Photo: Earl Gardner
Toronto FC’s signing this week of former Brugge playmaker Victor Vazquez probably sent eyelids around MLS into rapid flapping motion.
Take notice: Philadelphia Union may have improved their roster this off-season, but so has almost* everyone else.
Over the last two years, MLS clubs have increasingly been signing players who in the past would have been unrealistic targets. A variety of factors contribute to this.
- MLS’s increase in Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) has put more money in play for the sub-superstar level player.
- Financial problems and fan unrest in Argentina have made MLS an increasingly attractive alternative to players from what had been widely considered the best league in the Americas. Many of these players, led by Portland’s Diego Valeri, have thrived in MLS and set off a domino effect that has both made MLS a more attractive destination and improved the quality of player intrigued by the United States’ top league. Additionally, former Barcelona and Argentina national coach Tata Martino taking the top job at Atlanta United has further enhanced the league’s global credibility.
- The executives and coaches are more experienced with this American system. The youth academies are producing more talent. There is a wider swath of quality domestic players. (But you already knew this.)
To see a team like Toronto bring on a guy of Vazquez’s quality to fill exactly the role that the MLS Cup favorites needed? Yeah, somewhat of a surprise. The Barcelona product and childhood buddy of Leo Messi may not have meshed well in his half season-plus with Mexican side Leon, but he was for a while the top player at Brugge, netting 20 goals and 47 assists in 156 games with the Belgian club.
Where did Toronto find the money? He’s not a designated player, so they’re pulling from the same batch of funds that every other team draws upon.
And that’s the point: Toronto’s improving, Philadelphia’s improving, and so are many other teams, because they all have more money and credibility to bring to the negotiating table.
The question for Philadelphia isn’t merely whether the club has improved its roster — it most certainly has — but whether it’s improved more than most other Eastern Conference clubs.
Personnel improvements around the Eastern Conference
Look around the league. What do you see in terms of net personnel improvement?
- Toronto: Toronto didn’t have many holes to fill. They may have lost the MLS Cup final, but, when healthy, they were the best team in the league last year. Vazquez looks like the missing link at the apex of their 4-4-2 midfield diamond or 3-5-2 center midfield trio.
- Chicago: The Fire may have improved as much as Philadelphia, but they had farther to climb. They remade their midfield by adding New York Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty and former Los Angeles Galaxy stalwart Juninho to back last season’s summer signing, Michael de Leeuw, and they improved their attack by adding Nemanja Nikolic, last year’s player of the year and leading scorer in Poland’s top league. The question is whether they can adequately replace departed goalkeeper Sean Johnson and survive with a very young defense.
- NYC FC: They added Sean Johnson, Argentine midfielder Maxi Moralez and former Portland winger Rodney Wallace, among others, but in the narrow confines of Yankee Stadium, a true winger like Wallace may be useless. Remember, he wasn’t nearly the same player with Portland when deployed as a left back. Still, this team has the weapons up top to stay relevant in the Eastern Conference no matter what.
- Atlanta United: Atlanta United looks stacked in attack, solid in defense (particularly once Brad Guzan arrives mid-season), and with a decent veteran component. However, much of this team has never experienced a travel schedule in a North American league. They’re still an expansion side.
- New England: The Revs added two starting center backs, replaced Gershon Koffie with Ivorian international Xavier Kouassi (which may be a wash), and traded away their starting goalkeeper, with former U.S. youth international Cody Cropper lined up as a replacement. They could improve a good deal, or they could take a step back if that new central defensive trio doesn’t mesh.
- Columbus: They made some solid depth and defense additions, but it’s not clear there’s a net gain. Former Union academy player Zack Steffen, age 21, looks like the probable opening day starter in net, and Union fans know a bit about starting 21-year-old former University of Maryland stars in goal before they’re ready. Has this team overcome the ‘as goes Higuain, so goes the season’ problem?
- Orlando: The Lions added Will Johnson and practically a full starting back line, but they sold high on the dynamic Kevin Molino. Can an unstoppable striker and a creaky supercreator carry them back to the playoffs?
D.C. United, Montreal, and the New York Red Bulls mostly stood pat over the off-season in terms of significant additions, with D.C. rookie Ian Harkes probably the biggest newcomer of the bunch.
Then again, in all this, remember one key point:
There’s something to be said for consistency. The team that stays together tends to win together. Year-to-year turbulence in MLS rosters rarely helps a club.
Philadelphia’s additions have been smart and mostly targeted toward filling roster holes. They could be the most improved team in the conference — but we’ve said that before.