Major League Soccer returns for a new season on Friday with high hopes that it will be the most successful yet.
A couple of new teams and a whole host of new players contribute to the hopes that this will be the most exciting and entertaining season yet, with plenty of franchises looking well poised to succeed the Los Angeles Galaxy as MLS Cup holders come the end of the campaign.
The recently agreed collective bargaining agreement might have been, at its core, about the league retaining key elements of its insular structure, elements that help keep it separate from the completely free-market situation that operates around the world. Nevertheless, a number of highly paid foreign stars look set to be driving forces in events this season.
Designated players in Los Angeles and New York, along with plenty of other spots around the United States and Canada, come into the new season with huge numbers on their paychecks and consequently huge expectations on their shoulders.
Here are some of the new names and returning faces to watch out for this season.
The New Names
Shaun Maloney (Chicago Fire)
Shaun Maloney may not have as wide a profile as some of the other players debuting in MLS this season, but he could well be one of the players who make a significant impact.
A Scotland international (he recently scored a sumptuous winner in a crucial game against the Republic of Ireland) with top-flight experience in both his homeland and England, Maloney has played in some of the biggest games in Britain and has long had a reputation for having great technique on the ball, along with his vision.
Standing just 5'7" tall, the 32-year-old has perhaps always been too small to make a truly significant impact in the Premier League, but with a bit more room on the pitch to express himself in the U.S., he might prove to be one of the more astute signings of the offseason.
If Chicago Fire head coach Frank Yallop can find a way to give Maloney freedom on the ball and runners in front of him, the ex-Celtic and Aston Villa midfielder has the brains to both provide and score plenty of goals.
“I have always had an ambition to experience a different country,” Maloney said recently, per the Aberdeen Evening Express. He continued:
I’ve played at the top level in Scotland and England. But everything just sort of happened in a whirlwind six days when I came to Chicago to look around.
When I met the manager, Frank Yallop, and what he said about his plans, it made me want to buy into what Chicago could become. It’s a fresh challenge, different county, different league and my heart was set on it.
David Villa (New York City FC)
Perhaps the biggest signing of the offseason, especially when factoring in the PR hype that surrounds the club he has joined, New York City, plenty of fans will be eager to see how David Villa fares in his first season in the United States.
With Thierry Henry having settled into retirement, there is certainly space in New York for a new star name, and Villa would certainly seem in pole position to fill that void.
The former Spain international may not quite be the player he once was, but his successful season at Atletico Madrid underlined that while he may have lost a yard or two of pace, he still retains an exquisite sense of timing and his unerring eye for goals—the two qualities that made him perhaps the most successful out-and-out striker to have played alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona.
NYCFC are the big unknown quantity of the new season, and much will depend on the squad that Jason Kreis and Claudio Reyna have assembled to go around Villa (a fraught loan spell with Melbourne City suggested Villa may struggle if the fit with his team is not right).
Once Frank Lampard arrives, things may change, but perhaps in the initial stages much will depend on whether Villa’s team-mates are on his level, able to give him the ball at the right time or make the runs he is looking for.
If they are, Villa will be one of the league’s must-watch players from the off. As Kreis told Bleacher Report:
Being around David for the last six or seven months, seeing him work in some training environments where there are guys that probably don’t deserve to tie his shoes out there training with him, and he’s just going about it the right way, professionally and working hard, it’s unbelievable.
I just couldn’t be happier about their character and what that’s going to mean for our young players and what’s that’s going to mean for them being extensions of myself on the pitch.
Kaka (Orlando City)
If Villa is the big name in the Big Apple this season, then down in Florida, they have their own star name to lavish attention on. Brazilian star Kaka, for a brief period the most expensive player in history, headlines Orlando City’s own MLS bow, the former AC Milan and Real Madrid attacking midfielder shouldering the hopes of his new side this season.
At just 32, it is incredible to think this is where Kaka is at this point in his career. Just a few years ago, he was one of the biggest names in the world. However, since he won the Ballon d’Or aged just 25 in 2007, he has suffered an almost unprecedented slide, falling out of favour at Real Madrid and then failing to summon his old form at Milan.
Now, he is in Orlando, with some wondering whether he is there to resurrect his career or simply prolong it, hoping that the standard of play in MLS is sufficiently low that he can stand out once again.
The Brazilian might consider that an unfair inference, but it is not entirely unreasonable. What is certain is that Kaka was, at his peak, a player of almost unrivalled rhythm and poise, an attacking midfielder who traded in efficient brilliance a la Zidane rather than over-the-top showmanship of Ronaldinho.
As ever, fitness will have an impact, but if Kaka has the right players around him and is granted the time and space in the middle of the park to manipulate the ball, he could be a joy to watch.
Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto)
At 28, Sebastian Giovinco arrives in MLS as that rarity: a European star moving to North America in his prime.
Giovinco—an Italy international—might not have moved to Toronto for all the right reasons (his salary is believed to make him the highest paid Italian in world football right now), but the Atomic Ant would surely have turned down plenty of opportunities to stay in Europe in order to experience MLS.
Undersized, much like Maloney, but great on the ball and with a reasonable eye for goal, Giovinco might have failed to live up to the hype that originally surrounded him, but he was still a seasoned performer in Serie A, a player used with reasonable frequency by Juventus last season.
That pedigree stands him head and shoulders above many of the forwards in this league—when you consider the number of goals the likes of Bradley Wright-Phillips (a journeyman player in the English lower leagues) and Alvaro Saborio have scored in recent MLS seasons, you shudder to think how many goals Giovinco could end up netting.
After the unmitigated disaster that was the Jermain Defoe experiment, it is always worth tempering expectations by remembering that the change in culture can affect different players in different ways. If Giovinco embraces the challenge, however, and he sees the lucrative payment not as a case of “job done” but as a motivation to deliver, then Toronto could get full reward for perhaps the most ambitious of the offseason deals.
Also watch out for…
Steven Gerrard (LA Galaxy) and Frank Lampard (New York City FC) are both due to join up with their respective clubs at the conclusion of the Premier League season, although it remains to be seen whether the two former England internationals will be in physical shape to immediately contribute in the way many are expecting.
Lampard, in particular, will not have played 90 minutes on a consistent basis for the best part of two years by the time he arrives in New York, meaning a period of fitness adjustment will be required. But his value to City indicates the quality he retains, and he will certainly offer a huge goalscoring threat at a key point in the season.
As Kreis added to Bleacher Report:
When you get to the end of the season and there’s some real fatigue, injuries and suspensions, you need guys to be able to step in and not miss a beat. I think [Lampard’s late arrival] affords us that opportunity.
We’re gonna be having a player that’s gonna be at the top of his game, extremely fit, coming right out of a Premiership season, which hopefully will [give him] another medal to put in his pocket, and we can have a really significant, positive boost in the middle of the season.
While Lampard’s move to MLS is not a massive surprise, there is a general feeling that Gerrard is crossing the Atlantic sooner than perhaps necessary—that the Liverpool skipper still has something to offer at Anfield or another major European club.
On the other hand, that means LA are getting a player with plenty still to offer, and one who does not seem to have the mental make-up to coast along. Fitness permitting, he looks set to make a bigger long-term impact on the league than Lampard, although he may need a greater adjustment period depending on how heavily involved he is in Liverpool’s Premier League run-in.
Elsewhere, Philadelphia Union’s new DP, Fernando Aristeguieta, could be a less familiar face worth keeping an eye on. The Venezuelan arrives on loan from French side Nantes, where he sporadically showed a reasonable eye for goal. Just 22 but with a powerful frame, Aristeguieta has scored goals in pre-season for the Union and could find the league very much to his liking.
The Familiar Faces
Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy)
Stepping into a starring role following the retirement of Landon Donovan, Keane will be expected to carry the hopes of the league’s defending champions until Steven Gerrard arrives at LAX.
At this point, every MLS fan surely knows what they are getting with Keane, who has increased his profile after initially being captioned as an “unidentified fan” in a picture alongside then-Galaxy team-mate David Beckham. Keane’s success—using his brain and experience to cover for diminishing physical attributes—is perhaps the blueprint for David Villa’s success, but the 34-year-old has every motivation to keep pushing himself with the Republic of Ireland looking to qualify for the 2016 European Championship.
Obafemi Martins (Seattle Sounders)
Just 30 years of age (we will leave that one well alone), Martins grabbed 17 goals in 31 games for Seattle last season and will be expected to contribute a similar number alongside the club’s main star, Clint Dempsey, this time around.
The Sounders’ ambition is obvious, and it would seem that nothing less than an MLS Cup victory will satisfy the club and its fans this time around. In Dempsey, Martins and Osvaldo Alonso, the club has decided to bring back the same DPs as last season, so it is clear they believe they have the star names they need to achieve that aim.
Fast, surprisingly powerful and capable (if occasionally profligate) in front of goal, an in-form Martins will be a daunting prospect for any MLS defence.
Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
Elevated to DP status after his 27-goal season last time out, those who never thought they would see the day when Bradley Wright-Phillips was asked to succeed Thierry Henry as the face of a franchise are also expecting pigs to start flying right around now.
Wright-Phillips is an example of what MLS can do for a troubled player who has failed to achieve his potential elsewhere; lacking in other offers, Wright-Phillips’ move to the MLS seemed motivated by desperation as much as anything else. Now, though, after learning alongside the great Henry, the 29-year-old enters the new campaign as a respected goalscorer earning good money on the understanding that he will produce similar heroics this time around.
The Red Bulls came close to MLS Cup glory last season but were ultimately unable to give Henry the Hollywood send-off he might have been hoping for. The Frenchman’s absence undoubtedly weakens the team (and the lack of any other DPs perhaps indicates a slight tightening of belts at the club), but with Sacha Kljestan, Peggy Luyindula and Ronald Zubar, there is experience and pedigree there—but Wright-Phillips and his goals will surely be crucial to any success the side have.
Also watch out for…
It is perhaps interesting that nearly half of the league’s DPs are forwards, with the other half consisting of players deemed to be midfielders. Portland Timbers defender Liam Ridgewell is one of the few exceptions, and it will be interesting to see whether paying for an experienced defender—Ridgewell has a wealth of Premier League experience and, at 30, is theoretically still near or at his prime—pays off for them.
The Timbers, who have opted to keep the same DPs as last season, also have Nigerian striker Fanendo Adi in their ranks. Adi is a veritable giant of a forward who enjoyed a fine debut campaign at the club last season. The 24-year-old has previously attracted interest from a variety of notable European sides and figures to be an even bigger attacking threat this time around.
Indeed, Adi might be an interesting test case for the league; if he continues to progress, it will be interesting to see if the league is able to keep hold of him or whether he will ultimately travel back across the Atlantic to the European game.
One player unlikely to make that switch at this point in his career is 32-year-old striker Alvaro Saborio. The Costa Rica international is back with Real Salt Lake, for whom he scored eight goals last season despite injuries limiting him to just 16 sides. Fitness will remain a problem, but if he can play on a consistent basis Saborio (who has scored 60 regular-season goals for RSL during his career) could be a strong contender to end up as the league’s top scorer.