By Ridge Mahoney
Of the many moves MLS teams have taken since the end of the regular season, more than a few stand out, either because of the names involved or their abrupt shift from the past.
Homegrown signings generate a lot of buzz and press coverage, and they are an important facet of league operations. But relatively speaking, they don’t figure to carry the importance of veterans being traded, coaches being hired, or experienced newcomers signed.
These listings reflect the relative, short-term impact of these moves within MLS, not their shrewdness or wisdom. Time is needed to evaluate how they work out.
1. REAL SALT LAKE RE-TOOLS. Even successful teams can get stuck in a rut, and after a second-place finish and early playoff elimination, RSL management pulled to the trigger in a long-anticipated makeover. Unloading three topflight starters -- forward Fabian Espindola, midfielder Will Johnson and defender Jamison Olave -- gives RSL a lot of salary-cap space and allocation money; some of each will come in handy as it attempts to re-sign playmaker Javier Morales. Yet he’s not been the same since suffering a fractured ankle in May 2011, and can’t continue to play gun-shy of every tackle. The entire team seemed unduly distracted and outraged each time Morales hit the ground, fouled or otherwise. If he comes back to MLS and RSL with a new deal and renewed spirit, and those holes can be filled, he and RSL can get back to business. Regardless, a new era is about to dawn for RSL.
2. LE TOUX BACK TO PHILLY. The upgrade from USL to MLS transformed the Seattle franchise along with its new league, but didn’t work out so well for attacker Sebastien Le Toux. Moved to midfield from his preferred forward slot, he labored during the Sounders’ inaugural 2009 MLS season and the following year was traded to Philly, where he relished the city and another fanatical fan group while scoring 14 goals and registering 11 assists. But eventually his soccer chafed under the tyranny of former head coach Peter Nowak, and after bouncing to Vancouver and then New York, he’s back in Philly, where his considerable skills and efficient movement on and off the ball should blossom once again.
3. TORONTO HIRES PAYNE. When consulted by Anschutz Entertainment Group president Tim Leiweke in 2008 about who should be hired to transform the then-moribund Galaxy, then-D.C. United president Kevin Payne replied, “He’ll make you tear your hair out every so often by what he says or what he does, but the only man for the job is Bruce Arena." Payne may himself conjure up a few such moments for Toronto FC as its recently hired president, but with a passionate fan base disgruntled by six – out of six – postseason misses and a roster as weak as any in MLS, well, who else ya gonna call? And, there are no stadium issues to distract Payne from shoring up the competitive side along with head coach Paul Mariner, who’d best not get too comfortable in that seat.
4. SPORTING KC GETS A DP. Not so long ago, Argentine international Claudio Lopez came to Sporting Kansas City as a Designated Player. He might have been the right player at the wrong time, for after he departed head coach Peter Vermes fully implemented a 4-3-3 system for which Lopez could have been an ideal left winger. The acquisition of another Argentine, Claudio Bieler, as a DP as well as ex-Rev Benny Feilhaber should enable Vermes to maximize the talents of Graham Zusi. The two Americans could be missing significant time to play for the USA in the Hexagonal and/or the Gold Cup, so how quickly and effectively Bieler adapts to MLS marks this move as essential for SKC, which won the Eastern Conference regular-season title but fizzled against Houston, again, in the playoffs.
5. PARKE GOES HOME. At some point in his career, Jeff Parke broke through the trivia banner: the last player – No. 60! -- picked in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft had transformed himself from curiosity into a pretty solid defender. He’s also overcome the stigma of being suspended, along with keeper Jon Conway, for 10 games after testing positive for androstatriendione (ATD) and boldenone metabolites in October 2008. Parke is a native of the Philly suburb Abington who played his collegiate soccer in the big city at Drexel, and his strong play helped the Sounders post the second-fewest goals-allowed in the league and earned him a second straight team Defender of the Year honor. During the season he requested a trade to his hometown; in effect, he replaces Danny Califf, who was banished to Chivas USA in one of Nowak’s purges (and has since gone east again to Toronto FC). Parke turns 31 in March and as a local product backed by the fanatical sons of Ben should give the Union several years’ good service.
6. GALAXY PONDERS KEEPER SHUFFLE. During the first half of MLS Cup 2012, a goal kick taken by keeper Josh Saunders sailed straight out of bounds near the Galaxy bench, behind which head coach Bruce Arena turned away in disgust. A very sheepish and nervous Josh Saunders watched the ensuing Houston throw-in. Saunders was a rock during the 2011 championship season, but his 2012 campaign was plagued by occasional yet costly shaky moments, such as a free kick that wriggled under his body for San Jose’s only goal in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals. Saunders had taken the job from Donovan Ricketts, the starter in 2009 who was replaced by Saunders in the MLS Cup that year. After the 2011 title, Ricketts departed for Montreal, and now it may be time for Saunders to leave. Rumors swirl that the Galaxy may sign Italian veteran Carlo Cudicini; the club has picked Will Hesmer in the Re-Entry Draft and signed backup Brian Perk signed to a new deal. The prospects in L.A. for Saunders, who is out of contract, don’t look good.
7. BUDDLE MOVES TO COLORADO. A year after returning to the Galaxy from a spell in Germany, Edson Buddle is starting over again with the Rapids. Can the scorer of 93 regular-season MLS goals get back on the beam? There are myriad changes in play for Oscar Pareja, whose first year as a head coach ended with a 11-19-4 record and seventh place in the Western Conference. An attack that scored 44 goals ranked just about in the middle – tied for 10th among the 19 teams – yet has been revamped, with Conor Casey cut loose and Omar Cummings dealt to Houston. Buddle’s health – he missed about two months of the 2012 season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus – limited him to 19 games and three goals in 2012, and may have encouraged the Galaxy to get rid of him.
8. CHIVAS USA PICKS ‘EL CHELIS.’ Having attained little success with recent head coaches --Martin Vazquez and Robin Fraser – who had worked in MLS, Chivas USA dipped into Mexico to find successor Jose Luis Sanchez. A long stay at Puebla and shorter stints with two other clubs includes only one notable success, the Mexican league semifinals in 2009, after he led the club into the top flight six years ago. He joins fellow Mexican native Jose David (club president) on a staff re-organized yet again by operator-investor Jorge Vergara. The track record of management staffs ignorant to the ways of MLS is pretty poor, so the growing pains for Chivas USA in 2013 will likely be severe. There is some vestige of league experience present, however; former youth director Dennis te Kloese has been named sporting president.
9. RED BULLS INK JUNINHO. Yes, Rafa Marquez and head coach Hans Backe are gone, but going forward how much can the Red Bulls rely on a playmaker who turns 38 in January? Obviously, they’re not going to. Espindola, Olave and Josue Martinez (acquired in the Le Toux deal) do the heavy lifting, which in theory, would leave the former Lyon maestro Juninho Pernambucano those pockets of space to flick balls and thread passes as he did while playing for Gerard Houllier, who is head of global soccer for the Red Bulls. Of course, that’s surely what the head coach, whoever he is, has in mind.
10. TIMBERS TRADE FOR WILL JOHNSON. Incoming head coach Caleb Porter has engineered a bevy of moves in Portland, but Will Johnson is the only acquisition to win an MLS Cup (with RSL in 2009). Johnson is a skilled, tough, smart veteran of 120 regular-season games who turns 26 next year and as Porter undergoes a major rebuild, he can lean on Johnson’s considerable talents and vast experience.