Major League Soccer: LAFC favourites to win open season

US MAJOR League Soccer (MLS) gets underway with four clubs being widely tipped as possible champions: Los Angeles FC (LAFC), Columbus Crew, Toronto and Seattle Sounders.

LAFC had a mediocre campaign in 2020, but they went close to winning the CONCACAF Champions League, losing to Mexico’s Tigres UANL in the final. LAFC had an impressive run, though, beating the most successful team in the competition, América, as well as Cruz Azul and Leon, all from Mexico.

That run, along with the club’s much-envied firepower, has made LAFC a highly-fancied side for the 2021 season. Managed by Bob Bradley, LAFC have two of the league’s most outstanding forwards in the Mexican Carlos Vela – considered by many pundits as the best player in MLS – and Diego Rossi of Uruguay.

Vela is well known to European fans as he played 29 Premier League games for Arsenal and made over 200 La Liga appearances with assorted Spanish clubs, notably Real Sociedad. He has been capped 72 times by Mexico.

Vela was injured and absent in the 2020 season, which undoubtedly stymied LAFC’s progress, but Rossi stepped in with 16 goals in 21 appearances. Rossi, who won the MLS Golden Boot, is a player that has already attracted European interest and the 23 year-old will surely find his way to one of the major leagues. 

LAFC have other players who will surely catch the eye in 2021, including South Korean defender Kim Moon-hwan and Corey Baird, who joined from Busan and Real Salt Lake respectively. The Black and Gold kick-off the MLS season with a home game against new members Austin, who count actor Matthew McConaughey among their investors.

Columbus Crew are expected to fiercely defend the MLS title they won last year against Seattle, in fact they may be even stronger this time around. They have Lucas Zelarayán, the MLS Cup Most Valuable Player 2020 as well as Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes. Argentinian-born Zelarayán was a revelation in his first MLS season, also winning the best newcomer award.

Columbus Crew have added to their MLS Cup squad, signing Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kevin Molino and Marlon Hairston. The club will also move into a new stadium later this year, so the positive momentum should continue, although it has to be remembered that MLS Cup winners rarely retain their trophy. The last team to do so was LA Galaxy who were winners in 2011 and 2012.

Toronto have a new coach in Chris Armas but have been somewhat quiet in the player market. They still have Alejandro Pozuelo, who won the MLS Most Valuable Player award in 2020 and is rated one of the best players across the league. They also have Jozy Altidore who was hamstrung by injuries in 2020. 

While Toronto have a strong squad, like all Canadian clubs, they may be handicapped by their exile in the US due to the pandemic. They will be playing most of their home games in Orlando until they are allowed back to Canada.

Toronto have had some stirring battles with Seattle in the past few years and the Sounders are among the fancied sides this year. The club reached their fourth MLS Cup final in five years in 2020, but injuries and departures may have blunted their edge. Much will depend on players like winger Nicolás Lodeiro and Peruvian international striker Raúl Ruidíaz.

A lot of attention will be focused on Inter Miami, who appointed owner David Beckham’s former team-mate Phil Neville as head coach and also signed veterans Gonzalo Higuaín (33), Ryan Shawcross (33) and Blasé Matuidi (34). The Miami team is one of the most expensive ever assembled in MLS and expectations will undoubtedly be very high. Nobody is forecasting that Inter will be a contender, however.

Could 2021 be the year in which the New York clubs, backed by big business and middle eastern money emerge triumphant? The NY Red Bulls were runners-up in 2008, but there’s been nothing since. The City Football Group are surely getting impatient for success?

It has to be acknowledged that MLS has a greater degree of democracy than many European leagues and that it is difficult to predict the ultimate winner. Only three of the current constitution have not played in the play-offs in the past five years: Miami, Austin and Cincinatti. Will that change in 2021?

Photo: ALAMY

Football Media Watch: A job for the right boy – Phil Neville’s new role

THE problem with successful people is they believe they are good at anything and everything. Thanks to the world’s over fascination with celebrity status and wealth, such individuals are indulged by the broader population, partly because deep down, everyone wants to be the golden boy or girl and also, because they also despise the rich and famous.

Phil Neville enjoyed a fabulous playing career as one of Manchester United’s Class of ’92, appearing almost 400 times for United and winning an astonishing 59 caps for England. Neville was possibly one of the least celebrated members of that group, but he has truly leveraged his career to prolong his time in the spotlight.

Neville has announced he is leaving his job with the England Women’s national team to coach David Beckham’s Inter Miami. Once more, he has landed on his feet, exiting from a job that had gone a little sour and finding refuge in the sunshine state.

Neville’s time with the women’s side turned after the team was knocked out of the World Cup in 2019 and he was criticised for his tactics. His response was almost Trumpian: ‘”I’ve got a vision nobody else has. I’ve got bravery that no other coach had. So, do you know what? Thank your lucky stars. I’m here.”  Such a comment was never going to endear him to the media.

The Daily Telegraph’s Luke Edwards said that it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that Neville’s long-term plans as England coach were all about Phil Neville. Since the World Cup, results have been poor and progress appears to have stalled. He announced in April 2020 that he would be leaving the role, which does make you wonder why the Football Association didn’t replace him then. Like a CEO who lets the world know he is retiring in six, 12 months, power slips away at that point.

Alex Scott, former England international and now BBC pundit, struggled to see where the standout performances were for Neville’s England. “It never really happened,” she noted.

Scott also puts the SheBelieves Cup win of 2019 into perspective. “Is that a competition to be shouting about in terms of an achievement? I don’t think so.” Certainly, England’s displays against truly top teams has been sub-optimal. Neville’s win rate as England manager was 54%, 10 percentage points below Mark Sampson’s record before him. 

Jonathan Liew of The Independent, highlights the old pals’ act of Neville moving to Miami. “The defining motif of Neville’s coaching career to date is a series of doors being held open for him: a path that ironically enough would not exist for a woman of equivalent talent.”

Simon Jordan, the former Crystal Palace owner, was highly critical of the move. Speaking to Talk Sport, he said: “I’m not entirely sure his abilities merit it…I think there’s an element of ‘jobs for the boys’ here. Would he get the job if David Beckham wasn’t involved?”.

The Miami Herald said Neville’s arrival is part of Inter Miami’s second year makeover. He replaces Diego Alonso as coach. Inter finished 19th overall in Major League Soccer and 10th in the 14-team Eastern Conference. Beckham was mostly in the UK as Inter struggled to find their feet. He has said he will take a more hands-on approach for the second season. “I know his qualities, his decency and honesty,” said the former England captain, who called his old team-mate “a natural leader”.

The FA has already appointed Neville’s successor in Sarina Wiegmann, the Netherlands manager, but she will not arrive until September 2021. An interim appointment is obviously a priority.

It won’t be as expensive as the hiring of former Manchester United player, who has actually raised the profile of women’s football. “Phil Neville’s England reign is a costly mistake,” said the Guardian’s Suzanne Wrack back in April when his departure was known. 

Sources: BBC, Miami Herald, Daily Telegraph, Independent, The Guardian