When Major League Soccer kicks off its seventeenth season on March 10, a nineteenth club (Montreal) enters the league and the cycle begins anew. Ten playoff positions are available under yet another new format. Even the site of the MLS Cup will not be determined until late autumn.
The London Olympics are likely to affect the middle part of the season, new (and familiar) big name players will be linked as the summer transfer window nears and by November, LA Galaxy will have either added a fourth star above their crest or a new MLS champion will be crowned. One of the last hold outs (Houston) will move into a soccer-specific ground, another (San Jose) will finally break ground on theirs and record crowds will continue to fill the seats in the Pacific Northwest. All told, 2012 is expected to be a big year for MLS, building on the growing stature that now defines the league worldwide.
The most significant changes from 2011 to 2012 involve in the introduction of Montreal Impact as the league’s nineteenth club and the resulting scheduling changes, both in terms of regular season and playoffs. The Impact are a twenty-year old club with two league championships and seven Canadian championships to their name. Montreal are the last of the great second division cities to join MLS (Seattle, Portland, Vancouver being the others) and carry unique traditions as the only Québec-based club in the league. Predominantly French-speaking, Montreal is a massive inclusion for MLS as a city and the Impact seem prepared to vie for respectability from the start. From shrewd moves in the Expansion Draft (namely, Brian Ching) to rumored big name signings (Michael Ballack, just to name one of a long, long list), Montreal have not shied away from the limelight as they pepare to debut. The club’s Stade Saputo is undergoing extensive renovations and expansions and will re-open in June, increasing its capacity from 13,000 to just clear of 20,000. Until then, the Imapct will play in the 1976 Olympic Stadium with the first home match already selling 41,000 tickets.
Montreal’s inclusion has taken MLS away from the balanced scheduled enjoyed in 2010 and 2011 and back to an unbalanced version. This means the geographic conference designations will be even more important than in years past. In 2012, MLS clubs will play each intra-conference foe three times while only facing non-conference opponents once. MLS did not want to expand past a thirty-four game schedule, even though a thirty-six game schedule could have been balanced. The imbalance created by having an odd number of clubs and an schedule that does not accommodate a balanced season is likely to create tension among supporters. For example, which Eastern Conference clubs have to travel all the way to the Pacific Northwest and which get most of their non-conference games at home? Which Western Conference clubs have to play twice away to the Galaxy, or twice in Seattle or Portland, the locations of the greatest home-field advantage?
In order to settle these questions, MLS has changed its playoff qualification rules. In 2011, the top three clubs from each conference automatically qualified, regardless of overall record. The final four playoff positions were given to the next four best overall records, irrespective of conference. In 2012, the top five clubs in each conference will qualify. With intra-conference play weighing so heavily on the fixture list, this is only fair. Yet as the conferences are imbalanced in terms of quality, with the Western Conference’s top teams far exceeding the output from the Eastern Conference, the post-season could be lopsided once again. Another change to the format is that the MLS Cup Final will no longer (for now, anyway) be held at a neutral site but will be awarded to the club with the best regular season record of the two finalists. This is sure to create a nightmare in planning travel, particularly for supporters and media, but the league is hoping to avoid the embarrassment of the 2010 final in Toronto, which was sparsely attended and indeed partially boycotted by local supporters.
With all of that said, MLS had quite a good offseason, at least in terms of public relations. Most notably, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry all performed ably in short-term loan deals at Everton, Aston Villa and Arsenal, respectively. Anyone doubting the quality of MLS was given high profile examples that at least the top players in the league can indeed make an impact, even in the Premier League. Meanwhile, more than a few rising stars spent the winter training with top clubs in England and in Europe, including Brek Shea (Arsenal), Juan Agudelo (Liverpool and Stuttgart), Andy Najar (Tottenham), Teal Bunbury (Bolton), Zach Pfeffer (Hoffenheim), Omar Salgado (Fulham), Sean Johnson (Everton) and Perry Kitchen (Freiburg). The common thread likely says more about Jürgen Klinnsman’s regime as US manager, but for so many young players to gain experience and stay fit is to the benefit of MLS. Additionally, it introduced a host of new names to the European market and increased the profile of MLS, even if only slightly.
The opening of BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston will be a marquee event for MLS in May, joining the likes of Livestrong Sporting Park and Red Bull Arena as MLS’s sparkling, new grounds built in a European model. Though it will not open in 2012 (or maybe not even 2013), San Jose’s recent victory with the Santa Clara city council opens the door, finally, for a soccer-specific stadium to be built. The Earthquakes moved to Houston in 2006 (creating the Dynamo in the first place) when a stadium deal could not be reached. San Jose was awarded a new Earthquakes team in 2008 and the battle has raged ever since. Finally, a team that has history dating to 1974 in the NASL will have its own stadium, at some point.
On the field, the biggest story of the offseason was the return of David Beckham to LA Galaxy. The defending MLS Cup champions bring back nearly all of its significant weapons, including Juninho, the 23-year old Brazilian midfielder who has featured fifty-five times for the Galaxy in two seasons. The Galaxy also resigned Edson Buddle, the US international striker who spent the last two years at FC Ingolstadt in Germany. While 2011 MLS Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez will miss most, if not all of the season with a knee injury sustained on his first day of training while on trial at FC Nürnberg (where he was expected to sign a permanent deal), the Galaxy are still the top team in the Western Conference and it would not be a surprise if the MLS Cup Final was again held at the Home Depot Center with the Galaxy on center stage.
The clubs in the Pacific Northwest have also been busy with Vancouver Whitecaps changing over the most. Having used two different managers in their debut MLS season (Teitur Þórðarson and Tom Soehn), the Whitecaps plucked up and coming manager Martin Rennie from second division Carolina RailHawks to lead the new-look side. The Whitecaps signed long-time South Korean international defender Lee Young-Pyo, traded for French goal scorer Sébastien Le Toux and drafted Darren Mattocks, the top offensive player in the SuperDraft. They will also welcome Barry Robson into the side in July. Whether all the changes will make Vancouver better than the last place performance of 2011 remains to be seen, but if they fail, it will certainly not be for a lack of trying. Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers have also made significant moves with Seattle replacing the retired Kasey Keller with Austrian goalkeeper Michael Gspurning and added a Scandinavian duo of Swedish international defender Adam Johansson from Göteborg and Danish midfielder Christian Sivebæk from Midtjylland. Portland claimed the Scottish Premier League’s all-time leading scorer in Kris Boyd to replace the departed Kenny Cooper and found discarded Cameroonian winger Franck Songo’o through a trial, signing the 24-year old playmaker.
In the Eastern Conference, last season’s break-out team, Sporting Kansas City, will not have the albatross of ten consecutive away games to open the season. They are formidable at Livestrong Park and have the league’s reigning Rookie of the Year (CJ Sapong), the aforementioned Teal Bunbury and just resigned terrific 25-year old midfielder, and catalyst, Graham Zusi. 2011 MLS Cup finalist Houston will get surely take advantage of moving into their new ground in the spring but will face seven away games to open the season before hosting Portland in mid-May. Sporting were able to overcome that obstacle to finish atop the Eastern Conference in 2011. Houston could very well be in a similar circumstance, though they will have to do it with the ever-aging legs of Brad Davis (admittedly among the league’s top players before an injury in the 2011 playoffs) and re-acquired Brian Ching. The Dynamo do have Geoff Cameron and André Hainault, US and Canadian international central defenders, respectively, to anchor the defense and keep Houston afloat on their long away journey to start the year. Elsewhere, Philadelphia Union are transitioning on the fly having lost Faryd Mondragón and traded Le Toux in the offseason. Newcomers include Panamanian international midfielder Gabriel Gómez, Colombian striker Lionard Pajoy and well-regarded Costa Rican defender Porfirio López. The Union will also get a full season from Freddy Adu, whose promise is always lurking just beneath the surface of his on-field exploits.
Thirty-four matches will be played over thirty-three weeks, extending MLS into its longest-ever season. Supporters of each club have been waiting between three and four months for the chance to see their teams play meaningful matches again. As the league kicks off this weekend, the story will begin to unfold and top flight soccer in North America will force its way back into the consciousness of fans around the world.
You can hear more from Michael on the upcoming MLS season by checking out last week’s Hold the BackPage podcast.