You know the new season is just around the corner when Burgundy Wave’s staff obsessively produces a thought-provoking, possibly brilliant, yet perhaps tragically incorrect preview of all the clubs in the Western Conference .
The thing you probably care most about is whether we are any good at predicting the final MLS table. So, are we at Burgundy Wave any good at it? In 2017, the answer was, mmm, no.
Here’s a table to illustrate all of our 2017 predictions. Solid green is ‘nailed it!’. Light green is ‘within a spot or two’. Light red is ‘off by 4 or 5 spots’. Dark red is ‘wow, that prediction was comically terrible.’
In short, we got more wrong than right. It happens.
Our inaccuracy reflects a lot of things: injuries, surprising performances or regressions of form, signings made in late February or mid-summer that dramatically changed a teams fortunes, and sheer homerism (we thought the Rapids would be good again, or at least not terrible.)
But the biggest factor is probably this often-made claim about MLS: the league has a lot of parity. The margins between the teams is really quite thin, and one or two small adjustments like the ones mentioned above can really throw things off.
The point of previewing is less about ‘predicting the future’ than it is about seeing ahead to what might be. But we can look at the basics of a team, who they dropped and added, and what’s shaping up, and make some educated guesses.
2017 Record: 11-10-13 (WLT), 46 points, 7th place in WC
Goals For: 48, 6th in WC
Goals Against: 48, 4th in WC
Three key additions
Anton Nedyalkov, Brandon Servania, Francis Atuahene
Three key subtractions
Walker Zimmerman, Hernán Grana, Javier Morales
FC Dallas looked like world beaters for the first four months of the 2017 season. After that point, it was as if the team was replaced by flimsy cardboard cutouts of their previous selves. After blowing teams off the field in the first half of the season, Dallas couldn’t buy a goal the latter half of the season, getting shutout 7 times in 15 tries. That translated to only 2 wins after July 22nd, against 7 losses and 6 draws. And those two measly wins were against the hapless Rapids and horrendous Galaxy.
Head Coach Oscar Pareja likes to repeat to his players the mantra, ‘busca la forma’, or ‘find the path.’ For a number of veteran players, like Matt Hedges, Mauro Diaz, and Kellyn Acosta, they are hoping they can ‘re-discover’ the path.
Hedges new CB partner for 2018 is likely to be Swiss international CB Reto Ziegler , signed in the offseason. Add LB Anton Nedyalkov and maybe Reggie Cannon at RB, and you’ve replaced 3⁄4 of the backline.
The big ‘who knows?’ factor in Dallas is their youngsters. Paxton Pomykal only saw action in 4 matches in 2017, but he’s supposed to be the next big thing. Dallas also could start the season with homegrown players Jesus Ferreira, Brandon Servania, Kris Reaves and Jordan Cano, as well as high SuperDraft picks Francis Atuahene and Ema Twumasi, all on the roster. In terms of an opening day lineup, they could elect to have a front six identical to last season—Urruti-Barrios-Diaz-Lamah-Gruezo-Acosta—or they could shake things up and plug in two or more young bucks. Or burn it all down and start with kids at three or more forward spots.
It feels like this team has a big shift to make this season. The youngsters mentioned above have scant few minutes under their belts. The experienced players like Diaz and Maximiliano Urruti may have their best year behind them. The guys in their prime like Roland Lamah and Acosta need a rebound year. It’s a lot to put together in a short amount of time. I think 2018 FCD will be better than last year, but this team is really built for 2019 and beyond.
Predicted finish in Western Conference: 6th
2017 Record: 13-10-11 (WLT) , 50 points, 4th place
Goals For: 57, 2nd in WC
Goals Against: 45, 3rd in WC
Three key additions
Arturo Álvarez, Chris Seitz, Darwin Cerén
Three key subtractions
Erick Torres, Tyler Deric, Ricardo Clark
Houston did a major rebuild in advance of the 2017 season, adding Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto, Vicente Sanchez, and Juan David Cabezas. All of those moves worked out for the club, as did Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera. The Dynamo had a clear tactical identity: they conceded the ball to their opponent, invited opponents forward in numbers, stole the ball and struck fast with pace on the counter attack. It worked all year, and even got them to the Western Conference Championships against Seattle, where age, injury, predictability, and a really poor home leg led to a 5-0 aggregate loss over two matches.
Which anybody with a brain will tell you is fine. Worst-to-Final-Four is a fantastic turnabout. Honestly, everything the Dynamo did after making the playoffs was gravy. The question of course is: can they repeat it?
The biggest moves Houston made in the offseason were re-signing their own guys. They bought Alberth Elis outright after his loan from Liga MX club Monterrey. They bought defensive midfielder Juan David Cabezas, another loanee, from Deportivo Cali. And they re-upped veteran leaders Boniek Garcia and DaMarcus Beasley.
The big moves were kinda small. They sold Cubo Torres to UNAM Pumas, which is fine, because he never gave them as much quality as Mauro Manotas did at striker, especially in the second half of 2018. They cut ties with both their goalkeepers, Tyler Deric and Joe Willis, and brought in free agent Chris Seitz from Dallas. At right back, it’s unclear who starts until AJ DeLaGarza comes back from a torn ACL, so that’s something to keep an eye on.
Simply put, this team is stacked with talent and has a clear identity. They have another year to gel with some of their 2017 acquisitions, including Young DP and attacking midfielder Tomás Martinez. The Argentine playmaker is only 22, and after getting ionly 5 starts after joining the Dynamo in July, he seems poised for a breakout year. There are questions about depth, as the team is a little thin after the starters, especially at fullback and goalkeeper. However, this is a team that knows how it wants to play, has good balance between youth and experience, and plays an exciting, up-tempo brand of football. Expect the orangemen to be in a cup final for at least one of the trophies available to them this fall.
Predicted finish in Western Conference: 3rd
Los Angeles Galaxy
2017 Record: 8-18-18 (WLT), 32 points, Last in WC
Goals For: 45, 8th in WC
Goals Against: 67, 10th in WC
Three key additions
Ola Kamara, Jørgen Skjelvik, David Bingham
Bonus **rumored** key addition: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Three key subtractions
Gyasi Zardes, Jermaine Jones, all of their goalkeepers
The Galaxy were a hot mess in 2017.
Offensively, Giovani dos Santos and Gyasi Zardes were terrible. They were consistently out-of-sync with each other, and it meant that they were ultimately unproductive. Gio made $5.5 million on a DP contract and had just 6 goals and 3 assists last season. Meanwhile, Zardes was so bad he was moved to right back at the end of the year. Add to that key midfield cog Sebastian Lletget was hurt all year, and it meant that French winger Romain Alessandrini had to do it all by himself. Although he had a fantastic 13 goals and 12 assists—which he earned without all that much support—he couldn’t do it all by himself.
Defensively, the Galaxy were even worse. Joao Pedro was supposed to be the do-everything number 8 that linked up the midfield and helped defend the backline while Jermaine Jones went marauding, but it didn’t work. That’s possibly because JJ was running a half-step slower in 2017 than before, and he opened the midfield up to all sorts of counter attacks. Defensive lynchpin Jelle Van Damme was miserable and homesick, and he played like it, until the Galaxy sent him back to Belgium mid-August.
Robbie Rogers’ injury kept him out all year and led to his retirement, so the team signed talented Dutch fullback Pele Van Anholt to take over for him at right back. And then, Van Anholt tore his ACL after just five starts. Other injuries on the backline required the team to get regular minutes from Bradley Diall, Rafael Garcia, Nathan Smith. and Michael Ciani, who you had never heard of until just now, because that’s about how good they were. I haven’t even mentioned how bad Brian Rowe and Clement Diop were in goal.
All of that tells you the Galaxy are starting this season coming from a rough place, and that it’s a long climb out of the Western Conference cellar. But there are a lot of positive signs. They have the incredibly talented Romain Alessandrini back for more. They brought in David Bingham, a talented goalkeeper that will probably rebound from a bad 2017 to help this team. They added DC United defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen, and he should provide stability to what had been a pretty underwhelming midfield. They swapped the misfiring Gyasi Zardes for the talented and prolific Ola Kamara. Overall, this team looks better than last season for sure.
The back line is still a major concern, however. They’re looking at a back four of the aging Ashley Cole, the servicable Daniel Steres, and two new faces: centerback defender Jørgen Skjelvik and right back Rolf Feltscher. Feltscher has bounced around between nine teams in a ten year career, and couldn’t win a regular job in 2017 with any of the three clubs he played for: Getafe, Zaragoza, or Cardiff City. Skjelvik was good for Rosenborg in Norway, but that may or may not translate here in MLS. Color me unimpressed with this whole crew.
The Galaxy might be better in 2018, but I think they are going to need to win a lot of 3-2 and 4-3 games with their defense the way it is, and the nature of soccer in MLS makes that a risky proposition. They’ll be fun to watch, especially if they get Zlatan and he stays healthy to play at least 15 games. I say this as a native Angeleno: there would be nothing more Californian than losing more than half your games, but doing it with glitz, glamour, and style.
Predicted finish in Western Conference: 8th
2017 Record: N/A
Goals For: N/A
Goals Against: N/A
Three key additions
Carlos Vela, Benny Feilhaber, João Moutinho
Three key subtractions
Last year, we got to predict how Minnesota United would do in their first ever season. (By the way, we nailed it on that prediction, 100%. Woohoo!) This year, the noobs to the Western Conference are LAFC. Things in Exposition Park are being done, shall we say, a bit differently than they were done in Minneapolis. Let’s compare.
The Loons biggest signing was USL striker Christian Ramirez. LAFC’s biggest signing is Mexican National Team winger Carlos Vela. The Loons assembled a backline out of bailing wire and chewing gum. Los Angeles took three excellent, experienced MLS defenders in Laurent Ciman, Walker Zimmerman, and Steven Beitashour, and added the 1st overall SuperDraft pick, Joao Moutinho. MNUFC spent the season playing in a college football stadium on turf. LA will open in a gorgeous downtown stadium close to light rail and filled with amenities and celebrities. Their stadium has a pool, even.
LAFC are getting a lot of things right, and I think as long as they fill out their lineup with some average-or-better bench pieces, they’ll be fine. The starting 11 might look like this if they line up in a 4-3-3:
Latif Blessing - Diego Rossi - Carlos Vela
Marco Urena - Benny Feilhaber - Calum Mallace
Mountinho - Zimmerman- Ciman - Beitashour
Meanwhile, the current bench would look like this:
Jordan Harvey, Omar Gabar, Aaron Kovar, Rodrigo Pacheco, Luis Lopez, some guy they just drafted, some guy they still need to acquire
And the reserves? They don’t exist yet. So suffice it to say that, as of right now, LAFC don’t look particularly deep. They’ll need to solve that, soon. They might get great guys to fill out their 26 man roster! They might also be pretty thin, and the nature of injuries in MLS and general squad rotation means that some of these unknowns and yet-to-be-signed-guys might need to play upwards of 2,000 minutes. Yikes.*
Add that to concerns that Kitchen and Ciman significantly regressed last year, and I think this team has a whole host of question marks that are not sufficiently answered.
In short, this team looks better than Minnesota in their debut last year, and worse than Atlanta United. They resemble Orlando City at their debut in 2015: one big signing (Kaká), a bunch of strong supporting talent (Kevin Molino, Brek Shea, Aurelian Colin) , a fantastic first overall pick (Cyle Larin), and then a whole lot of roster spots given to some very shaky players (Danny Mwanga, Josh Ford, Donovan Ricketts, Pedro Ribero). Orlando finished 7th out of 10 teams, three up from the bottom of the Eastern Conference. I’d expect LAFC to do the same - 9th in a 12-team conference.
But, if both LAG and LAFC overachieve, they might go tooth and nail to the finish line for the final playoff spot. And that would be the kind of dramatic storybook ending to the MLS season that Don Garber dreams of.
Predicted finish in Western Conference: 9th
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* An earlier version of this story mentioned that the team only had 11 players on their roster. That was according to the latest information from the official LAFC.com webpage. Angels On Parade has a more up-to-date roster, so I adjusted this section appropriately. Thanks to Alicia Rodriguez for point this out.