huge New York metro area. NYCFC’s stadium situation continues to be an uncomfortable topic for Don Gaber. The same with the Revolution whose stadium situation remains the same since 1996 – tied to the NFL team far outside Boston.
Chicago Fire have only now started to play well again, but can that turn things around with their relevance in Chicago? Was moving back to Soldier Field smart?
There are always going to be bad teams, but too many teams from big city’s are stuck in the mud. Houston has been poor for way too long and it represents the fifth biggest team in the country. The Bay Area, likewise, has been represented by a Quakes team that predictably is nowhere close to the post season. DC United is one of the league’s most historical teams, but will Rooney bring about hope?
For the league’s front office, they should be worried over a potential quagmire in Atlanta. Atlanta is still a great draw and a popular team, but ongoing struggles will hurt one of the best gates in the league.
With all that said, here are my “Big Picture” observations from the league at the All-Star break.
Many improved teams
One of the reasons why the standings have been so tight is that many of the teams which have struggled in recent years have made key improvements. It’s made for an exciting playoff race. In the Eastern Conference fifth place and 10th place are separated by just three points. Another two points covers 5th through 12th. In the West, three points separates sixth through 11th. There is more parity by design in MLS and we do know the best and worst teams. But there is not much separating the middle third or half.
That’s due to improvement, and there have been
Austin FC is in its second season and is firmly in second place a very good Western Conference. The team has done a great job – with Josh Wolff getting the most out of his players. Sebastian Driussi has been the best player in the league this season. On top of that, they have a terrific home field advantage.
FC Dallas is another team that looks like it will return to the postseason. Nico Estevez was hired as the head coach and tactically, the team is smart. Defensively, the team is not bleeding goals the way it used to. The front office has gotten a lot out of its bold decisions. Paying Jesus Ferreira to a DP contract has paid off. Importing Paul Arriola was costly, but it has also paid off. Alan Velasco is a long-term play but he’s still a player with immense talent who should improve in the months and years ahead.
For Dallas there is also the benefit of getting Pomykal fully healthy again. From the front office making smart acquisitions, to the owners spending more, and to Estevez putting it all together, Dallas is in a good spot.
FC Cincinnati: After three straight seasons of being the worst team in the league, FC Cincinnati will hand off the “wooden spoon” to someone else. Again, Pat Noonan has done a great job with coaching and the team is well put together. Cincny’s front line, when healthy, of Vazquez, Brenner, and Acosta is about as good as anyone in the league.
Inter Miami: one of the more high-profile disappointing teams since its inception, Miami is competing and competing well. Right now, they’re even on points for the final playoff spot. This is the best the team has looked and the organization is trending in the right way into the future, finally.
LAFC: after missing the playoffs last year, LAFC is now the best team in the league by far. But when you spend money on good players, you have a good chance. It doesn’t always work out (see Atlanta) but it’s generally a big factor. Some teams spend money to bring in Patrick Klimala, LAFC brings in Gareth Bale.
Dolo & Woff can coach
Just as it’s important for the league to develop good players, the concept of developing good coaches is also key. We know the older American coaches like Bradley, Arena, and Schmetzer can coach. Vermes and also Vanney have won MLS Cup and both were USMNT veterans. Jim Curtin was never capped by the USMNT and he’s been one of the league’s best coaches. Jesse MArsch is now coaching in the Premier League after beginning his coaching career in MLS
But can the league continue to develop more American coaches? This season has been promising.
Steve Cherundolo has been excellent with LAFC. Yes, he has a lot of talent, but he’s also managed the locker room well and he’s challenged players for results and improvement. Dolo seems like someone who will coach the U.S. national team someday if he continues to succeed. He began his career in Europe as an assistant or at the youth levels, but LAFC is his first head coaching job and he appears to be going places.
Josh Wolff has also helped Austin FC improve substantially in its second season. The former USMNT forward has his club in second place and first overall in goal scored.
American forwards stand out
While the top of the scoring charts in MLS are typically high-priced foreign designated players, that is not the case this year. Not including Taty Castellanos who left, the top five are Sebastian Driuissi (16), Brandon Vazquez (14), Jeremy Ebobisse (13), Hany Mukhtar (13), Jesus Ferreira (12).
That is three Americans in the top five of the league for scoring. That is very important and in 2022, being a scoring leader in the league is a hard thing because this is an area where teams spend money. But there is little debate about what makes a forward good, there needs to be production. It’s the toughest position to develop, so seeing that MLS teams are producing starting No. 9 players who are among the best in the league is a sign of health.
We are entering into mid-august and Seattle is still out of the playoff bubble. The Sounders put everything they had into winning the CONCACAF Champions League, but unfortunately are showing that the consequences of emphasizing that tournament are real. It took a huge toll on the team – both physically and mentally.
Physically, the team has taken a beating with the condensed schedule. Joao Paulo was injured in the final and Obed Vargas has a bad back now.
Mentally, the team was beaten down even more. It’s tough to get focused on games after winning such a major title. Nicholas Lodeiro said after a loss in July that: “we’re not the same team that won the Champions League.”
He’s right but Seattle has, at times, shown that they can win big games. The win over Colorado earlier this month and the visit to Toronto in July has shown that the players are still battling. But overall, it’s been an extremely difficult season for the Sounders. The 2-1 loss to LAFC on July 29 was almost a passing of the touch as the league’s most powerful team.
After Saturday’s 2-1 loss away at Atlanta, Seattle is a point out of the playoffs. The odds are still likely that they’ll find a way. The teams immediately in front of it are doing well (the five teams in front of the Sounders have failed to win in their least two games). The next game is home against RSL and it is a must win. The next three after that are on the road. If they don’t win ahead of that trip, it could be trouble.
But for neutral fans, it would be bad news if Seattle fails to make the playoffs. Seattle delivered a lot of respect to the league this year in the Champions League and they sacrificed a lot for it. It’s the right thing to do in prioritizing that tournament, seeing missing out on the playoffs is a steep price and you want MLS teams in the future to continue to prioritize the CCL.
Stock watch, playoffs predictions
Here are the teams I am buying stock in and selling at the all-star game
Columbus: This is a team that I think has a chance to go to MLS Cup. With Cucho Hernandez and Lucas Zelarayan, there is so much high-quality offense that it speaks well. The playoffs are about who has the difference makers, and Columbus has that.
New England Revolution: They are a good buy right now since they’re out of the playoff picture, but the team is playing better and is digging itself out of a poor start to the season. I think they’ll sneak into the playoffs.
Chicago Fire: The hottest team in the Eastern Conference is finally playing to its potential.
Toronto FC: Insigne and Bernardeschi are quality. The core isn’t there quite yet to back them up, but Bob Bradley should figure it out.
Cincinnati: played their best game of the season before the break when they beat up Philadelphia 3-1. Matt Miazga will help the backline and their front line is already excellent.
Nashville: At this point, I just don’t see enough behind Zimmerman and Mukhtar to field a team that can compete.
Orlando: It’s been a long, slow fade over the past two months. There is too much pressure from teams below Orlando that the fade is likely to continue.
LA Galaxy: There is simply not enough from the team’s DP’s nor is their a strong enough supporting cast to think they’re going to make the playoffs. Portland and Seattle are just too tough for them in the playoff mix.
Colorado: I say this because while Colorado is playing well, I don’t think it’s sustainable.
NYCFC: Life without Taty isn’t going to be easy. Even if you spend, it’s never a guarantee you’re going to replace that level of production.
6) New England
2) Austin FC