Who the hell is that: New (and returning) faces of Major League Soccer

Even with the demise of Chivas USA, Major League Soccer has added jobs this offseason. Thanks to two new teams, the typical retirements and cuts, as well as a few A.J. Soares-types making the leap abroad, there are a number of new faces vying for the Best New Employee parking spots.

But far be it from us to tell you about every college draftee or minor league hopeful that’s about to get his shot. Instead, let’s look at the players who we know can play, or, at least, have proven themselves before.

Be they returning to MLS or making their first appearances on these shores, here are the notable names that have been added this winter, broken down into six convenient groups:

Posto adidas - YouTube Live TV Show and Press Conference

Photo: Raphael Dias / Getty Images.

The “Holy crap, these guys are big deals” division

Who: Steven Gerrard (LA Galaxy), Kaká (Orlando City), Frank Lampard (New York City), David Villa (New York City)

Four players, four UEFA Champions League winners medals, two World Cups, one world player of the year, and four stars Major League Soccer would have done unforgivable acts to lure in the days before David Beckham. Put another way, one out of every five teams added an indisputably major international star this offseason.

What’s in dispute is how effective they’ll be. Each is past his prime, and while there’s plenty of reason to think Gerrard can still dictate from midfield, Kaká can be a connecting force in Florida, Lampard’s instincts and industry will thrive in the Bronx, and Villa will be a more consistent (and less truculent) version of Jermain Defoe, the phase “retirement league” may have to be muted on your Twitter timelines.

Let’s be real. Yes, these guys are past their primes, but being able to consistently lure huge names to Major League Soccer is an unambiguously good thing. At least, it’s progress. To the extent we argue about them, we’re arguing in the margins. Would you rather not have David Villa?

While none of these players can still compete for Ballon d’Ors, Pichichis or Premier League Player of the Year honors, each can clearly still play. If Gerrard and Lampard were showing up before mid-season, they’d compete for All-Star honors (insert Liam Ridgewell joke here). The other two should.

Newsflash: Major League Soccer isn’t one of the world’s top leagues. Subhead: Players can still be fun when they’re no longer at Chelsea or Milan. That MLS is getting four undeniably star players is not only progress, it’s kind of amazing.

USA Training & Press Conference - 2014 FIFA World Cup

Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The USA! USA! USA! in MLS … edition

Who: Juan Agudelo (New England), Jozy Altidore (Toronto), Mix Diskerud (New York City), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Brek Shea (Orlando City)

Consider this major change in the life of a U.S. star:

Back in the day, to get the money you’ll need to survive post-career, you needed to go to Europe. Whether you wanted to leave or not, you had to pursue that opportunity. Major League Soccer just wasn’t paying the non-Donovans (the Nonovans) enough to forgo those paychecks.

Now? You can flame out in Europe (Shea, Alitdore), have trouble landing (Agudelo), become a quick legend at a modest but historic club (Kljestan) or merely see your options in bigger leagues never really come good (Diskerud). Regardless, Major League Soccer has become a place where you can go, get paid and not have to consider it a compromise. Oh, and you get to play at home.

For Altidore, yeah, he probably wouldn’t be back if he’d succeeded in England. Same goes for Shea, as well as the work permit-troubled Agudelo. Had Diskerud had options there, he probably wouldn’t be in New York. Sacha had hit the end of his European road. None of these are exactly hotly-contested captures.

Yet all of them could be hugely important. If Toronto is going to finally make the playoffs, it has to not only replace but perhaps better Jermaine Defoe’s goal production. Diskerud needs to be his midfield’s star until Lampard shows up. Shea and Agudelo can be crucial, complementary pieces to star creators (Kaká and Lee Nguyen).

And as for Kljestan, he’s a player who could justify the new direction of Ali Curtis and the Red Bulls. If he plays well, he will provide the kind of midfield presence the team’s so desperately lacked in recent seasons. Combine that with contributions from Felipe, imported from Montreal, and New York may be able to offset some of Thierry Henry’s loss.

Wigan Athletic v Millwall - Sky Bet Championship

Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images.

Welcome back, we kind of missed you … bracket

Who: Roger Espinoza (Sporting KC), Michael Farfan (D.C. United), Kei Kamara (Columbus)

Have you noticed what Columbus did this offseason? Of course you didn’t. “They’re just Columbus,” is something we probably won’t be saying midseason. As for now, the progress Gregg Berhalter made in implementing an ambitious, possession-centric approach has been augmented by Chris Klute (a perfect fullback for Berhalther’s system) and Kei Kamara, who returns to Major League Soccer after trying his hand in England.

Kamara’s capture isn’t new. Columbus actually inked him at the end of last season, though he’s yet to put on the yellow and black. While watching his new team’s final games, he likely saw the midfield of Federico Higuaín, Tony Tchiani, and Wil Trapp create enough chances for their strikers only to see players like Jairo Arrieta struggle for goals. Kamara has a reputation for being an inconsistent finisher, but as an outlet alone, he should help Columbus improve on an otherwise solid attack.

In Kansas City, Espinoza’s return from Wigan will see him slide back into the midfield disruptor role he mastered before his England sojourn. In D.C., however, Farfan’s return has been slightly less discussed. While it’s unclear how much time he’ll be able to win in what’s become a crowded middle, the more creative of the Farfan brothers did sneak onto an All-Star team two years ago. After trying his hand in Mexico, he’s back, giving Ben Olsen a creative option for the top of his midfield.

Malta v Italy - EURO 2016 Qualifier

Photo: Claudio Villa/Getty Images.

The You Weren’t Playing in Italy … pair

Who: Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto) and Marco Donadel (Italy)

Marco Donadel was once a regular in Fiorentina’s midfield, but that ended with the 2010-11 campaign. Since then, between spells with Napoli and Hellas Verona, he’s started 12 games in three seasons. Yet he’s only 31, has a nice Serie A pedigree, and is Italian. So … Montréal!

As for Giovinco, he has a chance to be a major influence on the season. Where Altidore-for-Defoe could end up being a wash, Giovinco-for-Gilberto has a chance to be a legitimate step forward.

Is Toronto drastically overpaying for that step forward? I wouldn’t ask the question like that if the answer was no. But it’s not your money, nor is it mine. And if a ridiculous wage packet that would make him the highest paid player in Serie A gets TFC into the postseason, Reds fans will likely look beyond their front office’s overreach.

The Random Defenders From France Who Will Matter … collection

Who: Tyrone Mears (Seattle), Damien Perquis (Toronto), Ronald Zubar (New York Red Bulls)

For some, Toronto’s problem in 2014 wasn’t Ryan Nelsen’s dour approach or the on-again, off-again interest of Defoe. It was a defense that, for some, lacked a dominant presence in front of goalkeeper Joe Bendik. For them, the acquisition of French-born Polish international Damien Perquis will be a relief, even if Steven Caldwell and Nick Hagglund seem solid enough.

In New Jersey and Seattle, two other defenders with French connections will also be asked to fill holes. For the Red Bulls, former Caen, Marseille, and Wolverhampton defender Ronald Zubar will need to fill Jamison Olave’s boots. Tyrone Mears, who also has Marseille on his CV, will be asked to be a poorer, older, less adored for his homegrown national team-ness version of DeAndre Yedlin.

Much like the stars group, all of these players may be past their primes. And, much like the first group, all three could play vital roles for their squads.

Claudio Reyna, Ferran Soriano

 

Photo: AP Photo/New York City Football Club, Ray Stubblebine.

The Big Groups of People Getting First Division Soccer … group

Who: New York City FC, Orlando City SC

New players are nice. New franchises are even better. With the additions of teams in New York and Orlando, Major League Soccer’s taking a number of huge steps forward. The league finally has a team in New York City proper, while the stain of Floridian failure in the league’s infancy can be corrected in Orlando. And with the sure number of franchises climbing to 20, the league is making its first move toward that big 24 number Don Garber wants to reach by 2022.

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