Each MLS club has played between five and seven games so far this season. Everyone spent a week or three finding their sea legs, then did it again after the international break, and now we’re at a point where we’re just starting to see, generally, who is good and who is bad in this league. It’s not like many other sports leagues (like, say, the NFL or a European league) where we can start predicting a playoff race, or a relegation battle, though. It’s more, “these teams look like they have a system that’s working, and those teams look like they’re not good to enough for contention.”
As Seattle and Philadelphia showed last year, it’s a long season with plenty of time for adjustments. Just because Portland are scoring a lot now doesn’t mean they’ll finish the regular season with 70 goals, and Minnesota allowing 24 goals in seven games shouldn’t tell you that they’ll finish with a worse defense than the Cleveland Browns.
With that in mind, we run through some MLS storylines.
The SKC Defensive Wall, Potential Union Trade Targets and More From MLS After a Month and a Half
Sporting KC’s Ridiculous Defense
Sporting Kansas City, a fringe Western Conference playoff team last year, projected the same this year. They were always going to be a high-pressing 4-3-3 team with a top-tier forward (Dom Dwyer), solid defenders, and a complete lack of goal-scoring from anyone not named Dom. That preseason description of them is not far off from what they are now, actually.
What’s different is that they don’t just have “solid defenders.” They’ve become the best team in MLS at keeping the ball out of the net, allowing two goals in six games and reaching second place in the conference, behind only goal-happy Portland by a point with a goal in hand. The two goals they conceded were both extremely late in already won games — a weird Florian Jungwirth stoppage time set piece goal in a 2-1 win against San Jose and a garbage-time penalty kick in a 3-1 victory against San Jose.
The secret behind their defensive success is not a secret formula held in Peter Vermes’ basement. Center backs Matt Besler and, in particular, Ike Opara have been a literal brick wall, and having Ilie Sanchez play as well as he has has been a big help. Graham Zusi’s adjusted to right back well, and Seth Sinovic is as solid a left back as you’ll find in this league. Also, Tim Melia has been a GOD in goal so far, putting himself at the top of the early Goalkeeper of the Year list.
They don’t sit deep and bunker, and playing good defense does not condense as much space as possible in the middle of the field, contrary to popular opinion (and Colorado last year). Vermes’ not-so-secret formula is to keep a high line and focus on defending from the front, without giving up much on the other end. The wingers — one of which has often been converted left back Jimmy Medranda — do a great job of tracking back, and Roger Espinoza is a renegade number eight who’s been crucial in making sure the midfield is not lost.
The obvious question for any defensive team like this is “are they over-performing?” or, in other words, “is it sustainable?” There is not necessarily a verdict on that yet in KC, because it’s so early in the season. We can say, though, that they have no reason to change anything, because the attack has shown it can at least be worthy of a top-three finish, especially with Dwyer starting to score.
Philadelphia need attacking help
The Philadelphia Union are in last place right now, and the fans are not happy. They again booed the team after their nationally televised 2-0 home loss to NYCFC last week, and it’s been pretty clear that they have a right to be. The Union did little to improve from last season, and still, Jim Curtain’s lineups have shown little progress or new tactical thinking. Since the tail end of last season, whatever they’ve done hasn’t worked. They haven’t won since August 27th, 2016, with a total of four points in that span.
Reinforcements are, um, pretty necessary. They need a difference-making attacker to support whoever they’re playing at striker — both CJ Sapong and Jay Simpson need whatever help they can get, because they are both below-average strikers in MLS — and, I’m sorry, Alejandro Bedoya the playmaker is not much of a difference-maker.
An intra-league trade is possibly the best option. They should have tried to get Kekuta Manneh from Vancouver, but he’s been taken by Columbus. Here are some players they should look at:
— Ethan Finlay: Manneh’s arrival in Columbus could signal the end in black-and-gold for the winger Finlay, which makes little sense to me, because Finlay is really good.
— Tommy McNamara: Rodney Wallace has taken Tommy Mac’s spot in the Bronx, and with third-overall draft pick Jonathan Lewis waiting in the wings, you’d think the Cult Hero would be available.
— Teal Bunbury: A 27-year old in New England, Bunbury is far back on the Revs’ attacking depth chart right now. He’s a capped US international, so he could contribute more to Philly than Illsinho, right?
— Cordell Cato: He’s not Ethan Finlay, but the Quakes backup is a prominent CONCACAF international (for Trinidad and Tobago) and has proven himself to be an effective winger in this league.
The top breakout players
This storyline is one that comes about every season in every league, but it’s a worthy one, and it’s fun to think about, so here are some best breakout players in MLS this season:
Marco Farfan: The Timbers left back seems to have stolen Vytas’ starting spot until further notice
Cubo Torres and Romell Quioto: The Dynamo duo have combined to put Houston near the top of the Western Conference.
Julian Gressel: The early favorite for Rookie of the Year is a weekly starter and a crucial element of Atlanta United’s midfield.
Ike Opara: We knew he was good, but did we know he was Defensive Player of the Year good? Probably not.
Christian Ramirez: The transition from NASL to MLS has been seamless for Minnesota’s Ramirez, who has five goals.
Scott Sutter: Sutter appears to have taken over as Orlando’s starting right back, and he’s been threatening on the overlap.
Tyler Adams: The hype train is moving fast for the Red Bulls midfield prodigy.
Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla: Tabla received his chance a couple weeks ago taking over for the injured Ignacio Piatti, and he now has a chance to steal Dom Oduro’s job in Montreal.
Tim Melia: As mentioned earlier, Melia’s in contention for GKOTY after his dream start for SKC.
Alex: The Dynamo number eight has put his passing skills on full display this season, racking up four assists in six games after four in his previous five seasons.