By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (May 17, 2021) US Soccer Players – The MLS season is still young, but we’re already seeing some trends emerge. A year after the pandemic upended the start of the 2020 season, Major League Soccer is experiencing that sense of normalcy the world so much craves. Well, at least in some markets. There’s nothing normal about the Canadian teams playing home games in the US or places where there’s no or limited attendance. Atlanta showed what may soon be possible in other cities, the kind of MLS we remember.
On the field, while many insist that parity is a thing in MLS, the reality is that only five teams have made it to MLS Cup since 2015. Those teams, Seattle, Atlanta, Portland, Columbus, and Toronto, are the favorites to lift the trophy once again. Early returns would suggest that NYCFC, CF Montreal, the Galaxy, and Colorado Rapids could also join the mix.
So much can change in the coming months. More Designated Players could stream into the league as teams look for reinforcements. Expansion side Austin FC has yet to debut at home. They will open Q2 Stadium on June 19 against the Earthquakes and could still have plenty of surprises in store. This past Sunday, FC Cincinnati played their first game ever at TQL Stadium, the league’s latest soccer-specific venue. Despite a poor season so far and a last-minute goal to give Inter Miami a 3-2 win, the atmosphere inside was electric.
Just five weeks into the season, and it has been very busy. Here’s a look at three early trends to emerge.
Seattle’s attack a big success
This was the talk of the preseason. It’s lived up to the hype in the games that count. The departure of Jordan Morris meant coach Brian Schmetzer had to rework his tactics. Cristian Roldan, as usual, has provided a spark for the Sounders attack, but it’s the front line that got reworked this winter.
The result has been a Seattle lineup that’s attack-minded and still undefeated. Although Seattle is often out possessed this season, Schmetzer has always been great at prioritizing each player’s biggest strengths and how that translates into a successful team effort. That’s paying off so far as Seattle nears the end of May 1 in the Western Conference and with a league-best 5-0-1 record.
It looks like the team is through over-relying on Nicolas Lodeiro, who’s only played one game due to a nagging knee inflammation. Under a 5-3-2, 3-5-2, or 3-4-1-2, Schmetzer is prioritizing midfield play with more use of wingbacks. Making Joao Paulo a deep-lying playmaker allows for more space and freedom upfront for a two-man attack, rotating between Raul Ruidiaz, Will Bruin, and Fredy Montero. It’s working so far.
Chicharito is making the Galaxy better
Injured for most of last season, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has come back strong, and he could very well be what makes the difference for the Los Angeles Galaxy this season. In fact, Hernandez could figure for Mexico once again at the Gold Cup. For now, it’s the Galaxy reaping the rewards of his great form.
Chicharito currently leads the league in scoring with seven goals. That’s boosted the Galaxy into 2nd-place in the West. They’ll need more than just Chicharito to score goals. It’s unlikely that he can maintain this pace the entire season, meaning others need to step up. Some solid offseason signings, such as goalkeeper Jonathan Bond and defender Jorge Villafana, have reinforced the back and can help this team go deep.
It’s great for the league to see Hernandez bagging goals and lighting up the scoreboard. Still, more often than not, it’s often great defense that can help teams win a title. For now, Galaxy fans are enjoying Hernandez and hoping it can lead to an MVP season for him and more for the team. It’s not quite the team of the mid-2010s, but the Galaxy is proving they’re for real with each passing week.
Young goalkeepers get starts
Goalkeeper is the one position in the game where individual players have the most longevity. Given the size of the league, we still see turnover. Two goalkeepers so far this season have made the list of the youngest netminders to start an MLS match. A Homegrown Player on the Portland Timbers, Hunter Sulte, became the second-youngest goalkeeper in MLS history to start a game on May 1, just six days after his 19th birthday. That came after Sporting Kansas City’s John Pulskamp made the list at number 6 on April 17 when he got the start at age 19 and 363 days.
This trend isn’t entirely new. In fact, three of the six youngest goalies to ever start a game in league history have come over the last two years. The US is a country that became known for producing top goalkeeping talent a few decades ago. The trend of the last year remains a positive sign that this tradition won’t end anytime soon.
We can already learn from these early trends. The ability for teams to start the season strong is a plus, but the season is long. MLS still has an anything can happen vibe to it. That’s not a bad thing. This is a league that’s matured tremendously over its nearly three decades in existence. The road to the MLS Cup Final is long. Enjoy the ride!
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Keeping time in the era of VAR
- Playing at home in MLS and Concacaf
- The MLS TV audience
- Figuring out VAR
Photo by Lyndsay Radnedge – ISIPhotos.com