Highly-rated manager James O'Connor heads the Irish interest as new MLS season boasts exciting arrivals

24 teams will battle it out this term and there’s a multitude of talking points.

MUCH HAS BEEN made of the departures from Major League Soccer in the off-season and how much that means about its progression. 

For many, MLS is now a selling league. Developing its own special talent and recruiting better has led to the likes of Canadian teenager Alphonso Davies joining Bayern Munich from the Vancouver Whitecaps and Miguel Almiron swapping reigning champions Atlanta for Newcastle. Both went for big money: a new phenomenon for MLS. After years of struggling to be taken seriously, the high-profile nature of the transfers reflects positively on where the league now finds itself.

And as much as there have been exits that left some organisations reeling (Sebastian Giovinco, superb since his arrival from Juventus in 2015, was less than impressed with Toronto FC’s contract offer, signed with Al-Hilal and outlined his bitterness at his former employers in a scathing social media post), some have done well to keep a relative lid on things.

Atlanta may have lost Almiron and their coach Tata Martino but they worked hard to make sure Josef Martinez, record MLS goalscorer last term, stayed put. They also managed to land two-time Copa Libertadores winner Pity Martinez from River Plate. And when it came to enticing a new manager, they’ve made an intriguing appointment in Frank de Boer. Elsewhere, LA Galaxy may have failed to make the play-offs in 2018 but they can – perhaps surprisingly – still count on Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the new campaign. 

SOCCER: FEB 28 CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 - Atlanta United v Herediano Frank de Boer is the new man in charge in Atlanta. Source: Rich Von Biberstein

And it’s not just about the personnel either. 

The biggest story of the last two seasons has been Atlanta and their ability to tap into an astonishing support network. They consistently broke attendance records in 2018, averaging over 53,000 at games but managing to regularly hit 70,000+. From the 23 clubs that competed last term, 10 of them could rely on over 20,000 being at their home fixtures. Seattle, like they’ve been since entering the league in 2009, are a pretty unique force and their intense fanbase sees over 40,000 at CenturyLink Field for games.

It’s a relevant topic for the new campaign especially considering FC Cincinnati will be making their MLS debut. They’ve already sold over 20,000 season tickets and the local interest is what pushed their expansion. While plying their trade in the United Soccer League (USL), the club broke league attendance records for three straight seasons.

There are other narratives to watch for.

MLS: Knockout Round-Columbus Crew SC at D.C. United Wayne Rooney impressed in his first campaign for DC United. Source: USA TODAY Network

Wayne Rooney was excellent for DC United after joining mid-season and almost single-handedly dragged them to the play-offs. He’s had to deal with the humiliation of a public intoxication charge back in January but it hasn’t hung over him. Rooney has spoken about the calm and quiet of his new surroundings and one can imagine how much mileage the UK tabloid press would have got from a drunk and disorderly Rooney being arrested in an airport. He doesn’t carry a high-profile presence in the US so he’s not media fodder and it said much that the story quickly disappeared into the ether. They like him in Washington and he made many friends by influencing so much so quickly in his first year and it will be interesting if his dynamic with Argentine attacker Luciano Acosta can pick up where it left off in 2018.

Elsewhere, there remains some Irish interest. Having won the championship with Atlanta back in December, Chris McCann was moved on, quickly found a new home in DC and may prove to be an astute signing. A central midfielder by trade, the former Burnley and Wigan man showed his flexibility by playing on the left in Tata Martino’s preferred wing-back system and can offer Washington some options.

Off-field, things can only improve for Colorado Rapids’ chief Padraig Smith. Last season they finished second from bottom in both the Western Conference and overall league tables. There were two record-breaking losing streaks. In 34 games, they scored 36 goals. Smith has invested a lot of time in identifying a club DNA and trying to implement a specific culture. And as much as 2018 was poor for the team, he was impressed by off-field changes. However, a third successive season without reaching the play-offs would not be a good look for the 2010 champions.

The most interesting Irish story pertains to James O’Connor, who heads into his very first full season as an MLS manager.

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Having made a name for himself in the USL with Louisville, who he guided to the championship in 2017, the former Republic of Ireland Under-21 midfielder was brought in to Orlando City SC to try and rescue a season that was already threatening to fall through the floor. But from O’Connor’s 17 league games in charge, a dispirited side won just twice and inevitably finished bottom of the Eastern Conference. Between July and October, they went on a 13-game winless streak. In total, they leaked 74 goals and shipped more than three goals in a game on 11 occasions.

MLS: Toronto FC at Orlando City SC James O'Connor is highly-rated and will head into his first full season as an MLS manager with Orlando City SC. Source: USA TODAY Network

But 39-year-old O’Connor, who enjoyed sustained success as a player with Stoke, Burnley and Sheffield Wednesday before moving to the US and finishing his career with Orlando (then of the USL), is highly-rated and is deserving of time and support. The acquisition of Nani has whipped up some excitement though, ever since leaving Manchester United in 2014, he’s bounced around five clubs (two loan spells with Sporting and Lazio) and has struggled for consistency. He should get some goals and provide another decent layer to a solid attack that features Dom Dwyer and Sacha Kljestan.

But O’Connor’s big test is tightening up at the back, where Cork-born and US-raised Shane O’Neill (son of former two-time All-Ireland-winning Gaelic footballer Colm) is a first-choice centre-half.      

Bernard Jackman joins Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey to discuss the backlash to World Rugby’s league proposal, captaincy styles, sports psychology and more in The42 Rugby Weekly.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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