We’re one third of the way through the 2022 MLS season. Identities (or lack thereof), strengths, and weaknesses are becoming increasingly clear.
With that in mind, let’s talk about some of those weaknesses, shall we?
Last week, we dove into every Eastern Conference team’s biggest need after this first chunk of the season. Today, we’re tackling the Western Conference.
Now, one quick note before we start: MLS’s next transfer window opens on July 7, so this won’t necessarily be a hard-and-fast “who should my team sign?” type of mini-series. Some teams are capped out anyway, so external help might not be coming. But we are going to look at what each club should be sorting out as we head into the summer.
Let’s get to the West.
Biggest need? Defensive improvement
This is nitpicking, really, and it comes down to the basic notion that I have more trust in Austin’s attack than their defense.
Now, their defending has improved from 2021 to 2022. They’re giving up fewer chances this year than they did last year on a per 90 minute basis, according to FBref. The biggest shift was making Dani Periera a No. 6 and Alex Ring a No. 8. Either because of those midfield tweaks or because of an increased team-wide focus on transition defending, Austin FC has shored up a lot of the defensive issues that they dealt with last year.
Austin are over-performing their expected goals against, though, which means they may be in line to concede some additional goals as the season progresses.
So could they use another player challenging for minutes in central defense? Probably. Do they have much flexibility to do so? TBD.
Biggest need? Another attacking option
The Colorado Rapids added USMNT forward Gyasi Zardes as a real upgrade up top, but they have room for more. And they are still active on that front.
Zardes fits well with Diego Rubio and Jonthan Lewis in the attack – and the Rapids have Michael Barrios as another senior option, as well as teenagers Darren Yapi and Yaya Toure. They could use some more depth, though. Perhaps targeting someone who is ready for first team soccer, but who is also still a developing talent.
The Rapids have done well in scouting and building a network in Brazil, with Lucas Estevez and Max Alves arriving over the last year, for what it’s worth.
Biggest need? Turn Maarten Paes’ loan into a permanent deal
FC Dallas have started 2022 in strong fashion. Alan Velasco and Paul Arriola have been very good additions and turning Jesus Ferreira into a DP and giving him the keys as a traditional No. 9 has paid huge dividends. That Velasco-Ferreira-Arriola front three fits together so well.
They can improve elsewhere, of course, but the most realistic move Dallas could make is turning Maarten Paes’ loan from FC Utrecht, which expires in July, into a permanent deal. Paes has proved pretty quickly that he’s starting quality in this league. So far this season, he has been a well-above average shot-stopper in MLS, according to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric.
There’s no word on what number the purchase option is.
Biggest need? Decide the best XI for when Hector Herrera arrives, then add
Houston Dynamo head coach Paulo Nagamura began the season in a 4-3-3 with two No. 8s. However, the Dynamo struggled for creativity in that shape. Things really opened up in attack when he changed the balance to put Darwin Quintero into the team as a No. 10.
Now what happens when Hector Herrera arrives? The 4-3-3 would work well with Herrera and Coco Carrasquilla ahead of Matias Vera, but will they need Quintero’s creativity back in the starting XI? Would Quintero make sense as an inverted left winger? Would it make more sense to keep the 4-2-3-1 and put Herrera next to Carrasquilla?
That decision will inform where to allocate further roster resources, be it this summer or in the offseason.
Biggest need? Make difficult lineup decisions
Realistically, the Galaxy are stuck in terms of top-end roster flexibility.
Douglas Costa just arrived this winter and will technically sign a new contract at the end of June. Kevin Cabral has been here for a year and a half and his value hasn’t exactly gone up. Chicharito is great. That’s all three DPs. Dejan Joveljic, Julian Araujo and Efra Alvarez take up all three U22 Initiative slots.
So that means Vanney and Co. need to make the best of what they’ve got. And that might mean having some difficult conversations. Costa has been underwhelming, as has Cabral. Joveljic has been decent in very limited minutes.
There is 3-5-2 potential in this group if Vanney’s preferred 4-2-3-1 isn’t working… but that means putting two of Cabral, Costa or Alvarez on the bench, which isn’t ideal in terms of roster composition and could be difficult to manage.
Biggest need? A third DP
All offseason, LAFC chief soccer officer John Thorrington said he didn’t think LAFC was in a rebuilding stage. Though there had been a lot of change from their record-setting 2019 team, including Bob Bradley’s move to Toronto, Thorrington insisted LAFC were not broken.
In came Steve Cherundolo as head coach and a cadre of MLS experienced difference-makers. Now LAFC are atop the Supporters’ Shield table and figure to remain in that hunt all year. With Carlos Vela and other high-end talent, they’ll be among the favorites for MLS Cup.
LAFC need to maximize this push by using their open DP spot. Windows don’t last forever. Just look at what happened since that record-setting 2019 season. They snuck into the playoffs in 2020 as a shell of themselves and were bounced in Round One. Then they missed the playoffs altogether in 2021. There’s no time to wait.
They made an offer to Italian legend Giorgio Chiellini, one that wouldn’t make him a DP. That means they know they have a real chance at MLS Cup again. They’re not wrong.
Biggest need? Figure out the Hunou situation
Adrian Heath’s attack needs fixing.
Unfortunately for Minneosta, they don’t have a ton of resources available to make repairs. Per FBref, Minnesota United are 18th in the league in xG per 90 minutes. That’s, uh, not great for a team that has used all three of their DP spots on central attackers.
One of those DPs, striker Adrien Hunou, isn’t getting many minutes for the senior team.
So: either give Hunou a run of games to live up to the DP tag or don’t fall prey to the Sunk Cost Fallacy and find him a move elsewhere in the summer. If Minnesota move Hunou, they would open a DP spot for a much-needed dependable goalscoring option ahead of Emanuel Reynoso.
Biggest need? An improved Ake Loba
I feel like myself and others have recited this point ad nauseum for a year now, but it’s still the biggest takeaway: Nashville SC are a very good team with a high floor thanks to their defensive core and ability. Any team with Walker Zimmerman, Dave Romney, Jack Maher, Joe Willis, Dax McCarty, and Sean Davis in the spine will be competitive.
Add in a Best XI season from Hany Mukhtar? That group becomes a legitimate danger in the playoffs. Add another high-level difference maker to the attack? That’s an MLS Cup-contending team.
Ake Loba hasn’t been that yet.
It may be unfair to pin it all on him, but Nashville SC don’t have another option in attack to lift the group to another level. It’s got to be Loba (or striking gold on a U22 Initiative slot, which is a mechanism that hasn’t yielded a ton of day-one-starters in MLS so far).
Nashville are interested in USMNT defender Shaq Moore, who’d slot in at right wingback. It’s a potential signing that would make a lot of sense and fit well if they can get it done.
Biggest need? U22 Initiative signing to further blend youth and veterans
It’s been a difficult, injury-filled first chunk of the season for Portland.
Fortunately, the Timbers do have an open U22 Initiative slot open to improve the team. They already hit big on Santiago Moreno and David Ayala is working for minutes, too. Their core includes a few players who are 31 and older (Sebastian Blanco, Diego Chara, Yimmi Chara and Larrys Mabiala), while Moreno, Cristhian Paredes and Eryk Williamson are the younger key pieces. Another youthful option would continue that balance and long-term vision.
Originally, the Timbers planned on a defense-minded addition with their U22 Initiative slot. Then, near the end of the Primary Transfer Window, focus shifted to the attack with Blanco and Felipe Mora out and Jaroslaw Niezgoda struggling. But they opted to wait until the summer.
Which position will Portland target? That remains the question.
REAL SALT LAKE
Biggest need? Big signings ready by July 7
The Secondary Transfer Window opens on July 7. Real Salt Lake have an open DP spot and (I think) all three U22 Initiative slots open.
This team collected way more points than most folks outside of Salt Lake City could have expected over the first couple months, with an injury to Damir Kreilach and a roster in flux as new ownership took over. Soon, Jefferson Savarino will make his return to Utah. Anderson Julio is back too. Both of those deals were sealed very late in the Primary Transfer Window.
Don’t leave it so late this summer. Maximize the 2022 return on investment for whoever comes in.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
Biggest need? Get good vibes back, identify a long-term core
The first part of the equation is underway with interim head coach Alex Covelo simplifying the tactics, getting results, and watching an attack blossom.
I think it’s pretty clear Jeremy Ebobisse is part of the long-term core. Cristian Espinoza seems it, too. Jamiro Monteiro was acquired this offseason by the current front office, suggesting that’s a long-term play as well. Cade Cowell is obviously part of the plans until he’s transferred to Europe at some point in the coming years.
The loan for Chofis Lopez expires at the end of June. That’d be one easy way to open a DP spot. But who else could leave and free up flexibility for further roster makeover? We’ll find out.
Also, San Jose need to hone in on a new coach. They’re in no rush, though. Luchi Gonzalez is a top target and he won’t be available until at least after the World Cup. For now, the coaching search is ongoing.
Biggest need? An injury-free summer
Even without Best XI midfielder Joao Paulo, Seattle have enough top-end talent (and depth) to charge back up the table now that their successful Concacaf Champions League run is over.
But without Paulo, the margin for error is smaller for the Sounders. If one or two of Nico Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz, Cristian Roldan, Jordan Morris, or Yeimar Andrade pick up long-term injuries, it could get dicey, even if they proved in 2021 they could handle pretty much anything in terms of an injury report.
Seattle pushed their chips in this offseason to make a run at CCL, which they won, becoming the first MLS team to ever do so.
Let’s not forget that Garth Lagerwey is the league’s best-ever GM. The Sounders seem cap-strapped but maybe Lagerwey can flip over the couch cushions and find some spare GAM to make a move.
SPORTING KANSAS CITY
Biggest need? Building blocks moving forward
Due to injuries, Sporting Kansas City are down two DPs: No. 9 (Alan Pulido) and DP No. 10 (Gadi Kinda). In a salary-capped league, it’s borderline unheard-of to recover from getting zero minutes from two attacking DPs.
That’s what it’s been this year, though SKC’s problems extend even further.
Transition defense is one of their Achilles’ heels, just as it has been in years past. With the midfield aging and Jose Mauri, the succession plan to Ilie Sanchez, getting cut after his 2021 debut due to a flagrant lack of effort and general movement, Kansas City has problems in that area. This Mauri clip would get you screamed at even in a men’s league game.
SKC need to figure out who will make up their core going forward. Will the club legends at the twilights of their careers be back? What do they have in their trio of U22 Initiative signings? Who can be a difference-maker in MLS? What players can be signed with a long-term vision rather than “how do we make the playoffs?” this year?
Biggest need? Health (and less tinkering)
The Vancouver Whitecaps have been poor this season. A lot of that is down to their best players being out, regression from most of the players who have stayed healthy, and too much tinkering from the coaching staff.
How much of that tinkering was directly tied to players being unavailable? Or how much of that tinkering was to blame for season-over-season regression?
Tristan Blackmon will be out a total of six weeks. Ryan Gauld has been in and out of the lineup (and banged up when he’s been on the field.) Brian White, too. Caio Alexandre is yet to debut this season. Andres Cubas, a new DP, hasn’t gotten his visa to join training yet. Erik Godoy has season tickets on the injury report. Thomas Hasal has been out for a while, too.
That’s a lot to overcome. Six starters, including two DPs, their best player, leading goal scorer, biggest offseason addition and starting goalkeeper.
In terms of seeking salvation in the transfer market— all three DP spots are taken, all three U22 Initiative slots are taken. Lucas Cavallini will leave at some point, maybe this summer. That would open a DP spot. If not, the Caps can’t make any big swings.