Ahead of the 2015 MLS season, Eight by Eight’s Andrew Helms caught up with MLSSoccer.com’s Matt Doyle to chat about the new faces and new clubs coming to a soccer-specific stadium near you
Andrew Helms: One of the big storylines this offseason has been the incredible talent coming into MLS including the likes of Kaka, David Villa, Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Frank Lampard, and Steven Gerrard. Who are you most excited to be watching in MLS?
Matt Doyle: In terms of the new talent, I think Giovinco captures everybody”s imagination. He’s an Italian national teamer in his prime coming to MLS. And it’s a measuring stick. Even though the U.S. has finished ahead of Italy in each of the last two World Cups, there’s still this perceived quality gap.
So what if Giovinco who is in his prime, who has played for Juventus, who has 20-odd caps for Italy and still kind of figures into their plans, what if he comes here and is merely really, really good? What if he comes here and he doesn’t dominate? I think a lot of people want an answer to that question, and I think we’ll get to see it.
My focus, though, is almost always more on the development of the young players in the league because let’s face it, MLS is not at the Serie A or Ligue 1 let alone Bundesliga, EPL or La Liga. It’s still a development league, and I think the way that it gets to where the executives want it to be is by creating the bonafides in terms of developing top talent and then selling them along to bigger clubs. I want to see the next DeAndre Yedlin, the next Andy Najar, and hopefully guys like Bill Hamid or Harry Shipp can answer that question.
That leads into my next question. There are obviously a lot of players with name recognition coming into the league, but there are also some who’ve flown under the radar like Scottish international Shaun Maloney to Chicago or young Uruguayan forward Octavio Rivero to Vancouver. Is there anyone else we should have our eyes on this season that isn’t getting the column inches?
Rivero is the interesting one for me because I actually think Vancouver is an MLS Cup-caliber team if they have a center forward who can bag 12-15 goals. If Rivero can be that, and they stay healthy—that’s obviously the caveat that’s applicable for almost any team—he automatically becomes the guy that no one paid enough attention to earlier in the year.
The other one that actually has me really, really intrigued is what’s going on with Brek Shea in Orlando because they’re making him a left back. I thought from about 2007 or 2008 when I first saw him play that this guy’s long term position should be left back because he’s absolutely devastating when he has space and can get the ball on the run. And the way the modern game plays out, the only guys who reliably get the ball on the run three or four times a game are the fullbacks. So I think they’re making a long overdue switch. I don’t know if his soccer IQ is up to the task. I don’t think he’s as smart a player as say Robbie Rogers who made the switch last year, but I think it’s definitely worth seeing. He could end up being pretty exciting on a lot of levels for MLS fans and for U.S. fans.
So we’ve got two new clubs this season, Orlando City SC and New York City FC. What should we expect from these two expansion sides?
Struggle. I think there are a lot of big names and a lot of expectations in both camps, but they are expansion teams and expansion teams struggle. Chemistry, cohesion, that’s the most undervalued, underrated asset in all of soccer, not just MLS, and by definition expansion teams won’t have that.
I think the first couple of months will be ugly, but if you look at the talent both teams have what it takes to turn it around mid-season and start stringing results together kind of in the way that Jesse Marsch’s Montreal team did back in 2012, and they ended up just falling a little bit short of the playoffs. That’s honestly what I expect, but it’s hard to look at a team with David Villa, Mix Diskerud, Ned Grabavoy, Chris Wingert, and think, “They aren’t going to be that great.” That looks really, really good on paper especially with Jason Kreis in charge. If things go right, and we know the Eastern Conference is down, if things go right, even with the struggles either team could be a playoff team.
Another big story here is the expansion of the playoffs that will make it easier for both expansion teams to make it to the post-season.
Yeah, it will. 12 of 20 teams getting into the post-season is ridiculous, but it is what it is. Given the TV ratings and the attendance, I guess it’s no surprise that the playoffs keep expanding. It seems to draw in the other market fans in the way the regular season games, even great regular season games, haven’t been able to.
You tend to write about tactics in the league, and MLS has a long reputation for being a fast and physical league. Do we see some new trends developing 20 years into MLS?
I think it’s still fast and physical by and large, but I also think it’s a league that rewards teams that play good soccer. You look at the way the Galaxy played last year, that team played really attractive passing soccer. I’d argue the same for the Revs even though they did it in a different kind of way.
You’re starting to see more game-to-game wrinkles and more ability to do things that are interesting just because these are all players who’ve grown up with MLS at this point. And they’ve had games to go and watch in person every weekend of their life. And, oh by the way, there’s now 1,000 hours of live soccer on TV in any given week. You can watch Mexico, you can watch anything from South America, you can watch anything from Europe. So they’re just exposed to it more and there are fewer mysteries on how to play.
And I think it shows, and I think it shows elsewhere, too. If you look at Mexico, Xolos won the title a couple years ago and they’re more direct and have less of the ball than almost any team in MLS so it’s hard to paint tactically in broad swaths in the way people used to.
A trend we’ve been watching is the rising number of U.S. internationals playing in MLS. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has made it no secret that he’d prefer his players overseas. How do you see the rising number of U.S. internationals in MLS impacting the U.S. men’s national team moving forward?
It’s a good question, and I don’t know exactly what the answer is. I think Klinsmann has made the point that for certain guys he thinks it’s a good move and for others guys he doesn’t think it’s as good a move as they could make. I’ll use the Toronto guys as an example. Coming to MLS was a good move for Michael Bradley because without a doubt he is the face of that franchise and their most important player, their captain, the guy who is in the firing line in the media. He’s a leader in a way that he was never going to be for Roma, for a winning club in Italy or Spain or England or Germany. He was never going to have that high profile. In Toronto, he’s going to learn how to be a leader, he’s going to learn how to be 100% accountable for what happens to his team. I’d argue that’s what Landon Donovan had to learn between 2006 and 2009, and he eventually did learn it.
Whereas with Jozy Alitdore, Klinsmann made the point that he could’ve gone to a Champions League team or a Europa League team in Germany or in Holland, and I think he’s got a point. I don’t think that Toronto FC is by any means going to be bad for Altidore’s development. It could be positive like I illustrated it’ll be positive for Bradley, but is there a part of me that would’ve like to see him at Feyenoord or PSV or something like that? Yeah, absolutely.
And I think that is going to have an impact on how the national team plays, but it’s worth remembering that the most successful national team we’ve ever had was the 2002 team under Bruce Arena that I think had 12 of their 23 guys in MLS. There should be no, “Oh, it best online casino can’t be done with domestic players” attitude. To me, that’s a cop out and excuse no matter who it’s coming from.
Let’s talk Toronto for a second. They’ve brought in Jozy and Giovinco at great expense, mirroring last year’s splash for Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe. Will it work for TFC this year?
I think so. I’m not going to pick them to win any titles until I see how their backline comes together. They have the new French-Polish defender Damien Perquis, and they also have Benoit Cheyrou at defensive mid who can protect it, but there are a lot of questions back there about Toronto that make me nervous. Michael Bradley feeding wingers like Daniel Lovitz and Jackson and then having Giovinco and Jozy up top together in some formation—I think it’ll look more like a 4-4-2 than a 4-2-3-1—the attack should work. You just look at that and think, yeah it should work. And I didn’t have that feeling last year. I think last year if you look at our initial Power Rankings we had Toronto down around 13 or 14, which is right where they finished. This year, I think they’ll probably end up being top 5 in the first Power Rankings of the season. So I think that’s a pretty good indicator that the pieces are starting to fit a little bit better and Vanney has a better idea of what he wants to do.
We also have to mention that one of the most important signings of the offseason for any team might be Robin Fraser. He is consensus the best assistant coach in MLS, and he left the Red Bulls for Toronto FC. You can’t underrate having a guy like that on the staff.
The problem with TFC has also been a cultural one. And now from general manager Tim Bezbatchenko down to Greg Vanney and Fraser the have the whole organization of the same page moving forward.
It does seem that way. I would honestly be a little surprised if it didn’t turn out to be that way, but this is still TFC so if they have a rough six game start to the season, the people upstairs could decide to blow it up. Constant turnover is just the theme of that franchise for nearly a decade now. As good as it all looks, you have to be kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Speaking of teams with offseason turmoil, I wanted to touch on Red Bull New York a bit. Angering the fan base after firing Mike Petke, I’m curious what are your thoughts on the program Jesse Marsch and Ali Curtis are putting in place. Will they earn back the trust of Red Bull supporters?
I think Jesse already made a good step in that direction with that town hall a month ago, just being very candid and open about what he expects and willing to fire back at the fans. We learned a lot about Jesse Marsch from his 2012 Montreal team and from working under Bob Bradley. His teams play tough, aggressive, really well-organized soccer. It’s kind of exactly what Mike Petke was promising and building toward. If you look at the roster, it has some holes and certainly a lot less glamor than last season’s group, but it also has a really good central midfield in Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan and Felipé. I look at that, and I ask myself, “Can you win an MLS Cup with that midfield?” And I think, “Yes, you can.” Bradley Wright-Phillips was great last year, but the last time he scored 20 goals in a season he followed it up by scoring one so you have to worry about that a little bit.
It’s going to have to happen on the grass for them, and I think they know that. Honestly, I just kind of like what I see so far in terms how they are building the roster. It makes sense to me to build central midfield first and then try to address the backline and worry about the depth stuff up top for later. So I actually think the Red Bulls could be a pleasant surprise for the fans this year, and whether or not the fans like that is kind of an open question.
That town hall was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had just as a human being watching that shake out.
It was amazing. I’m a before day one MLS fan and watching it, I was texting back and forth with Shaun Francis, a long time MLS fan, and this is what we’ve been waiting for. Fans, not just New York fans, fans across the league engaged in the middle of the off-season over a coaching change. It was remarkable. We actually have the numbers to back that up. The week of the town hall and Petke being fired and replaced with Jesse Marsch was the same week that the Galaxy signed Steven Gerrard. And Petke and the town hall did better traffic numbers for us than LA signing a global superstar on the MLS website. To me, that is always what I’ve wanted MLS to be. A league that cares more about our own stuff and what we’re doing than we are about glomming onto the reflected glory of another league. It was incredibly exciting to watch that unfold.
As a tactics guy, is there one team that you think is really innovating on the pitch in MLS?
It was the Revs last year, and I wonder if teams will emulate that this year. What New England did was press high—very similar to what Sporting have done over the last three or four years—but once they got into the final third they didn’t cross the ball. I think they were last in the league in crosses per 90 minutes from the run of play while the great Sporting KC teams aimed a cross for the backpost time after time. Combined with that high pressure, they didn’t give a damn about possession in the midfield and they created a ton of chances. What they did—talking to my friends in analytics—broke all their statistical models. They just could not account for it. They should not have been as good as they were, but they were. Part of that is having Lee Nguyen who was absolutely remarkable last year. And part of that is having guys like Kelyn Rowe, Teal Bunbury, and Diego Fagundez who can give you different types of answers out wide. And part of that is just having a smart coach and a system that he trusts and giving him a couple years to make it work.
I can’t tell you who exactly is going to do that this year. I suspect there will be some regression with the Revs, but the neat thing about MLS is that we’ve got 17 or 18 guys coaching who played in the league and are familiar with the tropes that we see tactically and are willing to do what they can to disrupt it one way or the other. Jay Heaps did that, Gregg Berhalter did that, and maybe it’s Oscar Pareja’s turn down at FC Dallas to do it if he can keep everybody healthy.
Anything else we should be on the lookout for?
Anybody who covers MLS this year needs to focus at least partially on the explosion of reserve teams in USL, and just how hugely positive a step that is for not just MLS but for soccer in America and Canada as a whole. It’s going to make easier for top prospects to get minutes against guys who are older and more experienced and easier to workshop the tactical and formational stuff before you bring it up to the big club. It should make MLS a better and more diverse league. The way I’ve put it in the past is that it took soccer-specific stadiums for MLS to survive, and it’ll take reserve teams in USL and academies for MLS to thrive.