Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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MLS takeaways: Which teams should panic after bad starts?

It’s time for some MLS teams and their fans to start panicking. Maybe.

With every team having now played multiple games, initial knee-jerk reactions feel a bit less baseless. Teams with multiple wins are starting to daydream about celebratory parade routes, while those without a win are weighing how strictly to stay the course.

The MLS season is long, and plenty of things can (and will) change. But based on what we’ve seen so far, here’s our take on which struggling teams should be genuinely worried, and which early surprises should feel genuinely good about where they are.


Start panicking

NYCFC

At this early stage of the 2024 season, no manager’s future is under more scrutiny than Nick Cushing.

NYCFC has zero points after three matches this season, scoring just one goal over 270 minutes. They looked much better than they had previously in the first 45 minutes on Saturday in their home opener against Portland, but only built a 1-0 lead despite numerous scoring chances.

Portland fought back, Cushing got conservative – subbing on a third deep-lying midfielder and taking off an attacker – before Portland got an equalizer and, seven minutes into stoppage time, the game-winner off a special moment from Evander.

Cushing took the blame from his players and placed it squarely on his shoulders.

“150,000%,” Cushing said when asked how much accountability he had for the team’s winless start. “Because I’m the leader and I’m 100% responsible for them. And I’ll tell (sporting director) David Lee and (CEO) Brad Sims that as well.”

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Keaton Parks was a bit more forceful.

“I think we have a lot of young guys that don’t know how to play for results,” Parks said. “We need to grind out f—ing results and not just bask in one goal leads and s—.”

NYCFC spent more than $15 million this winter on two highly-rated young attackers (Agustin Ojeda, Jovan Mijatovic), and swung a deal for in-prime winger Hannes Wolf. No points, one goal, limited xG (2.33 over three games) and few suave attacking highlights to point to leaves the outlook bleak.

When Cushing initially took over as interim manager during the 2022 season following Ronny Deila’s exit to Standard Liege, he led the reigning champs to an unimpressive 11W-10L-5D record. In 2023 the worries intensified as NYCFC missed the playoffs for the first time since its 2015 expansion season, but the club backed him to return for 2024.

Next week’s home game against Toronto FC — before a brutal fixture run against FC Cincinnati, Inter Miami and Atlanta United — will be nervy.

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Oscar Pareja’s side are not off to the ideal start in 2024 (Morgan Tencza-USA TODAY Sports)

Orlando City

Orlando City was a trendy darkhorse pick to win a trophy this year, and with good reason. The Lions returned most of the core that produced a club-best 2023 season, finishing second in the Supporters’ Shield race with 63 points.

Orlando then re-signed head coach Oscar Pareja, chief soccer officer Luiz Muzzi and technical director Ricardo Moreira to new deals. New signings followed: forward Luis Muriel (a designated player), MLS legend Nico Lodeiro and starting center back David Brekalo.

Yeti after three matches, Orlando has one point, with the latest result being a 3-2 loss to Minnesota United at home. It came despite Duncan McGuire scoring within 20 seconds of kickoff and then later equalizing in the 83rd minute. Orlando outshot Minnesota 22-9, accrued a significant xG advantage (3.91 – 1.24) but still lost.

Following a 0-0 draw to CF Montréal and a 5-0 beatdown by Inter Miami, pressure is rising in Orlando. They are also staring at at a second-leg CONCACAF Champions Cup match against powerhouse Tigres UANL this week.

Panic is relative. Orlando isn’t yet in danger of slipping down the conference standings, but this is not the start everyone expected. It also is costing them key ground if they want to be true Shield contenders.

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New England Revolution

As with Orlando, an early season fixture congestion with Champions Cup is partly to blame, but New England has stumbled out of the gates in the Caleb Porter era with three straight league losses.

An early-season nadir came Saturday, courtesy a 4-1 walloping by Atlanta United. Carles Gil, once again, scored a golazo that will get forgotten because it happened in a heavy loss, just like in the club’s opening weekend.

Porter suggested his side were “unlucky” to have gone into halftime down 1-0, before Atlanta took full control in the second half. New England and Orlando are tied for a league-worst eight goals conceded so far.

“None of us are happy with where we’re at in the league at all,” Porter later said. “We’re not doing a good enough job finishing our chances and we’re giving up soft goals.”

New England were among the league’s best teams in 2023 before Bruce Arena was placed on administrative leave and injuries piled up in the summer. They’ve been in a tailspin since, including the start to this season. Luckily, there’s plenty of time to turn it around.


Colorado Rapids

The Rapids’ place on this list might seem harsh – got their first win of the season this weekend, on the road to rivals Real Salt Lake. It was just what head coach Chris Armas needed after a shellacking on opening day to Portland (4-1 loss) and conceding a lead to a short-handed Nashville SC at home in week two (1-1 draw).

Colorado fought back from 1-0 down, DP forward Rafael Navarro got his first goal of the season to level the game and Cole Bassett scored a second-half winner. The Rapids also got out-possessed 61%-39%, which is to be expected in their game model, but they limited RSL to only nine shots. Expected goals were essentially even (1.61 – 1.58).

Still there are big worries. Defensive midfielder Connor Ronan exited with an injury in the first half of that win, and after losing Jack Price to a season-ending injury at a similar point of 2023, seeing Ronan miss extended time could be similarly detrimental.

“I’ve played games like that, coached games like that, those can go either way when you give up a goal, especially on the road,” Armas said. “You say it’s my first win. Yes, it is the reality of it, but it’s an important win for our team. They just need validation for the work that they’ve done. They come every day and work so hard.”

Colorado is not expected to challenge for the Shield. Fans will be content with a playoff spot, some attractive soccer and genuinely being competitive the whole season. An unlikely win at RSL was crucial to alleviate early season pressure, but there’s not much to indicate the long-term picture has changed…at least not yet.

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FC Dallas

FCD lost on the road to the New York Red Bulls this weekend, their second consecutive loss after falling to CF Montréal at home. Their lone win (over San Jose) came via a last-minute winner.

They haven’t quite been controlling games as they hoped. A newly-installed 3-5-2 formation and a new club-record signing (Petar Musa) raised hopes to start 2024. It’s been just … okay.

It’s not time to have serious, serious doubts yet, but there’s definitely plenty of room to finetune performances.

“Unfair,” Estevez said of the Red Bulls result, “because of the way we played and the personality that we showed after conceding the first goal. Having control of the game in the second half, we just lacked a little bit in the final third to make some of the plays and crosses that we had to score a goal.”



John Herdman has Toronto FC playing well to start the season (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s OK to feel good

Toronto FC

In three games under John Herdman, TFC is undefeated and has yet to concede a goal. Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi are clearly buying in.

Who saw that coming? No one. Well, maybe someone, but not many.

Of our six MLS “experts” here at The Athletic, none had Toronto higher than 13th (of 15) in the East in our season predictions. Two of us had Toronto dead last. Nine of the 17 experts for MLSsoccer.com’s predictions had Toronto in dead last. Only one of those 17 had TFC over the playoff line.

There’s a whole, long way to go before Toronto can start taking victory laps on preseason predictions, but it underlines just how low the expectations were coming into 2024 and how welcome this positive start is.

The vibes are so good that Herdman even has Bernardeschi buying into spending most of his minutes as a wingback (!!) in his 3-4-2-1 system, while also getting minutes at center forward and as one of the attackers behind a striker.

Whether or not it’s sustainable for the rest of the season is the key question. Can Bernardeschi not get exposed defensively as a wingback? Can Insigne stay healthy? Can Jonathan Osorio? Can the backline hold up? Who’s the starting center forward? Do they even need a starting center forward at this rate?

All fair questions that will need long-term answers, but for now, seven points is a surprisingly positive start.


CF Montréal

It’s (yet another) new era north of the border, and Laurent Courtois is off to a flying start as head coach of CF Montréal.

With a 3-2 win at Inter Miami on Sunday, Montréal already has seven points from their first three games of the season, with all three games coming on the road. Montréal had a grand total of eight points away from home over the entire 2023 season.

They’re still drawing inspiration from Wilfried Nancy, the coach who made his name in MLS with Montreal before winning an MLS Cup with Columbus

“Wilfried Nancy always says: ‘Who dares win’,” said Courtois, who coached Columbus’ MLS Next Pro team under Nancy in Columbus. “That’s our intention to move forward.”

Montréal has scored five goals by five different goal scorers this season. That’s the team ethos Courtois is working to instill. They got away from Nancy’s ethos with Hernan Losada last year. Courtois is bringing them back to that magic.


Minnesota United

In theory, a team that went all of preseason without a permanent head coach, was still under interim management for its third game, and still doesn’t have chief playmaker Emanuel Reynoso available would show up in the panic list above. Full credit to interim head coach Cameron Knowles and his charges, however, for ushering in the team’s post-Adrian Heath era with positive results — and, even more encouragingly, a far more pleasing and effective style of play than in past seasons.

Playing in a base 4-3-3, the Loons look less interested in middle-third possession than Heath’s teams had. Minnesota’s possession rate has dropped from 47% to 44.2%; however, their field tilt (possession rate only considering each team’s attacking-third touches) has slightly risen from 47.9% to 49%. Long passes are desired, spiking from 12.3% of all passes last year to a 17.8% rate this year that’s second in MLS (behind Austin).

Keeping the ball in desirable areas is a full-time focus, too. Minnesota’s average possession sequence starts 50.7 meters from Dayne St. Clair’s goal, third-furthest afield in the young season and more advanced than last year’s average of 46.9. It’s all paid off in creating more promising chances, with the team’s average xG per shot rising from 0.116 to 0.125. That may seem insignificant, but at the team’s current rate of shooting, that could result in 3.7 more xG over the course of the season.

Some of that may be out of necessity, since the team’s defending has been suspect, gifting opponents an average of 0.15 xG per shot that’s MLS’s third-most generous this year.

Also, it’s still unknown how Reynoso will fit in upon his return. Wingers Sang-bin Jeong, Bongi Hlongwane and Franco Fragapane have all been effective through three games, while 20-year-old Minnesotan Caden Clark has shown flashes of the promise that made him so heralded with the New York Red Bulls.

However incoming head coach Eric Ramsay calibrates the lineup upon his arrival, the talent on Minnesota’s roster has proven it can keep this from being an outright rebuilding season.


New York Red Bulls

Unlike Toronto and Minnesota, the general consensus for RBNY was that they would finish around the playoff line. But could they be even better than that?

I think yes. After Saturday’s 2-1 win over Dallas, the Red Bulls sit on seven points after three games. New head coach Sandro Schwarz got a fast start from the group which had strong underlying numbers in 2023 that they underperformed.

Emil Forsberg scored his first goal against Dallas. He’s been exactly what they needed – a dynamic playmaker that can set up attacks from possessions generated through the Red Bulls’ near-relentless press. A fully-healthy Lewis Morgan — up to two goals and one assist in 161 minutes so far — doesn’t hurt, either.

“It felt good, an amazing feeling to score my first goal,” Forsberg said after the game. “A little bit of a stone releasing from my shoulders. I hit two crossbars before. But I’m happy we got to win, undefeated so far, I think we’re taking steps every day.”

(Top photos: Mark Smith-USA TODAY Sports; Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports)


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