The 2012 MLS season starts on Saturday, and this week I spoke to all 10 of the coaches in the Eastern Conference (just as I did with all nine MLS West coaches not long ago). The idea here isn't to produce complete scouting reports for every team, but rather to present the nuggets that came out of our conversations.
And one nugget is this: Houston coach Dominic Kinnear isn't exactly disappointed that his team was kept in the Eastern Conference instead of being moved to the West with the addition of a 19th MLS team in Montreal this season. If Houston had switched to the much tougher West, it would have faced a more difficult route to the playoffs, not least because MLS' new unbalanced schedule has teams playing in-conference far more often in '12.
"Midway through last season, I looked and I was like, 'Man, it's not so bad to play in the Eastern Conference,'" cracks Kinnear, whose Dynamo rode a late-season run to the MLS Cup final. Truth be told, the same should be the case this season, with three West teams (Los Angeles, Salt Lake and Seattle) entering the new campaign as the class of the league. Yet that doesn't mean the East is without intriguing storylines, to wit:
Which New York shows up?
New York and Los Angeles spend far more money on players than any other teams in the league, and while L.A. made it count with an MLS Cup title last season, New York was a high-priced failure, earning more attention for its dysfunctional defense and locker room than anything else. Coach Hans Backe is promising bigger things in '12, and now he'll have to back them up or face the possibility of losing his job. No MLS coach is on a more uncomfortable hot seat entering the season.
"There's always pressure on this level," Backe says, "but I still have problems understanding people saying we have the biggest budget. I don't think that's really fair to say we have big, big money. We have two DPs and we can get a third one. Perhaps we can pay a little more for a DP than other clubs can, but we have the same salary cap as all the other teams."
Thierry Henry wasn't the problem last year, but Rafael Márquez was a locker-room cancer. Backe claims that the Mexican national-team veteran is ready to turn things around. "He's absolutely aware that he wants to show another side of himself. He's been training very well this preseason, and he's not a guy who will end his career with a poor season. He'll definitely make a difference this year."
Is Bobby Convey a forward?
Kansas City surprised a lot of people by having the East's best regular-season record last year, but Sporting won't catch anyone by surprise this season. One big question is whether Bobby Convey (newly acquired from San Jose) can make the switch to a front-line wing position in the high-octane 4-3-3 formation used by coach Peter Vermes. Convey has been a midfielder and even a left back in his MLS career, but moving this far forward is a new thing for him as he tries to replace the departed Omar Bravo.
"Bobby has a lot of qualities to be a very good winger," says Vermes. "Some guys are athletes and then players, and some guys are players and then athletes. Bobby's a player-then-athlete. It's not an insult. I think he's a soccer player first. He's got a smart soccer brain. The key for him is with the way we play, sometimes we're very up-tempo. That's something he has to get used to a little bit. But from a soccer perspective I have all the confidence in the world in him. Now it's about getting him acclimated to our pace."
Will the Designated Player rush come in the summer?
D.C. United (Hamdi Salihi) and New England (Shalrie Joseph) were the Eastern teams that put DPs on the books in the offseason, but more are on the way in July if coaches are to be believed. Robert Warzycha says Columbus has offered three players DP contracts "but for different reasons we couldn't sign them. So we're still looking." Houston was unable to land Kris Boyd (who went to Portland), but Kinnear says "we're going to continue to try [to sign a DP]. The landscape of the league is changing." Backe says another DP is coming to New York "for the summer."
And Jesse Marsch says there is "even the potential for there to be two in the summer window" for Montreal. "The organization is committed to trying to make a pretty big splash with the kind of DP they bring, somebody who's been a great player in great leagues with great teams. It's no secret we've had conversations with Nicolás Anelka and Michael Ballack. But the organization has been very good at understanding it's important to get someone who soccer-wise fits too."
As MLS gets older, more teams are buying DPs and doing it the right way, says United's Ben Olsen. "Teams are making fewer mistakes on players. There is always going to be your odd botch on a signing, but the more time goes by and people see which players succeed in this league, it's a good sign for our league to get better. We're getting younger players in their prime. Salihi is 27. So the talent we're attracting now as a league is a much higher quality at a younger age. I'm very excited to see this league in five, six years and see what type of teams we're producing."
Is this the year Freddy Adu establishes himself at club level?
Adu's recent excellence with the U.S. U-23 team is a reminder that the 22-year-old has shown short-term impressive flashes with U.S. youth national teams (and even the senior team in '11). But Adu has yet to perform on a consistent basis at the club level eight years after turning pro.
What will it take to do so in Philadelphia? "Freddy's doing a tremendous job," says Union coach Peter Nowak. "I was always a little bit scared to praise him too much because he was still very young and inconsistent. But I'm impressed with his work ethic and his desire to get better. His preseason was outstanding. You can see it when he plays with the Olympic team. The tricky part is he's going to be in and out. We have one game in Portland [on Monday] and then we won't see him for another four or five weeks. Then we get him back and he goes again [for the Olympics]. The tricky part is to establish good communication with the Olympic coaches. I don't want to create a situation where he comes back and has all these expectations again. We're going to be patient but keep in mind what's best for him. Sooner or later his work will pay off and he'll see the fruition of how he plays with the Olympic team and the role he has with our team."
Wenger or Mattocks?
Montreal's decision to draft Andrew Wenger ahead of Darren Mattocks may be MLS's version of the old Kevin Durant/Greg Oden debate in the NBA. Vancouver's Mattocks has already publicly criticizied Montreal for not taking him with the No. 1 overall pick. But Montreal's Marsch reiterates his support for Wenger, as well as his decision to put him up top instead of on the back line (where he played for part of his Duke career and more recently for the U.S. U-23s).
"He's a forward for me," Marsch says. "It's still going to take time to develop, but from the beginning I watched him pretty carefully for the past six months. I see pure attacking instincts. I don't see a lot of defensive instincts in him. That was both when he played in college and the Olympic team camp. That's not to say I don't think he could develop that at center back, but even if you asked him what his instincts are, he'd say attacking instincts. Everybody talks about the speed of Darren Mattocks, and those two will probably always be compared, but Andrew is an incredibly athletic kid himself. His speed I would put on par with Darren's. But I think he's got a real soccer sense to him as well."
Is real youth development on the way in MLS?
MLS youth academies still have a long way to go, but some clubs are leading the way, none more than Toronto (which has invested in a $20 million youth academy). "I think it's not only for us. It should be normal for all the teams in the league," says TFC coach Aron Winter.
For Kansas City's Vermes, few topics are more important to the league. "As far as we're concerned, we believe in the long term our academy will be the heartbeat of our club," he says. "Because we have to be in the business of developing our own players for the future. Probably the hardest thing in MLS is to sign a foreign player. There are so many pitfalls in an individual negotiation, and the odds are against you that you won't sign the player. The league office does a great job of trying to assist in making those things work, but so many things can fall through. We've gotta get away from relying so much on that and be developing our players from within so that's what becomes the lifeblood of the individual clubs in MLS."
What else did I learn from my conversations this week? Here are some team-by-team nuggets:
Coach Frank Klopas couldn't be happier with midfielder Pável Pardo, who has proved he still has it at age 35. "When you have players that are able to go abroad to Germany and win the Bundesliga championship and become a captain at Club América, you know you're getting a quality player and human being," Klopas says. "He's a little bit older for sure, but the way he reads the game and his decision-making have been huge for us." ... Klopas is expecting bigger years from goalkeeper Sean Johnson and attacking midfielder Sebastián Grazzini after they finished last season strong ... The coach adds that there's still a place in the starting lineup for holding midfielder Logan Pause.
Robert Warzycha wants more of his team to share the wealth in 2012. "If you look at our team last year and the year before, we have only two guys that were scoring for us," he says. "What I'm looking for this year is more guys to contribute, to be honest with you. We need Eddie Gaven to score five or six goals at least and [Dilly] Duka, [Tony] Tchani and [Milovan] Mirosevic. If we share that, I think we'll be a very good team. We can't just rely on one or two guys."
Ben Olsen has high expectations for new DP Hamdi Salihi. "He's a true number 9," Olsen says. "He moves in and around the box extremely well. That's why his goal-scoring record is what it is. He's committed to scoring goals. What separates him is his ability to get free in the box and find space and anticipate where the ball is coming. It's a rare trait." ... When it comes to new starters, Olsen says they will form "up to half" of his XI ... Olsen is hoping there will be more support for reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario. The team "was built last year around him. But I think our supporting cast is better this year. I'm hoping that will take a bit off his shoulders so he doesn't have to carry the load every game. He's willing and capable of doing that, but for us to be successful we need Andy [Najar] and [Chris] Pontius and Salihi and [Branko] Boskovic to make sure we're not just a one-trick pony."
After playing on a narrow field at Robertson Stadium for years, the Dynamo moves to a bigger playing surface when its new stadium opens on May 12. Will that impact the way Houston plays? "It'll be a little bit bigger, but it won't change anything we do at all," says Kinnear. "If you look at the way we've played and coached over the years, big field/small field changes things a little bit. But someone said to me: 'Are you going to be less reliant on Brad Davis and set pieces?' I said no. Why? He's a big strength of our team. Why would you put your concentration somewhere else?"
Keep an eye on rookie Dom Dwyer, whom Vermes almost gleefully called "a pit bull" and "a little Sherman tank" in the same sentence ... We're starting to see more MLS teams play in a 4-3-3, from Kansas City and Toronto to Vancouver, Colorado and maybe Dallas this year. But it's not something you can install overnight, says Peter Vermes. "It's hard to just say we're going to play this way and you guys have to figure out how to play that way," he argues. "You have to get the players to play that formation. It took us some time to do that and develop that style. I understand teams want to play that way and think that's good, but all of us have to get results. That's the key here."
Jesse Marsch has noticed the increased maturation and variety of tactical approaches in MLS, too. "There are so many different tactics, styles, approaches and types of players," he says. "Teams are really starting to have identities now, which I think is a pretty recent development. When you looked back five years ago, you could say one or two teams had a commitment to the way they played. But now you look around the league and see significant style differences from club to club. When I was with the national team and watched every game on the weekend, it was interesting to see how teams matched up with each other, what the tactics would be on the day based on what they and the other team had." ... When asked which players he's looking for to step up most this season, Marsch includes Josh Gardner, Justin Braun and Justin Mapp, but the guy he talks about most in those terms is Tyson Wahl at center back ... Marsch, who took French in college, is seeing a French tutor twice a week so that he's better able to deal with local media coverage that he says "is at another level for our league" volume-wise.
As with Montreal, defining "success" this season in New England doesn't necessarily mean aspiring to the MLS Cup title. "It's hard to say the end goal is a championship [this season]," says Jay Heaps. "That's how everyone thinks, but it would be unrealistic to think in those terms just because of where we've been the last few years. I think success will be if we get everyone to buy into what we're doing early. I love to coach tactically and the technique of the game, but I also like to coach the personalities and the people. If I continue to connect with them and get them to believe in what we're doing, each step forward will help us cross the threshold." ... When Heaps talks about his playmakers who can change a game, the first two names he mentions are, unsurprisingly, Benny Feilhaber and Shalrie Joseph. But the third one is a rookie, Kelyn Rowe, who could get significant time on the field this year. "He's come in and really shown that he belongs, that he deserves the time he gets on the field," Heaps says.
Hans Backe appears ready to start 21-year-old Ryan Meara in goal this season. "He seems to be very confident, calm and composed," Backe says. "I think he definitely has a future. We'll see when we start these competitive games." ... One youngster who isn't playing much is Juan Agudelo. What will it take for him to play more this season? "It's not that easy when he's not around us," says Backe. "That speaks for itself. He's had a couple sessions with the team since Jan. 16. He'll be involved in one game and then leave for another three weeks [for Olympic qualifying]. It's not easy to become a regular."
Peter Nowak is high on new Colombian forward Lionard Pajoy. "Lio has different qualities. He's not only a box player or poacher, he's a guy who creates a lot for the other guys," Nowak says. "He's smart with his runs, he drifts left and right, he's mobile coming back getting the ball. And his speed is encouraging." ... Nowak thinks the league needs to crack down on excessive interactions between coaches and the fourth official on the sideline. "Coaches being active with the fourth official, that's not supposed to happen," he says. "The fourth official is a Switzerland on the sideline who is supposed to monitor the situation and not be a shrink for the head coaches. You don't see benches in Europe jumping left and right including the equipment guys talking to the fourth official. I'm not happy with the behavior on the bench because all this stuff is translating to the field. Some coaches and players avoid talking to the referees on the field but wait for them in the tunnels and talk to them. How are you going to stop this? Are you going to get a camera and put it on YouTube? This kind of stuff has to stop. Coaches need to be shown red cards or suspended. That's a hard line, but it needs to happen."
I owe Aron Winter one. Our phone connection was so bad during most of our conversation that he might as well have been speaking Dutch. But he has an intriguing team that I'm picking to make the playoffs for the first time, so we'll revisit with him soon.