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Off-season MLS Pick-ups

A monthly column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A . If you’re looking for a viewpoint that you won’t see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you’ve come to the right place.

More than anything, the MLS off-season was one of wheelin and dealin’, movin and shakin’ and playin’ the field. The Armchair Midfielder takes a guess at which teams will be UP, DOWN or STUCK IN THE MIDDLE as Year Eight beckons. Wait--Year Eight? That can’t be right. Dang, I guess it is. Here goes, with a list of major pick-up’s, major players still to be signed, and major losses, as well as a mini-prospectus, for each team for 2003:

Who’s UP?

D.C. United
Devin Barclay, Alecko Eskandarian, Galin Ivanov, Dema Kovalenko, Mike Petke, Earnie Stewart, Hristo Stoitchkov.
OUT: Jaime Moreno, Eddie Pope, Richie Williams.

Who didn’t D.C. United pick up over the last four months? Just two years ago, Ray Hudson and company seemed committed to the youth movement and a new era of rebuilding, picking up a host of U.S. Youth National Team players to try to get the franchise back on track. But times have changed. D.C. wants to get back to winning, like…NOW. So they went out and rounded up the most impressive off-season haul since the league allocated players to the 10 teams prior to the inaugural season. Now the only problem is to find a way to get them all on the field, with a glut of attacking players (Stewart, Kovalenko, Eskandarian, Quaranta, Quintanilla, Etcheverry, Barclay), not to mention midfielders Olsen and Convey and the league’s first and best player-coach in Hristo Stoichkov. Defensively, they’re stacked, too, with Ivanov and Petke joining Reyes on the backline and Rimando prowling the penalty box. You would think salary cap would be a problem with some of these big names on their roster, but when another third of your team is making peanuts from Pro-40, there’s just enough room for players in the $250k club.

L.A. Galaxy
IN: Hong Myung Bo, Alex Pineda Chacon.
IN LIMBO: Alexi Lalas.
OUT: none.
The rich get richer. Sure, it’s cliché, but with the MLS champion Galaxy, it absolutely applies. Coming off a remarkable 2002 campaign and buoyed by the best scorer in the league in Carlos Ruiz, L.A. didn’t need to look for much in the off-season except a contractor to put the rush on their impressive new digs in Dominguez Hills. Mission accomplished on that front. But they didn’t stop there, picking up an excellent central defender in Hong Myung Bo who will bring in the Korean crowd and likely replace the lethargic, but likable Lalas. They also went out and acquired Chacon in order to fill in when needed for ancient playmaker Mauricio Cienfuegos. Otherwise, the Galaxy look to be loaded, with the U.S. Olympic trio of defender Dan Califf and midfielders Pete Vagenas and Sasha Victorine looking better and better each game. Sigi will need another solid year out of Simon Elliott and Cobi Jones in order to have a chance to repeat.

New England Revolution
IN: Joe-Max Moore, Matt Reis,

IN LIMBO: Patrick Buhlman, Marshall Leonard, Diego Serna, Cristian Uribe.
OUT: Alex Pineda Chacon.
Sure they made it to the MLS Cup final last year, but let’s admit it—the Revolution were very bad at times last year. They were lucky to come together and gel as a team when they did. But to their credit, when it was all clicking, they were one of the top three teams in the league, so why go and change things? Head coach Steve Nicol made two big moves, picking up U.S. MNT legend Joe-Max Moore and dumping Chacon, who never seemed to fit the Revs system. The jury is still out on who of a group of off-season additions (Buhlman, Leonard or Uribe) will be able to contribute in the midfield along with a steady player like Steve Ralston. At the moment it looks like a weakness, compared to their solid defense (goalkeeper Adin Brown, and backs Cullen, Hernandez, Kante and Llamosa) and their promising forward corps (Moore, Twellman and Harris), with or without The Flake Formerly Known As Diego Serna.

NY/NJ MetroStars
IN: Bob Bradley; Jaime Moreno, Eddie Pope.
IN LIMBO: Daniel Garnero, Mario Alberto Rosas, Dillon Sheppard, Andy Williams, Richie Williams.
OUT: Octavio Zambrano; Marcelo Balboa, Rodrigo Faria, Ross Paule, Mike Petke, Tab Ramos.
Besides D.C., the most improved team in 2003 should be the MetroStars. There are a few reasons, but all you really need are two words: Bob Bradley. He built a powerhouse Chicago Fire team from scratch and they won right out of the gate (MLS Cup ’98, anyone?). Now his challenge is bigger, having to rescue the Metros from the mediocrity that they’ve wallowed in for the franchise’s entire history, but it can be done. With the likes of a healthy, rejuvenated pair of forwards in Mathis and Moreno, one of the league’s top keepers in Tim Howard, MNT vets Eddie Pope and Richie Williams clogging the middle, as well as a host of foreign internationals (Garnero, Rosas or Sheppard) who could make the all-important impact in the midfield, the Metros look to have a fighting chance in 2003, and that’s all the chance Bradley needs.

Who’s DOWN?

Chicago Fire
Dave Sarachan; Rodrigo Faria.

IN LIMBO: none.
OUT: Bob Bradley; Dema Kovalenko, Peter Nowak, Hristo Stoichkov, Josh Wolff.
More than any other MLS team, the Chicago Fire took some huge hits in the off-season due to salary cap woes. It was a sad state of affairs watching the once mighty Fire fall apart during the regular season due to injuries and then be completely torn apart in the months that followed their first-round playoff exit. Possibly the biggest loss is Bradley, who stands as the dean of active MLS coaches. But to lose the offense of Wolff and Kovalenko, as well as the leadership and nasty free kicks of Nowak and Stoichkov, it could be too much for the Fire to return to their winning ways in 2003. Sarachan’s biggest challenge will be to find a playmaker who can get the best out of the one-dimensional Razov, the speedy Faria and promising youngsters Nate Jaqua and Canadian Rob Friend. The only problem is, Ryan Futagaki ain’t the one, and there are few other candidates for the role on their current roster, even with young bucks Craig Capano and Justin Mapp. The Fire will need huge years from team veterans like Armas, Beasley, Bocanegra, C.J. Brown and the Zach attack, and their combined presence is promising enough.

K.C. Wizards
IN: Jimmy Conrad, Josh Wolff.
IN LIMBO: none.
OUT: Matt McKeon, Peter Vermes.
Wow. How bad do the Wizards look this year? And how long can Preki be the most potent part of the Wizards attack? Gansler will need flank midfielders Klein and Quill to continue to get forward in the attack, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a long season for Josh Wolff. Although he’ll undoubtedly get good service from the Prekster, it’s safe to say that he won’t get much help up top from erratic Argentinean Dario Fabbro and capable Chris Brown. Things really get bad when you look at the Wizards defense. Sure, Nick Garcia and Jose Burciaga, Jr., show promise for the U.S. MNT and U-23 MNT’s, respectively, but they’re tomorrow’s solution, not today’s.  The Wizards didn’t do themselves any favors in the SuperDraft, and will instead have to fill in the rest of their starting lineup with the same old host of MLS journeyman like Jimmy Conrad, Carey Talley and Kerry Zavagnin. And unfortunately, like Chicago’s Zach Thornton, Meola’s glory days in goal are behind him.

San Jose Earthquakes
IN: none.
IN LIMBO: none.
OUT: Wade Barrett, Joe Cannon, Ariel Graziani.
Man, do the Earthquakes look old and slow these days. With Agoos and Dayak on the backline, and 30-somethings Ekelund, Russell and Lagos in the midfield, there will be little in the way of youthful electricity emanating from Spartan Stadium this season. Even with a healthy Donovan, it would be too much of a stretch to think that San Jose could put together a campaign like they did to win it all in 2001, especially with the way opposing teams have been putting the clamp down (literally and figuratively) on our beloved Tiger Beat cover boy. Losing their starting ‘keeper and their best defender to Europe in the off-season seemed to surprise Frank Yallop, meaning that he hasn’t had much time to re-load those areas for 2003. But as average as the Quakes look on paper (how good can you be with Ramiro Corrales and Eddie Robinson as two of your starting defenders?), they always seem to play well together as a unit. Bay Area backers need to pray that DeRosario can have a productive year as a starter in replacing the prolific but unpredictable Graziani.

Who’s Stuck in the Middle?

Colorado Rapids
IN: Gilles Grimandi, Matt Jordan.
IN LIMBO: Rizzo Bautista, Zizi Roberts.
OUT: Carlos Valderrama.
Two years after picking up one of the league’s best acquisitions in dynamic scorer John Spencer, it looks as if the Rapids have done it again in securing the rights to English Premier League veteran midfielder Grimandi. With Grimandi, along with Mark Chung, Chris Henderson and Pablo Mastroeni, Colorado could have the best midfield in the league, although they lack a true playmaker with the departure of the legendary Carlos Valderrama. A strong midfield is essential for Colorado, mostly because they don’t have much else. In defense and in goal, the Rapids are shaky at best, with their most accomplished back being 36-year-old Robin Fraser and their net-minder being Scott Garlick or Burn castaway Matt Jordan. Hopefully for head coach Tim Hankinson, Mexican defender Bautista can step into the backline and Roberts can learn the offside rule and be able to take some of the pressure off Spencer, who needs to have another stellar scoring year to keep the Rapids afloat (get it? Rapids … afloat….it’s called a bad pun, folks). Extra points for the foreigners with the funny names.

Columbus Crew
Frankie Hejduk.

IN LIMBO: Dante Washington.
OUT: John Harkes, John Wilmer Perez.
The Crew are the perfect example of a team that’s stuck in the middle. Year in and year out, they make the playoffs, but go nowhere fast. Last year, they shed a bit of that image by taking the U.S. Open Cup title, but making it to the MLS Cup final seems a long way away. The Crew have never had problems scoring goals, with McBride, Stern John, Jeff Cunningham and Dante Washington providing the offense over the years. This year should be no different, with most of the usual suspects (vets McBride and Cunningham, along with Edson Buddle and Brian West) back in the mix. The Crew has a decent midfield with 2002 Rookie of the Year Kyle Martino, Guatemalan Freddy Garcia and defensive midfielder Brian Maissonneuve, but once again, defense will be their downfall. I’m sorry, but McCarty, Dunseth and Denton just ain’t getting it done. Even if they’re joined by ex-Olympic teammate and U.S. World Cup star Frankie Hejduk, it will still be a much-maligned backline. And when your choices in goal are perennial back-up Tom Presthus and A-League overachiever Jon Busch, you’re just not well.

Dallas Burn
IN: none.
IN LIMBO: Matt McKeon, Ross Paule.
OUT: Matt Jordan.
The Burn did little to nothing in the off-season to dramatically improve their fate in 2003. In fact, just about the only off-season change involved them following in the Fire’s footsteps out to the ‘burbs and the cozy confines and unnatural turf of a high school stadium--not exactly something to whip the hard-core Burn fans into a frenzy. With the lack of big changes, is coach Mike Jeffries just that confident in his current group? They do have plenty of capable forwards with Kreis, Rhine, Cerritos and Ed Johnson, as well as two exciting young midfielders in Irish international Ronnie O’Brien and Bolivian-born Joselito Vaca. Although trotting out a backline that includes recent U.S. MNT call-up Ryan Suarez, steady internationals Bonseu and Morrow, as well as U.S. U-23 MNT goalkeeper D.J. Countess, the Burn could be weakest in defense. It doesn’t help that your defensive midfielder, Oscar Pareja, is 35 years young, which is surely why the Burn are trying out former MLS All-Stars Matt McKeon and Ross Paule in Spring Training. Note to Jeffries: sign McKeon.


Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (Off-season MLS Pick-ups)
2) In Threes (w/ U-19 WNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris)
3) Desert Island Discs (w/ WNT midfielder Tiffany Roberts)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ MNT midfielder Ben Olsen)
5) Mark That Calendar (On to the Algarve...)
6) Superstar!!! (w/ WNT, U-21 WNT forward Lindsay Tarpley)
7) FAN Point/Counterpoint (Who will save the Fire in 2003?)
8) "You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (Algarve Cup Trivia)

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