As 2015 comes to an end, the year will undoubtedly be recognized as one of the best in MLS’s 20-year history.
The league became more prominent domestically. Fans filled up more seats, watched more televised games and became more emotionally connected with players and teams. MLS also pulled in international crowds by signing multiple agreements with several international broadcast stations.
Even though multiple issues still lingers, MLS fixed a lot of problems in 2015 and the league continues to expand despite already having 20 teams, the same amount of teams that compete in England, Spain, Italy and France’s top divisions.
Here are the most mesmerizing MLS stories from 2015. Since it is almost impossible to rank these stories, they are arranged in no particular order.
The season almost never happened.
For a long time, it looked like the player union and league wouldn’t see eye to eye due to new collective bargaining agreement, prompting a strike. However, thanks to the help of a federal mediator, a new deal that will be in place for five years was established. The new CBA also raised the minimum salary and salary cap, and they will continue to rise each season the deal is in place.
Frank Lampard is coming to MLS… wait a minute… he isn’t a NYCFC player, yet
NYCFC made a lot of noise when they signed Chelsea and England legend Lampard. He visited the city, he signed autographs, played soccer with kids and then went back to England to join Manchester City, on loan until the MLS season began.
But Lamps became a hit at Manchester as the club’s super sub. And City exercised its power over NYCYFC, keeping the midfielder until the end of their season.
Once he came to MLS in the summer, it was pretty clear that he was exhausted. Injuries after injuries kept him out of games and when he played, he wasn’t convincing. He only played 10 times as his club suffered an embarrassing first season in MLS.
Free Agency or lack of it
The new CBA was also momentous because for the first time in league history, players that are out of contract were allowed to negotiate with different teams and set their own terms. But, the new free agency deal has a huge glitch.
It only applies to about 10 percent of the players in the league.
The new rule stated that only players that are 28 or older are eligible for free agency. And the players will only be free agents if they had played in MLS for eight years and their salary is below the max salary charge, which is $436,250.
In an atrocious season, El Guaje shines bright
Just like Lampard, David Villa went out on loan before NYCFC resumed play in MLS, but unlike Lampard, Villa stayed true to his word and returned to light up the MLS. The greatest scorer in the Spanish national team history lit up scoreboards across the league.
Playing with a lineup that had no identity, Villa still managed to score 18 goals and create eight more.
CBA gets more complicated
Months after the new CBA was established, MLS made a huge announcement.
The initiative, as outlined within the Collective Bargaining Agreement that was concluded prior to the start of the 2015 season, will provide each MLS club with $100,000 per year of what is referred to as Targeted Allocation Money for the next five years, for a total of $500,000 per team.
Similar to general Allocation Money, these funds may be used to sign new or re-sign existing players. Unlike general Allocation Money, however, Targeted Allocation Money can only be used for players earning more than the maximum salary budget charge, which in 2015 is $436,250.
Teams may also use Targeted Allocation Money to convert a Designated Player to a non-Designated Player by buying down his salary budget charge to below the maximum salary budget charge. When using Targeted Allocation Money to free up a Designated Player slot, a club must simultaneously sign a new Designated Player at an investment equal to or greater than the player he is replacing.
For example, if a team wants to bring in another talented player who will carry more than the maximum salary budget charge, it has two options should it choose to utilize Targeted Allocation Money. First, a team could use the funds to buy down that player’s charge to below the maximum and keep the Designated Players it currently has.
Or, a club could use the funds to buy down the salary budget charge of one of its existing Designated Players to below the maximum, provided the club then signs a Designated Player at an investment equal to or greater than the player being bought down. (Excerpt from mlssoccer.com’s announcement)
Seven days after the announcement was posted on the league’s website, LA Galaxy bought down Omar Gonzalez’s contract and signed Mexican international Giovani dos Santos. Coincidence? I think not.
Expansion leads to changes
With New York City FC and Orlando City joining the league, MLS officials made some decisions. The new clubs were added to the Eastern Conference, which meant two teams had to be moved to the Western Conference. Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City were the obvious candidates, and they joined the west, leaving both conferences with 10 teams each.
Instead of sticking to the regular playoff system, MLS increased the number of teams that competed for the MLS Cup from five to six teams from each conference.
The great Andrea Pirlo makes a not so great first impression
The Italian maestro is adored all over the world. His deific beard, mellow persona and devastating vision made him a cult hero. But his reputation took a hit in MLS because of his subpar performances.
Having to run more and be more physical, something he hasn’t had to do in the past five years, Pirlo struggled.
However, he is not a quitter as he has turned down moves back to Italy to give it another go in 2016.
Chicago Fires underperformed, miserably
Coming into the season, Chicago looked like a side that could find a way to reach the playoffs. They had three top young players in Sean Johnson, Harry Shipp and Matt Polster, they had experience, former MVP Mike Magee would return from injury sometime in the season, and they signed three designated players; Shaun Maloney, David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike.
Maloney was supposed to be the creative genius in the center of the pitch, while the two African speedsters ran wild up top. But they opposite of what was expected happened. Teams ran wild against the Fire, as they conceded league worst 58 goals, and finished last.
Benny Feilhaber rediscovers his lethal touch, but somehow isn’t good enough for USMNT
The experience midfielder was Sporting Kansas City’s most consistent player. He started 30 games, scored 10 goals and had 15 assists. However, his superb form didn’t land him in the national team because Jurgen Klinsmann didn’t think he had much to offer.
When asked why Feilhaber wasn’t called up for the Gold Cup, the German coach said: “It’s a simple answer. There are other ones ahead of him.”
Beautiful soccer trumps money, power and fame
LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders always grab the headlines, but at the end of the season only one of them survived and reached the final four.
Teams that played jaw-dropping soccer stole the spotlight and showed that MLS has more to offer. Portland Timbers, FC Dallas, Columbus Crew and the Red Bulls showed the world that parity reigns supreme in MLS.
Darlington Nagbe returns to form
In his first three seasons, the Akron product was sublime. He was a player MLS fans knew could become a world-class creator. But suddenly in 2014, Nagbe lost his mojo.
He only scored once, but still recorded seven assists, a career high. Despite his assist total, Nagbe looked like he would never live up to expectations. That was until the second half of the 2015 season.
The Portland Timbers attacker came back to life, leading his team to the Promised Land. He finished the year with a total of five goals, seven assists and became cap-tied to the USMNT.
Real Salt Lake falls from glory
Since 2008, RSL has been a respected powerhouse in MLS, which is why their mediocre 2015 was tough to watch. The club that had made the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons finished close the bottom of the west.
RSL’s failure to make a late run isn’t surprising since the club lost two influential figures; General Manager Garth Lagerwey left to join the Seattle Sounders and Jason Kreis became NYCFC’s head coach.
However, the problem is that the club doesn’t look like it can return to glory immediately. All-time leading scorer Álvaro Saborío is now with D.C. United and youth sensation Luis Gil just left the club.
New York Red Bulls’ controversial plan worked
After losing the greatest player we’ve ever had to retirement, let’s fire our greatest coach in and sign a guy that failed in his first stint with an MLS club.
That was New York’s plan entering the season, and despite the backlash they received, they managed to put together a great season.
Led by Jesse Marsch, the Red Bulls edged out FC Dallas on goal difference to win the Supporters’ Shield for the second time in three years. The also made the Eastern Conference final.
Cyle Larin shatters rookie record
The first overall pick of the draft lived up to the billing by scoring 17 goals, breaking the record of 11 previously held by Damani Ralph. He won the Rookie of the year award, his shot conversion rate of 26.6 percent was second best in the league and he finished fifth on the scoring chart, tied with Bradley Wright-Phillips.
If Orlando can strengthen it’s defense and give Kaka some creative help in the midfield, Larin will certainly surpass his goal mark in 2016.
Stevie G struggles in La La Land
During his final days at Liverpool, it was clear that Steven Gerrard was nearing the finish line. LA Galaxy gave him another chance, but it didn’t go as planned. Gerrard had a decent half season scoring two goals and setting up three more in 13 starts.
However, it was clear the 35-year-old was having a hard time adapting. After having a taste of the action, he had this to say about the league: “It’s a lot better than I initially thought. A lot of people talk about the MLS, about the level, but for me a lot of them are wrong. Until you come here and sample it yourself, you see how strong it is and how fit and professional the players are.”
More USMNT players return to MLS
Despite Klinsmann strongly advising his players to ply their trades in Europe, several USMNT players are returning home. Jozy Altidore joined Michael Bradley in Toronto, Brek Shea signed with Orlando, Mix Diskerud joined NYCFC, Juan Agudelo joined New England Revolution and Sacha Kljestan signed with the Red Bulls.
Didier Drogba lights up MLS… but will he return in 2016?
When it was announced that Drogba was the latest aging superstar to join the MLS, many fans shook their heads at the signing. But a few weeks later, they were all singing his name. The Ivorian came into the league gun blazing.
He led his side to the playoffs by scoring 11 goals in as much games. He also added a goal in the playoffs.
However, there have been rumors that he could be headed back to Chelsea to join the coaching staff.
Drogba's time here was short but we'll always have the goals….and this. pic.twitter.com/s5iYfqhZN5
— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) December 29, 2015
The atomic ant stands tall above everyone
What a season Sebastian Giovinco, 28, had. He made the shocking switch from Juventus to Toronto FC before the season started and there was no looking back. The little Italian’s year will certainly go down as the best in MLS’ young history.
In 32 games, Seba led in the league in goals scored, 22 (tied with Kei Kamara) and assists, 16.
His outstanding performances have prompted many to ask whether he is too good for MLS. His talents might be years ahead of everyone else in MLS, but there is no doubt the league is glad to have him.
Kei Kamara returns with a bang
Overshadowed by Giovinco for most of the season, the MLS veteran returned to the club that drafted him after a couple of years in Europe. The powerful forward scored 26 goals in all competitions and led his side to the MLS Cup final.
For most MLS fans, Kamara losing in the final is a good thing because they get to see him in action for at least one more year.
“I’m about to make an announcement. I’m retiring,” he said jokingly at a press conference after the MLS Cup final. “I would have done that if we had won the Cup, by the way. Just letting you know.”
Portland Timbers wins it all
In a year filled with ups and downs, a Cascadia club secured the trophy. Led by Nagbe, Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi, the club that finished third in the west managed to shock Columbus Crew at home.
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