Stories

Toronto, Seattle set markers for fruits of ambition as MLS evolves

Paul Tenorio checks in from MLS Cup. Plus: Harsh words for Orlando from Harrison Heath, and Kennedy Igboananike gets traded from D.C. to Portland.

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TORONTO – In the aftermath of MLS Cup on Saturday night at BMO Field, one team was left to wonder how to rebound from a devastating loss. Another flew home to celebrate with its fans.

Each should feel as though its ambition and approach was validated.

Ambition alone doesn’t make a winner. Money can’t turn your team into a winner on its own. That has been proven over much of the history of Toronto FC. In the past few years, though, a plan was put together to complement high spending with thoughtful additions. MLS veterans bolstered a squad with plenty of star power. Younger prospects developed into bigger players.

The approach was the right one, and Toronto FC was the better team on Saturday night. That provided little comfort, but it did give TFC confidence that it could roll that success forward into the 2017 season.

“We were already talking about that,” Toronto goalkeeper Clint Irwin said. “We want to get back here, we want to get in this moment again and take care of business. The season starts real quickly again and we have to be ready. Hopefully we can keep this squad together because we have a really good team.”

In Seattle, the plan has been a steady one with investments made mostly behind the scenes. This is where MLS is changing. Teams are spending more money on scouting, analytics, academies and facilities. It’s no longer about selling players on the league or even on a city. MLS has evolved past that.

Seattle is the prime example. It’s about the environment, sure. But it’s all about the team’s investment in the whole club. Nicolas Lodeiro arrived in Seattle this summer and changed the course of the season. The efforts to bring in Lodeiro started well before that, though. We have seen players come into this league and struggle to adapt right away. Even some of the league’s very best have gone through those struggles.

It’s no mistake that the Sounders identified a player it knew could integrate quickly into a team that needed a boost right away. There lies the validation that doing things the right way – investing the money in scouting, taking the time to study players before signing them – will always strengthen the on-field product.

Seattle may not have been the best team in Saturday’s championship game. But it has been one of the league’s steadiest teams over the last eight years. The MLS Cup win was about that process as much as anything else.

The playoff system can, at times, reward teams who simply get hot. This year, MLS got a final that rewarded teams that deserved to be there. The hope should be that it inspires other clubs to aspire to similar blueprints.  

Young Heath ready for new start in Atlanta

It isn’t easy to be a coach’s son.

Harrison Heath has learned that across the years. His father, Adrian, formerly of Orlando City, is the new Minnesota United’s new coach. The younger Heath said he knew his father’s career choice was one that would see him fired. Probably more than once. He also learned that playing on his father’s team wasn’t the ideal situation.

“It was tough for me when my old man was there,” Heath said. “And I thought I deserved probably more than I got when he was there. Do I understand he was in a very, very hard position? Absolutely. And it was hard for both of us.”

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Heath was traded on Sunday to Atlanta United. It will be a fresh start for a 20-year-old who hasn’t had much of a shot to prove himself in MLS. Heath was sent to expansion Atlanta for a fourth-round pick in 2019. Essentially, for nothing. It’s a curious trade considering Heath would no doubt be considered one of the better players in college soccer today if he was at UNC, Stanford or UCLA.

Atlanta essentially added a top prospect for a pick that often yields a training-camp body.

"It’s sad to see people come into the club that don’t have that connection to the club and don’t have that belief in the club in what it was made of. It’s sad to see where the club is headed.”

- Harrison Heath on Orlando City

For Heath, though, it will be an all-important fresh start. A chance to prove he is not just his father’s son. It’s an opportunity he felt he never got in Orlando, even after his father was fired. Heath also made it clear he didn’t agree with how the franchise handled the situation with his father.

“I understand completely, more than anyone, being around it and with a dad that’s a manager that people get fired,” Heath said. “But there is some sort of loyalty that exists after eight years of building the whole franchise, and I think the way that it was done, the way that he found out, was very, very poor. …

“This isn’t me being bitter about anything. Ultimately I think my dad’s in a better place and I think I am, as well. But it’s sad to see. I’ve been around the club since I was 12 years old and watched my dad put every ounce of effort to make the club what it is. And it’s sad to see people come into the club that don’t have that connection to the club and don’t have that belief in the club in what it was made of. It’s sad to see where the club is headed.”

Heath was never selected by Jason Kreis for first-team soccer after Adrian Heath was fired. It only added to the disappointment for a player who showed well in some of his limited appearances with Orlando City. Heath said he wanted to develop a relationship with Kreis and asked only for a fair shot.

“To say I had been given that chance would be not true at all,” Heath said.

He hopes that chance comes in Atlanta, where Orlando City’s former general manager, Paul McDonough, now the head of soccer operations for Atlanta United, brought him to an ambitious project.

“The good thing for me is I’ve got off the shackles of everything else,” Heath said. “The name on the back of my shirt. The history of that at Orlando. That’s all gone now, and it’s just me in Atlanta doing what I do. And if I don’t get playing time it purely comes down to my own performances and I’m completely ready to deal with that because that’s what football is. …

“I look forward to getting there and getting my chance and proving to everybody who has said that I’m in league because of my dad, to prove them wrong. They’re the people that make me want to do it even more.”

The Final Third

Igboananike on the move

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One trade that went down during Sunday’s window that wasn’t reported occurred between D.C. United and the Portland Timbers.

D.C. United sent the rights to Kennedy Igboananike along with a 2017 international spot to the Timbers in exchange for a 2017 second-round draft pick, according to league sources. Igboananike had his option declined and would likely only stay with the Timbers if he agreed to a massive pay cut. Igboananike made $901,667 in guaranteed money last season and was a designated player for the Chicago Fire before being traded to United.

The move is an indication that the Timbers may have something brewing on the international market. It also freed up a spot for United as it determined its protected list for Tuesday’s MLS expansion draft.

Slow trade window

Outside of Atlanta United’s flurry of moves, it was a relatively slow trade window, especially considering an expansion draft awaits on Tuesday.

Minnesota United made its first trade of its MLS era, acquiring defender Joseph Greenspan from the Colorado Rapids. United sent Igboananike to Portland. Otherwise, all was quiet.

It’s proof of the dynamics of a league that often sees caution prevail with most general managers, which is even more confusing because MLS doesn’t disclose the most important details of trades. It’s normal to hear trades are completed for “an undisclosed amount” of either general or targeted allocation money. Without knowing those prices, it’s impossible for fans and media to evaluate, analyze or fully discuss those trades. Which means it’s impossible for GMs to truly be criticized for any moves they make involving allocation money.

It makes little sense for MLS to be such a non-trade league. And it makes even less sense for this lack of transparency. MLS needs more buzz, not less. Until it reveals the amount of allocation money involved in moves, however, it will not have a true hot stove in the offseason to generate fan interest.

“We’ve been working trying to release, as much as we can, this information in a way where our fans and our media are aware of it,” Garber said in Friday’s state of the league address. “It gives us the hot stove talk. … We’re changing our culture from what was no transparency, for whatever reason, to now having a lot more transparency.”

Quote of the week – “I was very pleased for Roman, although he will tell you if you ask him that he was a forward when he was growing up. We don’t know if we believe that story but he swears he was a forward when he was growing up in Panama.” – Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer on Roman Torres, who buried the game-winning penalty in MLS Cup.

Soccer read of the week – Forgive the synergy, but Richard Farley takes a deeper dive into what I touched on above. The process got Seattle to its first MLS Cup, not just a hot streak.

Non-soccer read of the week – Loved this column on Liberty University and its deplorable decision to hire Ian McCaw as athletic director.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.