Poland meets with Slonina, Almeyda out, American attackers thrive in MLS, youth report, & more
April 19, 2022
THERE WAS A LOT OF NEWS out of MLS over the past few days, including a managerial change, and some rather interesting results. Like we do every week, we break it all down, and include a youth report that looks at how young domestic players are performing. Plus a look at some off-field news throughout the domestic side of the game.
On top of it all, you had the third round of the Open Cup kicking off on Tuesday as well.
Let’s get it started
Almeyda out in San Jose
The top story is that Matias Almeyda is out as the San Jose manager. This became likely after a number of reports from national and local media said that a termination was likely.
Almeyda frequently complained about how his team was being outspent on quality players but it is hard to be sympathetic about it. For example, remember when Anthony Hudson was the coach of Colorado and complained about his team’s budget compared with Atlanta after a loss in 2019? Hudson was soon fired, and the team started to play better. Colorado ended up making the playoffs in 2020 and was the best team in the west in 2021 (funny enough, better than Atlanta in both seasons).
It is possible to build a team with the budget San Jose had. It does take quality coaching and Almeyda just didn’t live up to the expectations set by his very high paycheck. Another example is using Jackson Yueill as a central defender when his biggest weakness (and the reason why he faded from the national team pool) is because of his defense.
Typically improving in MLS requires starting with building up a solid defense first – then focus on the attack. That is why Chicago is on the right track now after years of being a disaster. Nashville was also able to get out of the gate quickly. LAFC faded after a srong first few seasons because their defense crumbled (letting Walker Zimmerman go was one of the worst decisions an MLS team has made in recent memory). San Jose never learned the lessons that were right in front of them to learn.
This doesn’t mean San Jose’s front office is without blame. The roster has a lot of holes and not all of that is on Almeyda. They share in San Jose’s defensive woes and in some of the imports that Almeyda brought in.
Colorado shows that things can be turned around quickly. Toronto, Austin, Dallas and Chicago also look as if they could make massive improvements in 2022. But it takes some smart choices getting there. If you don’t make smart choices, you get Cincinnati or Miami which are rebuilding multiple times now in each of their short existences.
We will see what San Jose does.
Youth Report/ Dual National Panic
In the season following a huge selling year, the youth numbers in MLS are mixed. This was expected – to me, at least. Younger players are getting minutes but are still very early in their careers. It’s a bit of a “reloading” year. There aren’t young players dominating the league like Adams in 2018 , Aaronson in 2020, or even Pepi or Busio in 2021. Instead, you have very promising young players but are at much earlier steps. This includes players like Gaga Slonina, Obed Vargas, Cade Cowell, or Caleb Wiley.
Here is a look at how some of the most notable young players have done (defining young as the 2002-born and younger). The first entry is obvious.
Poland approaches Gaga Slonina
Gaga Slonina: the U.S. U-20 top prospect had his contract option with Chicago extended through 2023. That alone is not interesting because it would only be news if Chicago declined to extend his contract. Slonina was also not in goal as Chicago bowed out of the Open Cup on Tuesday night after being upset on penalties to Union Omaha. But Slonina kept another clean sheet on Saturday in a 0-0 draw with the Galaxy on Saturday.
Slonina now has five clean sheets the season (four in 0-0 draws). He’s been good but Chicago’s defense is flattering him. In this game, neither team had a shot on goal so Slonina did not have to make a save. Chicago’s defense has been great. It doesn’t mean Slonina isn’t overrated, it just means that Chicago’s defense is working well for him.
Then that brings us to the top story regarding Gaga – Polish national team head coach Czeslaw Michniewicz was in Chicago to meet with Slonina on Tuesday night for the Open Cup game (not far from the home offices of U.S. Soccer). Michniewicz was also in the states to visit Adam Buksa and Karol Swiderski. He presented Slonina with a jersey and the two posed for a photograph. You can see it here – which was later tweeted by the Polish national team’s official account.
Kolejne mi?e spotkanie w USA! ????????????— ??czy nas pi?ka (@LaczyNasPilka) April 20, 2022
Slonina ???? Michniewicz pic.twitter.com/ZVCsq1hykK
After the game, Michniewicz made a comment to the Polish media expressing optimism over Slonina.
"I handed him the national team jersey with the number one and an eagle,” the Polish national team boss said. “He was very proud and touched by our conversation. He is very interested in playing for our squad. We know the United States is tempting him too. I think that we are, in fact, heading in the right direction for him to represent us."
Slonina was born and raised in the Chicago area but is very culturally tied to Poland. His parents are both from Tarnow and they speak Polish at home. This could be a “dual national recruiting” battle that makes him think.
The meeting could mean everything or nothing. He is not going to turn down a meeting with Michniewicz, nor would he refuse the gift of a jersey. He could be maximizing his position within the U.S. federation, which will not want to lose Slonina.
The U.S. federation has cards to play. Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath don’t play regularly. Matt Turner soon will be a backup at Arsenal. The U.S. team also is going to host the 2026 World Cup in what will be a massive spectacle. Long-time observers of a American soccer will remember the media exposure Tony Meola had in 1994 as the starting goalkeeper of the U.S. team when the U.S. hosted the tournament that year.
The best option for Slonina would be to focus on the U.S. U-20 team which will attempt to qualify for the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics. If successful, Slonina would have a starting role in both tournaments. He could then still make up his mind. But Poland is advancing the talks quickly – even if they have great goalkeepers in Wojciech Szcz?sny at Juventus, Bart?omiej Dr?gowski at Fiorentina, Kamil Grabara at Copenhagen, and Lukasz Skorupski at Bologna. It seems as if they will at least try to attempt to call-up Slonina to introduce him into the program. A program doesn’t send its head coach to meet a player and then publicize a meeting with official channels without any kind of attempted action. Whether Slonina accepts is anohter question.
What would be unfortunate is if it forces either federation to make offers that aren’t in the best interest of Slonina. Is this going to force US Soccer to take Slonina to the nations league and now allow Slonina to take part in U-20 and Olympic qualifying? That would only weaken the important effort of that qualifying.
Youth report continued
Caleb Wiley: The Atlanta United left back is certainly impressing, and Wiley had another good outing Atlanta United on Saturday in a 0-0 draw with FC Cincinnati. He had four key passes, was 3/3 in dribbles, was 4/5 in ground duels won, and had two interceptions, and two clearances. At just 17, Wiley looks the part and is a very interesting prospect in Alanta where he is playing a lot as a wingback as well. He’s been a great replacement for George Bello. I know many peg Jonathan Gomez to be the starter for the U.S. U-20 team but don’t be surprised if it is Wiley.
Obed Vargas: started for Seattle in a 1-0 loss to Inter Miami. It was a heavily experimental lineup for Seattle which is primarily focused on the Concacaf Champions League final. Vargas still showed so much class for just 16 years old. 47/51 passing, 2 key passes, 6/10 in ground duels.
American strikers/attacking mids thrive
It’s been a good start to the season in MLS in terms of American players being among the top early season offensive producers. That is rare over the past decade as expensive foreign imports tend to dominate the stats leaders in offensive categories.
Jeremy Ebobisse: 5 goals for San Jose
Brandon Vazquez: 5 goals for FC Cincinnati
Jesus Ferreira: 5 goals for FC Dallas
Djordje Mihailovic: 4 goals and 3 assists for CF Montreal
Those are all impressive numbers and it’s important to see Americans taking advantage of its own domestic league to advance their careers and build their resumes.
Not many on the list are surprising. Mihailovic is striking for how consistent he is right now. He had a goal and an assist for Montreal in its 2-1 win over Vancouver. After 16 assists last season, he has been a high level for a long time. Jesus Ferreira has continued to build off his 2021 season and he looks like he has a good chance of going to Qatar. Jeremy Ebobisse has a always been good whenever healthy but has struggled to get noticed internationally and his snub of the U-23 team last year looks worse and worse every month.
Brandon Vazquez is perhaps the biggest or only surprise on the list. The FC Cincinnati came from a good generation of youth internationals, and he was on a U-17 World Cup team with Christian Pulsiic, Luca de la Torre, and Tyler Adams. He is the most unproven player on this list but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that he is a late bloomer heading into next cycle.
But at a time when the U.S. team needs more No. 9 options, a number are scoring domestically – which should add to the overall player pool.
Hoppe on his way to Atlanta?
Both MLS Soccer and The Athletic reported that Atlanta United is in hot pursuit to bring in American attacker Matthew Hoppe on a deal that would be covered on the league’s “U-22 initiative.”
Source: Atlanta United chief scout Jonathan Spector is currently at Mallorca's game for USMNT forward Matthew Hoppe as ATLUTD continue to push to sign the American.— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) April 19, 2022
Hoppe, 21, would be U22 Initiative signing if a deal gets done. @FelipeCar/@PaulTenorio first reported interest. pic.twitter.com/M003efFEGF
It makes sense when you think about it – for all parties. Atlanta has the resources to bring him in and Hoppe needs to get out of Mallorca to a place where he can play. This season has been a disaster at Mallorca as he has only played 128 minutes. Hoppe isn’t necessarily very young either at 21.
The reasons Hoppe has been rated as a top prospect fall within an 11-day period in January 2021 when he scored five goals in three games for Schalke. That Schalke team was one of the worst Bundesliga teams in several decades. Prior to that, Hoppe did not make significant impacts with Schalke’s reserve or U-19 teams. At the Gold Cup, Hoppe showed glimpses of being dangerous but was still a bit raw. His resume is thin and he needs to build that up.
The problem is that after what has amounted to a lost season, he needs to go to a place where he can play. Atlanta offers that. There are leagues in Europe outside of the “Big 5” but there are issues with that. The high minimum salary for non-EU players makes Holland tough unless it is a loan. The number of teams in places like Austria or Belgium that can meet Atlanta’s offers are few – Brugge and Salzburg could but are they even interested?
Hoppe cannot risk a second year in his 20’s where he doesn’t play. Atlanta is a good team that would offer Hoppe a chance to play in front of huge crowds alongside from very good players such as Josef Martinez, Thiago Almeda, Luiz Araujo, and Miles Robinson. If he does well, then he has more leverage to move back up with a choice of clubs wanting to bring him in as starter.
But he doesn’t have the leverage now, he needs to make a smart decision for his development and his wallet.
Some notes on the Open Cup
The first games of the Open Cup third round took place on Tuesday night. This is when MLS teams first start to get involved. Like every other year, there were upsets – particularly when teams overly rotated squad.
The Chicago Fire squandered a lead in extra-time to Union Omaha before losing in a shootout after a 2-2 stalemate.
I loved this quote from new Chicago Fire manager Ezra Hendrickson which shows the new demands and expectations of the club – which I believe is on the right track after years of failed rebuilds.
“Frankly, I'm pissed off because the team that we're trying to build here – and it doesn't matter who's on the pitch – I don't think tonight we displayed Chicago Fire soccer,” said Hendrickson. “It was just not intense enough. We didn't play fast enough and I felt like we were too casual on the night. We warned these guys that, when you play a team like this from a lower division, they feel like they have a lot to prove. They're going to come, they're going to bring intensity, they're going to bring the effort and we have to match that. And I don't think that we did that tonight.”
That is more than can be said for Caleb Porter who didn’t speak to the media after his Columbus team was bounced by Detroit City 2-1.
Got some interesting comments from Josh Williams and Aidan Morris postgame.— Jacob Myers (@_jcmyers) April 20, 2022
Caleb Porter did not meet with the media. This is the first time since he’s been coach that he has not talked after a game. #Crew96
The most noteworthy game came in Carson, California when the Galaxy defeated the San Diego Loyal 1-0. That game had a lot of off the field stories as Landon Donovan, a legend of the Galaxy and the U.S. national team, was coaching the Loyal against his former team. The Galaxy started Jonathan Klinsmann, who infamously taunted Donovan when his father controversially cut him from the 2014 World Cup team.
This game, however, was played out with a lot of respect between the two teams. Such a discussion of off-field issues were not on display on the field.
The Loyal struggled in this one in the 1-0 loss and the team has been dealing with a wave of injuries. Donovan continues, however, to grow as a coach and could be in line for an MLS gig before too long.
“I thought it was a really good game all around. I think the Galaxy probably have the best second team in Major League Soccer,” Donovan said. “(They have) quality players all over the field. It was a really good challenge for our team. I’m a little disappointed we didn’t score a goal. Overall, I am really proud of our team. We played the way we always play against a very good opponent and we had a chance to get something from the game. I am proud of our guys. I thought it was a great game and it was enjoyable to be a part of.”
Reading the tea leaves: RBNY, TFC, Austin
I wanted to end today’s column talking about three teams that are generating some surprising talk early in the season.
The Red Bulls on paper should be performing better than they are. They defend well, they hold the ball, they can get the ball into attacking positions, but they can’t finish. Patryk Klimala and now Ashley Fletcher have yet to be the answer. Goals they have scored in recent games are either own goals or fluky deflections. The recent 0-0 draw against Dallas was another indication of this.
If the team could manage to fix its woes in the final third, it could be quite good. It wouldn’t be the first team that is good despite being low scoring (see Nashville), but it doesn’t have a CJ Sapong or a Hany Mukhtar. They might need to make some moves in the summer while scrapping for results in the meantime.
Toronto has won three of four in impressive fashion. Bob Bradley is still only months into his tenure but he’s stopped the bleeding from last year. He’s got their expensive talent to make difference making plays. They are the opposite of the Red Bulls. Toronto has players like Alejandro Pozuelo and Jesus Jimenez. Defense will remain an issue, but if that is fixed overtime, Toronto should be among the best in the East again. Lorenzo Insigne is going to make this team very, very dangerous in the post season.
As for Austin FC, I am beginning to believe that they have a real chance to make the post season. Their front office is quick to right ships and make positive changes. In their recent 3-2 win over DC United, they rallied from a 2-0 deficit for a three-goals in the final 10 minutes. Yes, they had a man-advantage most of the game, but the team is playing with a lot of fight and is heavily motivated. That’s a credit to Josh Wolff. Many teams would have packed it up and taken the “L.” Meanwhile, Hernan Losada is going to have to get some results for DC very soon or else his seat is going to get warm, quickly.