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MLS 2021 roundtable: hits and misses of the year so far

Major League Soccer is returning from its brief hiatus while Euro 2020 and Copa America got underway, giving us a moment to reflect on the first three months of the 2021 season. It’s a campaign that’s seen a pair of MLS Cup favorites find themselves near the bottom of the standings, while one of the league’s premier organizations and superstars rebounded from a miserable 2020 to contend for this year’s crown.

Writers Jeff Carlisle and Kyle Bonagura, and editors Danny Guerra and Austin Lindberg, look back on the first salvos of the 2021 season and look ahead to the remainder of the campaign.

Lindberg: Among these unexpected results so far this term, which team has most excited you?

Carlisle: The Seattle Sounders wouldn’t normally be at the top of the list given their success in the past — they reached the MLS Cup final in four of the past five years — but then you look at who has been missing from their lineup.

Jordan Morris is out for the year with a torn ACL. Nicolas Lodeiro has played a whopping 24 minutes so far this season due to injury. Stefan Frei has been sidelined as well. Those are three massive influences, the loss of which would crush most other teams. Yet Brian Schmetzer and the rest of the squad keep getting it done.

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At the other end, I’m a bit surprised at LAFC‘s struggles, although there’s still time to come good. Defensively they’ve been pretty solid, but their attack has shown just how dependent they are on Carlos Vela. If some other key players exit this summer, they could be in trouble.

Bonagura: Even with limited availability from Vela, LAFC’s offensive regression is still surprising considering how potent they were without him for nearly all of last season. It will be interesting to see what happens with the other two Designated Players, Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez. General manager John Thorrington has allowed for the possibility that Rossi will move on this summer, while a permanent move away for Brian Rodriguez seems likely after he spent the spring on loan in Spain.

Carlisle: Eduard Atuesta might even be a bigger loss if he leaves.

Lindberg: How about Minnesota United‘s slow start?

Bonagura: I was expecting them to be firmly in the playoff mix and they’ve earned just seven points in seven matches, sitting second-bottom in the West. I’m not ready to write them off quite yet, but the panic button should be in an easy-to-reach location.

Lindberg: As the one who chose Minnesota to win MLS Cup in our preseason predictions, I’m sure you can imagine how surprised I was! But the only way for them to go from here is up. Even if I have my suspicions about their mobility in midfield, the reality is that they’ve been without their best center-backs virtually all season, and they’ve lacked production from their attackers: Emanuel Reynoso has created the second-most chances in MLS, yet only Austin FC and Chicago Fire FC have scored fewer goals than Minnesota.

With DP Adrien Hunou and TAM attacker Franco Fragapane finally joining the squad, there’s hope yet in the Twin Cities that 2021 can be salvaged.

Guerra: The East seems wide open and with no Seattle-like favorite at the moment. Jeff, you picked the New England Revolution as your conference winners; think they can hold off the chasing pack?

Carlisle: Yes, I think the Revs can hold them off, but Carles Gil has to stay healthy. His chance creation has been off the charts. He has 48 so far, which averages out to six per game. Diego Valeri averaged 3.9 per game in 2019, which is the highest across the past five seasons.

Lindberg: That chance-creation rate is nearly double that of his nearest competitor and he has the second-most touches of anyone in the league. Gil remains arguably the most underrated player in MLS — and people around the league rave about him!

Carlisle: If Gil was to go down, he’d be irreplaceable.

Elsewhere, I’m a bit surprised at how much Toronto FC has struggled. Yes, the fact that they’ve been forced to play their home games in Orlando is a huge factor. Alejandro Pozuelo being sidelined is significant as well. But this transition from a possession team to a hyper-press team is going to be rough. The Jozy Altidore situation, in which he’s been frozen out of the first team, doesn’t bode well either. I think a guy like Ayo Akinola could replace him on the field, but what this says for the overall vibe within the team… yikes.

Lindberg: Is anyone else surprised by the Philadelphia Union? I thought after losing Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie they’d take a step backward this year, yet they’re right back in the running for the Eastern Conference.

Guerra: Major League Soccer’s only CONCACAF Champions League hope, Philly is.

Carlisle: I thought they’d still be a solid playoff team, like a third or fourth seed in the East. They may do better than that, but I still see them finishing behind the likes of Orlando City SC and New England. We’ll see about the Columbus Crew and New York City FC.

Lindberg: The Union are conceding a lot of chances, though, allowing the fifth-most shots on target in the league. Andre Blake has been superb, conceding just five goals against an expected goals against of 11.6.

Carlisle: As good as Blake is, that’s not sustainable.

Bonagura: Philly’s early success is a good sign for their model, too. Assuming it continues, it serves as a proof of concept, somewhat, that a strong commitment to player development can coexist with sustained success.

Carlisle: As long as Ernst Tanner is there (and Jim Curtin, too), they’ll always be competitive. Tanner’s knack for finding players that you’ve never heard of who excel in MLS is uncanny and conversely, I think that’s where FC Dallas has fallen back. Their foreign signings haven’t really been up to snuff.

Guerra: We’ve mentioned the teams of Schmetzer, Curtin and Bruce Arena doing well, but is there anyone else that’s doing a good and underrated job in the coach’s chair? Wilfried Nancy at CF Montreal is keeping that team steady.

Bonagura: Greg Vanney’s arrival in Los Angeles has worked about as well as the Galaxy could have hoped for. From finishing 10th last year to being three points off the top in the West, with a game in hand, speaks for itself. In a similar mold, the Houston Dynamo have made huge strides in Tab Ramos’ second year, improving from last year’s last-place finish to fifth. Both those teams have been entertaining to watch, too.

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Herculez Gomez reacts to Inter Miami’s punishment resulting from an MLS investigation into the signing of Blaise Matuidi.

Carlisle: The difference between Ramos and Vanney is that Ramos has zero budget. Houston has the fourth-lowest payroll in the league and just one DP in Darwin Quintero. It’s crazy how little resources he’s been given.

Lindberg: Anyway, we’re pretty team-heavy in our chat right now. Who are some players who’ve jumped out at you?

Carlisle: Does Javier Hernandez get some votes for Comeback Player of the Year? I’m joking. Sort of.

Lindberg: It’s hard to imagine things going any worse for Chicharito than they did last season, but his bounce-back has been pretty strong. The Galaxy give up a ton of chances, and without his goals, they probably aren’t where they are in the standings.

Rubio Rubin also deserves some love. He’s directly involved in a goal every 83 minutes for Real Salt Lake. He scored his first top-flight goal since 2017-18, and it’s the first time he’s had more than one goal in a top-flight season since 2014-15. What a career-saving season he’s having.

Guerra: How about the next generation of stars? It’s hard to look past Caden Clark and Cade Cowell.

Bonagura: I’m already looking forward to being able to say, “I remember watching them back when…” because it feels inevitable that both of them will go on to have successful careers in Europe, playing at the highest level.

Lindberg: With the future in mind, how does the rest of the 2021 season look to you all?

Guerra: The Liga MX-MLS All-Star Game is a welcome development. It will be fun with Andre-Pierre Gignac, Chicharito, Vela & Co. in action together.

Bonagura: I like this format a lot because even though it’s an exhibition, there is some rooting incentive. That hasn’t really been the case before — and we’ll still have to wait to see how much effort the players give — but I’m intrigued to see how it plays out.

Carlisle: I think another positive development will simply be having fans back in the stands. MLS has prided itself on the atmosphere it provides in the stadium, and the league’s been missing that in a big way. Hopefully that trend — provided fans are behaving — of having more people in the stands continues.

Bonagura: The crowd element is significant on a number of levels, but I’ll be especially curious to see how noticeable raucous environments will have on the energy on the field. For the teams with better atmospheres, it should be like getting a key player back after a long-term injury and it will be interesting to see how (if?) that shows up in the results. As a bonus, I think it even makes the TV product better because random games will feel like they have stakes again, and that often hasn’t been the case for the past year.

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