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MLS Final Stretch - From A to Z

The MLS All-Star game is over which means the final stretch of the season begins. You might think all there is to look forward to now is your favorite team getting into the playoffs and vying for a spot in the MLS Cup. While important, there's oh so much more. We've come up with a list - from A to Z - of all the things that will make MLS intriguing during the final three months of the season.

A is for Arena
– One of the most noteworthy team revisions this year occurred when the former Men’s National Team Manager moved back to MLS to take charge of the N.Y. Red Bulls. While an overnight transformation turning the dilapidated franchise into a trophy winner won’t occur this season, the effect Arena’s coaching – and just overall presence – will have on the team is definitely going to be the most interesting story to watch from August to November.

B is for Bridgeview – The location of the Chicago Fire’s new Toyota Park might not be ideal, but the stadium itself is engaging and well designed, giving fans a close, intimate feel of the action down on the field. After an initial sellout though, the Fire have been struggling to pull in more than 10,000 fans. We’ll be watching closely to see if they can start filling up the Firehouse after putting on a fantastic All-Star game.

C is for Cooper - There were a lot of questions about Man U understudy Kenny Cooper coming back to play in the MLS, most pertaining to how good he would actually be. But then, when fans set their eyes on him in their first game, all they could think was, “he’s huge!” Well, luckily for Dallas, he’s huge and good. With eight goals, Kenny is just four off the pace for the Budweiser Golden Boot, and we’ll be watching to see if he can close the gap.

D is for Dave Checketts – You have to assume the man who brought an MLS club to Salt Lake isn’t going to move the team without exhausting every available option. While there are rumors about him taking the team to St. Louis (where he just purchased the Blues), he’s also been offered land in Utah Valley to build a new stadium. With all the support they’ve been getting (and not to mention provided to the U.S. team during their World Cup qualifier in 2005) we’re hoping someway, somehow, Checketts can figure out a way to build a stadium and keep the team in Utah.

E is for Expansion – Toronto FC will make its entrance into MLS next year, and a handful of other cities seem to be vying for the chance to start up in 2008. So, what city will get the next MLS franchise? Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, San Diego, St. Louis, Atlanta and even Miami were all mentioned by MLS Commissioner Don Garber in his “State of the League” address on Aug. 4 (wait…Las Vegas!? Sweet!). Keep your ears open, as we might find out by the end of the year.  

F is for Frank Yallop – When Steve Sampson was hired in 2004 there were over/under bets being made about when he’d get fired (trust us, it’s true). To his credit, Sampson came out on the under, but he was eventually replaced this year which brought back Frank Yallop to MLS and to Landon Donovan (no truth to the rumor LD was the one who actually hired him). To some, Yallop is a more likeable guy than Sampson, but what really matters in Cali’ is winning (just ask Sigi…or, wait). We’ll see if Yallop can lead L.A. out of the cellar during the second half of the season.

G is for Goals – At the break, Ante Razov was leading the charge with 12 goals, but there are six guys within four of that mark, which should make for an interesting battle during the final months of the season. With the past three Budweiser Golden Boot winners – Taylor Twellman (2005), Brian Ching (2004) and Carlos Ruiz (2003 and 2002) – nipping at his heels, Razov will need to keep putting the ball in the back of the net to win his first scoring title.

H is for Hejduk – Whether for his play on the field or his personality in the locker room, we were all disappointed when Frankie Hejduk was taken off the U.S. World Cup roster due to a torn ACL. Especially the lowly Columbus Crew, who have stumbled without the defender’s leadership this year. While in Germany though, Frankie told us on Studio 90 that his recovery could be anywhere from five to nine months. Lets see…hurt it in May…June, July, August, September…hey, there’s a outside chance he could be back in October, right? If anyone could come back earlier than later, it’d be the guy Landon said was “abnormal” and a “damn machine” after the team completed the beep test last January.

I is for Intensity – Some will say that the MLS regular season doesn’t matter, but with 11-13 games left for each team, you can expect the intensity to pick up as players realize how important each point will be down the final stretch. With everyone in the Eastern Conference besides D.C. United separated by just seven points, expect a lot of passionate and gut-wrenching performances that will raise the level of play. And in the West, you can bet L.A. and RSL are moving into red-alert as they need to start snagging points before they’re left behind.   

J is for John Ellinger – What’s going to happen to the Real Salt Lake coach? Well, it appears he’ll have the rest of the season to tempt his fate. If he can somehow pull his squad into the playoffs, Ellinger will probably keep his job. If not, the former U-17 coach will be looking for work. Checketts likes Ellinger, but no matter how good the friendship is, Real will need to look in a different direction as they can’t expect to bring in 15,000 people on a regular basis if the team keeps losing. Watching the animated coach from the sidelines try to will his players to victory will make for good television though - win or lose.  

K is for Kansas City – The Kansas City Star reported that two Wizard players claimed Garber told them Philadelphia would be a logical place for the Wizards to relocate if Kansas City can’t keep their MLS franchise. Then during his “State of the League” address, Garber  stated that he expects Philadelphia to have a team “within a couple of years.” Does that mean the troubled Kansas City Wizards will be moving there? We may know soon as Lamar Hunt said he’d sell the team to an out-of-town buyer if a local ownership group can’t buy the team and have a stadium deal in place by October.

L is for Lalas – There’s no doubt the Galaxy GM likes to talk. Whether he’s on ESPN, the club’s website all_access video (which he was with the MetroStars) or just talking trash to an amateur team his club plays in the Open Cup, it seems he feels he has something important to add. He’s slowly becoming the Mark Cuban of MLS (OK, so Cuban’s an owner and Lalas is a GM…details, details). Lalas should start his own blog, taunt opposing MLS coaches and rant about the crappy officials. We want to see this during the next couple months. Hey, it’ll create interest, right? (By the way, how long do you think his Hall of Fame induction speech is going to be? The one where the inductees are given about five to 10 minutes? Over/Under is at 20.)

M is for MLS Cup – An obvious one here, but it’s always entertaining to debate which two teams will make it to the final game of the year. The favorite of course is D.C. United, but remember, just last year the L.A. Galaxy came out of nowhere to hoist the trophy. Our dark horse for this year? How about New York coming out of the East? How great of a story is it if Arena can pull off a miracle run to get the Red Bulls to the final? A long shot, we know, but it would be fun to watch. Realistically, we see Houston making it out of the West and taking D.C. to the brink of defeat, but eventually Jaime Moreno gives United one for the thumb.

N is for N.Y. Red Bulls – While we just stated what a fantastic story it would be if the Red Bulls could get to the MLS Cup, we’re feeling they won’t need to make it to the final game to shake up the league. Is it us, or does if feel like the Red Bulls are planning something big? You know those in control at Red Bull aren’t sitting on their hands. There’s something brewing, something big. Maybe they’ll sign Ronaldo? Maybe Beckham? Or maybe they'll just actually get the stadium deal done so fans can stop feeling like Charlie Brown as the league (aka Lucy) holds the proverbial football. The thing is we don’t know what it is at this point, and that’s what makes it so intriguing.

O is for Old Guys – While they seem to keep going and going like the Energizer Bunny, four guys that have been in MLS from the beginning might hang up the cleats after this season – Chris Henderson, Cobi Jones, Jason Kries and Tony Meola. We’re not trying to spread rumors, but you’ve got to think after 11 years in the league and now in their middle thirties, retirement at least has crossed their minds. The next couple months might be the last chance you get to watch these four take the field.

P is for Perkins – Is Troy Perkins for real, or does he just look so good because of the 10 players he’s got in front of him. You can’t deny his nod as the starter for the All-Star game, but the real test for the third-year man will be the playoffs. For D.C. to win the title there will be moments where Perkins needs to make a big save. If he’s up to the task, then he can make room on his mantle for the 2006 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award. If not, well, D.C. might not win their fifth MLS championship, no matter how well the field players perform.

Q is for Quaranta – In 2005, Santino had his most productive season ever in the league and was also selected to the U.S. Men’s National Team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and World Cup qualifiers. It appeared that the roller-coaster career was possibly going to level out on the high end, but once again the injury bug bit his hamstring and Quaranta has only seen the field four times (no starts) this year for D.C. Then, in late July, Quaranta took a curious personal leave from the club for about a week. Recently traded to L.A., we're hoping one of the most promising young players can steer the roller-coaster career back in the right direction this season.

R is for Rookie of the Year – There’s a good selection of players in all the field positions, up to five to six contenders, with a couple more still not out of the running. The three defenders in the mix are Marvell Wynne, Nathan Sturgis and Jonathan Bornstein, with Bornstein holding the upper hand due to some impressive goals. In midfield, Sacha Kljestan and Mehdi Ballouchy will be in the running, while Brandon Moss might get a look. But, the popular pick right now is FC Dallas forward Kenny Cooper, who has eight goals and three assists halfway through the season.

S is for Super Clasico – With just three games left in the regular season, Chivas USA and the L.A. Galaxy could be in a battle to make the playoffs, giving the Super Clasico the oomph it needs to be considered the best rivalry in MLS. The match on Sept. 30 will be the eighth meeting between the two clubs, but will probably be the first time there is actually something riding on the outcome, other than city bragging rights. Circle this game on your calendar.  

T is for Television – With the new TV contracts with ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel, it will be interesting to see what changes might begin to take place in terms of the league coverage. While ESPN’s deal doesn’t kick in until next season, you can expect the "worldwide leader in sports" to take the last part of the season to scrutinize and critique what’s been done in the past in hopes of an new-and-improved presentation in ’07. As for now, just enjoy FSC’s Saturday night broadcast and let them know your thoughts and ideas to make their broadcast better.

U is for United – Through 21 games, D.C. United is 13-2-6 for a total of 45 points and has a chance to tie two MLS regular season records (and possibly break one) with 11 games left. The first would be a stretch, as D.C. would need to win all 11 of their final games to tie the record of 24 regular season wins (held by L.A. Galaxy and D.C. United). The second – earning the most points in league history – is definitely attainable by the Red-and-Black and in some aspects more meaningful because two of the Galaxy’s victories and seven of United’s in ’98 were actually shootout victories (one point instead of three). D.C. needs only 23 out of an attainable 33 points to tie the record of 68 (also set by L.A. in ’98). To get at least 23 points, United needs to go at least 6-5-0 or 7-2-2. 

V is for Vindication – From the moment Freddy Adu didn’t start the opening match of the 2004 season people were criticizing Peter Nowak for how he has handled the young superstar. Now, with just a third of the 2006 season left, Adu has steadily grown into a quality player on a team that has led like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes. Almost everyone is praising the Pole for a job well done, and some are even pushing for him to get the national team job. An MLS Cup victory (his second) might put Nowak at the top of U.S. coaching chain, but would it be enough to get the top job in America?

W is for Wondolowski – Unless you’re a die-hard Dynamo fan you might not know Chris Wondolowski. The second-year midfielder was drafted in the forth round out of Chico State and has only seen the field for two appearances back in 2005 for a whopping five minutes (just enough time to receive a yellow card), but he’s been a absolute one-man wrecking crew in the reserve league. Last year, he led the Quakes with eight goals in 12 reserve games and has been continuing his rampage this year with a league leading six goals through five games. While success in the reserves don’t automatically correlate to the first team, keep an eye out for Chris if he gets the call up…and plays for more than five minutes.

X is for XI (MLS Best) – Your team may be out of contention for an MLS Cup appearance by late October, but you can still look forward to cheering for your favorite players to earn a spot on the MLS Best XI. Or maybe you’re pushing for the new kid to earn Rookie of the Year honors, or an oft-injured player to get the Comeback of the Year award. Either way, the season isn’t over for you until you can debate which guys deserved their awards and which didn’t.  

Y is for Youth Academy – Garber announced that the league is a couple of weeks away from announcing a system where teams would be able to control the rights of players developed through that team's youth academy, instead of having them enter into the MLS SuperDraft. This will be a welcomed tweak in the youth development program, especially for Red Bull fans that want to hold onto Johnny Exantus.

Z is for Zinedine Zidane – Would the man who unleashed the most famous head butt of all time, make his way to MLS? On the same page, would Ronaldo or Beckham? Whether these players joining the league is a pipe dream or soon-to-be reality, it creates a much needed buzz in non-soccer circles. If the opportunity to see Beckham (or his lovely wife) is what forces the hand of the average American sports fan to buy a ticket to an MLS game, that’s not a bad thing. As long as enough is done to try and get those fans to be repeat customers.