A NEW DAWN FOR MLS

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BY STEVE BRENNER

The temperatures plunged to freezing and the world recognized superstars were elsewhere.

Yet as MLS closed its 21st season in Toronto on Saturday night, commissioner Don Garber would have fought the arctic conditions with the warm glow of satisfaction.

When Seattle slotted in the winning sudden-death penalty after 120 minutes of pure statemate – the Sounders failed to muster a shot on target in normal or extra time – history was made in what was ultimately a disappointing, fractious finale.

It was the League’s best supported club’s first ever MLS title.

“They are a shining light, “ purred Garber afterwards.

Indeed, this triumph and Toronto’s trip to the season denouement rubber stamps a new era for soccer on these shores, one where the most important players are those in their prime rather than ageing legends searching for that final pay day.

Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard , Didier Drogba and Robbie Keane all bid farewell to the League last month. Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill left two seasons ago.

Keane was a stellar import for the LA Galaxy , arguably the greatest designated player of all time , though the rest won’t be missed too much by fans here.

Garber won’t shed many tears either.

His desperation for equality among all means seeing teams stockpiled with Premier League castoffs isn’t the aim.

Never has been, never will.

Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco arrived in MLS at the age of 27 and his thirst for something new cost him a place at last summer’s European Championships.

The Italian is one of the best paid players , raking in around $8 million a year yet has proved fantastic value scoring over 40 goals in two seasons.

In the Seattle corner, Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro has effortlessly filled the more box office voids of Oba Martins (departed for Chinese millions) and Clint Dempsey (health issues)  with some classy displays.

Both are in the prime of their careers while the Sounders’ Jordan Morris is the apple of Garber’s eye – a US rookie who snubbed European teams to stay at home.

None of them sparkled on Saturday night but there’s definite hope for the future.

Furthermore, these two sides are what many in MLS aspire to : well supported, well run and not afraid to spend money.

“Now with their first title, Seattle are a MLS super-club, “ said former US defender Alexi Lalas.

Others have certainly begun to adopt a more youthful policy.

F.C. Dallas were the form team in the regular season whose designated players were all up and coming players in their twenties.

Los Angeles and New York have little choice but to make transfers fitting of their glitzy, star hungry fanbases and surroundings.

Everyone else , however, are wising up and reaping the benefits.

Naturally, the marketing men will look at the stats with some concern. Dallas’ crowds were the lowest in MLS while it was NYCFC’s golden oldie Andrea Pirlo – not Giovinco – who sold the most shirts.

The former Juventus midfielder is a household name. His younger compatriot isn’t.

The importance of a viable future however trumps all.

Garber wants his baby to become the ‘league of choice’ , something which will take more than a few years to ring true.

Restrictions on movement within MLS as well as the unique pay structure and huge travelling commitments in the United States means it won’t suit everyone.

Yet with every successful campaign seeing the League grow inexorably, progress is undeniable. Stereotypes are being shattered along the way.

“I would argue Sebastian Giovinco is worth every penny we are paying him, regardless of what the Italian national team coach might think about him,” said Garber.

“Seattle and Toronto are the best example of this change in strategy.

“That’s a very strong statement for where MLS is today versus where we were many years ago, when we had to rely on big-name players to get attention who, while they were very good and had very successful careers, they came here at a much older age.

“That had a reputational impact on us which now no longer is the case.

“Without doubt the target is younger players who are coming at the prime of their career or even as they’re beginning to establish their career.”

The times are undoubtedly changing.

****

NBA

The humble pie is in the oven at cooking nicely.

Next stop will be Mark Cuban’s house where the Dallas Maverick’s owner can tuck in and enjoy some contemplatory bites.

Cuban , to be fair to one of the biggest mouths in sport , is sticking by his claims that Russell Westbrook, despite producing one of the most blisteringly brilliant runs of form with a sensational sequence of triple doubles ever seen in the NBA , isn’t a true superstar.

The Mavs boss said last season that the OKC man will never be considered a true great until he carries his team all the way.

That much is true – LeBron James , Michael Jordan, Shaq , Kobe Bryant et al – all had titles to add gloss to sparkling resumes.

Yet exceptions surely have to be made in Westbrook’s case.

“He’s putting up superstar numbers. That’s for damn sure,” Cuban said.

“I’m not taking anything away from what he’s been able to accomplish, but I’m not going to change my definition. He’s putting up superstar numbers. You can’t deny that.”

“He’s been a beast. Few have done what he’s done, but I’ll stick by my definition.”

Get that knife and fork ready, Mark.

****

NCAA

There have been too many heartbreaking losses in 2016 to mention so the story of James Conner should be heard.

Conner, a college running-back for the Pittsburgh Pirates, will be part of the NFL draft having successfully recovered from cancer.

If returning just nine months after being diagnosed last December wasn’t impressive enough, bagging 20 catches for 299 yards including four touchdowns showed the amazing strength and resilience on show.

He continued to practice through chemotherapy and now will take his place in New York City early next year and dream about landing a ticket to the big time.

“I don’t know if mere words can adequately express how I feel about James Conner,” said his Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi.

“His strength, his courage and his kindness have impacted all of us beyond measure. I’m forever grateful to be part of his life these past two years.”

A knee injury destroyed his season in 2015. Nothing , however, will diminish his heart.

ends

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