As the first month of the season comes to a close, it's report card time for the newest kids in the class. It may be a little early, but it's really never too early to take a look at how the expansion teams have done thus far.
Expansion teams always have a tough go in any sport and any league. However, MLS rules help expansion teams and make it a little easier than other sports.
Allowing new teams three allocations gives them a leg up on the opposition. Normally, teams only get an allocation if they miss the playoffs or lose a significant player. In a league where a salary cap is as prevalent as the MLS, having an extra $300,000 as a minimum is a nice chunk of change. This money can be used to acquire player's rights or to allocate against your cap so you can spend more money and thereby get better players.
New teams are also allowed 10 discovery players while other teams are allowed six. This allows new teams to get out and scour the market and find players other MLS teams cannot touch. Expansion teams are also allowed two more youth international roster spots than the other teams. This again means they can acquire players others cannot touch.
Discovery slots and youth international spots can be traded as well as allocations. New teams have flexibility that others do not have.
The downside to all this is getting players with actual MLS experience. How can a new team get enough of these types of players? Every coach will tell you that one of the hardest things to predict is a how a foreign player will do in the league. When you find one that works out you try to hold on to him because you do not know if the next one will be successful. The pace of the game, the travel, a new country and customs all make the adjustment difficult for foreign players. Therefore, having players with MLS experience is of vital importance.
Real Salt Lake
Coach John Ellinger has surrounded himself with players he is familiar with. Twenty percent of his roster played for him at the under-17 level and another four players he has coached at either the Olympic or youth national team level. That helps get his message across.
The team is 1-2-2, has scored four goals and allowed eight. The offense has yet to fully click and that will take some time even though he has experienced MLS players in Andy Williams, Jason Kreis and Clint Mathis who need to get their flow as a trio. In total, the team possesses 84 years of MLS experience and Salt Lake did a good job of getting experienced front-line players.
Real did not do as well with the use of their allocations and discovery picks. They traded away one allocation to acquire a reserve goalkeeper. A senior youth international (Senad Halilovic) did not work out and was dropped. They only have two senior international players, Dipsy Selolwane (Botswana) and Marlon Rojas (Trinidad & Tobago) who are both average, especially in comparison to many foreign players around the league.
As I said earlier, the hardest thing in MLS is to figure out which foreigners will pan out. If you guess wrong, it is difficult to catch up to the pack. As an expansion team you need to get this right if you want to compete right away. You also want to maximize the use of your dollars.
Coach Thomas Rongen faced a difficult task. The association to their parent club in Guadalajara is a blessing most of the time. However, in this first year, it also led to misjudging the quality of MLS. The pace of the game is faster than in Mexico. That is not to say that one style of play is better than another. The beauty of soccer is that there are many ways in which to be successful. It just means that it is different and therefore takes time to adjust and might require players with different abilities.
The team is 0-4-1 and has scored five goals and taken 12. When you look at the roster the team has a combined 33 years of MLS experience. Compare that to the 84 years for Salt Lake and you see part of the problem for Chivas. Rongen has too many players who do not yet understand the MLS mentality and it will take time for them to catch on.
The team did well with their senior internationals although injuries have robbed them of valuable minutes from goalkeeper Martin Zuñiga and defender Alonso Loera. They also traded away an allocation to acquire Ryan Suarez and Antonio Martinez. Again, I cannot overstate the value of salary money in this league. Not coincidentally, the Galaxy were the recipients of this extra money as well as money from Salt Lake and is off to a good start.
To be successful as an expansion team is possible under MLS rules. However, you need to get the majority of the key factors right. You need experience. You need quality foreign players. You need to use the excess cash you are given wisely. Finally, you need to make optimum use of your allocations.
Both Salt Lake and Chivas USA missed on a couple of points. But there is still time and everyone needs a little bit of luck. It is a long season and this year will be the building block for 2006 and beyond.
Sigi Schmid is one of the winningest coaches in MLS history, having led the Los Angeles Galaxy to four honors in his five-plus years at the helm, including the 2002 MLS Cup championship. Send comments to Sigi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.