We are barreling through the days toward First Kick 2012 like the explorer ripping through coins in “Temple Run.” Fewer than four weeks separate MLS fans and the start of the league’s 17th season, when it will welcome its 19th team and third franchise in Canada.
With anticipation rising, a trio of MLS loan products approached the end of their European stints in style, the league’s teams shored up their rosters with late acquisitions and preseason matches went full tilt.
There was also a landmark change in the US approach to youth development, and the league’s newest soccer specific stadium (in Houston) rounded into shape ahead of its May curtain raiser.
Let’s take another look.
New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry began his winter loan to Arsenal with a bang last month, scoring a dramatic winner in the FA Cup against Leeds United in the first appearance of his return to the club where he made his name.
But then—apart from scoring the final goal in a 7-1 rout of Blackburn on Feb. 4—Henry was quiet for several weeks, prompting some observers to question the point of his North London excursion.
The 34-year-old provided an emphatic answer on Saturday, volleying home a cross from Andrei Arshavin in stoppage time to send the Gunners to a 2-1 win at Sunderland and back into the top four of the Premier League table.
Henry’s goal produced another highlight in what’s been a charmed month for MLS players on loan in England: LA Galaxy captain Landon Donovan has six assists in nine games for Everton, and his LA teammate Robbie Keane has three goals in five games for Aston Villa this winter.
Back in the Fold
Henry will return to the Red Bulls on Feb. 17, and both Donovan and Keane will rejoin the Galaxy this month as well. They’ll find an impressively revamped LA side, as the club that won the MLS Cup in November has had a championship offseason, too.
Anticipating the departure of Juninho, a key component of their title run, LA brought in experienced Brazilian midfielder Marcelo Sarvas in late December. Then they re-signed their 2011 assists leader, David Beckham, for two years, and re-acquired their top goal-scorer from 2010, Edson Buddle, from the 2.Bundesliga.
Finally, this past Tuesday, the club re-signed Juninho on another loan spell from Brazilian side São Paulo, who had initially reclaimed him at season’s end.
No one is crowning the Galaxy repeat champs yet, but no one would dispute that they’re the heavy favorites, either.
Locking in Lineups
The Galaxy may have been the most efficient side, but the league’s other teams certainly weren’t sitting on their hands.
D.C. United continued their intriguing rebuilding effort this past Monday, acquiring 30-year-old defensive midfielder Marcelo Saragosa, who spent the past two seasons in the Azerbaijan top flight after stints with Chivas USA and FC Dallas.
The Houston Dynamo sent a 2014 conditional draft pick to Colorado for attacker Mac Kandji (right), the hero of MLS Cup 2010, and the Philadelphia Union signed 30-year-old forward Lionard Pajoy, who had 13 goals in 27 starts for Colombian top-flight side Itagüí Ditares last season.
In New York, where goalkeeping was a crisis area last season, the Red Bulls signed draft pick Ryan Meara, a 21-year-old keeper out of Fordham University. He joins 25-year-old Jeremy Vuolo—who attended Hartwick College and Syracuse University, and has one year of pro experience in Finland—as the only 'keepers on New York’s roster at the moment.
While Meara, Vuolo and dozens of other college players have landed in MLS this offseason, the route they took to the pros—via high-school and college soccer—could eventually fall into disuse as US Soccer builds more efficient pathways.
The federation took a step in that direction on Friday, when it announced that the US Soccer Development Academy—in which 15 MLS academy teams participate—would adopt the international calendar, spreading its games and training sessions across a 10-month season.
US Soccer youth technical director Claudio Reyna said the new format “provides the ideal platform to place an increased emphasis on the value of training on a regular basis, and offers the opportunity to play in quality, competitive games throughout an extended season.”
The change effectively puts elite US youth players in a professional environment before they reach college age, encouraging those that are capable of doing so to bypass high school and college soccer altogether.
MLS is not shifting its calendar any time soon, but the 2012 season, which runs until Dec 1, will be the longest campaign in the league’s history, and with that in mind, all 19 teams have begun their preseason games in earnest.
Vancouver and Seattle started things off last Monday with a hot-tempered affair that yielded 10 cards, including one straight red.
Other notable matchups last week included Portland’s 4-1 romp over LA, Houston’s 2-0 win over the Montreal in Impact stiker Brian Ching’s first match against his old team and Houston’s 1-0 win over LA in a meeting between the MLS Cup 2011 finalists.