MLS 2015/2016 Preview: A New Era Begins

Getty
           
Graham Ruthven Twitter: @grahamruthven

beIN SPORTS

Landon Donovan’s retirement at the end of last season - helping the LA Galaxy to a third MLS Cup in four years - marked the end of an era, not just for the player, but for Major League Soccer as a whole.

Sure, the former USA international was probably the most iconic player in the league’s history - alongside David Beckham - but the decision to end his career bookended a period of growth and maturation for the league. If the past eight years can be classed as MLS 2.0, then the division’s third phase starts in 2015.

Chivas USA is gone, with MLS buying out the ailing franchise and preparing for the launch of a new team - called Los Angeles SC for now from next season. In their place has risen New York City FC and Orlando City, the league’s 19th and 20th teams, and MLS’s expansion to both cities reflects a new approach.

While the league has previously focussed on markets where it would be the predominant sporting force - like Portland or Salt Lake City - now it is moving into major league markets where competition from leagues and teams competing for the same space, interest and supporters. 

The move to award New York a second franchise - in the form of the Manchester City and New York Yankees co-owned New York City FC - could prove pivotal in MLS’s development as a truly major league North American sporting division. 

Jason Kreis has been poached from Real Salt Lake, where he enjoyed great success as a player and coach, and the former midfielder has set about forging a team in his image with NYC FC. Kreis’ side have shown themselves to be a possession-based, dynamic side in the handful of pre-season friendlies they have played, and with David Villa and Frank Lampard signed up as DPs, as well as Mix Diskerud on the books, they already boast one of MLS’s best rosters.

And with the league still intent on forming a second franchise in Los Angeles and the Beckham-backed team in Miami - arguably the two toughest sports market in the United States, MLS conscious change in tact becomes all the more apparent. 

The LA Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls were once the only MLS sides capable of making the kind of marquee signings that attract attention and curious glances from around the global soccersphere. Of course, that dynamic has now shifted dramatically.

New York City FC, Orlando City, Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls can all now class themselves as MLS’s ‘big’ clubs, with the league’s ‘big-name’ Designed Players shared among them.

Toronto FC is still a work in progress, with the franchise’s owners still intent on changing the culture of the club, and turning around their almost perennial failures on the field. Jermaine Defoe has returned to England, signing for relegation-threatened Sunderland, with USA international Jozy Altidore heading in the opposite direction.

But while Altidore’s arrival at BMO Field might follow the league’s recent trend of signing the best North American talent, it is the signing of Italian international Sebastian Giovinco that could prove most significant for TFC in 2015.

Then there’s Brazilian legend and former Ballon d’Or winner Kaka at Orlando City, who will be a colourful and worthwhile addition to MLS, with their proven record on and off the field at USL Pro level. 

And of course, Bruce Arena will have his sights set on a fourth MLS Cup championship in five years, even after the departure of Donovan at the end of last season. The LA Galaxy will have to wait until the summer for the arrival of Steven Gerrard from Liverpool, but the Carson-based side still have the strength to challenge for regular season honours. Arena is an accomplished MLS operator, and he will almost certainly play a role in the latter stages of the season once again. 

Never before has MLS boasted so much in the way of star power, but the challenge is now to translate that into something that can be counted as so much more than just the sum of its big names.


>