Your Dangerously Comprehensive 2015 MLS Season Preview

A preview so comprehensive and wide-ranging that it has both Terence Malick and a crossword puzzle in it.
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Hello. I see your father invited the whole family this year. Look! It’s Patrick Redford, Zack Goldman, and Pierce, sitting by the Classical 2015 MLS preview fire. What lovely guests. I’m glad to be here too, I must say. Glad to be a part of 2015—it sure seems important to demarcate time, doesn’t it? Anyway. I hope we can keep talking. I’ve been waiting for this get-together since November.

And much like the league’s fledgling franchises, I don’t think we need a long introduction.

New York City FC and Orlando City SC

The Five Boroughs. Have you heard about this? The team in the city. Accessible by subway and conversation. Easy to find on a map, especially if you're in the five boroughs. Not in New Jersey. From the Five Boroughs, courtesy of billionaire conglomerates.

Part of the ugly fun and folly of MLS Entry Re-Entry Team Entry (Allocation; Five Boroughs) is that a franchise can accumulate a host of nebulous and tangible narratives before playing a single game. The swaths of truths—heavy money, satellite team hierarchy, suffocating levels of branding—and half-truths—Mix Diskerud maybe starred in well-lit Twilight werewolf porn; Adam Nemec is made entirely out of lumber; Poku will run this country by 2020—that have set the big-ship-shifty-journey compass of NYCFC's stilted voyage thus far will diffuse and form into something else as the season begins. The Cosmos-approved criticism will balloon or dissolve into Hofstra bleachers. The groans of Yankee Stadium groundskeepers will scream or depart among the cheers of the upper middle-class.

The beginning is unlikely to be so binary, but the narrative, finally, mostly, might belong to Jason Kreis as much as Manuel Pellegrini. Maligned as NYCFC may be, Claudio Reyna and company have created a compelling group here among NASL transfers, world-renowned stars, Nordic strikers and the occasional promising prospect. It'll probably make for 4-2 wins and desperate Jeb Brovsky head-holds in equal measure.

The whole thing is kinda fraught and foreboding, and there's something exciting about adding such a clear candidate for league-wide villainy, especially in the context of Orlando City SC's almost-organic entry. Orlando represent most of what people enjoy about MLS 3.0: Soccer-specific stadia built largely by private funding, pre-existing fan bases exalted, small market competitive verve. NYCFC certainly does not. What works favor in both is that today's MLS is all about emergent narrative, and the contradictory reasons that guide them.

New England Revolution

By Patrick Redford

Revolution players, ranked by their perceived ability to lead a revolution, with accompanying notation on why they're leading their particular revolution.

1. Jermaine Jones: Chaos is the only constant.

2. Lee Nguyen: Civil society must be shaken at its foundations and I am the one to shake.

3. Bobby Shuttleworth: Price of pomade too high.

4. Andrew Farrell: Independence for Kentucky.

5. Kelyn Rowe, Chris Tierney (tie): We are gonna annex this Dunkin and it's gonna rule.

6. Diego Fagundez: Sleeper agent, Uruguay wants Boston because it seems "super chill."

7. Jose Goncalves: Got lost on the way to Gillette, shacked up with anarchists.

8. Kevin Alston: The prison system is racist as shit and it's time to kill it off.

9. Juan Agudelo: Boredom.

10. Charlie Davies: The US has a terrible healthcare system.

Portland Timbers

Darlington

 

When the edge of your foot

Cuts between clumsy challenges,

Each of them made by clumsier

Colorado Rapids stalwarts in rapidity,

 

I wonder how you might survive.

 

But you go through, and

Through again. Head steady in

The Commerce City winter's night.

Are you flying, now?

 

Or just dreaming another free kick

  from the John Carter canon.

 

Molding clay turf with legs instead of hands,

Green knees upturned and soaring,

Floating, swinging, turning,

Now infinite and unafraid to fall.

 

Still no one there to catch you,

and Will Johnson arms folded

Somewhere invisible.

 

How many goals is one goal, really, when

Sectioned into the sum of so many Porter parts,

Enough to count you dribbling, dribbling, dribbling,

Entering softly into loudly lighted hearts?

 

Or just enough for deflection.

 

Outside Toyota Stadium, arms crossed,

Tucked way in a Fuck You blazer,

The man nods in some direction,

Solid and solemn and pointing,

 

Toward those shin-slashed edges

They called exits.

 

"Nice win," he says, voice

Measure and clear. Nice win.

You shrug and pass, those

Footsteps following, and your answer

Left behind.

 

2015 will be no lie of mine.

 

LA Galaxy

By Zack Goldman

MLS prizes parity above all.

The roots of its member clubs run deep into the same earth, and as a result the pursuit of congruity—in competition, resource and image—is embraced, and even trumpeted, as a keystone value of the league.

And, yet, even in MLS's oft-confounding jungle gym of unique roster rules, financial regulations, and scheduling, one club remains king. That's the Los Angeles Galaxy, five-time MLS Cup champions and now, by some distance, the gold standard of the league.

From the academy to the front office to the first team, the club exudes an evergreen spirit of success and celebrity in a league where both such qualities can seem fleeting, given MLS's single-entity rota fortunae. Nobody seems exempt from that cycle, except for the Galaxy.

So, yet again, LA enters an MLS season with a target on its back. Having won three of the last four MLS Cups, they've done more than play well; they've beaten a system.

The architect of that success is Bruce Arena, a man who may be a better competitive strategist than tactician, although he remains awfully underrated in both realms. Arena knows that the league's ultra-forgiving playoff system—for which 60% of teams qualify—manufactures a regular-season structure that only requires a team to keep a steady pace of success and rewards those who hit their form toward the campaign's denouement. Arena is a master of timing and momentum, which is why his teams routinely win when it matters, even if they don't always win more than everyone else.

That probably won't change this year—and I can give you a few other "probablies," too:

LA probably won't regularly steamroll their competition, but they'll be plenty dominant at times. They probably won't play extremely well during the opening months of the season, certainly not as well as they'll play during its closing stages. Arena will probably experiment early on and pay little heed to inconvenient side competitions like the US Open Cup or the CONCACAF Champions League (which, despite its pathway to the Club World Cup, still resembles more of a distraction than vaunted challenge). Toward the end of the season, LA will probably hit stride and they'll probably enter the playoffs as a team nobody is licking their chops to face, no matter their record, no matter their seed.

So, those are the probablies. But, what happens from then on is a little unclear, as are a few other things.

For one, who replaces Landon Donovan, the MLS all-time goals and assists leader? While there are candidates to physically occupy his position in the lineup, the reality is that the void he's left, on and off the field, will need to be replaced by committee. One of the rare breed whose on-pitch importance genuinely lived up to his legendary reputation at the time of his retirement, Landon Donovan made this team click for a decade and the Galaxy's attack will need tuning.

Elsewhere, questions abound regarding what impact Steven Gerrard will have on the team once he joins in the summer; how the absence of midfield stalwart Marcelo Sarvas will affect LA's structure and tempo in the center of the field; and whether Gyasi Zardes, last year's sophomore sensation, can continue his goal-scoring form without Donovan's distribution and focus-stealing runs in the mix.

Whatever the case—pardon the rosiness—it'll be fun. It's a rare thing to witness the rise of a soccer power, especially on these shores, where mass coverage of the game is still young. The Galaxy have an opportunity to win four titles in five years, and they'll be recasting their identity in a Donovan-less mold as they do it. This team has a lot to prove in 2015, and expectations are higher than ever.

 

D.C. United

It’s that time for Bill Hamid, isn’t it? That time when MLS-USMNT buzz evolves into future West Brom rumors, when Goalkeeper of the Year awards become Goalkeeper of a geographic Generation beginnings. He’s 24-years-old, an MLS vet by now, and ready to spring. Hamid has always flaunted the impossible, but he’s recently added a certain patience—the kind of arbitrary distinction that either arrives or doesn’t—between the sticks. He’s there, now, waiting before jumping, two big hands stretched, reaching carefully into the striker jar of crushed celebratory dreams. Don’t run over to your supporters, don’t jog and skip, no matter how near release seems, because Bill just made the right decision.

Our collective obsession with potential is fraught and silly and occasionally sinister, but it seems all right as Hamid looms and nods, still crouched and balanced, still six feet tall and coming to fuck up your whole goal-scoring world.

Chicago Fire

Character on the popular television show, or player from the slightly-less-successful soccer team?

1. A fireman.

2. A Ghanaian international with a few recent caps and an impeccable goal-scoring record in the Swedish league.

3. A muscled paramedic.

4. A 32-year old red-haired midfielder who is very responsible, I bet.

5. A sweaty and shirtless captain.

6. Harry Shipp.

Answer Bank: Harry Shipp.

FC Dallas

By Patrick Redford

Russell Westbrook is the only athlete, but Fabian Castillo is the other one; I consider them each nodes of the same super organism. Westbrook has his rocket boot dunks and zippy, terror show drives. Castillo has the ability to surge down the left wing and attack dudes on the dribble. It works, all the time, to terrifying effect. Right backs can't get forward against Dallas because if Michel or another distributor finds Castillo, he can casually rip holes in your defense. The biggest critique of MLS is that it's no fun watch, but Castillo defies this pigeonholing. Look at this shit. If you could dunk in soccer, Castillo would.

San Jose Earthquakes

After the fall, there weren’t a lot of visitors. A middle-aged raccoon sometimes sniffed the stools and looked for bags of mixed nuts underneath the dusty chair wreckage, but the bags were fewer and fewer now and there really wasn’t much to do around here and the vibes were bad and the raccoon just went home, discouraged by this whole business. Things were kinda boring these days.

Bottles of Triple Sec and Tia Maria and blue-black margarita mix lost their appeal given the time passed, and the sad fact that all the patrons of Avaya-sponsored Patron had somehow turned inexorably dead. The last disgrace note of humanity was preserved by a single bar etching of two initials—S.L.—into the southwest end of the wood, two jagged letters pointed toward where the scoreboard might once have been. Each of the punk letters tries to be something else; the S looks like a 5, and the L looks like Dave Kaval’s 2013-2014 player spending chart. There is mystical illegibility, here and in the passing dust storms, none of which belong to the airport anymore.

Steven Lenhart, forever a part of America’s largest outdoor bar.

Montreal Impact

The Impact's most exciting player is a 30 year-old balding winger with eight USMNT caps and probably a remarkable 401k. His name is Justin Mapp and he's the MLS answer to the Arjen Robben question, though his right foot occasionally convalesces and Mapp has a few less UEFA Champions League appearances. No matter; the dude is unlikely joy incarnate, taking on CCL and MLS competition with all the verve of Diego Fagundez, consistent hairline intact—still there, always there, pacing with purpose until that deadly sprint arrives.

Sparks like Mapp make a second-tier league fly, and those cuts inside keep compasses guessing well into each year.

Colorado Rapids

We had pages and pages of incisive analysis and poetic verve prepared for this section before Stan Kroenke deleted the whole thing.

Vancouver Whitecaps

They pass a lot. Usually it goes well, laterally. Every starter is an average or above-average talent by league standards. Kekuta Manneh is wonderful. David Ousted brings more quality than generally thought. Russell Teibert hasn’t glanced at his right foot since 2011.

This might be the year this means a title—or, one endless loop of passes, an infinite live feed of Jordan Harvey clears and Darren Mattocks shrugs.

New York Red Bulls

“So Eric’s out.”

“Lateral tear?”

“No. Out of here. Headed to Montreal. Better learn Quebeckian.”

“For what? For who? It’s French, you know.”

“Oyo’s gone too.”

“We get Justin?”

“Felipe.”

“Oh. Worse Justin.”

“Worse Justin.”

“You get a reason from anyone?”

“Something about that time he said energy drinks were for children. Didn’t sit well with management.”

“Monster is the place to go for adult-oriented marketing.”

“Think word was also spreading about his Atlantic oral history on the creepy ‘wings’ commercials.”

“Eric writes for The Atlantic?”

“Cultural criticism, yeah. Pays better.”

Toronto FC

By Pierce H.

The best of Jozy Altidore was a ten-yard, shoulder-to-shoulder war of attrition with Arsenal right back Bacary Sagna and a perfectly angled shot past onrushing Wojciech Szczęsny. Sunderland and manager Di Canio offered Altidore this narrative-driven shot at redemption after his barren Hull City days for precisely the strength on display during this powerful run. A wave of Sunderland fans looked destined to follow the Dutch in bestowing his namesake upon their sons and daughters.

The signal of Jozy’s triumphant return was disallowed as shot crossed goal line. Instead of playing advantage, the ref brought the play back, citing Sagna’s foul before meting out punishment in the form of a yellow card. Jozy would not score in the game. Eight more goalless appearances for hapless Sunderland followed before the long-awaited breakthrough came against Chelsea. No true goal-scoring flurry was borne from this flicker. Despite the rare flash of superb talent, Altidore did not score in a Premier League match again, floundering under the weight of his own self-doubt and the team’s midfield incompetence.

Imagining a reality in which the goal against Arsenal stood and Altidore’s confidence waxed rather than waned is not exceedingly difficult. Reaching the dizzying heights of Steven Fletcher’s seven goals in forty-two matches and Connor Wickham’s heralded eight in forty-one would have required only a modicum of additional luck, assuredness, and midfield service.

As Altidore returns to MLS and oft-disappointing Toronto FC, at least two of those three factors should be present. Michael Bradley’s preternatural ability to pass a man open into space will be a welcome improvement upon the level of service Jozy has previously received at the club level, and Bradley will likely see him finish more emphatically than Oduro and Gilberto last season. While MLS is a markedly improved league from what it was five years ago, Jozy’s previous success with the New York Red Bulls should alleviate the mental strain of last season’s frustration as he faces easier competition in a better environment.

Toronto FC plans to emerge from its own disappointment. Last year’s extravagant spending brought them Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Gilberto, and it appeared to be well worth the outlay at the midway point of the season. But a Defoe injury, uneven midfield play and mistakes by a young center-back pairing prevented the team from pairing its ambition with results, leaving them short of the playoffs. With the arrival of Altidore and high-profile signing Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC hopes to improve upon Defoe’s goal-scoring output. Altidore’s return to Eredivisie form provides little chance to redeem him in the eyes of Premier League detractors, but it will bolster Toronto FC’s chances of meeting their lofty expectations.

Philadelphia Union

People would come from distant locations and ideological positions and dark eras to see that view, the stadium beyond the bridge, nestled into that post-body-of-water portion that land dwellers often call land.

“What a beautiful place to build a bridge,” Donny said, “and what a wonderful view.”

“How’d they manage to get public funding for such a great bridge facility?” Brian wondered.

“How’d they,” Rick said.

“It’s interesting, isn’t it,” Amobi Okugo answered, “how facile a beautiful sight can seem. How fleeting our vistas become when a knife comes out of the social contractor’s pocket. Quite the thing, I must say.”

“It really is beautiful,” Donny screamed.

“That South End sure is something,” Brian thought.

“Though gorgeous this may be,” Amobi sighed. “it remains full of people, crawling and sifting through the infrastructural mud. Flawed, all of it, and so incredibly spaced. People not even principled enough to form a cohesive aesthetic whole. If our sights this day must grow populated, must they also be so discontinuous and disappointing, so hollow and tangible and loud?”

“This has been the best vacation of my life,” Donny declared.

“And it’s just beginning,” Amobi answered, turning away from Vince’s embrace.

Columbus Crew

Watch Tony Tchani closely. Enjoy Steve Clark domestically. Hope for the best, because Kei Kamara has plans to spare.

Sporting KC

I imagine it’s kinda exhilarating to receive a life subtweet from Jurgen Klinsmann. Check Jurgen’s comments to the press one day, realize he was talking about you the next. As far as I can tell, the USMNT’s German manager never specifically named Matt Besler as a fitness disappointment from January’s camp; he simply allowed the media to wonder—and eventually intimate—Besler’s unfortunate candidacy. The reaction of Besler and Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes is equally intriguing, given the oddities of MLS scheduling and Klinsmann’s notorious obsession with fitness, but in the context of the national team, this is ultimately a minor dust-up among many during Klinsmanan’s tenure. It only becomes important if a no-sprints walkout occurs during Gold Cup training, simultaneously resurrecting both Alan Gordon’s career and the soccer section of the Sporting News.

But this was no minor incident for Besler the individual, and perhaps that’s the true impetus behind his direct response. Besler has faced post-World Cup malaise of an insidious order since July; he’s been injured and out of form and certainly not the player he was before Brazilian competition ensued. Gone are the linking passes and one-on-one assurances that made him such perfect medicine to the ailments of both his squads. Gone is the calm. Gone is a once-great backline partnership, with Ike Opara replacing Aurelien Collin at right center back. It’s a new world for Besler and Sporting KC, and perhaps not the one they expected. Besler hoped for peak fitness by March 1, 2015. The deadline is four days gone. Let’s hope the summit remains.

Real Salt Lake

Here’s to Joao Plata’s health, and to yours.

Houston Dynamo

By Terrence Malick and Giles Barnes

Sweet stadium. Corporate and orange. How you shaped me. How I love your three-quarters yell. There is DaMarcus Beasley, running like a wind that belongs to someone else, someone we once knew. I wanted you to love me. I wanted Brad to love me. I waited for your crosses and free kicks but wanted them for myself. I was a star.

A mid-table team wants only to please itself. Gets fans to please it, too; tell it it’s ok. Say everything’s all right. Wants to feel like everything makes sense. Wants to be told that stasis works just fine, that being all right isn’t the source of the pain. Boniek. Tally. Always you wrestle around me.


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