Thursday, January 24, 2013

Top 5 MLS offseasons

So we're at that point where it makes some kind of roundabout sense to take stock. Sit back a bit and take a look at where we are and, as always, who's winning so far.

This is an index taking into account the full measure of every MLS team's offseason to this point. That includes draft, player signings, coaching moves and lunch choices (saw that plate of chicken and waffles you downed at Roscoe's, Chelis. No, no). And I think you'll enjoy #5.

I'll be damned if Chivas USA didn't hire an entertaining coach.
#1. Sporting Kansas City

Kind of a no-brainer. Yes, I had them here a month ago, but the actions of the rest of the league haven't changed anything about my thoughts since then. Most notably, SKC had the kind of draft mid-to-late-round pickers only dream about. The SKC war room had all but taken Mikey Lopez's name off their board because they expected him to be gone when they picked at No. 14. Indeed, Chelis rumbled loudly about the possibility of taking Lopez at No. 2 overall (Chivas USA, obviously, decided against this).

So when Lopez fell, and kept falling, eventually coming to rest at No. 14, SKC perked up and duly snapped him up. SKC had a single glaring need this offseason after losing Roger Espinosa to the EPL and Julio Cesar to the Joke of the Great White North; defensive midfield. Lopez probably won't be ready right away, but SKC has the warhorses to dip him into the fire at select times early in the season. And if Lopez develops into a Rookie of the Year-type player by the end of the summer, SKC is literally a team without weakness. Peter Vermes is, at present, taking a lilac-scented bubble bath to reward himself.

#2. Chicago Fire

Chicago was built like a bullet train last year. Which was great for counters and breaks, but not so good for maintaining possession and influencing play. Ghanian ground-busters Patrick Nyarko and Dominic Oduro are both incendiary talents, but they're best when pushing forward and, really, being pushed forward by someone else. Having a midfield behind and around both of those blazing cornerstones was, in essence, the main thing holding Chicago back from being an Eastern Conference wrecking ball again. I'm of the mind that consistent scoring will fall only after that domino fell first.

Chicago brass answered the bell. Less than a year after signing Arne Friedrich to solidify the back line, the Fire went midfielder-centric this offseason with the signings of Joel Lindpere and Jeff Larentowicz. And that doesn't include inking hold-up forward Maicon Santos, who had spurts of sublimity in DC. The Fire fleeced New York for Lindpere - they only gave up an international spot for a player that can expertly fill a variety of roles in midfield. There were stretches where, in New York, Lindpere held a flagging Red Bulls group together. Larentowicz was an equally sly move, while Flaco is silky (when he wants to be) and Santos can get goals when he's on. Plus, this doesn't even take into account the acquisition of Rich Balchan, who has massive potential if he can clear his injury turmoil.

#3. Houston Dynamo

As the Galaxy have learned the hard way this offseason, there's real value in huddling together your nucleus and keeping it safe from the hawks of the free market. Houston have not only done a fine job of this - Brad Davis is still nestled snugly in his swampy Houston bed, is he not? - but they've added subtle pieces to the puzzle that won't overpower the Dynamo's already beguiling style of play (by the end of 2012 they were as attractive a team as MLS had on offer). Bringing in Omar Cummings was a sly move that I don't think got enough play (he's Ching, like, three years ago), and the Dynamo had an excellent draft. GenAd forward Jason Johnson and left back Jimmy Nealis (ah ye rare left backs, how I love the sight of thee) were both adroit moves. There's something to be said for being active even in times that don't require it. Give the Dynamo some praise for shooing off complacency.

But Houston's oft-overlooked ability to keep a group together is the main reason why the Dynamo deserve to be this high. Few organizations have enjoyed such benign stretches of power, and there' s a reason. Yeah, the stars are still around; Davis, Moffat, Rico, Boniek, TallyHo. But Houston is deep, and watching the maturation of guys like Giles Barnes and Will Bruin will be more than interesting. If you look at their ages, Houston is in great shape, reaping the benefits of years of shrewd calls. This offseason ranks as one giant one.

#4. Colorado Rapids

I love what the Rapids have done this offseason. Though very little of it has captured overt headlines, few teams have solidified themselves into a singular mindset as have the Rapids, who are being molded into one of the league's finer 4-3-3 experiments. The loss of Omar Cummings was more than offset by the acquisition of Edson Buddle, who now has a chance to flourish out from under the crushing weight of LA's depth chart up top. Colorado had an excellent draft, arguably the league's best with the pickups of Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers and Kory Kindle, the draft's best left back. All three could play this year.

Midfielder Atiba Harris was a sly pickup that could very well pay dividends. Oscar Pareja helped coach Harris through his last good season in 2010 as an assistant in Dallas, where he was a solid utility player with the ability to push high. And Pareja also signed two skillful South Americans in Diego Calderon (Ecuador) and Kevin Harbottle (Chile). Both are champion-caliber players in South America. Calderon played on a Copa Libertadores-winning side, and Harbottle won the Copa Chile with Universidad (and he's been capped by Chile). Both will fit like gloves in a 4-3-3 that looks increasingly dangerous.

#5. New York Red Bulls

I'm reading your mind and I can already see the grape shot you're hauling into your mental trebuchets. The Red Bulls? The team that a million coaches turned down? The team run by proxy from a bunker embedded in the molten core of the earth?? Yeah. Those lunks. The New York Red Bulls have had one of the league's best offseasons. And, as an admitted piler-on, I have no issue doling out the credit. I'll spend a bit longer on this one because I feel I need to explain myself.

While everybody piled on New York for another failed season and its inability to find anybody willing to endure Thierry Henry's endless stares, the Red Bulls silently got to work. Nearly everything has flown with the stream. The club signed free kick maestro Juninho, who is ancient but won't be asked to do much more than bang in set pieces, a tactic that worked out okay in LA with Becks in the latter part of his tenure. They also signed Fabian Espindola, a forward I've always liked, and Jamison Olave a year removed from making the final ballot as MLS' top defender. Pairing him with Heath Pearce should make them stout at the base of the spine. And I liked the draft pickup of Ian Christianson.

Let us of course not forget about the most important move of all - allowing Rafa Marquez to walk. I will leave this without much comment, because losing probably the most hated player in MLS history is such ridiculous addition by subtraction that my computer's calculator just locked itself in fear. NY is still a bit slow of foot in central midfield, but few teams in the league addressed so many issues in such a short amount of time.

To the coaching situation. It's my belief that removing the interim tag from Mike Petke's name was the only correct decision here. It was the only option available to New York that made even an iota of sense. Petke was around for all of New York's offseason dealings and has at least spent a season working with Henry, who can be notoriously tough to reach as a coach. Petke has presumably both learned and absorbed what worked between Backe and Henry and what did not. But there's also the solemn fact of continuity to consider. New York is now on its 14th coach in 17 years. That's staggering, and not at all insignificant when you survey their empty trophy case. Petke knows the culture as well as anybody. Nobody in club history has played more games. As for his age, I don't hear many in DC crowing about Ben Olsen. Do you?

So yes. I'm willing to stick my neck on the block, arm you with Timber Joey's ax and say that New York has had one of the best offseasons in the league. And I feel good about it. Come at me, bro.

- Will Parchman


Unknown said...

im worried about the lack of depth in the midfield, but i agree on the NY Red Bulls.

Jay said...

Not sure I follow you re: the Fire. Pardo retires, Flaco looks like he's bumping off on loan to the Middle East, and Gargan doesn't have his option picked up. Three moves and suddenly there's a lack of depth at left mid (who's there?), right back (Anibaba ain't a fullback, and Kinney hasn't played a game in two years) and left back (Segares and then... who?) combined with a glut of midfielders in the middle and on the right. Doesn't seem like a well-tuned team to me at all.

Will Parchman said...

Hadn't heard that on Flaco. Even still, I'm comfortable with them high on my list. Think you're being a bit cynical. I'm not saying they suddenly became the best team in the East, but as structured (and I'm apparently higher on Anibaba's progress at RB, because I thought he looked pretty good there by October), I really like the look of their set-up, which gives them options to airbrush their weaknesses.

For instance, I think the only reason Nyarko never stuck on the left wing under Klopas in the past was because he didn't have enough central midfielders to pull him into the action. He marooned himself. With what they have now, I'd love to see him out wide with Oduro over him up top paired with Maicon Santos. Point being, there are options for a coach creative enough to utilize them. This is one of those rosters that a really good coach can squeeze a ton from.

Phil McCracken said...

That pic is hilarious.

While SKC will still be one of the best teams in MLS, I do believe that Vermes is a liability on matchday. His constant moaning and overreacting about any call that doesn't go his way projects onto his team. And when SKC goes through their scoring droughts (which are frequent), his animated demeanor exacerbates the situation even more.

strago said...

You should also do worst MLS offseasons.

I would put DC United as #1...

BTM said...

Chicago picked up Fernandez last year mid-season and he's likely to be loaned out at least to start this season. If anything he should be chalked up in the loss column for the Fire's off-season.

Although this could have some element of addition by subtraction as well.

dikranovich said...

im confused as to how chicago could "fleece" new york, then new york is put up on a list of top five offseasons. not to mention that new york does not even have a coach.

getting rid of marquez, that does not make a great offseason. and espindola is really only replacing whats his face who went back to philly, who was replacing dero who won the MVP with DC.

Jay said...

Check all available references, dik: NYRB does have a coach.

Jay said...

Also worth noting: NYRB parted with Wilman Conde yesterday.

Will Parchman said...

Dik does not do shades of gray very well.

Zach said...

Rank them how you will, it has been a tremendously underwhelming offseason for MLS. Some solid movement (ew) but no big names

dikranovich said...

ahh, petke. bubba, i love the comment that he has presumably, not just learned, but absorbed what worked between henry and backe. we can call him osmosis petke funny stuff. you know what they say about presumption being the brother of all f ups.

Will Parchman said...

Agreed, Zach. The bottom 5 list is a lot easier.

Zach said...

@will Chivas, Toronto, Dallas and Seatle are the obvious 4 poor offseason IMO. Plenty of clubs have done nothing, tho.

Jay said...

Just to harp on Chicago's glut of midfielders some more, it looks like they had been pursuing Sebastian Kehl up until today -- so they're still looking for more. Je-sus. Their fullback pick up in the supplemental draft looks like a project. Maybe they plan on a 3-5-2?

Also, can we have a conversation about this reserve league biz? I really want to have that conversation.

dikranovich said...

jay, i think the bottom line is that there is now a pipeline in place that can develop a soccer player from the youth ranks on up.

we have never had this pipeline available before and its probably the reason we have not developed that special type of player yet.

Jay said...

Gee, dik, I didn't figure that one out myself. It's not like MLSS hasn't been trumpeting that one at all available opportunities. Never mind the fact that the pipeline DID exist, just through NCAA and a less-formal loan system. But since we're already at the bottom line, I guess the conversation is done, eh? Thanks so much. You're incredibly helpful.

No, what I'm really curious about is how soon any MLS clubs take option #3: registering a team in full USL competition. What does that mean for the MLS roster? Does it increase? Is it just brushed under the table and instead there's a separate USL roster? Is there a new category of player for the MLS squad? Is there player movement between teams, or recall options from USL to MLS? Does a USL squad mean a club doesn't have an MLSRL team? It seems to me that everything that happens this season is just a bandaid, and that real change won't happen until there's a complete second team (i.e. no assistant coaches making up the numbers) playing a real season.

dikranovich said...

jay, you asked a lot of questions. MLS roster is a max of 30. 18 for gameday 12 for reserve games, plus the minimum of five players who dont see the field on MLS gameday. that all seems pretty straight forward.

what is clear to me, is that if you are an MLS team, you better at the very least have a reserve team, and having both a reserve team and an affiliation with a USL team is going to be the best option for MLS teams.

the pipeline has never been in place before because we have never seen this type of affiliation between the top league and lower leagues, along with homegrown player rules and MLS youth development.

dikranovich said...

jay, you asked a lot of questions. MLS roster is a max of 30. 18 for gameday 12 for reserve games, plus the minimum of five players who dont see the field on MLS gameday. that all seems pretty straight forward.

what is clear to me, is that if you are an MLS team, you better at the very least have a reserve team, and having both a reserve team and an affiliation with a USL team is going to be the best option for MLS teams.

the pipeline has never been in place before because we have never seen this type of affiliation between the top league and lower leagues, along with homegrown player rules and MLS youth development.

dikranovich said...

pacman, im afraid these rankings might need to be updated, because the offseason is still going on and new players are coming into the league and players are still moving.

dc united just picked up last years #5 pick overall and they gave up a 2nd round pick next season. strong move. and casey townsend only had one less goal then juan agudelo and they had the same number of assist.

dikranovich said...

i dont know if anyone else heard don garber on fox soccer today, but that is a bad man. this is going to be the greatest MLS season ever, and i think we will start to really see the fruits of the labor this year in concacaf champions league.

march 2nd is not that far away!!!

Jay said...

FFS. Forget I even asked.

soccer boy said...

So greg what mls teams do you think freddy adu will play for?

dikranovich said...

soccer boy, freddy could end up in ole mexico. that could be the challenge of all challenges.