With Season 23 about ready to kick off it is time for the first MLS Big – 5 of the year, so let’s get to it.
Play the Kids?!
With all the hand-wringing regarding youth development in the wake of the USMNT’s failure to advance to Russia, we have to ask, will MLS teams give the youth of America a chance to prove its worth in 2018?
Will there be room for Andrew Carleton in Atlanta’s stacked midfield? Similarly, can Chris Durkin force his way into Ben Olsen’s re-stocked midfield in the nation’s capital?
Of course, there is no way of compelling coaches to entrust their jobs to the vagaries of youth, sill it is worth asking if Weston McKennie can find playing time in the Bundesliga, why more young players can’t see regular action in a league with what can only be called a “forgiving” playoff system.
Following a breakout season as an 18 year old in 2017 New York Red Bulls midfielder/defender Tyler Adams is the current standard bearer for Homegrown talent, while Real Salt Lake showed the way as a team; getting good performances from a trio of young stars last season in Justen Glad, Danilo Acosta, and Brooks Lennon.
With the success of Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, Germany has become a haven of late for young Americans but if the USMNT is going to turn things around Major League Soccer is going to have to do its part.
2. All the Young Dudes
The old MLS as Retirement League trope took quite a hit this off-season with teams around the league going all in on young South and Central American players. Atlanta made the biggest splash, signing 18-year-old Argentine midfielder Ezequiel Barco on a league record $15 million transfer.
Barco will be joined in MLS this season by a host of other talented youngsters including 20-year-old Jesus Medina, NYCFC, 19-year-olds Diego Rossi, LAFC, and Josue Colman, Orlando City.
A major boost in Targeted Allocation Money, or TAM, has financed this run on young Latino talent but is this influx of young talent from Central and South America contributing to the lack of playing time for Young Yanks discussed in item 1?
Perhaps but the league’s talent level is bound to rise and it will be up to the Young Americans to keep up.
How good can Atlanta be? The team did everything right in its maiden season before raising eyebrows, and league standards in the build-up to year two with the Barco signing garnering most of the attention.
The exciting, if enigmatic, Darlington Nagbe will add his silky skills to an already smooth United attack and with a year of playing together under their belts, Atlanta should be even better. Miguel Almiron is still in Atlanta, exciting youngster Andrew Carleton may get a chance to show what he’s got at this level and if Josef Martinez can stay healthy, watch out. The Venezuelan striker notched an impressive 19 goals in just 20 appearances and if he can stay healthy Atlanta could make a deep run playoff run.
4) TFC 2?
A year after becoming the first Canadian side to hoist the MLS Cup while also setting a points record the question is, can they do it again? The answer would seem to be why not.
Not surprisingly then TFC went into the off-season with a shorter to-do list than most. Greg Vanney did need a new fullback/wingback to replace solid veteran Steven Beitashour, so he scooped up former Netherlands international Gregory van der Wiel as well as adding another weapon in 24-year-old Spanish midfielder Ager Aketxe from Bilbao. Aketxe played most recently at Cadiz and should be another headache for MLS coaches trying to game plan against Giovinco, Altidore and the rest of the dangerous Reds squad.
5) LA Story
Sounds so nice they had to say it twice. Oh, sorry, wrong coast. Instead, let’s look 3,000 miles west where Los Angeles is set to become a fascinating battleground for MLS prominence with LAFC arriving on the heels of the once mighty Galaxy’s worst season ever.
Sigi Schmid took over the floundering former dynasty part way through 2017 and didn’t exactly turn things around. No, instead the MLS originals finished with the worst record in the league. Unfamiliar territory for the five-time MLS Cup Champions.
Now along comes LAFC, with its cadre of big-name owners, a fancy new stadium in downtown LA, Bob Bradley behind the bench and Mexican national team star Carlos Vela to woo the area’s much desired Mexican-American demographic.
With Will Farrell cracking wise from the stands at Banc of California Stadium should the Galaxy be worried out in suburban Carson, California? Maybe, but the Galaxy has too much talent on its roster to suffer another 2017 type disaster.
Included in that group are the Dos Santos brothers, with Jonathan on hand from the beginning of the campaign to assist brother Gio in righting the Galaxy ship. The Galaxy may have solved their goalkeeper issues with the addition of David Bingham from San Jose, Perry Kitchen adds some hustle to the midfield, Chris Pontius is a nice veteran pickup, and still just 30 despite having been around it seems, forever.
Romain Alessandrini was a huge bright spot last season and a returning Sebastian Lletget will be a big boost Schmid’s crew. Lletget was a big loss to both L.A. and the USMNT when he went down with a Lisfranc foot injury last year and while L.A. will be careful with the midfielder, a healthy Lletget is a big addition to the Galaxy.
So, what about the new kids on the block?
LAFC would seem to be fighting a battle on at least three fronts, with the Galaxy, the shadow of Atlanta’s expansion success, and oh yeah, the rest of MLS, in particular, the Western Conference.
The newcomers should be well set with Bradley as coach, but a coach can only do so much, so who will be donning the YouTube emblazoned LAFC unis?
Designated Player Vela is the big signing with Young DP Diego Rossi also generating plenty of buzz. Bradley has a group of MLS proven veterans led by defenders Walker Zimmerman, Laurent Ciman, and Steven Beitashour. Midfielder Benny Feilhaber is a Bradley favorite and his playmaking skills should be a boon to the new side. Marco Urena has arrived from San Jose and should shoulder some of the scoring load up front – for what it’s worth Urena has been hot in the pre-season.
There is talent in this squad but with the roster showing just 18 players, not much depth, so Bradley will have to augment his roster, and hope for good health.
6. Bonus* Save the Crew?
Is this season a referendum on Save the Crew? If Columbus sold out every match at MAPFRE Stadium, would owner Anthony Precourt care? And what about Austin? What happens if the Texans say thanks but no thanks to the Crew?
Meanwhile, Gregg Berhalter has to get his team ready to play soccer minus Ola Kamara and Justin Meram. If Gyasi Zardes can prove that he really is a striker and not winger, and Berhalter will give him that chance, then the on-field issues could work out well enough.
Off the field, who knows?