The 2018 Major League Soccer regular season was something that happened, obviously, but for the teams below, it was something that happened to them. Each team’s experience ran the gamut from nagging doubt, through uncomfortable physical sensation, all the way down to nights, weeks, even months of wrestling with one’s choice of careers, maybe even his basic self-worth. (Chin-up, Chris Wondolowski.) With that, welcome to this 2019 preview for the teams that finished on the wrong side of MLS’s Western Conference.
The format largely explains itself, but I do want to reference a couple resources at the top – just big picture things to help you cut corners while keeping current. First, MLSSoccer.com has a page that keeps a running tally of all the players coming into and going out of every team in the league – also, key disclosure, I do not list every player that left or joined each of the teams down below, only the players that have potential to change things. The Mothership (as I’ve long called MLSSoccer.com) also posts a feature that provides some context to all that coming and going; when I reference the “Transaction Interpreter” deep in the bowels of this post, that’s what I’m talking about. Fair warning, finding that article is hell any time it’s not on top of the main page. You’d think they’d do better with a regularly rotating feature, but how often does MLSSoccer.com feel like scrolling through a poorly-conceptualized twitter feed? But I digress.
My best understanding of what happened to each struggling team in the Western Conference last season is below, along with my best guess as to why they struggled. What they intend to do about it follows after that, along with a lot of guesswork about whether or not it’ll come off. Again, these are the bad ones, whether awful, cursed and awful, or just top-heavy, so don’t expect a lot of happy endings. To put a sub-headline to this piece, “Bright Futures Equally Scarce.” Now, starting with the worst…
San Jose Earthquakes
2018 Finish Line: 12th in the Western Conference (4-21-9), 21 pts. 49 goals for, 71 goals against
Dead, painful last, just shy of historically painful (DC United 2013 is the benchmark), the ‘Quakes had a uniquely painful 2018. They lost valiantly up until around August, but lost almost exactly 2/3 of the time across the season. In the middle of the season, (out-of-position) centerback, Florian Jungwirth publicly admitted the obvious: the ‘Quakes didn’t have the personnel to compete. The coach they’d hired at the beginning of 2018 to turn the team around (Mikael Stahre), would first lose the team, then get fired before the season ended. Bleak.
OUT: D Yeferson Quintana, M Jakmir Hyka…see above, does it matter?
IN: F Cristian Espinoza, M Judson, D Marcos Lopez, F Cade Cowell (youngest-ever homegrown player, btw)
San Jose let former New England Revolution star Steve Ralston escort them off the plank at the end of 2018, but the ‘Quakes went massive with a coaching hire: Matias Almeyda, aka, the most successful coach in Chivas Guadalajara history (and elsewhere). They let go a handful of players who never really arrived in MLS (e.g., Hyka and Quintana), while taking an oddly short-term approach on their rebuild. They’ll have their splashiest signing, Argentine forward Espinoza, for only as long as Spain’s Villareal will allow. The two players they signed to actual contracts – Peru’s Marcos Lopez at left back and Brazilian defensive midfielder Judson – didn’t arrive with much for hype.
When you tied for the West’s worst defensive record (71 goals allowed), a player with Judson’s profile acknowledges a need; the idea of having a right back to counter-balance your team’s best player (Nick Lima) also presents as sound. The new players shouldn’t make them any worse, but they are being added to roughly the same group of players that rather violently under-performed in 2018. A successful season – even just a better one – would build Almeyda’s legend.
2018 Finish Line: 11th in the Western Conference (8-19-7), 31 pts. 36 goals for, 63 goals against
The Rapids tried to “play soccer” in 2018 – y’know, possess the ball, work it upfield, etc. They’ve arguably been doing that since signing Shelzhen Gashi, but he’s better as a shorthand for what ails the Rapids: he fits into no known scheme, and that’s how Colorado builds rosters (so far): grab whatever’s handy, throw it at the wall, and, often as not, weep. They got a couple days’ buzz/hope out of beating the Los Angeles Galaxy in a mid-season home-and-home series, but, if the team ever got over the playoff redline last season, they didn’t stay long. The Rapids finished miles under it instead, and the scoring was particularly…infrequent all season. Just north of 1.0 goals per game. Again, bleak.
OUT: F Jack McBean, GK Zac MacMath, D Edgar Castillo, M Marlon Hairston, M Enzo Martinez
IN: F Kei Kamara, M Nicolas Mezquida, GK Clint Irwin, M Benny Feilhaber, F Diego Rubio
Colorado let some interesting pieces go in the off-season – e.g., Hairston and Castillo (arguably their best player going both directions in 2018) – and they’ve played “Moneyball” since then. Familiar, quality(?) cast-offs like Kamara, Feilhaber, Mezquida, Rosenberry, and (to a lesser extent) Diego Rubio were either signed on or shanghaied in a bid to make the Rapids competitive.
Will it work? I can imagine some positives – e.g., Rubio playing off Kamara, and Rosenberry as a long-term fixture at right back. Going the other way, neither Kamara nor Feilhaber have much career left, so, even if both players have a stellar 2019, the question of succession remains open and (to take another step into the future) what keeps Colorado from going from one year to the next as a permanent remodel? I happened to listen to ExtraTime Radio’s 2019 previews (for bad teams) this past week and, remarkably, the panel split on Colorado. Faith in Colorado wound up requiring faith in depth pieces like Cole Bassett and Kortne Ford.
Minnesota United FC
2018 Finish Line: 10th in Western Conference (11-20-3), 36 pts. 49 goals for, 71 goals against
Close observers will notice that Minnesota matched San Jose on goals for and against, but still finished 15 points above them. For those new to it, welcome to MLS. I kid, but wins do matter in any league, and the Loons had something San Jose didn’t: Darwin Quintero creating offense from nothing, sometimes entirely on his own. This is how The Battle of the Basement was won. Their defense was homicidally terrible, obviously (or suicidally; however that works), and nothing confirms a team’s attack isn’t overcoming quite like a -22 goal differential. And, with that, Minnesota adds another bitter season of falling short.
OUT: D Marc Burch (Cincy!), Fernando Bob (best damn name in MLS history), M Collen Warner, and…
IN: M Jan Gregus, M Osvaldo Alonso, D Romain Metanire, D Ike Opara, GK Vito Mannone
Judging by their signings – a proven (if oft-injured) quantity Opara in central defense (and there’s a story there), paying for an upgrade at right back in Metanire, the still-more expensive Gregus with what’s left of Alonso in central midfield – Minnesota did the vital work of pointing to where it hurt and at least trying to make it stop. Expecting a slightly-diminished normal out of Alonso feels like a safe bet, and that leaves Gregus feeling like the main X-Factor (even having Sam Cronin healthy would help). To reduce what the Loons let go to just one solid, yet unspectacular player, the fact they got rid of Collen Warner shows that Minnesota gets what’s happening across the league.
I can’t believe the changes listed above won’t help Minnesota, but the question of whether they can make a push – or, God forbid, make the playoffs – probably turns on which existing players show up and how. For instance, can Quintero get a little help, whether by Angelo Rodriguez leveling up to even 3/4 of his potential, or Kevin Molino staying healthy for 3/4 of a season? Minnesota has the talent, perhaps for the first time in its existence, but can they finally shake off the “expansion team” ball-and-chain in their third season?
2018 Finish Line: 9th in the Western Conference (10-16-8), 38 pts. 58 goals for, 58 goals against
The Dynamo spent 2/3 of the season on the cusp of maybe, aka, the insufferable state of having the players to win a title (e.g., Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto, and, as much as anyone, Mauro Manotas), but not the team. Those 58 goals against leave a couple of the sharper details out of Houston’s tale of 2018 heartbreak – i.e., games they should have won ending as draws, and draws ending in losses. Houston could beat any other team last season, but they could lose just as easily.
OUT: D Leandro, D Adolfo Machado, D/M Jared Watts, M Arturo Alvarez, M Andrew Wenger, M Luis Gil, M Eric Alexander (because pertinent to the audience)
IN: M Matias Vera, M Tommy MacNamara, M Marlon Hairston, D Maynor Figueroa, D Aljaz “Kiki” Struna
Sometimes, a team hints at a problem; other times, they go in for Soviet-style purges to obliterate the very memory of it. The Dynamo approached its defensive overhaul in that spirit, letting go of, oh, everybody (e.g., see above, down a shot of vodka for the fallen). They also dropped guys like Andrew Wenger and Luis Gil, once promising youngsters who, in spite of serious indulgence, failed to launch. When looking for replacements, Houston played a little moneyball of their own, grabbing guys like one-time New York City FC fan-favorite MacNamara and Hairston (see above). Their biggest bid to resuscitate the defense is named Aljaz “Kiki” Struna, a Slovenian centerback. He’ll be assisted by Adam Lundkvist – who played half of 2018 (but survived the purge), plus youngsters like homegrown kid, Eric McCue. Vera (a Chilean) also came on board at defensive midfield. Again, they identified the problem, but…?
How a team that cut that many players can feel so unchanged is either a mystery or a statement of personal biases. Worse, Houston looks likely to lose Elis, who has fielded real offers this off-season (but Houston wanted more $). Going the other way, his raw talent is matched by his inconsistency – and that’s sort of a theme for the Dynamo. In the end, though, whatever success the Dynamo has next season will turn on whether Vera and Struna, et. al. can provide a foundation. Maybe a little more peace of my mind will transform the attack? (Just to note it, I watched Houston play the Seattle Sounders in preseason, and they were just a mess; sounds like the same thing happened against Sporting Kansas City. Still a work in progress, apparently.)
2018 Finish Line: 8th in the Western Conference (13-13-8), 47 pts. 54 goals for, 67 goals against
Vancouver came close last season, but, if you look more closely (using my personal, over-elaborate tracking system), that was more illusion than reality. A stretch against either bad teams, under-performing teams, or middling teams in favorable circumstances kept them afloat down the stretch, and running into better competition ended a lot like running into a wall. That they under-performed Houston in both goals for and against hints at how they lost too many games (e.g., blowouts). That poses some questions as to why they blew up the team over the off-season (see below), unless, of course, that was the price they paid for landing the coach they wanted…
OUT: M Alphonso Davies, D/M Brek Shea, F Kei Kamara, M Efrain Juarez, M Nicolas Mezquida, D Kendall Waston, and many, many, many more.
IN: GK Zac MacMath, D/M Victor “PC” Giro, D Derek Cornelius, M Andy Rose, M Jon Erice, M Lass Bangoura, M Lucas Venuto, M Hwang In-beom, D Jasser Khmiri, F Joaquin Ardaiz
Vancouver famously sold one player (Alphonso Davies), but sh*t-canned an astonishing 20(!) more players (or, fine, let them go). The list included long-time starters like Nicolas Mezquida and Cristian Techera, guys who operate below The New Standard, but also very large, fast man, Kendall Watson (by sending him to sunnier climes). It was all but an acknowledgment that the problem was the style of play itself. They charged Marc dos Santos, who has…a pedigree, with the rebuild. First, there’s no reasonable way to do justice to that many moving parts. As such, enjoy this parade of links on the replacements, all of whom I’m sure have very special stories: Cornelius, Erice, Bangoura, Venuto, Hwang In-beom, Khmiri, Erik Godoy (hold on; almost done) and Ardaiz.
If you tick through all those links, you’ll see that Vancouver basically rebuilt its entire central defense this season. In spite of new signings like In-beom and Ardaiz, plus a pair of good wingers, they are presently thin in the attack; the 4-5-1 formation listed in the Transaction Interpreter shows you how much work they have to do. Rather than predict how an overhaul of this scale will pan out, I’ll close with one thought: the collective ages of the players Vancouver is signing points to starting with a new foundation. It might be 2020 before they know what they have.
Los Angeles Galaxy
2018 Finish Line: 7th in the Western Conference (13-12-9), 48 pts. 66 goals for, 64 goals against
After suffering two separate, not-yet-catastrophic breakdowns during the season (games 5-14 and games 23-29), the Galaxy righted the ship to where all they had to do to make the playoffs was draw a decidedly shaky Houston Dynamo team in LA. Even with a little breeze of good form at their backs, they choked, losing 2-3 at their literal death (and do mind the 3). That stumbling, so-close, so-far dynamic is a good short-hand for LA’s 2018. It’s a team out of whack, maybe even suffocating on its stars. In so many words, they have Zlatan Ibrahimovic on one end of the field and Daniel Steres on the other. Zlatan can’t win MLS on his own. Also, that’s not Steres’ fault.
OUT: D Michael Ciani, F Ariel Lassiter, D Sheanon Williams, D Ashley Cole, M Baggio Husidic
IN: M Juninho, GK Matt Lampson, M Uriel Antuna, D Diego Polenta, and that is literally everyone on the “IN” side of the ledger, which is fascinating.
LA coughed up very little over the off-season – the blood-letting probably tops out with Boateng (also, give Cole credit for silencing the doubters during his time-in) – but they’ve only just started bringing in meaningful reinforcements. They retrieved box-to-box midfielder Juninho from the Hell that is the Chicago Fire, and rescued Lampson from Minnesota, but they really only got serious when they added Antuna (on loan from Manchester City) and central defender Polenta from Uruguay’s Nacional FC. It’s still a little shy on ambition, but there throwing to the right target.
Tricky. First, they need a credible center back and, if Polenta fits the bill (good signs), that will clear up the glass jaw issue. Bigger questions lurk in the area in front of that defense: Perry Kitchen has yet to return to the form he had when he played for DC United and Joao Pedro hasn’t looked MLS-ready for as long as he’s been in MLS. They’re also doubling down on that pile of attacking DPs – in this case restructuring Giovanni dos Santos’ contract instead of pushing him out the door. It’s possible they’ll make the playoffs in 2019, but I don’t see anything that makes me expect greatness.
Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for our verdict the better halves of the East and West Conferences.