Random thoughts as the MLS season draws near

By Ridge Mahoney

Every year it seems, the MLS season kicks off sooner and sooner.

This isn’t just perception, it’s reality. The inaugural season began April 6, 1996; the 2017 campaign starts next Friday, March 3, more than a month earlier. The end of the season has been extended as well, thus compressing an ever-shrinking offseason.

It’s astounding to think the first season ended Oct. 20, 1996, which was the third Sunday of October that year. The 2016 regular season ended on the fourth Sunday in October, and seven weeks later in the MLS Cup final, Seattle beat Toronto FC in a penalty-kick shootout, 5-4.

By adding so many teams so quickly -- debutants Minnesota United and Atlanta United are the ninth and 10th teams to come aboard in the last 11 years (since Toronto in 2007) -- plus compressing the offseason, and adding new player-acquisition mechanisms, the league defies efforts to process all the moves and changes and get a sense for what MLS will look like when, in this case, the Timbers and Loons walk onto the field at Providence Park.

But the racing mind can occasionally slow down enough to snag the occasional snippet out of the torrent for contemplation and evaluation. With the opening weekend slightly more than a week away, here’s a few of the compelling themes to be pondered.

KAKA VS. KREIS? Orlando City’s first game in its new stadium is already sold out, as is the season-ticket allotment of 18,000. Just as it was in the run-up to its expansion season of 2015, Orlando is abuzz about the Lions.

Yet sooner or later, the focus from fans and observers will shift back to the team itself, and particularly, how the dynamic between head coach Jason Kreis and Brazilian midfielder Kaka is functioning. Team founder and former president Phil Rawlins has stepped aside to let co-owner Flavio Augusto da Silva and chief executive officer Alex Leitao run the business, and general manager of soccer operations Niki Budalic and Kreis to handle the team.

After replacing Adrian Heath in mid-July, Kreis compiled a 5-6-5 record and the Lions fell one point short of the playoffs despite winning their last two games. Heath has since taken the Minnesota United job and during the SuperDraft spoke of what the team has lost without Rawlins’ direct involvement.

“Well, I think think any club that loses the services on a day-to-day basis of a man like Phil Rawlins will suffer,” said Heath. “I know how much he’s put into that club over the last five to six years. For him it was a labor of love, that was a 24/7 job for him, so Alex Leitao has some big shoes to fill. It won’t be easy. I know Phil will be about and keep his eye on what’s going on, but some big, big shoes to fill.”

Kaka’s influence on player signings -- as evidenced by that of former AC Milan teammate Antonio Nocerino -- and other team matters is believed to be significant but never acknowledged publicly. In his previous coaching stint at New York City FC, Kreis’ criticism of veteran players roiled team ownership and helped usher him out the door.
In Orlando, Kreis needs cooperation as well as production from Kaka, who has said this will be his last season in MLS. Since his arrival in the city and the league, Kaka has played the role of goodwill ambassador superbly. If he can serve his head coach and teammates as well, the team's first playoff appearance is very possible.

THE RIGHT STUFF. In the wake of their stunning run to a first MLS Cup title, the Sounders welcomed back Clint Dempsey, who was cleared to play after sitting out several months of treatment for an irregular heartbeat.

He’s been getting minutes in preseason games and it’s been impossible to pin down head coach Brian Schmetzer as to when or how much Dempsey will play once the regular season starts. (The Sounders open on the road for the first time in their MLS history, March 4 at Houston.)

The team is playing this exactly right, just as it did last season when rookie forward Jordan Morris labored through a goalless spell that was hardly unusual for a first-year player but somehow mushroomed into a crisis because of who he is and what he’s accomplished for his college and the U.S. national team. So all the poor kid could muster was a Rookie of the Year Award and an MLS Cup to go with the NCAA Division I title he'd won a year earlier with Stanford.

It all turned out great for Morris and the Sounders and while there’s no telling how the Dempsey saga will unfold, you can expect the team to downplay the pressure on him and a possible return to the national team and whatever else bubbles up in the public arena.

Most of the time, in most regards, Seattle does things the right way, and will do so again Wednesday when it stages a testimonial match for Zach Scott, a Sounder since he signed as a USL player in 2002.

EXPANSION EXPECTATIONS. Two years ago, OCSC and NYCFC struggled through most of the growing pains typical of expansion teams. Last year, the Lions went through a coaching change and fell just short of the postseason but head coach Patrick Vieira and some clever signings brought a playoff game to Yankee Stadium. True, NYCFC lost that game, 2-0, to Toronto FC and suffered a 5-0 lashing in the second leg but progress is progress.

How quickly the 2017 newbies can take root is of course a major theme and the two operations are much different in their persona and outlook. Two teams both nicknamed United are dissimilar in just about everything else.

Lavish spending on players, the blockbuster hiring of Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino and season-ticket sales of more than 27,000 are ample cause to rivet attention on Atlanta United, which will move into the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in late July.

The Loons’ stadium won’t be ready until 2018 at the earliest and the team has yet to reach 10,000 in season-ticket sales. For its inaugural season, MNUFC will limit season-ticket sales to 11,842, which is the actual number of lakes in the state of Minnesota and a very simple yet clever way to expand the team’s identity beyond the Twin Cities.

Both teams have clearly stamped their identities on the local populace as well as the national soccer scene. Two years ago, the Lions turned Orlando purple and NYCFC captured an audience that didn’t so much mind watching soccer on a baseball field.

TEST OF TAM. Adopted less than two years ago, Targeted Allocation Money is growing in influence as more teams use it to build out the second tier of players -- those that earn in the range of $500,000 and $ 1 million -- on their rosters. It is a resource than can be used to buy down the salary-budget charge of a Designated Player, or sign a player who otherwise would count as a DP.

It has also been used in numerous trades, and by the end of 2017, the second full season it will have been in effect, a clearer picture of how TAM has changed the league will have emerged. (By then of course, the league will have come up with something else, maybe YAM, for Yanks Allocation Money.)

BREAKING THE JINX. Eight different teams have played in the last four MLS Cup finals. In no other period of the team’s history have four different pairs of teams contested the title, and last season, for the first time in league history both MLS Cup participants -- Columbus and Portland -- failed to reach the playoffs.

Of the “elite” eight, the Galaxy -- winner in 2014 -- is always among the serious contenders. But the team it beat that year, New England, has struggled since then, and neither of the 2013 finalists -- Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake -- have come close to the title game.

This function of parity -- plus the strong finishes of eventual champions Portland in 2015 and Seattle last year -- offers a reasonable hope that another two teams could play for the title in December.

The Red Bulls (losers to Columbus in the 2008 MLS Cup) and FC Dallas (fell to Colorado in 2010) have faltered as regular-season conference champions the past two seasons. Is this to be their year? Montreal came desperately close to eliminating Toronto after stunning the Red Bulls, so why can't it go all the way this time? The Rapids rebounded from two miserable seasons to finish second in the Western Conference and edge the Galaxy in the playoffs. Can they maintain that momentum and jump higher in 2017?

Carlos Bocanegra was a rookie when the Fire reached its second MLS Cup in 2000. As technical director, can he steer ambitious, aggressive Atlanta to the final? Speaking of the Fire, yes it’s been at the bottom for the past few years, but newcomers Juninho and Dax McCarty are used to winning and as Colorado showed last year, sharp rebounds are part of the game in MLS.
2 comments about "Random thoughts as the MLS season draws near".
  1. R2 Dad, February 23, 2017 at 8:58 p.m.

    Still trying to get that last final out of my head. Unfortunately, this is US Soccer officiating and nothing will change until AFTER there are numerous serious injuries that curtail careers. Only after those injuries will officiating change for the better. Go back and watch that final again--complete unwatchable hackfest, and that was just the first 2 minutes. US Soccer is training everyone to avoid watching the next final. What's to see? It's turned into a ruffian's game played by ruffians.

  2. beautiful game, February 23, 2017 at 10:43 p.m.

    R2 Dad, yes it was horrendous and the finger points at league HQS which remains clueless year after year.

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