The 2019 Major League Soccer season arrives this weekend, with Toronto FC traveling to Pennsylvania to take on the Philadelphia Union at Talen Energy Stadium.
Perhaps you didn’t see this coming.
Since its initial season nearly a quarter-century ago, MLS has had two persistent problems: when to start the season and how to end it. The continued growth of the league has pushed the season opener earlier and earlier, and now we have action the first weekend in March.
It is a busy time in American sports, with NCAA basketball, the NHL and NBA all approaching the most intense junctures of their regular seasons and baseball’s spring training in full operation. But the American soccer season has to start sometime, and a full slate of MLS games this weekend offers the promise of warmer weather soon to come.
With Atlanta United attempting to declare in its third season it has become not only the league’s reigning champion but also its dominant team, and with so many interesting new players arriving and a redesigned competition in place for 2019, there are plenty of questions to ask about how the next 8 1/2 months will develop in MLS.
1. Is this new playoff format the one that finally will work?
The season-ending playoffs have been a challenge for Major League Soccer since it began play in 1996. The league has gone through several format changes, none of which was truly ideal. In recent years, teams in the conference semifinals and finals have played two-leg, total-goals series that have provided essentially no real advantage for the team that finished higher in the regular-season standings.
So the league has come up with a new one. Seven teams from each 12-team conference will make the playoffs. The No. 1 seed in each conference will earn a bye to the conference semifinal round. The other teams will be matched according to seed — 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, 4 vs. 5 — in single-elimination games. The higher seed will be the host for all playoff games. Teams will not be reseeded to accommodate an upset; the original tournament bracket will stand throughout.
The season also will end earlier, with MLS Cup arriving on Sunday, Nov. 10, which does not assure ideal soccer weather if the game winds up in a Northern city. But it’s a better bet than it was when the game came a month later.
2. Was FDB the right hire for ATL?
Atlanta United unquestionably made the correct coaching hire when it joined MLS as an expansion team in 2017. Tata Martino introduced an attractive style of soccer, aided in the construction of a dynamic roster that included Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez and led the club to an MLS Cup title in its second season. Tata then chose to accept the head coaching position with the Mexico national team, which left Atlanta searching for someone to replace him.
The choice: Frank De Boer, who managed Ajax in the Netherlands from 2010-16 and won the Eredivisie four consecutive times, the only club to accomplish that in its history. That sounds promising. After things wilted, though, he resigned and took a job at Inter Milan. He was fired in less than three months, having coached 14 games. His next job was in England’s Premier League, at Crystal Palace. He stuck around only five games, four of them in the league, all of which were losses and none of which included a Palace goal.
When Atlanta United began its competitive season being shredded on the road 3-1 in the CONCACAF Champions League by Herediano of Costa Rica it was hard not to wonder if Atlanta had been searching more for the name than the game in choosing De Boer.
3. Can Toronto FC rediscover its swagger?
In early January 2014, Toronto FC signed Michael Bradley as a transfer from AS Roma and the era of TFC ambition began. A year later came Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, and by 2016 the club was in the MLS Cup final. It claimed the title in 2017 and then began 2018 by coming closer than any MLS team ever to winning the CONCACAF Champions League, falling on penalties to Chivas Guadalajara.
Then it all fell apart. Injuries limited playmaking midfielder Victor Vasquez to 21 games, Altidore to 13 and defender Drew Moor to eight. TFC allowed 64 goals, second-worst in the Eastern Conference, and finished 14 points out of a playoff spot.
MORE: Giovinco questions TFC’s commitment, claims club forced him out
Since then, TFC allowed Giovinco to depart along with Vasquez apparently because it didn’t want to offer big contracts to either player. In its 2019 CCL debut, the club was smacked 4-0 by CA Independiente of Panama. It was a shocking result, but only because 2018 was viewed to be an exception to the club’s recent history.
The trick is to assure it’s not the new normal, and to do it without two players who ranked with the league’s best.
4. Did the LA Galaxy make the right call with their DP overflow?
Since 2010, MLS teams have been permitted to have three “designated players”; only a fraction of the salaries of such players count against their team’s cap. This has allowed such teams as TFC and Atlanta United to flourish and attract high-level talents to the league.
But you can’t have four, and as MLS Week 1 and the season opener Saturday at home against Chicago approached, the LA Galaxy had forwards Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ola Kamara and wingers Gio Dos Santos and Romain Alessandrini.
Somebody had to go.
And so Kamara is off to China. He scored 48 goals in 90 regular-season games with the Galaxy and Columbus, including 14 in 30 games in his first (and only) season in LA. The club opted to stick with Dos Santos, who has great name recognition as a longtime member of the Mexico national team, but he scored only nine times in 39 games over the past two seasons as LA fell short of the playoffs.
5. What does outflow of great young talent mean for the league?
It seems a little like more good young players left MLS than in any recent offseason, but it could be more so that it was about better young players departing.
Almiron not only was by far the most expensive player ever sold by Major League Soccer, at $31 million, he also broke the transfer record for Newcastle of the Premier League. Canadian teenager Alfonso Davies went for $13 million, but he also went to one of the most powerful clubs in the world, Bayern Munich.
New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams went for only $3.5 million, but to a club in Germany’s Bundesliga, RB Leipzig, where he was expected to make an immediate impact. And he has.
All this does seem to indicate a willingness on the part of Major League Soccer to occasionally sell its most promising talents to bigger leagues. That could be viewed as a negative, particularly by American audiences accustomed to seeing their leagues (MLB, NBA, NHL) as destinations for the best players. But it also could encourage top young talents from here or abroad to consider the league as a place to develop.
6. What does the inflow of promising talent mean?
The Almiron success story has opened doors for prospecting MLS teams, particularly in the Americas, and specifically for Atlanta United. Midfielder Pity Martinez arrived for $17 million from River Plate in Argentina, which he led to the 2018 Copa Libertadores. He was considered one of the best South American-based players and is expected to play a role similar to Almiron.
We also have seen high-priced transfers from Romania (midfielder Alexandru Mitrita, NYCFC, $10.4 million), Mexico (forward Raul Ruidiaz, Seattle Sounders, $8.25 million), Portugal (Andre Horta, LAFC, $7.4 million) and Spain (Bryan Acosta, FC Dallas, $3.65 million).
The MLS salary and roster rules can be a labyrinth, but it’s clear the talent level in the league continues to rise.
7. Is this the year Red Bulls break through?
It is a perpetual question for this club. Whether you called them the New York/New Jersey MetroStars or the Red Bulls following their sale more than a decade ago or even RBNY, they have not been able to claim the MLS Cup championship.
Oddly, the closest they came was by traveling far away, during the years when teams at the bottom of playoff qualification sometimes shifted conferences. The 2008 Red Bulls wound up winning the Western Conference by upsetting Real Salt Lake on the road and then lost in the MLS Cup final to the Columbus Crew.
Since then, they’ve finished first in the Eastern Conference five times and won three Supporters’ Shields (best regular-season record) and never once made it to the MLS Cup final. There are times when this kind of streak becomes almost like another opponent for a team, a mental obstacle the players struggle to overcome. This even can be true when the players involved had no part in constructing that particular history.
But, as the Boston Red Sox showed 15 years ago or the Washington Capitals showed last spring, such a “curse” can be broken.