Top 5 MLS Summer Storylines
Written by Thomas Hair
The thick of summer is upon us. The NBA is concluding, yet football season is still a long way off, forming a brief window where soccer traditionally takes greater prominence in the American sports psyche thanks to international tournaments like the World Cup or Euros.
Nowadays, summer is also known for being crucial in our own Major League Soccer. It’s that midseason grind. The games start coming at a rapid clip… even amidst blazing heat, continuing national team absences, and evolving rosters (due to the summer transfer window).
So, coming off a rare rest week, today begins that grueling part of the season. The wheat will be separated from the chaff. So hop aboard, Charlotte, and I’ll get you up to speed on the teams and players to monitor this summer as MLS rolls onward towards the playoffs…
#1: WANTED: Josef Martinez & the old Atlanta United
Wooh boy, we have got some drama down in the Dirty South!
ATLUTD’s club icon, Josef Martínez, has reportedly been frozen out of the team by manager Gabriel Heinze for reasons… unclear. Even as Atlanta languish outside the playoff places (2-7-3) with Cubo-freaking-Torres starting up top, Martínez continues to train separately from the team. Now unthinkable rumors are swirling that he might leave the club he called “my own Barcelona” not so long ago.
As much as I kind of love seeing all the Atlanta fans panicking online, I do want the Charlotte-Atlanta rivalry to be fierce and intense. We need something closer to the 2019 Atlanta to push us to be our best. Our inaugural meetings will lose some of their luster next year if United continues this downward spiral.
They face a tough test with New England Revolution (7-3-3) visiting tonight at 5. Can the team put the Josef distraction aside? Or will they stumble and see the home fans mount more pressure on Heinze?
#2 Toronto’s Terrible Tumble
You know something’s off when you have the fewest points in MLS despite the highest payroll.
Many people were surprised by the 1-2-8 start that got Chris Armas unceremoniously sacked, myself included. But on closer inspection, is it really that shocking?
Toronto FC are defending Supporters’ Shield runners-up, but this is a team stranded at a vacant Florida stadium due to Canadian COVID restrictions. This is a team that lost its architect, Greg Vanney, to the coaching vacancy at LA Galaxy. It’s also a team with many older veterans that were suddenly asked to run a demanding press by new manager Armas. In Florida. Throw in an injury to reigning MVP Alejandro Pozuelo and a little Jozy Altidore drama, and there’s your recipe for disaster.
The record 7-1 loss in Armas’ last match was bad. Like, really bad. But the Reds responded with vitriol and defeated conference leaders New England four days later. Was that the start of an epic summer turnaround for Toronto?
#3: Can Seattle stay undefeated?
Like Toronto, the Seattle Sounders are a perennial contender that had built-in excuses to let their standard drop this year. Homegrown star winger Jordan Morris tore his ACL while on loan at Swansea City in February, and midfield maestro Nicolás Lodeiro has been sidelined with knee issues.
Yet, in typical Sounders fashion, they seem as assured as ever of their own success. Somehow, without two of their top three players, they’ve tied the MLS record for the longest undefeated streak to start a season (8-5-0). A win at Minnesota United on Sunday would clinch it – a remarkable testament to an organization that (*sigh*) continues to be the best-run in the US. Take notes, Charlotte! If Seattle set the record, then what? How much farther can they take it? Invincibles, anyone?
That win in Minnesota won’t be easy, though – the Loons are still waiting to avenge last year’s heart-crushing playoff loss.
#4: Nashville get their star striker… will any other arrivals change the MLS landscape?
Our southeastern rivals Nashville SC have completed their record signing: $6.8 million for Monterrey’s Aké Loba, a 23-year-old forward who has already excelled in Mexico in his young career.
The Ivorian will bolster a Nashville side already in the playoff places and has the potential to be someone that causes Charlotte FC problems for years to come. Gary Smith has created one of the league’s strongest defenses, but a reliable scorer has eluded him. If Loba can be the star they’re paying him to be, his arrival might transform Nashville into a serious Cup contender.
Other recent MLS arrivals include Kieran Gibbs, Yeferson Soteldo, and Bobby Wood. Can any of these players, or pending transfers yet unknown, change their teams’ 2021 trajectories? The international transfer window stays open through August. Charlotte will be signing players, but so will our future competitors across the league, so keep an eye on both.
#5: Which surprise early-season successes will survive the summer?
CF Montréal assistant Wilfried Nancy was thrust into the head job when legendary player-turned-manager Thierry Henry unexpectedly resigned before the season. Now, Nancy is an early Coach of the Year candidate for guiding unfancied Montréal to the 3rd-best PPG in the East despite being exiled in Florida like Toronto. This weekend, though, Montréal at last return to their true home, Stade Saputo, with FC Cincinnati waiting. Can Nancy’s spirited team treat the soccer-starved crowds in Quebec to a sixth-straight unbeaten? Do they have the depth to sustain this success as congestion hits?
Colorado Rapids are too often still stigmatized as lifeless “MLS 1.0” bottom-feeders, but they’ve quietly been improving since hiring Robin Fraser and now sit 4th in the competitive West. They don’t spend much on signings, but they’ve maneuvered the MLS markets intelligently and draft and develop well from within. Can that still be enough for a playoff run in 2021’s MLS?
Real Salt Lake (4-4-3) were a popular pick to finish near the bottom of the West, but for now, they’re in the Playoffs. New players like Anderson Julio and Rubio Rubin really hit the ground running, and the positionless-wonder Damir Kreilach isdoing Kreilach things. RSL are exceeding expectations, but it still feels like they haven’t maxed out their potential. The lone DP on the roster, Albert Rusnák, still hasn’t returned to his 2019 form, and former USMNT striker Bobby Wood is only just now getting fully integrated with the team. Picking up a result tonight @ LAFC would be a big statement of intent for this group as they enter that defining summer stretch.
Prediction: I think Colorado is the team most likely to hold on to a playoffs spot of these three. They have the most depth, experience and MLS know-how of these underdogs, as well as the most proven coach. The Raps stay in, while Montréal and RSL get bounced out by clubs like Portland and Columbus making runs up the table. Leave a comment if you agree or disagree!