The true stretch run is here. Most teams have between four and six games remaining, and all but two or three teams are still hanging around the playoff race. It’s about to get exciting.
So for this preview article, I will be giving you who I think each team’s x-factor is for this stretch run. This means the player who I feel is crucial to the team’s success, and will play a big role in how they finish come Decision Day, or, in some cases, how they play next season. Note that I will try and pick a lesser known (or less-heralded) player for each team, so Giovinco or Jozy Altidore won’t be TFC’s x-factor, and Bradley Wright Phillips won’t be NYRB’s.
That means you can’t complain if the Galaxy’s is not Keane or dos Santos or Landon or someone obvious.
Let’s get on with it:
Chicago Fire: Luis Solignac
The Chicago Fire are not making playoffs. We should just get that out of the way before someone comes to any crazy conclusions.
Now is the time for experimentation if you’re the Fire. Veljko Paunovic should be focusing on figuring out how he wants to play and the personnel he wants to use next season. Forward is not a position that is settled yet, and the 25-year old journeyman Solignac has been filling that role. Is he the future at the position? They’ll have to figure that out.
Colorado Rapids: Dominique Badji
The second straight forward on this list, Badji has been the starter of late for the Rapids with Kevin Doyle out injured. The Senegalese-international has three goals this season, which is part of his team’s measly 29 on the season. Only San Jose have less.
Colorado need someone who can consistently put balls in the net, or they won’t be challenging for any silverware this season. Without a true goal-scorer, no team can really survive for all that long at the highest level. Badji may have to be that guy.
Columbus Crew SC: Nicolai Naess
The Crew are all but out of the playoff race, just like the Fire, and thus have similar goals as them for the remainder of the season. Right now, they have questions about their central midfield and defense, as Federico Higuain may or may not be a player Gregg Berhalter wishes to keep next season, and the center back position was often a disaster with Gaston Sauro injured and Michael Parkhurst struggling.
Can the recently-acquired Norwegian be a consistent starter at center back? Is he a viable short-term replacement for Wil Trapp in defensive midfield? We shall see.
D.C. United: Rob Vincent/Jared Jeffrey/Julian Buescher
D.C. United seem to have most pieces in place. Bill Hamid in goal, solid full-backs, two aerially dominant center backs, a veteran d-mid in Marcelo Sarvas, two quality wingers, a No. 10 with Luciano Acosta, and a permanent starter at forward. But the one final piece of that 4-1-4-1 formation is the No. 8 position, the box-to-box midfielder who ranges between Sarvas and Acosta.
Vincent often starts there, Jeffrey does sometimes, and the rookie Buescher probably should more often. I wouldn’t pick any of these three as a single “x-factor” so I went with all three.
Ben Olsen needs someone who can help cover for Sarvas, who is 34 and showing it. Those three guys are all replaceable, but will have to do for this year. Whether they are good enough to keep that formation humming will be key to DCU’s playoff push.
FC Dallas: Maxi Urruti
I will consent that this choice verges on obvious, but really, who else do you want me to select from FC Dallas?
FCD need an elite forward up top who can score goals at a constant rate and do all the things that a No. 9 should be able to do: Hold-up play, smart runs, getting into goal-scoring positions, among others. Urruti was never really known as that guy, but he has started to hush some doubters (most notably Taylor Twellman) with a couple of good performances recently in MLS play and in the Open Cup final.
Can he sustain this? Probably not, but he’ll have to sustain something productive if FCD are going to cruise to trophies like they’re supposed to.
Houston Dynamo: Cristian Maidana
I wrote more extensively on Maidana and his situation over on Dynamo Theory, but the gist of it is that he has mostly underperformed in his time with the Dynamo. This is his time to make an impression on (interim) manager Wade Barrett and the Houston organization.
LA Galaxy: Brian Rowe
Well, I’d say this selection is pretty anticlimactic, isn’t it?
There’s an array of Galaxy players I could have picked instead of the goalkeeper. A defender, like Robbie Rogers or AJ DeLaGarza, or maybe someone boring like Jeff Larentowicz or Baggio Husidic. Sebastian Lletget as a center midfielder? That seems interesting. I could have gone with Alan Gordon or Mike Magee or Raul Mendiola or Emmanuel Boateng. I could’ve even contradicted myself and picked Gio dos Santos because why not?
But I picked the starting goalkeeper. The goalkeeper, who, by most people’s opinion, has over-performed considerably this season, and fully deserves his consistent starting job; I can’t say I disagree with that. Brian Rowe took the job from Dan Kennedy and ran with it, and he deserves credit for that.
He has, however, been slightly shaky of late. He had a pretty awful game in Salt Lake City a few weeks back, and he maybe hasn’t been as great in the months of August and September. Obviously he’s still the unquestionable starter, but is he an MLS Cup-winning goalkeeper? Adam Kwarsey was, so Rowe must be, but what if he deflects one off the post and in against FC Dallas later in the season? Or dilly-dallies on the ball and pulls a Steve Clark in November?
Unlikely, but possible. The argument can be made that it is possible for any goalkeeper, but we have reason to believe Rowe is slightly more at risk because of his recent performances. Is he a really an x-factor? Have I asked enough questions in this article? Comment below.
Montreal Impact: Marco Donadel
The Impact continue to struggle with defending as a unit — from top to bottom — and keeping a solid, compact midfield shape. Matt Doyle detailed this over a month ago and it still holds true.
Mostly, they play a version of a 4-1-4-1, which often morphs into a 4-2-3-1, with Donadel as the defensive midfielder next to or behind Hernan Bernadello. They often leave the 33-year old on his own because of their organizational problems, which results in odd-man rushes for opponents. How well Donadel fares as a No. 6, and if he can provide the deep distribution the Impact need, is why he qualifies as an x-factor.
New England Revolution: Kelyn Rowe
The Revs all of a sudden have picked up the pace in the Eastern Conference race, putting them in a really good position to hold off D.C. and Orlando and clinch that final berth, or maybe even catch the Impact. Jay Heaps’s switch to a 4-4-2 diamond has perpetuated that increase in momentum.
Heaps put Rowe as a center attacking midfielder behind Lee Nguyen (who was playing more as another 10 than as a second striker) and Juan Agudelo, and it worked, as they’ve now won three straight MLS matches. They went back to more of a 4-2-3-1 (or 4-3-2-1) against Montreal last weekend, but whatever the formation is, Heaps is putting more of an emphasis on Rowe by positioning Nguyen higher and having the 24-year old feast on open space, which is what he does best. That’s why I added Rowe to my fantasy team.
He has more responsibility in this new and improved system. It’s been a long time coming.
New York City FC: Whoever replaces Frank Lampard
Frankie’s injured again.
Injury Update: Frank Lampard sidelined with calf strain https://t.co/D4IRvvLaLR— New York City FC (@NYCFC) September 19, 2016
He’s been pretty important for them, so they’ll need a good replacement for the next three to four weeks. It might be Tommy McNamara, or Steven Mendoza, or even Mix Diskerud, but whoever it is has to be able to effectively hold down the fort. Playoff seeding and the like could end up being significantly affected.
New York Red Bulls: Aurelien Collin
Jesse Marsch has the Red Bulls hitting their Shield-winning stride. BWP’s scoring a goal a game, Sacha Kljestan’s on a USMNT buzz, Dax McCarty should return soon, and Alex Muyl’s replaced Lloyd Sam admirably. If not for their extended snakebitten form early in the season, they could be in contention for another Shield.
They have dropped points recently, though, and the reason has been their late-game defending. Multiple times, they have switched to a five-in-the-back with a one-goal lead late in games and they have given points away because of last-second goals. They have to figure out how they will approach matches in the last half-hour, and how they will be able secure leads against better teams in the playoffs.
I could have picked any defender as the “x-factor” — it’s just that Collin popped into my head first.
Orlando City SC: Servando Carrasco
One thing Jason Kreis has done differently than Adrian Heath as manager of OCSC is the personnel he has used in central midfield. Where it was Cristian Higuita and Darwin Ceren under Heath, it is now Antonio Nocerino and Servando Carrasco playing as the ‘2’ in their 4-2-3-1. Ceren has been traded to San Jose, while Higuita’s often been relegated to the bench.
Orlando’s main issue at this point in the season is how they connect their lines between the defenders to the attacking midfield positions, and how well they condense passing lanes and the central channels. How that problem is fixed starts in deeper midfield.
Philadelphia Union: C.J. Sapong
Alright, this is an obvious choice. I promise this is the only one.
The Union’s playing style — or specifically their attacking style — revolves almost completely around having a classic No. 9 up top to hold-up play, shield defenders, open up space for other players, and put the ball in the net. That’s their M.O., and that’s why they generally struggle when C.J. Sapong is not in the game.
They also have a bit of trouble when he’s not at his top goal-scoring form, and that’s what is happening now.
Sapong has just two goals in the second half of the season after five in the first half, and the Union have dropped firmly into fourth place in the East after hanging around the top two for a long time. Philadelphia need Sapong to be scoring goals, and he hasn’t been doing that. Jim Curtain will hope he starts before the playoffs begin, because they don’t have anyone to pick up the slack.
Portland Timbers: Steven Taylor
Nat Borchers is out for the season with a torn ACL, leaving the newly-acquired Taylor as a starting center back alongside Liam Ridgewell. Portland’s defense hasn’t always been particularly good of late — aside from Alvas Powell, it’s not all that fast, with two 30-something Englishmen starting — but it needs to be better if they’re going to hold onto their current playoff spot.
They’re pretty much good in the other areas of the field. They could probably use a little more out of Darlington Nagbe, and it would help to get actual goal-scoring production from Lucas Melano, but overall, Caleb Porter and co. are in a pretty good situation. Maybe they even creep up on RSL?
Real Salt Lake: Javier Morales
Speaking of Real Salt Lake, they have made their living this season off of their skillful wingers, Joao Plata and Burrito Martinez. That’s where their offense comes from, and it is where they generally attack from.
Burrito and Plata are great and all, but they could use another area to exploit, or at least a plan B if they’re facing a team that is keying on the wings specifically. That backup plan could (and probably should) be through the middle, and that starts with Javier Morales.
The former star ball-moving No. 10 is 36 and questionable for this weekend with a quad injury, but he’s the guy who will provide more penetration centrally. And if he can’t do it (due to injury) then Jeff Cassar should give Jordan Allen a start or two.
San Jose Earthquakes: Simon Dawkins
The Earthquakes cross a lot. Like, a lot. Way too much, actually. That’s why their xG numbers are considerably higher than their total goal amount: They put the ball in near the goal, but more often in low-percentage situations, and that’s why they don’t finish as often as other teams (like the New York teams) do.
They need to do something else. Simon Dawkins could help with that.
They’re better when Dawkins is on the ball and cutting inside from his wing position, using his impressive dribbling and pace to avoid defenders and get into threatening, central positions. It probably isn’t enough to make a serious run at a playoff spot, though.
Seattle Sounders: Alvaro Fernandez and Andreas Ivanschitz
Nicolas Lodeiro arrived and made everything better for the Sounders. Jordan Morris has kept the goals coming, and Cristian Roldan and Ozzie Alonso make up arguably MLS’s best defensive midfield pairing (alongside Acosta and Gruezo in Dallas). Don’t bet against Seattle climbing into the sixth spot ahead of Sporting KC.
They could use a little more production from the guys listed above, however. I’ll admit they may be a little weak as “x-factors” but they work. They’ll be competing for jobs in Seattle next season, remember.
Sporting Kansas City: Jacob Peterson
Sporting KC needed other areas of goal-scoring production outside of Dom Dwyer, who is quietly one of the most consistent forwards in the league. Peter Vermes decided to select Jacob Peterson to the starting XI more often to accomplish that, and while Peterson is not the most elite of wingers, he does the job well enough.
They need goals if they’re going to fend off the Sounders and sneak into the playoffs; it’s that simple. Peterson went on a run earlier in the season, and now would be the best time to do that again.
Also of note for SKC: Benny Feilhaber is not in MVP form like he was last year. If can pick it up again, that would be great as well for Vermes and co.
Toronto FC: Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow
Three-in-the-back formations are not especially common in MLS. Chicago and NYCFC experimented early in the season (the Fire with more of a 5-3-2) but neither team stuck with it. Greg Vanney and Toronto FC toggle back and forth between a 3-5-2 and a 4-4-2 diamond, depending on the opponent, and it has worked magic, as TFC are now one of two (or maybe three) teams with a realistic shot at the Supporters’ Shield.
One possible reason for the lack of three-in-the-back formations is the fact that not many teams have players who can viably play the tough position of wing-back. TFC do, in Beitashour and Morrow, and they are crucial.
The 4-4-2 diamond is also a very narrow formation, so those two are especially important when they go to that look as well.
Vancouver Whitecaps: Masato Kudo
Vancouver are not going to make the playoffs. It’s not going to happen. So like Chicago and Houston and Columbus, they will be primarily looking towards the future.
And part of that future likely includes Japanese striker Masato Kudo, who has played reasonably well despite the extended absence caused by a jaw injury earlier in the year. Carl Robinson likely will (and definitely should) play Kudo often over the Caps’ last four games of the season to continue to get the 26-year old minutes. He’s not a prospect, but he is a possible starting candidate for next year.
If Blas Perez gets minutes over him, I’ll flip.
24 Under 24
- Cristian Roldan, Matt Polster, and Carlos Gruezo are the players who come to mind that should have been higher.
- Jesse Gonzalez and Lucas Melano — neither of whom start for their teams — probably shouldn’t have been top ten.
- People have been complaining about the snub of Alvas Powell, and while I see the argument for why he should have been on the list, I can agree with the exclusion. The other defenders on the list — Justen Glad, Walker Zimmerman, Tim Parker, Keegan Rosenberry, Tommy Redding and Ronald Matarrita — all deserved be on there. And I just haven’t seen it from Powell this season.
- I’m glad Sean Davis was included. The Red Bulls’ center midfielder stepped into a starting role when Dax McCarty went down and he’s done an admirable job playing as a box-to-box mid.
- For more on Matt Polster, I tweeted out a string of scouting notes on him, if you’re interested.
- Some snubs (besides Powell) that I can think of: Jay Chapman, Marlon Hairston, Brandon Vincent, Jonathan Campbell, Alex Muyl, Marky Delgado, Tsubasa Endoh, Jimmy Medranda. Not saying they should have been included, I’m just saying they could have been.
- I have no problem with the top three. From what we’ve seen from this year, Jordan Morris is not better than Jack Harrison.
- FC Dallas put four players on this list: Gonzalez, Zimmerman, Gruezo, and Kellyn Acosta.
- 17 of the 24 players came from teams that have a USL team. Just thought that was worth mentioning.