MLS is a difficult league to predict. It’s hard to foresee how long teams will take to figure themselves out and acclimate new signings and young contributors.
Preseason expectations tend to shatter quickly. Already, some early surprises have started to reveal themselves.
1. FC Cincinnati finding their footing
The first season in a new, higher-level league can be incredibly difficult, so expectations for FC Cincinnati this year weren’t particularly lofty. But after Cincy went into Atlanta in their second game and stole a 1-1 draw, fans gained a reasonable amount of optimism. Alan Koch set his team up in a tight block, played an ill-advised high line until eventually dropping back, and conceded the bulk of possession to ATL, who did little with it.
It was a well-thought-out plan that Cincy executed well enough to hold Atlanta to one early goal and then thieve a late equalizer. FCC have center backs who can dominate in the air, a couple of speedy attackers up top and central midfielders who aren’t quite revolving doors.
Koch has shown an ability to make his team hard to play against. They escaped plenty of dangerous situations because Atlanta couldn’t sort themselves out in the final third, but Koch finally realizing that a high line was a bad idea stopped some of the leaking. Spencer Richey, starting for a benched Przemysław Tytoń, looked confident and mistake-free in goal. FCC will at least play spoiler this season.
2. Darwin Quintero leading the MVP race
I wrote plenty more about Minnesota United in week two’s Little Things. Quintero is the star for one of three teams that already has two wins on the season, with two goals and three assists and a pair of dominant performances. He could put up the quietest 20-10 stat line in MLS history, and will lock down the MVP award if Minnesota at least hang around the playoff race.
Whether they actually do that is another question, answered in more depth in the article linked above. But Quintero looks like a top-five player in MLS.
3. CCL not going well for MLS
Maybe this shouldn’t be counted as a surprise, considering the history of the Concacaf Champions League. MLS teams are inherently at a disadvantage in the competition due to its timing—games are during preseason for clubs, and quarterfinals are played in a crowded schedule as the league season starts. Mexican teams are in the middle of their campaign.
But teams are dropping like flies. Toronto FC looked horrible in a loss to Panamanian club Independiente. The Red Bulls are out, having capitulated late in the second leg to Santos Laguna. The Dynamo never had much of a chance against Tigres. Atlanta United punted on the first leg against Monterrey and couldn’t come back. Sporting KC face an inexplicable deficit against Independiente.
None of this is ideal for MLS, which was supposed to produce at least one challenger to the title the way TFC were last year. Atlanta were the favorites. History repeats itself.
4. Atlanta face numerous questions
ATL lost 3-0 to Monterrey in the CCL quarterfinal first leg, and then only mustered one goal in a futile comeback attempt in Wednesday’s leg two. This failure comes on the heels of a week-one loss to D.C. United and a shocking home draw against Cincinnati on Sunday. Fans are growing restless at the Benz. It’s new territory for the Five Stripes.
The tactical struggles, however, are familiar: They can’t figure out how to break down stout defensive teams, or create anything in attack outside of counters. They look stagnant and uninventive in the final third, often settling for another slow ball rotation or low-percentage cross. They struggle to flood areas with numbers and create favorable advantages, particularly down the flanks, where Julian Gressel is trusted to do basically everything on the right wing. (Hector Villalba would certainly help in this regard, if Frank De Boer is willing to quit with his wacky 3-4-3 and start his second-best attacker.)
Individually, plenty of players still look good. Josef Martinez is scoring. Ezequiel Barco looks springy. Pity Martinez is adjusting, slowly but surely, with some flashes of creativity thrown in. De Boer wants his team to keep possession, but he has to figure out how to do that while taking full advantage of his talented attackers. He has yet to find a balance.
Harrison Hamm is a sportswriter who covers American soccer and MLS for FloFC. He also covers sports for FanSided and The Comeback, and has freelanced for the Washington Post.