Top 6 stories in the first 6 weeks: LA soccer is back, RBNY surprises, young players impress, & more
April 05, 2022
SO FAR IN THE 2022 MLS season, all teams have played either five or six games. It’s not a lot in the scheme of things but it is enough of an early snap shot of how tings are going for both teams and individual players.
Here are some thoughts on what I believe are the top stories from the first 5/6 rounds of the season.
1) Top 2021 teams struggling in 2022
There is always a lot of change in MLS from a year to year basis but so far in 2022, many of the top success stories in 2021 are not doing well – namely both finalists in MLS Cup 2021 and the reigning Supporters Shield winners.
With NYCFC, there is a combination of things. For one, they are still focused on the CONCACAF Champions League. By now, everyone knows that teams who prioritize this tournament struggle in the early parts of the MLS season. The truth, however, is that NYCFC has been the least impressive team among the tournament’s semifinalists as they have yet to have to go through either a Liga MX team or a fellow MLS team. Their win over Comunicaciones was very unimpressive as the team collapsed late after allowing three late goals in a 4-2 loss. This allowed them to win on away goals after a 5-5 aggregate draw. If the game was just a few minutes longer, they probably would have lost.
The CCL shouldn’t have as taxing as it has been for other MLS teams in the tournament, but it was. In MLS this season, they have just four points from five games. Taty Castellanos is yet to score in the league and systematically, they’re a mess. But there is a chance at redemption. An upset over Seattle in the CCL semifinals and a five-game homestand in MLS offers a chance to gain momentum. Failure to take advantage of either could raise alarm bells.
The New England Revolution are not the same as 2021. Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou have yet to score in MLS play. Across all competitions, they’ve lost four in a row. The collapse in the CCL to Pumas in Mexico seemed to have a major effect in emotionally deflating the group. The team hasn’t recovered from the sale of Tajon Buchanan. The injury to Matt Turner is tough but Earl Edwards has done well. The problem right now on both ends as top players aren’t scoring and defensively the team is bleeding goals – sometimes in spectacular fashion (see the own goal from Matt Polster which lost them the game over the weekend to the Red Bulls). Bruce Arena has a lot to fix at the moment and it is a bit of a concern when you see just how much Supporters Shield winners can struggle the following year – sometimes not even making the playoffs.
As for Portland, Sebastian Blanco has just 196 minutes this season as he returns from a knee injury and Felipe Mora is yet to play. Eryk Williamson is on his way back, and that is good for Portland, although recovery from an ACL can take time even once the player is back on the field. The worry over Portland is that it really is between generations. The core of the previous few years is aging out and they’re going to be tough to replace. There is some promising young players taking root but the turnover that Gio Savarese must oversee is going to be tough. This has been a time coming.
2) Chicharito & Vela lead LA soccer revival
It was surprising that neither of the two Los Angeles teams made the playoffs in 2021 and it was probably a huge bummer for the league’s front office as well. So far in 2022 is that both teams in the City of Angels look strong.
It’s not hard to understand the reasons for the success either – Carlos Vela and Chicharito. The two Mexican forwards are both in great form to start the year and are carrying their teams in a way many hoped they would.
LAFC simply look terrific right now and a big shoutout goes to former U.S. national team right back Steve Cherundolo who might not have had the coaching credentials top MLS teams look for to fill a vacancy but still has exceeded expectations in his first steps.
Dolo’s team isn’t even firing on all cylinders yet. Chicho Arango has yet to score, and Kellyn Acosta is still finding his role in the team’s midfield. But even though Vela has scored in just two games, he is still a constant threat. This team has a lot of ways to be teams. Defensively and in goalkeeping, they are so much improved with just four goals conceded.
The LA Galaxy aren’t at the level of LAFC, but they’re several steps ahead of 2018. They’re probably overly reliant on Chicharito who has four of the team’s seven goals. But they’re also not beating themselves anymore either. Defensively, they’ve only conceded more than one goal in just the 3-2 loss away to Seattle. There are still questions about the team’s defensive depth and the lack of scoring threats beyond Chicarito, but the team is progressing in the right direction.
Oh, and it should be a lot of fun when the two LA teams face off against each other this weekend in Carson.
3) Chicago, Austin, & Dallas are improved
The improvement of Chicago, Austin and Dallas are significant.
For Dallas, the hiring of Nico Estevez has made Dallas stylistically play similar to the U.S. national team. This is unsurprising given the role Estevez had under Gregg Berhalter. Like the U.S. team, Dallas has been solid up the spine with competent central defenders and a good defensive midfielder. In this case, Edwin Cerillo has enjoyed a revival of the once promising prospect who forced his way on the 2019 U.S. U-20 World Cup team.
The same can be said of Chicago under new manager Ezra Hendrickson who has also stressed defense first. The team has given up very few shots and this has eased the burden on its young prodigy in goal, Gaga Slonina. Then like Dallas, it has some difference makers like Xherdan Shaqiri who Hendrickson hopes will turn in magic up front.
Both Dallas and Chicago have gone about their revivals with new coaches coming in and preaching defense. That is how both new and rebounding teams need to approach things. With MLS having a reputation of being an attacking league with very little spent on defense, the pendulum is swinging the other way. Maybe not with defensive DP’s but more with defensive systems. More and more teams are heading this way – especially in the first steps of a new direction. Teams like Inter Miami, Cincinnati, and Almeyda’s San Jose never got this right whereas teams like Nashville did.
Austin FC isn’t a doormat anymore but they’re not really defensive either. They play fast and they play hard. Josh Wolff has done a nice job reversing the trend after a tough expansion season. The heavy roster turnover suggests they learned some lessons. The dust hasn’t settled yet on Austin and some of their results were impressive. They can score goals and have a nice home field advantage. To keep it up is going to take more energy than they can expend, unless they add more defensive bite during the season. Still, the team is trending way up.
I know many people are going to want to talk about Houston’s improvement. It’s been pretty good but I am still not there yet. Wins over Miami and Vancouver? I need to see more.
4) SOS Miami, San Jose
Everyone knew that Inter Miami and San Jose had bleak outlooks heading into the season, and both have looked even worse than most expected. Both teams have found themselves in sad situations.
Phil Neville isn’t at fault for every bad decision the team has made. The rosters that have been handed to him lack balance, lack youth, and are extremely thin at key positions. Defensively, there is nothing there. Over the past two seasons, he’s been handed players who were brought in because of their name but who are old. He also wasn’t the one responsible for cheating with the reporting of salaries. But still, Neville doesn’t appear to be the right guy for fixing a sinking ship.
What’s sad about Miami is that the organization had all these bold visions of wanting to be a different type of MLS team – but their ideas aren’t new and have failed by other teams before it. It’s like NYCFC’s first year when they thought Pirlo and Lampard would dominate. But the league is young and hungry, for the most part. Enormous amounts of scouting is done by teams to try and find the right fits. Inter Miami just assumed random players who had a name would succeed.
Miami needs to accept that nothing is going to fix the mess it is in and take a long process to completely rebuild. The problem is that they’ve long since lost the only chance to make a good first impression with a fickle South Florida fanbase. They’ve pitched a rebuild and new approach – only to play like the previous approach. It’s bleak and there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the current path it is on.
San Jose is also a team that can’t get out of its own way. There is no defense, there is no offensive scheme either. Matias Almeyda knows he’s not on a path that is going to see him keep his job but he doesn’t seem to be doing anything to change it. Jackson Yueill as a central defender? Francisco Calvo struggled defensively for Chicago and, to no one’s surprise, is struggling defensively in San Jose.
San Jose has no direction right now and doesn’t even appear to be a bad team that is trying to fix itself. We all know where this is heading – a rebuild – but they’re not even in the process of starting that.
5) RBNY, RSL are the top surprises
Coming into this season, few had high hopes for Real Salt Lake – myself included. There is still plenty of reason for concern. RSL is overachieving right now is getting results against the run of play. On the flip side, optimistic fans can also point to the wave of injuries that the team has had to endure and figure that if they’re getting results now, things should even be better at full strength.
Johan Kappelhof, Erik Holt, Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera, Nick Besler, Bret Halsey, David Ochoa, Damir Kreilach, and Rubio Rubin are just among the names who have been injured.
The truth is somewhere in between. But between last year and this year, it seems clear that the players love playing for Pablo Mastroeni. It’s tough to keep winning up for too long when it is based on emotion/enthusiasm as opposed to talent. But RSL has a tough home field advantage and if it can keep things together through April, it might be able to hang in there.
Based on what they’ve been through, it’s impressive.
The New York Red Bulls are a different story. The surprising win over New England ensured the team had nine points from its first three road games. Defensively, this team is solid. But the team needs more of a clue in the attacking third. Is Patrik Klimala ever going to be the guy? Will Ashley Fletcher (on loan from Wolves) provide another threat?
There has been some good and bad news regarding player development in New York. Frankie Amaya, Omir Fernandez, and John Tolkin have all played key roles and a bunch of youth internationals have made appearances. But Caden Clark and Cameron Harper aren’t good fits for the system. What is next for them?
The Red Bulls have been getting weird goals lately (flukes and own goals) but they’ve been playing effective Red Bull soccer. If the team can start to generate offensive chances, sitting second isn’t unrealistic.
6) Young American surprises
From an American perspective, there have been plenty of domestic players impressing this year and taking important steps in their career. Being a league known for playing young players is critical in the current direction of the league. Here are a few players that have caught my eye.
Obed Vargas: the Seattle Sounders midfielder has impressed with both Seattle and the U.S. U-20 team despite only having been born in 2005. It will be tough for him to keep the minutes up with injured players like Josh Atencio and Nico Lodeiro returning from injury, but he’s been one of the best surprises in the league from a youth perspective so far.
Gaga Slonina: This might not be a surprise based on how he performed last year, but Slonina has been excellent in goal for a Chicago team that has conceded just one goal from five games.
Edwin Cerillo: in 2019, Cerillo impressed with FC Dallas and forced his way onto the U.S. U-20 World Cup team. Since then, it has been up and down for the homegrown defensive midfielder. In 2022, he is playing the best soccer of his career and looks like a polished No. 6.
Brandon Vazquez: At 23, it’s debatable if he should be considered young but some strikers just mature later. Vazquez is the leading scorer in the league at the moment with five goals in five games for FC Cincinnati. He is a veteran of a U.S. U-17 team that included Christian Pulisic, Luca de la Torre, and Tyler Adams. The fact that American No. 9’s are so hard to find make his surge more noticeable.
Nathan Harriel: Philadelphia is one of the best teams to play as a young American player and Harriel, 20, is one of the more underrated young Americans in the league. The young right back took the starting job from Olivier Mbaizo and looks to be a player with a very bright future.
Ben Bender: The No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft, Bender has impressed for Charlotte in the early season. Charlotte is expected to struggle but Bender, 21, has been a bright spot and is certainly a player worth watching in 2022.