Two years later, Orlando and NYCFC still feel like MLS' new kids

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta and Minnesota are the 2017 expansion teams, but they don't have to look far to realize that not all initial plans pan out.

The 2017 MLS season kicks off this week with a lot of curious eyeballs on Minnesota and Atlanta, as the latest two expansion teams start play in the league. On Friday night, Minnesota United will kick off the season’s inaugural game in Portland, while on Sunday, Atlanta United will host the New York Red Bulls. Next week, the two new kids will play each other in Minnesota, giving us an early look at two teams who’ve approached expansion from two very different cultural trajectories.

Time will tell which approach proves the most successful, and for now the distinct qualities of the Miracle-Gro enthusiasm in Atlanta and the more nurtured grass roots approach of Minnesota seem readily apparent. But just a glance at recent history tells us that picture is likely to change quickly. Strategies will stall, personalities will falter or emerge, and in a couple of seasons, we won’t look at Atlanta or Minnesota wondering how some essential cultural quality of the team is going to serve them in the coming year. We’ll instead be considering which team has been best able to adapt to all the contingencies of being a new team in the league.

If we need a reminder of that, we only have to look elsewhere in this weekend’s schedule, where Orlando City and New York City FC will reprise the opening game of their respective MLS existences, when they played each other on March 8, 2015.

It’s hard to believe it has only been two years. The week-to-week rapid compound nature of soccer histories in general and MLS in particular (whose story can be told in dog years) mean that it’s already hard to think of Orlando and NYCFC as newcomers. It’s just as hard to remember the relative expectations around the two teams, given all that’s happened since.

Yet the past two years contain many telling lessons for this crop of newcomers, if they care to learn them.

That 2015 opener was played at the Citrus Bowl. Just as Minnesota and Atlanta are waiting to complete permanent homes, Orlando was pushing a painstaking process through the tangled mess of agendas that is Floridian politics, while New York’s owners were continuing a long schooling in Five Boroughs real estate realities that continues to this day.

However unsatisfactory the stadium situation might have been, on that day, it at least lent itself to spectacle. On a blazing hot day, 62,510 fans packed into the stadium to watch Orlando’s MLS debut and generate a real sense of occasion about what was to come from both teams.

Common grounds of expansion

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

For a start, some big personnel changes. On the field, obviously, though given the usual rate of turnover at all MLS teams, that’s hardly surprising. Still, it’s a pretty remarkable trajectory that took Mix Diskerud from looking like the final piece of the jigsaw in New York’s initial midfield and coolly scoring his team’s first-ever MLS goal in Orlando to writing doggerel poetry on his Instagram account just two years later, lamenting his team’s desire to offload him and his cap-skewing salary.

The coaches have changed from that day, too, with Jason Kreis finding himself coaching in a brand new stadium far sooner than he might have expected. Having been left holding the bag for New York’s lopsided player acquisition policy in the debut season, Kreis found himself replacing the man who coached Orlando in 2015, Adrian Heath. Heath, too, found himself as something of a victim of decisions made over his head, as a shift in ownership culture left him on shaky and, ultimately, no ground at all in Orlando’s second season.

In the greater scheme of things, when we look back at this period in 20 or 30 years, the points at which NYCFC and Orlando, or Atlanta and Minnesota (or any team going back to Real Salt Lake, for that matter) entered the league is probably going to be described as a single wave of rapid expansion.

Heath is now in Minnesota, and it’s tempting to suggest that at least part of his value is the perception of his handling of Orlando’s transition into MLS. That may be part of the picture, but the situations are only partly analogous. Orlando was never quite as low-key as Minnesota United. Buying Kaka, for example, was hardly low-profile or a bid to build around an evenly-ranked collective. In a different year, where Orlando might have entered the league out of the shadow of a long anticipated and conspicuously monied New York project, the narrative around the Lions and Heath might have been different. As it was, most of the focus on Orlando was on the club’s stability, three-year plans, and long-standing management team by comparison to New York. Similar rhetoric has attached itself to Minnesota in relationship to Atlanta.

As for Orlando now, the organization had already undergone a traumatic overhaul off the field before Heath was forced out, with the apparent impatience of Brazilian owner Flávio Augusto da Silva exerting a more direct and disruptive influence during the 2016 preseason. This week’s opening of a state-of-the-art downtown stadium could not come soon enough as the organization seeks to refocus fan attention. Orlando has had buoyant crowds, but the team could do with a boost in competitive momentum after missing out on the playoffs again last year. The new-stadium bounce, like the novelty of expansion itself, can hide deficiencies on the field for a short time, but it won’t be much comfort to Orlando fans if their shiny new home is shuttered in November.

How New York City FC pushed forward

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

New York, meanwhile, has had plenty to absorb during its own steep learning curve in the toughest market in the United States. The adventures of City Football Group have been a curious mix, in all the territories it has worked in. At times, it seems as if there’s an ongoing existential struggle between the globalist instincts that brought the project into being in the first place and the genuine premium that the group has tried to place on local knowledge and specific circumstances in Manchester, Yokohama, Melbourne, and, yes, New York.

It’s why NYCFC’s history has been an odd mix of nuanced decisions and tone-deafness. The stumbling points have come at any suggestion of paternalistic, old-world-football-knows-best approaches. The decision to approach and appoint Kreis was a bold yet informed one at the time, but the organization never gave the impression of fully backing him. That lack of support leached away his authority over the year.

And yet, CFG also shows a capacity to learn from its mistakes in a manner that’s yet to be proven in Orlando. Building around the intermittent availability of Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo had been as much of a hinderance as a help under circumstances where continuity was vital.

Where Patrick Vieira has looked like an inspired appointment is in translating the developmental part of his role with Manchester City’s young players into MLS. It has helped that Vieira has the natural authority to fence his authority around the team in a way Kreis was never could, but in reshaping the team and introducing a successful house style last season, Vieira did enough to ensure that even the chastening playoff experience against Toronto has not dampened expectations. And now that the player acquisition side has settled into a mode more tailored for the idiosyncrasies of MLS, NYCFC look set to do well again in 2017, assuming the mother ship resists the urge to capsize the boat with some idea taken from the generic norms of “Big Football.”

The consequences of errors past still have to be addressed. NYCFC’s footprint at the youth club level, or in its hugely ambitious futsal court program in the city, is truly praiseworthy evidence of a nuanced commitment to its territory. The overconfidence about the ability to get a stadium across the line, however, and the testing of the Yankees’ patience as hosts in the Bronx, is cause for concern, as is the $750,000 Diskerud-sized hole in their capologists’ budget. With Diskerud showing a Freddy Adu-at-Philadelphia disinterest in moving on from a lucrative gig, and with few MLS teams likely to be interested in eating that kind of salary for a player most kindly described as “mercurial,” the NYCFC roster is not totally free to be shaped by Vieira’s vision.

But there’s definitely a net gain on most fronts for New York these past two years, whereas a gut check on Orlando suggests that the new stadium is less a point of acceleration for an already successful project and more a chance to hit the reset button.

The point is that such a reset is entirely possible. A lot has happened for the two teams in just two years, but it has only been two years. Lessons have been learned or missed, but in the greater scheme of things, when we look back at this period in 20 or 30 years, the points at which New York City and Orlando, or Atlanta and Minnesota (or any team going back to Real Salt Lake, for that matter) entered the league is probably going to be described as a single wave of rapid expansion. The significance of who arrived first and in what order will appear pretty irrelevant compared to who’s consistently demonstrating best practices over a much larger sample size of time.

So we don’t know a lot about how well this year’s expansion teams will adapt to MLS, because frankly, we’re only just getting a meaningful impression of how even the Cascadia teams are doing. Proper first impressions should take years, and by that reckoning, there are plenty of new teams playing this weekend. Not just two.

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Graham Parker's column, Targeted Allocation, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Graham on Twitter @KidWeil.