Wednesday, May 22 2024
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MLS will introduce rule changes this season allowing teams to spend more money.Photograph: Amy Kontras/AFP/Getty Images

Welcome back to the Guardian’s MLS Power Rankings, where I have a beef with your specific team and your specific team alone.

MLS roster rules might be changing in the middle of the season, but as for this column? It’s following the same format as it has all season. We’re still ranking teams from worst to first. But along with the rankings, we’re diving deep into a handful of teams from around the league who are doing particularly interesting things.

My kingdom for a goalkeeper

29. San Jose Earthquakes

28. New England Revolution

27. FC Dallas

26. Austin FC

25. Chicago Fire

24. Nashville SC

If there’s one team in MLS hoping that their underlying numbers are well and truly predictive, it’s the San Jose Earthquakes.

Through the first almost two months of the season, no team has underperformed their expected goal differential (xGD) by a larger margin than the Quakes. Currently sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference and at the bottom of the Supporters’ Shield standings with just three points through eight games, their xGD is sitting at a respectable +1.01, according to American Soccer Analysis. But, their real-world goal differential is much worse, sitting at -10. That staggering 11-goal gap is four goals wider than the next closest team in that same statistical category.

Teams have been hot against San Jose this year. Sebastián Driussi’s 101st-minute winner from distance for Austin FC a couple of weekends ago is just one example:

Conventional wisdom says bangers like the one up above won’t keep finding the back of the Earthquakes’ net. But is it as simple as waiting for the seas to change for Luchi Gonzalez and Co to start picking up points? Well, not quite.

One thing that’s not included in xGD is a team’s goalkeeping performance – and so far this year, no team’s goalkeepers have performed worse than San Jose’s. They’re turning fine chances into golden ones for the Quakes’ opponents. While they’re unlikely to continue shipping two-and-a-half goals every game for an entire season, it’s hard to imagine things getting a whole lot better in San Jose until their goalkeeping situation improves.

Questions in Kansas City

23. Toronto FC

22. New York City FC

21. Orlando City

20. Colorado Rapids

19. Sporting Kansas City

18. Seattle Sounders

Peter Vermes and a 4-3-3 shape go together like peanut butter and jelly.

The 4-3-3 has been the default look for the longest-tenured manager in MLS for most of his 15 years in charge of Sporting Kansas City. Vermes’ longevity is astounding, given how quickly teams tend to cycle through coaches – they’re almost always the first thing to go when something (anything!) goes wrong.

But Vermes is still around. And so is the 4-3-3, which we’ve seen in most of SKC’s games so far in 2024. I say most and not all because on two separate occasions this year, Vermes has ditched the 4-3-3 in favor of a 4-2-3-1.

Why the change? Well, Sporting Kansas City’s roster isn’t exactly swimming in starting-caliber attacking players. So when right winger Johnny Russell went down with an injury last month against the Earthquakes, there was no obvious like-for-like change coming on the wing. Enter: striker Willy Agada.

Signed in the summer of 2022, Agada tallied eight goals in 900 minutes to finish that regular season. Injuries erased 20 games for Agada in 2023, but he’s back with three goals in 373 minutes this year.

Without Russell and with an aging Alan Pulido, SKC needed a dose of dynamism in their attack. That’s exactly what Agada brings to the table.

The results in this new look have been poor: SKC lost both of the two matches where they started in the 4-2-3-1. They looked especially off-kilter against Inter Miami, though that could just be the Miami effect. It’s too small of a sample size to make any real judgments, but Pulido doesn’t look comfortable playing behind the striker.

Can Vermes bench Pulido after signing him to a new DP deal last fall? Can the front office find a difference-maker either through the middle or out wide to replace Gadi Kinda, who left a DP spot open when he returned to Israel over the offseason? Is Vermes breaking up the PB&J combo for good?

There are more questions than answers right now in Kansas City.

I love me some Montreal

17. Portland Timbers

16. CF Montréal

15. Charlotte FC

14. St. Louis City

13. DC United

12. Minnesota United

Managers don’t single-handedly make or break things for their teams – and so often, the way they’re talked about as chess players controlling chess pieces is downright silly.

Still, they do matter. The degree to which they matter varies from job to job and from manager to manager. But they do matter, as we’re seeing right now with CF Montréal. After picking up seven points on their six-game road stretch to start the season (just one point fewer than their entire road tally from 2023), Montréal earned all three in their home opener against FC Cincinnati. They out-created, out-scored, and out-possessed last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners.

New manager Laurent Courtois, who joined from the Columbus Crew system over the offseason, was the big winter acquisition for this club. Sure, they made a few moves around the fringes, but CF Montréal aren’t exactly big spenders. They didn’t add a DP. No, they tried to find a less expensive way to elevate their on-field product. And by bringing in Courtois, a coach with clear tactical ideas and the skills to communicate them to his players, they’ve done exactly that.

Playing out of a possession-heavy 3-4-3 shape against Cincy, Montréal showed crisp movement, spacing, and timing on and off the ball. That’s how you end up pulling off eight-pass sequences that rip one of the best defensive setups in MLS to shreds:

Like the folks who install them, clever, clearly communicated tactical approaches don’t make or break things on their own. But having a uniform system helps cut down on simple mistakes like poor attacking spacing, tempo, and off-ball movement. Those problems are far, far too common and they largely stem from players simply not being given or not understanding a larger tactical picture. Courtois is giving his team that picture, and they’re doing a great job of committing it to memory.

A lack of star power keeps CF Montréal’s ceiling fairly low – I’ll be surprised if they end up higher than sixth in the East this year – but Courtois’ approach has raised the floor by a noticeable margin.

Vanni Sartini keeps us guessing

11. LAFC

10. Houston Dynamo

9. Real Salt Lake

8. Vancouver Whitecaps

7. Atlanta United

6. FC Cincinnati

Which MLS team spends the least time pressing high up the pitch? Nope, it’s not Gary Smith’s Nashville SC, nor is it the attack-first-defend-later LA Galaxy.

It’s the Vancouver Whitecaps. According to Opta, Vancouver allow 16.7 passes per defensive action outside their own third of the field, which is more than any other team in MLS and almost twice as many as Troy Lesesne’s ultra-aggressive DC United team (9.4). The Caps will apply real pressure in the final third in some moments and drop into a deeper shell in other moments. But at their core, the Whitecaps want to own the middle third of the field defensively. So far this year, only three teams have registered more tackles in the middle third of the field than the Whitecaps, according to FBref.

Vancouver spend a whole lot of time defending in a very specific shape: a 3-4-3. Rather than dropping their wingbacks into the backline and dropping their wingers into their midfield line to form a more common 5-4-1 (or even just dropping the wingbacks and using a 5-2-3 shape), the Caps almost always stick with a 3-4-3 shape until they absolutely have to fall back.

Their more aggressive posture provides a couple of benefits – and a couple of challenges.

By keeping the outside backs higher, the Whitecaps have less distance to cover in attacking transition after winning the ball. Defensively, Vancouver encourage teams to attack the obvious, but low-value wide spaces just behind the edge of their midfield line and just ahead and outside the edge of their back three.

You can see LA Galaxy left back Julián Aude begging for the ball in that pocket of space down below:

The Whitecaps are happy to allow that pass. Play those long, lofted diagonals out to the wings all you want. While the ball is in the air, they have time to rotate and apply pressure to the receiver.

The team’s defensive shape is designed to lure you into mostly harmless positions. Still, the advanced positioning of the Whitecaps’ fullbacks pressure on their back three the second something goes wrong:

Once the Galaxy break their block, the midfield line collapses centrally, and Tristan Blackmon is left on an island against a player who’s paid to make people in his position look silly.

No other team in MLS defend like Vancouver, possibly for good reason. They’re playing with fire, but I have to say: I’m enjoying the show.

There’s nothing like a midseason rule changes

5. Philadelphia Union

4. LA Galaxy

3. New York Red Bulls

2. Inter Miami

1. Columbus Crew

After being bounced in embarrassing fashion from the Concacaf Champions Cup by Liga MX’s Monterrey last week, there are once again reasons for optimism in South Beach.

As first reported by The Athletic, MLS is planning to institute a handful of new roster rules before the league’s summer transfer window. Most notably, teams will have more flexibility to spend on their top six roster spots.

Under the new rules, teams will be allowed to have three senior DPs (expensive players like Lionel Messi who hit the salary cap at a reduced amount) and three U-22 Initiative players (young players like Diego Gómez with high transfer fees who also hit the salary cap at a reduced amount). That’s a change from the current system, which only allows teams to have three U-22 Initiative players if their third DP is either below a certain age or a certain salary threshold.

There are other permutations to this rule change, as always in MLS, but to boil things down: this tweak will help the more ambitious MLS teams *cough* Inter Miami *cough* put together slightly better rosters.

Inter Miami will now be able to add an additional DP alongside Messi and Sergio Busquets, while still keeping their U-22 Initiative players in Gómez, Tomás Avilés, and Federico Redondo. They’re afforded, then, another top-level starter for their trophy push. Of course, other teams around MLS are afforded the same flexibility.

Is it more than a little nonsensical that these rules are being changed in the middle of the season? Sure. But is this still progress for MLS as a whole? Yes, albeit incremental. This is the first example of Inter Miami driving change to the restrictive roster rules in MLS.

With more eyes than ever on MLS, the league has an opportunity to loosen the binds and allow teams to put together better on-field products. Much, much more still needs to be done for the casual fan to notice an uptick in quality. But this is a step in the right direction.

Expect Miami to spend big yet again once these new rules are put in place in an attempt to collect any of the three trophies that are still on offer for them – Leagues Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, and MLS Cup.

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