10 things to watch out for in the new MLS season
The 15th Major League Soccer season kicks off on Thursday as fans thankfully turn their thoughts from collective-bargaining agreements and guaranteed contracts, to action on the field, safe in the knowledge that the only strikers making the news this week will be those who score goals.
Others will make their judgments on the deal that avoided a strike — but what is certain is that the new five-year contract and modest salary structure ensures not only that MLS will start on Thursday (Seattle Sounders host the Philadelphia Union) but also that it will enter its 20th year in much the same status as it began its first – a league featuring a surprising number of good players, being paid a surprisingly low amount of money.
But anyway, this writer too has had enough of all the financial and contractual talk and rather is looking forward to the start of the new season. Here are ten things to keep an eye on this year:
1. Philadelphia Union – a brand new franchise to finally give the enthusiastic supporters club who preceded them, the Sons of Ben, something to cheer about. With the canny Pole Peter Nowak as head coach, the Union will be well prepared but they lack a proven prolific goalscorer and are relying on the unpredictable (but superbly named) Brazilian midfielder Fred for their inspiration. Expect workmanlike solidity, the odd upset and perhaps some sparkling moments from their number one draft pick Danny Mwanga, who could get more playing time than most rookies.
2. New York Red Bulls – with a shiny new stadium and an experienced new coach, the Austrian owners also hope for a new vibe around one of MLS’s most disappointing franchises. Last year saw abysmal crowds and performances to match. Red Bull’s success this year will be measured more in terms of tickets sold than goals scored but Swedish coach Hans Backe has been trying to drill some shape into the formation. Bustling Belgian Ibrahim Salou has been signed to partner the prolific Colombian Juan Pablo Angel in attack.
3. Kyle Beckerman – The dreadlocked Real Salt Lake captain was outstanding in the MLS Cup final win over the LA Galaxy at the end of last season but needs to get off to a great start this time if he is to earn a place in Bob Bradley’s U.S squad for the World Cup finals. Beckerman has the quality most sorely lacking in MLS midfielders – composure. The U.S national team could do with some of that as well.
4. Strikers – Bob Bradley needs to find at least one to settle on for the World Cup. Houston’s Brian Ching and Colorado’s Conor Casey are two big target men who are in contention for the slot alongside Jozy Altidore for the U.S but there is such a lack of real firepower that the field is pretty open for any American forward to make a blistering start to the season. Is there any hidden talent out there in the MLS?
5. David Beckham – An Achilles tendon injury means the Englishman could miss the entire season but don’t expect him to stay out of the limelight for long. With the Galaxy paying him $6.5 million again this year, they and the league will want to see some contribution from him. Don’t be surprised to see him popping up as a pundit on television or doing outreach work with kids. But the big story would be if he starts to show real interest in exercising his option on the planned 20th franchise for the league.
6. Designated Players – the biggest change that could happen this would be the doubling of the spaces available for ‘Beckham Rule’ players. With Blanco gone and Beckham out of action, the league needs more than the Freddie Ljungberg and Angel to capture the imagination of yet to be convinced fans. Commissioner Don Garber has hinted that a liberalisation is on the agenda and if it encourages some of the smaller franchises to take a dip into the international market it could really liven the league up. Thierry Henry and Raul have been frequently linked with the league but there are plenty of other ‘names’ who would attract the kind of fans the league needs to win over if it is to move to a higher level of support. Recent rumour? Robbie Keane to New England Revolution. That sounds far-fetched (and almost certainly is) but it is the sort of imaginative deal needed if the league is to really take off.
7. Houston Dynamo – can this very likeable team survive losing their two most influential midfielders? Ricardo Clark’s switch to Eintracht Frankfurt and Stuart Holden’s move to Bolton Wanderers means coach Dominic Kinnear has to do some rebuilding. Will the arrival of grafting Jamaican central midfielder Lovel Palmer and experienced Canadian Adrian Serioux be the answer?
8. Landon Donovan and LA – The Galaxy forward’s impressive loan spell at Everton surprised even his biggest fans (and silenced his biggest critics) but he kept his word and returned to continue his career at the Home Depot Center. The big question is – will he stay in MLS after the World Cup? Many American fans would love to see him enjoy a few years in the Premier League and Everton would surely take him back for the right fee but the Galaxy without Beckham and Donovan wouldn’t be the Galaxy. Then again, perhaps owner Tim Leiweke might get the second designated player rule he has been pushing for…..
9. Seattle Sounders. Ha, you thought we’d get through a list of ten things in MLS without mentioning the biggest U.S soccer franchise since the New York Cosmos? A league record 32,000 season tickets have been sold for the upcoming season, the two Freddies (Ljungberg and exciting Colombian creator Montero) are still in Seattle and with plenty of resources behind them the Sounders could really take advantage of an eventual second designated player slot. With Switzerland forward Blaise Nkufo joining after the World Cup, they could go all the way.
10. Division Two soccer. Well, it’s all some of us have got. After a bitter dispute that threatened to end in court, the breakaway NASL and the depleted USL-1 were forced by the U.S Soccer Federation to play in a merged league for this season alone. There are fresh teams up and running with the Tampa Bay Rowdies re-born and now coached by Paul Dalglish son of the great Liverpool striker Kenny. The traditional hotbed of soccer of in the U.S, St.Louis, also has a professional team again but the favourites will be the big two Canadian teams – the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact and the Puerto Rico Islanders. Keep an eye out for Dalglish’s lads though…
PHOTO: Juan Pablo Angel from Colombia of the Major League Soccer (MLS) club New York Red Bulls practices in the new Red Bulls Arena during a team workout in Harrison, New Jersey, March 16, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Segar