Follow along with Grant Wahl's running diary of MLS media day in L.A., where two dozen of the league's top stars are meeting with reporters.
MLS hosted its annual media day festivities Tuesday in Los Angeles, where two dozen of the league's top names sat down with journalists throughout the day. Scroll through below to read our running diary of the most notable items to come out of the event, which included the likes of Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Kaká, Andrea Pirlo, Clint Dempsey, Frank Lampard and reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco, among a host of others.
(For more on MLS and its future, listen to our podcast interview with commissioner Don Garber.)
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber criticized United States men's national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann for his player selection policy, telling reporters at MLS Media Day in Los Angeles that Klinsmann isn't calling in his best players.
Feilhaber feels that he and many other players are overlooked by Klinsmann despite how well they play, and he's accepted the fact he's not getting called back in as long as Klinsmann is manager.
“I don’t know what that reason is,” Feilhaber said Tuesday. “I don’t know if Jurgen doesn’t like these players, he doesn’t like their attitude, he doesn’t like their faces, he thinks they are ugly. I don’t know.”
Feilhaber went on to say that he does not feel that Klinsmann is judging some players based on their performances.
“I’ve accepted the fact that Jurgen’s not going to call me,” Feilhaber said. “If I play the year that I played this last year, and I’m not getting a call, then I’m not going to get an opportunity under Jurgen.”
Feilhaber told reporters that he feels Klinsmann focuses on younger players who could improve the team down the road, rather than veteran players in their prime.
“He would rather put young guys on the team that potentially could become somewhat important on the team and he leaves out players that could make the team better right now. That’s the No. 1 job of a national team coach. Not to make the team as good as he can make it in five years, to make it as good as he can make it now and continuously improve it,” Feilhaber said.
MLS Media Day isn’t just for media. It’s also for the league’s stars to go through a car wash of sponsor videos, PSAs and other things to promote the season ahead. Like the two dozen other players here from around the league, L.A.’s Steven Gerrard had been going straight since 8 a.m. when he took the hot seat in front of a roundtable of soccer writers at 3:50 p.m. on Tuesday. And coffee in hand, he didn’t disappoint.
Gerrard was funny. When asked about having to find chemistry with fellow midseason arrival Giovani Dos Santos after an unusually early playoff exit, he smiled and cracked: “Blame us, blame us.” Then he added: “The good thing is we have a preseason to work stuff out and get used to each other.”
Gerrard also had to get used to the league. “How can I put it?” he said. “When I turned up here, I didn’t know there was humidity in Houston, didn’t know there was altitude in Salt Lake. I didn’t know a lot about a league that was new and a bit of a shock to me at the time. Now I know what’s in store for me … I’m in a lot better position now than when I first turned up.”
The Liverpool legend, who said he viewed this Premier League season as a missed opportunity for LFC, wanted to talk more about MLS and the Galaxy. He said he was excited by the names of the players L.A. has been linked to, including Ashley Cole, and hopes they’ll join the team sooner rather than later if signed. He also likes living in Los Angeles.
“It’s refreshing and peaceful," he said. "I go about my day-to-day business pretty much unrecognized. The odd people who are soccer fans pull me aside from time to time. But at home [in England] it’s really intense and grueling. When you’re captain of Liverpool and England it’s very difficult to go about unnoticed.
“Settling off the pitch is not a problem, it’s fine. It’s a shame the press don’t judge you for your performance off the pitch, because it’s been 10 out of 10.”
There goes that sense of humor again. You got the sense from listening to Gerrard that he likes it here in Southern California, but he’d really like to finish his playing career this season by going out on top. And that’s no joke.
NYCFC’s David Villa viewed his first season in MLS in different ways. “I’m very happy to one side: I was very healthy aside from some small issues. I enjoyed the season and adjusted to the league. And obviously I was unhappy about not reaching our objective, which was the playoffs,” he said on Tuesday. “But the second season is about to start, and I look forward to changing that.”
Villa said he met with new coach Patrick Vieira twice in the past month “and went over his objectives for the season and the future.” What makes MLS different from most other leagues is simple: Even teams that missed the playoffs like NYCFC can have hopes of turning things completely around the following season.
“The most important thing in your career is to win titles,” said Villa. “I want the fans to be happy. I want to play here a few more years and leave people with a good memory of me and what I do on the field.”
But NYCFC isn’t about only Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, Villa said. For example, he likes Tommy McNamara, Khiry Shelton and Patrick Mullins. And he really likes the potential of cult hero and midfielder Kwadwo Poku, the 23-year-old Ghanaian who had four goals and seven assists in 27 games (six starts) in 2015.
“The growth of this kid and his desire to get better—I’ve seen very few players in my career like this,” Villa said. “Obviously he is young and needs to learn more things with respect to physical conditioning, but if we can help him he will be incredible in the future.”
NYCFC’s Andrea Pirlo may be the coolest guy in world soccer, which means he’s also the coolest character in MLS. With his arms folded throughout, the Bearded One held court on Tuesday at MLS Media Day. And clearly, after missing the playoffs following his midseason arrival in 2015, he’s optimistic about having a whole preseason and season this time around.
“The difference is fundamental, really crucial, because we’re all starting at the same time: The players, the new coach [Patrick Vieira], so we have the opportunity to really train well, to do everything the right way. Therefore things will be simpler to reach our objective,” Pirlo said through an interpreter.
Pirlo has a history on the playing field with Vieira, both in Italy and on a certain field in Berlin in 2006.
“I do have some very special memories of when I played against him,” Pirlo said, “especially when I won the final of the World Cup against him.” A faint smile creased the corners of Pirlo’s mouth. “That was an extremely important game, but I really think that he’s going to be as good as a coach as he was as a player. We are all ready to help him do his job in the best possible way so that we can have a great advantage together.”
Pirlo said he was very happy he chose to play in MLS, noting that he was pleasantly surprised by the quality of play, but he also added to the words of his countryman Sebastian Giovinco, who said the tactics weren’t on the level of Italy (where tactics reign supreme).
“Giovinco said the right thing,” Pirlo noted. “In fact, we often talk about this when we talk. I think the league can improve, tactically speaking. All teams can improve. And they are already doing it, because this league tends to be very strong physically. If they become strong also tactically, the level would definitely go up.”
There have been plenty of changes in the front office at Orlando City in recent months, but former FIFA World Player of the Year Kaká thinks his team has what it takes to make the playoffs in 2016.
“A lot of changes in the offseason, but everybody needs to understand that we need to create a strong group,” Kaká said on Tuesday. “When you have a strong group, the possibility to win is much better. It depends on the front office and directors and obviously the coach and the players. We have to do our best too.”
Kaká, who had nine goals, seven assists and won MLS All-Star Game MVP honors in his inaugural campaign, came to MLS with an open mind, and he said he used it plenty in 2015.
“The biggest challenge was understanding how to play away and at home. In this league, soccer is not an exact science. If Real Madrid plays the last team in the league, Real Madrid is going to win for sure, 99%. Here if the first team plays with the last team it’s 50-50. So you need to understand how the league works. This was the big challenge for me the first season. How is it to play against Galaxy? Against Red Bulls in New York? You need to understand this.”
Clint Dempsey isn’t in L.A. for the U.S. camp, but he was here on Tuesday for MLS Media Day and talked about Seattle’s almost-assured acquisition of U.S. prospect Jordan Morris (who turned down Werder Bremen on Tuesday).
“He’s done well,” Dempsey said of Morris, who said he has been impressed with Morris’s energy, athleticism and work ethic whenever he has trained with him before.
How would Morris fit into Seattle’s potent attack, which already includes Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Nelson Valdéz?
“There’s always room for quality players in a team,” Dempsey said. “The trick as a manager is to figure out how to bring the best out of your team.”
Dempsey said he has exchanged text messages with U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and stays in contact with him, but it’s true that Dempsey hasn’t been with the national team in November or this month.
“We’ll see what the future holds,” he said. “You have to ask him. He’s the coach. I show up and play,” he added with a smile.
Dempsey pointed out that he scored nine goals in 10 U.S. games last year and was satisfied with his numbers with Seattle, if not the team’s exit from the playoffs against Dallas.
But he wants to continue his national team career, and he has World Cup qualifying and the Copa América Centenario in his sights. On Copa América, he said: “It’d be cool if I get the opportunity. It’s a tournament I enjoyed watching growing up as a kid. When people ask me what club I supported growing up, I didn’t really watch club soccer. The only channels I got had World Cups and the Copa América, so I gravitated toward the Latin American, South American style of game. To play in a major tournament like that would be awesome if it’s meant to be.”
Frank Lampard said it will be “huge” for him to have a preseason with NYCFC for the first time as he gets ready for the 2016 MLS season. On Tuesday he said the toughest part of arriving midseason last year was being injured and then rushing back too fast, only to miss more games. After NYCFC’s fits and starts on the field in 2015, Lampard called it a “warm-up year” and said in ’16 “there will be no excuses” for missing the playoffs again.
The key, Lampard said, will be getting off to a winning start and not having to play catch-up like last year. He called new NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira a world-class player who paid his dues as a coach of the elite development squad at Man City—as opposed to finishing his playing career and wanting to instantly step into a head coaching job somewhere.
“With Patrick he’ll bring his experience and know-how from working in Manchester,” Lampard said. “I saw that when I was there. We’ll take in his ideas. It’s a long preseason, and we’ll try to get the team together.”
I asked LA’s Giovani Dos Santos about finding chemistry on the field with teammates like Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane after joining the Galaxy in midseason and not achieving what the team wanted in the playoffs. Here’s what he said: “I think it’s easy. To play with players like Stevie or Robbie, it’s easy for me to adapt. It’s different [in MLS] from the type of game in Europe. Here it’s more physical, there it’s more technical. MLS is growing, and it needs a few more years to get to the prestige of Europe. But it will get there.”
Dos Santos had three goals and five assists in 10 games with the Galaxy, with two goals and three assists coming in his first three games.
Dos Santos said he spoke yesterday with Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio, and he’s hoping to be on Mexico’s Copa América Centenario team in June. As for another coach, LA’s Bruce Arena, Dos Santos was complimentary.
“He’s a manager who’s very close, who knows a lot about soccer, a guy who wins. More than just a coach, he has a friendship with all the players. The most important thing is he knows what the team needs: To win titles.”
I also asked Dos Santos about the murmurs that national team buddy Carlos Vela could join MLS from Real Sociedad. Dos Santos smiled. “I can’t say anything. He’s my friend. I’ve spoken with him, and he had many questions about MLS. In the future, there are many Mexican players who want to come to this league.”
MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco has noticed a difference in MLS compared to Italy's Serie A.
“The beauty of this league is there are fewer tactics,” he said through a translator on Tuesday. “For supporters, it’s good to go to games because there are lots of goals and nice play … For attackers it’s better because there are more chances to score. For a defender it’s maybe not the best.”
Giovinco was magnificent in 2015, so much so that Toronto said it turned down interest even from Barcelona. Giovinco said he’s O.K. with that.
“I’m very happy to be in Toronto and playing for Toronto FC,” he said. “Of course, it’s also nice to have other teams interested in my performance. Everything is based on my previous season because I broke many records. I’m very happy about it, but I’m very happy in Toronto, and my focus will be to play with my team this season and try to achieve other records and hopefully win the MLS Cup with my team.”
As for his international hopes, playing for Italy at Euro 2016 is “one of my major goals” for the year, Giovinco said. But he’s also excited for the club season and the changes Toronto has made, mostly in defense (where the club has struggled).
“The club made great moves in terms of players, and for sure they will help the team,” he said, adding that it’s not good enough just to make the playoffs in 2016. Winning the MLS Cup title is what matters most for MLS’s biggest-spending team.
Reigning MLS Cup MVP Diego Valeri of the league-champion Portland Timbers says one of the keys to repeating will be finding a way to replace left back Jorge Villafaña, who was sold to Santos Laguna and will be tougher to replace than most people imagine.
“In modern soccer, for me the outside backs are very important, the secret,” Valeri said. “Jorge got to a great level and we will miss him. But this is a good moment for him [at Santos].”
The club has brought in reinforcements, including fullbacks Chris Klute and Zarek Valentin this off-season.
As for manager Caleb Porter's move of Darlington Nagbe to a central midfield position, which was a key to Portland's run to the title, Valeri says it has transformed the way Portland plays.
“It was a big impact, not just for me but for the team,” he said. “Because he touched the ball a lot. He’s involved in the game most of the time, and when he has the ball it’s almost like nobody can steal the ball. He has rhythm, and everybody is looking to him … That’s good for the team, not just for me. I had to adapt, because he’s an attacking player, like a striker almost. I have to read him and occupy positions in the field to be more balanced.”
Is Nagbe ready to be a real star?
“That will be a process,” Valeri said. “Nobody can predict when that will happen, but I think it will happen.”
Robbie Keane, who proudly said he’s excited for the 20th preseason of his career, is ready for all the changes with the LA Galaxy this season.
“I think we needed a shakeup,” Keane, the club captain, said on Tuesday, adding that with the sales of Omar González and Juninho to Liga MX it’s important to replace them with players who are just as good or even better. Ashley Cole and Jelle van Damme are among the players expected to sign with the Galaxy, and while Keane wouldn’t comment on them as an official fact, he said if those are the two they are “two experienced players” who could make the team better.
The Galaxy had won three of the last four MLS Cup titles before stumbling down the stretch in 2015, winning just one of their last eight games and going out in the first round of the playoffs against Seattle. Keane said LA only had itself to blame for all the goals that were conceded in the games that mattered most down the stretch.
“When you’re used to winning it’s very, very difficult to take when you don’t win,” he said.
Keane added that he plans to be a coach when he’s done playing and already has his UEFA A license.
Reigning MLS Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin of Orlando City SC (who scored a rookie-record 17 goals in 2015) was the first player to come through the print roundtable at the MLS Media Day in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
I asked him about off-season rumors that Mexican club Tigres was interested in him, and he said he wasn’t aware but: “It’s exciting because other teams want me … The more you do well and score goals, people will know you.”
What’s one thing Larin learned from his first campaign that will help this year? Fitness. During last season, he said, his fitness got better the more games he played. That’ll help during a 34-game regular season this year.