By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Mar 2, 2018) US Soccer Players - Maybe it’s a function of league growth, or simply a matter of chance. Either way, the new MLS season that kicks off on Saturday is rife with interesting stories both on and off the field. Here are a few worth your attention.
Columbus and Austin
The best place to start is with the biggest off the field story of the MLS offseason. Precourt Sports Ventures is attempting to move the Columbus Crew to Austin, Texas. The 2018 season in Ohio figures to be marked not so much by results on the field, but by the news surrounding the push for relocation. Based on the actions of MLS to this point, there’s no reasonable expectation that the league will step in to prevent Precourt from pursuing Austin.
It’s possible that the Crew stays in Columbus. It's possible that the league steps in one way or another. There's no clear destination in Austin. Precourt Sports Ventures is working with that city for a stadium site. What's likely is this story continues to overwhelm whatever the Crew does this season.
It’s difficult to imagine the drama won’t impact the performance of the team on the field or the support the team receives in the stands. If this was a movie script, Columbus would win an MLS Cup championship and the fans would succeed in saving the Crew while celebrating a trophy. It's not. Instead, it's modern sports business at work.
Although the newest expansion entry into MLS still has more owners than it does players on the eve of their first game, the expectations are high for LAFC. Bob Bradley’s return to the sidelines in the league where he started his professional coaching career brings with it a belief that he’ll make his team competitive in an open Western Conference.
LAFC spent significant money on their roster. They convinced Mexican star Carlos Vela to leave Spain for the United States. They added an exciting young Uruguayan talent in DP Diego Rossi and look to be on the verge of one or two more notable signings.
Setting aside the headline moves, the experimental nature of the roster and a decided lack of depth make the path to success for LAFC a difficult one. Because Atlanta set the MLS 2.0 expansion bar with a high flying approach that delivered a first-year playoff berth, LAFC faces a similar standard. The club will begin life in a brand new state-of-the-art venue and should have a full house to back them across 17 games. Can they match Atlanta? Is that a fair way to judge MLS expansion teams?
Speaking of Atlanta United, Tata Martino’s team enters year two with dreams of an MLS Cup victory dancing in their heads. Whatever bumps in the road the club hit in their inaugural campaign, they weren’t enough to put United off a postseason berth. That success combined with a set of new signings and the understanding of MLS Martino gained in 2017 elevated Atlanta into an elite group of preseason championship contenders.
Atlanta made waves in January by acquiring 18-year old Argentinian midfielder Ezequiel Barco from the Copa Sudamericana champion Independiente, the latest example of owner Arthur Blank’s ambition. The club spent an MLS record $15 million to sign Barco, driving up excitement for his debut. Various soccer publications have ranked Barco among the best teenage players in the world.
Unfortunately, that debut will have to wait 4-6 weeks as Barco recovers from a muscle injury suffered in preseason training. Atlanta has the players to get off to a good start, but it can only be a disappointment that Barco is out.
Worst to ?
There aren’t many leagues in the world where the idea of going from a last-place finish one season to a championship in the next isn’t patently ridiculous. Mostly because finishing last usually doesn’t allow a team to play in the same league the next year.
MLS is different. While the league has changed dramatically over the last decade and the increased spending brought on by the TAM initiative has separated clubs by ambition, the rules and format still makes it possible to go from worst to first.
That’s the hope for DC United in the East and the LA Galaxy in the West. United’s turned the roster over in an attempt to be competitive ahead of the opening of a new stadium in July. DC coach Ben Olsen has a bit more to work with, but will have to deal with a very unbalanced schedule due to the mid-season opening of Audi Field. Chief among United’s on-field problems is the lack of a proven and prolific goalscorer at the top of the formation.
Out in LA, the Galaxy is in a desperate bid to get back to respectability as a competitor for fans arrives up the road. Sigi Schmid return as coach during the stretch run of the 2017 season failed, prompting a whole host of changes at Stub Hub Center. The Galaxy traded Gyasi Zardes and cash to Columbus for striker Ola Kamara, a move the Galaxy hope will fix some of the problems they dealt with in the attack last season.
It’s a long way to a championship for DC United and the Galaxy. A playoff berth and the renewed faith of their fans might be enough for 2018.
More From Jason Davis:
- The NASL goes dark
- Shining the spotlight on four MLS players in 2018
- Toronto focuses on the Champions League and MLS
- Landon Donovan's Leon move gets real
(Photo courtesy of LAFC)