M.L.S. Preview: Some New Crests, Some Younger Stars
“In sports, there seems to be a sense that expansion always leads to dilution,” Garber said. “The global market” — being able to pull talent from all corners of the world — “takes that concern off the table.”
Rivals Before Kickoff
Minnesota’s coach, Adrian Heath, who knows the process of building a team from scratch better than just about anybody in the league, shares Garber’s sentiment about the talent pool. Heath has been in this expansion position twice, having overseen Orlando City’s transition to M.L.S. two seasons ago.
Expansion partners are forever wedded — like Orlando and New York City F.C. — and their accomplishments are held side by side. That comparison does not currently flatter Minnesota.
Atlanta United, which has already sold more than 30,000 season tickets, has invested heavily in its roster and infrastructure. It has announced plans to open a $60 million training facility and has filled all three of the designated player spots reserved for expensive signings.
Minnesota does not have a single designated player on its roster, leading some to wonder if the club, also known as the Loons, will be among the worst expansion teams in league history.
“Well, let’s see,” said a defiant Heath, whose team faces the Portland Timbers here on Friday night. “That’s great motivation. Let’s see where we are at the end of this season.”
He was similarly bullish on the league’s overall prospects.
“The league has probably never been in a healthier position than it is right now,” Heath said. “The game is getting better, stronger, bigger by the week.”
That’s music to the ears of Garber and league executives. For the Loons, it could make for a very long expansion season.
The past few months felt less like an ordinary off-season and more like a continuing generational shift within the league. Gone are Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, whose birthday-candle numbers routinely surpassed their appearance totals.
In their place has come another group of younger signings, with many of the players having roots in South America. Last season’s newcomer of the year in M.L.S., Nicolas Lodeiro, signed with Seattle from Argentina’s Boca Juniors in his prime, at age 27. None of Atlanta United’s three biggest acquisitions before its inaugural season — the Paraguayan playmaker Miguel Almiron, the Venezuelan forward Josef Martinez and the Argentine wing Hector Villalba — are older than 23. Other examples abound: Real Salt Lake signed the Slovakian midfielder Albert Rusnak, 22; Dallas added the 23-year-old Paraguayan forward Cristian Colman; and Portland acquired Sebastian Blanco, a 28-year-old wing, from Argentina’s San Lorenzo.
The result? The average age of all M.L.S. designated players, the league’s highest-paid stars, is 27.6 this year — nearly two years younger than at any point in the past decade. Few of the new faces will sell as many jerseys as Gerrard, Drogba or Lampard, but there’s an argument to be made that this group could add more value to the on-field product — and take part in more of it — than the others did.
Title Favorites? Look Out West
One season after the Portland Timbers became the Pacific Northwest’s first M.L.S. Cup champion, their top rival, Seattle, countered with a title of its own. But in truth, the West has reigned supreme for more than a decade. Eleven of the past dozen M.L.S. champions — including the last eight — play in the Western Conference, and Seattle, Portland and Dallas figure to be in the hunt again.
Toronto F.C., which lost to Seattle in last season’s final on its home field, is the likeliest candidate to put an end to that Eastern Conference misery. With the M.V.P. front-runner Sebastian Giovinco, the United States national team fixtures Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore and a lingering sense of unfinished business — Toronto held Seattle without a shot on goal in the final, only to lose on penalty kicks — the feeling up north is that this year could end with an Eastern Conference (and Canadian) champion.
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