We’re three weeks from Major League Soccer’s opening weekend, so expect the preseason hype machine to go into overdrive soon. Particularly as teams return home from their “spring training” locations, the coverage is going to start gathering momentum. As those last spots in squads and lineups are finally nailed down, anticipation for March 8 will build. Before we know it, Seattle and Sporting Kansas City will be kicking off at CenturyLink Field.
Along the way, just remember: A lot of what you’ll hear over the next three weeks will end up wrong. The outlook we have on the 2014 season will quickly change once teams start playing games that force them to adjustments. Once club make their big moves in the summer, squads may barely resemble their March selves.
Those moves, as well as the results, will put a quick end to February’s narratives, not that can’t a little fun looking back on how wrong we were. We’ll get to the Western Conference in a few hours, but for now, let’s just think back on some of the story lines we were focused on last preseason:
1. Houston Dynamo was an Eastern Conference favorite – Not only was Dominic Kinnear’s team coming off their second straight MLS Cup appearance, but they were about to get full season from Boniek Garcia and Ricardo Clark. What happened: Although the team made the playoffs, they never quite met expectations. The team struggled in the summer, had to deal with both scoring droughts (from Will Bruin, mostly) and defensive problems, and finished fourth in the conference. Sporting Kansas City saw them out of the playoffs in the conference finals.
2. D.C. United was ready to push on – A rebounding team with a young core had a year’s experience under their belts. With Perry Kitchen, Bill Hamid, and Nick DeLeon a year better, United were ready to build upon their second place finish. What happened: Ben Olson’s squad set a record for fewest wins in an MLS regular season (three) while claiming the U.S. Open Cup – a strange, dispiriting season.
3. Could Sporting Kansas City replace Roger Espinoza? – And Kei Kamara (though he briefly returned), and Julio Cesar. Coming off a first place finish in the East’s regular season, Sporting was forced into an offseason restructuring, one that saw Benny Feilhaber, Claudio Beiler, and Oriel Rosell move into the starting XI. Hopes were still high, but Houston loomed. What happened: Sporting dropped a place in the East, finishing second, but the team proved stronger in the postseason. Peter Vermes led Sporting to their second MLS Cup.
4. Toronto still looked like a train wreck – This time last year, Toronto’s biggest additions looked like Kyle Bekker and the midfield version of Julio Cesar. Robert Earnshaw would provide some early-season hope, but a team dig face-plant under Aron Winter couldn’t improve in their first offseason under Kevin Payne. With Danny Koevermans’ return uncertain, Toronto looked destined to take up residence at the bottom of the standings. What happened: They weren’t the worst team in the conference, but it took a historic season from D.C. United to save them from last place. Preseason doubts about TFC’s direction proved well-founded.
5. Nobody knew what was going on in New England- A team that finished ninth in the Eastern Conference in 2012 failed to make significant offseason additions. Jay Heaps was back. Saer Sene would start the season on the sidelines. It looked like the Revolution were stepping back into the box with the same broken bat. There’s no way number one pick Andrew Farrell was going to be that influential. What happened: New England survived the season’s early months with a surprisingly strong defense – the José Goncalves effect. Once the attack gelled around Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, a surging Diego Fagúndez, and the rental of Juan Agudelo, the Revolution had a team capable of finishing third, forcing Kansas City into extra time before bowing out in the East’s semifinals.
New York ended up surprising, and Montréal spend half the season looking like the conference’s best team, but the narratives around those teams weren’t there. Chicago, Columbus, and Philadelphia? Mid-conference predictions functioned as a wait-and-see approach.
For Houston, D.C., Sporting, Toronto and New England, the consensus had a pretty good idea of what to expect in 2013. In most cases, that consensus was wrong.
The game in 100 words (or less): With one goal already accomplished for New York City FC this season, Patrick Vieira’s group made positive strides in capturing another on Friday night in Houston. David Villa’s 20th and 21st tallies of the season gave the visitors the lead after halftime and NYCFC managed to hold onto the points from there. With just two matches remaining following the win over the Dynamo, NYCFC currently sits atop the Eastern Conference on 51 points. Meanwhile, the Dynamo remain nine points out of the final spot in the West with four matches to play.
73′ — Saunders watches as Rodriguez hits post — It can be a game of inches at times and the Dynamo were certainly on the wrong end of this one as Raul Rodriguez’s effort struck the post and stayed out.
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) The South Korean soccer league deducted nine points from league leader Jeonbuk Hyundai on Friday after one of the club’s employees was convicted of bribing referees in 2013.
The K-League also fined Jeonbuk 100 million won ($90,600). The club, which saw its 14-point lead over second-place FC Seoul reduced to a five-point margin, issued an apology and vowed to take measures to prevent it from happening again.
A court in Busan on Wednesday sentenced a Jeonbuk scout to a suspended prison term of two years for paying referees in exchange for favorable decisions in several league matches in 2013.
An official from Jeonbuk said the scout has been suspended by the team and it will soon make a decision whether to terminate his employment. He refused to be named, citing office rules.
The K-League had vowed reforms after being rocked by a massive match-fixing scandal in 2011, when 52 players were indicted for taking bribes in return for trying to manipulate the outcome of matches or betting their own money on the games.
The French football federation gave no explanation for coach Didier Deschamps’s decision to replace Mathieu with Eliaquim Mangala, only saying he made the move “following a discussion” with the Barcelona player. Mangala is currently on a season-long loan at Valencia from Manchester City.
France takes on Bulgaria on Oct. 7 at the Stade de France before traveling to Amsterdam to play the Netherlands three days later in Group A.
EXCLUSIVE: Michael Bradley on Toronto FC’s long-awaited renaissance
Times have changed in Toronto for the local football club. The Reds are no longer, to put it bluntly, the bad club that failed to deliver results to a passionate fan base expecting so much more.
A club that missed the playoffs in each of its first eight seasons has clinched a postseason berth for a second-straight season. And this year, for the first time ever, TFC will finish this season with more wins than losses.
You read that right. For the first time ever. Yes, it was that bad.
It would overstate things to say Bradley showed up and fixed things for the Reds, turning them from a bad big club to a big, bad one overnight; For one thing, TFC missed the playoffs during his first season and Bradley only netted twice in a return to MLS which was expected to be dominant (though he was, per 90, one of the best possession players in the league that season).
Yet as time as gone on, in an organization that frankly had not seen much winning at all, Bradley has not just led the way as a battler emerged from BMO Field; The 29-year-old TFC and USMNT captain now leads a winner, one he’s quick to point out comes from an organization, not any single personality.
“I’ve tried every day since I got here to spill my heart and soul into it and to try to help in every way that I can,” Bradley told ProSoccerTalk.
“For a lot of people who have been here for the last years to see the way that things have continued to move forward and progress, there’s a big sense of pride. We’re by no means where we want to be. There are big goals around here in terms of continuing to turn this into a team and a club that can compete and win on a regular basis.”
Yep, times have changed for the better. And at the center of it all, whether he admits it or not, is the steely reserve of an American in Canada.
Michael Bradley is deliberate in his choice of words, and pauses several times to make sure his point is clearly made.
The train powers along once he finds the right track, however.
It’s fitting, because Greg Vanney’s defensive system with Bradley works in a similar way. Patiently wait for the right time to take the ball, then surge forward and take no prisoners. Find Sebastian Giovinco. Find Jozy Altidore. Find Jonathan Osorio, or another attacker… or just fire away.
“On our best days, we have a team that plays in a real good way,” Bradley says. “When we have our best group on the field, our football is good, the ball moves quickly, we’re a team that is able to put the game on our terms with the ball but not do it in a way that’s not just needless possession.
“We circulate the ball, but also do it with an eye toward playing forward and make sure we get it to our dangerous attacking players quickly and in good moments. Defensively we’re able to tighten things up and found a way to make it very hard on other teams to play against us.”
Heading into Saturday night’s home match with DC United, TFC has won seven of its last 12 MLS matches. That stretch has seen Toronto lose just once, and the Reds have weathered an injury to reigning MLS MVP Giovinco with a win and three draws.
Bradley’s deliberate expression of feeling comes into play again when he considers the challenges of TFC’s summer, injuries not withstanding. The captain is thrilled with how the Reds have found contributions from all over the field, but would love to see their best XI for a sustained stretch of action.
Finding chemistry with a team during the MLS season, where a club can lose its best players for weeks at a time thanks to the unorthodox calendar, is a massive challenge. Bradley knows it’s not just Toronto who’s troubled by it, but he also senses how good the team could be with a season’s worth of build-up.
The excitement ratchets higher and higher in his voice as he contemplates the complementary pieces in a healthy, non-international break hampered Greg Vanney lineup. TFC went 1-2 during the Copa America, losing to the Red Bulls and Orlando City. Those points loom with Toronto in a three-way battle for the top of the East.
“We feel like we’re on a very good team, and I mention the other stuff because it’s a shame that over the course of a 34-game season there are so many other things that go into it,” Bradley said. “Which means you are not able to play your best team on as consistent a basis as you’d like.”
The conversation turns, briefly, to the United States men’s national team.
The leader of the unit, Bradley has been through the highs and lows of wearing the stars and stripes since a very young age.
The captain has 121 caps and 15 goals, a journey that began when he was capped at age 18. He’s seen the improbable Confederations Cup comeback run, the thrills of the 2010 World Cup, and several Dos a Ceros. He’s also seen the 2015 Gold Cup failure, the disheartening loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup, and more positional banter than any player in U.S. history.
Given his lofty status within the federation, and his early start, he’s the right person to ask about the USMNT’s teenage sensation Christian Pulisic. And he’s happy to talk about the kid, though not about the big picture, and mentorship. Yeah, he talks to the kid about soccer. No, that’s not for media consumption. So stop asking.
“Christian is a really good kid,” Bradley said. “He’s smart, he’s into it, he’s talented, motivated.
“(But) Everybody needs to stop asking what kind of advice to give him. The most important thing for him is, and I said this to somebody last week, is to continue to find the most joy every day in playing, in training, in improving, in stepping on the field on Saturday and competing and trying to be as good as possible. As long as he never loses the joy of what it means to step on the field and play football, then he’s going to continue to improve and take himself to great places.”
You get the sense that, consciously or not, Michael Bradley has ushered these thoughts from personal experience.
The captain of America loves his adopted hometown north of the border.
And Bradley isn’t exactly measuring Toronto against a one-light city in the sticks. After leaving New Jersey as a teenager in 2005, Bradley has lived amongst the abbey and villages of Monchengladbach, the Dutch windmills of Friesland, and the many wonders of the Eternal City, Rome.
But there’s something in the fourth biggest North American city that works for Bradley.
“It’s a city that is so incredibly diverse,” Bradley begins. “When you get around different parts of the city, the types of people you meet and see who come from all over the world, that part is special. Since the first day that my family and I got here, this has felt like home.
“Our daughter was born here. Our son goes to kindergarten here now and comes home; He’s an American, he was born in Rome, but goes to kindergarten in Toronto and comes home every day singing, “O Canada”, because at the beginning the day that’s what they do. It’s an amazing city, and a place we’re proud to call home.”
Bradley is signed through the end of 2019, and Toronto has turned down several overseas pleas for the midfielder.
And TFC should be good for a long time. Only two rostered players are over 30: outstanding back Drew Moor and Benoit Cheyrou. This on a team that has won the joint-most road games in MLS, allowed the second-fewest goals, and ranks third in goal differential (plus-12).
“We’ve in some ways have such a high standard for ourselves that when you get home and you have a few games at home and you’re not able to find the winner, you’re not able to make that final play to win the games and take all three points, when you’re only able to come away with a tie, that people — and we include ourselves in this — are disappointed,” Bradley said.
“The feeling inside our group on certain days, lately even when we’ve tied a few of these games at home has been disappointment and frustration, and feeling like there was more there for us. That’s a positive thing. We’ve gotten ourselves to the point where we expect to step on the field every weekend and compete to win. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against, and where we’re playing. That’s the mentality that we have.”
To sum it all up, a personal angle that might underscore the impressive turnaround in Canada’s largest city.
Living in Buffalo and loving the sport the way I do, my friends and I got in on TFC season tickets in 2008, Toronto’s second season. We’d make the 90-minute or 3-hour drive, depending on the city’s unholy, construction-driven traffic, and revel in the soccer paradise created by the Red Patch Boys.
Visits by River Plate, Pachuca, and Real Madrid sustained interest in the team, but in a way we became numb to names: Amado Guevera, Torsten Frings, and Danny Koevermans were trotted out and left without a playoff run. Taking a dozen or so day trips to watch losses that made the average at-best Maple Leafs look like 1980’s Oilers became too much to justify the cost.
Oddly enough, TFC went from hot new Toronto property to one that started to feel like just another entity. When Jermain Defoe and Julio Cesar didn’t spur a playoff run, morale seemed at an all-time low. As a soccer writer now with no true allegiance, it was more with a sigh of “Wouldn’t it be cool if they were good?” when Altidore, Vanney, and Giovinco joined Bradley. When Clint Irwin, Will Johnson, and Drew Moor joined mainstays Justin Morrow and Jonathan Osorio, there was even more legitimate reason for hope.
But hope is different from getting the job done, and that’s something for which Bradley and Vanney deserve a ton of credit. There are more Toronto demons to overcome — there’s little doubt a sports teams’ playoff stench can linger over a town once the postseason hits (Again, I’m from Buffalo) — but for now it’s worth lauding a club which has found its forward-thinking despite the skeletons in their Ontarian closet.