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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Joseph Lowery

MLS power rankings: Columbus have a Cucho Hernández problem

Columbus Crew forward Cucho Hernández has missed the team’s last two games.
Columbus Crew forward Cucho Hernández has missed the team’s last two games. Photograph: Jason Mowry/Getty Images

Welcome back to the Guardian’s MLS Power Rankings, where I have a beef with your specific team and your specific team alone. Unlike Cucho Hernández, we’re strapped in and ready rock.

Now, as a reminder, these aren’t your standard, run-of-the-mill power rankings. We’re still ranking teams from worst to first. But along with the rankings, we’re diving deep into a handful of teams from around the league who are doing particularly interesting things.

Can Matt Turner come home?

29. San Jose Earthquakes

28. New England Revolution

27. FC Dallas

26. Austin FC

25. Chicago Fire

24. New York City FC

Only two teams remain winless in MLS play: the Seattle Sounders, who find themselves slightly higher up the rankings given all of their injury issues, and the New England Revolution. Things are bad in New England. Like, the most fun part of our season was when we dumped a foam crate of “tea” on to the ground bad.

The Revs have only one point through five games, just got smacked 4-0 in a record defeat at home by Club América in the quarter-finals of the Concacaf Champions Cup, and are staring right down the barrel of a lost season. There are plenty of problems plaguing Caleb Porter’s team. Without a reliable scoring option, almost all of Carles Gil’s chance creation magic has been wasted. They’ve tried to press for stretches this season: according to Opta, they’re fifth in MLS in Passes Per Defensive Action. But the Revs lack the necessary coordination against the ball to avoid leaking chances.

The biggest problem for New England, especially in the afterglow of their Supporters’ Shield-winning 2021 season, has come in goal.

Coming into this year, five of the 30 best shot-stopping campaigns in American Soccer Analysis’ database (which goes back to 2013) were from Revolution goalkeepers. Djordje Petrović’s 2022 season puts him in the top spot in terms of goals saved above expected. His 2023 campaign landed in the 28th spot. Matt Turner’s 2019, 2020, and 2021 seasons come in at fifth, sixth and 14th.

This year? The Revs don’t have an elite shot-stopper. They don’t even have a clear starter. Henrich Ravas started the first several games before being benched in the last two matches in favor of Earl Edwards Jr, who struggled mightily after Petrović left for the Premier League midway through last season.

“I’ve said it, Ravas has been inconsistent. I think everybody’s seen it,” Porter said earlier this week. “Ravas was gone for 11 days [with Slovakia], didn’t play at all as well, so we just thought it was the right thing to do,” he added.

Turner hasn’t been playing with Nottingham Forest. The Revolution would sure like it if he made his way back across the Atlantic.

A new era in Charlotte

23. Colorado Rapids

22. Seattle Sounders

21. Nashville SC

20. St. Louis City

19. Charlotte FC

18. Orlando City

It’s no secret that Charlotte FC are a much different team this year than in their first two seasons in MLS.

On the field, new manager Dean Smith has simplified Charlotte’s tactical approach. Gone are the fluid possession rotations and man-oriented defensive makeup that Christian Lattanzio attempted to install last year. In their place, Smith has brought in transition attacking play and more selective defensive pressure. But change in North Carolina isn’t limited to Smith’s tactical approach. No, there’s also been a significant reshuffling on the personnel side of the equation.

Shedding dead weight while adding more talent to the squad was always a priority for Smith and Charlotte – and they’ve done just that. Gone are two of Charlotte FC’s Designated Players from last season in Karol Świderski, a useful attacking piece but largely one without a position, and Kamil Jóźwiak, a completely underwhelming addition who serves as the largest demerit on general manager Zoran Krneta’s spotty transfer record.

There’s plenty more work to do before the club becomes a real trophy threat, but adding Liel Abada as a DP from Celtic is an encouraging sign. The 22-year-old tallied 33 goal contributions across his 4,100 league minutes with the Scottish giants. Abada made his MLS debut in Charlotte’s most recent match, a 1-1 draw with FC Cincinnati, and drew a yellow card with his very first involvement. With good speed, off-ball movement, and an excellent right foot, Abada should give Charlotte FC something they’ve never had: a truly goal-dangerous winger.

Eight points through six games is far from a sensational start. But there’s more clarity and talent inside the club than ever before.

Analytics darlings

17. Toronto FC

16. Sporting Kansas City

15. Portland Timbers

14. Minnesota United

13. CF Montréal

12. DC United

I have a great (read: bad) idea for a super fun (read: amusing, at best) game called “which MLS team has the best expected goal differential”. Want to give it a go? Great. Toss out your first guess.

Nope, it’s not the LA Galaxy from their perch on top of the Supporters’ Shield standings. It’s not one of the Ohio teams. It’s not Inter Miami or the new-look New York Red Bulls, either. No, according to FBref, the expected goal differential king through the first month and change of the 2024 MLS season is Troy Lesesne’s DC United.

Yes, DC’s xGD is inflated by their big opening weekend win over the New England Revolution. The Revs played most of that game with 10 men and, as noted, have a slew of their own issues right now. Still, DC United have been incredibly impressive relative to expectations through their first six games of the year. It has to feel good to be on nine points and in eighth place out East after many folks – myself included – predicted you to finish near the bottom of your conference.

CF Montréal manager Laurent Courtois called DC “the most competitive team we’ve met so far” after losing 1-0 on Saturday. What is it that makes DC special?

Their press plays a huge role. Lesesne, in his first full year as a manager in MLS, has instituted the most aggressive press in the league. According to Opta, DC press more outside their own defensive third than any other team in MLS and have created more shots via high turnovers than all but three other teams. Lesesne has so much buy-in that even 33-year-old Christian Benteke is involved off the ball.

In possession, DC move upfield quicker than most teams in MLS. Direct attacking is often a byproduct of high pressing, after all. But between Benteke, Mateusz Klich, Ted Ku-DiPietro, and a few others, they have a sort of easy quality on the ball about them.

While a lack of true goal threat outside Benteke is a concern moving forward, no team in MLS wants to square up with DC United right now. That’s a big step forward after finishing 12th in the East in 2023.

Strikers are on the move

11. LAFC

10. Houston Dynamo

9. Vancouver Whitecaps

8. Philadelphia Union

7. Real Salt Lake

6. LA Galaxy

There’s a fun new trend popping up around MLS: Strikers aren’t really playing like traditional No 9s. Instead, players like Seattle’s Raúl Ruidíaz, Montreal’s Josef Martínez, and Real Salt Lake’s Chicho Arango are popping up in deeper positions. For Ruidíaz and Martínez, two legendary forwards who have lost a step after major injuries, the shift transitions them to an auxiliary goalscoring role. They can’t lead the line as efficiently as they could five years ago, but they can still find space in the box and keep possession moving with their subtle on-ball skill.

Here’s Ruidíaz for Seattle against Colorado:

And here’s Martínez doing the same for Montreal against Miami:

Arango, still 29, relatively injury-free, and in his goal scoring prime, is in a different bucket compared to those other two strikers. For the Colombian, it’s not that he can’t lead the line for RSL. It’s that Pablo Mastroeni wants him in positions to get on the ball more often as his team shifts towards being ever-so-slightly more comfortable in possession.

With five goals in six games and a hat-trick against St. Louis on Saturday while playing underneath a line-stretching forward, Arango looks more than comfortable in this new role.

Shifting him wider and a little deeper won’t be the right fit against every opponent – and Mastroeni hasn’t used it in every game – but it paid off against St. Louis. With star midfielder Pablo Ruiz out for the year with yet another injury, finding extra touches for Arango is critical. So far, he’s sitting at 35.6 touches per 90, according to FBref, which is up from his 30.7 with RSL last season.

Culture, complications, and the Crew

5. Atlanta United

4. New York Red Bulls

3. Inter Miami

2. FC Cincinnati

1. Columbus Crew

“Team policy.”

That’s the reason Columbus manager Wilfried Nancy gave when asked why star forward Cucho Hernández wasn’t in the team for the Crew’s 2-2 draw with Nashville SC last weekend. Cucho, an MVP candidate, wasn’t in the game day squad for his team’s 1-1 draw with Tigres in the Concacaf Champions Cup on Tuesday night, either.

Likely stemming from an outburst after being substituted off against Charlotte FC (the game prior to Columbus’ clash with Nashville), Nancy isn’t taking any chances when it comes to preserving his team’s culture. He has priors with this sort of vague discipline. Regular starter Darlington Nagbe wasn’t in the lineup for a Crew game last April. When asked why, Nancy responded, “Darlington knows why.” Nagbe’s suspension only lasted 63 minutes before he came off the bench in that 1-0 loss to Charlotte.

But with Cucho and his two-game absence? We’re in uncharted territory. Obviously, Nancy would’ve loved to have his best player on the field against Tigres, the best team in this region. But he decided against playing Hernández and his team only scored one goal, while giving up an away goal, making next week’s task in Monterrey a massive one.

Nancy is playing with fire. But he believes that there’s more to be lost by holding his star player to a lower standard than the rest of his team than there is to be gained by playing him. For a manager who’s barely put a foot wrong since arriving in MLS, it’s hard to argue too much with his choices. Nancy has lived and died by his coaching philosophy in Columbus, and the team’s 2023 MLS Cup says there’s been a lot more living than dying. Still, hamstringing your team’s Champions Cup hopes is a gutsy play.

For the sake of Crew fans, let’s hope this whole situation blows over. I’m betting it will. But if not, everything is about to change in Columbus.

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