This article is part of our Thunderbastard series.
As sports in America begin to reemerge, so does the obvious need for The Thunderbastard.
It looks like (fingers crossed) that we are about to begin an unprecedented Summer of Soccer and thus I have come back to support you and all your footy needs!
While there seem to be few certainties these days, one commonality among us all is that over the last few months we have all watched a lot more non-sports related TV. I have found myself watching various Netflix series with the family and watching some old, favorite movies. In all honesty, it was these movies that prompted me to get back on saddle and to write some more valuable soccer advice for you all. So with thanks to Gene Hackman, Kurt Russell, and Chevy Chase, I present to you an MLS is Back movie themed primer!
Long before Alexi Lalas got on his soapbox about the importance of set plays, Shooter Flatch was telling the boys from Hickory to "run the picket fence at 'em." As in Hoosiers, these set pieces will be hugely important during the tournament in Orlando. In general, set piece goals usually account for just under 30% of all goals in MLS. With the potential of tired legs, tired minds, and more player rotation in games (due to the five sub rule), we could expect a few individual and team lapses while defending set pieces and their importance can't be understated. With this in mind, players like Jack Price, Johnny Russell, and Lee Nguyen are ones you should look into during the tournament.
Last year Price was 2nd in MLS in chances created from Set Pieces and he already has two assists in two games in the early MLS season. Look for him to be a key part of Robin Fraser's team during these games and the whole season (plus, Colorado is a decent dark horse bet to do some damage in MLS is Back).
Russell the Scottish International, has been voted Sporting KC's Offensive Player of the Year the last two seasons and in 2019 he had 9 goals/11 assists. Three of KC's seven goals in their first two games were from set pieces and Russel is likely to play a role in more of these goals going forward. KC is likely to be in this tournament for the long haul, so keep Russel on your radar.
Considering the fact that expansion team Inter Miami only managed one goal in its first two games might seem to make Nguyen a bit of a reach. However, it is very possible that due to their overall offensive shortcomings, they will be putting a lot of focus on set pieces. Nguyen is likely to get many of those opportunities and could be a sneaky good roster choice.
Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces...you can thank me when Price, Russel, and Nguyen serve that ball up there as smooth and easy as a Jimmy Chitwood jumper!
Any excuse for me to watch Miracle is a good one - reliving the story that culminated with one of the, if not the, greatest sports stories of all-time is must see TV. While I don't expect MLS is Back to have a story line that matches what happened in Lake Placid - I do think that there are some players that could take on some similar individual roles and benefit from hockey like scoring.
Jim Craig, the star goalie of the US, was not always a rock in the net. One of the best lines of the movie is when Craig is complaining to Coach Brooks about threatening to bench him:
Craig: "You can't do that, it's my net!"
Coach Brooks: "They just scored 10 goals, Jim. Right now, it's everybody's net."
While things don't seem to have ever gotten that bad for Matt Turner (though you could imagine Bruce Arena saying something like that), it is possible to see Turner put in a couple of Jim Craig like performances and stand on his head and win the Revolution a game or two in the group stage (especially their big upset over Toronto - you heard it hear first). Turner is a great shot stopper, was second in MLS (2019) in save percentage, and should be playing with added confidence after participating in the USMNT January Camp. Sign him up when you can!
"Mike Eruzione?" "You can cross him off the list Walter, kid doesn't have a shot in hell in making this team." Well, as we all know, Eruzione not only made the team - he scored the goal that beat the Soviets (which as many forget, was not the Gold Medal game…). Pretty sure that there won't be a goal that will be scored in Orlando that will match the one scored in upstate NY back in 1980 - but there could be some unlikely Eruzione-like heroes in some games. LAFC's Adama Diomande might be a good bet for a couple of break out games and a few big goals Diomande did score 10 goals last year, so he has already far surpassed Eruzione's pro career(don't think he ever made the NHL), but he could well be that unlikely goal scorer that steals that becomes the story of the tournament.
Dave Christian, the winger from Minnesota, led the US in assists during the 1980 Olympics with a total of eight. One thing I love about MLS is the secondary assist - or as others might call it - the hockey assist. Haris Medunjanin of Cincinnati is another one that loves it. Last year while with the Union, Medunjanin was second in the league in secondary assists with six. He will likely be starting in the middle of the field for FC Cincinnati and certainly has a chance to put up some fantasy points. Just stay up on lineup news, since at age 35 it is likely that he might sit or at least not start one of the group stage games.
While the above is my best guess, what we do know is that the first few games in MLS is Back might be a bit of a mess. Teams have been off for a long time and training has been sporadic and in small groups - it will be a miracle if they can really hit the ground running. It is more likely that the first set of games might better resemble the description Coach Brooks gave the team after a rather undisciplined practice -
"That look like hockey to you? To me it looks like two monkeys trying to hump a football."
Herb had a way with words.
While going back to watch the previous two movies was extremely enjoyable - I probably could have skipped this one (not the Griswold's best effort). That said, there are going to be plenty of players at MLS is Back that are going to be looking for a long trip to Europe. As MLS continues to become one of the premier selling leagues in the world, these players are ones to watch in Orlando as they have lots riding on this season.
Paxton Pomykal, the 20 year old midfielder is supposedly already being watched closely by many big teams throughout Europe. Pomykal started 20 games last year and is a strong defender in the midfield. His 2.2 tackles per game last year had him in the upper ranks in MLS and ahead of players like Will Trapp and Cristian Roldan. He can add to the attack as well - completing over 80% of his passes and creating 1.63 chances per game last year.
Alberth Elis has scored 30 goals and added 24 assists in his 82 MLS games with Houston and there is no reason to expect him to slow down this year. Rumor has it that the Dyanmo have offered the Honduran attacker the highest contract in club history. While they appear desperate to keep Elis, he is rumored to already have an offer from Celtic and the interest of other European Clubs...either way, Elis will be highly motivated to have a good showing and is a good bet for your roster.
NYCFC's James Sands is set for a breakout year. The 19 year old Academy product started 18 games last year and has started both (and gone the full 90 in each) games this season. Sands has been rumored to be on the radar of multiple European teams and he trained with Fortuna Dusseldorf in November. Last year, Sands played primarily in a back three; however, this year look for him to potentially play in the back and as a defensive midfielder for new coach Ronny Deila. Wherever he plays, expect him to make be a key part of NYCF's season and a regular fantasy contributor.
While the last couple of years haven't been great for US Soccer, there have been some bright spots. Over this time, Reggie Cannon has emerged as not just a pool player, but a potential regular for the USMNT. Cannon is currently linked to teams all over Europe and especially Germany and England. He has not hidden the fact that he would like to take his game to the next level and it is just a matter of time before he is sold to a European Club. Cannon loves to attack from his outside back position and in his first two games this year he had eight crosses, two chances created, and an assist. He is the type of player that could flourish during the month long tournament.
Pomykal, Elis, Sandsm and Cannon are just a handful of those that might be looking to make the jump to Europe - let's hope they have more luck getting to Europe than National Lampoon had making this particular sequel!
MLS is Back Group Stage Prediction (in order of finish)
Group A: Philadelphia, NYCFC, Orlando, Miami, Chicago, Nashville
Group B: New England, Toronto, Montreal, DC
Group C: Sporting KC, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Minnesota
Group D: Columbus, Red Bulls, Atlanta, Cincinnati
Group E: Dallas, Seattle, Vancouver, San Jose
And Your Thunderbastard...
For our traditional article-ending Thunderbastard, we travel back to 2011 for this laser from Golo Guarin of FC Porto: