The start of the MLS season always seems to come out of nowhere. The offseason lacks a signature tentpole moment like the NBA and NFL drafts or the MLB’s winter meetings, making the entirety of the winter an amorphous waiting game.
Once preseason starts, games are hard to come by. Multiple sources say that in order to stream games, the league requires its teams to have a commentary team, a minimum of five camera angles, a full graphics package — and a geolock to limit viewership to the local market. It’s a set of rules which is tough to pull off on a team-hosted stream and costs thousands of dollars per game…all to limit the audience to one market of the team’s broader fanbase.
Without much ability to scout new signings or tactical setups, preseason prognostications can be a tricky act. Still, there’s enough to formulate one crucial question which could set the tone for the 2022 season.
To break from the norm of alphabetical order, we’re sequencing the teams using the reverse of last year’s conference tables. Let’s get Texas and California out of the way first.
Can Paulo Nagamura restoke the dynamism in Houston?
Paulo Nagamura joins Houston as head coach after four years of leading Sporting Kansas City’s USL affiliate. As he admitted to The Athletic after his appointment, that previous role gave him little agency to control his team’s tactics, as the second team was beholden to Peter Vermes’ system as players developed.
New ownership has opened its wallet more than the team has seen in recent years. $4.3 million signing Sebastian Ferreira’s goalscoring record in Mexico and Paraguay suggests plenty of promise for Houston’s attack. A return to competitiveness is sorely needed having made the playoffs just once since 2014, and Nagamura’s aim for a possession-based positional play is intriguing. We’ll see how long it takes to install such a precise tactical approach.
Can Jhojan Valencia’s arrival stabilize a team in transition?
While Austin managed some impressive early results in 2021, the team finished its first season with 0.91 points per game and was an easy defense to break down in the season’s second half. Not exactly alright, alright, alright.
Loaning out Tomas Pochettino after an underwhelming season opened up a designated player slot, which has been filled by defensive midfielder Jhojan Valencia. It gives Austin a pair of DPs in the midfield (alongside re-signed captain Alex Ring), which should give the second-year side a more formidable double pivot while freeing Ring to impact the game further up the field. If Valencia can replicate even a portion of the success of fellow Cali, Colombia native Diego Chara, it could do wonders to sustainably anchor Wolff’s team for 2022 and beyond.
Will continued strong development finally lead to on-field success?
The USMNT’s most recent World Cup qualifier featured five ex-Dallas academy players on the field. That hasn’t translated to being competitive in MLS, however, with just one playoff win (via penalties) in the last five seasons.
First-year head coach Nico Estévez has plenty of admirers from his time working under Gregg Berhalter, and the club snared Paul Arriola in a record-breaking trade. Paxton Pomykal could finally be set for a major breakout after staying healthy in 2021, and 19-year-old Argentine winger Alan Velasco is the new club-record signing who they hope can be as electric as Fabian Castillo once was. Can Estévez finally make the team as relevant for trophies as they are for netting transfer fees?
San Jose Earthquakes
How long will Matías Almeyda stay?
At times, San Jose has been among MLS’s most entertaining watches. At others, however, they’ve been absolutely steamrolled week after week. Head coach Matías Almeyda has regularly been linked to prominent openings for clubs and countries alike (this week’s suitor: Santos).
Almeyda hasn’t been hiding his displeasure in preseason after new GM Chris Leitch let most of the coach’s chosen players (Luciano Abecasis, Carlos Fierro, Andy Rios, Oswaldo Alanis) leave. Replacements have largely come from across MLS; while Jamiro Monteiro may have some upside as an attacking focal point, Francisco Calvo has proven mistake-prone in defense and Ján Greguš saw just 18 minutes for Minnesota United after August. It’ll take more than a swarming defensive system to turn things around in the Bay — though time will tell if Almeyda is part of the rebuild.
Los Angeles FC
Will MLS experience have a big impact?
Bob Bradley’s offseason departure to Toronto could have been justification for a hard rebuild. Instead, the roster was restocked with players boasting solid MLS resumes.
While he remains vocal about his preference to play in Europe, Kellyn Acosta is among the very best midfielders in MLS and a staple of the USMNT during this qualification cycle. Maxime Crepeau was quietly one of the league’s most dependable goalkeepers during his time in Vancouver. Franco Escobar was a fan favorite in Atlanta and Ryan Hollingshead has been one of the league’s best left backs for years. On paper, these players seem like ideal support for a Carlos Vela, Brian Rodríguez and Cristian Arango front line. But how quickly can first-year head coach Steve Cherundolo get all those new pieces to gel?
Los Angeles Galaxy
Is Douglas Costa the missing piece?
This winter was perhaps the Galaxy’s most harmonious in recent memory. There was no coaching controversy, nor was there any serious drama about whether or not their leading stars would be back.