From hype to hot seats: MLS’ most fascinating figures to follow in 2018

Record signings. Coaches coming down to reality. Owners taking gambles. These are the people to watch in MLS in 2018.

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ISI Photos-John Dorton
ISI Photos-John Dorton

Major League Soccer’s 23rd season features a record number of teams (23) and a commensurate number of compelling characters, from front-office power types to front-line attackers. Here are the most intriguing men in MLS this year (in alphabetical order):

Ezequiel Barco, Atlanta United midfielder

Anybody remember the $5 milkshake from Pulp Fiction? How a character needed “to know what a $5 shake” tasted like back when $5 seemed like an absurd price for it? Well, could some of the same type curiosity encircle Barco, Atlanta United’s new $15 million signing?

Can the guy really be that much better than, say, a $5 million acquisition?

That monster transfer price paid to Argentina’s Santa Fe established Barco as Major League Soccer’s most expensive prize yet. (Previous mark: $10 million from Toronto to Roma for Michael Bradley in 2014).

All that dough for an 18-year-old, no less, who will nominally replace Yamil Asad on Atlanta’s roster. Asad is now with D.C. United, and it’s no cinch that one man can replace his 7 goals and 13 assists. Not even in Atlanta United’s high-revving engine of attack, so there’s one pressure point to monitor.

More than that, this kid is just a kid. It’s quite possible that he drives the attack splendidly despite Major League Soccer’s unique quirks. In that case, he’ll stay here a year or two before Atlanta throws up the “for sale” sign and reaps perhaps a league-record profit. There is also a chance that Barco crashes, unable to cope with new culture or expectations. Either way, it’ll be fascinating to watch. Heck, Atlanta and its go-go style is always worth watching. Now there’s more subtext to it all.

Bob Bradley, LAFC manager

Almost everyone in U.S. soccer was cheering as Bradley became the first American to manage in the venerable Premier League. Almost everyone was bummed when the rug got yanked from beneath his Yankee feet – prematurely it certainly seemed. (Swansea remain today, more than a year later, in the familiar bear trap of the PL’s drop zone.)

So a career full of bold coaching choices – Egypt’s national team, into Europe and upward through the Old World ranks, etc. – have brought to former U.S. men’s national team manager back where it started for him: to MLS. And since he hasn’t coached a match in more than a year, you just know he’s about to burst.

Bradley isn’t just someone familiar with cobbling together an MLS expansion team, having assembled a championship group on the fly at Chicago in 1998. He has also remade his image. More accurately, Bradley has let more of us peak behind the curtain, revealing a bit more of the personality players always told us about, a little warmer and convivial than he previously preferred demonstrating to the public.

Bradley, 59, has his work cut out. What Atlanta achieved last year could move the bar for how we judge a successful expansion season, even if the Georgians’ burst from the gate was atypical. Either way, Bradley is going about it deliberately, thoughtfully. A week before the club’s inaugural MLS match, LAFC had 18 players on roster – 10 below the standard. Clearly, Bradley is confident about doing things his way. How will it work this time around?

Magic Johnson, LAFC co-owner

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Off the field around fledgling LAFC, it’s hard to pick out one or two most significant figures. After all, the club has approximately 300 owners (or so it seems). And a lot of creative minds poured themselves into branding, which has been spot-on so far, catching up quickly in name recognition and around an L.A. market with plenty of competition for the entertainment dollar.

But one person involved gives LAFC a special leg up in the reach for cultural heft: Magic Johnson, a part owner who is practically de facto mayor of Los Angeles. People in L.A. like to say of the former Lakers and NBA legend: this is his town.

Consider his weight as LAFC looks to wedge itself into the L.A. scene: He remains the Lakers president of basketball operations, part owner of the Dodgers and, of course, CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises.

And he is all in for LAFC. Front office staff say he’s not just around for the photo ops; he’s available, eager and educated on the ongoing targets. And right in their sights: to leapfrog the Galaxy as the greater Los Angeles area’s soccer team.

The Galaxy’s stadium location (further out in L.A.’s suburban supersprawl) and LAFC’s useful status as “new MLS” give Magic’s club the opportunity to win local soccer hearts. His own weight as an L.A. power broker (perhaps the L.A. power broker in sports) makes him central to the effort.

Kaku, New York Red Bulls midfielder

Surpassing the “Freddy Adu line” when it comes to painfully, prematurely overhyped men in MLS always looked impossible. Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra may have gotten close.

When the New York Red Bulls finally, mercifully completed the transfer of their new Argentine attacking midfielder, it closed the chapter on months of rumors, reports and false starts, all of which added significantly to the guy’s growing, er, legend. Never mind that so few Red Bulls fans could even pronounce the name of his former club (Argentine side Huracan), much less identify the guy without a name on his jersey.

Beyond all that, Kaku, 23, will be a Young Designated Player and, more to the point, a replacement for Sacha Kljestan, the club’s popular and productive playmaker. Kljestan was the first player in league history to top the assist charts two years in a row. Considering that, and considering the Red Bulls have notoriously discarded their captain for a second year running, they are seriously on the hook here.

So is Kaku. But don’t we all know that? We’ve already heard so much about him.

NEXT: From coaching prodigy to the hot-seat