For eight teams, the MLS playoffs ended too soon, at least in their own eyes. Just four teams remain in the postseason chase but, for those that have fallen throughout the knockout and conference semifinal rounds, it is time to reassess.
The knockout rounds saw the Chicago Fire, Atlanta United, San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City ejected from the playoffs, while the conference semis claimed NYCFC, the New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps. Like any team in MLS, each team has a fundamental flaw and, for some, it was that flaw that prevented them from clearing a postseason hurdle.
We’ve already taken a look at the biggest needs for the teams that missed out on the postseason party. Now, let’s break down what those eliminated from the playoffs will need to address throughout the winter:
Priority number one is keeping the team’s young core of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Hector Villalba and Yamil Asad lined up, although that depends on offers that come in over the winter. By and large, Atlanta is deep and young all over the field, meaning they should be set to contend again in 2018.
If there is a place that needs improvement, though, it’s at fullback. Greg Garza and Anton Walkes were both loan additions, and it remains to be seen how things shake out on either side. If Atlanta can hold onto both of them, great. But, if not, they’ll be in the market for defenders.
This past season was certainly an improvement for the Fire, whose rebuild went much, much faster than expected. There’s pieces in place from veterans Nemanja Nikolic and Dax McCarty all the way to young stars like Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent. That’s the good news.
The bad news is there are some improvements to make, especially after a frustrating knockout round loss to the Red Bulls where the Fire never looked like a team that had a chance. The big priority should be to add a talented centerback, and Homegrown prospect Grant Lillard could do the trick. The Indiana defender may not be the full answer from day one, but the Fire should get him integrated in an effort to build a strong defensive foundation of future stars.
NEW YORK CITY FC
NYCFC is going to have major money to play with following Andrea Pirlo’s retirement. A DP spot is open and the club totally hit with signings like Maxi Moralez and Alexander Ring last summer. Now, NYCFC just needs a tinker, not an overhaul, especially if they can find a way to keep Yangel Herrera around for one more year.
With Ring and Herrera manning the midfield, NYCFC could use their money to bring an elite centerback to play alongside Alexander Callens. The position has always been one of weakness for them, but it seems they have a good one in Callens, regardless of his silly red card against the Crew. If they can bring in a Leandro Gonzalez Pirez-type of signing to partner with Callens, NYCFC is a Supporters’ Shield contender.
NEW YORK RED BULLS
Injuries crippled the Red Bulls’ centerback pool in 2017, and that position will certainly be a priority heading into 2018. The team’s three-at-the-back system worked very well throughout the stretch run, but it was clear that they were still missing pieces to make it fully tick.
Aaron Long is one of those pieces, and it’s now time to build around him. The former Red Bulls II defender was one of the breakout stars of the season, making 31 appearances. If you can bring in one or two strong centerbacks that are also somewhat comfortable on the ball, the Red Bulls defense should be set.
Diego Valeri’s ridiculousness propelled the Timbers to the top of the West, while also probably sealing up an MLS MVP nod. However, it wasn’t good enough to lift the Timbers out of the injury-filled quicksand they found themselves in when the postseason hit. Now, it appears that the club will be in search of a new head coach following Caleb Porter’s reported departure.
But if there is a position on the field to address, it’s centerback once again. Liam Ridgewell is getting older. Larrys Mabiala was solid, but is also 30. Lawrence Olum and Roy Miller are depth pieces while Gbenga Arokoyo couldn’t even find his footing before an Achilles injury took him out. It would serve the Timbers well to find a young central defender to build around for years to come. Now, it’s not easy to find that piece, especially with the team’s veteran core taking up a bunch of the budget, but central defense is most certainly the team’s biggest question mark.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
Defense. Defense. Defense. There are attacking pieces in place with Chris Wondolowski and Vako leading the charge, but the Quakes need to fix their defensive situation if they’re going to make a jump. A full year under a consistent coach will help, but so will an addition or two to prevent goals. That’s what killed them in the 5-0 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps and that’s what will kill them in 2018 if they don’t address it with a smart signing.
Saying that, their first priority should be signing a strong centerback to pair with Florian Jungwirth. The German defender was far and away the club’s best throughout the season and, with a consistent partner, the Quakes could take a solid leap next season. Find a consistent centerback partnership, watch Nick Lima develop and go from there.
SPORTING KANSAS CITY
You know what you’re going to get from the Sporting KC defense. They’re the best in the league for a reason. You have two star centerbacks, the season’s most consistent goalkeeper and strong veteran fullbacks. That will win you games.
What they don’t have is an attacking difference-maker. There are talented pieces, sure, and players like Diego Rubio, Gerso and Latief Blessing are solid. However, there’s no true goalscorer, no player that you’d trust to go out and score a goal to win you a match. Sporting KC has a treasure chest of allocation money from the Dom Dwyer trade. They should use at least a chunk of it to bring in an elite No. 9 in a move that would open the door for the rest of the attacking unit.
That biggest question is whether the Whitecaps can hold onto Fredy Montero. Even as he approaches that backend of his career, the Colombian is still a top forward that has a point to prove in MLS. If they can get Montero back on a responsible deal, that’s a good start.
Let’s assume Montero does return. The Whitecaps still need someone to pass him the ball. Yordy Reyna is a piece, but the Whitecaps would do well to bring in a pure No. 10. With David Ousted and potentially Brek Shea and Jordan Harvey set to come off the books, they should have the money to bring in someone talented. The defensive midfield is locked up and an attack spearheaded by Montero, Reyna and a talented new addition would have the Whitecaps ready to compete again.