By Tony Edwards - San Jose, CA (Apr 15, 2014) US Soccer Players - What we saw last weekend in MLS play is the ascendance of the idea that you need high-quality impact players to compete. Not to win, but to complete. I’m not one to overly praise the quality of play in MLS, but credit where it’s due. Last season’s bottom feeders start to get a clue, and every team has to react and to raise their game.
Coaches still have an important role to play, no question. Gregg Berhalter in Columbus, Oscar Pareja in Dallas, and so on. However, you can be the most innovative coach in the world and still lose because Michael Bradley or Clint Dempsey did something that made a difference. This is not a bad thing at all for MLS, a league still looking for a firm foothold in a crowded marketplace.
Is 2014 the season when MLS teams have to have at least one high quality player is necessary just to compete?
Look at the teams who won this weekend. Seattle and Clint Dempsey. The Galaxy and Robbie Keane. Federico Higuain in Columbus. Toronto was without Michael Bradley. The Red Bulls had… well let’s not let facts get in the way of a good question.
While coaches like to say that the team is the star, like they do in Salt Lake (for a team with Beckerman, Saborio, Gil, Rimando, etc), pretty much every club in MLS has a mature talent base. That means that there are no easy games. Teams need something extra, someone who can create or take advantage of an opportunity.
In the first years of MLS, we had Etcheverry, Valderrama, Donadoni, and the like. Now we have Dempsey, Bradley, Donovan, Keane, and more. There’s so little that separates the teams in MLS that having the player who can make the difference is vital. No longer can an MLS team depend on just a system to make it work. They need to marry the players and the system.
What this means is simple. Spend money to compete. A franchise has to have innovative coaching, you need a decently sized stadium that you can fill every week, and you need to figure out how to grow and retain your season-ticket base. These are all good, positive steps for MLS.
Building on the first question, which MLS team or teams will then have an advantage during the World Cup?
I’m saying the Galaxy, who have players such as Robbie Keane, Juninho, and the like not going to the World Cup. That’s got to be a not so pleasant thought for the rest of the Western Conference.
Remember, it’s not during the World Cup, per se, that MLS teams may struggle. It’s during the lengthy national team training camps in May. That means next month. If you are a struggling team, such as San Jose, maybe you aren’t looking forward to Chris Wondolowski, Clarence Goodson, and Victor Bernardez being away. If you are a team like Toronto that is just starting to gain a foothold, you knew going in what May and June were going to be like. For Toronto, games like last Saturday’s loss maybe gain greater import. Salt Lake is in the same situation.
Is it too early to start the ‘what’s wrong in Harrison and Portland’ questions?
It’s not, as both teams are next to last in their conferences after this weekend. It was reasonable to think both teams might be set to start the season well and build up points for when their Champions League duties do begin.
Some of Portland’s issues go beyond the obvious (don’t concede late goals – they are tied with Chivas with seven goals conceded after the 60th minute), such as which player leads them in shots taken? If the answer is Will Johnson, that’s a problem.
Who leads MLS in fouls committed? Diego (three yellows in six games) Charra by a wide margin. Who is called offside the most in MLS? Maximiliano Urruti. According to the website whoscored.com, Portland has also allowed the most ‘set piece attempts’ in the League, at 10.
We can all point to the “dominance” the Red Bulls showed in recent games, but the results have been the same. For all New York’s control of possession (averaging more than 55% possession), Luis Robles has faced 36 shots already this season.
It doesn’t get any easier. Starting last Saturday, the Red Bulls play MLS games in two weeks. It’s the famous Saturday-Wednesday-Wednesday-Saturday schedule. After failing miserably against DC United, the Red Bulls have Philadelphia, Houston, and Columbus. Seven or nine points and we’re all talking about how resilient they are and how they’ve bounced back from a tough start. Four or fewer points? Well, Red Bull doesn’t have the reputation as patient when it comes to their MLS team.
Who drew more this weekend: San Jose or an NASL expansion franchise?
We know that’s not a fair question. San Jose’s attendance at Buck Shaw Stadium maxes out at just over 10,500. Still, the new Indy 11 drew an announced 11,048 for their first game, also on a college campus (the wonderfully named IUPUI). To be fair to San Jose, they aren’t last in MLS in home attendance. Both games ended 1-1 also, as Indy and Carolina traded goals either side of half time.
So what does tomorrow’s big announcement mean in Atlanta?
I’m generally in favor of anything that expands opportunity for American players. American sports history has proved, over and over again, that smaller is not better when it comes to League size.
Concerns about the talent base being stretched too thin or there not being enough of an audience have proven to be ill-founded in baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. So adding another team, and a second team in the South, probably in and of itself is a good thing.
The concern, as always, is that there’s a choice of cashing expansion checks versus finding ways to grow revenue. There’s the concern about using expansion as a bait-and-switch to distract attention from difficult situations in Chicago, Dallas, Boston, and Los Angeles. Then there’s Atlanta’s own mixed sports attendance history when it comes to professional sports. It’s worth considering that Montreal-sized success probably ends up looking like a failure in a new NFL stadium, no matter how attractive the tarps are on the upper deck.
Tony Edwards is a soccer writer from the Bay Area.