Major League Soccer will be entering its 19th season in the United States, the last before significant expansion in year 20, with a second New York City club and an Orlando franchise joining the table in 2015. Last year, Sporting Kansas City won the club’s second MLS title over Real Salt Lake. It seems like lunacy, but in the past couple of years, it’s happened: professional soccer became profitable in the United States. In 2012, MLS announced that its average attendance had finally eclipsed the NHL. Fan attendance in 2013 was the second highest in MLS history and with clubs like Portland, Montreal and Kansas City regularly exceeding capacity, there are bright signs for soccer’s future in the United States and Canada. Major League Soccer can be found on the NBC Sports family of networks as usual, but starting in 2015, Major League Soccer will be joining the ESPN family in a blockbuster, $70 million a year TV deal. The product is becoming as accessible as it’s ever been, with not only regular airings on cable television, but MLS Live, the league’s answer to other on-demand apps such as MLB.TV. This year’s season includes a two-week break for the World Cup, which will leave many MLS clubs with shape-shifting rosters as the world prepares their sides to compete in Brazil. For the most part, America has no problem rooting for the Yanks in the World Cup every four years, so what better way to become familiar with this year’s roster than to follow them throughout league play in the MLS? There’s never been a better time to buy into professional soccer in the United States. Enjoy Place to Be Nation’s 2014 MLS preview before the whistle blows on March 8th when Sporting KC travels to Seattle.
MLS: THE AWARDS AND FORMATTING
For those of you familiar with either the format of the MLS table or of many of the world’s football leagues, feel free to skip this portion. If you’re one of the millions of Americans new to enjoying the world’s beautiful game, welcome to the club! Nearly half the world’s population follows the game on some level and soccer is regularly the most actively played sport in the United States. Professional soccer is played in every corner of the world, from organizations like the English Premier League, German Bundesliga and Spanish “La Liga” which routinely turn in hundreds of millions in profits to smaller leagues like MLS, the Portugese Primeira Liga or even leagues in nations like Saudi Arabia. MLS has tinkered on and off with taking bits and pieces from many of the world’s soccer leagues in respecting the cultural diversity of its players and American fans. The MLS format, points system and championships are a mixture of the rest of the world’s greatest leagues with a unique American flavor borrowed from organizations like the NFL, NBA and MLB. The MLS schedule also coincides with the end of most of the world’s league play, leaving MLS as a convenient option for fans wanting more soccer on television.
The MLS is divided into two conferences, Eastern (10 clubs) and Western (9 clubs), who will play a regular season of 34 games, both in and out of conference. Winning a match credits a club 3 points, tying awards 1 and losing, obviously, nets 0. The top five teams from each conference will enter the MLS Cup Playoffs, seeded much like many other American professional sports leagues. However, there is no neutral site for the MLS Cup’s final, it’s hosted by the team with the highest regular season point total.
The MLS Cup is the ultimate prize, given to the last team standing at the end of the 10 team playoff. MLS also awards the Supporter’s Shield to the club that finishes the regular season with the highest points total. In one of soccer’s most unique and interesting challenges, the MLS also awards the MLS Cup Winner, Supporter’s Shield winner and the winner of its other conference automatic bids into the CONCACAF Champions League. The Champions League is an interleague free-for-fall between North & Central America as well as the Caribbean’s best clubs for ultimate bragging rights. Because of Champions League play as well as international play, MLS has perhaps the shortest offseason of any professional American sport. There is virtually always a reason for MLS clubs or their players to be on the pitch throughout the calendar year. MLS also regularly awards individual honors such as an MVP award, Golden Boot (best scorer), Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year and a Best XI honor, similar to being named All-Pro in the NFL or NBA.
For the league’s All-Star game, the MLS will suit its own All-Stars up on one side representing the league against an international club. In 2014, in a sign of MLS’s incredible growth and improving reputation, the MLS All-Stars will play the German side Bayern Munich, one of the most dominant football clubs in the sport’s history. Bayern is the most accomplished team in one of the world’s strongest leagues and is the defending UEFA Champions League winner. Bayern is undoubtedly the biggest name to ever participate in the MLS All-Star game and is a tremendous opportunity for American professional soccer and its fans.
Let’s take a look at how the respective conferences will shake out in the regular season, setting up for the MLS Cup playoffs.
EASTERN CONFERENCE 2014: FIRST FIVE
1. Sporting Kansas City – Sporting dominated the Eastern Conference for two consecutive seasons before falling short in the playoffs in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, the squad did not win the Supporter’s Shield, or the Eastern Conference, but played through the end of the tournament, finally defeating perennial spoiler Houston and winning the MLS Cup through penalties in -7 degree weather against Salt Lake. Sporting’s road to the MLS Cup was representative of their style of play, which is not always exciting to watch or well embraced by the rest of the league. Sporting plays aggressive defense, aided largely by US Men’s National Team (USMNT) defender Matt Besler, and the hockey goon-esque Aurelien Collin, one of MLS’s most oft-penalized players. In fact, Sporting KC regularly finds themselves at the top of the league’s most penalized teams by season’s end, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Sporting gave up the fewest goals in MLS in 2013, but is losing their starting keeper to retirement, so there will be questions in goal. There will be questions on offense as well, despite the stellar play of USMNT midfielder Graham Zusi (who missed spats in ’13 due to injury), Sporting had scoring lulls throughout the season. Kansas City, like many other clubs, will also have to endure the World Cup without injury or fatigue, possibly having to compete without some of its best players or its best players not at full strength.
2. New York Red Bulls – New York won the Eastern Conference in 2013, led by French legend Thierry Henry, one of the biggest international stars to lace up for MLS not named David Beckham. Like Beckham, Henry is undoubtedly at the trail end of his career, but Henry has made the MLS Best XI twice and is one of the best forwards in the league. New York is also strong at midfield, with Australian national team midfielder Tim Cahill, formerly of Premier League’s Everton. The Red Bulls also have one of MLS’s premier defenders, Jamison Olave, multiple time All-Star and former Defender of the Year. Still, New York failed to capitalize on jumping SKC in 2013 and fell flat against a tough Houston team. Last year was the prime opportunity for New York to capture a championship, and while the club will still challenge in 2014, there will need to be improvements in goal and at the other forward positions if they wish to jump Kansas City again.
3. Houston Dynamo – Houston won back-to-back MLS Cups in the franchise’s first two seasons in MLS. The Dynamo have failed to miss the playoffs only once in the team’s short history and are always a formidable side. This year, Houston says goodbye to Team USA stalwart Brian Ching, a figurehead for the franchise and a favorite of American soccer fans for many years. Forward Brad Davis will be the Dynamo captain and likely the team’s most important player, Davis has appeared for the USMNT and when healthy, is in the discussion for the MVP trophy. Davis will be aided by Jamaican national team forward Omar Cummings both of which are trying to change the philosophy of Houston soccer into an offensive heavy scheme. Houston has an experienced roster and a championship pedigree in their front office, but as more and more MLS front offices are becoming smarter with how their teams are built, the Dynamo are losing their edge in this category slowly, but surely. Teams like Sporting KC have built a defensive philosophy similar to what made Houston so dominant right from the start of its franchise. Is Houston able to counter with a strong enough offensive counterattack? Re-imagining a team’s identity is never easy.
4. New England Revolution – New England had a very good 2013, finishing third in the East. This was in large part thanks to leading scorer Diego Fagundez, who had the greatest season ever by a U-2o player in MLS, netting 13 goals at age 18. Fagundez is the most exciting young player in the league, a prolific scorer who also set his teammates up to the tune of 7 assists and shows promise in being one of the premier strikers in the entire league. There will undoubtedly be growing pains as Fagundez grows older and becomes a more mature player physically and mentally, but if he stays on this trajectory it won’t be long before he’s entertaining offers from around the world and appearing for his home country of Uruguay in international play. New England also acquired former Sporting KC first round pick Teal Bunbury in the offseason. Bunbury was drafted with significant fanfare and was considered to be one of the young players on which the USMNT could build upon for its future. His career has been somewhat of a disappointment, largely due to injury, but when healthy, Bunbury has yet to play at a consistently high level in either MLS or international play. Still, there are flashes of brilliance in his game and the move was considerably low risk for New England. At age 24, there’s still plenty of time for Teal to become more than a productive player at the professional level and the striker’s ceiling is incredibly high.
5. Chicago Fire – Last year, Chicago missed the playoffs, finishing 6th in the East, behind an inspired Montreal team. Montreal could very well slide back into the playoffs, but it wouldn’t be fair to reigning MVP Mike Magee to discount him and the Fire. Magee was traded to the Fire midseason from LA, where he had already scored 6 goals in 10 games. He didn’t settle down in the East, netting an additional 15 goals, dwarfing anything he had done on two championship runs with the Galaxy. Much of Chicago’s success will be on players feeding off of Magee’s attention, namely players like Dilly Duka who rose to the MLS through the USMNT U-2o team. Chicago could also see great strides in the game of Juan Luis Anangonó, who received his first call up to the Ecuador national team in 2013. With such a potent threat in Magee being marked on defense, there should be lots of open space for the rest of the Fire’s forwards to operate. Can Magee repeat his success from last year? Scoring twenty plus at the professional level is no easy feat and there are still significant questions with the rest of Chicago’s roster, particularly on defense. If there is at least a small amount of improvement on the wings and another All-Star year for Magee, Chicago should be able to distance itself from the bottom half of the East, which outside of Montreal, is significantly less talented than the top half. The group New England, Chicago and Montreal will likely not challenge either Kansas City or New York, but they shouldn’t struggle separating from clubs like DC United or Columbus.
WESTERN CONFERENCE 2014: FIRST FIVE
1. Los Angeles Galaxy – The Galaxy are perhaps the most well-known MLS franchise internationally. Their four MLS Cup titles and Supporter’s Shields are tied with other flagship club DC United as the most in league history. LA is also one of only two MLS teams to ever win the former CONCACAF Champions Cup. To many fans, they are best known for being the MLS home of the greatest American soccer player of all time, Landon Donovan as well as the landing spot of England star David Beckham. Beckham is no longer with the club, but the Galaxy are still home to great international talent, such as former Tottenham and Liverpool star Robbie Keane, a two-time MLS Best XI selection. With a loaded roster led by former USMNT coach Bruce Arena, LA is always at the top of the list of championship contenders. The Galaxy will return star defender Omar Gonzalez this season as the USMNT defender was on loan to FC Nuremberg in Germany. Gonzalez is at the top of the list of MLS’s best defensemen and will be a strong re-addition to the club in 2014, barring any other transfers in the summer. Defense was a glaring weakness for the team last season and if the team can play stronger in front of goal, they should be near the top of the Western Conference and a favorite to win it all. LA is also the odds on favorite in Vegas for winning the MLS Cup, hedging bets on last year’s underwhelming finish being an aberration and not a pattern. Per usual, the team will be full of offensive firepower, but watch out for Donovan’s first goal as it will make him the leading scorer in MLS history.
2. Portland Timbers – Timbers coach Caleb Porter won Coach of the Year and secured a first place finish in the Western Conference in 2013, his first year with the team. Porter is a promising American soccer mind and will undoubtedly have Portland in the running for the Supporter’s Shield and the club’s first MLS Cup in 2014. Porter has instilled an incredible level of ball control and passing proficiency in Portland that made them an exceptionally tough matchup in the strong Western Conference last season. The Portland midfield is anchored on up and coming superstar Darlington Nagbe, a former #2 overall pick in the MLS draft. Nagbe has only played three seasons, but is routinely finding himself listed among the league’s best young players and is on pace to become one of the best midfielders in MLS. Like New England’s Fagundez, Nagbe is likely a player who will be a hot market commodity in a few short years and see playing time for his home nation of Liberia in international play. Alongside Nagbe in midfield is 2013 Newcomer of the Year award winner Diego Valeri, a balanced player who netted 11 goals with 13 assists last season. Valeri also has three appearances for the prestigious Argentina national team under his belt, a sign of his pedigree and the level of young international talent in Portland. The Timbers will undoubtedly be near the top of the Western Conference, but like Los Angeles, will need to strengthen their defense to get over the hump of the conference final. Portland is also trying out new pieces such as forward Gaston Fernandez to improve the Timber attack, so growing pains could keep Portland from a first place finish.
3. Seattle Sounders – American soccer star Clint Dempsey left a more prestigious opportunity in Europe to return home and strengthen the talent pool of MLS in 2013 behind a deal that made him the highest paid player in the league. In his first year with the club, the results were lukewarm and his troubling play for Fulham in the EPL, where he was put on loan this winter, has some Sounders fans concerned. At his best, Dempsey is undoubtedly an MVP quality player, he was a very good player for both Fulham and Tottenham before rejoining MLS and the USMNT captain has nearly a decade of experience on the United States starting eleven. Little more than a year ago, Dempsey was unquestionably the best American player on the planet. Now, there are serious questions around his fitness, troubling not only for Seattle but the United States heading into this year’s World Cup. Seattle didn’t stop with the addition of Dempsey, Nigerian star Obafemi Martins was inked to another blockbuster deal to strengthen the Sounders offense. Martins came to Seattle after playing for Newcastle and Birmingham City of the EPL as well as Bundesliga club Wolfsburg on top of being a regular for the Nigerian national team. Along with All-Star midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, Seattle has as much, if not more potential than any other team in MLS, particularly in scoring ability. If Dempsey and Martins enter 2014 near the form that earned them megastar contracts, there will be very few backfields in the league that can contain the Sounders on offense. Seattle has one of the most rabid fan bases in all of American pro sports and their faithful are eagerly anticipating a championship, but there are questions as to whether the team can be head and shoulders above either Portland or Los Angeles.
4. Real Salt Lake – Real Salt Lake capitalized on the up and down play of both LA and Seattle in 2013, advancing out of the Western conference and falling just short of their second MLS Cup, losing in the finals via penalty kicks to Kansas City. The Royals have parted ways with head coach Jason Kreis, who led RSL to their MLS Cup win in 2009 and two conference championships. Kreis was in the upper echelon of coaches in MLS and will now take his talents to upcoming expansion team New York FC. Losing such an integral part of the team’s foundation can’t help Salt Lake’s chances in repeating their stellar 2013 season, but the club returns enough talent to make it competitive enough to comfortably earn another playoff berth. Former newcomer of the year and Costa Rica national team star Alvaro Saborio will yet again be the helm of Real’s offense. Assisting Sasborio in midfield is perennial All-Star and USMNT regular Kyle Beckerman, one of the best at his position in MLS. Joining Beckerman in Brazil for the World Cup will be USMNT reserve goalkeeper and former MLS MVP Nick Rimando, likely the best keeper in the entire league. All three of Saborio, Beckerman and Rimando will be leaving the team for an undetermined amount of time for World Cup play and given their importance to RSL, there are questions on whether the squad has enough talent outside of them, especially at positions as crucial as in goal, to compete with the cream of the crop in the Western Conference.
5. FC Dallas – One of the original MLS franchises in 1996, FC Dallas hasn’t fared quite as well as younger brother Houston, the highest finish for the “Hoops” is a lone MLS Cup runner-up in 2010. Last year, Dallas missed the playoffs with a young, inexperienced, but talented roster that could take the next step in 2014 and finish as high as first place in conference, or miss the playoffs entirely yet again. The faces of the club’s youth movement are stars in the making Mauro Diaz (22) of Argentina and Colombian winger Fabian Castillo (21). Both showed limitless potential last season, but haven’t collected enough experience at the professional level yet to be consistent stars match in and match out. Diaz in particular needs time to develop at the pro level, he joined the Toros late last season, 2014 will be his first full season at the MLS level. To balance out the inexperience of Diaz and Castillo, the offense will be anchored by Panamanian veteran Blas Perez, who led the team in scoring. Dallas has the potential to earn a playoff spot, or much more, in 2014, but much of their success will hinge on the development of the team’s young stars.
END OF SEASON PREDICTIONS:
SUPPORTER’S SHIELD: This year, I believe the best regular season record will go to Sporting Kansas City, who will take advantage of a slightly easier Eastern Conference. I expect New York to be a serious challenge to SKC, but the gap between the Galaxy, Timber and Sounders is too thin for me to confidently put the Supporter’s Shield on a team from the West before any team has played a match. ‘The Wiz’ have the best returning combination of high level talent and excellent coaching to finish the season with the highest point tally.
EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Echoing the sentiments above, I believe SKC will represent the Eastern Conference in the MLS Cup.
WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Los Angeles will finish with the conference’s best record, but Portland will represent the Western Conference in the MLS Cup.
MLS CUP CHAMPION: Kansas City over Portland to win their second consecutive MLS Cup in 2014.
BEST OF THE REST: MLS has the most parity of any professional sports league in America. Outside of a select few elite teams, the 4th through 9-10 spots in conference are entirely up in the air. Traditional powerhouse DC United had maybe the worst season in MLS history last year, despite being the most accomplished club in league history outside of the Galaxy. Toronto FC has tried to emulate Seattle’s attempt at buying an MLS Cup by signing USMNT star Michael Bradley, a surefire candidate for MVP in 2014 and a key to the USA’s success in Brazil. The Colorado Rapids have another one of MLS’s young stars in American Chris Klute, who had regularly appeared for the American U-20 side and was recently invited to USA’s training camp for a shot at making the World Cup roster this summer. Original ten franchise Columbus has rebuilt its defense in an attempt to make the playoffs for the first time in three years.
The continued growth of MLS depends on two things, a high level of international talent, primarily from pipelines to Central and South America and most importantly, keeping America’s (and Canada’s) best players at home. The league isn’t at a level yet where it’s more attractive to young American players than a shot in the EPL or Serie A, or a bevy of other high level leagues in Europe, but it’s quickly become an incubator for the next generation of American soccer’s identity. Without the MLS, players like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore would have never landed high profile opportunities overseas. Today, we’re seeing the next generation of these players like Michael Bradley, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzalez stay in the US and hopefully develop into world class talent. Likewise, the number of young, very promising players from around the globe is as high as it has ever been. Dynamic playmakers like Diego Fagundez and Nagbe will be likely be stars on the game’s biggest stages and it will be quite a coup for MLS to have found them between the cracks and have given them a chance to develop and make a name for themselves. Proven commodities like England’s Jermain Defoe (Toronto FC) or Thierry Henry have also helped legitimize the sport in America and helped MLS gain some traction internationally. The league’s front office has also mastered the art of the fan experience, the MLS offers one of the best on-field products for the money and certainly one of the most unique pro sports experiences in the United States. As attendance continues to climb and targeted expansion occurs, it’s only a matter of time before more and more Americans are watching soccer on their TVs. And next year, with the gigantic ESPN deal, it will have never been easier. It’s a great time for soccer in America and with the added mystique of the World Cup, 2014 will surely not disappoint. As always, stay tuned to PTBN for the latest not only on MLS, but every type of athletic competition under the sun. Enjoy the season!