Just off the basis of a few games played on the opening weekend of the 2015 MLS season, the rate of exchange is looking good.
There are two rates of exchange in play. One is the annual swap of players leaving and those arriving, and despite stellar stalwarts such as Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry retiring, there are quite a few prominent names -- Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Kaka, Mix Diskerud -- who are strengthening the league’s presence and overall quality.
The other rate of exchange concerns the dissolution of Chivas USA and addition of two expansion teams, New York City FC and Orlando City SC. They faced off on Sunday and despite plenty of sloppy play and miscommunication in the middle third, the newbies are far from hopeless.
Few observers think they will be as inept as were Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake, which won a total of nine games between them when they entered MLS in 2005. Despite their distance apart, there are already signs of a budding rivalry similar to that of Portland and Vancouver, the 2011 expansion entrants that won 17 games between them.
There’s no third team to emulate the Cascadia Cup triad as does Seattle in the Northwest, yet both New York City FC and Orlando City are ambitious. Friction will intensify soon when Frank Lampard joins NYCFC, which already has a nearby rival in the Red Bulls. A regional rival is pending for Orlando City SC as well; Atlanta in 2017 is assured, and Miami 20?? may actually happen someday.
Back to the players. Besides Donovan and Henry, a pretty good cadre won’t be back in 2015. Marco Di Vaio slipped last season after nailing 20 goals in 2013, but he and former Impact teammate Matteo Ferrari epitomized how older players can withstand the rigors of tough competition through experience and guile. At the other end of the age scale, former TFC defender Doniel Henry, 21, found suitors overseas and is at Blackburn Rovers on loan from West Ham United.
Former Sounder DeAndre Yedlin hasn’t gone out on loan but is a long way from breaking into the first team at Tottenham. What progress he’s made in England won’t be known until he is recalled by the U.S. and that might occur at the end of the month when the Americans play Denmark and Switzerland. The Revs lost defender A.J. Soares, who played out his MLS contract and wound up in Norway with Viking after a proposed move to Serie A club Hellas Verona fell through.
The other side of the ledger that lists the incoming players is full of intriguing entries. The reclamation projects that are Altidore and Brek Shea, a teammate of Kaka at Orlando City, will bear close scrutiny. TFC fans have suffered through false dawns before, but after one game it seems Giovinco, nicknamed the “Atomic Ant” for his energy and range, should flourish in MLS and more than make up for the losses of Jermain Defoe, swapped for Altidore, and Gilberto, sent out on loan so TFC could keep its other three Designated Players, Michael Bradley, Altidore and Giovinco.
Steven Gerrard will take Donovan’s DP slot with the Galaxy, which has also lined up a replacement for Marcelo Sarvas, a member of two championship teams, in Finnish midfielder Mika Vayrynen. Another Finn, Markus Halsti, has been signed by D.C. United; neither are big names but could play vital roles for ambitious organizations.
As long as MLS allows eight international slots per team and permits each team to acquire more slots through trades, domestic players will face tough battles with foreign players -- many of whom obtain green cards fairly rapidly and thus don’t count against the limit -- to find roster slots and playing time. Over the past few years, teams have clearly shown a preference for international players in many positions, not just the vital slots of goalscorers, playmakers and centerbacks.
Sacha Kljestan, who left Anderlecht after five productive seasons, is a key element as head coach Jesse Marsch sets out to renew faith in an organization that jettisoned Red Bulls icon Mike Petke. NYCFC’s splashy debut ratchets up the pressure as well. Yet for the Red Bulls, as it is for most teams, how they fare in 2015 could depend just as much as role players as major signings.
Can Ronald Zubar (injured on Sunday) step in for Jamison Olave, who left the Red Bulls after two seasons and is back at RSL, which has altered its formation in part to showcase one of its newcomers, Pecka? Along with Kaka and Shea, Orlando City signed Honduran forward Bryan Rochez as a Young Designated Player. Timbers fans are hopeful that attacker Dairon Asprilla can help transform their team into a bonafide title contender. Sporting Kansas City has brought back midfielder Roger Espinoza to upgrade a midfield that sprang leaks in the second half of the 2014 season.
The rate of exchange in the 20th season of MLS won’t be assessed for many months yet the trend of getting better players at a younger age continues.