MLS is back and with that here are five things that have piqued our interest for the upcoming season.
1) 2 New Teams!
The MLS Expansion Bonanza continues apace in 2017 as Minnesota and Atlanta take to the fields of Major League Soccer beginning tonight when Minnesota United FC face Portland at the Timbers small but raucous Providence Park. Then Atlanta United FC plays host to the New York Red Bulls Sunday evening at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the Georgia Tech campus.
The two teams have gone about preparing for their inaugural season in very different ways, with Atlanta hogging most of the expansion ink with moves like hiring former Argentina and Barcelona coach Tata Martino and longtime U.S. MNT captain Carlos Bocanegra as the team’s Technical Director.
30,000 season tickets sold, a host of player signings, including three youthful DP’s, has people talking playoffs for Atlanta while Minnesota has flown somewhat under the radar. Still, the former NASL side turned some heads when it traded $650,000 to Orlando City, coach Adrian Heath’s former club Orlando City SC, for Kevin Molino.
Molino, will combine with former Minnesota NASL stars Miguel Ibarra (3 USMNT caps), Christian Ramirez, Josh Gatt, the perpetually injured U.S. MNT prospect recently returned from Europe, and Abu Danladi, the 1st pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, to provide some attacking excitement for the Loons in what may be a difficult year one in MLS.
Minnesota is building stadium in St. Paul, which they expect to open in 2018. For now the Loons will play at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus.
2) 2 New Stadiums!
Orlando City Stadium opens for business on Sunday when the Lions host New York City FC. The 25,500 capacity stadium is located in downtown Orlando and will also be home to NWSL club Orlando Pride. Orlando City Stadium has a natural grass playing field.
Atlanta United FC will open its inaugural season at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the Georgia Tech campus but expect to transition to the spectacular new Mercedes Benz Stadium sometime this season, hopefully by the the summer. AUFC will share the stadium with team owner Arthur Blank’s other team the Atlanta Falcons. The stadium is designed to convert from football to soccer, one strike against the new stadium is that the playing surface will be will be artificial.
3) On Designated Players MLS says: Out With the Old and in with the Young.
Despite having yet to kick a ball in anger Atlanta is already setting trends with the signings of the trio of Hector Villalba (22), Josef Martinez (23), and Miguel Almiron (23) as DPs on the rise, signaling a move away from the retirement league stigma that MLS has endured.
Former greats like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, and Robbie Keane have all moved on, the first three into retirement, with the new model more in the Giovinco/Nicolas Lodeiro mode.
Real Salt Lake has brought in 22 year old attacking midfielder Albert Rusnak from Eredivisie side FC Groningen but most of the signings have been late 20 somethings like Chicago’s signing of Hungarian international Nemanja Nikolic, the Galaxy’s Romain Alessandrini, 27 or NYCFC import, 30 year old Maxi Moralez.
None of these players have been signed to sell tickets, they all have been brought in for soccer reasons. And while this new approach doesn’t necessarily rule out clubs from going for star power, it is a clear shift in priorities, one that many will welcome.
4) CONCACAF Champions League – Is this the Year?
Not for the New York Red Bulls who were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage Thursday night by fellow MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps. With its win over the Red Bulls the Caps advance to the CCL semifinals where they will face Mexican side Tigres while FC Dallas will go up against Pachuca, another Liga MX club.
No MLS club has won the CCL since this format was adopted in 2008 and Mexico’s continued dominance of the CCL has become a bit embarrassing for MLS, particularly in light of Commissioner Don Garber’s goal of making MLS the top league in the region.
Only Montreal, 2014-15 and Real Salt Lake 2010-11 have gotten as far as the CCL Championship match with both coming up short. Will this be the year?
5) U.S. MNT in MLS
U.S. coach Bruce Arena has said that he expects 2/3 of his World Cup roster to come from MLS, so we should probably keep an eye on the MLS production of established vets like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, the health of comebacking stars like Tim Howard, and the continued strong play of aging Jermaine Jones.
There are positional battles too. Can Sacha Kljestan hold off Arena recall Benny Feilhaber? Who plays later this month if Howard is less than 100% and Brad Guzan’s lack of minutes with Birmingham puts Arena off? Nick Rimando? Luis Robles? David Bingham? Bill Hamid?
Can a fast start in MLS convince Arena to pick one over the others?
Then there are the younger players looking to impress the boss, if not for March then for the Gold Cup this summer. Juan Agudelo, still just 24, may miss out on Honduras and Panama but if the New England striker can finally start putting up the goal figures his talent says he should then a call-up is not out of the question.
And how about U20 prospect Justin Glad? Center back is a bit of a problem area and if Glad can build on the form he has shown with the U20’s the Real Salt Lake man could be this year’s Matt Miazga, moving rapidly up the center back ranks.
And for those concerned about the next generation of U.S. MNT goalkeepers it will be instructive to keep an eye on a pair of young American goalkeepers with youth national team experience who are getting their chance at club level. 21-year-old Zack Steffan at Columbus and 24-year-old Cody Cropper at New England will get the opportunity to show that they should be considered to make the step up to the full national team.
Those are just a few of the American players worth checking out in MLS play starting tonight when newcomers Minnesota make its MLS debut in Portland in front of a packed house at Providence Park.