It’s mid-February. That can only mean one thing - it’s almost time for MLS to start. The league will have a number of big tests in 2018. For one, it won’t be able to use the passion of the World Cup to attract viewers since the US failed to reach the tournament. While MLS may still bounce between taking good, proactive steps, like increasing allocation money teams can spend, it still makes the occasionally mindnumbingly ridiculous decision like letting a failson move his team to Austin, Texas. Despite that, the league will look a bit different than it did last year and clubs seem to be making improvements in some areas for the better.
As far as story-lines, there is a trend in teams investing in young South American talent, decisions to be made about finding young players minutes, a whole new club, a potential for a strong showing in an international tournament, and a shift in managerial hiring philosophy.
All this and more will make 2018 a fascinating season for MLS.
MLS is turning a corner with player acquisitions
Something that has been looming for a few seasons is South American players finding opportunity in MLS. Mauro Diaz, Ignacio Piatti, Diego Valeri, Joao Plata, and Nicolas Lodiero were just a few of the noticeable names to make an impact on the league. Obviously, Atlanta United added their share of players from the continent last year. While this is nothing new for MLS, Atlanta United seems ready to take the novel strategy of showcasing some of their players to sell in the future. It hasn’t taken long for other teams to follow suit.
Ezequiel Barco is the most prominent of 27, and counting, young South Americans to join MLS this season. Sam Stejskal of MLSSoccer.com listed the players, noting that the average age of the newcomers is 21.5. The breakdown of countries the players come from according to Stejskal is: 6 players from Argentina; 7 from Venezuela; 3 from Paraguay; 2 Uruguayans; 2 from Chile; and one each from Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador. Among those players, Milton Valenzuela of the Columbus Crew, Diego Rossi of LAFC, Jesus Medina of NYCFC, and Josue Colman with Orlando City join the league on designated player contracts.
Of course, the age of the players is of note. MLS is less becoming a retirement league and more a league where players believe they can get a chance to show off their talents either before moving on or staying and building a career in the league. It will be fascinating to see how these player adopt to MLS and which emerge as new stars as 2018 wears on.
Will US youth players get more minutes?
The flip side of that is that minutes are a scarce resource in MLS. With only one domestic league tournament to find extra playing time, young US players have to show what they can do in practice with managers hesitant to give them a shot in game situations. While there is ample room for young players to continue to develop with increased competition from talented players from other countries, MLS still hasn’t quite embraced the “play the kids” mantra. This is despite stakes being fairly low. Managers in the league don’t face significant turnover and over half the clubs in the league make the post season. Still, MLS is, well shockingly bad at giving young players minutes:
Tabulated how many minutes each MLS team gave to U-21 American and Canadian players in 2017. Totals include pre-birthday minutes played by players who turned 21 during season.— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) November 29, 2017
RSL clobbered everyone in this category. pic.twitter.com/42MsZkArmg
The league has seemingly added to the incentive to play young players by allowing teams to keep the entire transfer fee for Homegrowns. How that will influence coaches’ decisions will be a different issue. Interestingly, two teams on the bottom of that list faced off in the MLS Cup Final, so success is not necessarily related to playing the kids.
It would seem like teams that are ignored by their owners - like New England - or are trying to rebuild like DC United, Houston, and Minnesota would play younger players, but it remains to be seen if that is the case. Minnesota, for one, does not have an academy, and Houston seems dead set on ignoring it’s USL team’s potential for building one of the best youth networks in the country.
If past performance is any indicator of if this is going to change, the answer seems to be no based on this analysis by Steve Fenn.
Q: How have minutes been distributed among different age groups in @MLS?— Steve Fenn (@StatHunting) February 8, 2018
A: This led to an interesting chart. Seems to show certain classes of players holding on to a large share of minutes as they age.
Also, grand total row shows most minutes have gone to players in their prime. pic.twitter.com/r7S4dxjOm4
That said, RSL came out of nowhere and played their young players, the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas have shown that playing the kids can be a path to the playoffs in MLS also. Brad Friedel left his job with the USMNT U-19s to coach the New England Revolution and if any new manager in MLS knows how talented teenagers are, it is him. On the other hand, for some reason the Revs are holding onto an unhappy Lee Nguyen rather than looking to give their young players a chance while they are re-building in 2018.
LAFC joins the league
The Los Angeles Football Club joins MLS in 2018. They’re building an... interesting team. So far they just have 17 players on the squad (shield your eyes). Today is February 9th, the season starts in three weeks. That’s not a lot of time to fill out the roster, much less build chemistry. Bob Bradley has a lot of experience as a manager and is probably not given the respect he is due. While LA doesn’t have a Vadim Demidov on the roster, they seem to have emphasized the off the field product more than what they’re putting on the pitch to start the year. Minnesota didn’t quite make that mistake last year, but this feel like another team jamming a process that should require several years into a few months.
LAFC will have other challenges they’ll have to overcome, as they start the year with 6 away matches in a row. That isn’t exactly a great way to engage and energize a fan base opening the year. Atlanta also started off last year with several extended road trips, but had a home opener to give fans a taste of what they could expect from the team. If LA struggles, as away sides often do in MLS, will fans’ enthusiasm be dampened as the team opens its new stadium? We can only hope that whatever the results, supporters will fill the stands. LAFC is betting big that building a fan culture around being based in LA itself will help draw supporters and succeed where Chivas USA failed. 2018 will go a long way in showing how successful they can be at tapping into the vibrant Southern California soccer culture.
MLS looking to make noise in CONCACAF Champions League
CONCACAF Champions League has been a challenge for MLS teams essentially since the inception of the tournament. There are a number of reasons for this. MLS teams are in pre-season form while clubs from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America are in mid-season form. As a result, the best MLS has been able to muster is a pair of finals appearances in 2011 and 2015.
This year might be a little different though. The league will send the Seattle Sounders, Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls, and Toronto FC to the tournament. Seattle and especially Toronto seem to be the best contenders to come out of the league having reached the MLS Cup Final.
The round of 16 for the tournament will kick off on February 20th and the Reds will face off against the Rapids while the rest of the MLS sides take on other opponents from the confederation. Obviously, Toronto seems to be the team from MLS with the best chance of making a run in CCL. TFC is returning most of their starters from their record setting season in 2017, but it won’t be easy for them as they are in a bracket that may see them face off against Tigres. The full bracket can be seen here with all of the pathways for MLS teams to reach the final.
For those unfamiliar with the tournament, the knockout rounds feature a home and home series with the winner advancing on aggregate with the away goal rule in effect. Should no team lead on aggregate, tied games will have an extra time period and penalty shoot out if necessary. The final will be held during the first and second weeks of April. Will an MLS team be playing come spring? We shall see.
The Foreign Manager Movement
For a time, MLS teams had been giving former players fresh from retirement head coaching jobs. Jay Heaps and Pablo Mastroeni were two such coaches who were fired in 2017. Others making way are Caleb Porter, Dominic Kinnear, and Mauro Biello. All but one of those five were replaced by foreign managers. Mikael Stahre from Sweden joins the San Jose Earthquakes, Englishman Anthony Hudson takes over in Colorado, Remi Garde of France moved to Montreal to lead the Impact, and Giovanni Savarese comes from the New York Cosmos to the Portland Timbers. Indeed, the only American coach hired by an MLS team was Brad Friedel who left his position coaching the U-19 Men’s team to manage the New England Revolution.
This is something of a departure for MLS teams, in addition to former players getting coaching jobs, Curt Onoflo took over for the LA Galaxy last year only to be replaced by Sigi Schmid. It has become a cliche, but MLS is not like other leagues. Playing games shortly after long flights, complex roster rules, and how to get the best out of players are just some of the issues first year managers have to respond to. With nearly 25% of MLS teams bringing in new manager this year, it will be interesting to see if managers adapt to their new league or struggle.
Any story lines from around they league you’re interested in? Let us know in the comments.