The 2015 Major League Soccer season is shaping up to be a good one with a couple of new clubs ready for their first hit out and a number of big name players signing on.
However, talk of a player strike over the league’s lack of free agency is worrying with the first ball scheduled to be kicked on March 6.
Leaving that to one side, there have been plenty of movers and shakers in the offseason with Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Kaka, David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco all set to feature (eventually).
While LA Galaxy and New York City FC the two obvious starting points for those new to following the league, here’s a look at five others who will be worth keeping an eye on over the next eight or nine months.
They have been splashing the cash in Toronto during the offseason with Italian international Sebastian Giovinco and Premier League flop Jozy Altidore two of the new faces in town.
Giovinco in particular is a superb signing when you consider that he is only 27 years of age and is still a part of Antonio Conte’s national squad.
Of course, a reported salary of $7 million dollars for each of the five years of his deal no doubt made it easier for Giovinco to leave Serie A but it is still a massive statement of intent for a club that has been little more than a disappointed since joining MLS in 2007.
Jermain Defoe was 2014’s glamour signing but he has returned to England and been replaced by Altidore who managed just one goal in 40 league games for Sunderland.
He should perform considerably better in MLS though and will benefit from an excellent supporting cast that includes not just Giovinco but newly installed club captain Michael Bradley and Frenchman Benoit Cheyrou as well.
There are still plenty of doubts about Toronto FC defensively so if they start leaking goals then the Canadians should be one of the most entertaining teams to watch.
Anything other than a first playoff berth would and should be deemed as a failure considering the firepower now at the disposal of coach Greg Vanney.
Following a few lacklustre seasons, there is a real danger of the Chicago Fire getting left behind as MLS develops and new teams enter the competition.
Chicago is a massive sports market but a combination of poor on field showings and a badly located stadium (Toyota Park is 25 kilometres from Chicago’s Central Business District) have resulted in dwindling crowds and animosity between supporters and the club’s owners.
In 2014, the Fire finished second from bottom in the East and missed the playoffs by 13 points after drawing 18 of their 36 games.
This season though there is renewed optimism with former Glasgow Celtic, Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic man Shaun Maloney signing on as a Designated Player.
Maloney will be tasked with providing a creative spark that has been lacking for years, and he has plenty to work with in Ghanaian international David Accam, hometown hero Mike Magee, Nigerian Kennedy Igboananike, and last season’s top marksman Quincy Amarikwa.
At the other end, Sean Johnson is one of the league’s best goalkeepers and he will be protected by skipper Jeff Larentowicz and Brazilian Adailton.
Last season’s breakthrough player Harry Shipp, an exciting 23-year-old attacking midfielder, will be hoping to avoid second season syndrome after scoring 7 times in 31 games in 2014.
Orlando City SC
Both Orlando City and New York City are intriguing prospects ahead of their inaugural season in the league, though the former is travelling somewhat under the radar in terms of media coverage outside the US.
Brazilian Kaka is the club’s big name coup and he has immediately been given the captaincy under former Everton, Manchester City and Burnley midfielder Adrian Heath who has been head coach since 2011.
The squad has slowly but surely taken shape and has some quality throughout, with MLS veterans Donovan Ricketts and Tally Hall both excellent options between the posts once the latter has fully recovered from a knee reconstruction.
At the back, the acquisition of Frenchman Aurelien Collin from Sporting Kansas City was a real statement of intent and he will be expected to lead by example.
Brek Shea’s Premier League stint at Stoke City didn’t work out so he has returned home and will likely patrol the left flank, while young Colombians Carlos Rivas and Cristian Higuita are exciting prospects.
It might be a bit much to expect a playoff push from Orlando this time round but they should be competitive at the very least.
Fans of Houston Dynamo will be both nervous and excited heading into the new campaign with a new coach in place for the first time since 2005.
Dominic Kinnear, who delivered back-to-back MLS Cups in the 2006 and 2007, as well as four Conference titles, stepped down in October last year and was replaced by Owen Coyle.
Coyle, formerly of Burnley and Wigan Athletic, brings Premier League experience with him to MLS and potentially a new philosophy incorporating a lot of wide play.
In terms of the playing group, the Dynamo will again be strong throughout, though we still don’t know who will get the nod in goal as Tyler Deric, Joe Willis and Michael fight it out to replace veteran Tally Hall who was traded to Orlando City FC.
Erick “Cubo” Torres, the 22-year-old striker who netted 15 times for Chivas USA in 26 games in 2014, will join the club midway through the season on a five year contract from Mexico’s Club Deportivo Guadalajara.
He will likely partner Will Bruin up front, with Brad Davis, Giles Barnes, Bonieck Garcia and Ricardo Clark all strong options in midfield.
The Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City have shifted from the Eastern to the Western Conference following the addition of Orlando City and New York City FC, and both may find it difficult to claim one of the six playoff places.
New York Red Bulls
With Thierry Henry calling it a day and Tim Cahill moving to China, the New York Red Bulls have lost two of their most recognised names so it will be interesting to see who fills their void.
Bradley Wright-Phillips has been rewarded for scoring goals 31 goals in all competitions in 2014 with Designated Player status and he will again be expected to find the net on a regular basis.
US international Sacha Kljestan is a very handy pick up and he will slot in nicely alongside Dax McCarty in the middle of the park, with Lloyd Sam providing a creative spark.
Probably the biggest change for the club came on January 7 when coach Mike Petke was fired and immediately replaced by Jesse Marsch, much to the disgust of supporters.
Petke delivered the Supporters’ Shield in 2013, the club’s first piece of silverware, and made the Eastern Conference Final in 2014 where they lost out to the New England Revolution.
Marsch has his work cut out to get the disgruntled fans onside again, and will be trying to do so with a squad that is weaker than in previous seasons.
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