West Ham United
Leg 2Aggregate: 3 – 3Game Details
Seattle Sounders FC
Leg 2Aggregate: 5 – 3Game Details
Real Salt Lake
Leg 2Aggregate: 1 – 3Game Details
With the 2016 MLS season set to kick off on Sunday, we asked Jason Davis what were the biggest questions facing each club prior to the start of the campaign.
Though it might not be much solace to Fire fans who suffered through a terrible 2015 and had to watch the club trade away a hometown hero in Harry Shipp in the offseason, at least there seems to be a plan in Bridgeview. The Fire will be better, if only because it will be difficult to be worse.
The Rapids rarely make splashy signings, and Gashi isn’t one. But the Albanian international forward did lead the Swiss league in goals each of the past two years, giving him a pedigree that belies his less-than-famous name. Colorado needed a goal scorer. Gashi might need some time to adjust to to the league, but his impact will be significant.
Gregg Berhalter has created a program in Columbus. That means Crew SC won’t be fading away anytime soon; they’re more likely to build on last year’s disappointing loss in the MLS Cup final than to let it define 2016. Columbus knows exactly who it is as a team, with veteran players in well-defined roles. Don’t be surprised to see Crew SC climb to the top of the Eastern Conference this season.
While the question focuses on the new look in the center of the park for D.C., it really means “How does United deal without Perry Kitchen?” The only way Ben Olsen’s team handles all that change is if Marcelo Sarvas gives them significant minutes, Markus Halsti plays at a higher level than he did in 2015 and the United attack improves enough to take pressure off the midfield.
Considering how close FC Dallas came to winning the West and hosting MLS Cup in 2015, there’s no reason to doubt that another year of maturity — and the benefits of last year’s playoff experience — makes the team ready to win it all in 2016. Oscar Pareja’s willingness to play kids last season was an investment in the future, and it’s already paying off.
Regardless of how much Davis’ skills might have waned, replacing a captain and club icon won’t be simple for Houston. Owen Coyle will need to sell his team on the idea that a new era has dawned, and that the Dynamo can win without the stellar service Davis so often provided with his fantastic left foot.
The Galaxy made a few splashy signings this offseason, a testament to Bruce Arena’s ability to work the MLS system. But those signings are also on the wrong side of 30, making depth a crucial part whatever success L.A. finds this season — although the depth players Arena brought in aren’t exactly spring chickens themselves.
Drogba dominated MLS in a short stint at the end of 2015, but it’s hard to imagine a 37-year old striker will handle the rigors of the league over the course of a full season well enough to keep up that level. More important than Drogba’s goal total is probably the number of games he plays.
Rather than sit around and wait for Jones to accept a contract offer, New England went looking for his replacement. In addition to signing Ivorian Xavier Kouassi — who then tore his ACL in Switzerland — the Revs traded for Whitecaps man Gershon Koffie. Koffie isn’t exactly up to Jones’ standard (yet), but he might be good enough to get over the German-American a lot easier.
Everyone knows Vieira’s playing pedigree, and he probably learned a lot while coaching in the Manchester City system the past few years. But MLS is a different animal, even beyond the simple adjustment to managing a group of grown men that faces the French coach. Roster quirks, travel and the strange dimensions at Yankee Stadium mean Vieira has his work cut out for him.
Miazga’s breakthrough season means the pain of losing him to Premier League champions Chelsea will sting, but if there’s a team ready to fill the gap and trudge on, it’s probably the Red Bulls. Jesse Marsch has a group of players who worked hard for one another last year, so any replacement will get the benefit of working in a well-drilled machine.
The thing most often forgotten about the Lions’ inaugural playoff-less season in MLS was the amount of time important players lost to injury and international duty. With better luck, and a schedule that doesn’t punish the team quite as badly for their national team names, Orlando City might have enough to make the postseason in Year 2.
Philadelphia fans, for the first time in quite a while, have reason to hope for a brighter future. But it’s a lot to ask of the club and new sporting director Earnie Stewart to make the brighter future happen in 2016. Stewart’s influence on the club will take time to appear on the field, where Jim Curtin has his work cut out for him.
Portland rode a perfectly timed hot streak to an MLS Cup title last year. With the formula he used to take the trophy in place, Caleb Porter should have one of the best teams in the league on his hands. That said, repeating in MLS is extremely difficult and the Timbers have holes to fill.
Beckerman’s remarkable longevity can’t last forever. Amid change in Utah in the last few seasons, Beckerman has been a constant. But RSL has switched to a formation that doesn’t suit his abilities nearly as well, opening up the question as to when it will be time to transition from the influential midfielder.
Kinnear’s ability to navigate a team to the playoffs despite lesser spending and lesser talent is well known. What’s unclear is whether MLS is changing too fast for the former Dynamo boss to keep up. San Jose might be better in 2016, but with the rest of the Western Conference working to improve, Kinnear will need his old magic.
What was supposed to be a slow transition into the spotlight for young Morris suddenly changed with the sale of Martins to Chinese Super League side Shanghai Shenhua. It’s lot to ask of a 21-year-old with zero professional experience to pick up the slack left by the Nigerian, but Morris must deliver if the Sounders are going to be dangerous out West.
Peter Vermes & Co. are betting on a pair of MLS vets as they look to climb back to the top of the mountain. If Vermes can get his rotation right, there’s a good chance that Mapp and Davis will have good runs in Sporting blue. As for whether that’s enough in a tough Western Conference, that remains to be seen.
Defense, defense, defense. Even a moderate improvement in Toronto FC’s defending will make a huge difference for Greg Vanney’s team. Enter Steven Beitashour, Drew Moor, Will Johnson and Clint Irwin, the four keys to TFC making the jump from mere playoff qualifier to a team with real quality.
Whatever it was that turned the Caps into pumpkins come playoff time last year, the hope is that Christian Bolanos (and perhaps Blas Perez) will be the cure. Vancouver was good enough to threaten for top spot in the West but lacked the edge necessary to fight through adversity come playoff time. Bolanos’ experience should help.
Jason Davis is a writer from Virginia covering American soccer. He also hosts a daily soccer podcast that covers the beautiful game. Follow him @davisjsn.
Andrea Pirlo said he is in New York for the long haul after becoming attached to the anonymity he enjoys there.
One of the biggest names in European football, Pirlo has blended in among a crowd of leading American sports figures in the Big Apple, and he told the New York Times that the contrast to what he was used to back on the other side of the Atlantic is convincing him to settle in the States.
“Just being able to go out to dinner at the trendiest restaurants — in Italy, I can’t do that,” Pirlo said. “There were times we were kept in our dressing room until late at night because it wasn’t safe to go home. Our bus would get attacked, the tyres slit.”
Instead, Pirlo is enjoying being able to roam and enjoy the streets of Manhattan alone without being recognised, approached or surrounded. It is an ideal he had always sought, although he did not expect to find it just yet.
“I always wanted to come here to play,” added the 36-year-old, who played the last of his 164 games for Juventus in last June’s Champions League final. “I never thought it would be so soon.”
Pirlo is preparing for his second season in Major League Soccer, and his first from the beginning. If things continue the way they are going, the Italian does not expect it to be his last either.
“I don’t rule out the idea of staying here,” he said. “That could be something interesting.”
Pirlo rejected a return to Europe during the MLS off-season, insisting he was committed to his new club New York City FC, despite being linked with a loan switch to Inter Milan.
Although he may not yet be a familiar face in New York, his shirt is reportedly the fourth biggest selling in MLS while the league commissioner Don Garber told the New York Times that his arrival was eclipsed only by that of David Beckham.
“I can’t tell you how many people peripherally connected to soccer emailed me and said, ‘Oh my God, I need to go to a New York City game,'” he said.
Columbus Crew SC have signed forward Kei Kamara to a new contract, making the MVP a designated player until the end of the 2018 season, the club confirmed.
While the terms of the deal were not disclosed, it was reported that none of Kamara’s salary is eligible to paid with targeted allocation money provided by the league, and he will be paid at least $1 million per season.
“It’s an honor, it’s a blessing.” @keikamara reacts to becoming the fourth Designated Player in #CrewSC history.https://t.co/R6UBKIsQOe– Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) March 2, 2016
Kamara’s previous contract ran until 2017. However, he had been locked in a contract dispute as he sought a new deal following a stellar season in which he scored 22 goals, the joint highest in MLS, and helped Crew SC to an Eastern Conference championship.
“This is a great success story of a player that has risen through the MLS ranks, and that rise culminated with one of the best seasons in MLS ever,” Crew SC coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter told The Columbus Dispatch. “To me, this is well-deserved.”
The designated player rule was adopted in 2007, when it allowed LA Galaxy to sign David Beckham.
With the rule in place, MLS teams can pay up to three players more than the maximum salary ($458,000 this season), and the difference is paid by individual teams rather than the league.
Kamara’s contract extension means club owner Anthony Precourt will pay the difference between the maximum salary and those for him and his fellow designated player Federico Higuain.
“Mr. Precourt has shown serious desire and ambition, making it the first time ever that the club has had two DPs,” Berhalter said.
“I think it’s great all the way around, and I can’t wait to see what we’re going to do in the future.”
Kamara, 31, was paid $537,000 last season, according to published MLS Players Union numbers. He was slated to be paid the same this season and in 2017.
Higuain was paid $1.175 million last season, according to the figures.
Crew SC used allocation money to buy down his cap hit, keeping Kamara from being a designated player, and did the same with defender Gaston Sauro last season.
Their other designated players were 2008 MLS MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who carried that status for the 2009 season, and Peruvian forward Andres Mendoza in 2011.
“In the end, it came down our feeling that Kei is going to continue to be productive,” Berhalter told the newspaper.
“Does he have the desire? Is he going to help us win games? The answer was yes. And we still think it’s a good value, and we still feel it’s totally in line with what we believe in as a club.”
Kamara was a finalist for the MLS MVP award last season. He scored four more goals during the playoffs.
He was a first-round draft pick for Crew SC in 2006 and was traded to San Jose after the 2007 season.
He had not scored more than 11 goals in any of his eight previous MLS seasons with the Crew SC, San Jose, Houston and Kansas City but was signed to a three-year contract after returning from an up-and-down stint in England before the start of last season.
Berhalter said signing a player of Kamara’s age would normally require more consideration.
“But we know how strong he is and how fit he is,” he said. “He’s so dynamic. That gives you less concern. You can look at other guys in the same age group and see them still performing well.”
Caleb Porter’s official title is head coach of the Portland Timbers, but his day-to-day job on the eve of the 2016 MLS season might be more accurately described as amateur psychologist.
That’s because the way Porter sees it, the mentality of his team will be the biggest factor in determining how close the Timbers come to repeating as MLS Cup champions. It’s the message he’s been preaching since the team convened for preseason in late January, the same one he’ll keep drilling into his players’ heads up to and beyond Sunday’s season opener against the Columbus Crew (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), the side Portland defeated in December to secure its first league title.
“I think the really simple mindset our group has is, ‘Last year is over,'” Porter told ESPN in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. “This is a new year. It has nothing to do with last year. Teams will be fighting it out with each other as always. There will be ups and downs. There will be wins and losses. It’s going to be a tough season like it is every single year for every single team.”
If it sounds as though Porter is managing expectations for the Timbers, it’s because he is. He knows that Portland’s soccer-mad public expects even more this season, whether that’s in the form of another league title, winning the Supporters Shield as MLS’s top regular-season team or surviving the group stage of the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League, which begins in August.
Playing in three competitions won’t help on the domestic front. The Timbers failed to advance when they were last involved in the Champions League two years ago and went on to miss the 2014 MLS playoffs by a single point.
Even last year, Portland was out of the playoff places late in the regular season before eventually claiming the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed on the final day of the campaign.
No wonder Porter bristles at any talk of championship hangovers or of the Timbers suddenly having targets on their backs, even if history and human nature suggest that those can be the price of success.
“The psychology that I’m trying to build into my group is we’re not going to be talking about MLS Cup, repeating, defending the cup or how teams now want to beat us more,” Porter said. “Teams always wanted to beat us.”
While Porter has been consumed by keeping his players’ minds on the short term — the next training session, the next game — Portland GM Gavin Wilkinson’s focus this winter has been on bolstering the roster.
Despite losing 2015 starters Jorge Villafana and Rodney Wallace as well as supporting pieces like defenders Jeanderson and Norberto Paparatto, Portland’s roster is arguably stronger this season than it was last year thanks to the arrival of league veterans Ned Grabavoy, Chris Klute, Jack McInerney and Jermaine Taylor.
“We replaced everyone we lost,” Wilkinson said. “We had identified the likely players that we were losing, and we had a depth chart in every position of who we wanted to go after. We knew what we had to spend and what profiles we were looking for. Our focus was to get MLS-proven players.”
The sale of Villafana to Mexican club Santos Laguna — an opportunity that presented itself as late as October — gave the club added roster flexibility.
“We would’ve loved to keep him, but the player knew what he was going to earn overseas and we couldn’t come close to [matching] it,” Wilkinson said. “With that allocation money, we were able to keep the majority of the group together.”
Porter said he believes that if he can just guide the Timbers into the postseason — keeping them level-headed along the way — that’s where the experience of last year could really pay off.
“They’ve proven they can win it — they now have the blueprint to do it,” Porter said. “That means when you get in that position in the playoffs the next time, there’s a positive psychology that helps you to do it again.
“But they also understand the process,” Porter added. “They know we’re going to have ups and downs. I told them they should be thinking exactly the way they were last year: just as hungry, just as focused on knowing what we need to do to get into the playoffs. Winning a few more games at the end of last year doesn’t mean we’re going to come in and steamroll everyone and be perfect. But ultimately, the goal is to win a trophy again.”
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.