Photo by Michael Janosz/ISIphotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
As Sporting Kansas City ushers in what could be a defining era for soccer in the American heartland this season, the club’s overhaul won’t stop at its polarizing rebranding or new soccer-specific venue. The team on the field has turned a page as well, focusing on a youthful nucleus that will be boosted by the presence of a veteran Mexican star.
In Omar Bravo, Kansas City has an experienced scorer who bagged more than 100 goals for Chivas de Guadalajara while adding another 15 for the Mexico national team throughout the past decade. Now, seven months after his move to MLS was first announced, the 31-year-old will take his prolific reputation to Kansas City as the club’s new designated player.
Bravo’s introduction to MLS presents an obvious question: Compared to two of his compatriot MLS predecessors, will Bravo be more Cuauhtemoc Blanco, an MVP finalist with the Chicago Fire, or Nery Castillo, an unmitigated bust in the Windy City? Based on Bravo’s proven track record, the smart money is on the former. But his notching just a two-goal output in last year’s Apertura tournament with Chivas isn’t exactly encouraging.
As part of a three-man front line that could also feature U.S. national team forward Teal Bunbury and 10-goal-scorer Kei Kamara, Bravo could be in for a stellar season with Sporting if he does still have that finishing touch.
Here are a few more players coming to MLS via foreign leagues to keep an eye on during the 2011 campaign:
CHARLIE DAVIES (D.C. United)
More than 17 months after Davies was supposed to play in the nation’s capital during the U.S. national team’s World Cup qualifying finale against Costa Rica, the 24-year-old striker is set to finally take the RFK Stadium pitch March 19.
Davies, of course, missed that national team match because he suffered life-threatening injuries in a deadly car accident that dashed his World Cup dreams and have kept him out of first-team action since. Now on loan to D.C. United from French side Sochaux, Davies is ready to take the next step in his remarkable comeback and return to regular minutes.
United scored 21 goals en route to a league-worst 6-20-4 mark in 2010, so coach Ben Olsen can ill afford to play Davies if he isn’t ready. Competing for time up top with Chris Pontius, Josh Wolff and Joseph Ngwenya, the former Boston College Eagle has shown glimpses in the preseason of the breakaway speed that made him such a dynamic threat for the national team. Should he get close to his pre-accident form, Davies could lift this rebuilt United squad back into the playoff discussion.
OUSMANE DABO (New England Revolution)
The New England Revolution found itself watching the playoffs from home last year for the first time since Steve Nicol took over as coach in 2002. If the club is going to return to MLS Cup contention, it will need the central midfield pairing of Dabo, formerly of Manchester City and Lazio, and stalwart Shalrie Joseph to be every bit the match-controlling force it looks like on paper.
Dabo, who has three caps with the France national team, boasts the composure and organizational savvy to be the perfect foil to Joseph in the middle. But he recently turned 34 years old and hasn’t played a competitive match in more than a year, so there are certainly questions about his form.
The Revolution, which also brought in another French veteran, left back Didier Domi, as part of its offseason quest to get back on track, doesn’t have the most daunting of rosters, so it is undoubtedly counting on major production out of the Dabo-Joseph midfield duo.
JAY DEMERIT (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Like Dabo, the Vancouver captain is a high-profile signing who will have to shake off some rust if he is going to live up to expectations. Out of contract with Watford, DeMerit didn’t find a European suitor after logging every minute of the United States’ World Cup run and ended up signing with the expansion side in November.
A gritty overachiever who worked his way through England’s lower tiers before eventually plying his trade in the Premier League, DeMerit will provide the Whitecaps’ back line with stability from day one. Unlike some Americans who return home following successful European endeavors, the 31-year-old should still have plenty of good soccer left in him.
Furthermore, DeMerit is surely hungry to get back into the national team picture ahead of this June’s Gold Cup after seemingly falling off U.S. coach Bob Bradley’s radar and behind the likes of Clarence Goodson, Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez.
ERIC HASSLI (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Although Vancouver supporters have known DeMerit would be anchoring their club’s defense for some time now, the matter of who would be putting the ball in the net was another matter entirely until Hassli, a 29-year-old Frenchman who comes to MLS via FC Zurich, signed on last week as the franchise’s first designated player.
The 6-foot-4 striker provides the Whitecaps with a physical presence up front who can win 50-50 balls and get onto the end of crosses, but Hassli is also adept at holding the ball and distributing from advanced positions.
And he could form a physically imposing partnership with rookie Omar Salgado, also listed at 6 feet 4 inches, even if the top pick from January’s SuperDraft remains ineligible until September.
KENNY COOPER (Portland Timbers)
Did someone mention a hulking a striker with surprising technical skill? Vancouver’s Hassli wasn’t the only such player nabbed by a Cascadia expansion side this offseason.
In the 6-foot-3 Cooper, the Timbers managed to pick up a known commodity who found the back of the net with regularity during four productive seasons with FC Dallas before making an ill-fated move to second-tier German club 1860 Munich.
Don’t be surprised if the 2008 MLS Best XI selection picks up right where he left off stateside – recently signed Colombian speedster Jorge Perlaza should stretch opposing defenses, thus creating gaps for Cooper to exploit in the attacking third. A clinical finisher, Cooper has shown he only needs halfway-decent service and a sliver of space to make defenses pay.
CARLOS RUIZ (Philadelphia Union)
Whereas the 26-year-old Cooper seems like a sure bet to produce for Portland, Ruiz, another accomplished MLS goal-scorer, returns to the league amid more skepticism. A two-time MLS Golden Boot winner and the 2002 MVP, “El Pescadito” joins Philadelphia after scoring a combined 30 goals during his past two years playing in Paraguay, Mexico and Greece.
But when Ruiz, 31, was last seen in MLS, he was wrapping up a fruitless stint with Toronto FC that saw him play just five games before being cut loose. While his 82 regular season goals place him third among active players, he last struck for double digits in an MLS campaign in 2006 for FC Dallas.
After inquiring about another former MVP and Golden Boot winner, Luciano Emilio, early last season, Philadelphia finally snagged the experienced poacher it has desired in Ruiz. The Guatemala national team’s all-time leading scorer will be counted on to add balance to a Union attack that leaned too heavily on Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga last year.
FARYD MONDRAGON (Philadelphia Union)
After a year of inconsistency between the posts, the Union put an end to the short-lived Chris Seitz-Brad Knighton era during the offseason, cleaning house at the goalkeeper position. Enter Mondragon, a 39-year-old Colombia national team staple who left Bundesliga side FC Cologne and signed with the Union in January.
Factor in the acquisition of fellow Colombian international Carlos Valdes, who is poised to partner with skipper Danny Califf in central defense, and the Union suddenly offers an admirable defensive core.
In addition to providing stability and leadership in goal, Mondragon will also tutor the Union’s two rookie shot-stoppers, first-round SuperDraft pick Zac MacMath and undrafted free agent Thorne Holder, both of whom played under Philadelphia goalkeeper coach Rob Vartughian at Maryland.
JAN GUNNAR SOLLI (New York Red Bulls)
Although many of these imports were brought in to be go-to players for their respective clubs, Solli figures to simply be another key piece of the puzzle for a star-studded Red Bulls squad that already features the likes of Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez.
The 29-year-old Norway national team winger should slot nicely into the right side of New York’s midfield, giving coach Hans Backe the option of using Dane Richards’ pace at forward. With 2010 Newcomer of the Year candidate Joel Lindpere manning the left flank, the Red Bulls might boast the league’s most technically proficient outside midfield tandem.
And Solli could get plenty of overlapping support from newly acquired Teemu Tainio, a natural midfielder during stints with Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland and Ajax who has played right back this preseason.
FABIAN CASTILLO (FC Dallas)
If the Colombia Under-20 international signed from Deportivo Cali produces in the same ballpark as Fredy Montero, another promising Colombian striker who came to MLS at a young age, FC Dallas will seriously compete for its first MLS Cup again in 2011.
The Hoops needed some more punch in the attacking third following the offseason departures of Jeff Cunningham and Atiba Harris. In acquiring Castillo, Dallas seems to have plugged the only notable hole on an otherwise deep and talented roster.
Whether Castillo is paired with veteran forward Milton Rodriguez or playing as a lone striker ahead of midfield maestro David Ferreira, the quick-footed 18-year-old figures to be handful for opposition back lines.
Which incoming player do you see having the biggest impact in 2011? Can Bravo elevate Kansas City to the next level? Will Davies return to his pre-accident form? Which returning star will score more goals this season: Cooper or Ruiz?
Share your thoughts below.