Just one game remains in the MLS season as Atlanta United is set to take on the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup final. Both sides have been among the league’s best for a majority of the season, one which provided several broken records and numerous high points.
Stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney came into the league and thrived. Josef Martinez shattered the goalscoring record. Atlanta and the New York Red Bulls dueled all year with both eclipsing the previous record for points in a season. Los Angeles FC dazzled in the club’s expansion season while FC Cincinatti, Inter Miami and the unnamed Nashville side are waiting in the wings.
Yet it wasn’t all to plan this year in MLS as Goal takes a look at the top five biggest disappointments of the 2018 season.
Toronto FC finally wears down
A championship hangover is natural, but no one expected the nosedive experienced by Toronto FC in 2018.
In many ways, it’s understandable. The reigning MLS Cup champions, widely viewed as one of the league’s best ever teams, went all-in on the Concacaf Champions League in a bid to become the first MLS side to win the continental competition. They fell short, losing to a pragmatic Chivas side in the final while tanking their opening MLS matches along the way due to the heavy rotation.
Once that was over, many expected TFC to turn it around with the focus on MLS, but they never did. The magic switch never flipped on and, when all was said and done, TFC finished ninth, 14 points out of a playoff spot
There were reasons for that. Injuries piled up, especially in defense, leading to the conceding of 64 goals, good for second-worst in the conference. Offseason signings Ager Aketxe and Gregory van der Wiel didn’t take the club to a new level. Jozy Altidore played just 13 games, often leaving Sebastian Giovinco to do more heavy-lifting than he probably should have.
It would be a good bet to pick TFC to be back amongst the contenders in 2019. The team is too talented and too ambitious to settle for a two-year letdown. But the idea of seeing a historically-good Toronto FC compete with historically-good sides like the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United is a tantalizing one, and one that didn’t come to fruition as TFC finally wore down after two seasons towards the top of the MLS mountain.
Zlatan not enough to prevent Galaxy collapse
Zlatan Ibrahimovic fashions himself as a God, but higher powers weren’t enough to save what ended as a calamitous LA Galaxy season.
From the moment the Swedish star stepped on the field, there was a buzz around the Galaxy that had been missing for some time. His debut against LAFC was scintillating, historic, entertaining and, most important of all, victorious. The club appeared to be on the right path with a number of big offseason additions joining Ibrahimovic in leading the rebuild.
It didn’t quite go as planned. The defense proved to be one of the worst in the league as high-prices options like Michael Cianni and Rolf Feltscher failed to pan out. The two have since left the club, alongside Ashley Cole, who was the lone bright spot on the backline.
Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, scored 22 goals in just 27 games, ridiculous numbers even for a player of his pedigree. It wasn’t enough. The Galaxy collapsed on the final day of the season, squandering a two-goal lead in a loss to the Houston Dynamo.
The Galaxy completely wasted Ibrahimovic’s heroics, and head coach Sigi Schmid and VP of Soccer Operations Pete Vagenas paid the price. Will they get another chance with the Swede, as AC Milan rumors swirl, or will one of the top attractions in MLS history see his time in the league go down as a missed opportunity?
Dempsey’s quiet exit not one fit for a legend
Star athletes rarely get to go out on their own terms. We’ve seen many all-time greats forced out of their respective sports and we’ve seen boatloads of legends hold on to one last shred of glory by continuing on at a much lower level than the one that made them famous.
Yet there was something even more disappointing about the way in which Clint Dempsey called it a career, as one of the USA’s most important stars was quietly whisked away with an unceremonious exit.
The writing was on the wall for some time, starting with the mysterious heart issue that impacted Dempsey during the Sounders’ 2016 MLS Cup run. Dempsey continued to shine during his call-ups with the U.S. national team but, after the USMNT’s shock World Cup letdown, the 2018 season just didn’t seem right.
Having started just nine games with one goal scored, Dempsey walked away on August 29 after playing just 70 minutes in the prior two months. There was no fanfare, no send-off, no testimonial. Just a retirement and an eventual ceremony that in no way captured just how important Dempsey was to both the Sounders organization and American soccer as a whole.
Dempsey may or may not be the best American player of all-time, but it’s impossible to deny that he is among the most tenacious, hard-working and unyielding players to grace American soccer. For many, he was an inspiration, an innovator, a legend. He deserved a better send-off, even if he will be remembered for much more than the way he exited the game.
San Diego project falters following public vote
San Diego has everything needed to be a top MLS market. There’s the local talent. There’s the soccer culture and history. There’s the weather and desirability. There’s an ownership group spearheaded by a familiar face in Landon Donovan. There are even ready-made local rivalries on both sides of the border.
The city has it all. Except a stadium.
Hopes of bringing an MLS franchise to San Diego are all but dead after the proposal to build a stadium fell short in a November vote. The city would have been all but guaranteed of a spot in the next round of expansion if the vote had gone well but, without a stadium, there seems little chance of bringing MLS to the city.
“If it was as simple as, ‘Do we want an MLS team and do we want to do something like that for the city?’ I think that’d be an easy answer for everyone,” Donovan told Goal after the vote. “But unfortunately, these things are more complicated than that and I don’t know if they want to go through that again.”
An MLS franchise in the southern California city would have been intriguing to say the least. Known as a youth hotbed, a San Diego franchise would have looked to go toe-to-toe with not just MLS rivals like the LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes, and LAFC, but also Mexican sides like Club Tijuana that lie just across the border. The battle at both the youth and senior level would have brought quite a competition, one which we likely won’t see going forward.
MLS expansion remains a hot topic all over the country and, while San Diego’s loss may be a market like Sacramento’s gain, the lack of public support for the stadium proposal left many frustrated all through the U.S. soccer landscape.
Draft class proves one of weakest in recent memory
The ever-increasing presence of homegrown players has changed the MLS SuperDraft forever, and we’ve known that for quite a while. The draft isn’t the same as it used to be. It’s rarely about grabbing a club’s next star. Instead, it’s about finding the diamonds in the rough that slipped through the cracks.
This year, though, it appears there were even fewer diamonds than expected.
Of this January’s first 10 picks, only four (Chris Mueller, Brandon Bye, Mo Adams and Mason Toye) appeared in at least 15 matches. Only one, Mueller, was in the Rookie of the Year conversation, and he eventually lost to Real Salt Lake homegrown Corey Baird, who took home the honors by a wide margin.
It was a rough year for drafted rookies, even with later picks like Alex Roldan and Ken Krolicki helping to boost the class. Roldan proved the only legitimate contributor to a playoff-contending team as most rookies struggled to make a real difference at the MLS level.
That’s not a permanent indictment on any involved. Players like Joao Moutinho, Tomas Hilliard-Arce and Francis Atuahene clearly weren’t drafted with the here and now in mind. It may take a few years for many of these guys to figure out their game, and that’s fine. There’s a reason clubs have USL teams and affiliates, and it’s certainly okay for players to have an adjustment period.
But, as of now, it’s hard to see a Julian Gressel or a Jack Harrison or a Cyle Larin in this class as it appears there’s no real breakout star in the group just yet.