The destruction of a juggernaut
September 8, 2021
On October 28, 2018, Metro beat Orlando 1:0 to win its third Supporters Shield in six years. They did so with a league record 71 points. Everything looked rosy. Even though the playoffs were not a success (due to one injury, one colossal strategic mistake, and one terrible VAR decision), this was the best regular season team in MLS history.
And then, slowly but surely, one by one, the team got dismantled. Players were jettisoned, sold, traded, until we were left with a husk of a once-impressive squad. How did we get here?
It all started in the middle of that wonderful season, on July 8, when Jesse Marsch left to take over Red Bull Salzburg, leaving Chris Armas in charge. While Armas did well in steering the team towards the Shield, the less that can be said about his tenure after earning the hardware, the better. (Note the "colossal strategic mistake" noted above.) On December 2, the Red Bull "family" got their claws in another Metro product, as Tyler Adams was sold to Leipzig. He is now coached by Marsch. It worked out great for both of them... not so much for Metro, who famously didn't replace Adams at all during the offseason.
Metro slumbered through 2019, faltering without an Adams replacement. On August 8, Derrick Etienne, who scored the Shield clincher, was loaned out to Cincinnati, returned, was cut, and then signed with Columbus in the offseason. (He went on to score in the 2020 MLS Cup.) On October 23, Connor Lade, a very useful utility player who could fill in a pinch in a variety of positions, retired at the age of 29.
The day Etienne got cut, November 21, will go down in infamy because of two other departures: Luis Robles and Bradley Wright-Phillips. The greatest goalkeeper and the greatest goalscorer in team history were both dumped, the former gracefully, the latter much less so. And while moving on might have been the right move (perhaps not so with BWP, who had a stellar season for LAFC in 2020), the manner in which it was done so was despicable. The fact that BWP was not replaced with a proven goalscorer (and Robles by a proven goalkeeper) made it that much worse.
On December 6, Michael Murillo was sold to Anderlecht. This is one move on the list that actually made sense: Murillo, after a terrific 2018, clearly checked out in 2019, losing his spot to Kyle Duncan, and piling mistake on top of mistake. The second sale to Anderlecht, on January 31, 2020, could not be defended. Kemar Lawrence, the best left back in MLS, felt under-appreciated and did not like the direction the team is headed. (Oh, how right he was!) Instead of giving him a new contract, Denis Hamlett sold him. Again, no replacement was signed. (See the pattern?)
We can no longer blame Hamlett, as Kevin Thelwell was hired as Head of Sport early in 2020. On August 13, Alex Muyl was traded to Nashville for the proverbial ham sandwich: an international slot for a year and a half. It went unused for 2020, and has been juggled in 2021 to keep various backups on the roster. Muyl's arrival in Nashville coincided with the team's turnaround. Correlation or causation? Hard to say, but this Metro team could definitely use Muyl's hustle and versatility.
After the unceremonious end to the 2020 season, Marc Rzatkowski was released on November 30. During the 2018 season, he famously filled in for Adams in a 2:0 win over Atlanta, but by the end, the well had ran dry. Then, on January 19, 2021, Tim Parker was sold to Houston. While Parker performed poorly for most of Armas' reign, it was his partnership with Aaron Long that was key to Metro's amazing defense in 2018, and he improved under Bradley Carnell. His replacement? Do we need to rehash the current season's crisis in central defense?
On February 2, Saudi Arabian club Al-Taawoun announced the signing of Alejandro Romero Gamarra. RBNY claimed he was still under contract, but it was too little to late. A player who could have been sold for millions left for nothing, thanks for Hamlett not asking for email acknowledgement. His replacement in attacking midfield? Do you have to guess? Moving on, we're almost there. On August 5, Florian Valot was sold to Cincinnati for a pittance.
So who is left from the 2018 team? Counting those who played at least 1000 minutes: Daniel Royer, who doesn't really fit in Gerhard Struber's formation. Aaron Long, whose ACL tear in May pretty much doomed Metro's season (if it wasn't doomed already). Sean Davis, the one player whose stock actually went up after 2018, the one regular who has kept his starting job...
As for those around Davis? Well, it's no longer a juggernaut. Far, far, far from it.