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2020 MLS Power Rankings, Vol. 1

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With the 2020 Major League Soccer season kicking off this weekend, here’s a (surely brilliant) predictive edition of the Power Rankings, which will be updated at the start of every month here on PST…

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MLS Cup favorites
Los Angeles FC and New York City FC

We all remember what LAFC did last year, and the fact they didn’t win MLS Cup despite settling most every relevant league record will only serve as further fuel for Bob Bradley to demand even more from (inarguably) the most talented team in the league. One potential pitfall: after trading Walker Zimmerman (for a record amount of allocation money), it’s unclear who’ll start at center back, and if you think it’s clear it’s a less than ideal situation. As for NYCFC, they managed to fly under the radar last year despite finishing top of the Eastern Conference by six points. While they don’t have the household names of an LAFC or Atlanta United, Domenec Torrent’s side (now that of Ronny Deila) played every bit the attractive, fluid attacking soccer of the league’s darlings. In a week East, NYCFC could wind up Supporters’ Shield winners.


MLS Cup contenders
Seattle Sounders, Atlanta United, LA Galaxy and Toronto FC

These teams will be in the playoffs, 100 percent guarantee. (fingers are now crossed) With satisfactory answers to certain questions, they could make the leap from contenders to favorites with ease. Those questions are… Seattle: does the completely rebuilt backline come together, and how long does it take? Atlanta: will head coach Frank De Boer find the right balance between his preferred defensive slant and the roster’s natural tendency to attack at all costs? Galaxy: is the defense, which has been horrific for five or six years now, any better? Toronto: wait, why aren’t they on the “favorites” line? Ah, yes, because only one team per conference is allowed.


See you in the playoffs
Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, Philadelphia Union and D.C. United

Here’s the thing about this group: the two teams from the East should finish fourth or fifth in the junior circuit (some ways back of the clear-cut top-three), but they probably wouldn’t make the playoffs in the West. By default, Philadelphia and D.C. get a bump in the tiers for the fact they’ll walk into the playoffs in the East. That is not — repeat not — to say they are as good as RSL or Dallas, who would actually push Atlanta and Toronto for second and third.


In the hunt
Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City, Minnesota United, Colorado Rapids, Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo, Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution and Montreal Impact

That’s a long list of teams. As stated above, the teams from the East will be in playoff contention due to not having seven standout sides. Basically, any combination of these teams could wind up in the playoffs. Looking to the West, Portland, Sporting KC and Minnesota have the potential to climb a tier (or two) if all goes right for them, but each of those sides has a glaring, and potentially fatal, flaw. The temptation to say Colorado will actually be quite good and also a playoff team is very strong, but it goes against all human instincts when you think back to how they opened the 2019 season, before firing Anthony Hudson and hiring Robin Fraser and almost making the playoffs anyway.


Fulfilling obligations
FC Cincinnati, Orlando City SC and Vancouver Whitecaps

Barely a month into their first season (last season), Cincinnati was very clearly the worst team in the league. Somehow, the offseason has gone even worse for them. They (probably) managed to improve enough so as to not claim back-to-back Wooden Spoons, but enough to contend for a playoff place? Highly unlikely. Orlando City has never — not once in their five-year MLS history — given me, or anyone, reason to believe they are a competent organization. Until they do so for a period of six (6) months or more, they just exist for existence’s sake. Speaking of merely existing, the Vancouver Whitecaps.


Expansion teams, TBD
Inter Miami and Nashville SC

Here’s the thing about expansion teams: they aren’t to be trusted, either way. What looks good on paper can sometimes look terrible on the field, and what looks terrible on paper can sometimes look great on the field. We’ll give Miami and Nashville their first assessments after a month of games.

Nashville SC trades for USMNT mainstay Walker Zimmerman

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LAFC has sent one of its foundational pieces to Nashville SC for an international roster spot and what could amount to $1.25 million in allocation money.

2019 MLS Best XI center back Walker Zimmerman joins his third MLS team, still just 26 and entering the considered prime for his position.

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The 26-year-old averaged 1.9 tackles, 1.3 interceptions, and 3.6 clearances per game for LAFC last season. Zimmerman has 13 goals in his 149-match MLS career.

The 6-foot-3 defender also has 12 caps with two goals for the USMNT. He began his rise as part of a monstrous CB partnership with Matt Hedges in Dallas, and was getting interest from Europe by 2018.

The move is an easy one for Nashville, who adds another MLS regular with USMNT experience to Gary Smith’s roster.  Nashville may not instantly be a playoff team, but there’s enough maturity and MLS know-how in the league to assure something better than FC Cincinnati’s maiden voyage, for instance.

LAFC boss Bob Bradley used returning center back Eddie Segura more than any other player last season, but this move surprises due to the club’s impending CONCACAF Champions League dates with Leon on Feb. 18 and 27.

MLS takes big step with All-Star Game update

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For the first time since 2004, the Major League Soccer All-Star team has a new opponent.

In a press conference in Los Angeles, MLS commissioner Don Garber and Liga MX executive president Enrique Bonilla jointly made the announcement that the 2020 MLS All-Star Game would test the best players from MLS against the top stars in Liga MX, with the match set to take place on July 29 at Los Angeles FC’s Banc of California Stadium.

The news of MLS taking on the Liga MX all-stars is the realization of an idea that has been floated by fans and media members for the last few years. The annual MLS All-Stars vs. club giant had grown stale in recent years, especially since those clubs weren’t ever incentivized to take the game seriously. Big stars might have only played one half, if at all, as they built match fitness for the start of their seasons in Europe, and it ultimately is a bad marker for MLS.

If MLS really wants to compare itself with other top leagues in the world, then there’s no better an opponent than Liga MX. The Mexican first division has continued to basically wipe the floor with MLS clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League, though this season Atlanta United did triumph over Club America in the Campeones Cup.

In addition, MLS may have a decent chance to beat Liga MX in an all-star game. The talent at the very top of MLS is arguably higher than in Mexico, though the Liga MX clubs are stacked with talent in the middle of the rosters, which is where MLS clubs are exploited year after year. However, if it’s Josef Martinez, Carlos Vela, and Nicolas Lodeiro up front for the MLS All-Star squad, they could have a very good shot to succeed.

“We are so pleased to bring the 2020 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target to Los Angeles, one of the great soccer markets in North America,” Garber said in the press conference. “As we celebrate our 25th season, we wanted to deliver an unique and unprecedented format for our annual All-Star Game. Our first ever game between the best of MLS and LIGA MX’s top players is the perfect way to build on the growing relationship between the two top soccer leagues in the region.”

It’s unclear whether this will be a recurring match in the future. However, moving away from the prior all-star game model will help MLS grow as a league and catch up to Liga MX in the long wrong.

Three things we learned from LAFC-Seattle (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): The Seattle Sounders are headed back to MLS Cup for the third time in four years after knocking off the best regular-season team in MLS history, Los Angeles FC, Tuesday night in the Western Conference final. The Sounders went into Banc of California Stadium and shocked the world with a stellar team performance, most notably from their backline and center forward Raul Ruidiaz, who scored twice on the night. Midfield maestro Nicolas Lodeiro bagged Seattle’s other goal as the Sounders scored three unanswered after Eduard Atuesta opened the scoring in the 17th minute. Should Atlanta United advance past Toronto FC in Wednesday’s Eastern Conference final, Seattle will play for MLS Cup away from home for the third time during their stellar run.

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Three things we learned

1. Time to recognize Ruidiaz among elites: Josef Martinez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (rightly) have each received plenty of plaudits for their prolific goal-scoring records as center forwards, but Ruidiaz should be mentioned in the same breath as some of the best to ever do it in MLS. He’s not even two seasons into his time in Seattle, but the Peruvian international has displayed a ruthless nose for goal while also contributing to the Sounders’ attack in ways the aforementioned no. 9s rarely do.

If you watch the below clip, you’ll see Joevin Jones picking up the assist and Lodeiro finishing with pinpoint precision, but what you won’t see is Ruidiaz’s turn out of trouble on the other side of midfield and his subsequent dribbling into the final third before laying the ball off to Jones. The Sounders defense was set up to absorb lots of pressure, but providing them these moments of respite, let alone getting the goal, were so important to Brian Schmetzer’s gameplan.

Then there’s the other part of his no. 9 duties — the lethal finishing touch — that makes him a potential game-winner every time he steps on the field.

2. LAFC start slow again. This time, they never recovered: LAFC needed a good 10 minutes to wake up before putting five past the LA Galaxy last week. Again on Tuesday, Bob Bradley‘s side started sluggishly and found itself on the back foot for the opening 15 minutes. Then, almost as if on cue, the Black and Gold sprang to life with Eduard Atuesta’s stunning free kick.

Only this time, unlike when they faced the Galaxy, LAFC’s period of control was short-lived. Seattle, a group that’s been through the rigors of the playoffs together, stuck to their low defensive block and soaked up the pressure in low-leverage areas of the field and got out on the counter-attack at every opportunity. It paid immediate dividends.

LAFC’s greatest strengths lie in their forward and midfield lines, which makes it hugely important to pick the right pass immediately after winning the ball back. Fortunately for Seattle, Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson are two of the smartest players in the league and they make the right decision nine times out of 10. This gives the likes of Ruidiaz, Lodeiro and Jordan Morris a few extra looks every game. Once you bypass the first wave of pressure from the LAFC midfield, their defense is highly suspect.

3. Rossi moved to the left too late: For 45 minutes, Diego Rossi — and Carlos Vela, to a large extent — were anonymous, inconsequential figures. Brad Smith customarily tore up and down the left side of Seattle’s attack, pinning Rossi deeper and deeper as the first half wore on. Bradley switched the Uruguayan to the other side of the field at halftime, and his impact was immediate.

The knock-on effect with Vela is obvious, as each of LAFC’s attacking stars operates best when linking directly or indirectly with one another. Whether playing on the right or through the middle, Rossi frees up Vela, either with their combined movement and passing or the attention he commands as a goal threat himself.

Schmetzer got his tactics spot-on, while Bradley whiffed with a thoroughly curious decision to deviate from something that worked to devastating effect for seven months.

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Man of the match: Raul Ruidiaz

Goalscorers: Atuesta (17′), Ruidiaz (22′, 64′), Lodeiro (26′)

LIVE, MLS Cup Playoffs — LAFC v. Seattle, Western Conference final

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The first of two places in MLS Cup 2019 is set to be booked Tuesday night, when no. 1-seed Los Angeles FC host the Seattle Sounders at Banc of California Stadium in the Western Conference final (10 p.m. ET).

[ MORE: Live scores, box scores, stats ]

All season long, LAFC tore the rest of MLS apart en route to a league-record points tally. The playoffs, however, will draw a very important distinction for LAFC: best regular-season team ever, or best team ever? After beating the LA Galaxy, for the first time ever, in the conference semifinals last Thursday, Bob Bradley‘s side is now just 180 minutes (or 210, or 240) from lifting MLS Cup and making its case as MLS’s best ever.

To reach  — and host — the final on Nov. 10, though, they’ll have to knock off a Sounders side making its third West final appearance in four seasons. Brian Schmetzer’s side survived a riveting first-round scare from FC Dallas before dispatching Real Salt Lake — and the career of Nick Rimando — a week ago.

Check back on PST following the final whistle for a full recap and analysis as one team books its place is MLS Cup.