BY STEPHEN BRANDT
Thereâ€™s been a fear for most of the footballing culture here in the States; repetition of the failures of the old NASL.
Well, over two decades of slow growth, single entity, and low player salaries, the MLS model has lasted â€“ much longer than the old NASL did. Now itâ€™s approaching one thing that helped kill the old league – massive expansion.
Commissioner Don Garber wants 24 teams in the league by 2020; heâ€™s already brought in two, with New York City FC and Orlando City SC joining in 2015. Thatâ€™s still a season away.
Itâ€™s a World Cup year, so thereâ€™s a break during the season for all leagues here, and we wonâ€™t know which players will come back, injured or otherwise. The World Cup is a great way to make your name in the minds of Europeâ€™s managers who will be looking for new recruits. And so it will be in the States; the clubs that go into this season could be drastically changed. And thereâ€™s some talk of Samuel Etoâ€™o, Frank Lampard, and Rio Ferdinand coming over to the MLS after the World Cup.
One of the surprise teams this year will be Toronto FC. During the off-season started they suddenly started caring about the regular season itself, and transferred in three DPâ€™s (designated platers) – Gilberto, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley.
These DP slots were originally used to keep Landon Donovan from leaving the MLS, and to lure David Beckham over to Los Angeles. During their existence, Toronto has never been that good. Theyâ€™ve sniffed a play-off spot every now and then but never gone â€˜over the bumpâ€™.
The reason for Torontoâ€™s heightened ambition? Former LA Galaxy executive, Tim Leiweke, who is the CEO of Maple Leaf Sports. Leiweke wants â€˜super clubsâ€™, and will do everything in his power to get the team to the top. Ex-Spurs and Blackburn defender, Ryan Nelson, is the manager and he has good contacts in the English footballing system giving the Canadian club lots of opportunity to tempt waning European stars to North America.
Elsewhere, could this be the year that New York Red Bulls push on and win an MLS Cup? Thatâ€™s something thatâ€™s always asked. Last year they won their first piece of silverware, the Supporters Shield. NYRB is an original member of the MLS, and they have yet to win a title.
Despite world class managers and great players they have always been a disappointment. The time for them is now. NYCFC are coming in a year and the iconic club in New York City history – the Cosmos – are back and winning titles in a lower league. Plus, Thierry Henry is on his last legs and who knows if Tim Cahill will stay past the World Cup.
Out in the east, you also have the young New England Revolution with so many young players on their roster doing so well. But they had to rebuild after the massive success they had in the last decade. They have retained young players Diego Fagundez, Andrew Farrell, Scott Caldwell and Kelyn Rowe from last year and have added two of the top attackers in the draft this past college season in Steve Neumann and Patrick Mullins, all of said players are under 23. They pushed for the play-offs last year and could make a dent in some top clubsâ€™ play-off chances this year.
We should, of course, mention the Cup winners, Sporting KC. They finally won the leagueâ€™s top prize last year having overcome Houston Dynamo and made it into the MLS Cup final where they won on penalty kicks over Real Salt Lake. They return pretty much unchanged except for goalkeeper Jimmy who retired and is now the coach of the Oklahoma City Energy.
No preview would be complete in the MLS without the most iconic club in league history – DC United. Last year, to put it nicely, was horrible. Statistically they fell apart, had the worst recorded year ever, but won the 100th edition of the US Open Cup (USAâ€™s FA Cup). So what did they do in the off season? They went crazy and completely revamped their backline and brought in more strikers. Their top newcomers are Sean Franklin – who won titles with LA Galaxy – Bobby Bosewell, Fabien Espindola, and Eddie Johnson. Four of those players have MLS titles on their record of achievements.
DC United doesnâ€™t take too kindly to missing out on the play-offs. So either DC United will make it to the post-season or theyâ€™re going to crash and burn. Either way should be fun to keep an eye on.
The West hasnâ€™t had as many transfers come in as the East has, only because it was so much better than the East last season. Obviously, the teams to watch will be Portland, Seattle, LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake (RSL).
Los Angeles Galaxy are the stalwarts of the Western Conference and have been that way since the foundation of the league. Last season was a difficult one for them; they didnâ€™t have their star, Landon Donovan, for a good majority of the opening part of the season. Plus they didnâ€™t have David Beckham in the midfield for the first time in a long time, so service to Robbie Keane wasnâ€™t there. Plus, they struggled with goalkeepers; initially bringing over ex-Tottenham keeper Carlo Cudicini, who failed miserably. However, they have the best American-born soccer coach of all time, Bruce Arena. Theyâ€™ll figure it out. Or just transfer in more stars, they are the MLSâ€™ version of the Cosmos from the good (or bad) old NASL days.
Portland had a very good year, the loan, and eventual signing to a full contract of Diego Valeri sparked their offense. Rodney Wallace turned into a top quality midfielder. All of this improvement was due to the new manager Caleb Porter. Porter could turn out to be this generationâ€™s Bruce Arena. Caleb has brought in players from Akron (his last stop), and developed a free flowing attacking system. They just have to work on their defense, because they have probably the best goal keeper in MLS history in Donavan Ricketts. At one point in the off-season there was only two centre halves on the roster. This will get looked into. The Timbers will go as far as Will Johnson, Valeri, and Nagbe take them.
Real Salt Lake should have had a down year last year, they traded off a lot of their top stars (Espindola, Will Johnson, Olave), but you know what – they made it all the way to the MLS Cup Finals, and to penalty kicks. So, when people say this year that they should be down because manager Jason Kreis has left for NYCFC, please disregard. Thereâ€™s a great balance of youth with Luis Gil, Joao Plata with stars like Alvaro Saborio, Robbie Findley, Kyle Beckerman and Nick Romando. Their coaching, development and tactics make them one of the finest teams in the league.
2014 in MLS should provide more fun than ever before. The future is bright for American soccer with the growth of the sport in the southeast of the country especially encouraging. The league is growing in all markets and thereâ€™s a thriving soccer pyramid. More people are able to watch the sport on any platform thanks to the new television contract which will also expand the money coming into the league. MLS is on the up. God bless America!
STEPHEN BRANDT – @StephenCBrandt
Stephen Brandt is the host of Tuesday Vuvuzela, 630pm EST http://www.blogtalkradio.com/vuvuzela