In this playful piece, we pose a question or make a statement about something in soccer that will be debated by two individuals from the same walk of life. Be it a coach, player, journalist or whomever, the two will each give their side of the story, so to speak.
In this case, we've enlisted the help of two of the biggest names in covering soccer here in the U.S. In one corner, representing the East Coast media bias, from the New York Daily News ... Michael Lewis, the preeminent soccer trivia buff East of the Mississippi and the author (along with the U.S. Soccer Federation) of Soccer for Dummies, which was published in the summer of 2000. In the other corner, representing the West Coast bias, from the Los Angeles Times ... Grahame Jones, the preeminent soccer writer West of the Mississippi.
This month's question: With the MLS season two weeks old and having seen the first glimpse of all 10 teams and how they benefitted from contraction, which two teams will end up playing for the MLS Cup on October 20 at CMGI Field in Foxboro, Mass.?
"So, U.S. Soccer wants me to say who's going to be the last MLS team standing come Oct. 20, huh? Well, I should warn everyone that my track record over the past six years has not been exactly sterling. Yes, I did pick D.C. United a couple of times, but then again you didn't necessarily have to be a genius to make that selection in the league's formative years.
"The last two seasons? Forget about it. Outside of their most ardent fans, if anyone in their right mind selected the Kansas City Wizards in 2000 or the San Jose Earthquakes in 2001, I would say they knew the results because they came from the future in a time machine.
"And if you use the formula of the last two seasons, the New England Revolution, bulked up thanks to several acquisitions in the allocation and dispersal drafts in the wake of the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny folding, should be the favorites.
"Their star-laden lineup includes Alex Pineda Chacon and Mamadou Diallo, the last two respective scoring champions, midfielders Jim Rooney, the Fusion's soul, Steve Ralston, a perennial MLS Fair Play winner, as well as U.S. international defender Carlos Llamosa, who brings a certain bite to his game as one of the league's best man-to-man markers. And those are just the newcomers. Add the likes of forward Wolde Harris and you've got a team with the potential to do some serious damage.
"On paper, the Revs look formidable. Getting them to play together is another thing -- an unenviable task that coach Fernando Clavijo faces, especially after an 0-2-0 start. If he does and the Revs take that final victory lap around their home field, he will be lauded in many circles. If he doesn't, Clavijo could find himself taking a lap or two on the unemployment line. That's life in the fast and precarious lane of MLS coaches.
"The East could very well turn into a three-horse race with the Chicago Fire and MetroStars.
"The Fire has fallen short reaching for the MLS holy grail since winning the whole thing the past three seasons, being a victim of its success and salary cap. In other words, when Fire players do well and hit certain bonuses, their salaries go up, affecting the salary cap. The Fire then has to jettison (Eric Wynalda) or trade (Diego Gutierrez) players to remain under the cap. Still, year in and year out Bob Bradley proves to be the best coach in the league finding talent and getting these players to play in his system.
"The MetroStars fortified themselves defensively during the off-season, which could get them far in the playoffs. But you have to wonder what type of character this team has when it doesn't play well or score many goals when Clint Mathis isn't in the lineup.
"The Columbus Crew and United will slug it out for the fourth playoff berth, although United might be a year away from reaching the rest of the pack.
"As for the Revs' opponent at CMGI Field in October, you can certainly make a case for the Quakes. But with last-place teams down on their luck getting rewarded with talented new players these days, the gut feeling here is that it will be difficult for any team to reach the Cup final in two consecutive seasons these days (even a team with Landon Donovan), especially after winning it all the first time.
"Saying that, then how about the L.A. Galaxy -- again. The Galaxy has become the league's version of the Buffalo Bills. L.A. certainly is good enough to reach the championship game, but getting over that final hump has turned into a problem and a team tradition.
"While the team looks like a UCLA alumni association (Cobi Jones, Kevin Hartman, Sasha Victorine and Peter Vagenas, etc. etc.), coach Sigi Schmid has built a side that is strong defensively with a solid midfield. Carlos Ruiz, who broke American soccer fans hearts during a World Cup qualifying draw two years ago, could very well turn out to be the missing link up front. Whether the Galaxy has the wherewithal to win it for the first time is another matter.
"My pick for the most improved team not to reach MLS Cup is the Colorado Rapids, following in tradition of the MetroStars (2000) and the late and lamented Fusion (2001). That doesn't necessarily mean the Rapids will fall flat on their collective faces; they will be more than competitive. I just figure that one Cinderella team will suffice each season.
"The Dallas Burn has way too many defensive deficiencies to be a serious threat, unless coach Mike Jeffries puts D.J. Countess in goal and the rookie stands on his head several times. The Kansas City Wizards, I fear, may be getting a little bit long in the tooth, especially when it comes to their top thirtysomething performers -- Roy Lassiter, Peter Vermes and Preki, to name a few.
"Will I be right this time? I guess we all will have to wait until Oct. 20 in Foxboro, Mass., to find out."
[Editor's Note: Due to the length of Mr. Lewis's comments, Mr. Jones was limited to under 10 words for his rebuttal.]
Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (Tuning Up for the Cup)
2) Word Association (w/ MNT defender Tony Sanneh)
3) What I Did on My Spring Break (w/ U-21 WNT midfielder Joanna Lohman)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ WNT defender Jena Kluegel)
5) Superstar!!! (w/ WNT midfielder/forward Shannon MacMillan)
6) Mark That Calendar (MNT vs. Ireland -- April 17)
7) Point-Counterpoint (w/ journalists Michael Lewis and Grahame Jones)
8) "You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (General MLS trivia)
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