A Crossover Episode – MLS in the Premier League

“Infinity War is the most ambitious crossover event in history.” FP: “How would it be, if, in a not too distant future, we have an MLS team playing in the Premier League?”

What is this, a Crossover Episode? - MLS in the Premier League

The world of fiction is fun to occasionally visit, a pleasant escape from the harsh realities of all the negativity, disappointment and the general noxious malaise that permeates the oxygen of everyday life.

It’s part of why there are infinite devices, website, and apps that elbow each other for our precious free time. Healthy escapism is simply human nature and a necessary part of surviving the daily grind.

Today, it wasn’t Apple or Facebook or Twitter or Amazon or Microsoft or Google or any of the big tech companies that provided me the launching pad to drift away into another realm –  it was forgettable English midfielder Jordan Mutch currently on loan in the MLS at Vancouver Whitecaps.

The 26-year-old made 75 appearances in the Premier League between Cardiff City, QPR and Crystal Palace, but with only four appearances in the past two years, his South London career has stalled.

Maybe he was bitter when he did his first interview after joining the Whitecaps. Maybe the interview took place inside a pub, and he had long warmed his seat and accumulated an impressive tab. Going by the following quote as evidence, you’d have a strong argument for the latter.

“I looked at the standard of the league now and the players that are playing in this league and it’s unbelievable,” Mutch told MLSsoccer.com. “You’ve got some real high, top-quality players that play in the league and I think the standard is as good as the [English] Championship, if not better…”

That’s a nice thought to caress the league with, to pander to the fans–Wait, ‘If not better’????? He’s surely not going to double down on that ludicrous take–

“…A lot of the MLS teams as well could compete in the Premier League now.”

U wut, m8?

If nothing else, Mutch’s questionable judgement provides a talking point. Irrespective of how self-serving the sentiment was–‘Oh, yeah, pssh, MLS isn’t a step down from Crystal Palace and the Premier League, actually, it might even be a lateral move!!!’–it does spawn a hypothetical.

Spoiler alert: No, of course no current MLS team would survive a season in the Premier League. Sorry, Jordan.

But how about a collective club representing the league? Well, now, that’s an interesting conversation.

Cheers, Jordan Mutch, for providing the opening to a thought exercise I’ve lightly contemplated from time to time in the past. If you could make a club taking players exclusively from the MLS, how would that side do in the Premier League?

Premise

This isn’t meant to be the MLS All-Stars because, quite frankly, the 2017 MLS All-Star side would be massacred every single match they played. The team that represents the MLS All-Stars in friendlies are all-too-often selected on the merit of their name, and the team isn’t chosen with tactics in mind. Even West Brom would look like a real life Premier League side, and Alan Pardew a brilliant manager, when lining up opposite that team.

The premise is about forming a club out of the MLS player pool: with star, fringe and young players alike, just as every other club.

An initial idea was to shape our budget to that of a mid-table Premier League team, but, counting wages wasn’t necessary. Roughly, the entire roster costs about $40 million, which is just under £30 million.

There isn’t an exact consensus on the club with the 10th highest wage bill in the Premier League, but, according to multiple sources, it’s somewhere around £90 million, from clubs like Southampton, West Ham and Stoke City. In 2016-17, the club with the lowest wage bill was Watford at £58 million.

For maximum realism, our team will follow Premier League squad construction rules. The 25 man squad must have eight homegrown players and no more than 17 international players. As the MLS cascades over both America and Canada, our non-international players will be the ones from those countries. It won’t be too difficult to come up with eight.

Players under-21 don’t count against those criterias, meaning Argentinian 19-year-old Ezequiel Barco, the man Atlanta United broke the MLS transfer record for this winter, wouldn’t have to be registered to our 25-man squad.

The idea is meant to be a thought exercise that can only be recreated in the few cubic inches between your ears and in the virtual landscapes that FIFA and Football Manager provide. It’s intriguing to ponder, but–an inherent plague with thought exercises–there is no definitive ruling on how it would go. Make of it what you will.

Without further ado, let’s take a deep dive into our alternate simulation of reality.

Roster

 

Manager Tata Martino (Atlanta United)
Forwards Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy), Josef Martinez (Atlanta United), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), David Villa (NYCFC)
Wingers Romain Alessandrini (LA Galaxy), Andrew Carleton* (Atlanta United), Alphonso Davies* (Vancouver Whitecaps), Diego Rossi* (LAFC), Carlos Vela (LAFC)
Midfielders Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Tyler Adams* (New York Red Bulls), Miguel Almiron (Atlanta United), Ezequiel Barco* (Atlanta United), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jonathan dos Santos (LA Galaxy), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Paxton Pomykal* (FC Dallas)
Fullbacks Kemar Lawrence (New York Red Bulls), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC), Greg van der Wiel (Toronto FC)
Center backs Justen Glad* (Real Salt Lake), Christopher Goslin* (Atlanta United), Ike Opara (Sporting KC), Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (Atlanta United), Lamine Sane (Orlando City FC)
Keepers Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union), Zac Steffan (Columbus Crew), Evan Louro* (New York Red Bulls)
Legend Bold = Homegrown, * = Under 21

 

By club: Atlanta United (6), Toronto FC (5), New York Red Bulls (3), LA Galaxy (3), FC Dallas (2), LAFC (2), NYCFC (1), Seattle Sounders (1) Philadelphia Union (1), Columbus Crew (1), Vancouver Whitecaps (1), Orlando City (1), Sporting KC (1)

Explanations: Who made it, who got left behind?

Forwards: The vitality of this club would be its goals. Drinking from the chalice that is the ability to finish chances, these players would be relied on to avoid the drop. And that chalice would runneth over.

Villa would be the most reliable at first, despite being 36 years old. You saw what Jermain Defoe was able to do for Sunderland in recent years despite the fact that he is now, indeed, appearing very washed.

Of course, Ibrahimovic has taken the league by storm and has shown that he’s still class. Even though it feels like cheating to add him into this team, being that he’s been in the MLS for a matter of weeks, it still counts.

Even with Ibrahimovic, Giovinco is the best player of the bunch while Martinez has the highest ceiling as far as goal-scoring potential over the course of a full season at this stage of his career and moving forward. The 24-year-old pacey striker puts pressure on defenders in a way that the aging legs of Villa and Ibrahimovic wouldn’t allow.

Altidore and Morris would be on the outside looking in for playing time due to the quality ahead of them, but their inclusion is evident to how much the club would rely on its forwards, as they’d be necessary amid an injury crisis.

Wingers: Vela and Alessandrini provide a sumptuous natural winger pairing and they would soak up most of the minutes from wide areas. The duo possess the enchanting combination of European bonafides while still being in their primes. Alessandrini, 29, spent three seasons at Marseille and Vela, 29, broke through at Arsenal to later spend three seasons at Real Sociedad.

Martino has options, though, because a few of the strikers can operate wide as well as the depth behind the aforementioned Alessandrini and Vela. Rossi, unfortunately, is without a clear path into the team at forward nor wing, but his positional fluidity would allow the 20-year-old to carve his own route into the team.

Davies and Carleton, a pair of exciting 17-year-olds, wouldn’t find much time in the first team barring catastrophic injury. Perhaps a handful of substitute appearances.

Midfielders: The options in the center of the park essentially live at either end of the extremes: a few attack-minded midfielders offset by defensive ones, rather than box-to-box players. Almiron would rival Giovinco for the moniker of club’s best player while Barco has the potential to better them both.

Bradley, a natural choice for club captain, brings much needed stability to the team and dos Santos would slot quite nicely next to him. McCarty and Acosta provide wonderful depth for the heart of the team while Adams is the American version of Trent Alexander-Arnold; a young, athletic centre-mid with the ability to play wingback, with no limit on his potential.

Fullbacks: The weakest area of the roster, with Lawrence and van der Wiel starters purely by default. Lawrence, being more athletic than Morrow, would be better prepared to make up for technical shortcomings. The only true challenger for van der Wiel’s place in the team is Adams, who excelled as a wingback for the Red Bulls.

Center backs: Sane has just been imported to the MLS from the Bundesliga, providing the only semblance of experience at the highest level to this discouraging crop of defenders. Opara is abnormally spritely for a centre-half and Ciman has 20 caps with the Belgian national team. Between the trio, the two most in form or the pair who works best together would play most games. But it’s not exactly an overly convincing variety.

Looking to the future, the club would hope to see the progression from Glad and Goslin, a pair of USA U-20 defenders.

Keepers: Blake, Jamaica’s no. 1 and 2016 MLS keeper of the year, is the starter. Steffan is an adequate backup and would create the modern goalkeeping timeshare, as he’d get his minutes in cup competitions with Blake getting the entire of the Premier League minutes. Louro is a cheap, young player with homegrown status, all necessities for a club’s third-choice keeper.

Manager: Other than a tremendous CV, a key part in choosing Atlanta United’s Martino as the manager is his attacking style. NYCFC’s Patrick Viera comes within a shout for similar reasons, as does New York Red Bulls’ Jesse Marsch, who has led the Red Bulls to consistently have the league’s best high-pressing system every season, which would be useful with the crop of players selected.

Martino who has managed Barcelona and the Argentinian national team is the smart choice to lead this team forward.

Omissions: The MLS is disproportionately oversaturated with attacking midfielders and strikers, not so much with fullbacks or defensive midfielders. That is why players with less pedigree and skill are selected ahead of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Clint Dempsey, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and, reigning MLS MVP, Diego Valeri.

All of those players simply aren’t as good as the attackers selected ahead of them and are all the wrong side of 30. A stint in the Premier League would accelerate the Sporting Grim Reaper’s scythe hacking them into retirement, rife with dull punditry and sad endorsement deals. Just look at Brett Favre, currently endorsing nose clippers and some sort of old-guy-compression-sleeve product. Life comes at you fast.  

A notable name left unselected at a weak position is Ashley Cole. It’s simply humanitarian, honestly; it would be painful to watch him get son’d by every winger in the Premier League. He struggles mightily when isolated in the MLS, fear sweeping over Galaxy fans not dissimilar to a young child being separated from their parent in the supermarket.

This is the inherent risk of making an aging fullback a marquee player, and it’s no wonder the Galaxy were one of the worsts teams in the league last season. Speaking of the Galaxy, Giovani dos Santos wouldn’t make the cut at this moment. He’s a striker who doesn’t score and was recently voted the league’s most overrated player in an anonymous players’ poll.

Part of it is the self-fulling prophecy of confidence. He’s appeared to have misplaced the power of expressing himself with the ball to the point that he regularly appears out of ideas. There’s no room for a misfiring striker.

Tim Howard, like the others left behind, is paid too much to soak up a place on the roster. He wouldn’t start over Blake nor would he edge out Steffan to be the primary backup.

System and tactics

These two systems would be the best use of resources.

Two defensive midfielders add extra cover to the backline with a fluid attack ahead of them comprised, regularly, of Almiron, Giovinco, Martinez and Vela. Ibrahimovic, Alessandrini, Villa, Barco and Rossi would be given ample opportunities too.

Ibrahimovic is a classic case of how to manage an aging superstar: he’s (probably) better than most others in the side, even at this stage of his career, but the team would be best as a whole with more pace and pressing. Ibrahimovic isn’t best suited for that at this time in his career, if he even ever was.

Those in forward positions would be given creative freedom to interchange as they please. In return for that goodwill, they’d be held accountable defensively.

The midfield pairing would be fairly ironclad barring injury, and McCarty would be first understudy with Adams and Acosta not far behind. Whoever occupies those spaces would be instructed to move forward cautiously, ready to press when the ball is lost.  

Lawrence and van der Wiel would be on a short leash and likely regularly splitting time with Morrow and Adams.

Martino’s tactical instructions would be similar to Bournemouth: adventurous, attacking football, but knowing when to close it up and not be too reckless. Almiron, Giovinco, Vela and Martinez would be a joy to behold when attacking with pace.

Giovinco would be on deadballs from shooting distance and Almiron from crossing. Opara and Sane would be the first choice XI’s only hope at winning headers; thus, playing quick and short would be regular.

If the back four couldn’t handle the rigours of Premier League attackers, Martino would have no choice but to sacrifice an attacker and switch to a back five. Adams and Lawrence would be responsible for covering an immense amount of ground every game in attack and defense.

How might they do?

This team would struggle. Even if I was writing this in full-blown Uncle Sam attire, complete with the power-finger-point between each sentence, with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” blasting on loop in the background, there’s simply no two ways around it. They’d be staring down the 40-point threshold for safety from their first match until it’s reached.

Its lack of defensive quality would be difficult to overcome, leaving Martino with no choice but to play on the front foot.

But every conservative, old, chubby, white British manager be damned: Bournemouth has proved that playing style isn’t a suicidal tactic destined to be drop kicked in the teeth right back to the Championship. David Wagner (who is technically an American, in the fact that he was capped by the United States National Team in the 90s when it was clear he had no chance in representing Germany) is trying to do as much with Huddersfield Town, too.

Martino’s biggest challenge would be forcing his potent attack to defend with the same enthusiasm it attacks with because the back line would crumble underneath constant pressure, as well as the Ibrahimovic quandary. For the most part, though, the team is an athletic bunch, thus there’d be at least the fading facade of hope when defending counters.

But that’s enough for the pessimism; let’s focus on where this club would get it right.

The team has panache, fluidity, pace, and goals.

Oddly enough, a problem in attack would be the paradox of choice. There are many solid options. Anyone of Ibrahimovic, Altidore, Villa, Giovinco, Martinez, Morris or Rossi could operate as a striker. Vela and Alessandrini are quality wingers, where Giovinco, Morris, and Rossi could also put a shift in. Almiron and Barco are tremendous no. 10s, where Giovinco and Rossi would excel as well. Between those ten, only a maximum of four could play at once.

Morris, Altidore, and Villa would face an uphill battle for playing time, ditto for Rossi and Barco despite the latter pair needing first team minutes to reach their potential.

If pressed to make a proclamation, I’d fancy this team to avoid the drop. If compared to the bottom dwellers of this season, they’re better than West Brom and Southampton. They compare favorably with Swansea, Brighton, Newcastle and Huddersfield, none of which are currently in the bottom three.

A cautionary tale in the real world for this fictional side, though, would be to look at the individual quality among the West Ham, Stoke City, and Crystal Palace, highlighting the importance of team-over-individual ethos from the clubs that look set to survive.

That could be achieved, and with it, sustained life in the Premier League.

Something that’s only metaphorically alive can never be literally dead, right? If nothing else, this serves as a fun thought-exercise and a template for Football Manager and FIFA with boredom and an excess of time.

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Tom Bogert

A fan of repetitive disappointment and frustration, I hold Liverpool and the New York Red Bulls near and dear to my heart.