The MLS Season is over - that can only mean one thing, time for the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs to begin. We covered Gyasi Zardes and co. from the East Monday and if you clicked on this after reading that, well strap in - the West is wild baby! (It’s OK I guess, if you like defenders). If your face glazes over at the mention of Soccer and Playoffs - or to be Proper - Football and Playoffs - snap out of it, the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs are one of the great sporting spectacles in the world. Where else can a glorified post-season tournament make people think that Caleb Porter is a good manager because his backline suddenly realized how to play defense for six games, or watch Jozy Altidore score a clutch goal for one time in his career, or see the amazing spectacle of Peter Vermes’ forehead vein bulge out of his head and make contact with the fourth official because his team got eliminated from the post-season in the first round for the third time in a row? That last one might not happen, but always expect the unexpected in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Ah yes, the team that playz the kidz and gave us American great Brek Shea. Dallas seemed like they were in a position to challenge for the Supporters’ Shield when they came back to beat Atlanta United 3-2 on the 4th of July. Since then FCD took 22 points over their last 17 games. That isn’t horrible, but it did put them solidly in the middle of the pack in the overall table.
Not surprisingly, since this is American soccer we’re talking about, there are three Americans to look at with FCD and they’re all defenders. Luckily the Dallas defense was pretty good this year so that’s not exactly an underhanded comment in this context.
Reggie Cannon - The obvious breakout for the team, Cannon has claimed a starting right back spot and his play earned him a call up for American Manager Dave Sarachan. Cannon is a solid defender who adds some dynamism to the Dallas attack.
Matt Hedges - A center back who has been on the radar for the national team, it seems like Hedges just isn’t quite there in terms of being able to contribute internationally. A lumbering physical presence, Hedges is a step below Omar Gonzalez in the center back depth chart but can win a ball in the air and is mostly OK for MLS.
Jesse Gonzalez - The one-time Answer to who will be the next USMNT goalkeeper, Gonzalez played 21 games in 2018 with six clean sheets and 28 goals allowed. It’s not a bad record and is a step up from his total in 2017, but without a determined scowl on his face he might not have what it takes to push Zack Steffen for a starting national team keeper spot.
Peter Vermes has shown that he is nothing if not adaptable. In 2015 the team played satisfying attacking soccer with Benny Feilhaber prompting MLS analysts to write endless screeds about how he needed to be the no. 10 focal point for the USMNT - they were bounced in the knockout round of the playoffs. In 2016 the attack wasn’t quite as satisfying but SKC managed to play well enough to be bounced in the knockout round of the playoffs. In 2017 Vermes adopted a Mourinho-esque anti-soccer approach and SKC played some of the most turgid and unwatchable soccer imaginable and SKC was bounced in the knockout round of the playoffs.
2018 was different, Vermes got rid of Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber and his brain genius move in trading for Kenwyne Jones for reasons before the expansion draft and losing attacker Latif Blessing to LAFC probably stings quite a bit now. SKC plays an aggressive press and seemingly everyone scores for the team - despite not having a player with more than 11 goals SKC scored an impressive 65 goals in 2018. In short, the changes have worked and the team has at least guaranteed that it won’t be bounced in the knockout round of the playoffs as they finished 1st in the West.
There are five Americans who will feature in the post season, they are four defenders and a goalkeeper whose national team contributions are in the past or never existed in the first place. They are: Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Ike Opara, Seth Sinovic, and Tim Melia. Khiry Shelton may get some time at forward, but he could easily be described in terms of the teammates I named above.
The Los Angeles Football Club took MLS by storm in 2018. The club has a beautiful stadium, great fans, and is where it is thanks to crushing their opponents on the road to start the year. LA also had to endure losing marquee player Carlos Vela during the World Cup and the loss of their two first choice defensive midfielders early in the season.
It didn’t matter, Bob Bradley had an answer - that answer was to put six attacking players on the field and see what happened.
The #LAFC Starting XI vs. @WhitecapsFC #LAFCvVAN pic.twitter.com/AfxvjoBPQs— LAFC (@LAFC) October 21, 2018
Somehow what happened is LAFC didn’t lose every game 5-4 and the result was an attacking fever dream with LA scoring 68 goals on the year.
Are there Americans to watch in the playoffs? Sort of. Benny Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen are playing more or less holding midfield in Bradley’s 4-3-3. The two ending up as teammates is a fitting way for them to wind down their careers as Feilhaber somehow made Jurgen Klinsmann think that Mix Diskerud would be a national team contributor while Nguyen has been chronically underrated throughout his career, but especially after his 2014 MVP campaign.
Aside from them, there’s Tyler Miller in goal who fits the extremely valuable skill of not needing an international roster spot in MLS and Walker Zimmerman at center back. The defender is an interesting player - he’s decent with the ball at his feet and is usually solid in his positioning and awareness, unless he isn’t which usually has terrible consequences for his team.
Then there’s Christian Ramirez who may also be a player joining Feilhaber in Nguyen as a player who hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves for mysterious reasons. Bradley has been using him as a sub for the most part after the striker was cast out of Minnesota as Adrian Heath looked to his second consecutive 18+ loss season.
There are two Americans that will get covered here - Jorge Villafana sometimes plays left back for the USMNT and Zarek Valentine is their right back. That’s it, the team is largely devoid of Americans who get regular minutes in the starting 11.
It looked like the LA Galaxy were going to be the sixth seed in the West - they were winning 2-0 in the 57th minute and then the Houston Dynamo came storming back and won 3-2. That means that RSL, who was on a bye week, gets the honor of being honored in this post.
Real Salt Lake has a terrible defense and allowed 58 goals in 34 games this year - and it’s filled with Americans!
Nick Rimando - As Rimando enters the twilight of his career he is still valuable to his team in that he does not take up an international slot and still saves the occasional penalty.
Brooks Lennon - The latest promising American attacking player to turn into a defender, Lennon is an attacking right back who managed five assists on the year. At 21 he has a lot of growing to do in the position and while RSL had problems keeping the ball out of the net this year, he has a bright future.
Justen Glad - Also at 21, Glad has had a lot of attention during his young career and seems to be tapped as a young center back that has a future with the National Team. His third full season in the league saw Glad take a role as a consistent starter with RSL starting 33 games this year.
Aaron Herrera - The RSL left back claimed a starting spot at the end of July and hasn’t looked back. As a 21 year-old homegrown player, Herrera seems to be making the most of his opportunity with the team and had a season to build on.
Kyle Beckerman - Yes, Kyle Beckerman is still in MLS.
Sebastian Saucedo - The attacker has represented both the US and Mexico in the international level, but there hasn’t been much talk of him getting a senior team call up for either team. He spent most of 2018 coming off of the bench but did make 10 starts on the season.
Cristian Roldan - The Sounders turned their season around by playing some of the most unwatchable defensive soccer thanks in no small part to the work of Cristian Roldan. The versatile player, who spent time both in central midfield and as what passed for a right winger this year, probably has what it takes to get called into January camp and then get passed over for Gold Cup and World Cup qualifiers for years to come.
Harry Shipp - Remember Harry Shipp? <looks awkwardly at Cristian Roldan>
Stefan Frye - He’s American and he’s a goalie - if he plays his cards right, he could be the next Tim Melia.
Chad Marshall - It is easy to watch Chad Marshall play soccer, mostly because after 25 seasons in the league he is basically a stationary object on the field.
Jordan Morris’ dog - I mean, Jordan Morris probably wasn’t going to catch on in Bremen anyway and then we’d be having a debate about how going on trial with them hurt his career and he would have been far from his dog, so - who’s a good boy?
Brian Schmetzer - American managers probably don’t get enough play in the Americans at home column, but Schmetzer deserves credit for being so tactically astute that he played a flat 4-4-2 against the best attacking team in MLS in the final last year - how is he not in the running for USMNT manager?