We’re starting something new here at Backheeled... Introducing: “Lowery’s 10 MLS Thoughts”.
First, an obligatory hey, that’s me! I’m Joe Lowery! Second, we want this column to be the go-to for you to catch up on the most interesting tactics, news, and stories from around MLS. We’ll actually talk about soccer. We’ll also talk about your favorite team with regularity, along with plenty of other stories that tie into each team and the league as a whole.
This week’s 10 MLS Thoughts casts a critical eye towards the Portland Timbers, celebrates Moon Boy, and does a whole bunch of other things, too.
1. Phil Neville isn’t right for the Portland Timbers
Much of the talk surrounding the Portland Timbers decision to hire Phil Neville as their manager ahead of next season has been focused on some of his past statements about women on social media. There are valid, important discussions to be had on that front. Looking towards the field, though, I’d like to ask a question.
What has Neville done to earn this position?
The 46-year-old never developed a tactical identity with Inter Miami en route to finishing 11th in the East in 2021 and sixth in the East in 2022. Neville’s time in Miami wasn’t a disaster amidst some roster sanctions — and you can bet he would’ve done much better if he’d been allowed to stay on to coach Messi and Friends this season. But he had talent. And he never turned his players into more than the sum of their parts. The attack almost never looked cohesive, to the point where Miami fans were left feeling a lot like Gonzalo Higuain in this clip from 2021: confused, frustrated, and standing with their arms thrown up in the air.
It’s difficult to pinpoint any soccer reasons as to why Neville was the right choice from Portland’s front office to replace Gio Savarese.
2. Sporting Kansas City are primed for a playoff run
Let me let you in on a little secret: Sporting Kansas City have been good all along.
I know what you’re thinking, Joe, you’re an idiot. They started the season going 10-straight games without a win. You’re correct — both about me and about SKC’s record. But Peter Vermes’ team was missing a few things early in the year. A few really, really important things, actually. Vermes was missing his best players.
Thanks to a big bite from the injury bug, SKC played the first 10 games of the season without DP striker Alan Pulido, star winger Johnny Russell, and DP midfielder Gadi Kinda ever starting together. None of those players started until the fifth game of the year — Russell — but even then, the other two still weren’t ready for action. When Game 11 of the regular season rolled around, SKC finally had the chance to start Pulido, Russell, and Kinda together. Lo and behold, they picked up their first three points of the year.
After those three points, Sporting Kansas City never looked back. They picked up more points per game than every team in MLS outside of Cincinnati, Orlando, Columbus, and Philadelphia after May 1. Then they took down San Jose in the wildcard game. Then they swept top-seeded St. Louis in the first round.
So, who’s next?
3. St. Louis crushed Year 1, but Year 2 might crush them
You couldn’t ask for any more in an expansion season than what St. Louis City delivered, especially after everyone doubted them to start the year (woah not me, I always believed…fine, I was a doubter, too). They won the West. They finished just one point shy of the league’s all-time points record for an expansion team. The crowds were incredible. The stadium looks great. That’s all wonderful.
But if you watched the last quarter of the regular season along with the playoff series against SKC, you should be seeing warning signs ahead of next year. St. Louis couldn't create chances against their rivals in the postseason — they stopped getting some of the fortunate bounces that fueled their early season run. Somewhere along the line, Roman Burki remembered that he’s human, too.
Looking back, the underlying data never really took to St. Louis this season. And you know who else the underlying data never really took to? Last year’s Austin FC team.
4. Diego Luna is must-see TV
Diego Luna, whose nickname is “Moon Boy” and who would “throw little tantrums” when his parents celebrated Mexico’s goals against the U.S. growing up, has come a long way. Fun fact, so have we! A piece from our very own John Morrissey analyzing Luna during his USL Championship days was part of Backheeled’s launch last summer.
Real Salt Lake don’t have the goods to make a deep playoff run, though their first round series against the Houston Dynamo is currently tied 1-1. But Luna? Luna has been must-see TV.
The 20-year-old playmaker put together two of the best passes of the postseason so far. There was this little beauty in Game 1:
Which was followed up by this lovely chipped ball in Game 2:
If you haven’t watched Luna play by next summer, you’ll have a chance to during the United States’ run at the Olympics.
5. You voted for…who?
End-of-season awards voting is broken in MLS, just like it is in every other league. It’s an impossible thing to get right, not least because we can’t even figure out how to define what an MVP really is.
That being said: HOW DID THIAGO ALMADA NOT GET 100% OF THE VOTE FOR YOUNG PLAYER OF THE YEAR?
I have nothing against Duncan McGuire and Aidan Morris, the other two finalists alongside Almada. But I have a big, giant something against everybody on planet earth who voted for them over Almada. Almada was fantastic this year. He put together more combined goals and assists than anybody in MLS, outside of Lucho Acosta!
There isn’t a single person on the planet who isn’t related to the Orlando City striker or to the Columbus Crew midfielder who would rather have McGuire or Morris over Almada. The Argentine was a worthy winner here. But it’s absolutely insane that he didn’t sweep this whole thing.
6. FC Cincinnati are faltering
Matt Miazga crossed too far into “red mist” territory against the New York Red Bulls over the weekend (and then he crossed too far into the referees’ locker room).
He’s now suspended for FC Cincinnati’s Eastern Conference semifinal, which will be against either the Philadelphia Union or the New England Revolution. With Miazga out, Nick Hagglund already done for the season with an injury, and Ian Murphy struggling in Pat Noonan’s backline. Cincy are losing pieces at just the wrong time.
If we’re being honest, Cincinnati didn’t look entirely convincing in their sweep of the Red Bulls, and they didn’t plow through the regular season by a wide margin, either. 14 of their 20 regular season wins came by a single goal.
Cincinnati will still be favorites in every game between now and MLS Cup, should they make it that far. Aaron Boupendza, who’s had his own disciplinary problems going on in the background, looks like a game-changer when he’s actually on the field. But it’s easy to imagine that folks inside the club are feeling worse, not better, about their playoff hopes after the first round.
7. Nashville plugged one hole, but left others open
Sam Surridge was supposed to be the answer for Nashville SC, whose season just ended via a sweep from Orlando City.
For years now, Nashville have needed another quality attacking option to supplement Hany Mukhtar’s scoring. But that’s not all they’ve needed. While the verdict is still out on Surridge, it’s become painfully obvious that Nashville don’t just need finishers — they need creators, too.
Mukhtar is an excellent player, and he’s perfectly capable of creating chances. But he’s not a through ball-threading No. 10. He’s a scorer first and a creator second, and he can’t do both of those things at the same time. Without any real playmaking coming from their wide players, all of the meaningful actions fall back to Mukhtar. The central midfield group, made up almost entirely of players aged 30 and over, is limited at this point, too.
Even if Surridge turns into a 20-goal scorer next year, Nashville are flawed. General manager Mike Jacobs may have plugged the striker hole during the summer transfer window, but a couple of other holes are still wide open.
8. FC Dallas need more from Paul Arriola
I’m giving credit to David Gass for this one: FC Dallas need more from Paul Arriola.
It’s gone under the radar, but Arriola only scored two goals in 1,600 MLS minutes this year. Sure, he dealt with a midseason injury. But still: two goals! The 28-year-old is one of Dallas’ designated players, but he’s never performed like one since joining the club. Last year, he finished in just the 67th percentile in non-penalty xG among his positional peers in MLS. He hasn’t been good enough to give FC Dallas what they need on the wings. It’s that simple.
Now, despite his struggles, Arriola came up big for Dallas in Game 2 against the Seattle Sounders by scoring the opener. Both he and Bernard Kamungo looked bright on the wings, flanking and even combining with Jesus Ferreira.
More of the efficient, goal-dangerous Arriola who took the field in Game 2 gives FC Dallas a fighting chance in Game 3. Anything else, and it might be time for a roster change next year.
9. Charlotte’s offseason gets even more complicated
It was already going to be a busy winter for Charlotte FC. With under-performing DPs, an aging midfield group, and other necessary upgrades in every(!) line of the field, sporting director Zoran Krneta has his hands full.
Oh, and now there’s a coach to replace. On Wednesday morning, Charlotte announced their decision to fire manager Christian Lattanzio.
Look, I’m not saying that Lattanzio did a very good job in his first full season in Charlotte this year. They played some fun soccer, but Lattanzio’s expansive tactical approach did basically nothing to turn the players into something more than the sum of their parts. But was Lattanzio the problem? Or at least the main problem?
Absolutely not. Charlotte FC’s talent level is low. They’ve been willing to spend money, but their signings have consistently underwhelmed. That points to Krneta as the biggest issue inside the club — if you’ve ever read this quote from Krneta after Charlotte signed Kamal Jozwiak as a DP in 2022 (or read it and re-read it and re-read it like me), it won’t come as a huge surprise that Charlotte are having problems.
“He has played in big games, he played in the Euros,” Krneta said of Jozwiak. “He played against Spain and Holland. Can you play in Salt Lake City if you played against Holland? I think you can.”
I think you can too. But can you do it well? There’s just nothing quite like letting someone else’s mistake make yours for you.
10. Rescind the yellow!
After scoring a huge goal for Atlanta United against the Columbus Crew earlier this week, Xande Silva hopped right into a Spider-Man celebration. He wasn’t messing around with this one. There was a mask, a smooth handoff, a quick wardrobe change, and everything.
The referee, of course, gave Silva a yellow card for an excessive celebration.
MLS, of course, then proceeded to use a couple of pictures of Silva wearing the Spider-Man mask on social media.
Something about that doesn’t sit right. I’d like to hop on the campaign, started by Paul Harvey, to rescind the yellow card. As Paul says, there should be a rule that if MLS uses your celebration as part of their social media machine, the yellow card should be struck from the ledger.
If you want content, MLS, do your content creators a solid.