The MLS Cup playoffs will conclude their second legs of their Conference Finals today. As the Portland Timbers lead FC Dallas 3-1 and Columbus Crew SC lead New York Red Bulls 2-0, a casual fan may come across this as something being a bit off.
Where’s Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane of the LA Galaxy? Where’s Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and David Villa of NYCFC? Where’s Kaka of Orlando City? Surely these are the best and most popular players in the world, they should have been able to make quick work of the lesser teams and unknown MLS players and waltz to a trophy.
Instead, we have four teams who are on the lower half of the salary table. Teams who concentrate on role players and youth, those players who may not have had the spotlight shine on them yet. While many see this as terrible for MLS in terms of revenue, viewership and marketing, I see this as something MLS can capitalize on. This is the perfect opportunity for those guys to make a name for themselves and for MLS to market these players as the “giant killers” and turn those players into stars for the league. Stars that even casual MLS could get to know and love (for a fraction of the price of a big name DP).
Look at some of the standout players these four teams have who can play and quite honestly, have played better than the majority of the big name DP’s that are getting millions.
Starting with Columbus, Kei Kamara when on a tear in his first season with the Crew. The former Sporting KC and Norwich City forward and Middlesbrough forward came back from his stint in the English Premier League and Championship on a tear. Scoring a career high 22 goals this season, Kamara was just short of the all time MLS record for goals in a season and doubled his previous career high at 11. Kamara is an MLS MVP finalist and won Humanitarian of the Year due to his efforts of building schools in his native Sierra Leone. Other players such as Federico Higuain (Gonzalo’s brother), Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay are also players who can get into the MLS spotlight.
For FC Dallas, they have quickly gained a reputation for being the model youth development system in the United States. FC Dallas is finding the best young players and giving them the playing time and experience to really make an impact with the team. While some teams don’t have any Homegrown Players on their team, FC Dallas can start as many as five at a time, led by starting goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez. Gonzalez was instrumental in winning the penalty shootout against Seattle in the previous round and showed that even at age 20, the kid doesn’t show pressure. Also must not forget the 2015 MLS 24 Under 24 winner Fabian Castillo. Now Castillo is actually a DP so he isn’t exactly a Homegrown Player, but the 23 year old Colombian fits FC Dallas’ gameplan of finding young talent and giving them a chance. This young squad doesn’t have the experience but sometimes going into something and not knowing what to expect is best.
The New York Red Bulls had to quickly adjust after losing stars Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. With those millions going off the cap and the high spending NYCFC moving in across the Hudson River, the Red Bulls had to change their philosophy. In a season that shocked just about everybody, the Red Bulls never dropped in the table and in fact won the Supporters Shield. They lost two players that made up over 80% of their salary cap and wound up getting better. I know the Red Bull front office was optimistic that they could be successful but I don’t know about being this successful, this quickly. MLS single season goalscoring record sharerer Bradley Wright-Phillips, along with relative unknowns at the start of the season, Matt Miazga and Mike Grella, the Red Bulls have a hotbed of talent that can potentially get them a trophy that has long eluded them since the start of MLS.
The Portland Timbers are the only team still alive who wasn’t a part of MLS’ first season in 1996 but that doesn’t mean too much when you see them play. While some would have expected the Sounders and Whitecaps representing the Cascadia region, it’s the Timbers and their squad who are attempting to be the first Cascadia team to win the MLS Cup. In terms of players who can make a name for themselves, Darlington Nagbe has always been on the tips of MLS fans’ tongues as someone who has tremendous potential. Now that he is on the U.S. Men’s National Team and has an opportunity for a trophy, he has his best chance yet to fulfill that potential and be the next star of Major League Soccer. Will Johnson and Diego Valeri, along with longtime MLS player Nat Borchers, the Timbers have the team and players to make a run in the MLS Cup.
I know MLS is in a tough position. On one hand, they rely on these big name Designated Players on the last legs of their careers to attract casual fans and boost ratings and visibility of the League in the United States as well as the rest of the world. On the other hand, players who are actually better than these past their prime players are not usually recognized in the same way and that gives off the impression that the bulk of the MLS players aren’t that talented and someone like Steven Gerrard can dominate in MLS. While being a world class player can mean way more money than most MLS players, that doesn’t really apply during the game. It’s a harsh reality check when Frank Lampard gets nutmegged by Mike Grella and you finally realize that these players are for real. Now that all the big names are home watching the playoffs, this is a prime time for someone else to become a big name. Because that is the next step for Major League Soccer, developing big stars instead of buying them.