New stars arrive from England, Italy, Spain and Brazil for what promises to be the biggest and most widely watched MLS season ever.
Despite the farewells of several of its most prominent stars, there is much for Major League Soccer followers to look forward to in the competition’s 20th season.
Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill may no longer be around, but MLS clubs have been busy during the off season, putting an impressive list of newcomers in place. And that, as much as anything, emphasises the global reach of MLS: with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard from England, Sebastian Giovinco from Italy, David Villa from Spain and Kaka from Brazil.
While these superstar arrivals are a diverse group in terms of their countries of birth, they do have one thing in common: they are all attacking, goal-scoring players. And that is something that faithfully reflects the intentions of MLS when it started the Designated Player scheme, in 2007, to bring in crowd-pleasing, creative players. As MLS commissioner Don Garber says: “I wouldn’t expect our teams to be signing goalkeepers as DPs.”
For a while, Gerrard may be viewed by some as a replacement for Donovan at Los Angeles Galaxy, but that notion won’t last. The former Liverpool and England midfielder will make his own mark
at the club, where he has Robbie Keane – 54 goals in 84 game since joining in 2011 – to show him the way to MLS success.
The duo won’t, however, link up until July – as is the case with Lampard, whose late arrival has already caused quite a rumpus in the US, where fans of the newly created New York City had expected him to be with the club from the start of the season. They complained, with considerable justification, that the club had put out misleading information.
It hasn’t been easy for NYCFC. Despite all the rousing words about building a new stadium, there is still no sign of one, not even a site for one. The club will therefore play its first two seasons in the New York Yankees’ baseball stadium.
NYCFC’s coach Jason Kreis – an American who had an 11-year playing career in MLS – arrives after seven successful years as coach of Real Salt Lake, where he won the MLS championship in 2009 and consistently fielded a team that played eye-catching, attacking soccer. He has promised more
of the same in New York.
As a possible partner up front for David Villa, Kreis has signed Patrick Mullins. Only a year out of college, Mullins is an interesting choice. Relying more on skill and subtlety rather than strength and speed, Mullins is not a typical college player, for whom it has proved very difficult – especially forwards – to make an impression in MLS.
The arrival of the 5ft 5in Giovinco, dubbed “the atomic ant”, in Toronto represents yet another try by the Canadian club to build a winning team. The Italian comes in as the league’s highest-paid player, at $7million – which did nothing to ease the salary-inequality in the
club dressing room.
With Jermaine Defoe having left, Giovinco’s signing could be seen as part of a much-delayed change of direction by the club, away from Brit coaches and players, and his first task is to be part of the first Toronto team to qualify for the post-season play-offs since joining MLS in 2007.
Orlando City’s entry into MLS sees top-flight soccer return to the state of Florida, which had two teams – Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny – in the early days, before both folded in 2001. The presence of Kaka at Orlando gives MLS its first world-famous Brazilian. Yet, despite the conventional wisdom that the fans in Florida are predominantly Hispanic, there are few Latino players in the squad. And the coach is English – the former Stoke City and Everton striker Adrian Heath.
Along with the two new sides there is also a new stadium, with the opening of the 18,000-seat, soccer-
specific Avaya Stadium which will be the home of San Jose Earthquakes.
One cause for concern as the big kick off approaches is, will the season begin on time?
At the same time Garber was praising his league and its new players, he was also involved in negotiations with the players’ union, trying to work out a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
With MLS raking in big money from the franchise fees (between $70-$100million), impressive sponsorship deals and a new TV contract, players feel that the money should be spread more evenly in a league where the average salary is $226,000 – considerably less than the $6.5m that Toronto’s Michael Bradley earns. And yet it is Bradley who is one of the loudest voices calling for a fairer distribution of wages. If the negotiations didn’t go well, he let it be known that “we are ready to strike”.
Beyond the CBA talks and this year’s competition, there is no shortage of talking points and
new franchise activity.
Rather puzzling is the situation of Miami, which was chosen by David Beckham and his group for their team. Beckham created considerable excitement in February 2014 when he announced that his as yet un-named team would play in downtown Miami. He produced elaborate plans for the building of a stadium, but local businesses raised objections. An alternative site was found nearby, but that too was nixed – this time it was local residents who objected.
Garber then said that if Beckham couldn’t find a downtown site for his stadium, he wouldn’t be getting
a franchise. This seemed almost vindictive. After all, New York City had got its franchise without either
a stadium or a site.
Another non-active franchise is in Los Angeles. The original franchise, Chivas-USA, operated between 2007 and 2013, when it was sold back to the league. MLS operated the team last season while it searched for new investors, but at the end of 2014 Chivas-USA folded with the announcement that it would resume play in 2017 under a new name, with a new ownership group (Vincent Tan is one of the partners) and a new stadium.
CLUBS – BY CONFERENCE
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
NEW YORK CITY
NEW YORK RED BULLS
LOS ANGELES GALAXY
Adam Larsen Kwarasey
REAL SALT LAKE
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
SPORTING KANSAS CITY
By Paul Gardner