“Daddy, is Chivas USA in heaven now?”
“Yes, my child. They’ve gone to be with the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the Miami Fusion.”
“But what will Los Angeles do now, with only one MLS team to cover such a large and diverse metro area?”
“Don’t worry, son. Los Angeles FC’s starting up in 2017 and Magic Johnson and Nomar Garciaparra are among the investors.”
“Great! Chivas USA who?!”
That was, of course, the root problem, cutting both to the core of the team’s problematic identity and its near-total failure to embed itself in the consciousness of Angelinos: Chivas USA who?
So, at the end of its 19th year, Major League Soccer did what any teenager would do when faced with a nasty boil on an otherwise youthful and healthy-looking face: pierce it.
Photo: Victor Decolongon/Getty Images.
Amazing to think, less than 90 days removed from the LA Galaxy’s win over the New England Revolution in MLS Cup, that the vaporizing of one of its franchises wasn’t anywhere near the league’s biggest story of the year.
Chivas was quickly forgotten — even while they were still seeing out 2014 as a zombie club — amid the relentless whoosh of progress, with offseason chatter quickly turning to what MLS is gaining (two new clubs, a ball-free logo) rather than what it lost. If Chivas’s doom and the ongoing failure to secure a stadium in Miami were opportunities for the league to pause and have a period of introspection, well, no one seemed much interested in taking them.
Not with two more clubs coming in 2017 and MLS’s rebranding intent on making it the league of Next, seeking to build a collective mindset of optimism, energy and confidence that seems characteristically American. Futurity beats history, with many of the nuances in the vision obscured by the blinding light of the new dawn. Don’t fret over the details — New York City FC’s PR and ballpark problems, the collective bargaining agreement, the lack of a Miami stadium — feel the warmth of the sun.
The nostalgia that enveloped the league at the end of the year soon evaporated as well. Landon Donovan’s farewell was so protracted, and the goodwill so heartfelt and enduring, that it’s hard to detect much lingering regret outside California that he’s no longer part of the league, especially since he was granted his ideal ending when the Galaxy won MLS Cup in front of their own fans – a neat and memorable outcome from a messy and forgettable match.
Marco Di Vaio’s retirement was also natural, at the age of 38 and with the player and the Montréal Impact in general enduring a mediocre season.
Yet it feels as if Thierry Henry’s gone too soon, even though he’s five years older than Donovan. Not only did he have one of his best seasons in MLS, but he leaves with an inevitable sense of unfinished business that comes with the New York Red Bulls’ failure to win the grand prize during his tenure (or indeed, ever).
Were it not for reports that the Red Bulls’ parent company is belt-tightening, we might have expected some kind of winter Big Apple arms race, with the Red Bulls re-stocking to fight the birth of their city rivals. Instead, it’s been more like a wave of the white flag in Harrison, with the talismanic head coach Mike Petke gone along with Henry and Tim Cahill and Sasha Kljestan’s arrival as good as it gets.
Bradley Wright-Phillips is still there, now a Designated Player, but no one’s expecting him to score 27 goals again, not without Henry’s support. The fact he only polled fourth in MLS MVP voting last year appears testimony to that skepticism.
Cahill entered MLS with fanfare in 2012 but slipped away quietly to Shanghai last month. That’s partly because he is 35 and had a down year in 2014; partly because there’s no need for the league to feel insecure when stars leave – not with Kaká at Orlando City and David Villa and Frank Lampard (ish) at NYCFC. Lee Nguyen probably won’t be feeling confident about his chances of a repeat as MLS’s top midfielder (by MVP votes) with the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year on the scene – and still only 32.
And with NYCFC’s birth, it’s no longer axiomatic that a talented and well-supported Red Bulls team is vital for the prosperity and profile of the league. Instead, how well Manchester City’s little brother plays and draws this year would seem to be a much more important test of how MLS is performing in a key market than anything that may happen to the area’s older franchise.
It’s entirely possible that the East’s best team in 2015 may be among its most overlooked. There isn’t a lot of star power or a ton of sexy storylines around the Columbus Crew, but they’ve added Kei Kamara to a side that won 10 of its last 15 regular-season matches in 2014.
This time last year, Ontarian optimism was high after the signings of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley. Only Bradley remains. Defoe quickly became injured and disillusioned and one of the offseason’s most significant transfer sagas was concluded when left for Sunderland in January. Then the club dissed him in a video that sent up their original enthusiasm about his arrival.
Gilberto was dispatched on loan to Vasco da Gama last month to make DP space for Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, as Toronto addressed the failure of 2014’s splashy big-money transfer policy by … splashing big money on transfers. Also with a man embarking on his first MLS head coach job: then, Ryan Nelsen; now, Greg Vanney.
With NYCFC and Orlando entering the East and Canada hosting the Women’s World Cup, Toronto will be under a lower level of scrutiny this year than last, even with Altidore back in North America and needing to rebound from his dismal spell in England. Fundamentally, though, nothing’s changed regarding ownership’s willingness to spend and doubts about whether the ambition will mesh into a cohesive team. All while BMO Field’s expansion is turning it into the biggest soccer-specific stadium in MLS.
Last time we saw the Western Conference, LA and the Seattle Sounders were comfortably the two best teams, and there’s no reason to suspect anything different as this campaign kicks off, especially once Steven Gerrard lands at LAX. But below the headliners there is plenty of intrigue among the support acts. Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo have switched conferences, leveling out the two divisions at 10 clubs apiece.
Dominic Kinnear, the man who coached the San Jose Earthquakes when they became the Houston Dynamo, is now back coaching the San Jose Earthquakes. And they’re moving into Avaya Stadium, which claims to be the first “cloud-enabled” MLS stadium and also boasts of having the biggest outdoor bar in North America. Whatever the truth of that, it’s indisputably incredibly convenient for the airport.
The Dynamo responded to the departure of Kinnear, the only head coach in their history, by replacing him with Owen Coyle, considered one of the EPL’s brightest managers only five years ago; and signing Cubo Torres, a move that will be assessed on whether it helps them tap into their city’s large Hispanic population as well as for how many goals he scores once he turns up in midseason.
MLS also tweaked around its edges: better national television coverage, more rivalry weeks and devaluing the regular season even further. Now, 12 teams out of 20 will make the postseason – a ratio even more generous than the NBA’s. And finishing third isn’t quite as good as it was, since those teams will be forced into a one-off elimination game against the sixth-placed side, instead of going directly into a two-legged conference semifinal. In 2015, reaching the playoffs will seem like a bare minimum, rather than any credible indicator of quality or success.
So the inherent tension between the playoff model and worldwide soccer’s conviction that league play is the purest test will continue. But hey, MLS is just turning 20, and nobody’s ever said that twentysomethings have got it all worked out.