1. DempseyMania reigns in Seattle. MLS, for all of its progress and headway in the last 18 years, has not had a whole lot of maintstream Getcha Popcorn Ready moments.
Aside from David Beckham, and to a slightly lesser extent Thierry Henry, signing with the league, every other notable signing, game, goal or trade essentially falls within the niche confines of MLS' fans and its community. Clint Dempsey returning to the league at 30 years old while playing the best soccer of his career, however, completely breaks the mold.
Dempsey's return to MLS after seven years in the Premier League is cause for serious celebration in MLS circles. Not only does it ensure that arguably the best American player at the moment will continue to carry out his prime on home soil while also validating the growing quality of the league, but it also sets quite the precedent for Americans abroad who are struggling to find playing time. If you are a national team candidate but can't find minutes, there are far worse options than coming home. That might be far from the message U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann wants sent, but his reliance on a number of MLS players in recent months is an indicator of the league's growing footprint on the international stage.
Now it's not always going to be that simple for American players, as few teams can offer the European-level financial package that Seattle reportedly delivered to Dempsey, and if players are not going to be signed as Designated Players, then the league's allocation order leaves potential destinations up to chance (It must be said: The fact that the lack of clearly written rules prior to the signing stipulating that exception required the league to issue a statement saying so certainly did not cover MLS and its lack-of-transparency reputation in glory). Even so, the stigma that returning to MLS from overseas means that you have failed as a professional player or that your career is coming to an end is completely out the window now that a player like Dempsey, at this stage, has committed his future to the league.
As for the bigger, more mainstream picture, few U.S. soccer players carry the amount of clout that Dempsey does among casual or Euro-centric American fans, and in a World Cup year, to have Dempsey front and center for the league when more and more eyes turn to the USA's elite is an absolute boon in every sense of the word. Digging a little deeper, Dempsey's reported four-year deal with Seattle also guarantees a marquee American face for the league should Landon Donovan head elsewhere when his contract expires at the end of the season. With TV deal negotiations set to heat up, that is a huge selling point for MLS.
And then there's this: The last game of the MLS season, which is nationally televised, takes place at the raucous CenturyLink Field, with Dempsey's Sounders hosting Donovan's Galaxy and Western Conference playoff berths or positioning potentially on the line just weeks after the USA should have punched its ticket to the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Getcha popcorn ready.
2. Not to be overlooked... Dempsey's shock signing capped off what was already a landmark week for the league.
MLS commissioner Don Garber stole all the headlines from the MLS All-Star Game with his halftime announcement that four new franchises after New York City FC would be welcomed into the league by 2020. Whether you are on the side of the fence that feels that too much expansion is not a good thing for the league or the side the feels that more is better in this case, the fact that a 24-team MLS will take shape in the next seven years is a massive development, one with long-reaching consequences for different pockets of the country.
Completely buried by all of that is that the Columbus Crew sold for a reported $68 million, injecting new life into one of the league's most successful, yet stagnant, franchises. New ownership has completely turned around one of the Hunt Sports Group's former clubs in Sporting Kansas City, and if Anthony Precourt of Precourt Sports Ventures can come even close to having a similar impact to that of which Robb Heineman and his staff have with Sporting KC, then Columbus may once again thrive as an MLS club and city. With further expansion and the rising costs of doing business in MLS, the league's growth plan continues to be on track. Players, especially after seeing the deal doled out for Dempsey, will be hoping for a bigger piece of the pie once the new collective bargaining agreement discussions commence. The current agreement is in place until the end of next season.
3. Rocky Mountain rules. There is not a team in the league flying more under the radar at the moment than the Colorado Rapids. Maybe it is because Colorado's games are rarely nationally televised, or maybe it is because the Rapids are not going out and acquiring the likes of Clint Dempsey, but Oscar Pareja's charges have a league-best seven-game unbeaten streak and managed to capture the Rocky Mountain Cup -- the annual battle for a trophy between the Rapids and Real Salt Lake -- for the first time since 2006.
The Rapids' standing as the second-place team in the Western Conference behind RSL is a bit misleading, considering they are level on points with Portland and two points clear of LA and Vancouver while playing two more games than all of those teams. Even so, to overcome all of the injuries that Colorado had up and down its roster in the previous months and to be where the club currently is says wonders about Pareja and the job he has done.
The only team to which Colorado is looking up, rival RSL, stemmed the tide through a rough Gold Cup stretch in which four premiere players were on international duty. Yet there is Jason Kreis' side, sitting in first place no matter who suits up in the claret and cobalt. Prior to the LA Galaxy's ongoing reign, the MLS Cup trophy made its home in the Rocky Mountains for two years, with RSL and Colorado capturing the 2009 and 2010 titles, respectively. From the looks of things, both have serious intentions of returning to the mountaintop.
4. D.C. United's next generation shines. D.C. United's last couple of months have signified a youth movement in the nation's capital, with the acquisitions of young American talent like Luis Silva, Jared Jeffrey and Conor Doyle giving hope and promise for the future after some seriously dark days at RFK Stadium.
In three league games, Silva has scored three goals, which gives him the team lead (well, ties him with Own Goal anyway). While that might be as damning of a statement about the club's last five months on the field, it is also an indication of prudent business by general manager Dave Kasper to pluck the talented attacker from Toronto FC and former D.C. president Kevin Payne and put him in a place where he can reach his potential.
Jeffrey has long had the potential of a U.S. international, and the 2012 U.S. U-23 midfielder is getting a chance to play first-team minutes at long last. The same can be said for Doyle, who passed on a collegiate career at Creighton to sign with Derby County, only to ride the bench or play with the reserves for the majority of his time in England. He is only on loan through the remainder of the season, but if D.C. can secure a permanent deal for the U.S. youth international, it will have found a legitimate building block up front instead of continuing to swing and miss in the international market.
Silva, Jeffrey and Doyle all scored in the club's watershed day of its league campaign, a 3-1 victory over Montreal in which D.C. looked like the more dangerous team throughout. With the new nucleus taking shape, as a U.S. Open Cup semifinal game looms on Wednesday in Chicago and a new stadium seems legitimately likely, those hopeless moments in D.C. are finally appearing to subside.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes), Doneil Henry (Toronto FC), James Riley (D.C. United)
Midfielders: Lloyd Sam (New York Red Bulls), Luis Silva (D.C. United), Oscar Boniek Garcia (Houston Dynamo), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders)
Forwards: Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Mike Magee (Chicago Fire), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)
|Week 23 MLS Power Rankings|