By Neil W. Blackmon
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part One of a six-part MLS Preview Series on The Yanks Are Coming. Stay tuned for much, much more as we prepare for what should be the best MLS season yet.
We’re less than three weeks away from the beginning of the 2011 MLS campaign, and despite the usual complaints about the playoff format and designated players, I would argue new developments with the league, most notably the continued improvement of the MLS Academies and exciting young talent help make it safe to suggest this will be a banner year for America’s domestic league. That statement feels more like reality than simple hope this season, which in and of itself is cause for optimism and a rather intangible reason to suggest the league has made great progress, particularly in the past five seasons.
As an American soccer blog with a focus on the Men’s National team and promoting and cultivating the growth of the game in the States, we as a staff decided a couple of changes were critical to make us writers better-equipped to serve that goal and improve the site as a whole. The first was to be more inclusive of the immensely talented Women’s National Team in our writing—an aim we are working on in advance of the 2011 Women’s World Cup. The second change was to ensure that we paid ample attention to the happenings and storylines in our domestic league. A set of preview pieces seemed an obvious place to start—the question (as it tends to be) was how to go about doing that. Anyone who reads TYAC regularly understands that we try to present alternative angles as often as possible, that we push an envelope here or there and that if you wanted AP News-style stuff you have plenty of soccer options on the web. That’s not us so much, and our preview piece won’t be that either. There are plenty of team-by-team breakdowns on the web and individual team profiles in preview magazines. If that’s what you’re after—we’ll do a bit of that, but in all honesty you should purchase one of those magazines or visit other sites. If that’s not what you want, maybe you’ll like what we’re doing instead. We have six stories for you that cover a variety of storylines: players to watch, most intriguing teams, a nice look at supporter groups, expansion and the like. We hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we’re enjoying putting it together.
Our first piece, released in count-down fashion over the course of the next couple of weeks, takes a look at seven intriguing subplots and storylines that will color this MLS campaign. Some (most) will have a direct impact on the league table; others will or could potentially greatly impact the US Men’s National Team; others we just felt were interesting—you might not—and that’s why we have a comments section. Let’s get to the list, shall we, starting at number seven.
7. Is Omar Bravo “finis”, and as such the next designated player to disappoint, or is Sporting KC just what the talented Mexican needs to turn things around?
It hasn’t been the best of times for Designated players of late. Among the disappointments: Hull City dynamo Geovanni, Toronto’s Julian De Guzman, Mexico’s Nery Castillo (who was nothing short of miserable), David “I’ll leave England when I feel like leaving England” Beckham, Rafa “maybe I don’t have as much in the tank as I let on” Marquez. Thierry Henry hasn’t been terrific, but he hasn’t been dreadful either, and his role is extremely important in the league (more on that later.) With those disappointments in mind, one should probably proceed with caution in a discussion involving Mexican stalwart Omar Bravo, who arrives in Kansas City attempting to revive a career suddenly plagued by the early arrival of visible age on the pitch and a run of mostly poor form. Bravo is saying all of the right things, but we’ve seen that before. What will we see on the pitch? And does it matter? Both of these questions make Bravo’s performance in Kansas City this campaign a very intriguing MLS subplot.
Answering the first question is a great deal more difficult than answering the second. All one can do in attempting to answer is listen to what Bravo himself suggests (that it will be fine, that he’s looking forward to it, that he feels great) and then speculate. We’ll try to add just a scintilla of empiricism to that speculation.
First, there’s what he says. Speaking with ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, he agreed that there is a deserved level of expectation around being a Designated Player in America’s domestic league, but suggested that the issue is how you deal with that expectation. The thirty year old told Carlisle that he will approach the situation as one that motivates, not pressures him.”For me to succeed in this team, I come here to add myself to the rest of the group. Obviously, I can’t forecast what is going to happen, but as long as I keep that project in mind, and the fact that it’s not a pressure thing but a motivation thing, then I’m here to just enjoy being the designated player.” Good start. Of course, as mentioned, we’ve heard the right things before—and there are other challenges. First, Bravo doesn’t speak English well, so a new language will be a challenge. Second, the travel is far more demanding than in either Mexico or Spain, his prior two stops, so that will certainly be an adjustment. Finally, there’s the physicality of the American game—partly due to strong players and partly due to referees who swallow whistles—but, as history has shown us, wholly a challenge to any designated player.
It is this final challenge that I think bodes well for Bravo. He’s always been a smart player (much smarter than free-flowing Castillo, for example), and he’s never been particularly card-heavy (like a Marquez), which suggests he may be able to avoid the physical entanglements that often occur in grind-it-out regular season MLS fixtures. KC gaffer Peter Vermes echoed these sentiments in the Carlisle piece linked above, noting that “Omar can smell the game, he can smell situations,” said Vermes. “Just having his smarts around the goal is going to make us a better team.”
That may very well be the case. Another advantage is Bravo’s had a whole preseason to get it sorted out, and he has a companion in Teal Bunbury who, once he recovers from a dislocated elbow, would appear to be a very complimentary player in terms of speed, physicality and style. All of these things indicate success and a revival are quite possible. Taylor Twellman agreed, telling Carlisle that he could be extremely effective with Teal Bunbury, noting that Bravo is most “dynamic when he can run off a target forward.” He’ll likely get a chance to do that in Peter Vermes’ attack. This brings us to question two.
Does it matter if Bravo succeeds? The answer has to be yes, but with an asterisk. The bottom line is the success of designated players isn’t zero sum as it is often portrayed by cynics of MLS. What this means, simply, is that every time a designated player succeeds it doesn’t mean the league is dominated by older players who “used to be stars.” What it means when a DP succeeds is a bit more simplistic, at least in the view of this writer. It simply means a formerly great or, in some cases, still great player can succeed and integrate himself in MLS. That is all. The success of one doesn’t indicate the league is an old-man’s league, and it is critical to point that out. In fact, with the emergence of the MLS Academies and a couple of academy products on the verge of stardom, the argument that MLS is a developmental laboratory for future stars from this side of the world is even stronger than it was when it featured a young Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Successful designated players simply make the league more complete, and as such, a more viable and marketable product. Those are, of course, very positive things—but—as we at TYAC warned after the Henry signing–don’t place the hopes of the league on designated players and former global or regional stars. Don’t do it because you simply don’t have to, not because they don’t help the cause.
Neil W. Blackmon is Editor-In-Chief and Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.