Something curious is occurring this year as Major League Soccer teams gradually tumble from the championship chase, waking up from MLS Cup dreamland: The moment they are eliminated, these teams suddenly become more interesting.
Obviously, success is always compelling. We faithfully observe and applaud as clubs earn playoff berths and subsequently move forward toward the Dec. 6 MLS Cup date, dissecting and deconstructing the ingredients that went into their particular stews of success. In other words, those story lines are always worth watching. But this year, monitoring and analyzing success around MLS seems second fiddle – somehow less compelling than watching what happens as the “also rans” map courses toward more fruitful days and victory parades.
Watching the successful move forward is like nibbling on a plentiful cheese plate; it’s certainly nice enough. But watching the fixer-uppers will be the real pizza party!
It’s always this way to some extent, but we are getting an XXL helping this go-round. For instance, what will happen at the StubHub Center, where anything less than MLS glory means heads roll. Bruce Arena has already sounded some ominous warnings about ongoing viability of the current roster?
There are important questions to answer at Chicago, Toronto FC, New England and elsewhere. Here’s a quick look around the league at where things get so absorbing within the ranks of the eliminated:
New York City FC was among those eliminated before the regular season’s Round 34 conclusion, and this is the best starting point for two reasons. First, there are clearly problems in the Bronx, where the club needs a more comprehensive plan (and definition of what it wants to be), a more cogent personnel plan and a stadium plan. Some of that is big picture stuff that certainly will not be solved quickly.
But watching this bunch try to untangle the shorter-term concerns will be the more intriguing element. It’s so plain to see that a midfield with Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard (combined age: 73) cannot function. But we’ll watch, because who would be surprised if the club presses on and tries?
As City FC is now in the market for a new manager, there is also the issue of who might be tasked with the impossible: making that ill-constructed midfield function in the face of all evidence that it will not. Perhaps the larger question around Yankee Stadium is this: Will someone with some common sense be empowered to make the important decisions, or will critical choices continue to be the province of the nebulous City Football Group?
Here’s the other reason NYCFC is the starting point for further movement around MLS: Firing Jason Kreis – a choice that was undercooked at best, just plain kooky at worst – doesn’t just open the door for an intriguing coaching hire. It creates a huge ripple that could portend managerial change elsewhere. Because the line forms to the left of teams that would love to have Kreis, the youngest man to win an MLS Cup, in charge. (More on that in a minute.)
— A day after LA Galaxy got bounced ingloriously – a bungling back line and a goalkeeper they never should have trusted as the primary culprits – Arena conceded the difficulty in keeping the roster together. Frankly, it sounded calculated, a wily MLS veteran’s way of setting the table for a big trade or a high profile parting or … something.
Clearly, they are in the market for a new goalkeeper. Robbie Keane said earlier this year that he wants a long-term deal; as reliably productive as the Irish striker has been, he’s 35.
Omar Gonzalez may require a career reboot; 2015 wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t a DP-worthy year, now was it? And as the Galaxy bought down his salary with Targeted Allocation Money that is no longer available … well?
— If Seattle moves forward and ends up winning the whole shebang, well, that’s what a lot of people predicted to begin Major League Soccer’s 20th season, isn’t it?
But if Sigi Schmid’s pricey roster at CenturyLink can’t pull it off this year, don’t we all lean in to see what the offseason holds for the league’s all-time leader in managerial wins? Especially in light of recent events at Yankee Stadium? Considering what Sounders current general manager Garth Lagerwey and (the now unemployed) Kreis did on a ramen noodle budget at Real Salt Lake, what could they pull off in tandem at well-heeled Seattle?
— Staying with Kreis as the potential fulcrum of moves around MLS, the manager’s chair is open at Chicago. It seemed to be at Toronto FC before Tuesday, when TFC president Bill Manning assured all that Greg Vanney was coming back. (On the other hand, Manning assigned some hard targets, like eight points from eight road games with which TFC will likely open the 2016 season. That seems unwise because it backs Manning into a corner once Vanney shoots high and wide on one of the targets.)
And are we convinced that managers are safe at Philadelphia and Real Salt Lake? Kreis won’t return to his roots at RSL – too much ownership baggage to wade through there. But his availability could alter the landscape, adding a big name to the pool of applicants.
Finally, should we add Ben Olsen’s name to the list of “Are we sure they are safe?” Given D.C. United’s late season collapse, and since the hour glass seems just about out of sand around RFK for 2015, this plateau may look increasingly problematic. Stay tuned.
— Toronto FC needs defenders. Oh, for the love of all that’s good … get some defenders! (No truth to the rumor Giovinco has demanded a trade to another Eastern Conference team … so that he would get two or three shots a season at TFC’s beleaguered back line.) Of course, adding quality defenders might require some roster rearrangement, and there’s not a lot of wiggle room there. Well, there isn’t unless …
Could Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley possibly me on the move? Clearly, every roster choice should start with constructing the best platform for Sebastian Giovinco; anything else would be foolish given the landmark season the presumptive MLS Most Valuable Player just had.
— Houston brought in a relatively big coaching name last year in Owen Coyle. The former Bolton manager certainly won’t look at 2015 as a raging success. Then again, a one-year mulligan, time to digest the quirky ways and needs of MLS, doesn’t seem unreasonable. Now, he has to get with GM Matt Jordan to make some big roster decisions.
The team desperately needs more speed, further creativity and a lockdown center back. Additionally, U.S. international Brad Davis, an MLS institution, is out of contract. Eyebrows were rightly raised when he didn’t even make the trip on Houston’s final match in Vancouver.
— How have we gone this long without getting to New England and Jermaine Jones, a longtime lightning rod in domestic soccer chatter? Jones is 34 and out of contract at Gillette. The U.S. international and perennial Jurgen Klinsmann favorite didn’t have a great 2015 (especially not compared to 2014, when his arrival in Foxboro turned a good team into a superior one that very nearly finished with an MLS Cup title.) Oh, and he’s sure to miss a few matches next year due to suspension; or maybe you didn’t see the way Jones completely flipped his lid a week ago?
So Jones looked at all that (age, looming suspension, declining performance, two significant injuries in 2015, etc.) and demanded a long-term deal. Of course he did. So, pop some corn and watch this one closely.
The increasingly abbreviated MLS season is always sardine packed with absorbing personnel news and views. This year seems especially so. We’ll watch the teams that make their way through the playoffs because … well … sports. That’s what it’s all about.
But don’t sleep on the teams that tumble aside early; they may have the more interesting things to say.
100+ Channels With Sports & News
- Starting price: $29.99/mo. for fubo Español Package
- Watch Premier League, LaLiga, Liga MX & MLS
- Includes NBC, NBCSN, ESPN, FS1, FS2, TUDN, beIN SPORTS and more
Favorite Leagues At The Best Price
- Starting price: $7.99/mo. for Live TV Package
- Watch LaLiga, Primeira Liga and Copa Libertadores
- Includes beIN SPORTS, GolTV, TyC Sports and more
Many Sports & ESPN Originals
- Price: $5.99/mo. (or get ESPN+, Hulu & Disney+ for $12.99/mo.)
- Features Serie A, Bundesliga, FA Cup, EFL & more
- Also includes daily ESPN FC news & highlights show
Live TV, Soccer & Originals
- Starting price: $5.99/mo.
- Features Champions League, Europa League & NWSL
- Includes CBS, Star Trek & CBS Sports HQ
175 Premier League Games & PL TV
- Starting price: $4.99/mo. for Peacock Premium
- Watch 175 exclusive EPL games per season
- Includes Premier League TV channel plus movies, TV shows & more