NOTE: Welcome to the High Five! - A new weekly feature on FCDallas.com from long-time Dallas resident, MLS journalist and radio voice of FC Dallas, Steve Davis. Each Wednesday, Steve will bring us five things he's kicking around in his head from the week that was in American soccer. Tune in to Steve for every FC Dallas match on 100.7FM as well as Sunday mornings on 103.3FM as half of ESPN Soccer Today.
Drilling down on five topical matters shaping MLS this week:
San Jose Earthquakes president Dave Kaval gets us started, doting on the club’s spanking new Avaya Stadium, an 18,000-seat facility that had its “soft opening” over the weekend:
"People had a notion at the beginning it was going to be sufficient but not magnificent. What we created is really going to be a gem for the Bay Area." – Kaval, from the San Jose Mercury News.
The Merc’s headline asks if this is the country’s top soccer stadium? Not sure about that – there sure are some dandy ones out there. Fifteen venues now have been created or substantially remodeled expressly for MLS clubs, an amazing number for a league that had just three of them (Columbus, Los Angeles and Dallas) just 10 years ago.
While we ponder where the new Earthquakes’ facility ranks, here are five “story snow globes” to shake up, look at and then talk about:
1. MLS ’15 in three words: West is best
All due respect to reigning Eastern Conference regular season champion D.C. United, and take nothing away from a spunky New England side that reached last year’s MLS Cup final, but the West looks tougher than the East this year. By a long, long way perhaps.
The expansion teams in Orlando and New York certainly have some interesting parts, and it will be fascinating to see their stories unfold in 2015. Depth, however, is always in short supply for expansion clubs.
Rather than picking apart each Eastern Conference club’s soft spots, let’s look instead at a Western Conference stack of talented teams and the crow bar fight about to ensue for six playoff spots.
L.A. Galaxy and Seattle are at the top of everyone’s list of favorites; they’ve earned the place. Dallas and its stockpile of speedy youth has emerged as a popular dark horse contender; no one gets the best from young players the way Oscar Pareja does.
Anyone feel brave enough to discount Sporting Kansas City, which is new to the West this year (along with Houston, following a minor conference re-alignment)? I sure don’t – especially if they add Rafael Van der Vaart. (See Item No. 5 for that one).
Portland could not overcome its sluggish start and missed a playoff spot. Still, the Timbers finished strong, losing just two of their last 10 (a nice 6-2-4 run), and they could certainly be a factor in 2015 once they get injured Will Johnson back to full speed.
Real Salt Lake has lost a couple of important figures (including center back Nat Borchers, now at Portland), but there’s still enough leadership in Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and others to prove troublesome. Sandy, Utah, will continue to be a tough place to play.
Owen Coyle brings a shelf full of success in England to Houston, where he now stands in charge. He took over for Dominic Kinnear, a three-time MLS Cup winner who brings his abilities to that fancy new, above-mentioned stadium in Northern California.
Finally this: there is no soft spot along the Western Conference schedules. That’s another way of saying, Chivas USA is no longer around to cushion some of the tougher matches.
There is your 90 seconds of MLS power knowledge for opening week. When “MLS” and “FCD” comes up at this week’s happy hour or lunch with co-workers, drop the “West is best” bit of expertise. Promise, you won’t be wrong.
2. Ranking the early, early MVP candidates for 2015
5. Robbie Keane – The title holder; 51 goals in 80 matches over three years is amazing production.
4. Federico Higuain – 22 goals, 16 assists over last two seasons. If the Crew playmaker can bump those up just a smidge …
3. Kaka – Sizzling in preseason at Orlando City SC, but will the expansion club win enough?
2. Clint Dempsey – Third year in Seattle, no World Cups to worry about, is 2015 setting up as Deuce’s year?
1. Jermaine Jones – MVPs are usually goal-scorers, but who can debate the remarkable influence Jones had last year on New England, elevating a solid team into one that went to MLS Cup? If a holding midfielder can ever be MVP, Jones certainly could be the guy. He was on some good Schalke teams in Germany, but his personal trophy chest looks a little light, so he’s surely motivated to add some hardware. Plus, Jones is desperate to show national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann that he’s still got the stuff to play in midfield.
3. Latest Bruce Arena reclamation project: Edson Buddle?
Life without Landon is about to begin for the L.A. Galaxy, the reigning MLS Cup champs. That’s about Landon Donovan, of course, who is engaged to be married and apparently enjoying retirement. There are those who believe the contributions of Major League Soccer’s all-time goals and assists leader were slightly overstated. (Those Donovan detractors apparently missed that “all-time goals and assists leader” thing, but whatever. Fans in Dallas will certainly not shed a tear at the absence of LD from the Galaxy’s lineup.)
Then there are Donovan devotees who believe the man was, to the very last day of his glorious career, the kind of difference maker who turns a very good team into a great one. (Those transformative figures can also turn a bad team into a competitive one … but we are talking about the Galaxy here, winners of three of the last four MLS Cup titles.)
Of course, the cupboard is hardly bare today around the StubHub Center. The front line remains stacked, featuring Irish international Robbie Keane, last year’s league MVP. Alongside Keane is Gyasi Zardes, now a U.S. international and still on the rise, by all appearances. And now we have to wonder if that wily ol’ Bruce Arena has something else up his blazer sleeve?
Edson Buddle has been in the Galaxy camp in preseason, doing well enough, apparently, to earn a contract.
Yes, Buddle has been underwhelming since his return to MLS from abroad in 2012. In fact, “underwhelming” might be generous. He has 10 goals in 61 MLS matches during that time. That includes just seven goals in 42 games over the last two years with the Colorado Rapids.
So, no, MLS clubs weren’t exactly fighting over Buddle. But Arena gave him a chance, and the 33-year-old forward seems to have made the best of it. If anyone can get the best from Buddle, it’s Arena.
The dean of MLS managers has a history of taking discards or role players and turning them into important pieces of championship teams. In just the last few years, Arena has snapped up league veterans like Alan Gordon, Dan Gargan, Chad Barrett and Todd Dunivant on the cheap, turning them into valuable assets for his well-rounded squads.
Buddle? We’ll see. But if anyone can extend the former U.S. international’s usefulness – don’t forget, not so long ago he was a member of the United States’ 2010 World Cup team – it certainly is Arena.
4. Roster not 100 percent complete? No worries!
Every team would love to have its roster 100 percent shipshape, balanced and complete by first kick – more days and weeks and months to get everyone on the same page, to form unit cohesion and to identify that optimum first 11 as quickly as possible. Realistically, that just doesn’t happen very often. Managers and technical directors keep tweaking the roster, looking to improve through the spring and then into the summer’s transfer window (when the big moves typically are made).
That happens every year. But here’s a little something different for 2015: teams appear to have been extra conservative this off-season, more content to play it cool, to take the “wait and see” approach. It’s a strategic choice – and it’s probably a wise one.
There are important variables still unsettled: What, exactly will the new roster limits and restrictions look like? Perhaps most important, what is the salary cap and is there room for a fourth Designated Player?
So, roster architects want to leave themselves some wiggle room to best make use of compliance guidelines once they do fall into place. If that means holding onto some personnel assets (salary, roster spots, international roster spots, DP slots, etc.) until the summer, so be it.
Last year, such an approach might have been slightly more problematic. After all, points earned over the early months are just as valuable as points earned after the summer transfer window opens. No one wants to have a team that catches the perfect beat in October, only to miss the playoffs because they didn’t have the roster right in March, April, May and June.
But here's the thing: having six playoff qualifiers per conference this year (one more than in 2014) provides additional latitude. Points lost in spring and early summer won’t bite as hard. In other words, so long as clubs get it right by the summer, with smart utilization of all assets eventually provided, they should find their way into the playoffs.
5. A new “Rafa” for MLS – maybe
It’s one thing when fans put some big shot European player on their “wish list” for MLS. We see so much of that, and it usually amounts to nothing. Nor do the latest media reports out of Europe that say “So-and-So” wants to play in MLS.
But when owners start taking to social media, more or less acknowledging interest from an MLS side, that’s when we can all lean in and take notice. And that’s where we are, apparently, with acclaimed Dutch international Rafael Van der Vaart. When Hamburg-based journalist Daniel Busch tweeted out that Sporting Kansas City officials were in talks with Van der Vaart, officials from the MLS club hardly denied the interest. Just the opposite, in fact, as SKC co-owner Robb Heineman confirmed via Twitter a visit to the northern German town, adding that Van der Vaart was “definitely on the radar.” He did add that a signing was “not imminent.”
He would certainly make sense for Sporting Kansas City and manager Peter Vermes, who spent a year in the Dutch Eredivisie in his early playing days. Van der Vaart was trained at the famed Ajax academy, where the 4-3-3 is practically a second language. Vermes has been a 4-3-3 guy at Sporting KC since he took over in 2009, so the Dutch midfielder is a tactical perfect-fit.
Van der Vaart would add some nice technical ability and playmaking to the club’s other big midfield signing, Roger Espinoza (who was at SKC, of course, before joining England’s Wigan for two seasons).
WATCH: VDV Top 5
At 32 years of age (with Ajax, Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur and Hamburg already stamped on his player passport), the longtime Dutch international certainly isn’t, as they say, past it. He was named to Holland’s provisional 30-man World Cup roster last summer, but withdrew after a training ground injury.
Might it happen? Hard to say; even when both sides share mutual affection, there are about 20 different things that can go wrong in these attempted deals. But if SKC can make it happen, and so long as the Dutchman buys into an SKC system that demands abundant midfield toil, it sure looks like a decent fit for all.
At the very least, expect him to be better (and less problematic overall) than the league’s formerly reigning “Rafa,” the New York Red Bulls’ difficult Rafa Marquez.
Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since its first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for World Soccer Talk and Fusion TV’s Soccergods, and co-hosts the weekly radio show/podcast ESPN Soccer Today on 103.3 FM in Dallas. Davis is also the radio play-by-play voice for FC Dallas on 100.7 FM.