In life after Zlatan, who becomes the MLS villain? Here are some contenders

25 Day Countdown - 2020 - Matias Almeyda

EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you know it, February 29 will be here. That's the kickoff to the 25th season in Major League Soccer history and we're getting you ready for the 2020 campaign with the stories, personalities and questions that will leave their mark on the season to come.

Every MLS season invariably has a central theme that winds up defining it. With 25 days remaining until the 25th season, here are three that appear to be in the ascendancy as we count down to kickoff on Feb. 29…

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is an exceptional player and an epochal signing for the LA Galaxy, and I’m among those who are confident he’ll match or eclipse the goal-scoring and overall team contributions of his predecessor Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 

But he’s no villain.

Love him or loathe him, it’s impossible to ignore that Ibra left behind a gaping hole in personality terms when he returned to AC Milan over the winter, not just in L.A. but MLS as a whole. His unique blend of skill, arrogance and quoteworthy-ness has few equals on the planet. 

So, can anyone replace that movie-villain role in 2020? Though I’m skeptical, here’s a stab at some potential inheritors.

Bruce Arena

After some years of wandering the wilderness, the New England Revolution revived themselves dramatically in mid-2019 after hiring Arena as head coach and sporting director, rallying from a woeful start to make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, where they gave Atlanta United a good scare in the first round. 

The club that shares ownership and a stadium with the successful – and widely reviled – Patriots of the NFL have found their Bill Belichick. They appear ready to support him with augmented spending, a new training ground and eventually, a new stadium of their own. 

Given Arena’s blunt, plainspoken personality and the reality that some US-based fans will never forgive him for his involvement with the US men’s national team’s 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying fiasco, his Revs might just grow into a team that other supporters love to hate.

Josef Martinez

The Venezuelan marksman owns the key to the city in Atlanta, for good reason. But most everything that makes the Five Stripes star a hero is correspondingly unpalatable to opponents (particularly the ones in Orlando, though that’s a conversation for another time). 

Already one of the most prolific scorers in league history, Martinez is a stone-cold assassin who plays every game like his life – and the lives of his loved ones – is at stake. He makes sure teammates and adversaries alike know it, too. He’s even threatened opposing goalkeepers with death via Instagram banter, which, even if playful, has a certain menace to it. 

October 23, 2019

He's also not one to shy away from a fight, almost dropping the gloves with Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner in the playoffs last year. Turner wasn't having any of it, but Josef wasn't exactly backing down either.

Alan Pulido & Sporting KC

Sporting Kansas City have been low-key loathed among dedicated supporters in other MLS cities for much of their Peter Vermes era, thanks mostly to their affinity for a bruising high press that tested referees and produced results. But they fell off their usual standards last year as a range of factors dropped them down the table and killed their long postseason streak, making them a bit less relevant and harder to demonize. 

So, Vermes & Co. responded by smashing their club’s transfer record with the capture of star Mexican striker Alan Pulido, prompting a return to competitiveness at the very least. Don’t be surprised if it’s also fueled by a renewal of the nasty edge that made trips to noisy Children's Mercy Park such an unpleasant date on the calendar for the rest of the league.

San Jose Earthquakes

The revived Earthquakes were a feel-good story last season as Matias Almeyda installed his high-tempo man-marking system to good effect – so why would anyone come to dislike them in the months ahead? 

It might be a wild stab, but theirs is a maverick operation in many ways. They play a style like no other in the league, one that demands intensity and physicality, and aims to get under opponents’ skin. Like their consciously scruffy ultras, perhaps those all-black kits will come to signify a bad-boy spirit.

With a rock star’s mentality and charisma, Almeyda may not be quite so endearing to neutrals should he elevate the Bay Area side into a position to punch down, rather than up, at most of the league. And he’s injected some Latin American talent into his roster that won’t be afraid to engage in a bit of the dark arts. 

Honorable mentions

Anton Tinnerholm: It might be hard for a right back such as Tinnerholm to make national headlines. That said, don’t sleep on the hate New York City FC’s pugnacious Swede provokes among opponents – the BSI Podcast has riffed on this in entertaining fashion.

Inter Miami CF: Ambitious expansion teams enter MLS with sunny optimism and excitement, but if any fresh-faced newcomers can inspire derision, it’s David Beckham’s well-funded new club. That’s only fueled by how Miami figures to get a competitive advantage in the coming years from the global reputation and desirability of their market. Will head coach Diego Alonso lean into those vibes or not?

Diego Chara: The Portland Timbers’ holding-midfield metronome is one of the best in MLS history at what he does, and it doesn’t tend to endear him to the other side. I have a suspicion that Chara may hold off Father Time by partaking even more heavily in the gamesmanship that drives the competition crazy.