The High Five: Improvement in MLS
By Steve Davis
The High Five: Improvement in MLS, building around Andrea Pirlo, the
Steven Gerrard problem and more
1. More improvement for MLS in 2016. Maybe a lot more
Major League Soccer improves every year – sometimes by a wee
spoonful, sometimes in a more heaping helping. This year, for
whatever reason, it seems the progression of graphing points will
point up higher still.
That is to say, a league where quality that keeps getting better
will improve on pace or even slightly above that this year.
Mostly, it’s about improvement across a substantial number of teams.
(Which ones? Keep reading ) Beyond that, Orlando City SC and New York
City FC have a year of “figuring it out” under their belts, so they
are both destined to be better, improved
versions of their expansion selves.
A full year with access to Targeted Allocation Money will help
shore up the middle of MLS rosters across the board. All that, plus
we’re into Year 2 of not having Chivas USA to drag down quality. So
there’s that, too.
Generally speaking, teams improve in one of three ways. A young
team gets better because their “kids” are simply a year older.
Vancouver and Dallas improved in 2015 that way and they have reason to
believe the best-and-brightest among their young set are a year wiser
still in 2016.
Teams can also improve through roster additions. Dallas gets a
check mark here, too, having fortified its platoon (mostly) through
the likes of Maxi Urruti, young DP Carlos Gruezo and former EPL man
MLS Cup runner-up Columbus has younger players getting better
with age, too, primarily those who go by the names “Wil Trapp” and
Toronto is improved with solid additions through the middle of
the roster in Will Johnson, Drew Moor, Clint Irwin and Steven
Justin Mapp and Brad Davis, new to Sporting Kansas City, make
Peter Vermes’ team better out wide, although the club will surely miss
Krisztian Nemeth and his 10 goals last year.
The third way teams can improve is through a coaching change or
a front office reshuffle. Chicago and Philadelphia made the big moves
there, and significant roster upheaval (15 players gone from each of
those rosters this year) reflects it. Overall, looking around the
league, there are perhaps 10-12 clubs that have potentially improved.
That’s at least half the league, and the overall quality should
theoretically tick up as well.
One more word about off-season, about one club that didn’t
improve – which is a bit of a mystery for me. You could make a case
that D.C. United got worse in the off-season. And that was for a team
that was looking haggard down the stretch last year, winning just two
of its final nine MLS regular season matches. Luciano Acosta may help
punch up the attack, but losing rock-solid man in the middle Perry
Kitchen mitigates any gain. The injury to Bill Hamid is clearly a
gut-punch. Plus, most of the rest of the roster is a year older, and
that’s not good.
The Black and Reds went out and coughed up a nasty hairball of a
series in CONCACAF Champions League, reinforcing any concerns at RFK.
2. There are injuries – and there are injuries to difference makers
We all know that to some extent, good health spells good fortune
across an entire season. Generally one or two injuries aren’t going to
derail a season. Clubs strong in spirit and deep in the roster can
adapt and overcome.
The exception is a big injury to club’s big man, the “difference
maker.” That one is harder to overcome. A quick scan around MLS
reveals several teams for which fortunes greatly depend on guys who,
lately, haven’t been stringing together long, healthy spells. And that
could spell trouble in some important locations.
For instance, Orlando City’s playoff bid very will might live or
die with Kaka’s ability to stay healthy. (And stay higher up the
doggone field this year!) Trouble is, he’s got a lengthy history
sprains, strains and worse. Injuries were a significant part of the
reason Kaka wasn’t exactly all he could be previously at Real Madrid.
There were more injury struggles in his subsequent (second) run at
Milan. He did some time on the trainers’ table last year for the OC
Lions, and now at 33 years old – well, he’s not getting any younger.
Speaking of 33-year-olds: Clint Dempsey will be there on March
9. He’s become a bit more brittle in recent years (mostly with those
same hamstring injuries that continue to dog U.S. national team
players). When Obafemi Martins was around, a Dempsey window of injury
wasn’t necessarily a crusher. Now there’s less cover around
In L.A., Robbie Keane has remained amazingly productive into his
mid-30s. But the Irishman is 35 now, and he did miss 14 starts last
year, mostly at the beginning of the season. With a rebuilt back line,
Bruce Arena’s team needs Keane’s goals. In Toronto, the Reds fortified
bunch needs Jozy Altidore’s goals to be a serious title challenger.
And yet here we are again, about to begin the season as the U.S.
international deals with yet another hammy setback.
Of course, the king daddy of this group is up at Stade Saputo,
where Didier Drogba’s ability to stay healthy – and stay Drogba-level
fierce – will tell the tale of 2016 for Montreal. Truth is, there is
no one player who is more important to his team in MLS this year. And
that’s got be concerning for Montreal fans, as we are talking about a
guy who turns 38 in two weeks.
3. Building around Andrea Pirlo at NYCFC
For most teams, the path to success is about a whole bunch of
different things. It’s about taking all the sundry components, all
these vast and various ingredients, everything from personnel to
coaching to team chemistry, and cooking it down into the best possible
But some stews have fewer ingredients, blessedly simple in their
construct. And that’s what I see this year in NY City FC.
No matter that City FC is but a sophomore entry; it continues to
be one of the most interesting teams to watch and study. Due to its
big spending and its attachment to European soccer, City FC has
quickly become the louder shouter among the pair of entries in this
country’s biggest media market. Plus, they play in a hallowed house of
American sporting culture, Yankee Stadium. So we study City FC more
carefully. Which brings us back to this year’s rather simple entry
door to Eastern Conference relevance:It’s building successfully around
Yes, there are other elements at NYCFC that are worth watching:
Patrick Vieira’s managerial learning curve, the rise of Kwadwo Poku,
Mix Diskerud’s season of redemption, etc.
But all of that gets relegated to “undercard status” next to the
story of NYCFC: Whether they can be successful, and the fact that
being successful is all about building wisely around their best
player. Pirlo is the closest MLS has in 2016 to soccer royalty. He
has been an MLS man only a few months, but his jersey sales are
already 4th best in MLS. (And don’t be surprised if he creeps up to
No. 1 or 2 this year.)
But jersey sales don’t equal “Ws” as we know. To improve over last
year’s 8th – place finish in the East, it’s all about getting the
midfield mix just so. And that should be all about building around
Perhaps Frank Lampard can still be an effective midfield man.
Perhaps. And perhaps Diskerud can develop, getting past “hybrid”
status to establish more of a hardened role. Perhaps Poku can continue
to azzle. But those are all “perhaps” elements. We know that Pirlo can
change games with his passing, even at age 36. He’s movement and
vision are simply next-level stuff.
So whatever Vieira does, it must start with utilizing Pirlo and
then arranging other assets around him. Maybe that means
Poku and Diskerud stationed closely to their Italian maestro in a
three-man midfield arrangement. Perhaps it’s Diskerud as a
ground-covering shuttler between Pirlo (deep, as always) and Lampard
(more advanced). Perhaps it’s even Andrew
Jacobson alongside Pirlo, diligently doing all the down-and-dirty
work. Honestly, I don’t know which way will be best; that’s why they
are paying Vieira very well, to sort it out.
But from afar this much is obvious: Get it right and there will
be far more joy at Yankee Stadium in 2016. Bollix it, and Vieira’s
stay in the Bronx is likely to be as
short as Jason Kreis’ was in 2015.
4. How high can Wondo go?
This has been a hot-topic question making the MLS geek circles –
and I am certainly a card-carrying MLS geek. Or, I would be if there
were an actual, official card.
How high can Chris Wondolowski climb on the all-time MLS
If you go to page 41 on the big file of MLS all-time facts and
records, you’ll see that Wonder Wondo currently sits 9th on the
all-time list with 93 goals. So why are we asking this question about
someone who sits no higher than ninth? First, because the guy is
something of an MLS legend, already. His story is compelling to the
point of being inspiring, a backup who worked his socks off for a
starting spot and then just kept climbing. His story is the “American
dream” of MLS soccer.
Besides, none of the eight guys ahead of him are still playing;
so we can’t really ask this about anyone else.
First, Wondolowski will almost certainly be the next player to
eclipse 100 goals. (He’s just seven shy.) That benchmark strike would
also draw Wondolowski level with Edson Buddle. If Wondolowski can nick
one more subsequently – Of course he can! – he matches Taylor Twellman
for No. 7 on the list.
Three more from there and he catches Dwayne De Rosario for No.
6. Wondo has averaged 13.7 goals over the last three years, so
“average” would put him at 106 or 107 this year. (And if we include
that season of seasons, his record-tying 27-goal output in 2012, his
average over the last four years jumps to 17 a season.)
So Wondolowski will begin the year at No. 9 all-time and,
barring significant injury, likely finish the season at No. 6. Then,
this year or next year, he’s likely to catch Jason Kreis (108 goals)
for No. 5. From there the math gets tricky.
Wondolowski is 33. If he gets past Kreis and catches Ante Razov
(No. 4, 114 goals) Wondolowski will most like by 34 when he does it.
After that? Well, it’s a mountain jump to the next group: Jaime Moreno
(133), Jeff Cunningham (134) and Landon Donovan (144).
To catch Donovan, Wondolowski would need to average 13-14 goals
over the next four years. That means he would probably still need to
score 8-10 goals at 37 years old. And history tells you that’s not
likely to happen.
Juan Pablo Angel was 35 in his final productive season (13 goals in
2010). De Rosario went into big decline after age 33. That’s
just picking out a couple who were productive into their 30s, but who
couldn’t keep the party going. The point is, most strikers are well
into winter by mid-30s, if they make it that long.
Then again, Wonder Wondo has made a career of beating the odds –
so who knows?
5. The Little Five
5a. Many of us wondered whether the L.A. Galaxy would have a
Steven Gerrard problem. Well, the Liverpool legend’s laggard
performance in the MLS club’s Champions League thud has kicked up the
concern around Bruce Arena Valley to a Defcon 2. At least! He was slow
as Christmas in the midfield against Santos Laguna, constantly
trailing the play. And where was Bruce Arena pointing the biggest
finger when he said after the match, “There were no superstars out
5b. We will know by, oh, let’s say by mid-May, whether the
Galaxy made a big, big mistake on Gerrard. He doesn’t necessarily have
to be an MLS Best XI type. But he does have to deliver more than he
did in 2015. He needs to establish utility. He needs to establish
himself in some kind of role, whether that’s as a deep-lying playmaker
– a poor man’s Pirlo, if you will – or as an unlikely box-to-box guy
or something else. But he’s got to do something. David Beckham was
effective to the end at L.A.; so far, Gerrard has looked absolutely
nothing like Beckham in on-field impact.
5c. If Vieira wants to play a 4-3-3 at Yankee Stadium – judging
by pre-season friendlies, he does – a trade that swaps Diskerud for a
bright winger would probably be the club’s best move. Diskerud, as a
career utility knife, is a lot of things; “winger” isn’t one of them.
That’s a problem, because that’s probably where he would land, at
least at times. Which would increase the U.S. international’s chances
of yet another disappointing season.
5d. Just like last year, 15 MLS clubs will pass, trap and shoot
in stadiums built exclusively for (or remodeled for) the soccer team.
That doesn’t mean the league’s stadium situation didn’t improve.
Remember, the second phase of improvements will soon be complete in
Toronto. And Orlando’s stadium, originally set to open this year, will
now be ready for the 2017 season.
5e. If Major League Soccer and CONCACAF cannot find a way to
rearrange the CONCACAF Champions League format (to one that gives MLS
clubs a better shot at advancing through later rounds) it won’t be
Merritt Paulson’s fault! The Timbers owner is getting out front in the
effort to move things around, mostly through social media messaging.