The MLS offseason is still churning as teams finalize their last transactions and continue to shape the excess of their rosters in advance of opening day, but training camp has opened and the major business has been done.
There’s no question that MLS improved in the last two months. Even with the loss of stars like Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Jermain Defoe, DeAndre Yedlin, and perhaps the MLS 3.0 era, more and more talent and money has flooded in.
MLS is now the place to be for US internationals, its added European stars, two glamorous franchises, and another soccer specific stadium in San Jose.
The controversy that has gone along with this season hasn’t been bad for the league either. Sagas with the CBA, Frank Lampard, Toronto FC, and the New York Red Bulls have chewed up headlines and sent oxygen flowing to MLS in the offseason months when even its biggest fans could tune out its existence.
On the field, the league looks wide open this year. With LA needed to retool and integrate Steven Gerrard mid-season, the defending champions are beatable. Here’s a review of each team’s offseason signings.
LA Galaxy – B
Any offseason that adds Steven Gerrard is successful. LA couldn’t have done much better with the DP spot vacated by Landon Donovan. Gerrard’s force of personality and will to star – he clearly would rather be a key player with the Galaxy than a bit-part player at Liverpool – will make him a huge hit.
But Gerrard doesn’t arrive until July, and until then, LA will be short of their normal star-power. On the whole, more offseason oxygen was spent on resuming the chase for Sacha Kljestan.
That chase cost Arena Kofi Opare midseason, and then a hefty fine when MLS block Kljestan’s move, and this offseason it cost him the invaluable Marcelo Sarvas to make room for Kljestan, only to be pipped to the top allocation spot by New York.
It leaves LA without their accustomed talent advantage in the attacking third, and a massive hole in their central midfield. While there’s no question that the Galaxy will use their allocation spot to add a starter, there won’t be a fit as good as Kljestan on the board.
LA marches on, but if Arena wants a cup repeat in 2015, he’ll need to produce one of his best coaching efforts yet.
Seattle Sounders – B-
Seattle, finally, has the ability to sit back and watch. Stability and chemistry were keys to the Sounders’ Supporters Shield winning 2014, and the opportunity to watch the partnership between Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins blossom further this year is exciting in itself.
The Sounders lost a lot of defensive depth in the last few months, and they still might be after a center-back to start alongside Chad Marshall.
But this offseason really comes down to how effective former Bolton man Tyronne Mears is in replacing DeAndre Yedlin at fullback. What Seattle doesn’t need is a midseason defensive shakeup of a unit with everyone on the wrong side of 30.
Cristian Roldan is a terrific MLS SuperDraft pickup, and Troy Perkins is a solid backup goalkeeper. Other than that, this offseason leaves a little bit to be desired.
Real Salt Lake – C-
A clear changing of the guard is taking place at the Rio Tinto. With RSL’s core all on the downslope of their careers, this team is beginning to rebuild.
Ned Gravaboy and Chris Wingert were picked off by Jason Kreis in the expansion draft, Nat Borchers went to Portland, and contributors like Robbie Findley, Sebastian Velasquez, and Cole Grossman left as well.
This offseason might have been saved by Jamison Olave’s return to replace Borchers, and the hope is that the team can stay competitive and in the playoff race while retooling, but we are definitely going to see a younger, less stable Salt Lake this season.
FC Dallas – B-
After not figuring out who their goalkeeper was in 2014, Dallas removed all doubt and selected Dan Kennedy in the Chivas USA dispersal draft. It will be interesting to see if Kennedy’s poor numbers over the last few years were all down to Chivas’ desolate play, or, on the flip-side, whether Kennedy has been afforded too much slack because of his station.
The bet is on Kennedy being rejuvenated, as Dallas’ young core matures in front of him. Dallas were another team that lost a lot of depth – they actually got even younger – and never made a true splash in the market, but they have belief that their project will continue on the right path.
Vancouver Whitecaps – C+
The ‘Caps were quiet in the offseason, as their quest for a full-time forward and a place for Darron Mattocks didn’t culminate in anything fruitful.
Vancouver’s roster is still a work in progress. Their biggest changes came on defense, where fan favorite Andy O’Brien has been replaced by recently released Portland Timber Pa Modou Kah. The Gambian, who speaks eight languages, will play alongside Kendell Waston and be a beloved locker-room presence by the time the first preseason game is played.
Whether the on-field combination with Waston will be as combustible as it looks remains to be seen.
Octavio Rivero could come in and take the minutes vacated by Sebastian Fernandez, while Erik Hurtado and Kakuta Manneh continue to develop in front of Pedro Morales. Hanging onto to Matias Laba was a major coup in defending Vancouver’s playoff place.
Portland Timbers – A-
It was a good offseason by all metrics for Portland, which accomplished everything it wanted to by the time the first pick of the expansion draft went on the board.
Nat Borchers comes in to central defense to play alongside Liam Ridgewell, giving the Timbers more defensive stability than they’ve ever had in MLS.
Adam Larsen Kwarasey, Ghana’s World Cup goalkeeper, replaces the great Donovan Ricketts in goal, while Dairon Aspilla can contribute on the wing. Holding midfielder Nick Besler, the number five pick in the SuperDraft, was one of the most MLS-ready players on the board.
But overall, Portland wants to find stability. A fourteen-player rotation, with eleven clear starters is what Caleb Porter is after – especially after the chaos of last season. That’s what this offseason has set the Timbers up to do.
Sporting Kansas City – B+
Sporting went through an offseason makeover after a trying 2014 campaign that flamed out after the World Cup. A number of long-time contributors are out the door, starting with one of the faces of the franchise in Aurelian Colin, but also in Claudio Bieler, CJ Sapong, Lawrence Olum, and both of last season’s goalkeepers.
The goal is better chemistry and roster structure as KC moves back to the Western Conference where there will be less room for error.
The return of Roger Espinoza has everyone at the club excited, while Bernardo Anor and Jalil Anibaba could also contribute as starters. The biggest key is getting Matt Besler and Graham Zusi back to their best.
This is a sort of half-rebuild – what RSL might be going for as well – but SKC will be dealing with a tougher schedule then they’ve had in years.
Houston Dynamo – A-
The capture of Owen Coyle as manager is a risk for Houston, but it’s what they know – a charismatic Scotsman who has never met a suit he liked as a manager.
Coyle and the Dynamo brass have set about releasing a lot of the deadwood from Dominic Kinnear’s squad, while adding Mexican star Cubo Torres in a terrific coup for a club that is losing fan support and has a number of Mexican fans.
Torres helps on the field as well, of course, meaning that much of the scoring load will be off Will Bruin’s shoulders. Houston’s midfield, with four World Cup players, should impress in the hard-running West.
Improving the defense that leaked goals last year will be Coyle’s biggest challenge, and there are only bit-part options there. The Dynamo’s playoff chances will rest on the defense working.
Colorado Rapids – A-
Huge roster turnover for the Rapids this offseason, as Pablo Mastroeni never found a lineup he was comfortable with – rightly or wrongly – in 2014.
Besides Colorado’s agreed-upon young stars, the Rapids added a fistful of MLS starters into the heart of their team.
Trades netted the Rapids Michael Harrington, Sam Cronin, and Dimitry Imbango, with Bobby Burling coming in through the waiver draft, and most importantly, goalkeeper Zac McMath coming in on loan from Philadelphia, and Marcelo Sarvas coming in from LA.
Sarvas and Cronin will the midfield partnership the Rapids need to compete in the West, with Dillon Powers possibly in front of them. Colorado also, somewhat inexplicably, landed the 2015 All-Star, but you get the feeling that this is a make or break season for club legend Mastroeni after a troubling 2014.
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