Ten things to watch for in the new MLS season
MLS’s foreign imports have grabbed most of the headlines over the past few years, understandably given the name recognition of players such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry, but one of the most fascinating aspects of this season will be the progress of a new generation of American players on the fringe of the national team. Sporting KC striker Teal Bunbury and New York Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo are fancied by many as a future pairing for Bob Bradley’s team but they will need to deliver week-in-week-out in MLS. Red Bulls defender Tim Ream had an excellent first year and will likely be scouted heavily by European clubs this season. Portland Timbers attacker Darlington Nagbe was born in Liberia but is seeking naturalization and there is a lot of buzz about his potential.
DIG THE NEW BREED
The Pacific North-West should provide plenty of lively derby action this year with the Seattle Sounders, the best-supported team in the league, joined by two new teams — local rivals Portland Timbers and Northern neighbours Vancouver Whitecaps. Both clubs are technically ‘expansion franchises’ but don’t confuse them with recent creations such as the Philadelphia Union and Real Salt Lake who started from scratch. Both the Timbers and the Whitecaps existed in the old NASL and continued in second tier soccer up until last season. Both have good fan-bases who expect an instant impact. Both were able to build upon their backroom and on-field staff from the second tier. In short – both are more like typical promoted teams in European leagues – they have to step up to a new level on the field and can expect some fresh impetus off the field. It should be fascinating to watch how they fare in their first season with the big boys. Who will make the bigger impact?
SHINY, HAPPY PEOPLE?
The Kansas City Wizards were not one of MLS’s big success stories having averaged crowds of around 10,000 for most of their existence – initially playing at the 80,000 capacity Arrowhead Stadium, home to the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and then at a cozier but not-very soccer friendly minor-league baseball park. This season all that changes. The rather silly-sounding Wizards name has been dropped in favour of Sporting Kansas City – mocked by some as being a pretentious Euro-wannabe name (Sporting Club being a historic team in Lisbon, Portugal) but surely an upgrade on the Wizards? This season the team also move into their own, shiny new, purpose built 18,500 venue – Livestrong Sporting Park. The venue isn’t quite ready so the first eight games of the season for Sporting will be on the road but it will be interesting to see if the rebrand and the new home manage to attract more fans. That certainly helped New York Red Bulls last year – when they moved into Red Bull Arena their average home gate rose from 12,229 to 18,441.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK?
This is MLS’s 16th year and still New York hasn’t won a title. Not in their earlier Metrostars garb and not in the current Red Bulls set-up. But with former Arsenal and France striker Thierry Henry ready for his first full season and having put his fitness problems behind him, the Red Bulls should mount a serious challenge this year. 18-year-old Agudelo and Jamaican winger Dane Richards provide some exciting pace up front while Ream and Mexican Rafa Marquez, formerly of Barcelona, should be the best central defensive pairing in MLS. Some Scandinavian solidity in midfield, recruited by Swedish head coach Hans Backe, makes the Red Bulls, on paper at least, among the favourites.
The polite way to describe the L.A Galaxy would be to say they are team that draws heavily on experienced veterans. A less complimentary approach would say they are old. David Beckham is 36 in May and he’ll be the main force in midfield providing the ammunition for 35-year-old Colombian forward Juan Pablo Angel. Defenders Gregg Berhalter and Frankie Hejduk are 37 and 36 year old respectively. Landon Donovan, 29, appears a mere kid in that company. Experienced (there we go again) head coach Bruce Arena is banking on all the know-how delivering a MLS Cup this year. Of course, behind the big names with most birthdays, are a bunch of younger players who will be expected to provide the hard-running and the pace. Omar Gonzalez at the back, Brazilian midfielder Juninho and Argentine Paolo Cardozo are all players to keep an eye on this year. Will the mix be right or is Arena or over-doing it with the old boys? We will find out soon enough.
Much has been made of MLS’s attempts to woo the huge Mexican soccer audience in North America though signings such as Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Rafa Marquez and the whole Chivas USA experiment. But the Spanish speaking population in the United States is a diverse one and the large Colombian communities dotted around the country have plenty of their own talent to watch this year. Creative midfielder David Ferreira of FC Dallas was the league’s MVP last year, Freddy Montero of Seattle Sounders is a joy to watch at times with his light-footed touch and sharp movement, Jamison Olave was voted 2010 Defender of the Year for his powerful contributions at centre-half for Real Salt Lake. Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon will be 40 in June but after playing all over the world he brings some valuable experience to a Philadelphia Union team that had problems in that position last year. Less well known, but highly-rated by those who have seen him – 18 year old Fabian Castillo who has signed with FC Dallas and whose pace could cause some problems for opposition defences.
Toronto FC have been one of MLS’s biggest successes off the field but an acute disappointment for their fans on it. That has to change this year, said the clubs owners, who hired Juergen Klinsmann – the former Germany manager and eternal candidate for the USA job – to headhunt them some new coaching talent. Klinsmann’s consulting resulted in the hiring of Aaron Winter as head coach, coming in from Ajax’s youth academy. If Winter is half as good at coaching as he was at bossing the midfield in his days with Ajax and Lazio, then Toronto is in for some good times. If he can bring just a flavor of the Ajax passing style to the Canadian club, then fans who lamented the over-reliance on a direct style, will be satisfied. The big question though – is there enough quality in the squad to play fluent football or even to be competitive?
OLSEN AND DAVIES IN DC
D.C United have been a rather sorry franchise over the past couple of years – struggling to get a deal sorted for a new stadium, fading on the field and just generally giving off the air of a club that has lost direction after appearing at one time to be the league’s first dominant club. Now with former midfield favourite Ben Olsen in charge as head coach there is a buzz around the RFK again. Dax McCarty, brilliant at times last year for FC Dallas, will bring some much needed class to midfield. Charlie Davies, the U.S international trying to comeback from a horrific car accident, will get most of the attention as he seeks to resurrect his career but keep an eye on former Red Star Belgrade and Rapid Vienna midfielder Branko Boskovic.
SUMMER OF SOCCER
MLS clubs will once again get a chance to test themselves against some of the top teams in the world with Barcelona, Manchester United and AC Milan among the leading European clubs coming to the U.S in pre-season. They are only friendlies but the big crowds and huge interest around these fixtures makes sure they rarely become a stroll in the sun. With the CONCACAF Gold Cup on U.S soil in June, it means the middle of the soccer season could become rather congested but with Latin eyes also turning south in July for Copa America, it really is a bumper few months of top level soccer in the region.
Because MLS runs on a different calendar to the European leagues, the transfer market is strangely skewed towards mid-season deals. With player contracts in England, Italy and Spain running out in June, don’t be surprised to see MLS bringing in some more big name ‘Designated Players’ during the summer months. A name to chew on? Clarence Seedorf, out of contract at AC Milan in June, and like Henry, a man who has always fancied a switch to the States. With the growing appeal of MLS to foreign players, increased spots for designated players and a little more cash to spread, expect plenty of players to be linked with MLS clubs.