Recalling the best and worst of Major League Soccer's 20th season
With the 2015 MLS season having come to the close as the Portland Timbers took home MLS Cup, we asked our panel of league writers to sum up the league's 20th season.
How does the 2015 season stack up in MLS history?
Jeff Carlisle (@jeffreycarlisle): I think a strong argument could be made that it was the best ever. MLS remains incredibly unpredictable, whether you're talking about the MLS Cup playoffs or even the regular season, and attendance continues to climb.
Doug McIntyre (@DougMacESPN): As a growing league, MLS is still at the stage where every year is better than the last. Two new teams (Orlando and New York City FC) arrived this season, bringing the total to 20. Another new shiny stadium debuted (in San Jose, California), and some international designated players arrived in the prime of their careers (Giovani dos Santos in Los Angeles and MVP Sebastian Giovinco in Toronto). It was a banner year for the league in every way, and 2016 will be even better.
Jason Davis (@davisjsn): Among the best. The recency effect is in play, but the level of competition has never been higher. Both expansion teams scored big at the gate, and the final day of the season brought a new level of drama to the jockeying for playoff places and seeding.
Graham Parker (@KidWeil): A strong year overall; the spectacle of the league continues to get better. It passes the eye test when you think about the stadiums, the fans and the general look of it all, especially with all of the marketing and screening rights overseas that the league has been negotiating. It's not there yet, but if it's ever going to get there, MLS had to make its global bow, even a modest one, at the right time, and I think it did that.
What did you make of the 2015 class of designated players?
Parker: An interesting mix, certainly at the higher-profile end. The technical dominance and strategic significance of Giovinco's arrival was huge, and a great step forward for the league's ambitions. David Villa and Kaka arrived early enough in their careers to be defining presences for their teams.
Of the big veteran "brand" names who arrived, Didier Drogba was a perfect competitive and cultural fit in Montreal, but the days when Bruce Arena could structure a team around David Beckham's distribution and accept his lack of mobility have passed: Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo compromised their teams more than they enhanced them. I won't call them busts yet, but there's got to be a time limit on how long the league pursues this model.
McIntyre: Luring Dos Santos and Giovinco were true coups, and Drogba, with 12 goals in 12 starts, was unbelievable after arriving in Montreal late in the year. I can't wait to see what Drogba can do during a full season. But he was the outlier in terms of older DPs, as 35-year-old Gerrard, Lampard (37) and Pirlo (36) made little impact. As cool as it was seeing those living legends performing on these shores -- and no doubt their presence provided MLS with extra exposure across the Atlantic -- I hope their struggles give teams pause when determining which sorts of stars to target in the future. To take the next step, this league needs more Giovincos and fewer Gerrards.
Which young players were you most impressed with in 2015?
Carlisle: He struggled in the MLS Cup final, but Ethan Finlay had an impressive season. I thought Sebastian Lletget also did very well.
McIntyre: Fabian Castillo, 23, had his best year yet in Dallas, and his successes got him called into the Colombian national team. And nobody expected Matt Miazga, who turned 20 during the season, to emerge as one of the best defenders in MLS after barely playing for the Red Bulls in 2014. The trick will be for the league to hold onto either of these players. Frankly, I don't see that happening if wealthy European clubs come calling this winter, and they will.
What made this year's playoffs so compelling?
Carlisle: I've criticized the continued expansion of playoff participants, but I have to say the knockout round gives the playoffs a terrific jolt of energy. I also think that with few exceptions, the teams that played well had an impressive amount of technical skill. I'm thinking of the final four in particular.
Davis: Whether because of the parity of MLS, the rules in place during the playoffs or just the charity of the soccer gods, each round of the playoffs delivered late drama, big moments and incredible individual performances. After a regular season that was, in a lot of ways, dominated by the exploits of marquee names, the postseason turned into a story of teams. Portland's title, at the expense of Columbus, put on display the tournament's penchant for rewarding the team playing most together.
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What have New York City FC and Orlando City SC taught us about expansion and the league as a whole?
Parker: There's something positive about both sides missing the playoffs. For NYCFC in particular, I think it was important that ownership appreciated the competitiveness of MLS, although I think they only absorbed part of that lesson as evidenced by sacking Jason Kreis. Good attendance figures won't matter much if they continue losing, and if Lampard and Pirlo don't start dominating under new manager Patrick Vieira, there will come a point where NYCFC has sold all the shirts it's going to sell.
McIntyre: It's hard to be an expansion team in MLS. There's a reason only two (Chicago in 1998, Seattle in 2009) have made the postseason in MLS's 20 seasons: it's impossible to build a playoff-quality squad when most of your roster is comprised of other teams' castoffs. Still, both NYCFC and OCSC exceeded expectations at the gate. That tells you plenty about the demand for MLS teams in markets across the U.S. and Canada.
Davis: Lots of money and famous names don't guarantee success. Sometimes famous names added midseason can be a hindrance, particularly when those players don't fully grasp the difficulties they face. The lesson of Orlando's solid season, especially when compared to NYCFC's struggles, is that a more pragmatic approach is sometimes the better one.
What was the biggest disappointment of 2015?
Davis: Sadly, it's again the Seattle Sounders. Despite their incredible ambition and the support of the biggest crowds in MLS, the Sounders again came up short of the MLS Cup.
Parker: The exciting but sloppy final. Given the mistakes on each goal, not the kind of enticing advert for the league to convert the unconvinced.
Carlisle: You would have to say the way marquee teams like the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders faded down the stretch.
McIntyre: Has to be Toronto FC. As good as Giovinco was during the regular season, TFC would have missed the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season had the league not expanded the postseason from 10 teams to 12. And the way Toronto capitulated in their elimination game at archrival Montreal -- a 3-0 loss that was over 20 minutes in -- was as embarrassing as it was predictable. Just like in 2014 (not to mention the years before that), the Reds' defense wasn't close to good enough, and the only people who couldn't see it seemed to be those running the club.
What was the biggest surprise of 2015?
McIntyre: The New York Red Bulls, hands down. The January firing of a popular and successful coach in Mike Petke seemed tone deaf and unfair at the time, and it led to a near-mutiny among supporters. But the vision of new sporting director Ali Curtis proved to be crystal clear, as manager Jesse Marsch's hard-running young team won the Supporters' Shield and developed an identity by playing some of the most attractive soccer in MLS. I'm not sure even Curtis and Marsch expected that level of success right away.
Carlisle: The rise of teams like FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls, who didn't have big stars. It's one thing to make the playoffs, it's another to be among the league's elite. The way these two clubs maximized their resources was impressive.
Parker: The Red Bulls. In apparent disarray when the season started, they lost big players and sacked a beloved coach, culminating in that town hall meeting. Some wouldn't have bet on them making the playoffs let alone winning the Supporters' Shield again, and doing so with unsung personnel and one of the most attractive playing styles in the league.
Davis: The Red Bulls' season. New York slashed their way to the league's lowest payroll for 2015, parting ways with several big figures from their previous era in the process. With Marsch's high press in place, the Red Bulls charged to a Supporters Shield on the back of a team-first mentality. They scored the most goals in the league, and although they didn't get the job done in the playoffs, still surprised everyone with a transformation that paid so many dividends.