MLS Grab Bag: Opening Day
Welcome to the MLS Grab Bag. Every Friday, I’ll be previewing the weekend’s action and commenting on any notable developments from the preceding week. There will be some regular features as well, such as a power ranking for the top five MLS Cup and whatever else strikes my fancy. So, here goes.
For every door that closes another opens. Or so they say. Having lost the appeal to their lawsuit against the USSF for refusing to classify the league as a second rather than third-tier competition, the North American Soccer League closed shop for the year. Most of its clubs had either already joined other leagues or folded anyway.
NASL and its flagship franchise, New York Cosmos, believed the USSF was colluding with Major League Soccer to stifle competition. Among other issues, they pressed for promotion and relegation to provide fair opportunity for all given MLS wouldn’t even consider Cosmos for MLS membership even with a franchise fee. It believes New York, which boasted roughly 100,000 more residents than London at the last census in 2013, can only sustain two teams.
London, meanwhile, has six Premier League sides, four in the Championship, and one each in Leagues One and Two, not to mention dozens in the tiers below. The capitalist United States has oddly socialist ideas about how to run sports competitions. MLS is more concerned with protecting investors in its franchises than allowing the free market to dictate supply and demand. When the inevitable ruling came down, NASL announced its season would not take place.
Cosmos were one of three clubs that joined the National Premier Soccer League. The NPSL is not designated as being on any level by USSF but is generally considered the country’s fourth tier. The second iteration of the iconic club desperately wanted to play in the top flight. Cosmos risked everything it had to do so and has instead been forced to drop down two levels. Talk about your shrinking universe.
Nothing to see here, people, move along
Having seen off the rabble, MLS will open for business this weekend. There is now a 23rd franchise in the league (in Los Angeles, not New York), which further hinders a balanced fixture list. Not every team will have a dance partner each week. It’s a bit like playing musical chairs with love seats. On the bright side, managers will be able to rest players at intermittent intervals throughout the season.
Ten matches will be played on Saturday and Sunday. Three clubs, New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire, and Colorado Rapids will not begin their campaigns until next week. There is one rather amazing matchup, courtesy the scheduling gods.
Philadelphia Union v New England Revolution
I told you. Scheduling gods. How else do you explain a season opener that corresponds to the NFL Super Bowl matchup that took place less than a month ago?
Unfortunately, both the Union and Revs finished just outside the Eastern Conference playoff places in 2017. Don’t expect this tilt to be the wide open, up and down affair the gridiron classic was.
For one thing, rather than Tom Brady, the Revs have Riyad Mahrez. In the guise of playmaker Lee Nguyen, I mean. The US international boycotted training in January after the club a) refused to renegotiate his ridiculously low wages and b) denied his transfer request. Like Leicester City’s Algerian, Nguyen eventually rejoined the team. He is unhappy nonetheless. It's difficult to see how that will translate into a good season for the Patriots sister organisation.
The Union got younger in the offseason by releasing Oguchi Onweyu and letting Chris Pontius sign with LA Galaxy. They also passed on the Dutchies. Attacking mid Roland Alberg has signed with CSKA Sofia and Georginio’s little brother Giliano Wijnaldum was released. The team did acquire Ghanaian left winger David Accam from Chicago Fire in a Super Draft swap. Like the Revs, however, Philly doesn’t have much to look forward to in a stacked Eastern Conference where Toronto FC, NYCFC, Atlanta United, and Orlando City should be battling for honours.
If one side or the other can come away with three points in this quasi-rematch it could be their biggest moment of the year.
The New Guys
The newly purchased and hastily assembled Los Angeles Football Club begin their competitive existence on Sunday. If you thought it was cruel of the scheduling gods to match New England and Philadelphia on Opening Day when neither measures up to their NFL counterparts, then you won’t be surprised they’ve also thrown LAFC into the deep end of the pool.
The Wings travel up the Pacific Coast Highway to face Western Conference Champions and 2016 MLS Cup winners Seattle Sounders in their opener. There is a difference between newly purchased and newly promoted, however. LAFC might just be able to hang with the Sounders. Swansea fans might laugh at the notion when they hear Bob Bradley is the Angelinos first manager. Still, the much-reviled American has Carlos Vela leading the line and Penarol’s teenage sensation Diego Rossi partnering him. The pairing could be MLS’ answer to Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, even if Bradley isn’t Pep Guardiola.
Meanwhile, Seattle hasn’t had the best preseason. Forward Jordan Morris has been ruled out for the season after damaging a cruciate ligament in his knee in Concacaf Champions League action last week. To add insult to injury, Sounders lost the match.
Brian Schmetzer still has the veteran pairing of Clint Dempsey and Will Bruin up front, with Nicolas Lodeiro pulling the strings in midfield. Harry Shipp may benefit from Morris’ absence if he can take advantage of an opportunity to turn his once-promising career around. Seattle also added South Korean centre-back Kee-hee Kim from Shanghai Greenland Shenhua midweek. The Sounders should be in the Western Conference mix again this season.
Concacaf Champions League
The Round of 16 played out over the last fortnight. Toronto FC began their season in good form, beating fellow MLS side Colorado Rapids 2-0 away in the first leg then maintaining that advantage in a chance-filled goalless draw north of the border at BMO Field.
TFC are through to the quarterfinals in their bid to add continental glory to their MLS supremacy. If you’re confused as to how two MLS sides can meet in the first knockout round when that would never happen to Premier League clubs in UEFA’s Champions League, it’s down to the off-kilter MLS schedule and the league having teams in two countries. TFC qualify as Canadian champions from the 2016 season and can be drawn against American MLS sides.
In other action, both Seattle and FC Dallas had to overcome deficits in second-leg matches at home. Seattle had the away goal working in their favour after a 2-1 defeat to El Salvadoran club Santa Tecla. Dallas had a slightly more difficult task having lost the first leg of their bullfight with Tauro, 1-0, at Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama.
The Toros hosted their Panamanian namesakes at Toyota Park needing to win by two to avoid extra time and penalties. Oscar Pareja’s side went for it but failed to defend well. The match ended 3-2 with Tauro going through on the away gore rule.
Seattle started slowly at CenturyLink Field. The second leg remained scoreless at the break. Two minutes after the restart, however, Will Bruin ran between two Santa Techla defenders onto a squared ball to level the tie on aggregate and give Sounders the advantage on away goals. In the 70th minute, Clint Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro swapped roles, the scorer becoming provider with a cheeky lob into the box from the end line, and the playmaker turning finisher by running in to get on the end. With the Salvadorans forced to press forward, Seattle took advantage. Chad Marshall headed in Lodeiro’s near-post corner kick and Magnus Wolff Eikrem completed a one-two to finish the scoring.
New York Red Bulls had fared surprisingly well against Honduran side CD Olimpia, earning a one-goal draw in what was an away leg for both sides. Red Bulls bucked the retirement league label attached to MLS in the offseason, trading away 32-year-old captain Sacha Kljestan to Orlando City. NYRB are now the second-youngest side in the league, their average player being 24.3-years-old. Only FC Dallas have more trouble getting into nightclubs.
The first leg against Olimpia took place in Costa Rica due to continued violent protest in Honduras over its 2017 election. The contest was also played behind closed doors as a penalty against Olimpia for disruptive fans at a match in the Concacaf League.
In the second leg at Red Bull Arena, Jesse Marsch’s young squad bossed possession, Olimpia were dangerous on the counter, but neither side could alter the score in the first half. Not ten minutes into the second half Bradley Wright-Phillips beat Olimpia keeper Donis Escober to his near post from well outside the box. The match opened up and Sean Davis put the tie away with a deflected shot that caught Escober going the wrong way.
The quarterfinals begin immediately. TFC hosts Liga MX 2017 Apertura champions Tigres on Tuesday. The Red Bulls head to Tijuana to take on the Xolos. Seattle face a tough test at CenturyLink Field against Chivas de Guadalajara.
Race for the MLS Cup
Here are the preseason’s top five favourites to be crowned 2018 Major League Soccer Champion:
5. Orlando City -- While he was in Disneyville, Kaka put a lot of people in the seats. Unfortunately, he didn’t give them much of a show. Now that the Brazilian has called it a career, the Lions are looking like they might roar. Having already acquired Dom Dwyer from Sporting KC in a midseason trade last year, City also picked up the league’s premier playmaker Sacha Kljestan from NYRB and winger Justin Meram from Columbus Crew. There are now four dangerous attacking sides in the Eastern Conference.
4. Seattle Sounders -- Clint Dempsey and Will Bruin aren’t getting any younger but they are still the most dangerous goal tandem in the Western Conference. Add in Lodeiro and they have to be considered favourites to win the division. Portland and Vancouver have both lost key players, the Galaxy are retooling, and LAFC is an unknown commodity until they get a few games under their belts.
3. Atlanta United -- You can tell Tata Martino is a former Barcelona manager by the manner in which he keeps stockpiling attacking talent. Darlington Nagbe and Argentine sensation Ezequiel Barco have arrived, the former to replace Yamil Asad, the latter to support Hector Villalba. Barco suffered a quad injury and will miss the season’s first 4-6 weeks. That isn’t likely to slow this offence down though.
2. New York City FC -- Andrea Pirlo retired. Young Englishman Jack Harrison was loaned out to Middlesbrough. But David Villa and Maxi Moralez remain. Ismael Tajouri and Jesus Medina have arrived from Austria Wien and Libertad Asuncion respectively to add speed on the flanks. Patrick Vieira is reading from Pep Guardiola’s book at Manchester City’s American satellite. He probably doesn’t have the horses to catch the MLS Cup holders but he can give it a good run.
1. Toronto FC -- If you win the title you deserve to go into the new season as the top dog. The Reds have done nothing in the offseason to suggest they shouldn’t. Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Victor Vazquez, and Michael Bradley all return, the league’s most potent attack force completely intact. Right back Gregory van der Wiel arrives to add a new dimension on the flank. Until they prove otherwise, TFC are favourites to boss the league again.