Need to know what’s going to happen this MLS season? Eight by Eight’s Chase Woodruff has got you covered
This has been as strange and as busy an offseason as Major League Soccer has seen in its 20-year history. The league added two franchises (Orlando City SC and New York City FC) and shuttered another (R.I.P. ChivaFighter), reshuffled its conference alignment and playoff format, and signed lucrative new TV rights deals on both sides of the Atlantic. Aging foreign superstars have continued to arrive from overseas—except for when they infamously haven’t—and they’ve been joined by another wave of returning USMNT veterans and paradigm-shifting newcomers like Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco. Hanging over it all has been the threat of a player strike as negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement have continued to stall.
In times of such upheaval and uncertainty, it helps to fall back on cold, hard facts—things we know, beyond all doubt, to be absolute truths. Here are six of them.
The season will, you know, happen
With time running out for the league and players to agree on a new deal before Friday’s opener in Los Angeles, CBA talks remain where they’ve been for months, with players as committed to achieving free agency as the league is adamant that it’s off the table. Fans are starting to panic a bit, and perhaps justifiably so—the league considers free agency an existential threat to its single-entity structure, and the players have talked such a big game about their willingness to strike that failing to make good on the threat would badly damage their position in future negotiations.
But even if an eleventh-hour agreement isn’t about to be reached, there’s little reason to believe that the 2015 season is in serious jeopardy. A player strike could last a few days or a few weeks, but not much longer than that. Many MLS players quite literally can’t afford to go months without collecting a paycheck, while at the other end of the spectrum, star talent lured from overseas by multimillion-dollar contracts will eventually want to see some of those dollars. The pressure on the league to get a deal done may not be quite as acute, but it shouldn’t be underestimated, either; with new TV deals, two expansion clubs, and a surplus of big-name arrivals, commissioner Don Garber will be reluctant to let a prolonged work stoppage threaten the league’s tangible momentum.
NYCFC will spoil all of our fun by actually playing good soccer
New York City FC entered the league in 2013 with great fanfare and a grand vision: the newest outpost in a global soccer empire, a substantial investment from the most storied franchise in American sports, a highly-capitalized Big Apple mega-club ready to spend big on superstar talent and a stadium in the five boroughs. Then the vision started to fall apart. Spanish legend Xavi Hernandez spurned the club and re-upped with Barcelona instead. Stadium plans stalled, forcing it into the ultimate square-peg situation at Yankee Stadium for the foreseeable future. Lately, the club has stumbled from one PR disaster to another: the Frank Lampard mess, heavy-handed restrictions on supporters’ groups, controversial media policies, and a cringeworthy attempt to nickname its fans.
This has been frustrating for the club’s emerging fanbase and great fun for the rest of us; every league needs a punching bag or two, and Man City West have made it awfully easy for everyone to get a few jabs in. But I’m afraid we’re going to look back on these last few months as the high-water mark of NYCFC schadenfreude, because soon the expansion side will start doing the only thing that ultimately matters: win.
Instant greatness is a lot to ask of a brand-new club, but there’s simply too much talent in the Bronx—and too much money backing it up—for success to be too long in coming. They boast the league’s best young manager in Jason Kreis and the solid core of Real Salt Lake veterans he’s brought along with him, a pair of star imports in David Villa and Lampard, a USMNT regular with something to prove in Mix Diskerud, and a breakout candidate in MLS newcomer Kwadwo Poku. To the disappointment of nearly everyone, NYCFC will succeed on the field—even if the field is a bit undersized and runs through the Yankee infield.
Late arrivals won’t make much of an impact
When MLS instituted the Beckham Rule in 2007, many fans expected a deluge of over-the-hill imports from top European leagues to follow, but it turned out to be more like a steady drip—a Thierry Henry here, a Robbie Keane there. All of a sudden, however, it seems like the spigot has been turned on with Kaká and David Villa already here and Lampard and Steven Gerrard on their way. With revenues up and the league’s profile rising, it’s highly likely that the summer transfer window will bring another marquee name or two to American shores.
But it’s equally likely that none of these July or August arrivals will do much to alter the course of their clubs’ seasons. Beckham himself set a low bar with his injury-plagued half-season with the Galaxy in 2007, and while few latecomers have been quite so ineffectual, it’s rare that a midseason addition clearly improves his club’s fortunes down the stretch. Gerrard and Lampard—aged 35 and 37, respectively, and both coming off a grueling Premier League season—don’t stand a chance of equaling the impact Jermaine Jones was able to make after a leisurely post-World Cup summer spent rubbing elbows with the likes of Paris Hilton and Tyga. The one late arrival who might make a difference is Houston’s Erick “Cubo” Torres, currently on loan at Chivas Guadalajara; small wonder, then, that the Dynamo are reportedly maneuvering to bring him back much earlier than expected.
LA and Seattle will be dethroned from atop the Western Conference
The Seattle Sounders and the Los Angeles Galaxy faced off in a home-and-home series on the final two weekends of the 2014 season, and again a month later in the Western Conference Finals. Each game felt like a championship match; L.A. and Seattle were the cream of the MLS crop in 2014, each led by an MVP candidate in Robbie Keane and Obafemi Martins and captained by the league’s two best-known Americans in Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Galaxy-Sounders has become one of the league’s best rivalries as the clubs have battled it out for Western Conference supremacy in the recent years, and neither club has finished lower than fourth in the West since Seattle entered the league in 2009.
That will change this year. The realigned Western Conference is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in league history. Newcomers Houston and Kansas City have rebuilt quickly after disappointing 2014 campaigns, Real Salt Lake are perennial contenders, and both Dallas and Vancouver have quietly built rosters stacked with young South American talent.
L.A. and Seattle, meanwhile, seem to have spent the offseason running in place, or worse. The Galaxy lost Donovan to retirement and midfield maestro Marcelo Sarvas to the Rapids, and will face the difficult task of incorporating Gerrard into a system he may or may not fit into halfway through the season. The Sounders replaced DeAndre Yedlin with 32-year-old Championship castoff Tyrone Mears, and made virtually no other moves; an injury or two to a thin squad could leave the club in serious trouble. Even if everything goes right for veteran managers Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid, they’ll face a tighter playoff race than many of their fans expect.
Jozy Altidore will be an MVP candidate
If Jozy Altidore were a publicly-traded corporation, he’d be a penny stock right now. Toronto acquired the veteran USMNT striker in January by shipping the disgruntled Jermain Defoe to Sunderland, and still received a “significant” transfer fee in return. Altidore’s 18-month stay at the Stadium of Light was a tragic embarrassment; in 42 appearances, he found the back of the net only once. (In his first three appearances as Altidore’s replacement, Defoe scored twice.) Even among American fans, the five-year, $30 million contract he signed with Toronto was met with widespread ridicule.
But Altidore has been in much the same position before, when he arrived at Dutch side AZ Alkmaar on a free transfer in 2011. He’d had dreadful stints at Villareal and Hull City and his stock was at an all-time low, and he responded by scoring 39 goals across all competitions over the next two seasons. We’re about to witness similar comeback in 2015. Altidore may not be a match for Vincent Kompany, but he’s certainly capable of dealing with Aaron Maund or Wandrille Lefèvre—especially when he’s getting service from Giovinco and Michael Bradley. Jozy will never be the kind of player we all hoped he might be when he left MLS seven years ago, but now that he’s back, you can bet that he’s about to start writing his next redemption narrative.
On December 6, New England will host Vancouver in the 2015 MLS Cup Final…
Temperature at kickoff will be a crisp 49°F, with a barometric pressure of 30.11 and wind gusts of up to 25 mph from the west-northwest. Grammy-winning recording artist Colbie Caillat will perform the national anthem before a roaring Gillette Stadium crowd of 38,527, who will be quickly stunned into silence by a 35-yard Pedro Morales wonder-strike in the third minute. A tense first half will see the Revolution dominate possession but fail to find the finishing touch to match a heroic performance from Whitecaps keeper David Ousted, but the 56th-minute addition of Charlie Davies into the New England attack will prove decisive. Davies and Juan Agudelo will combine for two quick goals just after the hour mark, and Teal Bunbury will add a third in stoppage time. At long last, the Revolution will hoist the MLS Cup. Hours later, Jermaine Jones will cause a minor stir on social media after being photographed shirtless, drinking Guinness out of a yard glass and arm-wrestling one of the lesser Wahlbergs.
Or, you know, something like that.
Follow Chase Woodruff on Twitter @dcwoodruff