2014 MLS preview


Michael Bradley, left, joins Toronto FC this season. The club went on a massive spending spree in the offseason to bring in more talent. (Jonathan Dyer/USA Today Sports)

Brazil bound

The MLS season always has a different feel during a World Cup year, perhaps more so this summer because Juergen Klinsmann will probably tap the league for about half of his 23-man roster. In 2010, there were only four. This is due in part to several candidates rejoining MLS after years abroad: Clint Dempsey (Tottenham to Seattle), Michael Bradley (Roma to Toronto), Clarence Goodson (Brondby to San Jose), Michael Parkhurst (Augsburg to Columbus) and Maurice Edu (Stoke City to Philadelphia). Non-American MLS players are also bound for Brazil, including New York’s Tim Cahill (Australia), Toronto’s Julio Cesar (Brazil) and several Hondurans and Costa Ricans. The league will shut down June 12, the day the World Cup starts, and resume in earnest two weeks later, avoiding conflicts with the tournament’s group stage. Still, MLS players on World Cup squads will miss numerous league games: U.S. camp, for instance, opens in mid-May, and even with early elimination, players will need time to recover.

Moneyball
Toronto arrived in MLS seven years ago bursting with positive vibes, but after no winning seasons and a deteriorating relationship with the fan base, management decided to make a splash this winter, one that could accelerate player spending around the league. It purchased Bradley for $10 million and agreed to pay him more than $6 million, a substantial increase from his Roma deal. With Toronto-born rapper Drake serving as a liaison, the club acquired English forward Jermain Defoe from Tottenham for $10 million at a salary of $8 million. It then added Julio Cesar, the Brazilian national team’s top-choice goalkeeper, on loan from England’s Queens Park Rangers. The pressure falls on second-year Coach Ryan Nelsen, a former D.C. United captain, to make it work.

Labor intensive
While the referees attempt to avert a work stoppage before the season opens, locked in negotiations over their first collective bargaining agreement, the league and its players are bracing for a long ride in reaching a new deal. The current pact expires next winter. “We’re mindful, as are the players, that this will be a challenging process, no different than it was five years ago” when preseason was delayed, Commissioner Don Garber said. “I’m very confident that our owners and our players are very committed to doing everything possible to ensure that we grow this league together.” The players’ union will argue for, among other things, greater freedom to move between clubs and higher middle-class salaries. In 2013, average pay was $150,000 — inflated by huge deals for Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and others — while the median was just $75,000.

King Landon
Already the U.S. national team’s all-time leader in goals, Los Angeles attacker Landon Donovan will become MLS’s regular season scoring king with his next strike. At 134, he is tied with Jeff Cunningham, whose MLS career ended in 2011. Donovan, 32, is also second in assists with 117, 18 behind retired Steve Ralston. He will interrupt his 14th MLS campaign to join the U.S. squad in Brazil for his fourth World Cup, tying Kasey Keller and Claudio Reyna for the most in program history.

International flaw
With growth and maturity, MLS has gained respect on the international scene yet continues to disappoint in international competition. Since CONCACAF, the governing body for North and Central America and the Caribbean, incorporated a Champions League format in 2008, MLS has placed just one team in the finals (Real Salt Lake lost to Mexico’s Monterrey three years ago). Bragging rights outweigh the prize (a berth in FIFA’s largely ignored Club World Cup) and would raise MLS’s regional profile. This month, Los Angeles, Sporting Kansas City and the San Jose Earthquakes will compete in the 2013-14 quarterfinals. Kansas City (MLS Cup champion), New York (2013 Supporters’ Shield winner), D.C. United (U.S. Open Cup champion) and Portland (first place in Western Conference) qualified for the 2014-15 Champions League, which begins this summer.

Coaching shuffle
United’s Ben Olsen won three of 34 matches last season . . . and kept his job. Others were not so fortunate. Seven clubs have introduced new bosses and, on the eve of the opener, Colorado has yet to appoint a coach, although recently retired Pablo Mastroeni is serving in that capacity. Frank Yallop (San Jose, L.A., San Jose again) has landed in Chicago. Oscar Pareja jumped from Colorado to Dallas. Gregg Berhalter took over Columbus after a spell in Sweden. Dropped in Chicago, Frank Klopas moved to Montreal. Jeff Cassar was promoted at Real Salt Lake after Jason Kreis bolted for New York City FC, a 2015 expansion side. Colorado assistant Wilmer Cabrera will now oversee Chivas USA, and Carl Robinson stepped from assistant to head coach in Vancouver.

Changing Chivas: MLS is putting an end to a failed experiment in Los Angeles, purchasing Chivas USA from Jorge Vergara with plans to find new investors, rebrand the club in 2015 and formulate a stadium project. Named after Vergara’s famed Chivas Guadalajara club, the U.S. branch did not attract the Mexican-American audience the league had hoped, in part because those fans love Mexican futbol but not necessarily Chivas. It operated in the shadows of its stadium co-tenant, the Galaxy, and was accused of discriminating against non-Mexican players and employees.

Expanding outlook: MLS’s aim is 24 teams, so with 19 active, New York City FC and Orlando City joining next year and David Beckham’s Miami team coming in the near future, two slots remain available. Atlanta’s bid, backed by Falcons owner Arthur Blank, is a front-runner. “We’re getting close,” Garber said. A third club in Texas is on the horizon, with San Antonio and Austin under consideration to join Dallas and Houston. Minneapolis is in the mix and Sacramento is showing ambition.

Venue view: Construction delays have pushed the opening of San Jose’s new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., to next season. Nonetheless, the Earthquakes are the latest in a long line of MLS clubs that have left United with stadium envy. D.C. unveiled plans for a new facility at Buzzard Point but continues to confront political obstacles in its decade-long desire to exit RFK Stadium. New England’s investors, the Kraft family of Patriots fame, have shown little desire to move the Revolution out of oversize Gillette Stadium. Orlando’s expansion approval was predicated on a downtown stadium project, while NYCFC continues to weigh options for a temporary and then full-time home. Beckham is seeking construction sites for his Miami entry.

Opening weekend schedule

Sporting Kansas City
at Seattle Sounders,
3 p.m., Saturday (NBCSN)
Columbus Crew
at D.C. United
7, Saturday
New York Red Bulls at Vancouver Whitecaps
7:30, Saturday
Montreal Impact
at FC Dallas
8:30, Saturday
New England Revolution
at Houston Dynamo
8:30, Saturday
Real Salt Lake at Los Angeles Galaxy
10:30, Saturday
Philadelphia Union
at Portland Timbers
10:30, Saturday
Chicago Fire
at Chivas USA
3, Sunday (UniMas)
Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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