MLS preview: Major changes for Canada's clubs | Soccer | CBC Sports

MLSMLS preview: Major changes for Canada's clubs

Posted: Friday, March 7, 2014 | 10:48 AM

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Michael Bradley of Toronto FC is one of the many high-profile acquisitions and hirings expected to excite Canadian soccer fans. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) Michael Bradley of Toronto FC is one of the many high-profile acquisitions and hirings expected to excite Canadian soccer fans. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

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Major League Soccer enters its final season before expanding from 19 franchises to 21 in 2015, with likely total of 24 by 2020.

Buckle up. It is going to be a bumpy ride. Gird your loins for a roller-coaster of emotion. Here we go again.

No sooner have we caught our breath and gathered our abiding memories from the Sochi Olympics than a brand new soccer season bursts in through the back door.

Major League Soccer enters its final year before another round of expansion. In 2015, 19 franchises become 21, leading ultimately to a likely total of 24 by 2020. The much-heralded New York City FC is waiting in the wings, while Orlando City's perseverance is close to finally bearing fruit.

In the meantime, it is status quo, at least in terms of the number of competitors: 10 clubs in the Eastern Conference and nine in the West, with the top five in each qualifying for the playoffs.

The annual debate about the bar being set too low will inevitably kick in. But fans of the Vancouver Whitecaps will always be able to boast their team was the first Canadian club, however briefly, to reach the post-season.

The gradual tweaking of the playoff system is never going to meet with universal approval. But I believe it is now about as good as it is going to get. The top three teams in each conference are rightly rewarded for their consistency over the regular season, while the fourth- and fifth-placed teams are given a one-off, winner-take-all chance to advance. In a league designed with parity in mind, it prolongs interest for franchises on the bubble.

The Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact have both made it and missed it. As a result, both have employed new head coaches for 2014. Toronto FC, which has regularly missed the playoffs by a country mile, has not.

Marco Schallibaum, the "Swiss Volcano," erupted once too often. Montreal liked his passion and linguistic expertise. And he accomplished the mission of delivering the Ultras a playoff team, albeit via the back door. His vibrant personality will be missed. Not so his childlike tantrums, which led to multiple touchline bans.

Frank Klopas has been tasked with cleaning up the mess. The former Chicago Fire head coach knows the league and how to win. As a player, he was an MLS Cup champion in 1998. More significantly, he led Chicago to the playoffs during his first full season in charge.

His playing staff, led by the ageless Marco Di Vaio, has changed little. Italian legend Alessandro Nesta has finally retired, giving newcomer Heath Pearce a chance to resurrect his career. The former U.S. international adds depth and versatility to the defensive unit and, if Nelson Rivas can stay healthy, Klopas has a solid backline.

No illusions in Vancouver

On the west coast, they're still recovering from two sore black eyes. Vancouver's failure to attract an experienced head coach to replace Martin Rennie remains a slap in the face to an organization with aspirations of global relevance. 

Carl Robinson is under no illusions. The former Welsh international, who, in my experience, has never been anything less than professional, knows he was in the right place at the right time. He will do his upmost to seize the opportunity and make a go of it. But ultimately, a rookie head coach is a rookie head coach and the survival rate is tiny.

Robinson's reign is handicapped from the get-go. The messy divorce, which drove Camilo into the arms of a Mexican suitor, will likely leave deep scars. The Brazilian striker's exit was undoubtedly a public relations disaster. But he was only following a well-worn path by cashing in on a career season. The Whitecaps and MLS have shared the profits of the sale. But all the money in the world cannot replace Camilo's goals. That's the job of Pedro Morales.

In the nick of time, Vancouver believes it has found a suitable replacement. The Chilean international has arrived on a free transfer from Spanish side Malaga as a designated player. Quite how long it will take him to adjust to the speed, physicality and travel demands of MLS is anyone's guess. Robinson needs that to happen sooner rather than later.

Extreme makeover in Toronto

No team has garnered more attention over the winter than Toronto FC. The annual makeover has been more spectacular -- and costly -- than perhaps any in league history.

Head coach Ryan Nelsen's networking skills have served him well. Aided by the mighty financial muscle of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the club's parent company, Nelsen has been able to attract an array of internationals to a franchise which had descended to the level of laughing stock.

Money talks and big money talks louder. Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Julio Cesar all have their reasons for signing up. But let's be clear, none of them come cheaply. They are also motivated by a common desire -- to play regularly and thus represent their countries at the forthcoming FIFA World Cup.

The question is not whether the on-field product will be better. It was so poor, improvement is inevitable. The question is how much better? Nelsen's roster now boasts an experienced, international spine. But with the exception of Bradley and the return of Dwayne De Rosario, the newcomers have no MLS experience.

The expectation is immense. The star-studded squad looks great on paper. But until it gets out there, plays as a team and wins some early-season games, there is frankly no telling how long this group will take to gel. Team chemistry is one thing that cold hard cash cannot buy.

The multi-million dollar overhaul is already paying dividends. For the first time in years, the sold-out signs are back up at BMO Field. Fans, weary from failure fatigue, are back in big numbers, ready to believe the barren seasons are finally a thing of the past.

Why wouldn't they be? They've been guaranteed success after all by no less a luminary than team president Tim Leiweke. What could possibly go wrong?

Follow Nigel Reed on Twitter @Nigel_Reed

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