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MLS Grab Bag, Week 2: No dimples for Golden Balls, slow starts, and cooking the books

Friday 9th March 2018

Welcome to the second week of coverage at MLS Grab Bag. Each week we’ll review interesting developments from the week, preview key weekend matches, and, you know, stuff.

Let them play golf

After two years of battling various litigants, having several prospective stadium sites rejected, and enduring more than one ownership restructuring, David Beckham was finally awarded his discounted Miami MLS franchise in January. It appeared that construction on both the ground and team could begin. About that…

There are several issues with the Overtown site the group finally adopted to build its new stadium. It’s small, not near any major transportation hubs, and has no parking. With opposition to the site regrouping, Jorge Mas, the new lead investor in Miami Beckham United, met with the Miami city manager to discuss other sites.

Emilio Gonzales suggested Melreese golf course as an alternative. The site is much larger than the Overtown project. There is space for the stadium, parking, restaurants, bars, shoppes, and a training facility/academy. Near Miami International Airport, it is also close to the Dolphin Expressway. That’s important in a city where most people drive.

The two parties apparently agreed to have further discussions. There is no word as yet whether, if Melreese becomes the fledgling team’s new home, what MBU will do with the land already purchased in Overtown.

Best laid plans

Opening Day for several top clubs was more about opening their eyes than a new season. MLS Cup champions Toronto FC were soundly defeated by relocation-threatened Columbus Crew. Atlanta United were spanked by Houston Dynamo. Seattle Sounders lost their home opener to Bob Bradley’s expansion side, LAFC.

For Toronto and Seattle, partial blame can be assessed to the need to rotate with important Concacaf Champions League elimination round matches coming thick and fast even before preseason was complete. For Atlanta, Tata Martino might want to pay just a tad more attention to defending.

Tata’s United will have the opportunity to redress their woeful Week 1 performance in Houston when they welcome DC United to the Mercedes Benz Stadium on Sunday. DC were joint-bottom on points with LA Galaxy in 2017 but were seven worse in goal difference. Ben Olsen’s club managed a one-goal draw in their opener last week. But uniting the Uniteds won’t be the most interesting match this weekend.

NYCFC v LA Galaxy

The Galaxy’s 2-1 victory over rebuilding Portland Timber last week suggested the all-time MLS Cup winning side (5) are on their way back following their lost season. They travel to the East Coast to take on Patrick Vieira’s Man City Lite squad at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. City won their home opener in relative ease, 2-0, over Sporting Kansas City.

With David Villa and Maxi Moralez running the attack, the Sky Blues remain strong MLS Cup contenders. LA is deep up front as well. With Ola Kamara, los hermanos Dos Santos, and Romain Alessandrini, the Galaxy can trade attacking blows with the league’s best.

The defence is the question. It’s a new unit. None of the group has been in the lineup for more than two seasons. Thirty-seven-year-old Ashley Cole provides a shut-down defender on the left flank. Thirty-three-year-old Lorient star Michael Ciani adds solidity in the middle.

The result may tell us just how close the Galaxy are to their former selves, but LA will have to dig deep with Romain Alessandrini unavailable.

Concacaf Champions League

Wow. Liga MX has long bossed this competition, its teams regularly filling the semi-finals and beyond. Major League Soccer has struggled to compete due to scheduling and squad depth issues. The league has been addressing both problems. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the three remaining MLS clubs in the competition each played a quarter-final first leg against a Mexican club. They all came away with wins. There is another leg to go, but indications are the league’s efforts have paid dividends.

On Tuesday, New York Red Bulls went down to Tijuana to face the Xolos. They came away with a 2-0 victory thanks to a pair of Bradley Wright-Phillips goals and some David de Gea-like goalkeeping from Luis Robles. Tijuana put 17 of its 22 shots on target but could not overcome Robles. The Red Bulls managed five of nine, with BWP providing the brace. The semifinal is there for the taking if Jesse Marsch’s group can defend Red Bull Arena on Tuesday evening.

Wednesday evening saw both TFC and the Sounders come away with narrow wins in their quarter-final tilts. TFC was in a match of champions with UANL Tigres at BMO Field. Eduardo Vargas opened the scoring on 52 minutes for the visitors, but Jozy Altidore, on the hour, and Jonathon Osorio, at the death, answered for the Reds. Tigres’ away goal puts Toronto in a precarious position for Wednesday’s return leg in Monterrey. Seattle hasn’t an away goal to concern them when they travel to Guadalajara to face Chivas with a 1-0 advantage courtesy Clint Dempsey’s 78th-minute strike. This one is also balanced on a razor’s edge, nonetheless.

Creative bookkeeping

Major League Soccer’s early success in the CCL quarter-finals owes much to a pair of new policies from the league.

First, teams involved in the competition are being afforded some scheduling relief. The Red Bulls had a bye in the season’s opening week that allowed them to travel to Tijuana fresh. They will play Portland on Saturday but, importantly, at home with a 7 pm start that aligns with the evening match on Tuesday. Both Seattle and Toronto played in Week 1 but had home matches against their Liga MX opponents. Each has a bye this week as they prepare to head south of the border.

Even more important is the salary cap relief the league has designed to help teams fighting on multiple fronts with their squad depth. One such relief is target allocation money or TAM. First offered in 2015, TAM provides an additional $1.2 million in salary cap space for clubs to improve the quality of squad players. Teams can use the money to sign players, they can trade it to acquire players, and they can also use homegrown and academy players in cup and continental play. Seattle and Toronto used TAM funds to sign Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Gregory van der Wiel respectively. Red Bulls rely significantly on their youth system and played several academy graduates in Tijuana.

As Juventus demonstrated against Tottenham at Wembley in the UEFA Champions League, the tie is not over until the second leg is played. It’s too early for the league to say the program has been successful, but progress is apparent. Mexican clubs have never been collectively behind the eightball to MLS sides in the competition's history.

Race for the MLS Cup

Here are the top five favourites to be crowned 2018 Major League Soccer Champion following the first week’s play:

5. Seattle Sounders -- After the notable upsets in Week 1, the list has changed considerably. Two new sides have joined, while Orlando City and Atlanta United’s uninspiring performances have seen them dropped. Sounders weren’t too impressive in losing their home opener to brand new franchise LAFC, but one defensive lapse aside, the team’s problems were down to an inability to take their chances. They’ll bounce back.

4. Toronto FC -- As will the Reds. TFC were more soundly beaten by Columbus Crew last week, but are too talented and experienced a squad to accept such results. Their response in beating Tigres in the Champions League says as much.

3. LA Galaxy -- Including the Galaxy on this list is optimistic. One win doesn’t erase an abysmal campaign. But the Galaxy franchise is not one to accept losing. It’s why they rehired Sigi Schmid when Curt Onalfo couldn’t deliver. Their offseason moves also display intent. The Galaxy are MLS Cup long shots, but they deserve to be back in the conversation.

2. Houston Dynamo -- The Dynamo were left off this list last week despite having been 90 minutes from an MLS Cup final in 2017. Their 4-0 dismantling of Atlanta United proved they deserve to be here.

1. New York City FC -- The lone side from Week 1’s list to start the season on a winning note, City lost Andrea Pirlo in the offseason, but more notably winger Jack Harrison. Dominating a solid SKC squad out of the gate says Patrick Vieira has the depth to challenge for his first trophy as a manager.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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