It’s almost as if it has never been away. Barely 100 days after the Beckham-Keane-Donovan axis gave Los Angeles Galaxy their first MLS Cup victory in six years, the new season is already upon us, complete with a new addition in the form of Montreal impact, new coaches in the form of Jay Heaps, Martin Rennie, Oscar Pareja and Jesse Marsch, and of course a whole host of new players.
Over the close season the ‘new player’ role was occupied by a number of MLS stars trying their luck with clubs overseas, or simply providing a glimpse of their talents in training sessions. Some (Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry) had more success than others (George John and Omar Gonzalez), while one – Tim Ream – even earned himself a permanent move abroad with Bolton Wanderers.
Now with the first kick of the 2012 campaign just days away, it is time to look at a few of those aiming to earn hero status in their first season Stateside.
1. KRIS BOYD
Back in 2001 (was it really that long ago?), a tricky Scottish striker by the name of John Spencer arrived in Major League Soccer following a successful career in England with Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers.
There is no doubt he was approaching the twilight of his career, but the man from Glasgow proved to Colorado Rapids fans that he still had a few good years left in him, finding the net 14 times in each of his first two seasons before retiring in 2004. This year sees the cycle continue as Spencer, now coach of the Portland Timbers, has recruited another Scotsman in Kris Boyd to lead the line.
The all-time record goalscorer in the Scottish Premier League despite making less than 300 appearances, a couple of less-than-impressive stints in England and Turkey are unlikely to have dampened the 28-year-old’s enthusiasm or his clinical finishing.
After a year of frustration watching the misfiring Kenny Cooper labour towards eight league goals before departing for New York, if Boyd hits the ground running he can quickly become a favourite with the Timbers Army, and a debut strike in Sunday’s friendly against AIK suggests those in green and white have every reason to be excited.
2. HAMDI SALIHI
Considering the previous campaign’s pitiful return of 22 points, last season ought to be viewed positively by fans of DC United. That it won’t be is largely due to the late-season collapse which saw defensive frailties remain (understandable given the relative youth of the back four plus goalkeeper Bill Hamid) while the attacking threat of mid-season dissipated in a run of one point and six goals from the final six outings.
Much of that, some feel, may have been down to Ben Olsen’s refusal to give Charlie Davies more game-time, a decision touched upon by the player in a recent interview. The US international had held the mantle of top goalscorer for the early part of the year before being surpassed by Dwayne De Rosario both as regular starter and regular scorer, and faded badly, failing to score after September’s thrilling hat-trick against Chivas USA.
Whether this comes down to the loanee running out of steam after having missed a year through injury or whether a lack of managerial faith lead to his downfall remains a matter of debate, but all that is certain is that Davies returned to parent club Sochaux in the close-season and needed replacing. The man chosen by United to fulfil that role is Hamdi Salihi, a relatively unheralded (among the world’s elite at least) Albanian striker who has been tearing up trees in the Austrian league with Rapid Vienna, hitting 57 goals in just 95 appearances.
A clinical finisher, as his better than a goal every two games scoring record in Austria and his homeland demonstrate, adjusting to the demands of Major League Soccer ought not to be an issue for the 28-year-old. If he can form a quick understanding with De Rosario and potentially bring the best out of young winger Andy Najar following the Honduran’s difficult second season, then the jump into the playoff spots should be a formality.
3. ATIBA HARRIS
Not a new signing per se, but after injury limited him to just five appearances for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2011 he will certainly seem like one. A strong display in the season-opening demolition of Toronto FC and a second goal against Sporting Kansas City were a taste of things to come, but the St Kitts international never got the chance to push on.
With new midfield enforcer Barry Robson not due to arrive at BC Place until the summer, Harris may be required to begin the season in a deeper role behind the club’s wealth of attacking talent: Sebastien Le Toux has arrived from Philadelphia as an obvious partner for fellow Frenchman Eric Hassli, while the supporting cast of Camilo and Davide Chiumiento will look to play an active tole as they did in 2011.
What’s more, new coach Rennie will be expecting big things of young forwards Omar Salgado and Long Tan in their sophomore seasons with the club, all of which could leave Gershon Koffie as a rather isolated figure as the most natural holding midfielder in the Caps squad.
Harris may be required to sit a little deeper as the season kicks off, giving Koffie the confidence to develop his game and forming a link between midfield and attack which was lacking at times last year. Later in the campaign, though, as the squad inevitably becomes stretched, opportunities to contribute further forward may arise, and this could prove a fruitful season for Vancouver if they manage to get the best out of the former Dallas man.
Tags: Atiba Harris, Ben Olsen, Charlie Davies, DC United, Hamdi Salihi, John Spencer, Kris Boyd, Martin Rennie, MLS, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps