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Midfield questions remain – Equalizer Soccer

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Graphic by Jeff Kassouf, Equalizer Soccer

Catarina Macario will not be fit in time for the 2023 World Cup, Rose Lavelle has not played in going on two months, Taylor Kornieck just returned from an extended layoff, and Julie Ertz is only three league games into her comeback.

What exactly is the United States women’s national team’s midfield going to look like when the team kicks off its World Cup title defense against Vietnam on July 22?

Our latest installment of the USWNT Form Index looks at the central midfielders competing for roster spots. Nowhere do things seem more uncertain right now than in the middle of the park.

This series is an acknowledgment of the fluid nature of the roster right now. Rather than constantly updating a mock roster, we’re checking in on league form and player health, since those will drive decisions in June.

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Veterans or radical change? Five possible USWNT Gold Cup lineups – Equalizer Soccer

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Photo Copyright Jon Durr for USA TODAY Sports.

When was the last time the U.S. women’s national team’s starting XI was a true tabula rasa heading into a competitive tournament? Interim head coach Twila Kilgore, in consultation with head coach-elect Emma Hayes, has named a 23-player side for the inaugural Concacaf W Gold Cup where two, possibly three starting spots are guaranteed. The rest of the lineup is up for grabs. 

What’s more, this is the youngest U.S. roster in more than a decade. The ratio of 25-and-under players to 30-and-over players hasn’t been this large since the 2011 World Cup, and had Alana Cook not been injured, that ratio would have inched up further. The average age of 26.6 is also the lowest for a tournament squad in more than a decade. What had been suspected for months has now been confirmed: the U.S. is undertaking a massive generational transition. 

This is the perfect time to do it, too. The Concacaf W Gold Cup was developed to give sides in the confederation more competitive games. Placing the tournament in February and March allows for high-level preparation for the Olympics this summer. While the natural preseason flow has been disrupted for the 20 players plying their trade in the NWSL, the international benefits for these players are self-evident. 

So, what do Hayes and Kilgore want this team to be? Many things at once, one expects. Speaking at the team’s media day, the theme from the players was the same: the evolution for the side will be heightened tactical awareness, geared toward specific opponents. This jibes with what we know about Hayes in her dozen seasons at Chelsea. 

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Season Previews: LAFC, New England, Seattle

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The Vel-lesser of Two Evils

By Ben Bellman

LAFC had nearly the best possible season you can have after winning MLS Cup, making it to the final a second consecutive year and shining as the analytics darlings of the Western Conference. LAFC led their conference in both xG difference and xPoints, reflecting consistent dominance in generating and limiting opponents’ underlying shooting opportunities. Steve Cherundolo’s team achieved this success through a transition game that exploits speed and technical skill to get behind defenses. Much of this comes down to the brilliance of Denis Bouanga, who turned 14.5 xG worth of shots (4th in MLS in 2023) into 20 league goals to win the golden boot. But apart from Carlos Vela and Ryan Hollingshead, no one else on the roster was reliably putting the ball in the net. That will need to be the main point of improvement for the Black and Gold in 2024, and a flurry of outgoing and incoming moves will keep things exciting in SoCal. Does this top heavy and largely new roster have the depth to compete in every chance for a trophy?

2024 Depth Chart

If Carlos Vela doesn’t sign a new contract, LAFC will officially return less than half of their MLS minutes (and a little more than half of their raw g+) played in 2023, so this is a striking amount of turnover for such a successful season. This has been the pattern at the club, as players arrive with huge fanfare (a hat) and leave rather quickly if their contributions aren’t trending towards excellence. In addition, few of the incoming players have previous MLS experience, so ASA’s data is not much help here. However, don’t expect the team’s shape or game model to change much. Too many key pieces from 2023’s dominant team are still here for Cherundolo to reinvent the wheel. The main question is if the new players can match the execution of the departing starters, and improve over the departing depth players.

Goalkeepers

What do you do when you lose both keepers that started matches all the previous year in free agency? You sign a World Cup winner, of course! In true LAFC form, Hugo Lloris is joining on a $350k one year contract (plus two team options) on a free transfer from Tottenham Hotspur. Of course, Lloris is a France and Premier League legend and will steer the team with a confident hand, but it’s not so clear that he’ll be an enormous difference maker stopping shots in MLS at this stage in his career. He let in a decent number of goals more than expected his past two seasons in London, but there’s the chance that Premier League attackers are genuinely better at placing the ball on frame than MLS attackers. But I worry that Lloris will be more of a Gareth Bale outcome than a Giorgio Chiellini. They should probably sign another back-up keeper too, because he is almost 40!

Defenders

Speaking of Chiellini, Mike Imburgio’s net g+ app shows that he was an above average contributor in every facet of his game, and will be immensely difficult to replace after retiring. However, LAFC might be in the best position possible to handle this loss. First, they have Aaron Long, a long-time Nat and top center back free agent the previous offseason. True, his advanced metrics are not consistent year-to-year and are fairly average over his combined MLS career, but the same is true for nearly every MLS defender not named Giorgio Chiellini. LAFC also have Jesús Murillo, who has been with the team for four seasons and improved steadily since joining, generating at least average g+ per 96 in all six action types in 2023. This is likely to be a top MLS center back pairing in 2024.

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Ryan Hollingshead has been a top attacking threat from the fullback position for years, and his 2023 g+ wheel shows how effective he is at receiving the ball in valuable forward areas on top of his defensive work. LAFC is also adding 21-year-old Mexican international left back Omar Campos from Santos Laguna to start opposite Hollingshead. Sergei Palencia also played a decent amount of time at full back in 2023 and proved a capable player, if not statistically outstanding, so he’s likely to soak up those leftover minutes in 2024.

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Midfielders

LAFC’s midfield in 2023 was just what it needed to be: consistent and average. None of central midfielders stood out statistically in either direction, and apart from swapping Kellyn Acosta from Eduard Atuesta, it’s not changing either. Mateusz Bogusz, Timothy Tillman, Ilie Sánchez, and homegrown Erik Dueñas are all returning to the middle of the pitch, which bodes well for keeping the club’s success rolling and game model consistent despite high turnover elsewhere on the roster. Atuesta is an especially welcome addition because of his outstanding passing g+ throughout his first stint at LAFC from 2018-2021. Ilie is another year older, and it’s not clear how long he’ll be able to cover this much ground as a lone DM, so pulling Atuesta into a double pivot could help balance the middle from a defensive perspective. Quoth Cherundolo:

But while there will be rotation in personnel and responsibilities in the midfield, this group must keep a steady hand if LAFC is to weather such a big moment of change and maintain their excellence. I especially hope to see a breakout year from Bogusz, who seems like the next promising youth international (Poland) that could net a big transfer fee in the next couple summers out of the Western Conference. With the attacking talent LAFC has, he should have the perfect teammates to showcase his creative game.

Forwards

LAFC’s winger line is just ridiculous. First, Denis Bouanga made the entire offense tick in 2023 as a winger and scored 42% of his team’s goals. Then there’s Cristian Olivera, a 21-year-old Uruguayan winger that arrived in August, who now lines up opposite Bouanga on the right and could be even better (look how the beeswarm plot re-scales to include Olivera’s ridiculous number above Bouanga’s). Finally, they signed David Martínez this offseason, an 18-year-old Venezuelan youth international that is apparently regarded to be the future of their full national team. That’s their back-up winger.

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I’m shocked Carlos Vela hasn’t been re-signed yet, because he’s probably the perfect MLS player to play the lead forward in Cherundolo’s system. He is probably still the best passer in MLS apart from a guy named Messi, and played as a false nine all 2023 to make it work with these new sports cars racing down the flanks. Even if it does still happen, Vela hasn’t been in camp and won’t be fit to play for a few weeks after that point. Two players under 21, newcomer Tomás Ángel and homegrown Nathan Ordaz, will compete to fill this present roster void, and both have stat profiles that read like target forwards rather than a playmaking forward. This would mean that Bouanga will have many passing options as he drives at goal on the break. Will he elect to make those passes?

Potential Starting Lineup

Ok, so Vela hasn’t signed yet, but is there really a different MLS destination he wants to choose as the season kicks off? Can LAFC really afford to throw unproven youngsters in such a critical position all year in a keep-winning-now moment? I still think a one-year deal gets done before the spring window closes and LAFC will get plenty of points as Vela gets fit. Bogusz and Tillman will be the main battle for a starting spot, as both played about the same number of minutes in 2023 at the 8. Everyone else listed here is pretty much a lock as the best in that role.

2024 Outlook

If you didn’t read a word of this preview until this sentence, I still wouldn’t need to convince you that LAFC are probably the favorite to be Western Conference Champions for a third consecutive season, and that they’ll almost certainly be hosting the first leg in their best-of-three series in Fall 2024. I mean, look at that starting XI! Imagine your favorite non-LAFC team facing that team sheet in a final for a trophy. But… LAFC do not have any proven players in MLS beyond their first 14 roster spots. Their senior roster might be the thinnest in the league right now, especially in midfield and defense. If both Ilie and Atuesta are nursing injuries, will the Black and Gold just get run over in the center of the pitch until one of them is back? LAFC’s ceiling is clearly the highest of any team in MLS outside of Atlanta and Miami, but that floor was just rebuilt in a hurry, and has untested planks which might buckle at the worst possible moment. The team will need to find those answers from within over the course of the season to be ready.

Quote from Goalie scored on: What are you gonna do, score on me?

By Harrison Crow

2023 was… well, let’s just say we’re gonna use the word transition a lot here. From the … transition of goalkeepers to the transition of head coach(es). I mean, it wasn’t ideal in most respects but Carles Gil continues to be amazing and was a one man show at times carrying the team to the playoffs amid a hard dip in outcomes following the loss of Đorđe Petrović to a mid-season transfer.

Caleb Porter & The Young Guns

Porter was considered to be one of the new young managers in American soccer just 10 years ago. Yet despite leading two different teams to MLS Cup trophies, in Portland and then Columbus, he has now built a bit of a pattern and questions surround both his tactical flexibility and his ability to grow and utilize young talent. This is especially key as he takes the helm of an organization with two 18 year-old phenoms in Esmir Bajraktarevic and Noel Buck, not to mention a team younger than any he’s previously coached in MLS that is in a key time of… well, here we are again, transition.

Bajraktarevic looks ready to play key minutes but possibly behind the likes of Carles Gil, Dylan Borrero and Tomás Chancalay in the depth charts. It would be just as easy for Porter to stash him away and in the lost sight of progress and growth, chalk it up to him just being young and “needing time”. 

But realistically, with the way the MLS is changing and a new emphasis being placed on development of emerging talents, it’s up for Porter to find opportunities to showcase the skills Bajraktarevic is developing which have potential to be game changing and cost controlled.

While Porter has received credit for developing player’s at Akron, Portland and Columbus (guys like Darlington Nagbe and Aiden Morris both come to mind) he’s also shown more and more trepidation in utilizing younger players, choosing to find ways to shoehorn trusted aging players into new positions. 

Both Columbus and Portland saw a drop in their players’ average age following Porter’s dismissal. The organizations transitioned to younger player’s in key positions and in Columbus, Porter’s most recent stop, the younger player’s largely praised the difference in coaching and the trusting of young player’s by new head coach Wilfred Nancy. 

Porter is now inheriting a team that is set to be his youngest yet and while I’m not questioning if he can or can’t coach younger players I do think it’s fair to say he’s at least gravitated towards using them less. He’s now at a stop where developing and using them could decide his fate within the scope of MLS.

The Post Petrovic & Turner Defense

No this isn’t some weird legal strategy cooked up by James Spader in Boston Legal. But I would watch that… or at least steal it via tubi and post it on plex. Realistically, we’re talking about how exposed New England’s defense is now and the fact they haven’t yet lucked into a third straight elite game changing shot stopper in goal.

Going back to 2019, keepers Matt Turner and Đorđe Petrović are responsible for four of the top ten G-xG seasons for goalies going back to 2013. This isn’t just that they were good or even really good but what they did and the value they brought didn’t just carry the organization but changed them from potential playoff team to front runners of the conference and even set the record for most points (73) in a season

Last summer Đorđe Petrović followed Matt Turner to Europe leaving for Chelsea, and the lack of a third back-to-back elite goaltender left the defense a bit exposed. From the first game of 2020 to July 31st, 2023 New England were just 8th in goals allowed but sitting 19th overall in expected goals against in that same time frame and fourth in GD-xGD. Overall, they got huge amounts of value in continually being able to prevent and save goals that otherwise would have gone in.

After selling Petrovic in August the team was 21st in goals against and 15th in expected goals. Realistically the team didn’t get better at defense but rather most teams dropped in performance with the rough and tumble second half.

The team now is at a critical time where they can no longer be a below average defense and an average attack (their attack ranked 16th according to G+ for and 13th in xG for) in a tightly contested Eastern conference. Their struggles in the second half lead to 12 points out of a possible 33 in their final stretch.

The Revolution offseason acquisition of Henrich Ravas will most likely be an improvement upon last year’s experiment of choosing not to use Tomáš Vaclík in lieu of Earl Edwards which ended in a less than successful gamble. But we’ve seen extremely mixed league translation from Poland to MLS. Maybe New England have cracked the GK recruitment code, or maybe they’ve just gotten really lucky (and $27M richer for it).

A small light in the tunnel is that Henry Kessler should be returning this year for more significant minutes and should be improved CB depth behind Dave Romney and Andrew Farrell on the back line in front of goal. There are also the additions of Jonathan Mensah and Nick Lima. Neither are impact defenders at this point but both will bring valued depth especially later in the season.

Personally, the figure that for me could be a game changer in defense is 18 year old central midfielder Noel Buck. While his g+ score isn’t great he does have game changing talent and skills that could lead much in the way of West Coaster Josh Atencio with how he has grown and helped the Seattle defense in 2023.

This team is in need of someone, or someones, to step up on the defensive side. It doesn’t have to be in the same elite ways but improvement is needed either to prevent more shots and leverage or ways to block it and prevent those opportunities from being converted. A few small steps by key contributors could help this team move forward in a big way.

2024 Outlook

While Gil can nearly carry this team a long way, it’s up to the rest of the roster to really show if they can return to being a top of the conference team. The defense has to improve and the rest of the attack, sans Gil, needs two full turns to the left as their attack was languished at times in the second half last year.

The most likely outcome for them is a low seed playoff appearance with a road-home-road game schedule (assuming MLS uses the same playoff structure as last year). Could they be better? Certainly! Could they be worse and be bottom of the table, yeah, I could see that too. But with Charlotte, Chicago, DC and Red Bulls all messing around it’s not hard to see them safely settling in the medium of the back end of the playoff rotation.

Pike Place de la Vega

Seattle had a return to form in 2023 after missing playoffs in 2022 but it’s not as if they transformed into another team. They’re still the same old Sounders with elite defense and an attack as dangerous as ever. After losing to LAFC in the conference semi finals, and moving on from talismanic-attacker-representative-of-everything-Seattle Nico Lodeiro, there are some questions afoot!

Who or What is a Pedro De la Vega 

The Sounders went and did a thing this off-season acquiring a young winger from Argentina via a transfer from Lanus. We don’t have a ton of information on him but here is what we know courtesy of FBref, people seem to be excited. His best statistical comparables per FBRef are a bunch of not great wingers, with not great production, in not great leagues. Xande Silva, now of Atlanta, pops up in here and he’s been fine I guess. Certainly not pay millions of dollars good, but we’ll see.

We can start putting this all together and looking at the profile of these comparables to kind of gather an idea of what type of player he is in terms of approach. Obviously all of these player’s have various talent levels and skills they displayed for their various teams which all have their own unique tactics so it’s unfair, not to mention unrealistic, to derive how good he’s gonna be in MLS. But based on profiles we observe a few consistent features:

Wide/direct dribbler

This is something we’ve seen a lot from Sounders wingers the past six seasons going back to Joevin Jones. Brian Schmetzer and his coaching staff love a guy out wide who is capable of creating opportunities by carrying the ball forward. This is something that De la Vega did for Lanus and consistently collected numbers successful take-ons within the Primera División, unfortunately that’s largely a by product of how many he attempts and not his success rate, but still, the guy dribbles.

Two way creator

His profile is that of someone who works hard both on and off the ball. He is above average percentile in most defensive categories which means he’s at least working to win the ball back. He also pops up as 81st percentile for tackles in his own third. I haven’t watched every Lanus game for three years to scout this for you, so maybe they defend deep a lot, maybe he’s a committed defender who tracks back. Not to be out done he’s also still going to create. Yes, his shot creating actions and his expected numbers aren’t mind blowing but honestly his age and profile are very reminiscent of Facundo Torres who really found his way in 2023. 

It might be a year before de la Vega is an impact player but with Morris, Paulo, Rusnak and Roldan (not to mention a potentially healthy Raul) he just needs to be another source of heat to warm this attack. 

I think the biggest thing to remind yourself is that De la Vega is not going to be Lodeiro (Dear reader, this is a paragraph I’m talking to myself and you can probably skip to the next part if you want. I’m still going through something here), he has parts of his game that are definitely going to give you shades of Lodeiro. The ability to move forward in transition and quick counter press defense were two of the very best parts of what Lodeiro did on a consistent basis and I think you’ll see a fair bit of that in his game. But the magic moments of moving around in tight spaces at the top of the box, at least in the immediate time frame, are probably not going to be key aspects of his game. I think the immediate upside lines up better with a salve to the sometimes frustrating Leo Chu.

Jackson Ragen Is Legit

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I don’t think I really need to say anything here. He’s legit. He’s the future of this backline. A backline that last year was one of the statistical best in the league by g+ and expected goals standards. Not only that he’s capable of competing for defensive player of the year among the league defenders but going forward he has all the tools to be an impact player with the ball too.

2024 Outlook

Realistically the Sounders are a great team that not only has cap space right now but has young homegrown player’s starting to bud, grow and blossom. Jackson Regan, Josh Antencio, Obed Vargas, Danny Leyva and Reed Baker-Whiting. It’s not just built around young player’s but also with impact guys like Cristian Roldan, Jordan Morris and Joao Paulo that as a core can carry this team to a high floor. Add in Ruidiaz and Albert Rusnák as key potential part B) impact guys and then also this Pedro De la Vega fella and you have one hell of a team that has depth and floor.

Realistically this is a team that could and probably should fight for the Supporters Shield based on the fact that they’re in the Western Conference alone. A weak West and a tough East could give the Sounders an edge in competing. Also, welcome Danny Musovski who I’m stupid psyched to have here.





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Concacaf W Gold Cup preliminary matches set up group stage – Equalizer Soccer

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Brenda Cerén runs towards the camera with her arms out in celebration and a wide grin on her face.


Photo via Concacaf W Gold Cup

On Saturday, at Dignity Health Sports Park six different teams faced off in a battle for the final three spots in the group stage of the Concacaf W Gold Cup. In Carson, California each team played one win-and-advance match, hoping to move on to the competition’s next stage kicking off this Tuesday. Here is a quick recap of the results and what it means for each team moving on.

For more on the tournament and what there is to look forward to, check out The Equalizer’s five things to know about the 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup.

Guyana 0, Dominican Republic 1

The first game of the Concacaf W Gold Cup play-in round was also the first ever played between the sides. In the end, the Dominican Republic recorded the first victory between the two, earning themselves a place in Group A. Both sides had chances to score but the Dominican Republic took the lead in the 55th minute thanks to Kathryn González. The forward clinically dispatched a quality shot from outside the box immediately upon receiving the pass back from her teammate trying to recycle a corner attempt.

The eventual victors had multiple chances to increase their lead and generally dominated the game but couldn’t score another. One goal ended up being enough to advance the Dominicans to group-stage matches against the United States, Mexico, and Argentina. They will face the United States women’s national team first, opening their Group A play on Tuesday.

Haiti 0, Puerto Rico 1

There were high expectations for Haiti after their performance at the 2023 Women’s World Cup but Puerto Rico upset the favorites, earning the last spot in Group B. The game-winning goal came thanks to the penalty conversion by Jillienne Aguilera in the 41st minute. NWSL fans may recognize the goalscorer from the Chicago Red Stars but it was goalkeeper Sydney Martínez whose heroics ensured her goal was the winner. Martínez finished the game with 15 saves, including a penalty stop in the 74th minute on Nerilia Mondesir.

Puerto Rico will now face Brazil, Colombia, and Panama in the group stage. They will open group play against Brazil on Wednesday night at Snapdragon Stadium, the host of the 2023 NWSL Championship match, in San Diego, California.

El Salvador 3, Guatemala 1

The last ticket to the group stage was earned in dominant fashion by the Brenda Cerén led El Salvador women’s national team. Cerén scored a hat trick to guide her team to victory over Guatemala. She started the scoring early, netting the game’s first goal in just the 19th minute.

After a VAR review in the 36th minute, Guatemala were reduced to 10 players when Savianna Gomez had a yellow card upgraded to a red. Taking advantage of the situation, Cerén doubled the lead in first-half stoppage time with a composed finish in-behind the defense. The star of the night completed her hat trick in the 69th minute with a penalty conversion.

Despite the scoreline, Guatemala did not give up, scoring a stylish 77th minute goal to reduce the deficit. Ana Lucía Martínez showed off her ball control as she dribbled through defenders and fired a shot from distance just over the hands of the outstretched goalkeeper.

In the end, El Salvador secured the last spot in Group C alongside Canada, Costa Rica, and Paraguay. They will play their first group stage game against the Canadians on Thursday at the Shell Energy Stadium in Houston, Texas.





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