Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 27, 2013) US Soccer Players - On Saturday, the 18th Major League Soccer season begins. A new season means new players, new coaches, new opportunity for surprise, a new blank slate on which to test the status quo, and a new clean petri dish for soccer experimentation in its typically muted North American form. The MLS season is here, whether you’re ready for it or not.
That’s probably because the season is starting earlier than ever before, just three full months after ending later than ever before. Between the 2012 MLS Cup final on December 1st and the resumption of soccer hostilities for the 2013 season on March 2nd, just 91 days have passed. That’s hardly enough time to book a vacation, take a vacation, get home, and finally unpack that lost pair of socks you forgot was tucked into the pocket of your carry-on, much less prepare for a new nine-month soccer season. If you’re a certain well-known player, it’s not even enough time to do that.
It seems as though the start of the new season has caught some MLS teams off guard as well. Around the League, teams are scrambling to get their houses in order before the games actually count. It’s now days before glaring holes in their rosters submarine the hopes and dreams for a successful campaign. Now, apparently, is the time to cast about wildly for the striker who can score some goals, or the hard-nosed defensive midfielder that will tie your whole system together. Never mind that those players - should they be found at all - will have no time to acclimate themselves to their new teammates and responsibilities before the games get real. First Kick is Saturday. Did I mention that?
That’s okay, they’ll just get settled during the first month or so of the season. It’s not ideal, but it’s also not unheard of. The MLS transfer window doesn’t close for another six weeks, meaning teams will be tweaking, massaging, and/or bolstering their rosters through March and beyond, whether by preseason design or because that first month doesn’t go as well as hoped. In that way, Major League Soccer is no different than the big time leagues in Europe—the overlap of the transfer window with the start of the new campaign makes rosters less finished products than amorphous blobby cominglings, likely to transform or reform at any moment as the market and need dictate. In other words “readiness” is in the eye of the beholder.
There are even a handful of teams out there who anxiously await the summer window to reinforce their squads. Those clubs somehow decided that setting out on the first fourth months of this backbreaking journey without the rations necessary to get them to the halfway point in something approaching decent shape is a good idea. Rather than properly prepare for the opening half of the campaign, they’ve chosen to put their eggs in a summer basket of plenty. That’s when Europe dumps their unwanted players, after all, so maybe they can find a couple of guys to raise the level of play down the stretch of the season, undoing whatever damage was done in the first half. Maybe it won’t be too late, Maybe the deficit in the standings won’t be too difficult to make up.
Despite the way many teams approach the opening of the season, the games at the front end of the campaign count just as much as the later ones in determining who makes the playoffs and who ends up in trouble. A good March might mean your September doesn’t haven’t be quite so stellar. A strong, confident effort out of the gates could mean less need to bring in midseason replacements, if they’re needed at all. It’s one thing to improve the chances of a playoff berth with a canny signing or two after properly preparing for the first half of the season. It’s something else to essentially toss the first half of the season, where a win still counts for three points last time I checked, out of the proverbial moving vehicle.
Goodbye, points. We can’t be bothered to care about you right now. Someone else will be along to pick you up.
Worst of all, all of this uncertainty as First Kick gets kicked off makes for terrible preseason prognostications. So many questions without answers, so many teams with the potential to quite suddenly transmogrify in front of our eyes.
How good will the Galaxy be this year, especially if they reload with Designated Player power in July? Is this the Seattle team that Sigi hopes can win a title, finally, or are the Sounders planning significant changes between now and the end of the first MLS transfer window? Does Chivas USA intend to play the season without any players, or do they actually plan to sign a few?
Friends, that’s just the Western Conference. Does anyone remember what the Columbus Crew looked like before the arrival of Jairo Arrieta and Frederico Higuain, neither of whom were on the roster at First Kick? Of course not. Someone is bound to pull some Crew-level signings after the season, fundamentally changing the face of their team in the process. How can we make picks in good conscience, knowing that at any moment, a team or two could pull a Crew?
Of course, the Crew missed the playoffs in 2012, perhaps in part because they didn’t have Arrieta and Higuain together for the first half of the season. Despite a strong run of form in August - when Arrieta and Higuain were wowing the League - they came up one point (and four goals) short. Hindsight is 20/20, but you can’t help but wonder what might have been.
The season starts Saturday. Some of us are ready, some of us are not. Believe or not, that goes for the teams as well.
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