Sporting Kansas City forward Claudio Bieler has signed with Argentine first-division club Quilmes and will be unveiled back in his home country early this coming week, according to a report by Argentine newspaper El Sol.
The 30-year-old Designated Player was signed by Sporting KC in December 2012. Bieler got off to a quick start in MLS, scoring nine league goals in the first half of the 2013 season before a nagging injury lingered late into the regular season and into the playoffs. From August 2013 onward, Bieler scored just three league goals in Sporting blue as Dom Dwyer enjoyed a breakout 2014 season (22 goals), locking up the starting forward spot for the foreseeable future.
Bieler always looked more likely to leave Sporting before receiving another prolonged run in the first team. A trade to another MLS team would have returned a fair amount of intra-MLS assets (allocation money, draft picks and/or a quality player or two), but in selling Bieler, Sporting free up one of three DP roster slots (Matt Besler and Graham Zusi are the others), leaving head coach and technical director Peter Vermes with a number of options and significant flexibility in regards to the salary cap.
Let’s take a look at the best attackers in Major League Soccer as our season preview continues. With the league’s top scorer from last year gone, the field is wide open.
1. Marco Di Vaio
Let’s face it – at the end of the day, it’s a striker’s job to put up the numbers and keep the scoreboard ticking. Last year, just two players were better than Montreal’s ageless wonder at putting the ball into the back of the net, and one of them is gone. What the 37-year-old is doing is nothing new in his book; Di Vaio has 11 seasons in his 16-year career where he put up double-digit scoring totals, with many of those coming in European leagues. Oh, and he’s done it in each of the last 5 season, all at the age of 32 and older. Add the fact that he’s by far the best player on his team, and it’s no wonder he tops this year’s list, despite stiff competition.
2. Robbie Keane
Despite a down year for the LA Galaxy as far as they are concerned, Robbie Keane helped his squad remain a force on the attack, one of six MLS teams to score over 50 goals last year – 27 of which came directly from his foot. What makes the Irishman so dangerous is not only did he bag 16 goals last year, but he assisted 11 as well. It helps that his strike partner is also on this list, but at 33 Keane remains effective and lethal on the attacking end, and his ability to play a multifaceted game helps him climb our list.
3. Mike Magee
Like we said with Di Vaio, in the end all that matters is an ability to keep the scoreboard ticking, and Magee’s breakout year last season singlehandedly allowed the Chicago Fire to challenge for a playoff spot. They fell just short, but with a full season on Magee’s back, the Fire should be a serious contender for the final playoff positions in the East. Don’t be surprised if his pure numbers fall, as he will be sure to attract added attention, but it will open up spaces for Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe, and the rest of his strike force.
4. Jermain Defoe
While his MLS canvas remains blank, the Toronto newcomer is a force at the front, and that is not debatable. With his Spurs career petering out, Defoe had to make a switch, and he is ready to return to his form. His numbers from his final Spurs season are misleading, as any player’s form will dip sharply when forced into a reserve role. Still, he managed a pair of impressive matches in his final two appearances at the club, scoring a goal off the bench against Crystal Palace. He immediately becomes a marked man in Major League Soccer, and with a proven Premier League track record in his recent past, he has more than earned his place on the list.
5. Landon Donovan (Even though he was in the top 10 MF’s list too, LD is a proper ‘tweener’ so he made it)
Do we really need to explain Donovan’s presence in the MLS top 5? It’s a bit redundant at this point. 10 goals and seven assists last season in a down year, the important player in one of the league’s most prolific attacks, needs just one goal to set an all-time scoring record, yata yata yata, you know who he is. Next.
6. Thierry Henry
In a list bursting at the seams with proven age, Henry tops the “body of work” category. At 36, he’s still got it, and that’s not even up for debate. Last year he bagged 10 goals and set up seven more, and let’s not forget this is the same guy who two years ago picked up two goals in 96 Premier League minutes for Arsenal in an emotional winter return. One of the most purely skilled players in MLS, Henry looks to lead New York back to the Supporters Shield.
7. Chris Wondolowski
Wondo may not have the national team pedigree that Landon Donovan has, but in Major League Soccer, he’s just as deadly. A busy summer for the USMNT in which the 31-year-old had his best go-around yet, it put a dent in his MLS production, with 11 goals marking his lowest league goal tally in the last four years. But don’t think he’s slowing down – he played half the season broken foot. Suddenly those 11 goals don’t seem so mediocre. He’s a force.
8. Alvaro Saborio
Saborio gets lots of mentions as the most underrated, under-appreciated striker in MLS. While that’s true, it’s largely because he doesn’t put up flashy numbers. But in a RSL system that midfield solidity above all else, Saborio remains a consistent threat at the top.
9. Eddie Johnson
A set-piece machine, Eddie Johnson has found a new home in DC United’s rebuilding project. He’s streaky to say the least, but when Eddie Johnson’s on, he’s one of the best in the biz. He has a lot to be thankful for from his time with the Sounders, but with his new Designated Player contract, it had to be outside of Seattle. He’s ready to be the guy in DC.
10. Federico Higuain
He’s a flashy player, and while like the man above him the goals come in streaks, but there’s no doubt he’s the most important person in the Columbus squad. His numbers from last year rival those of Robbie Keane, with 11 goals and nine assists, and the best part about his assists total – his nine dishes were served up to six different teammates. Higuain gets everyone involved, and it speaks volumes that he’s known for his assists and yet the Argentine’s 11 goals flew under the radar.
I felt it necessary to add some names to this list even if they didn’t crack the top 10, because all those names up on the list – not surprisingly – are established strikers with proven track records. However, there are players who remain just as important to their club – like Claudio Bieler, Blas Perez, and Obafemi Martins – who simply don’t have the numbers to crack the top 10. There’s Tim Cahill who falls not because of his skill or ability, but because he’s second fiddle in the strike pair with Thierry Henry. There are also a number of younger players such as Jack McInerney and Kekutah Manneh who haven’t shown the consistency to be a top striker but have all the talent in the world and could easily be here as soon as next year.
Finally, there’s one glaring miss on this list – Clint Dempsey. The American has shown not just poor, but horrific form since the latter part of the 2013 MLS season, and the 30-year-old has to prove his career isn’t tumbling down the stairs before he can return to the league’s elite. In both his final matches with Seattle and his loan stint at Fulham, Dempsey looked like he was running with shackles on his ankles, and he wasted most of the precious few chances he could muster. He didn’t look much better in the friendly against Ukraine either, and it’s clear much work is left to be done for the forward from Nacogdoches.
Have you missed MLS? Of course you have! Worry not, because on Saturday, the 2014 season kicks off in style. Defending MLS Cup holders Sporting Kansas City travel to an undoubtedly boisterous CenturyLink Field, where they’ll take on the new-look Seattle Sounders (Watch live on NBCSN at 3 p.m. ET and online via Live Extra).
The hosts are far and away the leaders in this contest, having lost just once in eight meetings, and recording a tie just once as well. The last game between the two, in Kansas City, ended in dramatic fashion, with Djimi Traore getting the only goal deep in stoppage time.
But will all that change now that the Sounders have revamped their squad? Despite making the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season, Seattle have made major changes to their team. Gone are Eddie Johnson, Mauro Rosales, Steve Zakuani, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Michael Gspurning. In come Kenny Cooper, Chad Marshall, Marco Pappa, Jalil Anibaba, Tristan Bowen and Stefan Frei. The man in charge remains the same, however, with Sigi Schmid beginning his sixth season at the Sounders’ helm.
The Sounders will also be hoping for more from Clint Dempsey, who signed on as a DP last summer, but failed to provide as much of a boost as fans had hoped. The American just returned from a loan spell at Premier League bottom-side Fulham, where he did little to impress. Seattle will be hoping he settles in, finds a spark and spurns the team forward.
Sporting KC, on the other hand, have made few changes to their side. Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen retired, and forward Teal Bunbury got traded to New England. But for the most part, Peter Vermes mans a side that’s nearly identical to the one that beat Real Salt Lake on penalties last December to lift the MLS Cup.
With so few changes, it’s unlikely the team’s style will change, either, which will disappoint some MLS fans who bemoan Sporting’s physical approach. But it’s worth remembering that Benny Feilhaber can pick a pass, Graham Zusi can select a cross and Claudio Bieler can score the goals. They can slice apart defenses – and where better to start than a potentially shaky Seattle backline?
What they’re saying
Schmid on whether Dempsey will feature: “He’ll play a role for us,” the Sounders coach told reporters. “I have to talk to him, he lands today and we’ve gone back and forth on text a little bit. I want to see how he feels after the flight, how many minutes he can play. We’ll just have to go from there.”
Feilhaber on Sporting’s defense of the MLS Cup: “If you’re not improving, you’re getting worse,” said the midfielder. “Teams are going to come after us a little bit more because they know they’re playing against the defending champions. But even though we won the MLS Cup, we didn’t play our best soccer each and every game. We have 10 of our 11 starters back, and I think that makes a huge difference. We continue to grow together and learn more and more how everyone plays. That only leads to more success.”
As a Sounders fan living far, far away from Seattle, I’d feel mighty disloyal if I predicted anything but a home win. It may not be pretty, but the hosts could very well be buoyed by their 12th man.
KANSAS CITY – Most of the media members pulling into town arrived Wednesday or Thursday, so the MLS Cup event schedule more or less began today.
First up was a press conference with members of both teams. Real Salt Lake was delayed out of Utah (weather and all), but Sporting Kansas City was in place and right on time. A few notes out of SKC’s session:
No frost on the field this time
The temperature at Sporting Park will set an MLS Cup record for cold, and easily so. But the field should be fine … and we’ll see none of the frost that made the field a bit treacherous toward the end of Sporting KC’s (similarly frigid) Eastern Conference final series clincher over Houston. Or so says Vermes.
Vermes explained that was all about a facility crew miscommunication. SOP on MLS grounds is to water the field, to increase ball speed. But the message somehow got lost that watering the field wasn’t a good idea with sub-freezing temperatures.
“There was a little bit of a frost toward the end of the game that started to come onto the field,” Vermes said. “That’s not going to happen this time around.”
He reminded the room (jam-packed with media) that Sporting Park is equipped with an underground heating system, so a frozen ground should not be an issue.
As for the cold temps and how it might affect the players? Nielsen talked about how cold he was during the win over Houston. And he’s from Denmark!
But Zusi just kind of shrugged: “Cold is cold,” he said. “When you’re moving around, it’s no big deal.”
Claudio Bieler will appear in the SKC 18
It’s a little weird that Vermes would need to be asked about Claudio Bieler’s role Saturday – seeing as he is a Designated Player and all. But it’s a very legit question considering how the Argentine striker’s playing time has virtually disappeared over the last two months. (And considering that he didn’t even travel for SKC’s first playoff match.)
Vermes said Bieler would be in the 18-man game roster. Past that … ? The manager said he hasn’t decided on a starting 11.
Vermes went on to say nice things about how Bieler has adapted to the league and has scored important goals, and about how his late-summer injury coincided with some other strikers getting healthy, etc. But, clearly, something has gone wrong here. Otherwise, we’re not talking or asking about this.
Nielsen on a championship, and what it means
SKC players clearly respect their veteran captain, goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen (pictured above). So perhaps they will heed his words.
Nielsen told a quick story about winning a championship in Denmark when he was quite young – and about being quite sure more would regularly tumble in. Since then, he’s one just a U.S. Open Cup, which he cited proudly, but which he clearly places below a league crown on the achievement scale.
“Fifteen years later, I’m still standing on one real championship,” Nielsen said. “I’m sure that Saturday I would appreciate a championship a lot more than I did 15 years ago. Now I know how hard it is to win a championship.”
Teams training Friday
Both teams will train Friday at approximately the same time as kickoff on Saturday (3 p.m. locally). Real Salt Lake (which trained in Utah prior to chartering in Thursday evening) will practice at at Sporting Park. SKC will train at its usual facility at Swope Park, on the south side of the city.
Ahead of Saturday’s first leg of this Eastern Conference finals series, here are the must-knows about Peter Vermes’ Sporting Kansas City. A trip to MLS Cup 2013 is on the line. (Saturday’s match kicks off at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and can also been seen on NBC Sports Live Extra)
Aurelien Collin destined to score in the series?
As a center back, Aurelien Collin’s main mission is to make life miserable for opposition attackers. And he’s pretty good at it. Not just because Sporting had the league’s best defensive record this year (30 goals allowed in 34 games), but because he’s a real stinker at getting under his opponent’s skin.
Meanwhile, goals are a bonus for defenders – even if it doesn’t look that way lately for Sporting Kansas City’s French antagonist. Heck, it almost seems like he’s destined to score in this two-game series.
Collin (pictured) scored his team’s lone goal earlier this year as SKC snapped the Dynamo’s record 36-game home unbeaten streak in all competitions. Sporting was the first team to win in Houston since June of 2011, so that was a big strike for the irascible SKC veteran.
Collin has also scored twice in the 2013 playoffs, once in each of the club’s two matches in the just-completed home-and-away series against New England. His 69th-minute goal at the far post last weekend outside of Boston was nothing short of massive, even if SKC lost that night. It allowed his club to return to Sporting Park with a one-goal deficit, physhologically so much better than a two-goal margin to make up.
Collin opened the scoring just before halftime of Wednesday’s return leg.
Three-fourths of Sporting Kansas City’s back line is on yellow card warning and would miss the return leg with a booking Saturday at BBVA Compass Stadium. That’s hardly a surprise considering notoriously physical KC led the league in fouls and bookings this year. Still, this is surely a concern and could certainly influence Saturday’s contest at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Right back Chance Myers, left back Seth Sinovic, center back Aurelien Collin and forward Teal Bunbury all collected one caution in the two-game set against New England.
Two yellow cards in the playoffs means the offender sits out the following match. By MLS rules, however, if a player collects his second post-season booking in the second-leg of the conference finals, he will not miss the MLS Cup final.
Claudio Bieler? No problems here!
The curious case of Argentine forward Claudio Bieler gets more strange by the day.
He didn’t even travel last week for Sporting Kansas City’s road match to open the playoffs, at New England. That’s a pretty significant development for a Designated Player. So it fueled speculation that Bieler had found a spot in Vermes’ doghouse, perhaps for returning from recent injury out of shape.
Or, it could have just been that Bieler didn’t score enough after a hot start in his first year at Sporting Park, and that management was trying to run him off. Before Wednesday’s overtime strike, Bieler had not scored since Sept. 7 (and that was on a penalty kick). Dom Dwyer and Bunbury have gotten Bieler’s minutes since then.
Bieler didn’t start in Wednesday’s return leg – but did get in the game off the bench and help decide the series with a late goal. So, is there a problem? Manager Peter Vermes was asked about it Friday in a national teleconference.
He said there was no problem. Everything was fine.