MLS Heading into 2014
Is it March 8th yet?
Unfortunately, until the MLS season kicks off in March, fans of the league will be forced to find entertainment in other places, notably the large number of off-season moves that have and will continue to take place. With the re-entry draft and MLS transfer window in full swoop, we have already seen several important moves within the league and involving Mexico. Here are the biggest stories from the busiest teams:
Portland has had a relatively quiet offseason and will probably not make too many major moves before the beginning of the season. Andrew Jean-Baptiste, a physical and technical liability at the back for the Timbers, was let go and more importantly, they snagged Steve Zakuani from west coast rivals, Seattle Sounders, who could no longer afford to keep Zakuani on the wage bill. There are several reasons why Zakuani could be a great pickup for Portland. Caleb Porter coached Zakuani at Akron, so he will have personal and tactical experience in getting the best out of the pacey winger. Darlington Nagbe is also a close friend of Zakuani from college, so bringing them together could also bring about a revival for Zakuani. The former Arsenal youth product enjoyed a fantastic rookie season in MLS, scoring ten goals in 2010 and notching up a number of assists. If he can stay fit, Zakuani can once again be one of the most lethal attackers in the league.
Nobody has had a more effective and transforming off-season than the former whipping boys from D.C. The men in black led the league in goals conceded, aerial duels lost, and a number of other stats that effectively left them next to Toronto and Chivas as the worst teams in MLS. But D.C. United has been quick in identifying the necessary players to completely transform their team. Eddie Johnson has arrived from Seattle to much fanfare and rightly so. Eddie Johnson was by far the best striker available in the league after this season and at D.C. United, he’ll get the important pay rise that he demanded in Seattle. People worry about Johnson’s temperament, but at this stage in his career, and with former team-mate Ben Olsen, we can expect a Johnson who is focused on the field and not his paycheck.
But what good is scoring goals if the defense leaks like a porous faucet? D.C.’s moves on the other end of the pitch are arguably more important. They picked up local veteran Bobby Boswell, who comes around for his second stint at the club, and Sean Franklin, the two-time championship winning right back from the Galaxy. Boswell will bring experience and decent passing out of the back. Franklin however is the gem of the bunch. Franklin has been one of the best right backs in the league for several years now, and can also feature in midfield if needed. General Manager for D.C. United Dave Kasper recently explained in an interview with MLS ExtraTime that Franklin’s forward play from right back will be a key feature of D.C. United’s game next season.
As always in MLS, it’s almost more important who is let go rather than who is brought in. D.C. United released Dwayne De Rosario to Toronto, opening up salary space for Franklin, Boswell, and Johnson, while also freeing the team of a player that tactically, was holding them back. De Rosario is a strange player, a goal-scoring striker that doesn’t play like a typical number nine. He makes runs from deep, floats from wing to wing, and plays almost more like a second striker, despite his preference for being the main man up top. At the age of 35, there were also doubts over the explosiveness left to create that extra space he needs to be effective.
So are any other teams busy? Has the rest of the league decided to take off until after New Year’s? As a Union fan, I like to think so, and the team has made some good moves to free up space. Chicago Fire legend Corben Bone arrived during the re-entry draft, and is allegedly a former protege of John Hackworth. The explosive attacking midfielder made an impressive eighteen appearances for Chicago and will no doubt serve as a central force of Philadelphia’s forward line next year. That’s sarcasm everyone. Bone is a good pick-up as a cheap option in the squad, but Philadelphia is nowhere near finished. Farfan’s transfer to Cruz Azul should free up more space in the midfield and within the salary cap for some more moves in midfield, and from everything Hackworth and the technical team have said, the staff is racking up miles flying to Denmark, Greece, Germany, Argentina, and Brazil during the off-season.
Seattle has also done good business in cleaning the squad of excess deadwood. Mauro Rosales, Eddie Johnson, and Steve Zakuani, three attackers on expensive salaries all find themselves plying their trade elsewhere, and former MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall comes in. Rosales and Zakuani had a limited influence on the Sounders attack last year, struggling with injuries and form as Sigi Schmidt struggled to put together a fluid attack. Johnson however was a huge player for the Sounders, leading the team in scoring for two years. Clint Dempsey will pick up some of the slack when he returns next season, but the Sounders will need to keep Obafemi Martins fit and pick up another wide player if they’re going to win the championship that the fans and the league crave.
Grading the league in 2013: B+
The growth nature of soccer in the U.S. means that MLS is constantly looking both forward and back over it’s shoulder, assessing how far it’s come and where it needs to go. The league made huge steps in recent years, adding successful teams in Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, and Montreal, with new clubs already announced in New York and Orlando. Orlando F.C. exhibits all the early signs of a successful MLS franchise, with an exciting fanbase and culture around the squad, and more importantly concrete plans for an 18,000 seater stadium right smack in the middle of downtown Orlando in the vibrant and bar-filled Church Street neighborhood.
NYCFC on the other hand, despite snagging the best young U.S. coach around right now in Jason Kreis, faces some major doubts. This new expansion team has been Commissioner Don Garber’s dream for several years now, a big name New York franchise right in the city. Plans for a stadium in the Bronx are being discussed, and the team’s management is set, with Kreis working under former U.S. National team star Claudio Reyna, who will handle the long-term technical work of the squad. But for some reason, MLS has had a hard time putting together any sort of excitement around this team in New York. There’s no fan movement to create a supporter’s group and speaking with New Yorkers and walking around New York gives no impression that a huge, Manchester City-New York Yankee-owned soccer team is arriving in 2015. Where’s the buzz? Local soccer fan and columnist at Big Apple Soccer, Will Smith said it best "The problem with trying to figure out who NYC FC's fan base will be is that I can think of more parties that wouldn't root for the team than I can think of parties who would root for the team." I have a sneaking suspicion that New York will never be the soccer town that MLS thinks it can be, despite the huge presence of foreign-supporting fans in all five boroughs.
On the television front, NBC has done a wonderful job, and as mentioned previously at Began in 96, the original content being put out by the league has added much needed storylines and personality to several of the league’s more colorful players. Production value for the MLS remains top notch and after the World Cup this summer, the league should land an improved television deal, with this summer’s tournament expected to break all domestic soccer ratings records due to the ideal time zone of Brazil’s broadcasts. According to The Street, MLS expects to double its current $30 million deal, with partners expected to be ESPN, NBC, and Unimas in Spanish. A strong showing by the U.S. national team this summer could increase that even more, as MLS ratings continue to show a spike in season’s after the World Cup. MLS seems to be riding a wave right now of popularity, and despite the league’s struggles with television ratings, expansion into new markets and the continued increase of the salary cap should mean more quality players coming into the league and an even better product. 2014 could be the league’s best yet.