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Armchair Analyst: Where every MLS team stands with their No. 9

MLS is back in the MLS is Back Tournament, which starts less than two weeks from now. And all of this feels kind of like preseason, and preseason is a time for (re)familiarizing one’s self not just with one’s own team, but the rest of the league as a whole. And the biggest question most fans have about most teams out there is “who’s going to be putting the ball in the net?”

Let’s take a look at every team’s starting striker, grouping them into buckets (not tiers!) with an eye on 2020 expectations, the team’s commitment to said No. 9 as a starter and internal competition.

Away we go:

We Just Went Shopping For This Guy

A pretty crazy amount of teams went shopping for a new center forward in the offseason. These seven came back with guys who are locked-in starters, though some are more locked in than others.

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez – LA Galaxy

  • Team Commitment Level: Something above 100%
  • Expectation Level: Something approaching Best XI

Chicharito‘s probably no longer the best forward in Concacaf, but he’s still the most famous and beloved. He’s also still in his prime – though at the tail end – and all of that is why the Galaxy went out and got him this winter as the replacement for Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

There is no Plan B here. Chicharito could go scoreless for the entire tournament and whatever comes afterward, and he will keep getting starts every single week. The pressure will be on his coach and his teammates to get him better service (which they uniformly failed to do in the first two games of 2020), not on him.

Other Options: Ethan Zubak is the only other center forward on the roster.

Jurgen Locadia – FC Cincinnati

  • Team Commitment Level: Something above 100%
  • Expectation Level: Best XI? Maybe MVP-caliber?

Is it crazy to expect that much from Locadia? Perhaps. But he’s 26 and just two-and-a-half years ago was sold for almost $20 million to an English Premier League team, and was on the fringes of the full Netherlands national team roster. How many MLS players have been sold for $20 million? How many MLS players have been on the fringes of a top-10 national team’s roster? It’s not a lot.

Locadia obviously didn’t work out in England, which is why he’s here. But Josef Martinez didn’t work out in Italy, but he’s been pretty good in MLS, right? That’s how things often go.

If FC Cincy doesn’t melt down around him (always a huge if, it seems), it’s not outlandish to expect a Martinez-like MLS career from Locadia, whose loan has been extended to next summer, and who has said all the right things about wanting to be in Cincinnati.

Other Options: Youngsters Brandon Vazquez and Rashawn Dally are both there, and Vazquez at least counts as a “young veteran.” He’s just 21, but he’s already been a pro for nearly half a decade. There’s also DP Yuya Kubo, who’s generally been more comfortable as a forward throughout his career, though seems destined to play as an inverted left midfielder in MLS.

Alan Pulido – Sporting KC

  • Team Commitment Level: 100%
  • Expectation Level: In the Golden Boot race

For nearly 10 years everyone who’s watched this league closely has said “imagine if you gave Peter Vermes a checkbook to go out and get a big-time striker to lead that line.” Last winter Sporting‘s brass gave Vermes a checkbook to go out and get a big-time striker to lead the line. In 173 minutes Pulido provided 2g/1a and plenty of encouraging all-around play for his new team.

There were concerns, of course. Pulido twice won the Liga MX Golden Boot, but a disproportionate number of his goals came from the spot and off of set pieces, and the advanced stats didn’t love him. He also had some well-publicized off-field incidents and, uh, he should drive slower.

So yeah, Pulido’s in his prime, cost millions of dollars, and looks like he’s worth every penny. He’ll start as long as he’s committed and productive. But here’s the thing: this is Vermes we’re talking about. If that commitment slips, the bench is waiting.

Other Options: Khiry Shelton is back and starting on the right wing, but he’s played as a center forward in MLS in the past, including for the excellent 2018 Sporting team. Erik Hurtado‘s also in the mix. 

Lucas Cavallini – Vancouver Whitecaps

  • Team Commitment Level: Something above 100%
  • Expectation Level: Relentless work rate and all-star caliber play

Cavallini is an inelegant sort on the field, but it doesn’t matter given how effective he’s been for club and country. He’s 27, can play as a lone center forward or as part of a two-man front line, is instantly one of the best defensive forwards in the league, and he’s Canadian. And, by the way, Vancouver splashed what’s easily a club-record transfer fee for him. They went to Mexico to do so, buying him from Puebla, and frankly that’s pretty smart: myriad Liga MX attackers have transferred seamlessly from south of the Rio Grande into MLS over the past half-decade.

In a normal year I think it would be fair to hope for something around or even above 15 goals from Cavallini, though that understates his all-around contribution. He’s a tone and tempo-setter, and a leader and irritant. ‘Caps fans are right to hope for big things from him.

Other Options: Veteran Fredy Montero is back, as is youngster Theo Bair. But it was another Canadian veteran, Tosaint Ricketts, who started up top with Cavallini in the second game of the season. It’s not clear if there will be more two-forward lineups coming from Vancouver in the future.

Adam Buksa – New England Revolution

  • Team Commitment Level: Unquestioned starter
  • Expectation Level: All-star caliber

Bruce Arena has always used his Designated Player spots on stars, so it’s fair to say that he believes Buksa is on his way toward becoming a star. The big, 23-year-old Polish target forward wasn’t a star in his home country’s league, but was considered more a youngish work-in-progress with a ton of potential. Nobody expects him to be the next Robert Lewandowski, but nobody would be all that surprised if he became part of the group of players who collectively try to fill Lewandowski’s shoes after the 2022 World Cup (which is, I’m guessing, when he’ll retire from international play).

All of that is to say that I’m surprised the Revs went out and got a guy who’s even a little bit of a project, since that’s just not Bruce’s way. But times can change and so can coaches, and through two games Buksa showed some very good things in the box. He’ll keep starting.

Other Options: Veteran Teal Bunbury, who’s spent most of his recent time on the wing, is the only other player on the roster who’s played much center forward at the professional level.

EDIT: To be clear, I didn’t even consider mentioning Gustavo Bou. Dude’s a second striker, not a 9.

Robert Beric – Chicago Fire FC

  • Team Commitment Level: Unquestioned starter
  • Expectation Level: Dominant target forward in the Kacsper Przybylko mold

Beric was nowhere near as high-profile as the other center forwards Chicago were linked with, a list that included Chicharito. But through two games he looked the part of a big, hard-working and clever target man who can occupy defenders and create space underneath for the host of attacking midfielders now on the Fire’s roster.

Nobody really expects Beric to become a household name, and that’s fine since his main job is to help the team function better as a whole. The returns were promising after 180 minutes.

Other Options: Veteran CJ Sapong is the back-up here, with little-used Elliot Collier the deep reserve.

Luis Amarilla – Minnesota United

  • Team Commitment Level: He’s earned it
  • Expectation Level: He’ll keep earning it

Amarilla arrived with a bang, promising 25 goals in MLS after a dominant season in Ecuador with Universidad Catolica. He’s obviously not going to hit that number, but through two games he was clearly more than just talk with 2g/1a as the Loons posted a pair of dominant wins.

But unlike the other guys on this list (save Locadia, who’s a special circumstance), Amarilla’s here on loan. Minnesota haven’t made the big move for him yet, and he’s also got the job in front of Mason Toye – the uber-talented 21-year-old whose summertime hot streak saved the season and pushed the team to the playoffs.

There is, in other words, real competition. Amarilla’s the guy I’d bet on having the job through the tournament and beyond, but he’ll have day-to-day pressure to earn it in a way the guys listed above him don’t.

Other Options: In addition to Toye there’s veteran journeyman Aaron Schoenfeld, who actually came off the bench ahead of Toye twice this year to help close out games.

Veteran Holdovers

Some have been around for a while, and some for just a year or less. You know them and you love (or hate) them. These are the MLSers who we looked at at the end of last season and said “yeah, he’s the starter” and we’re looking at now and saying “yeah, he’s the starter.”

Jozy Altidore – Toronto FC

  • Team Commitment Level: Something above 100%
  • Expectation Level: Dominant force in the biggest moments

This is Jozy‘s sixth season in Toronto and he’s topped 2000 regular-season minutes just once. Not an issue this year for obvious reasons, but still, it’s pretty clear he’s never, ever going to be a “toss him out there week after week for 90 after 90” type of center forward. TFC have tried to navigate that during his entire tenure.

The goal is always to get and keep him healthy for the playoffs. His performance in the 2016 postseason was spectacular – a top-five playoff run in league history. In 2017 he was mostly nursing an injury, but still scored the series-winning goal vs. the Crew in the Eastern Conference final, and then scored the game-winning goal in MLS Cup. In 2019 he was injured again, but hobbled around out there for the final 20 minutes of MLS Cup and scored a consolation goal.

Jozy starts if he’s healthy, and TFC become one of the favorites to win this thing.

Other Options: Veteran Patrick Mullins and Homegrown youngster Ayo Akinola are both still around, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s actually rookie winger Achara who will be Jozy’s primary backup. Achara would be a very different look, as he’d be expected to play off the back shoulder and stretch the field rather than be a hold-up fulcrum.

I’m ruling out Alejandro Pozuelo as a false 9, which is what TFC did in last year’s playoffs. I just don’t think it’s going to happen like that again.

Raul Ruidiaz – Seattle Sounders

  • Team Commitment Level: Something above 100%
  • Expectation Level: Big goals in big moments

In 3071 regular-season minutes Ruidiaz has 22g/4a, which is very, very good. Parse that out to a per-90 average and you’re looking at something pretty close to a Best XI-caliber season.

In 600 postseason minutes Ruidiaz has 7g/4a, which is game-breakingly absurd. Don’t even bother parsing that out to a per-90 average because it’s just ridiculous. The man has scored or assisted (and occasionally both!) in every playoff game he’s played across two postseasons. He’s already a legend in Seattle, and even if he never played another game in Rave Green, he’d stay a legend for decades to come.

He’s the starter.

Other Options: Will Bruin is back healthy, is the obvious back-up to Ruidiaz, and an option to pair up top in goal-desperate situations. USL journeyman Justin Dhillon and Homegrown youngster Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez are further down the depth chart. Beyond that it’s a good bet that Jordan Morris might remember something about how to play the position.

Heber – NYCFC

  • Team Commitment Level: Obvious first choice
  • Expectation Level: We sure hope he replicates 2019!

The 28-year-old Brazilian was one of the best acquisitions of last year, and his boxscore stats (15g/4a in 1575 minutes) matched the eye test, which said he was an absolutely superb center forward. NYCFC picked up points at damn near a Supporters’ Shield-winning pace when he was out there, and while the advanced numbers didn’t love him quite as much as the boxscore numbers and on/off splits, I don’t think I’m alone in considering the 2019 version of Heber to be in the group with Altidore and Ruidiaz.

Heber then started off 2020 by becoming the first MLS player to score a hat-trick in the Concacaf Champions League. Ever.

He’s a mobile, clever and ruthless delight to watch on the field. Like Altidore, however, he’s got to stay healthy.

Other Option: NYCFC have proven depth. It comes in the form of young Argentine attacker Taty Castellanos, who put up 11g/7a last year while mostly playing as a center forward. There’s a real question as to whether or not that’s his best spot (he’s also played underneath and on the wing), but little question of whether he can do it at an adequate level. He clearly can.

Mauro Manotas – Houston Dynamo

  • Team Commitment Level: Obvious first choice (until he’s sold)
  • Expectation Level: What we saw in 2018

You could argue that Manotas took a step forward in 2019 in terms of becoming a more dynamic, complete center forward. He’s learned to head the ball, he’s better at battling center backs in the trenches and his link-up play has improved steadily and almost linearly. Manotas is a better all-around soccer player than he was two years ago, and the numbers – 13g/8a in 2019 vs. 19g/1a in 2018 – kind of bear that out if you want to play it from that angle.

But Manotas in 2018 was a direct-to-goal blur off the ball in a way that he kind of wasn’t in 2019. Maybe that was just the changing nature of his game combined with Houston‘s struggles, but with Alberth Elis still there and Darwin Quintero newly arrived (these are two of the premier chance creators in MLS), Mauro’s just got to live in the box. He could be devastating.

And then Houston could sell him for many, many millions of dollars. They’ve nearly done so already multiple times.

Other Options: Christian Ramirez is a former double-digit goalscorer who’s still in his prime. That’s a very nice luxury option for Tab Ramos. There’s also little-used youngster Ronaldo Pena who could conceivably get on the field.

Gyasi Zardes – Columbus Crew SC

  • Team Commitment Level: Obvious first choice
  • Expectation Level: 90 minutes of no-frills competence

It was always weird to me that Zardes was played in midfield so often by so many different coaches (Jurgen Klinsmann, Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid) when it was so obvious that doing so emphasized his weaknesses (close control and passing vision) while minimizing his strengths (a knack for one-touch finishes in the box).

Anyway, when Zardes scored 16 goals as a center forward in 2014 it was all because of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. And then when he scored 19 goals in 2018 it was all because of Gregg Berhalter’s system and the playmaking of Pipa Higuain. And then when he scored 13 goals in 2019 it was because of… what, exactly?

Here’s what: Zardes is a solid, no-frills center forward who makes the right runs, does so at a sprint (more important than you think) and mostly finishes the chances he should finish. Nobody’s going to write poems about him, but at some point productivity becomes inarguable.

Other Options: Columbus got Fanendo Adi for a song after his one unhappy year up the road in Cincy, and he’s the polar opposite of Gyasi in that his hold-up play is his strength and he frequently struggles to get his footing for one-touch finishes. He’s just not been that kind of striker, but he sure makes sense as a low-cost back-up. Veteran Jordan Hamilton and SuperDraft pick Miguel Berry are both further down the depth chart.

Kacper Przybylko – Philadelphia Union

  • Team Commitment Level: His spot to lose
  • Expectation Level: Do 2019 again

There are no sacred cows in Chester. Whether you’re a young, high-upside academy center back (Mark McKenzie) or a veteran ironman midfielders (Haris Medunjanin), you’re one bad spell away from being on the bench or even wearing someone else’s colors. That applies across the board, including to Przybylko, who rumbled and thundered his way to 15g/4a in last year’s regular season before a broken foot sidelined him for the playoffs.

That’s a worry given that Przybylko’s had a lengthy list of injuries through his career. But he was healthy and played all 180 minutes to start the season, so it’s a good bet he’ll be out there again this summer.

Other Options: The Union seem intent upon going with a “one big, one little” two-man front line, and if it’s not Przybylko it’ll be veteran Andrew Wooten as the big man. Wooten arrived in the middle of last year, but struggled to make a difference in limited minutes.

Kei Kamara – Colorado Rapids

  • Team Commitment Level: He’s on the clock
  • Expectation Level: Father Time could intercede any moment now…

Kei is 35, and last year scored double-digit goals for the third straight season and sixth time in his career. His 127 career goals have brought him up to fifth on the all-time MLS scoring charts, and – I’m not kidding here – his 114 career non-penalty goals are second all-time, tied with both Jeff Cunningham and Landon Donovan behind Chris Wondolowski (134 non-penalty goals; 159 overall).

Kei is still doing it at 35, and both his hold-up play and aerial dominance (especially on set pieces) are essential to the Rapids‘ identity. He’s played over 30,000 career minutes, but has somehow stayed young. They need him to keep staying young.

Other Options: Diego Rubio quietly had a productive 2019, though more often played underneath rather than as a true No. 9. Andre Shinyashiki spent a lot of time playing as a fox-in-the-box center forward in college, but has been a winger or a second forward for the Rapids. 

There really is no chance at replicating what Kei does, especially with Niki Jackson out injured.

Ola Kamara – D.C. United

  • Team Commitment Level: Solid
  • Expectation Level: Solid

Poor Ola. When he got to Columbus he was behind Kei, and had to wait to get his chance. When he got it he took it, but then got dealt to LA for Zardes, which… fine. Being the starting No. 9 for the Galaxy should be cool.

Except then the Galaxy went out and got Zlatan and Ola was no longer the starting No. 9. He still managed to contribute double-digit goals from the wing, which was great. And then he got sold overseas and got a nice pay bump out of it, which was also great. But he was back in MLS less than a year later, this time with D.C. United, and once again not really playing as a No. 9 since D.C. were trying to accommodate the last days of Wazza.

But then Rooney left, and Ola was the obvious (and for a long while, only) center forward on the team. He would once again get his chance to prove he could be among the goal-scoring elite. And of course he got injured just 15 minutes into United’s second game of the season. Nothing’s been easy for the poor guy. 

He’s the starter going into this thing, without question. But things have a way of going wrong for Ola, so keep an eye on him.

Other Options: 20-year-old Estonian international Erik Sorga is the only other center forward on the roster, so it’s not like Ola’s competing against Kei or Zlatan for minutes here.

Don’t Make Us Buy a DP 9

Young attackers get very few chances to make their case, and have to grab it with both hands when it pops up. There are a couple of teams playing that game right now, and a couple of others trying to make do with a rotating cast of mismatched veterans.

Robbie Robinson & Julian Carranza – Inter Miami CF

  • Team Commitment Level: Pretty serious
  • Expectation Level: Pretty questionable

Everybody knows that Miami have kept their powder dry on their third DP slot, and as long as they haven’t used that the usual names will keep cropping up as potential targets, with Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez the two big ones. They were reportedly very, very close to signing Roger Martinez as a center forward back in the winter until things fell apart.

But they’ve already made significant investments in Robinson (the No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick) and Carranza ($6 million for the Argentina youth national teamer). Getting a DP center forward to play over them makes absolutely no sense from a roster management and ROI standpoint. I persist in my belief that they’ll spend that DP slot on a midfielder instead.

That’s just “my belief” and not an actual fact, though. Robinson and Carranza – one or both – have to convince that they can be No. 9s for a team that aspires to win trophies both domestically and continentally, and that they have what it takes to be sold on for many millions of dollars.

Those are the table stakes here. If neither proves up to it, then I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Miami’s DP priorities changed.

Other Options: Veteran journeymen Juan Agudelo and Jerome Kiesewetter can both play some center forward, though neither have ever done it and delivered consistently.

Brian White & Tom Barlow – New York Red Bulls

  • Team Commitment Level: Tenuous
  • Expectation Level: All-out effort

White and Barlow combined for 13g/2a in about 2100 minutes of MLS regular-season play last year, which is a per-90 return about in line with an above-average MLS center forward. White got the bulk of those minutes, but then when he went down to injury Barlow stepped in and delivered pretty admirably (including in the playoffs).

Neither guy was hyped at the youth levels, and though White was a star in college he was hardly considered a can’t-miss prospect. But both came through the NYRB II USL meat-grinder and understand the system on both sides of the ball, and both have kept delivering as they’ve climbed the ladder.

That’s why it was, quite frankly, not believable when the Red Bulls were linked to a $5 million move for a League One striker earlier this month. Spending that much money on a guy from a pub league when you’ve already got two cheap, productive and young-ish players at the same spot? That makes zero sense.

Let’s treat it like it was real, though, because while White and Barlow were productive last year, that was last year. Both guys have to go out their and earn their keep every single practice, and then reinforce it in every single game, or a change will come.

Other Options: 19-year-old Dane Mathias Jorgensen – whom RBNY spent seven figures upon last winter – improved as the USL season went on in 2019, though he appeared to be a clear third-choice behind White and Barlow in 2020 preseason. He’s got real “two years away” energy.

Bojan Krkic? Maxi Urruti? Other? – Montreal Impact

  • Team Commitment Level: Ever-changing
  • Expectation Level: Chaos

Thierry Henry’s got a team and a roster in flux. Thus far, between MLS and CCL play, they’ve taken the field five times. In four of them they’ve played a 5-4-1, with Krkic as a false 9 twice, Urruti as a true-ish 9 once and Anthony Jackson-Hamel as a true target forward once. One time they played a 3-5-2 – that came in their only outing with newly arrived DP d-mid Victor Wanyama – with Urruti up top with Romell Quioto. That also happens to be the only game of the five they’ve lost.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet on Urruti and Krkic getting multiple run-outs together as a striker pairing in that 3-5-2, even if it ends up looking more like a 5-3-2. But there are a half-dozen wingers on this team who get benched by that formation, and it’s not like Bojan or Urruti have the scoring records in MLS or elsewhere to justify building the lineup around them.

It’s a weird roster. Everything’s in play.

Other Options: Jackson-Hamel is a true target forward who’s never been consistent enough to earn starter’s minutes, and Quioto, as mentioned, can play as a second forward. I suppose guys like Lassi Lappalainen and Orji Okwonkwo can as well, though we haven’t seen it yet.

Anyway, did I mention that Montreal have a DP slot open? You should know that: Montreal have a DP slot open. That’s why they’re in this bucket.

Dom Badji – Nashville SC

  • Team Commitment Level: Low
  • Expectation Level: Low

The truth is that Badji has probably already seen his best shot at winning Nashville‘s starting job trickle wide of the post. The veteran started the first two games of the season, registered only two shots and was subbed out of both contests despite the fact that his side was still chasing a goal both times. That’s not a great sign about your long-term prospects as the team’s starting striker.

Other Options: The good news for Badji is that there’s nothing close to a sure thing, MLS-caliber starter elsewhere on the depth chart. Daniel Rios, who tore up USL with Nashville the past couple of years, is probably next in line to get onto the field (he played 22 minutes over the first two games) and on paper he has the physical make-up to play the role. But “on paper” doesn’t always translate.

The third man on the depth chart is 2017’s No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Abu Danladi, who’s probably not a center forward and is unlikely to stay healthy long enough for anyone to figure it out for real.

Nashville have been heavily linked to 21-year-old Argentine center forward Maxi Romero of PSV, who would almost certainly require a DP slot. Chances are that Rios has a very small window – if any at all – to prove to the decision-makers that they shouldn’t make that move.

A Temporary Assignment

Josef‘s hurt. This job is about keeping things warm until he gets back.

Adam Jahn – Atlanta United

  • Team Commitment Level: Thin ice
  • Expectation Level: Low

Jahn is a career back-up who’s now expected to step into the XI in place of the most consistent and dominant center forward in league history. Good luck.

It’s patently obvious that there is no replacing Josef Martinez, and if there was, Jahn wouldn’t be the guy to do it. He’s got soft feet and a lot of confidence, but he doesn’t play the game the same way Josef does, and the best hope for Atlanta is that he can create some nice combos with Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez.

If Jahn doesn’t deliver, though, it’s hard to imagine they’d have any sort of hesitation in making a change.

Other Options: JJ Williams was a Generation adidas SuperDraft pick in 2019 who was released in 2020, then picked up for free by Atlanta when Josef did his ACL. Williams is a giant of a center forward who was reasonably productive during a USL loan last year, though he didn’t set the league afire by any means.

If not him or Jahn, then it’ll be a false 9.

Welcome To Thunderdome

These are the all-out brawls to win the starting job. Some have clear favorites, while others significantly less so. What happens this summer could have wide-ranging and long-term implications.

Adama Diomande – LAFC

  • Team Commitment Level: Game-to-game
  • Expectation Level: If healthy… high

Bob Bradley is the Dio whisperer. The 30-year-old Norwegian’s most productive years – by far – have come when playing for Bradley. That includes the past year-and-a-half in MLS, where he’s put up 20g/11a in 2700 regular-season minutes when not injured or suspended. He’s also got two playoff goals in just 68 minutes.

In other words Dio has been a best XI-caliber player when available, and LAFC are obscenely good when he’s on the field. But he’s 30 and injury prone and LAFC, who were one-deep at center forward last year after trading Christian Ramirez, are now four-deep at center forward. They also have the added complication of three DPs (Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez) for two wing spots.

Things here are in motion.

Other Options: Adrien Perez and Danny Musovski are little-known quantities from the lower leagues, while Bradley Wright-Phillips is an extremely well-known quantity who arrived this offseason for free after an injury-plagued 2019 ended his legendary career with the Red Bulls.

If healthy, it wouldn’t shock me if BWP meshed well enough with Vela and Rossi to win the starting job. Equally unsurprising would be if Bradley decided to eschew a traditional center forward all together and start all three of Vela, Rossi and Rodriguez in LAFC’s 4-3-3.

Jaroslaw Niezgoda – Portland Timbers

  • Team Commitment Level: Uncertain
  • Expectation Level: He’s a DP

Niezgoda was better than Buksa in the Polish league, and Buksa looked pretty good in his two games for the Revs, so by the transitive property… yeah, we all know it doesn’t work like that. But Niezgoda was on a heater in Poland with 14g in a touch under 1100 minutes, which is the kind of productivity that gets you sold for around $4 million.

So Portland bought him for $4 million this winter. There were some issues on his physical to account for, which is part of why he didn’t feature in the first two games of the season. But if he’s healthy and fit (which is reportedly the case), he’s probably got the inside track on the starting job.

Other Options: Felipe Mora had a pretty unhappy run at Pumas, which is how he ended up at Portland on loan this offseason. He was in the starting lineup for both of Portland’s games back in March, and while he managed only two shots and zero goals (not great for a No. 9!) it’s hard to pin any of Portland’s early struggles on him. His track record suggests he should be competent at the very least in MLS if Niezgoda doesn’t win the job.

Jeremy Ebobisse has proven his competence over the past two years, though Portland’s decision to spend money on two mid-20s players at his position this offseason doesn’t bode well for his chances at winning this battle for playing time. Gio Savarese might see him as a winger anyway.

Zdenek Ondrasek – FC Dallas

  • Team Commitment Level: He’s in a fight for his job
  • Expectation Level: Better keep scoring

Ondrasek has started both games this year for Dallas, putting up 2g/1a to continue the torrid pace he set down the stretch last year, during which he scored seven goals and added two assists over the final six weeks of the season. Those are some tough numbers to beat.

Dallas went out and got Pachuca legend Franco Jara for free this summer, because why wouldn’t you? Jara, who like Ondrasek is 31, had a great career with Los Tuzos, scoring 83 goals and adding 19 assists in 169 games across five years after coming over from Benfica, where he didn’t quite make it. Jara is an assassin, and he’s used to starting.

So… game on.

Other Options: Uber-talented 17-year-old Homegrown Ricardo Pepi drops down to third on the depth chart, which is an entirely appropriate place for a 17-year-old (even if it will frustrate a certain segment of USMNT Twitter).

The wild card is last year’s leading scorer, 19-year-old Homegrown Jesus Ferreira. He had 8g/6a in last year’s regular season with most of his minutes coming as kind of a fox-in-the-box 9, and kind of as a false 9. But it seems that long-term he’s going to have to learn to be a true midfield playmaker or an inverted, goal-scoring left winger.

Dom Dwyer – Orlando City SC

  • Team Commitment Level: Waning
  • Expectation Level: Minimal

It’s pretty clear at this point that Orlando City lost the Dwyer trade in a major way. The 29-year-old wasn’t a total disaster in 2019, and you could argue that his ability to get into the right place at the right time augurs well for his ability to assemble a bounce-back season in 2020. Dwyer’s season wasn’t frustrating for any lack of effort or anything; it was frustrating because he had the yips. Seven goals and four assists in about 1700 minutes just isn’t enough to be a starter these days, but the underlying numbers say that Dwyer still knows the places to be and when to be there in order to be an effective MLS forward.

Other Options: Dwyer will have to prove it and then keep proving it. Orlando have taken a center forward with their top SuperDraft pick each of the past two years (Santiago Patiño and Daryl Dike), and they also have veteran Tesho Akindele in the mix. Akindele’s not a real No. 9, but he scored a career-high 10 goals last year, and he goes way back with with new head coach Oscar Pareja, who drafted Akindele for Dallas in 2014.

So they’re four deep, and given Pareja’s preference for the 4-2-3-1, don’t expect more than one of these guys to be on the field at once. But I do think that Dwyer will get first crack at it.

Damir Kreilach – Real Salt Lake

  • Team Commitment Level: He’s a midfielder
  • Expectation Level: Who can say

RSL have a DP center forward, a veteran forward who’s done it at the highest levels in Europe, a former Rookie of the Year false 9, and multiple kids that they’ve brought up through the ranks of their USL team.

It’s Kreilach who started the first two games of the season at center forward, and it’s Kreilach who’s started more games at center forward than anyone else for RSL over the past two years. The big 31-year-old Croatian is a No. 8 by trade, but first Mike Petke and then Freddy Juarez have decided the team needs him more as a target man. It’s kind of wild.

What’s even wilder is that Kreilach’s mostly been very good at it! He scored 12 goals (not all of them while he was playing center forward, though most of them were) in 2018 and another six in 2019, and headed home RSL’s only goal in two outings this year.

Other Options: Sam Johnson is their DP center forward, a pure scorer who put up good per-90 numbers, but seemed to kill the team’s flow. Giuseppe Rossi‘s the Euro veteran, and while Rossi was a talent, he’s 33 and hasn’t seriously played soccer for years. Plus he was never really a No. 9.

Corey Baird wasn’t really a No. 9 either, and is more needed on the wings now, so I’m ruling him out of this particular depth chart. Meanwhile I’m ruling in Douglas Martinez, a 23-year-old Honduran international who was excellent in leading Real Monarchs to the USL title last season.

It feels like almost anything is in play here.

Andres Rios – San Jose Earthquakes

  • Team Commitment Level: Sporadic
  • Expectation Level: Effort

I was as shocked as anyone to see Rios, the 30-year-old journeyman Argentine attacker, start the first two games of the year for the Quakes at center forward. He was a non-entity down the stretch during last year’s stunning collapse, and he doesn’t have the resume of a starter at this point. It didn’t make much sense.

To be fair to Rios, he did score once in those two starts, and he now has two goals in 443 minutes of MLS action – a scoring rate roughly in line with his productivity at his other eight stops (including legitimately big clubs like Club America and River Plate, which happens to be where he first played for Matias Almeyda).

But after the first two games of 2020, a major shake-up to San Jose’s XI could await. Everybody’s job is at stake (or should be), including at center forward.

Other Options: Wondo‘s still there. I get not wanting to start a 37-year-old, but the man had 15g in 2000 minutes last year and was the only player on the team who could put the ball in the net after July.

Third on the depth chart is veteran Dutchman Danny Hoesen, who always looks like he’s on the verge of breaking out but has never really put it all together. He started the first two games of the season at … left wing. Really weird.

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