Category: MLS

Columbus Crew SC signs Kei Kamara as designated player to 2018

The ESPN FC team discuss reports that Columbus Crew’s Kei Kamara is unhappy with his current contract at the club.

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.

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 determined to keep Portland Timbers hungry in 2016

Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe discusses the his team’s 2015 MLS Cup title run, playing for head coach Caleb Porter and his hopes for the USMNT in 2016.

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.

Caleb Porter's Portland Timbers caught fire last fall and rode that hot streak all the way to their first MLS championship.
Caleb Porter’s Portland Timbers caught fire last fall and rode that hot streak all the way to their first MLS championship.

“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.

W2W4: Portland vs. Columbus


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New York City FC and Orlando City SC look for kinder second season in MLS

Orlando City’s Kaka spoke to Jorge Ramos on his upcoming second year in the league, artificial turf and Orlando newcomer Antonio Nocerino.

With rare exceptions, the inaugural campaign for an MLS expansion team is like having orthodontia. It’s painful at times, it’s not pretty, and the payoff usually doesn’t come until years later, but it’s worth it.

Since the MLS expansion boom began in 2005, the league has seen 11 new teams come on board. Only the Seattle Sounders managed to reach the playoffs in their first season (2009). But the second year has tended to be a bit kinder to new entries. Excluding Seattle, four teams — the Philadelphia Union, Montreal Impact, Vancouver Whitecaps and now-defunct Chivas USA — reached the postseason in their second year. The San Jose Earthquakes and the Portland Timbers went on to make the playoffs in Year 3.

With the 2016 MLS season set to kick off Sunday, that kind of history will warm the hearts of Orlando City SC and New York City FC fans. Both teams filled the stands in their debut campaigns but failed to make the playoffs; they also learned some hard lessons, including some that carried straight into the offseason.

At the conclusion of the 2015 regular season, Orlando looked the more stable of the two. Adrian Heath’s side had narrowly missed the playoffs while fielding a team containing plenty of young players, including MLS Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin. New York struggled to integrate high-priced stars Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, fired manager Jason Kreis and then made the eyebrow-raising move of looking outside the league to find his replacement in Patrick Vieira.

Soon, however, the respective readings on the chaos-meter were reversed.

NYCFC ran silent and ran deep as it set about finding reinforcements and getting Vieira acclimated. Orlando, meanwhile, witnessed a Shakespearean level of palace intrigue: A battle for the club’s soul seemed to take place between owner Flavio da Silva and founder Phil Rawlins, with Heath’s position as coach looking tenuous. In a two-month period starting on Nov. 3, the Lions hired former Benfica executive Armando Carneiro as its chief soccer officer, saw snubbed general manager Paul McDonough announce his departure and then sign on with 2017 expansion side Atlanta United, only for the club to announce on Dec. 28 that Carneiro was leaving Orlando for “personal reasons,” with Rawlins taking over.

“We had a turbulent couple of months,” Heath admitted in a phone interview. “We had a situation where we had one or two people come into the club and it was going to be five or six and obviously you never know how that’s going to end. Fortunately for me — and it was a brave decision from Flavio, the owner — he decided that maybe it wasn’t the right time to make a huge overhaul of the club. I think common sense prevailed.”

Cyle Larin and Kaka
Orlando City have taken steps this offseason to ease the scoring burden on Cyle Larin, left, and Kaka.

Rawlins insisted that the club came out well in the end, despite the turmoil. He lauded the additions of Bobby Murphy and Stewart Kerr to the coaching staff. His eight-year relationship with Heath, dating to the early days of the team, means they should be like-minded in terms of player acquisitions. The fact that Da Silva cast his lot with Rawlins and Heath means that at least for the moment, there is support from the owner’s box as well.

“There’s nothing in [the current structure] that should suggest that there is any disruption or conflict,” Rawlins said. “Everybody is on the same page.”

It also improves the odds that the institutional memory from last year won’t be erased. For Heath, the biggest lessons from 2015 boil down to health, discipline and depth.

The loss of midfielder Kevin Molino to a torn ACL cut deep, but Heath also bemoaned the number of soft-tissue injuries the team suffered, and has tweaked the workload of players as a result. A league-high 10 red cards were also significant, as Orlando earned just three points in those games in which it had a player sent off. Heath is also looking for players like Bryan Rochez and Carlos Rivas to take some of the scoring burden off Larin, while new arrival Antonio Nocerino should add some veteran savvy to help Orlando close out some of the games that it let get away in 2015.

“I just think a lot of our players will be a lot better for having had a year in the league, and being exposed to what comes your way,” Heath said. “Little things, like people spoke to us about the travel. I raised my eyebrows at that, but it probably does take more out of people than we imagined. Maybe we can rotate certain players a little more at certain times. We have the games in the extreme heat here. It could be 90 to 100 degrees. Can we manage the minutes better for certain players? I think it’s the accumulation of a lot of little things that if we can get incrementally better in a few areas, it will have a big impact on us overall.”

For NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna, the differences heading into 2016 are immense. Reyna believes that this year, there is more focus on the on-field product, as opposed to announcing the team’s presence to the New York market. He’s also in the position of being more selective and strategic in how he augments his squad. He admitted that in retrospect, the task of building a team from scratch proved daunting.

“I think it was probably a time where we were reacting versus being proactive in your search for players,” he said via telephone. “When you don’t have a team, you’re maybe quick to sign players just because we didn’t have anybody. Probably in hindsight we could have waited a bit more on certain decisions, but it’s certainly easier said than done. I think when you have seven or eight players on your team and you’re two months away from preseason, we felt we had to get guys through the door, so to speak, and get guys signed and just fill out a team.”

The ensuing 12 months have given Reyna and the club a chance to collect some hard data on the team’s performance instead of thinking of how players would fit together in the abstract. Some numbers are brutal, especially the 58 goals conceded, which tied for the worst mark in the league.

Andrea Pirlo
With the likes of Andrea Pirlo, far right, being with the team from day one, New York City FC look to have more cohesion in 2016.

“I think now we’re able to look at the squad and there’s more of a succession plan because you have something to evaluate,” he said. “There’s always players that are coming in, players that are going out. But it was unique when you didn’t have a team at all and you were just looking to fill the squad up. I think everyone feels more settled with that, and the place of our squad, and we’re looking forward to start the season.”

To that end, Reyna’s aim has been to get younger and have more youthful energy on the roster, the better to complement the presence of Lampard, Pirlo and David Villa in the lineup. Reyna has brought in, among others, 21-year-old full-back Ronald Matarrita, defender Diego Martinez (24) and midfielders Jack Harrison (19) and Federico Bravo (22). Conspicuously absent are any imports from parent club Manchester City.

“It’s always an option for us to look at players there and it will continue to be because there will be more talent coming through the Man City pipeline in the years ahead,” Reyna said. “So it wasn’t a different strategy, but one where we wanted to get some youth into the team, younger players.

“We’re really pleased with the additions we had, but also excited that the team will be together and more settled from the beginning of the year with the likes of Andrea and Frank being with the team from day one. That will help to have the camaraderie of everyone being together.”

That goes for Vieira as well, who, according to Reyna, has settled in quickly.

“The detailed information he provides to the players, the confidence he gives them, the way he pushes them and is commanding is fantastic,” he said. “The training sessions have been good, the guys have worked hard. It’s great to see.”

So can Orlando or NYCFC make a playoff breakthrough this year? Both teams will clearly be better, but any conversation about the postseason also involves teams that fall off, and that is difficult to picture at the moment. All five of last year’s Eastern Conference playoff teams have improved to varying degrees. It’s not like climbing Everest, but it will be difficult nonetheless.

In the meantime, fans of the two clubs will be hoping the right kind of history repeats itself.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.