In many ways, MLS has never been so star-studded. Hardly a week went by all summer without a new big-name player being linked to an MLS side — none bigger than Andrea Pirlo, who went from running the midfield for Juventus in the UEFA Champions League final to donning the light blue of New York City FC, all in the space of a single summer.
Pirlo and company at NYC FC might have the brightest stars of all, with Spanish striker David Villa leading the line and veteran England midfielder Frank Lampard on the books. Add in U.S. national team midfielder Mix Diskerud, and New York City has an expansion team that’s ready to sell some serious jerseys — and sign the checks on the league’s third highest payroll, to boot.
Despite the big money, the team lacks any sense of cohesion on the field. The Yankee Stadium crew is seventh in the Eastern Conference, out of the playoffs and just a nose ahead of last-place Chicago. Last Sunday, the first-ever Los Angeles-NYC match was heavily promoted, playing up the big-name players in the game — and the Galaxy duly destroyed the visitors, winning 5-1 in a game that wasn’t nearly that close. After the game, Villa called out the lack of cohesion on the team, pleading to the media, “I need teammates at my side that can help me. I can’t do this alone.”
Pirlo, with his suddenly wayward passing and utter lack of defensive effort, has been a lightning rod for criticism in NYC. Lampard has been hurt. Diskerud has been ineffective. It might be telling that Kwadwo Poku, who played 25 games for Atlanta in the NASL last year, has been the team’s best player.
NYC’s fellow expansion team Orlando City is having the same problem, having constructed a team with the league’s fourth highest payroll — most of which is spent on Brazilian superstar Kaká. The Lions, too, are sliding; Orlando has one point in four games, a stretch in which it has been outscored 13-1. While Kaká has been a constant, the team needs more than just an aging midfielder.
The gold standard, as ever, seems to be Los Angeles, which retooled this summer by signing superstars Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos and now flying high. Its defense is what really makes the difference; Los Angeles is the rare MLS team that combines a high-powered attack with a reasonably solid back line, with standout players like Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza regularly featuring in the back four.
As Minnesota United looks toward building an MLS team, it’d be wise to avoid the pitfalls of this year’s expansion teams. One glance at the goals-against column in the MLS standings — where Orlando and NYC are worst and second worst — should be enough to remind them that success begins from the back.
Soccer short takes
• Didier Drogba refused to speak to the media following his first game in Montreal, and he might draw a rare media-related fine from the MLS office for the offense. The same weekend, Sky Sports (UK) reporter Geoff Shreeves wrote an article describing his wonderment that the Los Angeles Galaxy let him talk to players at practice and at the end of games, and let him have access to the locker room postgame — all things that are more or less standard issue in American sports.
It was a reminder that Drogba was still operating under the rules of the rest of the soccer world, which is more used to places like Notts County, an English fourth-division team. Last week, Notts attempted to ban the Nottingham Post from covering games — for the crime of reporting unflattering quotes from the manager’s weekly news conference.
• Ottawa and New York did Minnesota United a standings-related favor Wednesday, playing out a boring 0-0 draw in Ottawa to ensure both teams gained only a single point in the standings. The NASL fall season is nearing its midpoint, with Minnesota a point behind New York and five back of Ottawa, but United has one advantage for the stretch run: Seven of its final 11 games are at home, including four of its final five.
• Premier League teams need to complete all of their summer transfers by Tuesday, meaning that the rumor mill is running at full tilt. The best rumor of the week might have been the one that had Manchester United spending more than $300 million — three times the current world record — to get striker Neymar from Barcelona.
Things get crazy this time of year, but that might be the most outlandish transfer rumor of all time.
• The National Women’s Soccer League announced its championship game would be played in Portland, Ore., instead of the home field of the best team and on a Thursday, rather than a weekend. Changing these things barely six weeks ahead of the final may be controversial, but playing the final at the home of the world’s best-supported women’s soccer team and on a night it can be broadcast on Fox Sports 1, seems like a good move for the fledgling league.
Weekend watch guide
Premier League: Crystal Palace at Chelsea, 9 a.m. Saturday, USA Network. Chelsea’s 3-2 victory over West Brom last week was a return to normality for the league champions, but the confidence with which they began the season has evaporated. Crystal Palace is expecting to be able to get a result no matter where the south London team goes — and that includes the fortress of Stamford Bridge.
Bundesliga: Bayer Leverkusen at Bayern Munich, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Fox Sports 2. Two of the Bundesliga’s three remaining perfect teams meet, with Bayern set on keeping pace atop the league with Borussia Dortmund. The Munich giants would dearly love to open an early advantage in the standings, to give them some cushion as they turn their focus to the Champions League as the season wears on.
Premier League: Manchester United at Swansea City, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBC Sports Network. Manchester United might be the one of the best-known teams in the world, but Swansea beat the Red Devils twice last season and knocked them out of the FA Cup in 2014. Both teams are showing signs of getting on track for 2015; the Swans can only hope that last year’s form against United continues.
MLS: Portland at Seattle, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. This match has all sorts of playoff implications, with Seattle trying to recover its chances after a desperately poor stretch and Portland trying to stay above the fight for the final Western spot. But the reason this game is on ESPN is that it’s the rare MLS regular-season game that feels meaningful – mostly because of the 60,000 faithful in Seattle, baying for the home team to beat the Timbers.