Every team in every sport in the world has what’s known as a “championship window” — the period in which the heart of its roster competes in the collective prime made up of a number of individual careers.
One of the keys to successful team-building is assembling a cast of players whose careers are ready to peak at roughly the same time — in soccer, ages 26-31 are generally thought of as a player’s most years — so as to convert the group’s collective talent into championships. This is, of course, much easier said than done.
Given Major League Soccer’s…unique… roster rules, regulations and mechanisms, there’s one other avenue by which teams — one in particular, actually — have built MLS Cup-winning squads throughout this decade: the Designated Player — most typically an aging veteran who, in his day, was of such quality that he’s still able to dominate MLS into his mid- to late-30s, though that generalization is quickly changing in recent times.
The team about which we’re speaking is, of course, the LA Galaxy. Between 2011 and 2014, the Galaxy won an unprecedented three MLS Cups in four years. 2015’s playoff failure signaled the end of that particular squad’s championship window, though — in large part due to MLS’s cumbersome roster rules and regulations — thus the winter of 2015-16 was one of many changes for Bruce Arena’s bunch.
However, the Galaxy don’t rebuild the way most MLS teams do, so much as they reload every few years. Recently departed are Galaxy stalwarts and cornerstones Omar Gonazlez and Juninho (casualties of the salary cap and allocation money and target allocation money and so on and so forth), paving the way for an offseason of wildly spending other people’s money (doing as the Galaxy do).
So now the Galaxy find themselves in a familiar position: with all their chips sitting in the middle of the table, going for broke.
Nigel de Jong will anchor the Galaxy midfield in 2016, providing the kind of defensive cover to the backline that Steven Gerrard simply couldn’t upon arrival in August. Massive improvement. Jelle Van Damme will ably replace Gonzalez’s physical presence and aerial dominance in the heart of defense, at less than half the price. Marked improvement.Ashley Cole will assume the starting left back job and attempt to prove he’s still got something left to give despite a disastrous spell at Serie A side Roma, thus Robbie Rogers moves to right back. This might go bust.
Further investment was made to reward and retain winger/forward Gyasi Zardes, making him, essentially, the Galaxy’s seventh DP (Gerrard, De Jong, Van Damme, Cole, Robbie Keane and Giovani dos Santos will all pocket more than the $457,500 DP threshold (whether through traditional MLS compensation, or lucrative contract buyouts from Italy). Average age of the above listed players: 31.1 years, and only rising as the season wears on (without Zardes and Dos Santos, it jumps to 33.6). Not exactly in their primes, despite the magnitude of their respective careers, are they?
That said, it’s still the greatest collection of individual acclaim (and perhaps a bit of talent, still) that MLS has ever seen. If there’s a coach in the league capable of carefully massaging this squad through the spring and summer months and bringing it to a boil once the playoffs arrive in the fall, it would have to be someone who’s won five MLS Cup, three Supporters’ Shields, a U.S. Open Cup and guided the U.S. national team to the brink of the World Cup semifinals — his name is Bruce. Next winter will almost assuredly bring about another major overhaul, but for now Arena’s set to face perhaps the toughest challenge of his illustrious career over the next eight months.
Year after year, it’s been the likes of the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders residing atop the West, with the likes of the Portland Timbers and FC Dallas following close behind, and Sporting Kansas City making their way westward last year.
The story: 2010 MLS Cup winners; missed the playoffs the last two years; finished last in the West in 2015.
In/Outs: 15 departures, including Gabriel Torres, Marcelo Sarvas, Lucas Pittinari, Drew Moor, Clint Irwin and Michael Harrington; 9 newcomers, including Marco Pappa, Shkelzen Gashi, Eric Miller, Zac MacMath (permanently) and Conor Doyle.
3 Key Player/DPs: FW Kevin Doyle (5 goals in 20 appearances in 2015); FW Shkelzen Gashi (27 years old; 27 goals in 43 appearances for Swiss side Basel); MF Dillon Powers (2013 Rookie of the Year; 13 goals, 21 assists in 92 career games)
Head coach: Pablo Mastroeni. The early favorite to be the first coach fired in 2016, since he somehow survived the winter, and the year before, and the year before that. No new mustache.
Outlook: They can’t possibly be any worse than they were last year… right? Then again, we said that this time last year, and they were. If MLS had — gasp — relegation, they’d be early favorites to go down.
The story:2010 MLS Cup runners-up; 2006 and 2015 Supporters’ Shield runners-up; made the playoffs each of the last two years; finished 1st of the West in 2015.
In/Outs: 11 departures, including Blas Perez, Ezequiel Cirigliano, David Texeira, Michel, Je-Vaughn Watson and Dan Kennedy; 10 newcomers, including Maximiliano Urruti, Carlos Gruezo, Juan Esteban Ortiz, Maynor Figueroa and Mauro Rosales.
3 Key Player/DPs: MF Fabian Castillo (23 years old; 9 goals, 9 assists in 2015); MF Mauro Diaz (24 years old; 8 goals, 10 assists in 2015); FW Maxi Urruti (25 years old; 14 goals in 60 appearances in 2014 and 2015)
Head coach:Oscar Pareja. The youth whisperer. Not afraid to play his kids ahead of veteran players who cost three, four or five times as much. Because of this, he’s got the deepest squad to work with in MLS.
Outlook: Missed out on the Supporters’ Shield due to goal differential in 2015, and they’re much better heading into 2016, at least on paper. Consider them contenders (favorites?) for every trophy this season.
The story: Back-to-back MLS Cup winners (2006, 2007); back-to-back MLS Cup runners-up (2011, 2012); missed the playoffs each of the last two years; finished 8th in the West in 2015.
In/Outs: 11 departures, including Brad Davis, Kofi Sarkodie, Jermaine Taylor and Luis Garrido; 11 newcomers, including Cristian Maidana, Andrew Wenger, Jalil Anibaba, Collen Warner and Abdoulie Mansally.
3 Key Player/DPs: FW Erick “Cubo” Torres (23 years old; 15 goals in 29 appearances in 2014 – Chivas USA; 0 goals in 11 appearances in 2015); MF Cristian Maidana (15 assists in 28 appearances in 2015 – Philadelphia Union; 11 assists in 26 appearances in 2014); DF DaMarcus Beasley (33 years old; made 28 starts in 2015)
Head coach: Owen Coyle. By all accounts, the players adore the former Bolton manager. 2016 will be his second season in charge, and a marked improvement will be necessary on his debut campaign. He’s got the talent to do it.
Outlook: Fighting for the 5th or 6th seed in the playoffs. The requisite talent is there this time around.
The story: Five-time MLS Cup winners (2002, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2014); made the playoffs each of the last seven years; finished 5th in the West in 2015.
In/Outs: 13 departures, including Omar Gonzalez, Juninho, Donovan Ricketts, Dan Gargan and Todd Dunivant; 9 newcomers, including Nigel de Jong, Ashley Cole, Jelle van Damme, Mike Magee, Jeff Larentowicz and Emmanuel Boateng.
3 Key Player/DPs: FW Robbie Keane (35 years old; 116 goals and assists combined in 108 MLS appearances); MF Giovani dos Santos (26 years old; 3 goals, 5 assists in 10 appearances in 2015); MF Nigel de Jong (32 years old; enforcer to hold down the midfield behind Steven Gerrard)
Head coach: Bruce Arena. What’s there to say? He’s won five MLS Cup (two with D.C. United, three with LA) and three Supporters’ Shields (one with United, two with LA). He’s the greatest figurehead in MLS history, and he’s likely to win himself another trophy in 2016.
Outlook: Contenders (favorites?) for every trophy this season. There’s arguably never been a better collection of top-end talent in MLS history, and Arena’s just the man you want in charge of such a squad.
The story: The defending champs – 2015 MLS Cup winners.
In/Outs: 9 departures, including Will Johnson, Rodney Wallace, Jorge Villafaña, Maxi Urruti and Noberto Paparatto; 8 newcomers, including Jack McInerney, Ned Grabavoy, Chris Klute, Jermaine Taylor and Zarek Valentine.
3 Key Player/DPs: MF Darlington Nagbe (25 years old; 23 goals, 20 assists in 160 career appearances); FW Lucas Melano (23 years old; 1 goal, 3 assists in 10 appearances in 2015; now a starter in his first full season in Portland); DF Liam Ridgewell (31 years old; made 32 starts in 2015)
Head coach: Caleb Porter. He got the monkey off his back in December, and would be playing with house money with any other fanbase and/or owner in MLS. At 41 years old, he’s already accomplished more than most coaches in MLS history.
Outlook: MLS Cup contenders once again, assuming they don’t fall into complacency and suffer the dreaded championship hangover.
Real Salt Lake
The story: 2009 MLS Cup winners; 2013 MLS Cup runners-up; missed the playoffs in 2015 for the first time in eight years; finished 9th in the West in 2015.
In/Outs: 8 departures, including Luis Gil, Chris Schuler, Luis Silva and Sebastian Jaime; 6 newcomers, including Yura Movsisyan and Chris Wingert.
3 Key Player/DPs: MF Javier Morales (36 years old; 122 goals and assists combined in 211 MLS appearances); FW Yura Movsisyan (28 years old; returned from Europe this winter; scored 80 goals since leaving MLS in 2009); FW Juan Manuel “El Burrito” Martinez (30 years old; 1 goal, 1 assist in 8 appearances in 2015)
Head coach: Jeff Cassar. A rocky second season as RSL’s top dog, when he was tasked with building his own squad, rather than furthering the work of Jason Kreis.
Outlook: They’ll be much better and competing for a playoff spot, but with the West so top-heavy once again, they’re still on the outside looking in.
San Jose Earthquakes
The story: Two-time MLS Cup winners (2001, 2003); two-time Supporters’ Shield winners (2005, 2012); missed the playoffs each of the last three years; finished 7th in the West in 2015.
In/Outs: 7 departures, including Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, JJ Koval, Khari Stephenson and Mike Fucito; 6 newcomers, including Simon Dawkins, Chad Barrett and Alberto Quintero.
3 Key Player/DPs: FW Chris Wondolowski (33 years old; 102 goals in 176 appearances from 2010-2015); FW Innocent Emeghara (27 years old; 1 goal in 7 appearances in 2015; tore his ACL on May 1, 2015); MF Anibal Godoy (26 years old; 2 goals in 10 appearances in 2015; 6W-3D-1L in his 10 appearances in 2015)
Head coach: Dominic Kinnear. A two-time MLS Cup champions (in Houston) and two-time runner-up (also in Houston); back with the Quakes for the second season of his second stint.
Outlook: Would be competing for a playoff if they were in the East, but the West is simply unforgiving.
The story: 2014 Supporters’ Shield winners; four-time U.S. Open Cup winners (2009, 2010, 2011, 2014); made the playoffs all seven seasons in MLS; finished 4th in the West in 2015.
In/Outs: 13 departures, including Obafemi Martins, Lamar Neagle, Marco Pappa, Gonzalo Pineda, Leo Gonzalez and Chad Barrett; 7 newcomers, including Jordan Morris, Joevin Jones and Michael Farfan.
3 Key Player/DPs: FW Clint Dempsey (32 years old; 26 goals, 20 assists in 55 appearances since joining Seattle in 2013); FW Jordan Morris (21 years old; most heralded homegrown signing in MLS history; U.S. national team regular); MF Andreas Ivanschitz (32 years old; 1 goal, 1 assist in 6 appearances in 2015)
Outlook: Contenders for every trophy up for grabs, as always.
Sporting Kansas City
The story: Two-time MLS Cup winners (2000, 2013); 2000 Supporters’ Shield winners; three-time USOC winners (2004, 2012, 2015); made the playoff each of the last five years; finished 6th in the West in 2015.
In/Outs: 6 departures, including Krisztian Nemeth, Erik Palmer-Brown, Jalil Anibaba, Mikey Lopez and Amobi Okugo; 6 newcomers, including Brad Davis, Justin Mapp and Nuno Andre Coelho.
3 Key Player/DPs: FW Dom Dwyer (25 years old; 12 goals in 30 appearances in 2015; 22 goals in 33 games in 2014); MF Graham Zusi (29 years old; 2 goals, 5 assists in 25 games in 2015; 21 goals, 38 assists in 116 appearances from 2011-2014); DF Matt Besler (29 years old; averaged 28.4 starts per season since 2011; anchored league’s stingiest defense in 2012 and 2013)
Head coach: Peter Vermes. Already an MLS Cup-winning and two-time-USOC-winning head coach, Vermes has built the empire that is the entire Sporting KC soccer system. He also serves as the club’s technical director.
Outlook: Contenders for every trophy up for grabs, as always. Avoiding the late-summer swoon and rash of injuries of the last two seasons will be priority no. 1 in 2016.
The story: 2015 Canadian Championship winners; two-time Cascadia Cup winners (2013, 2014); made the playoffs each of the last two years; finished 2nd in the West in 2015.
In/Outs: 8 departures, including Gershon Koffie, Steven Beitashour, Mauro Rosales and Robert Earnshaw; 5 newcomers, including Masato Kudo, Christian Bolaños, Blas Perez and Fraser Aird.
3 Key Player/DPs: MF Kekuta Manneh (21 years old; 7 goals, 6 assists in 32 appearances in 2015); MF Matias Laba (24 years old; 62 appearances in two seasons with Vancouver); DF Kendall Waston (28 years old; 4 goals in 38 appearances in a season and a half with Vancouver)
Head coach: Carl Robinson. Under Robinson’s guidance, the 2015 Whitecaps conceded the fewest goals in the league (36). Unlocking Manneh’s potential and helping him to realize his invisible ceiling will see Vancouver go from competitive to champions.
Outlook: Contenders for every trophy up for grabs. Bringing their home form (8th in the West) up to par with that of their road successes (1st in the West) could see them lift the Supporters’ Shield in October.
For one thing, there’s winning a second MLS Cup and repeating as U.S. Open Cup champions. Then there’s the opportunity afforded by the 2015 Open Cup, a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League and the chance to be the first American team to win the competition since it was renamed in 2008.
“We are an organization that is in the business of winning trophies,” Zusi said. “At the end of the day hardware is what matters. We’d absolutely love to be that first MLS team that can host the CONCACAF Champions League trophy. We’ve put ourselves in a place to be able to do that.”
Zusi credits Sporting KC for allowing them the depth of roster and organization ambition to try to win all competitions. That will be critical in attempting to win a tournament that’s most recent iteration saw U.S. teams go 0-for-4 in the quarterfinals.
“There’s something pretty admirable about how serious our organization takes these tournaments,” he said. “Take the Open Cup as a good example. If you look at it completely honestly, not all the teams go into that tournament looking to win it. You see a lot of second team. Our organization goes out to win that tournament every single year.
“Every time we’re in the Champions League, we’re looking to go as far as we can. This team has something special because the depth that we have this year is unmatched. We can honestly field two very, very solid teams that can compete against any other team in the league. That’s going to be particularly important this year.”
Even if that means ticking off the Mexican fans who love San Zusi so much?
“That’s faded pretty quickly as it is.”
Zusi turns 30 in August, and has a pair of Open Cups, an MLS Cup and two NCAA titles. He’s been to the World Cup and seen just about everything American soccer has to offer. But that doesn’t change his excitement for Opening Day on Sunday in Seattle.
“It creeps up on everyone,” Zusi said. “In preseason you are going through that grind if you will, you play your last preseason game and you’re like, ‘Holy cow. We’re a week away,’.”
As for this year, Sporting KC is obviously aiming to get back to MLS Cup by mimicking their defensive acumen of recent seasons.
“At the beginning of the year we always set goals as a team and obviously they’re lofty because we have high expectations for ourselves,” he said. “It’s not just making the playoffs, although that’s part of it. We look at every single competition we’re in, and we expect to win it. It’s really as simple as that. There’s also goals along the way that pop up as well, whether it’s goals against throughout the season, we want to be the team with the lowest goals against in the whole league and we’ve been pretty close to that. If you averaged the past five seasons, I’d bet we’re at the top.”
Ah, the business of guessing the postseason finishes of unpredictable MLS teams.
We mean: Totally forecasting Major League Soccer’s season with alarming accuracy. Yeah. That’s it.
It’s tricky, you know? Forget the massive changes that can come with massive midseason additions — *cough, Didier Drogba* — or new coaches. Just the status of whether young players will kick on or old players lose a step can change the entire dynamic of a player race.
Take the Eastern Conference. For me — given team health — there are four playoffs locks, and how they finish in the standings is highly arbitrary considering the difference between Supporters’ Shield and duking it out for the final playoff spots is 3-4 wins.
In Toronto, you have a team I’d select to win 75 percent of its games but has to play its first nine on the road. So, I’ll go with Columbus? Who could lose Ethan Finlay for the Copa America and Wil Trapp to the Olympics? Will a full year of rested Didier Drogba work, or was the half-year part of what kept his legs brilliant in Quebec? How will RBNY cope without Matt Miazga, and handle CONCACAF Champions League schedule congestion? Which ones will try to win the Open Cup?
Then, with apologies to Chicago — and Philadelphia given my colleagues’ predictions — there’s a batch of five teams that can make the playoffs if their ships come in.
We saw what can happen when a single, revolutionary force joins an attack (Giovinco, Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Drogba). What if that’s Shkëlzen Gashi in Colorado? What if Ilsinho opens up defenses for the Union? How about the chances of Jack Harrison, Fabian Herbers, Jordan Morris, Omar Holness or Julian Buescher pulling a Cyle Larin and exploding as a rookie?
So, please, please, please, let us be close to correct MLS. The difference in 2nd place and 7th in the East last year was nine points. In the West, it was six! Whether you’re playing on a postage stamp (NYC) or a small city (Seattle), anyone can make a run (Yes, even you Chicago, with a new coach and GM).
That’s what makes his rapid fire answer to what he expects from his second season with New York City FC so biting, even starting with a laugh.
“Obviously, to be better than the last year,” Villa said in an exclusive interview with PST. “We’ll try to be competitive, a team that creates an identity in play. Our mentality is the same as last year: to get into the playoffs.”
Villa was directly involved in more than half of NYC’s 49 goals, with 18 goals and 8 assists in his freshman year in Major League Soccer, but the club had a horrible year despite his wattage.
The 17 losses NYC suffered were six more than his last four La Liga seasons combined. He lost 17 matches with Valencia in 2007-08, but that wild year saw four manager changes — including current Premier League bosses Quique Flores and Ronald Koeman — and a Copa del Rey.
New York City fired Jason Kreis and hired Arsenal and France legend Patrick Vieira to take his place. So far, so good, says Villa.
“I’m very happy for what we’ve done in these two months,” he said. “He’s a good coach, who has good things for the team. In this position, we try learning consistency day-by-day on the training ground. We are ready for the start of the season.”
The move to America also had Villa trying his hand at something new, filming a commercial in English. Despite the high-profile, he wasn’t nervous. Didn’t do a bad job, either.
“I’m very happy with this campaign,” Villa said. “Obviously for me it’s very important for me because here in the U.S.A. and soccer in MLS is going up.”
Villa also obliged us with some answers to fun, quick fire questions:
On the prospects of NYC teammates from NYCFC, Mix Diskerud and Khiry Shelton
“Both players are very good. Mix is a player that normally goes to the national team. Khiry Shelton the same. Both have a lot of ideas in soccer and conditions to be great players. I hope both have good seasons.”
Best American player ever?
“For me, it’s Landon Donovan. When I watched his game or played against him with Spain (in the Confederations Cup), he was a very good player. If you want me to name one, I tell you Landon Donovan.”
Which former teammate will make the best manager?
“Very difficult question but for one player, I say Xavi Hernandez (right). His understanding of the concepts of soccer, he will be a good coach, too.”
Tell us a good Andrea Pirlo story.
“He’s obviously a good player, everyone knows this, but he’s a good person and teammate and I’m very happy to have this experience with him in the locker room.”