The 'Other' Football....

Saturday, April 01, 2006

MLS First Kick....But Where Will The Ball Lie After The Last Kick?

By Alan Clark, Saturday April 1st, 2006.

So I guess this is my take on a preseason prediction. I'll start with a recap for those who haven't been glued to the MLS News Wire over the winter.


The biggest moves of all took place on a franchise level, rather than on the rosters. AEG finally lost patience with the SJ market (Spartan Stadium, San Jose State et al) and followed through on their threat to relocate. Soccer fans in Houston now have a 'new' team to cheer on - the Houston Dynamo. Let's not even revisit the 1836 debacle.

A new ownership group was introduced in March when Red Bull purchased the MetroStars. A quick facelift and rebranding later, and the New York Red Bulls were ready for business. The new ownership group has made it clear that they mean business (see my previous post on RBNY).

The Red Bull sale went some way to compensate for the unexpected collapse of the DC United sale. Kansas City remain on the market, and I can't help feeling that there wont be a happy ending in Missouri.

There was also the fantastical announcement of a stadium proposal in Glassboro (yeah Glassboro!), NJ. This ultra-ambitious $1BN plan includes a soccer-specific stadium that could house a new team as serve the Philadelphia Market. So, that could mean two teams in Jersey, neither of which bear the NJ name. Well, it works for the NFL....

The SuperDraft, back in January, helped infuse some fresh new talent into the league. Marvel Wynne was the hot favorite to first before the draft and sure enough, the TFKA Metros traded up to get their man. Other standouts in the early rounds look to be Mehdi Balouchy, a creative mid from Morocco, who looks like he could give RSL what they need (some creativity down the middle), Patrick Ianni went to Houston, which should help serve to replace Danny Califf who headed to Scandinavia in the offseason. With Columbus trading away Edson Buddle, #3 overall, Jason Garey may get a starting berth. Sacha Kjlestan stands to figure for Chivas USA who seem desperately short on talent this season. There are no doubt some other diamonds in the rough, like we see every season. Who will be this year's Jeff Parke, or Aaron Pitchkolan remains to be seen. Drew Helm would be a decent guess at one. Personally, judging by the way he's performed in the pre-season, the Rev's Tony Lockhead is also good money. They're late picks over the last two drafts,.

The player movement was minimal. A few teams shuffled their decks with some big names finding new homes; Chris Klein (RSL), Jeff Cunningham (RSL), Edson Buddle (NYRB), Eddie Gaven (CLB), Eddie Johnson (KC), Diego Gutierrez (CHI), Clint Mathis (COL), Jesse Marsch (CHV), Ante Razov (CHV), Douglas Sequiera (RSL) and some GK's were on the move too, Scott Garlick (RSL), Zach Wells (HOU) and Matt Jordan (COL).

I can't help feeling we saw more talent leave than arrive, so how much the player's who remained improved will determine whether or not this season is a step forward from last year. Departing were the afore-mentioned Califf, Nat Borchers, Simon Elliott and Michael Bradley, who all scored European deals. Of the foreigners who left, well, this was extensive, but included half of Chivas USA (even Hector Cuadros, whom I though did quite well), Samuel Caballero, Lubos Reiter, old King of Goals himself, Sergio Galvan Rey. The rest: Chinchilla, Umana, Pando Ramirez, Boucicaut, Wolde Harris, Diego Serna, Sumiala, Bigfoot Phillips, Tiger Fitzpatrick, Will Johnson, Robert Scarlett and Melvin Tarley were all waived or not resigned.

Inbound. Well, it's sad to say the two biggest arrivals in the US this offseason - legends Romario and Zinho, of Brazilian World Cup winning fame, both ended up in the USL, at the Miami FC expansion team. MLS saw, well, not very much. Adrian Serioux, a 2nd division player in England, and Canadian international, signed with the Red Bulls before being almost instantly shipped to Houston for Danny O'Rourke. Peter Canero also joined NYRB, and although unspectacular, the fringe Scottish international could be a solid acquisition. Kenny Cooper arrived from Man Utd's reserves at Dallas and will be something of a project. I predict success with him though. Chivas USA added Mexican legend Claudio Suarez and his 174 international caps. At 37 he's old, but on Wednesday he booted-up for the Mexican national team, so he's obviously still got something let in the tank. After 2005, Chivas USA could use any help they can get in defense.

So, the majority of teams seem to have invested in US talent this offseason; perhaps because it' cheaper; perhaps because the majority of foreigners wash out quickly from MLS. Personally, the most important signing of the offseason happened in Dallas, where they were able to resign Carlos Ruiz. 'El Pescadito' - the recent winner of 'Goal of the Decade' - is the real deal, and his return to MLS is key. He's one of the few players in MLS who can put the proverbial 'bums on seats'. I wouldn't have begrudged him a more to Europe, and he seemed well suited to the warmer leagues there - Italy, Spain or Portugal, for example. Perhaps he'll still get his chance, but that's another blog entirely....

So, now to the entree:


Eastern Conference:
Chicago Fire (1st) - Were strong last year and seem to have solidified. The sophomore form of Chris Rolfe and Jack Stewart will be important. The seem to have quality in all positions and likely will be the strongest team not decimated by WC call-ups.
New England Revolution (2nd) - Were the standout team in early 2005, and really faded. I felt it was their year last year. Call-ups will hit the Revs hard...they potentially could lose Avery (T&T), Twellman, Noonan, Reis, Dempsey and Ralston to Germany. Of the US guys, I think three will go, probably Twellman, Noonan and Dempsey.
New York Red Bulls (3rd) - Yes I said it. RBNY will make the playoffs. I think the change in management will energize the team and I think RB is thinking of making the ex-Metros live up to their Superclub tag. Talk is Pele, Shakira and Wyclif Jean will be entertain RB fans in their home opener. The bar has been raised ladies and gentlemen.
DC United (4th) - Freddy Adu gets to start in 2006. Not before time in my opinion. Novak is under pressure this year and his team is solid. To be honest, the top 4 could go any way.
Columbus Crew (5th) - With the last playoff place going to DC, Sigi and his transformed Crew will have to wait until 2007 for a return on his new squad. He's practically rebuilt the team in the offseason. Only the lack of a potent threat up front will hold them back.
Kansas City Wizards (6th) - EJ alone will not be good enough to motivate this dying franchise. Missing the playoffs, the sale of EJ after the World Cup and another poorly attended season could bring the death knell.

Oddly enough, and this may be my disclaimer, if you like, the only reservation I have about the East is that Chicago and DC may ultimately swap placed. Yeah, I know. 1st and 4th aren't close, but that's just how I see it. If I'm going to be wrong, that's where I think it will be.

Western Conference:
FC Dallas (1st) - The retention of Ruiz out shadows the loss of EJ, who will miss a good chunk with the USMNT. GK is the only potential weak area of the side; Sala is unknown; Cassar is really a backup. There's strength everywhere else, flair, finishing, leadership and enterprise flow through the squad.
Houston Dynamo (2nd) - SJ were the Supporter's Shield winner and they'll come close this season. DeRo and friends look strong and will be out to impress their new fans in Houston. I hope they start well so that the franchise gets a decent chance at survival.
Los Angeles (3rd) - Call ups to key players (okay, I mean Landon), will hold them back slightly during the regular season. But as in 2005, making the playoffs will be the key so they can give it a solid run at MLS Cup.
Colorado Rapids (4th) - Plenty of changes in Denver. A stadium on the way. The Rapids are building nicely. I was pleased to see the re-signing of the leagues #1 keeper - Joe Cannon. Clint Mathis' form will make or break this team. Will hurt when Pablo Mastroeni links up with the USMNT in Germany.
Chivas USA (5th) - I don't see enough strength in depth to break into the playoff picture. But they will definitely be better than in their rookie campaign. Palencia, Ramirez, Garcia, Marsch, Razov and Suarez will make this team worth watching. I think Bob Bradley was an inspired choice to step in at the HDC, but he'll need one more year.
Real Salt Lake (6th) - Will have the worst record in the league. Ellinger will be the first manager gone. Made improvements to his roster in the offseason, but wont be good enough.

I will do a playoff prediction soon.

Bottom Line : Today is the day! First Kick. Tune into ABC for the Chicago Fire against FC Dallas in Frisco. For my money, there's a reason these are the teams for First Kick. They will win their respective Conferences and I wouldn't rule out being reunited in MLS Cup Final.

Enjoy the season everyone!