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.
San Jose Earthquakes – D-
You have to wonder what’s going on with the Earthquakes. Despite needing to drum up enthusiasm for the stadium move that will take place this spring, and a new manager in Kinnear, the ‘Quakes added almost no significant pieces in the offseason.
Regulars of the Goonies Era like Jon Busch and Sam Cronin are gone, and the future is unclear. This looks like a last-place team.
New England Revolution – B
This grade is assuming that New England re-signs Juan Agudelo, which could be the move to put this team over the top.
On the basis of overall play, New England absolutely deserved to win 2014’s MLS Cup, but destiny was with Donovan and LA. The Revs are looking forward to getting a full season with their post-Jermaine Jones roster, while mostly just making the numbers work in the offseason.
Patrick Mullins was a loss that hurt in the Expansion Draft, but the addition of Agudelo would negate that pain. The future is more than bright for the Revs, and this is a franchise that needs continued success to fuel its stadium quest. Might Boston 2024 help?
New York Red Bulls – D+
On the field? Not bad. Swiping Sacha Kljestan from LA, adding Jesse Marsch favorite Felipe Martins in midfield, securing Bradley Wright-Phillips and ditching Tim Cahill, and this looks like a team that very well might make up for the loss of Theirry Henry and Jamison Olave.
But off the field? It was a historic mess. Firing Mike Petke, the team’s most successful coach who happened to be from the area, a fan-favorite as a player, and the face of the franchise locally, was an ungodly dumb move.
The Red Bull town hall held after the firing will live in club and league lore, and while Jesse Marsch is about as good as the Red Bulls could have done in terms of hiring Petke’s replacement, Ali Curtis and the club’s overall management are littered with question marks.
This club has less ambition but the same propensity for disaster. Talk about not capitalizing on NYCFC’s slips.
DC United – C
Though DC has a defending Eastern Conference championship team, the brightest thoughts have turned to the future and a new stadium.
Then, says Ben Olsen, DC will be back in the market for big signings. Until then, it’s going to be a mom and pop operation at falling-down RFK Stadium, which been successful in the regular season, but hasn’t had the talent and pop necessary for playoff success.
DC had a quiet offseason, though Jairo Arrieta can come in and contribute and replace the departed Lewis Neal. Fabian Espindola was locked up long-term, and a number of trialists like Sean St. Ledger and Futty Danso could help the back-line.
Columbus Crew – A-
Columbus’ biggest offseason signing was locked up last year with the return to MLS of Kei Kamara. If Mix Diskerud has been landed last summer as well, this would have been one of the most talked-about teams in the league.
Instead, Columbus has continued to defy common logic and travel off the beaten path, scouting and signing different types of players than the rest of the league.
Hernan Garcia from Argentina is an example of that, and Gregg Berhalter should be counter upon to revive Chris Klute’s once-promising career.
The departures, however, are a risk. Bernardo Anor and Josh Williams were especially important last season, though the contract extension for Federico Higuain was a terrific – perhaps against-the-odds – move for the club’s most notable player and number 10.
This is a franchise on the up and up. We’ll see how far they get in 2015.
Toronto FC – A
Whatever you think about this franchise, you have to admit that they did pretty damn well this offseason.
Think about it: They turned a disgruntled, franchise-wrecking Jermaine Defoe and Gilberto into Jozy Altidore and Giovinco.
Everyone is on board again with the Bloody Big Deal. This team should finally find stability and compete. No excuses. Considering that Giovinco might not arrive before July and TFC won’t play at home until late April due to BMO Field’s renovation, this should be a late-season team like New England was last year.
Bringing in Damien Perquis should help the defense, while a lot of the productive, but more tempremental players like Doneil Henry and Dominic Oduro are gone. The pressure is on Greg Vanney, but it’s impossible not to be giddy about TFC’s future. Well done.
Montreal Impact – B
The Impact are moving on from a hugely disappointing year and a half in which one of the top teams in MLS did a nose-dive into gloom and obscurity in front of paltry crowds at the Stade Saputo.
Montreal’s first MLS cycle appears to be over. Faces of the Impact from the first three years, like Marco Di Vaio, Matteo Ferrari, and Felipe Martins are all gone.
But Frank Klopas, in his first off-season, has resourcefully replaced them with ready-made MLS starters designed to improve his team mentally as much as physically with the type of ruggedness needed to compete.
Eric Alexander is perennially underrated and will key, and Nigel Reo-Coker – if he’s still motivated after a rough 2014 – can contribute as well. Dominic Oduro is an exciting player, as is Belgian World Cup defender Laurent Ciman
Ambroise Oyongo can start in defense, and Eric Kronberg should be able to settle the goalkeeper position. Montreal is back on the right track.
Philadelphia Union – D+
It’s hard to look at the Union team that wasn’t good enough in 2014 and say they got better this offseason. Carlos Valdes is on his way out. Amobi Okugo is gone, as is Zac McMath, putting huge pressure on the ne’er-do-well World Cup vet Rais M’Bholi in goal.
As for additions, CJ Sapong game in from Kansas City – but Sapong wasn’t a starter there, and doesn’t look like the man that will settle Philly’s forward position.
Signing Maurice Edu was vital, but it seems like Philly operates like a small-market team, which, considering the size of their market, support, and stadium situation, they aren’t.
This current roster is by no means a final product. But if the Union don’t improve, it could be a long year for Jim Curtin.
Chicago Fire – B+
It’s clear that Frank Yallop and the Fire brass are ready to go. They brought in three new designated players, made a splash on their backup goalkeeper, and wheeled and dealed on almost thirty players overall.
What’s unclear, however, is how Chicago plans on making all their pieces fitting by the time they open the season at the StubHub Center on March 6th.
With new DP forwards David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike, it’s hard to see where the team’s most proven MLS player, Mike Magee fits in. Sean Maloney could be a very useful signing in midfield from Wigan, but he too is an attacker, and this team has problems on defense.
Michael Stephans has rebooted his career after a year with Bob Bradley in Norway, and Eric Gehrig could start too.
You have to admire Chicago’s ambition – and this started with their ill-fated pursuit of Jermaine Jones last year – but have to wonder about how they’re possibly going to play in 2015.
New York City FC – C
The Frank Lampard fiasco dominated NYCFC’s offseason, giving an ugly vibe to a team that promises to be exciting on and off the field in 2015.
Enough ink has already been spent on the Lampard situation – the bottom line is that both teams involved and the player at hand should be ashamed because their dealings were fraudulent and in bad faith.
But back in New York, Jason Kreis has crafted a nice team. David Villa should be terrific in MLS, and finally being the team to land Mix Diskerud is going to give NYCFC one of the best midfields in the East when Lampard arrives in July.
Ned Gravaboy was a nice Expansion Draft pickup to help the team transition to Kreis’ diamond, and George John has upside as well.
But starting with Ryan Meara, who appears to be the man in goal, there are question marks. NYCFC is not incredibly deep with proven MLS players like their expansion counterpart Orlando City, and Kreis’ still has a number of holes along his back-line.
Unless they catch fire, this probably isn’t a playoff team in year one. Kreis, who hasn’t coached a game in almost 15 months, will have to be at his best.
Orlando City – A
Orlando City could hardly have done any better. It started with Kaka, but inking the playmaker – who has long pined to move to America – was not a shock.
Bringing on a glut of talented MLS veterans like Aurelian Colin, Amobi Okugo, Tally Hall, Donovan Ricketts and Brek Shea are going to help this team through the first few months of 2015 until they get their feet firmly planted on the ground.
There are other potential stars – young DP Bryan Rochez from Honduras, along with Benfica loan-boys like Estrela could be huge. There are just a few sticking points, like who plays up top with Rochez, how the transition in goal from Ricketts to Hall will work – Ricketts might be too good take out of the lineup – and Adrian Heath’s development as an MLS coach.
But all in all, this is a playoff team on paper. Considering the added playoff spot and the East’s relative weakness, Orlando can shoot for the stars in their MLS debut.
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