For the 13 Teams Who Missed the Playoffs: What Now?

While all of MLS media will be eyeing the forthcoming MLS Cup Playoffs, half the league must cast their gaze on next season, forcing them to ask: what now?

A 'successful' season in MLS nowadays is seen as one where the club makes the MLS Cup Playoffs. Currently, the format allows 14 clubs in the single-elimination competition to have a chance at winning the ultimate trophy in American soccer. This means 13 clubs miss out on the competition, meaning they must start the process of resetting in the hopes of a 'successful' 2022. Let's start out West, as we take a stab at answering the question posed in the title of this article.


Western Conference


LA Galaxy

A team who many would argue don't belong in this category (see tweet below), ended the season out of the playoffs thanks to a 95th-minute winner by Real Salt Lake. Although tied on points, the Galaxy had one less win than Real Salt Lake, meaning the five-time MLS Cup winners missed out on the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years. Whatever you think of the call, I would argue that going 2-6-7 (W-L-D) in your last 15 matches is not indicative of a playoff-deserving team.


What Now:

Personally, I think the Galaxy are on the right track. No, they didn't make the playoffs in their first year under Greg Vanney but there are asterisks to that statement. Their main goalscorer and locker room leader Chicharito only played in 21 matches. While he had an impressive 17 goals and 3 assists in those matches, not having him available for a third of the season clearly played a part in their failure to make the playoffs. He wasn't the only one either. Starting CB Derrick Williams only played 21 matches. Midfielder Rayan Raveloson only appeared 22 times. Midfielder Sebastian Lletget only appeared 26 times. Defender Jorge Villafana played 21 times. You get the gist.


What the Galaxy need to do is improve the quality of their depth. Having a strong starting lineup is great and all but this league requires more than just 11 good players. The drop-off in quality in this team is drastic. Instead of bringing guys like Kljestan, Saldana, or Zubak off the bench, the Galaxy should be bringing on Grandsir, Raveloson, or Joveljic. The Galaxy need a strong rotation of 16, not a strong starting 11.


It will be interesting to see how the Galaxy navigate the upcoming offseason. Will they bank on Chicharito sustaining his unsustainable form? How will they replace Araujo and/or Alvarez, should the youngsters leave? What type of midfielder do they go for to improve that position: a tackler, ball-progressor, or creator? There are many directions the club could go. Whatever they do, I'm excited to see how it plays out.


LAFC

Not many people would have predicted LAFC to finish outside of the playoffs within the following two years after breaking the points record in 2019, yet here we are. It was a disappointing season to say the least but was also one that provided hope for a strong future. The midseason pickup of Cristian Arango (Chicho) was a much welcome success after their recent struggles in the South American transfer market. The Colombian has replaced Rossi with ease and one could argue he's been better than him. I mean, 14 goals and 2 assists in 17 appearances is unreal. LAFC need to build around him. Plain and simple.


What Now:

With rumors swirling of Bobby B heading to Toronto, I'd love to see LAFC go after a South American coach. However unlikely it is, imagine River Plate's Marcelo Gallardo at the helm of LAFC. That would certainly bring eyes to the league from the South American market. Donny G should look into that. Back to LAFC, with head coach and star player most likely out the door, a rebuild is of order.


In my opinion, LAFC need to take a long look at their squad and choose the core players they want to build around. From my limited viewpoint, I'd throw these names in that group: Chicho, Edwards, Murillo, Blessing, J. Blackman, Atuesta, Segura, and Mbacke. All these players don't necessarily need to be starters, but they are the ones I could see a successful team built around. And no, I did not forget Cifuentes or Rodriguez. I'm not a fan. I'd love to hear LAFC fans' opinions.


I can see a future where LAFC dip into the MLS trade market to try to improve the overall quality of the squad. We already saw them do it with Ibeagha from NYCFC. I think we see some more action from them this offseason in that regard. A little MLS experience never hurt anyone right? Right?


San Jose

This team under Almeyda will always intrigue me. I don't think I've ever seen a more resilient group of players. No matter how many embarrassing defeats they suffered, this group still fought for their manager. It's impressive. I've been banging this drum for the last few weeks so I'm sorry if you're hearing it yet again but this squad can be so good under a different manager. I feel that Almeyda's reign in San Jose should come to an end and, even though it wasn't successful under him, I believe his philosophy can play an important role in this team's future success. It's not every day you see a squad stick by their manager after what this squad has gone through. That belief from the squad paired with a more MLS-friendly tactical approach can win you silverware, let alone get you into the playoffs. Recent quotes in the media by new GM Leitch suggest Almeyda will stay but he never came out and directly said yes to the question, so we shall see.


What Now:

The squad is good. It only needs some standard changeover and maybe another starting piece or two. The starters can come in the midfield and attack to replace the now-retired Wondolowski. As for the system, this group screams of a midfield pressing 4-3-3 to me. This is a young squad who have the ability to cover big distances in a short period of time. They should take advantage of their ball-winners in Judson and Remedi and get a floating number 8/10 to recover the ball and transition into the final third with pace. If Chofis, Espinoza, and Ebobisse force teams to build through the middle, they will have space to run into and exploit on the counter. Maybe go after Klopp's assistant Pepijn Lijnders. I don't know, he did decent as a manager in the Netherlands and uses that style of play.


All of this should be caveated with the fact that San Jose just got a new General Manager and Assistant General Manager. The interim GM Chris Leitch will continue in the role permanently while none other than Chris Wondolowski will move into a front-office role directly after retirement. I must say, I love this move by San Jose. The tweet below best summarizes why. The Leitch and Wondo duo may have a drastically different take on how the future should pan out and considering they know more about San Jose than me, I might just have to divert to them in this situation. MIGHT...


FC Dallas

While this club more often than not has found itself in the playoffs over the past 5 years, the mood around the place feels stale. This same old same old feeling is most likely down to the lack of investment and clear disregard of fans from the ownership. If you want a more detailed look into the ownership's failings, look no further than our FC Dallas correspondent Melanie Isbell's article on the Hunt Out movement.


Look, it's always going to be hard to compete when you sell two starting midfielders, two starting wingers, and a starting right back before and during the season but you would think they would have a plan to push for the playoffs. I guess not. At the end of the day, it's another season gone by for the MLS talent factory with no real investment to improve its competitiveness within the league. Considering the amount of money Dallas has received over the past 5 years in transfer fees, the level of reinvestment in the squad is unacceptable. I don't blame the fans for lashing out, and that's without mentioning the owners going back on their word with the stadium "renovations."


What Now:

It's hard to say. Obviously, you want the Hunt's to care a little bit more about their club and fans, however unrealistic that may be. Instead, I will put on my realism goggles and try to answer that question through those lenses. What Dallas needs to do is build a group of players that allow their youngsters to compete and improve in a safe environment. 17-year-old Justin Che should be nowhere near the 1,000-minute mark, yet he finishes the season on 1,016 minutes played. Pepi, Ferreira, Pomykal, and Schon should not be your starting front 4.


Yes, they are good players but they are young. Give those youngsters senior, experienced professionals to learn from and compete with rather than throw them into the league for playing time to increase their transfer value. A truly competitive team would look after the future of their young players by protecting them instead of hanging them out to dry. Dallas need to hit on their senior transfers this season. Whichever players the front office decide to go for in the offseason, they need to be mainstays in the first eleven to give the youngsters room to grow.


Dallas also have to address their physicality problem. The squad does not have the top-end speed or acceleration to consistently be a threat to the opposition. This is where losing Picault and Barrios was huge for them this season. It's hard to win 50/50 balls to create transition opportunities if your team isn't fast enough to get to the ball first. Obviously, player positioning matters too, and thus a good coaching hire is necessary (obviously), but there's nothing that strikes fear into a defense like a fast offense.


Austin FC

What a disappointing inaugural year it's been for the Verde. After an impressive transfer strategy heading into the season, the hype did not translate into success on the pitch. No doubt having to play your first 8 matches on the road took its toll but heading into their first home match, Austin FC had 8 points out of a possible 24 on the road. That's 1 point per match. If a team can average 1 point per away match over the course of an MLS season, it is set up for success. The downfall of this team was its inability to utilize its massive home-field advantage thanks to its rabid fanbase. There were way too many home games for Austin where they either scored no goals or were unable to hold onto the lead (Vancouver and San Jose come to mind). There was even a stretch of 6 MLS home games IN A ROW and they only picked up 2 wins and a draw. Not good enough.


What Now:

Prepare the squad to cope with losing Josh Wolff. The front office should still back him and give him the chance to succeed next season, but the players being brought in should be versatile enough to work with a different coach if need be. Wolff came under a lot of criticism from fans and national media for his tactics this season and if he doesn't get it right next season, it's curtains for him. Austin certainly have higher expectations than 12th next season.


In terms of players, more thought needs to be put into how the attack is going to get the ball in dangerous areas. More ball progression is needed in this team. Your expensive attack can't do much if they don't get the ball with enough time and space to exploit weaknesses. All that being said, I am excited to see who they bring in to supplement an attack that has the potential to be one of the best in the league.


Houston Dynamo

Houston, we've had a problem. It is now four years since the Dynamo have finished in a playoff spot and each year has been progressively worse. 2021, capped with a midseason16 game winless run, is now two seasons in a row where the Dynamo finish bottom of the Western Conference. When you look at the squad and the way they've been used by now ex-head coach Tab Ramos, you can see why. Not all of it is on Tab obviously as the squad build was awful but he certainly wasn't helping matters. With MLS legend Pat Onstad taking over as GM, a new era is beginning in Houston.


What Now:

Houston has to get younger. No club is going to survive a season nowadays with eight prominent members of the squad on the wrong side of 30, especially when none of those eight are a goalkeeper. The good thing is, they've recognized that problem and got off to a great start in fixing it in the summer transfer window where they brought in two 22-year-olds, a 25-year-old, and a 26-year-old. That's great. Honestly. But along with the age you need to get the quality right.


The mid-season acquisitions this year give me backup quality vibes. Pasher, Baird, and Carrasquilla specifically as I am a fan of Teenage Hadebe (that's his name, not his age) from his performances thus far. What needs to come this offseason is a clean reset and upgrade from a squad point of view. Long time players like Boniek Garcia (announcement came after writing this) and Maynor Figueroa cannot continue to be on the wage bill and certainly not on the field. They should’ve been gone long ago. There’s nothing Houston can do about that now except learn from the mistakes.


Houston needs to upgrade the quality of the team if they want to taste success in 2022. Young, hungry players looking to prove themselves as professional soccer players. Prime-aged attackers who have experience and a history of consistency. These are the types of players Houston should be targeting. What Houston also needs is better output from their current crop of players. A lot of that will come down to who they replace Tab Ramos with but the likes of Memo Rodriguez, Tim Parker, and Matias Vera have to play better. They cannot continue being “goldilocks” players who only thrive in systems that suit them if Houston is to improve for the first time in four seasons.


Pat Onstad clearly has a ton on his plate but someone new in charge should give Dynamo fans hope. Hope that he will be able to properly upward manage the owners to allow him to spend some money, both on the field and off it. The club’s marketing needs improvement too. Fans have recently been complaining of a lack of team marketing for far too long now. Lastly, Dynamo fans will somehow need to show patience in the new regime as none of this will be completely fixed in one offseason, especially one that is this short, but you can definitely forgive them for getting antsy if they don’t get off to a strong start next season.



Eastern Conference


DC United

With a fit squad, DC are one of the toughest teams to play against in this league, hence them finishing one point outside of the playoffs after suffering a massive midseason injury crisis. At many times throughout the year, the Black-and-Red were good enough to be a home playoff team, and considering they were only four points away from that spot, that opinion seems to hold some truth. After a dismal couple of years, DC fans will be looking forward to the future for the first time in quite some time.


What Now:

Looking at the current situation in DC, the front office should look to be proactive and bring in Ola Kamara’s replacement now. It is unlikely that Kamara repeats his 19 goal season and none of the center forward options currently at the club have shown to be consistent enough to step up and repeat that type of season. Bringing in the replacement now allows him time to transition into the team, league, and area. It also gives Losada another competitive option to replace Kamara with. If the club believe in Robertha to be that man, then switch Kamara with Flores. The club-record signing has been extremely underwhelming when he’s been available for DC. Either way, DC United should look to stay one step ahead in order to build on the progress they’ve made under Losada.


The other, and probably more important, change DC should make is in regards to their squad rotation policy. While the league’s new five or fewer midweek matches rule will help, Hernan Losada’s style of play is bound to cause injuries for his players. Losada needs to deploy a more aggressive rotation policy and if he isn’t willing to do it, the medical staff should change their “red zone” markers. For example, maybe 270 minutes in 12 days could be reduced to 245 minutes. As a group, the medical and coaching staffs need to come up with a better method of keeping the players healthy throughout the season. If they can do that, DC will more likely than not be in the playoffs.


Columbus Crew

At the beginning of the season, nobody predicted Columbus to finish the season outside of a home playoff spot, let alone the playoffs full-stop. The Supporter Shield favorites massively underachieved this year. Obviously, Columbus struggled with injuries all season but the worst aspect of the injuries was the timing. Morris, Kitchen, Valenzuela, Artur, and Molino were all injured within the first seven matches of the season. With MLS action and CCL football in the mix, the available players were surely strained early on in the season and that clearly had ramifications later on with many more key players missing time due to injuries.


What Now:

The fact that Columbus managed to finish one point behind a playoff spot with the injury crisis that they endured this season shows that this team is still a force to be reckoned with. Not to mention their 2-0 win over Cruz Azul in the Campeones Cup. What Columbus should do this offseason is reinforce their central midfield depth. Even though it is the Crew's strongest part of the pitch, Kitchen, Artur, and Morris will be returning from season-long injuries and Fraser will return to Toronto. With how often smaller injuries occur during the recovery process, it would not be smart to go into next season with the expectation that all three players will be available and playing at their highest level.


The Crew also cannot expect Darlington Nagbe to be as available as he was this season. The American midfielder started 37 matches in all competitions and played the full 90 minutes in 31 of them. There is a very real scenario where Artur, Morris, and Kitchen are still struggling to return to full fitness and Nagbe is burnt out. Columbus will want better options than Marlon Hairston and Isaiah Parente. Other than that, a replacement for Pedro Santos should be brought in as well. What Columbus shouldn't do is panic. They will be competitive next year. Count on it.


CF Montreal

Similarly to Columbus, no one had Montreal finishing in 10th before the season started, albeit for the complete opposite reason. With Thierry Henry stepping down a month and a half before the season opener and the team being forced to play their home games in Fort Lauderdale, everyone had the Candian club pegged for the bottom spot in the East. While they ended the season four spots above last place, they only missed out on the playoffs by a decision day home loss to Orlando City. This season was a huge step in the right direction and can still end in success as CF Montreal play against Toronto FC in the Candian Championship Final on November 21st.


What Now:

All the ingredients are there for Montreal to build on this fantastic season under Wilfred Nancy but every year good teams are going to miss the playoffs. Someone has to miss out right? Montreal need to act now to make sure they aren’t one of those teams again next season. The biggest issue is the overall quality of the players. By no means is this a bad group but Nancy has built a system that is maximizing their potential. The next step for this club is to improve certain spots in the squad and use this season’s starters as rotation/competition options.


The positions calling out for an upgrade are goalkeeper, right center back, and right back. The players currently in those positions are good players but upgrading them would help make this team more competitive throughout the entire season. There’s also the fact that newcomers provide competition for places and competition will always bring the best out of players. Your backup option heading into the season can easily win the starting role if they put in consistently quality performances.


Many would say this club is dying for a striker but I believe the current crop have the potential to score the necessary amount of goals to have a successful season. Nancy’s system does not need a starting striker figurehead. Would a strong back-to-goal striker for Mihailovic and Torres to play off of be helpful? Yes. But the system also works for the likes of Mason Toye, Ibrahim Sunusi, and Romell Quioto. Matko Miljevic is a complete unknown as of right now but he is in the mix too.


It is also necessary to mention that this squad is the second youngest in the entire league. Next year they will be a couple months older and a season wiser. Mihailovic, Miller, Sunusi, Brault-Guillard, and Choiniere, all of whom are regular starters in this team, will most likely improve next year. Montreal are going to be one of the toughest teams to play against next season. Book it.


Inter Miami

These two years for Inter Miami have been two to forget. There couldn't be a bigger chasm between the expectations this club had coming into MLS and where it finds itself now. From major flops in the transfer market to heavy sanctions for breaking the rules to finishing in 10th and 11th in respective seasons, Miami have been underwhelming. Plain and simple.


What Now:

With the club set to lose $2,271,250 in allocation money for each of the next two seasons, the answer to that question is not going to be easy. The ramifications of that sanction are already being seen as the club announced they would be declining all ten of the contract options they had available. While most of the players on that list were to be expected, players such as Leerdam, Acosta, and Ulloa may have stuck around in a normal offseason.



Considering the task at hand, what Miami should do is go into next season with around 19-22 senior slots used and fill the remaining slots with young cheap players. I've always wondered how a team would fare with a smaller group of quality players. This tactic would allow them to spend more money per player, thus improving the quality of each player (hypothetically). It would definitely be a risky option with injuries being a worry but Miami are really backed into a corner here. It is going to be hard to bring top-level players in since they know they won't be offered as much money as they originally would have. Miami need as much bang for their buck as they can get and a smaller squad size would greatly contribute to that.


Chicago Fire

It's been four seasons since the Chicago Fire last made the MLS Playoffs. Since that time, many players have come and gone, a new owner has come in, new COO, Technical Director, and Sporting Directors have been appointed, and two coaches have been fired. There have also been two rebrands and a stadium move. This club has gone through some massive changes over the past few years and that is never a good sign. Consistency on and off the field is so important in today's world and clubs that continuously change rarely see sustained success during that timeframe. That being said, change is necessary and sometimes you have to bite the bullet and get through the struggle to reap the rewards. Is that what Chicago are doing? It very well could be.


One impressive skill this club seem to possess is learning from its mistakes. Whether it's a struggling player being moved on and replaced, a horrible rebrand attempt, or a coach who just isn't working out, the Chicago Fire have been quick to fix and learn from their mistakes. It's not a skill that every club shows but it is one that every good club has. The team did finish with a decent 3-3-2 (W-L-D) over their last 8 games, a rate that would've seen them finish with 46 points. Is that a sign of good things to come? We shall see.


What Now:

Well, I was going to highlight the coaching search since the contract options have already been released but as I started this section, a rumor spread around Twitter saying Columbus Crew Assistant Manager Ezra Hendrickson seems to have gotten the job. I must admit, I wanted to see them go for a Central or South American but Hendrickson has the type of resume that you would usually see in a young coach just waiting for his chance to succeed.


(I meant Schelotto)

Instead, I will discuss the declined options. What sticks out like a sore thumb is Chicago's decision to get rid of their entire spine. Two goalkeepers, three center backs, two central midfielders, and two strikers are al