Fear not, this week’s subtitle is not intended as an insult to those of you playing MLS Fantasy for the first time. That point will be made clear later on. However, to those of you who are new to the game, welcome! This is just a friendly reminder to those of you who have not joined, that the first of MLS Fantasy play begins this Saturday, March 2nd, at 1:00PM EST. Be sure to get your team signed up, and registered in the league prior to that deadline. A very sincere thank you goes out to those of you who have joined the Never Manage Alone MLS League.
There has been plenty of off-season thought put into how this article should look this year. With the unlimited weekly transfers, the previous standard format emulating FPL player picks did not seem adequate to cover all of the analysis, players, and thoughts encompassing the game-week decision process. This week’s rendition is not going to be the final template, but it is going to lay the groundwork for the template starting in week two.
That’s thanks to Major League Soccer’s “strategy” of rolling out the fantasy game with only eight days to prepare and to research the new comings and goings that occurred over the course of the MLS transfer period. By contrast, the Official FPL game gives managers, analysts, and pundits nearly an entire month to prepare for the first week of the season.
Because of this, there are two overarching themes to the week’s strategy. This first is to note that there have been five MLS teams participating in the CONCACAF Champions’ League (CCL). At this point in the season, it is safe to assume that fitness and recovery levels are below peak mid-season levels. This warrants caution when investing in player performances of those teams. Thanks to the rolling roster lock, managers have an opportunity to pick and choose the appropriate spots to invest in CCL teams as the lineups are made official. The other viewpoint is that CCL creates opportunities for opponents playing against tired lineups.
The other theme is those “Noobs” mentioned earlier. The complete list of players joining or moving within the MLS ranks is extensive. Besides quantity, there is a decidedly better quality to these transfers, as well. The handful that already caught my eye during CCL play: Marco Fabian to Philadelphia, Pity Martinez to Atlanta, Nani to Orlando, and Andreas Ivan to New York Red Bulls (NYRB).
For the sake of game-week one, despite the value of the buying opportunity, there has been a ban placed on these players until they have shown the appropriate, fantasy relevant, impacts to their respective teams; throw what you know. Without further ado, these are my GW-1 MLS Fantasy player picks:
MLS Fantasy gives managers a unique chance to capitalize on clean sheet opportunity. There are two common tactics that can be employed at this position. The first is the premium keeper and $4.0m backup. This is common when the elite teams in the league roll up against the juiciest punchless offenses.
The second popular tactic is what has come to be known as the ‘keeperoo’: selecting two mid-to-low tier keepers who play in different time slots so you can maximize your fantasy team’s chance for a clean sheet. The keeper from the earliest start time begins the week in your bench slot. If that goalie keeps the desired clean sheet, you then put a $4.0m non-player in the starting lineup and allow the auto-sub to kick in. Then spread the released cash to upgrade other positions. Should your first attempt at a clean sheet fail, you leave your second option in the lineup and hope to get lucky. The ‘keeperoo’ tactic is not recommended for use with premium goalkeepers as it can turn quite costly in a hurry. This is one of a few tactics commonly designated with the suffix ‘-roo’ but we will save the others for next week.
With that tool now at your disposal, the decision becomes yours. From the premium options, the name that is hard to pass on is Stefan Frei (Seattle, $6.0m). Poor Cincinnati has the dubious task of starting their MLS conquest visiting CenturyLink Field, one of the best home fields in Major League Soccer. Seattle consistently return a quality total of clean sheets season after season, making this play most appealing for week one.
For those looking into a ‘keeperoo’ out of the gates, Andre Blake (Philadelphia, $5.5m) has a strong case against the struggling Canadian champions. Toronto has struggled for preseason results, as well as succumbing to a CCL thrashing. This match-up may not be so friendly at any other point this season, making this week the chance worth taking.
Jesse Gonzalez (Dallas, $5.5m) gets the fantasy quagmire that is always the New England. The jury remains out on Brad Friedel managerial record as he enters his sophomore year at the helm. Whoever gets the nod for Minnesota, Vito Mannone ($5.5m) or Bobby Shuttleworth ($5.5m), has an interesting case as the swirl of business from the Vancouver camp creates more questions than answers. And, going down a price tier, Joe Willis (Houston, $5.0m) deserves a shout after seeing his CCL performances.
For most of you, my stingy defensive stance in the Official FPL game has been well noted. In the MLS game, however, that stance could not be further from sound strategy. Because of the bonus points in this format, clean sheets get moved to the periphery. Setting the proper floor with bonus point accumulation is the far safer route in this game, as most MLS defenses are liabilities on their best days.
A second departure from my familiar FPL strategy is the adoption of fullbacks. The bonus points system, which becomes the crux of our defense, has some designed advantages to create appeal for center-backs. Clearances, blocks and interceptions (CBI) accumulate mostly in the spaces the center-backs occupy. Fullbacks can also earn these points, but they see fewer opportunities. Both defensive positions (not distinguished within the fantasy game, only in our planning) carry over the same attacking propositions as the more familiar FPL.
As the season goes along, the CBI trends will become more clear and navigable. Until that time however, selections from the lower price tiers become the best route to early success. With the combination of CCL games and unfavorable match-ups, the premium bucket is bereft (to me) in week one. Looking at all defenders marked $6.0m and up, there are maybe three worthy of consideration before knowing the intent of those teams with midweek CCL action. Ike Opara (Minnesota, $7.0m) was a stalwart (when healthy) during his years in Kansas City. He will be expected to be the anchor of the a Loons side poised to take a leap to the next level this season. He should be a magnet for the CBI statistic all season; whether or not Minnesota can keep enough clean sheets to warrant his price will be a large question mark.
The next name on the list is Jorge Villafana (Portland, $6.5m). The Timbers’ fullback provides the attacking punch to give the back line an increased scoring ceiling. If Portland have finally found a reliable striker, the buccaneering fullbacks could see the greatest bump in fantasy production.
Finally, former Gunner Bacary Sagna (Montreal, $6.0m) was a sneaky good contributor through the stretch run last season. The unknown entity in San Jose could provide Sagna the freedom to feast on his flank. As with Frei, above, Chad Marshall (Seattle, $6.0m) has intrigue, but there are cheaper ways into that back line.
Those cheaper options include any of the prospective Seattle starting fullbacks: Brad Smith ($5.0m), Kelvin Leerdam ($5.0m), or Nouhu Tolo ($5.0m). The trouble with Seattle is the quality of the overall squad versus the three-player limitation within the fantasy game. Using two of those options in defense / goal does not feel like the most prudent of play considering the home match-up.
One of the first defenders into my lineup was Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas, $5.5m). Dallas proved last season that they were a team whose success would be built upon minimizing the damage of conceding goals. Cannon was the breakout, defensive, star of the last campaign, earning player of the year honors from the team. A week one tilt against a New England team that, historically, fails to produce much of a goal scoring threat.
The rest of the bargain bin defenders provide enough intrigue to nearly complete your entire lineup in this price bracket. Of the attractive under the radar names, Lamine Sane (Orlando, $5.5m) provides the attacking and bonus point potential that equate to the large point hauls managers are seeking. Unlike the questions surrounding what will be of NYCFC sans David Villa, OCSC have a fresh optimism as they also usher in a new managerial hire.
Looking at preseason performances, San Jose have put together an argument for inclusion from fantasy managers. Defensively, Florian Jungwirth ($5.0m) and Nick Lima ($5.0m) provide cheap outlets into proven commodities. As a whole, the defense is not so proven, but individually these players found their way into many fantasy lineups in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The Montreal squad they face will be a good litmus test for future expectations.
There is one name that belongs at the top of this midfielder pile, and that is Nicolas Lodiero (Seattle, $11.0m). Including the Uruguayan will create issues on multiple fronts for managers, though. We discussed the player limit in the prior section. There’s also the budget squeeze induced by his price tag. I am finding it hard to feel confident in a lineup without him.
Other midies in the premium price tier that warrant a look, particularly as differential options, include Lucho Acosta (DC United, $10.5m). The diminutive Argentine will have an advantage against a fatigued or backup Atlanta defense. And, following a failed move to European giants PSG, I would expect Acosta to be out to prove a point this season, raising the bar higher following his breakout 2018 campaign.
Roman Alessandrini (LA Galaxy, $10.5m) is a unique wildcard on the gw-1 slate. He benefits from playing alongside the like of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (see below). In addition, he faces a Chicago Fire squad that struggled mightily all of last season in all phases of the game, including an inability to keep the ball out of their own net.
Opposite to Alessandrini, and down a price tier, is the early breakout of 2019, Djordje Mihailovic (Chicago Fire, $8.0m). The star of the January USMNT camp looks to have a major role to play in the Fire’s 2019 success. If you were paying attention in 2018, you are aware the Galaxy had an equally difficult time on the defensive side of the ball.
Going with a balanced approach to the lineup construction in week one, the mid-level priced players will be the hallmark of any fantasy manager’s success, especially if you intend to include a premium player or two. Michel Barrios (Dallas, $7.5m) has had a standout preseason for a team that was starved for midfield production last season. Kellyn Acosta (Colorado, $6.5m) had blistering start following his mid-season trade. While the consistency lacked towards the end of the campaign, the budding star is now surrounded by known successful MLS commodities, which can only encourage fantasy managers with the tantalizing prospect of increased points. Finally, after an underwhelming debut in MLS, Andy Polo (Portland, $6.5m) appears ready to shine for an aging Timbers side in need of some youthful exuberance. Saying that Diego Valeri underachieved last season would be unfair, but the Argentine maestro did cede a large amount of production. If Polo is able to swoop in and fill that void, he will be a name to feature regularly given his current price point and team expectations.
Could there be any other name to lead the line than former Manchester United star Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy, $11.0m)? Lodiero earns my highest seal of approval as a captain selection, given his lofty proven floor, but there are few forwards that can match the Zlatan’s overall production. Playing both chance creator and taker roles has always been a requisite of mine in the fantasy landscape, and few in MLS do it better than the veteran Swede.
With all the worries surrounding the CCL participants, the forward position is where I am willing to make major concessions. The single-season scoring record holder is hard to ignore. Josef Martinez (Atlanta, $11.0m) simply scores for fun when he wants. Be sure to check the early lineups, though. There are not many pivots given the scheduled kickoff time for his match. Along with Martinez is the most underrated player in MLS, former Manchester City forward Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls, $10.5m). There is not a more proven scorer in MLS, and that quality translates directly to the fantasy game.
Taking a step down in price is where the major opportunities for profits in the forward position lie. Going back to the CCL teams, Mauro Manotas (Houston, $9.5m) proved to be the most unheralded goal scorer of the last campaign, missing the 20-goal mark by a single tally. Again, be sure to check the lineups.
Fellow mid-priced options include:
Corey Burke (Philadelphia, $8.0m). Serving as a part-time player in 2018, his greatest rival has now been shipped out of town creating a larger opening for impactful playing time. Burke has all the credentials to be the breakout forward for a playoff caliber team in 2019.
Do you remember Jordan Morris (Seattle, $8.0m)? Prepared to make a full comeback from knee ligament surgery, the promising superstar is being added to a team full of attacking talent. If he regains a consistent starting position, Morris has proved, in his brief tenure, that he is destined for fantasy stardom.
Narrative plays a major role in our assessment of fantasy players. There is no strict adherence to statistical correlations that drive universal success across the game of soccer. From that mindset comes the surprising fantasy prospects of Chris Wondolowski (San Jose, $7.0m). He is on the verge of the career goal-scoring record. Looking rejuvenated in early spring action, under new management, could Wondo have one last fantasy-relevant tale to tell? At his price point, there is plenty of room to profit from the last act of an all-time MLS great. That does not even include the narrative that accompanies the completion of his feat.
Week one is a quagmire of speculation in the MLS Fantasy world. Avoid the MLS noobs; proven past performances provide the best indicator of future success. While this argument will not hold much weight after a handfull of weeks, it is the best tool now at our disposal.
Are you pleased that MLS is acquiring some world-class talent? What MLS newcomers are you most excited to observe? Are you jazzed that a new fantasy footie league is about to launch? Do you have any remaining questions? Have you run across any fantasy-relevant news? Please share in the comments below!