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MLS 2005 Preview

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.

This month we look toward the upcoming MLS season, the impressive 10th for the top soccer league in the United States. Things have changed quite a bit since the inaugural season in 1996. New teams have emerged as the league expanded to 12 teams again, the shootouts have been eliminated and overall the players and match quality has gotten better and better. But most of all, we’ve moved away from the dominant teams in the early days (see Bruce Arena’s D.C. United) and joined the new sports era where parity is rampant in leagues all over America. And that has made the job of picking the final standings for the Eastern and Western Conferences harder than getting Donald Trump to change his hairdo. We took a crack at it anyway. Of course, if you think you know better, don’t hesitate to tell us why.

Eastern Conference

K.C. – 1st Place

Outlook: Remember when the Milwaukee Brewers moved from the American League to the National League and then they dominated their new divisional opponents, becoming the class of the NL…wait, that didn’t happen at all. The lowly Brewers just kept being lowly. Well, Kansas City definitely won’t be struggling when it shuffles over from the MLS Western Conference to the Eastern Conference this year. While the Wizards would have loved to stay in the dismal Western Conference and no doubt get their second straight divisional championship, they now get the chance to do something no team has ever done or will probably ever do again – win the Western and Eastern divisional championship back-to-back.

Why they end up here: Kansas City is one of the deepest teams in the league, doing well to hold onto its core of players from last year’s team that won the 2004 U.S. Open Cup and made it to the MLS Cup. Up front, the Wizards have the always dangerous Josh Wolff, along with Justin Detter and Davy Arnaud, who recently signed a multi-year deal after a breakout season last year in which he scored 26 points (nine goals, eight assists).  The midfield is even more solid with Zavagnin re-signing after taking a peek over the pond, along with the return of Chris Klein and Preki from injuries, two players that will no doubt be willing to give every last bead of sweat on the field. Add in newcomer Sacha Victorine (aquired from L.A.), and the reliable Diego Gutierrez and there isn’t much room (or need) for improvement or addition. The starting defense from last year that led the league in lowest goals allowed (30) is still intact and leaders Nick Garcia and Jimmy Conrad will now be backed up by starter Bo Oshoniyi, who is out of Tony Meola’s shadow. If Oshoniyi can expand on his impressive performance last year when he allowed less than a goal a game and snagged five shutouts in his nine starts during the regular season, look for K.C. to add their second MLS Cup to the mantel.

D.C. United – 2nd Place

Outlook: D.C. United regained their place as the class of MLS last year, doing it in a less than smooth situation where they were dealing with a new head coach, handling the Freddy Adu traveling sideshow and  dealing with the loss of Bobby Convey to Reading. This year things are a bit more settled, which allows the MLS champs the opportunity to concentrate on getting another back-to-back title. Okay, okay, so the attention on Adu will still be there, but at least the coaches, players and organization will be better able to deal with any situation. And in the end that additional concentration for situations on the field, rather than off, will come in handy during a season with a target on their back.

Why they end up here: One thing you can’t dismiss is that D.C. is one of the best – if not the best – attacking team in the league. If Alecko Eskandarian can have another impressive year, Jaime Moreno is able to pull another rabbit out of his hat and Freddy Adu continues to get better each week, opponents will be scratching their heads trying to figure out a way to keep United off the board. On the other hand, losing Earnie Stewart and Ryan Nelson overseas doesn’t bode well, especially Nelson who not only was the bolt holding the defense together, but a great leader who could lead with what he said as much as with what he did on the field. Did you see the horrible gaff in United’s first leg Champions’ Cup match against Harbor View FC? One of the worst gaffes we’ve seen in awhile and while the majority of the blame has to go to goalkeeper Nick Rimando; do you think that happens with Nelson manning the defense? We think not. In the end though, with Peter Nowak able to call on Kovalenko, Gros, Gomez and Olsen in the midfield, the nation’s capital will once again easily get into the playoffs and push K.C. for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the ’06 MLS Cup.

Columbus Crew – 3rd Place

Outlook: In April, Columbus was the worst team in the league. By September they were unbeatable, literally, as they went on an 18-game unbeaten streak to end the regular season. By late October after the Crew fell to New England in the first round of the playoffs, they were seen either as a disappointment, overrated or just doing what they always do. They call themselves “America’s Hardest Working Team,” but they haven’t proved it over the past 10 years. Working hard is great and all but here’s an idea, drop the label and actually get to the MLS Cup. So, can Columbus do that this year? Probably not, but they will make the playoffs, so you never know, they might actually throw on their hard hats and actually get it done. At the least they could find their 2002 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup trophy a friend.

Why they end up here: With Jon Busch in goal and team leaders Robin Fraser, Frankie Hejduk and Chad Marshall available in the back, the Crew’s defense won’t have too many problems and can look to once again be near the league lead in goals allowed. In the midfield, Kyle Martino has the ability to be one of the best players in MLS, he just needs to start showing it on a consistent basis, and we’re betting he does this year. And he’ll need to as he can’t expect Ross Paule or Simon Elliot to be the leaders from the middle of the pitch. As for last year’s pickup, Danny Szetela will need to push himself to break into the starting XI. The midfielder might have lost his starting spot on the U-20s to some college players at the moment, but if he can regain the tough play and fire that got him to Columbus, he can make an impact during the season. Up front, Columbus looks like a team to be reckoned with as they improved their attack with the addition of Ante Razov to complement Edson Buddle, but while both at times can score seemingly at will, it’s also widely known that each can struggle. Buddle has the tendency to think he’s one of “America’s Hardest Working Players” on the field, when in actuality he’s not, and Razov first has to stay healthy before he can start scoring sick goals. 

Chicago – 4th Place

Outlook: Last October, Barnburners were left wandering the streets of Chicago, confused the Fire wasn’t playing in the playoffs, the first time that had happened in the team’s history. After finding their way to Ginger’s Ale House on Grace and Ashland (ahem…voted as the 2004 Best U.S. Soccer Bar), the Barnburners no doubt turned their sadness into anger and cheered against Columbus, finding some solace in their first round exit. Trust me though, Chicago fans aren’t going to stand by and let another year go by without a spot in the playoffs and neither is head coach Dave Sarachan. The Fire lost some players, but did well enough in the off-season to re-patch a team that lost key players over the past two years.

Why they end up here: Chicago was busy saying a lot of good-byes this past off-season, losing Ante Razov, Andy Williams, Orlando Perez, Dipsy Selolwane, Evan Whitfield, Henry Ring and just recently Damani Ralph. There are some big names in there, but the Fire also did well to shore up a defense that took a big hit last season when it lost Carlos Bocanegra to Fulham. Sarachan brought in Tony Sanneh, Ivan Guerrero and Samuel Caballero, who will join mainstay Dustin Diamond…I mean Jim Curtin and C.J. Brown, Logan Pause and rookies Jack Stewart and Gonzalo Segares. And don’t forget one of the best MLS goalkeepers of all-time is back as Zach Thorton has returned from Portugal. Two of Chicago’s poster boys, Chris Armas and Jesse Marsch, are getting up in age, but if they can stay healthy the Fire will have a solid midfield with speedster Justin Mapp, Kelly Gray, Will John and Brazilian Thiago, who has shown some ability in training. The biggest fear is where the goals will come from now that Ralph has seen the money in Russia and Razov has moved East. Andy Herron went on a tear in his first few games last year, but he’ll have to be more consistent, while Nate Jaqua and rookie Chad Barrett will be counted on to find the back of the net.

New England – 5th Place

Outlook: For the past few seasons New England has been playing with fire, struggling for most of the regular season before going on a run to get into the postseason and putting together some good playoff performances. While waiting until the final games to slip into the playoffs might make it interesting (if not annoying) for their fans, it might not be a recipe that always comes out good. We’re thinking this year they get burned.

Why they end up here: The biggest reason we think the Revolution just miss the playoffs with the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference is because they just haven’t done enough in the off-season a year after they were lucky to see themselves sneak into the postseason above Chicago. While they do return with a young trio of recent U.S. MNT regulars Steve Ralston, Taylor Twellman, Pat Noonan and Clint Dempsey, who will provide New England with some firepower in the middle of the field, it’s their defense that still needs some help. Carlos Llamosa is back from injury, but remember he’s no spring chicken. At 35, Llamosa has the experience to lead the backline and help get rookies Michael Parkhurst and James Riley into the lineup quicker, but will that be possible without his legs dying on him near the near the end of the season when they’ll need their standard run?  Or worse, can Llamosa stay injury-free for the full season? If he can and Brazilian addition Cassio can balance the Revolution’s flank attack on the left with Ralston on the right, maybe we’ll see more of the heart-attack Revs. This time, though, we won’t see it in the playoffs.

MetroStars – 6th Place

Outlook: The fact that a team in one of the biggest markets hasn’t won a single piece of hardware since the league kicked-off in 1996 probably won’t change in 2005. There’s not much that can be done, though, unless the MetroStars wake up one day with someone with the talent and skill of Ronaldinho knocking on the gates of Giants Stadium. And we’re not expecting things to change this year either, unless the teams that finish in last place in each conference get a trophy too.

Why they end up here: The MetroStars couldn’t get much better in the midfield with two of the best players in the league – Amado Guevara and Eddie Gaven – manning the middle of the field. After that though, there are question marks all over the field. The MetroStars couldn’t get rid of Jonny Walker no matter how hard they tried, and it doesn’t seem they are trying to give him much of a chance this year by getting rid of defenders Eddie Pope, Craig Ziadie and just recently Tenywa Bonseu. They did bring in Jeff Agoos (but is he better than Pope?) and drafted Tim Ward, who is currently starting at left back for the U-20s, but their defense got worse rather than better. The biggest signing was Youri Djorkaeff, but that doesn’t look too bright after the midfielder got injured shortly after joining the club. For the MetroStars to climb out of the cellar, they will have to find a more consistent scorer in Mike Magee, John Wolyniec or Sergio Galvan Rey.

Western Conference

FC Dallas – 1st Place

Outlook: In 2003, Dallas was not only the worst team in the league, they were the worst team to ever compete in MLS. In 2004, they were better, but still fell short of the playoffs. So, what’s a way to get over the hump? Take a page from the NFL’s Denver Broncos and change your logo. The team in the heart of Texas has done away with the Burn and now calls itself FC Dallas, complete with an updated, more soccer-like logo. The logo update propelled the Broncos to their first-ever Super Bowl victory in ‘98, so we’re figuring the tactic might work for the Burn, I mean FC Dallas, as well. First people will have to get used to the name change and then get accustomed to Dallas winning in their new stadium, which they no doubt will with a better squad against weaker conference opponents. 

Why they end up here: Benefica may have come calling, but MLS knows if it wants to get people in the seats it has to hold onto the players of the moment and Eddie (not Ed!) Johnson is THE player at THE moment. After struggling his initial couple years, Johnson broke through last year, becoming the prolific scorer everyone saw with the youth teams. And it doesn’t seem like it was a fluke as Eddie has shown he can do it at the highest level as well, scoring seven goals in his first six games with the full Men’s National Team. Let’s see, international squads are struggling to contain Johnson, so how do you think he’ll do against expansion teams like Real and Chivas? It will be easier for him to score than it is to get Barry Bonds to say he dislikes reporters. Losing Jason Kreis won’t kill them as they also snagged Cornell Glen and Abe Thompson to help with the scoring duties up front. They also lost Cory Gibbs, but Dallas was able to pickup defenders Alex Yi from overseas and Drew Moor from college, and rumor is they might be in line to get Greg Vanney to shore up their defense line that includes Steve Jolley and Chris Gbandi and Carey Talley. Their biggest off-season pickup was Richard Mulrooney, who will team with Ronnie O’Brien, and Simo Valakari in a solid midfield.

Colorado Rapids – 2nd Place

Outlook: Colorado is kind of an enigma. Having players that can do damage, but never coming together as a team to get a championship ring. They seem to be MLS’s example of the word average. This year, team average gets the chance to play in conference below average, giving the Rapids the chance to possibly make a deeper run into the playoffs. The one thing Colorado has coming into the season is the opportunity to start new, with head coach Fernando Clavijo bring a breath of fresh air to the club.

Why they end up here: The No. 1 reason that Colorado makes the playoffs is their man in the net – Joe Cannon. Cannon won the 2004 Goalkeeper of the Year award in part because he single-handily provided the Rapids with points with big save after big save. He’ll do his job and keep the Rapids in every game, so now the responsibility falls to the rest of the squad to put points on the board. To handle that duty Colorado called in Jeff Cunningham, who can at times be a bit like the Rapids teams of the past – average. On the other hand, despite his unpredictability, he can be one of the more dangerous strikers in the league. We’re thinking being around a midfield with Kyle Beckerman, Chris Henderson and March Chung will be the pill that controls Cunningham’s ups and downs and he leads a dangerous Rapids attack.

San Jose – 3rd Place

Outlook: Possible random thoughts of San Jose General Manager Alexi Lalas over the past year: “I don’t get it. We’re one of the better teams in the league the past few years, even winning the MLS Cup in 2003, but we struggle to keep a consistent fan base … And now we’ve lost our – and the league’s – best player to Germany … I wonder if there are any Hawaiians moving to the mainland and settling in San Jose? … Maybe I should write an Earthquakes theme song, strap on my old guitar and serenade people to come to Spartan Stadium.” Okay, we’re only joking and are certain Alexi is doing his best (a.k.a. more than playing his guitar) to try and solve their stadium and fan base problems, but a struggling team in a weak division probably won’t help his cause. Fortunately for San Jose, Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA will probably struggle more to allow the Earthquakes to make the playoffs. 

Why they end up here: The big question is how do you replace Landon Donovan? The simple answer is, you don’t. Instead, you move on and everyone tries to pick up the slack. One good thing is Dwayne DeRosario is back after throwing his bait in the waters of Europe, giving the Earthquakes the ability to put him up front with Brian Ching, who showed he can put up numbers with 12 goals and four assists last year. The midfield could pack a punch with newcomers Brad Davis, Ricardo Clark and rookie Danny O’Rourke, joining Brian Mullan. On defense, as long as Pat Onstead doesn’t knock any goals into his own net and the defense of Eddie Robinson, Troy Dayak, Ryan Cochrane, Danny Califf and Wade Barrett can gel after the departure of Jeff Agoos, the ‘Quakes will be just fine in the post-Donovan season.  

L.A. Galaxy – 4th Place

Outlook: Sigi Schmid was fired last year when he had L.A. atop the Western Conference. So, what happens if Steve Sampson struggles? We have a feeling we’re going to find out. For what it’s worth, Sampson is definitely going his own route in an attempt to do what he can to put his imprint on the team. He had some surprising selections in the 2005 MLS SuperDraft and not too many other coaches in the league were chopping at the bit to pick up some of the players he brought in to The Home Depot Center, but we’ve got to think he’ll keep the Galaxy above the two expansion clubs for the final playoff spot. And if they do better, well, then maybe Sampson really is smarter than everyone else in the league.

Why they end up here: When you think of L.A., the first name that comes to mind is Carlos Ruiz. How could it not? The Guatemalan international is one of the most dangerous strikers in the league, the player every defender has to keep an eye out for as he can score at any moment. He’ll also be accompanied by a familiar face, as the hand that feeds him on the Guatemalan National Team will also be the hand feeding him in L.A., with Guillermo Ramirez joining the Galaxy lineup. That quality gives L.A. some confidence that they will have a chance in any game, but Ruiz definitely can’t do it all himself and the Galaxy will be hurt when Ruiz and Ramirez gets their national team call-ups. He has help from Jovan Kirovski, but his first season in MLS was basically like the rest of his career – brilliant at times, lost at others, while Joseph Ngwenya will have to improve on his four goals from last year to make sure L.A. stays in the playoff hunt. Ruiz and the rest of the Galaxy cast could get an offensive boost from newcomer Ednaldo Conceicaco, however, whose jogo bonito could spice things up. The Galaxy midfield has Peter Vagenas, Guillermo Gonzalez, Ned Grabavoy, Josh Gardner, Paul Broome and Cobi Jones, leaving something to be desired as no one really stands out.  Ryan Suarez is gone, but the defensive line should hold their own with Chris Albright and Tyrone Marshall sitting in front of Kevin Hartman along with the Galaxy’s new signings, Costa Ricans Michael Umana and Pablo Chinchilla. Umana, 22, was the defensive anchor of his previous club CS Herediano, as well as having played every minute in Costa Rica’s four games at the 2004 Olympics. Ugo Ihemelu may also see time considering he was Sampson’s surprise first pick in the draft as well, but it might take him a bit to adjust to the speed of the game.

Real Salt Lake – 5th Place

Outlook: Before Utah’s newest professional sports team even had one player on their roster, soccer fans across the country were chuckling at the choice of their name – Real Salt Lake. What else did they want? The name-game is over though and now the goal is to make sure those same fans aren’t also laughing at the product put out on the field by former U.S. Under-17 head coach John Ellinger. That’s going to be tough for the mountain expansion team and there will probably be a bit of snickering as they will no doubt struggle to keep pace with already established squads in the league. But, we’re thinking RSL will be able to say, “At least we’re not Chivas.”

Why they end up here: If you’re going to start a team, it doesn’t hurt to get two well-known, proven goal scorers like Jason Kreis and Clint Mathis. Neither does getting youth standout goalkeeper D.J. Countess, along with Eddie Pope, Rusty Pierce and Evan Whitfield in front of him. Add in midfielder Andy Williams and, overall, there is definitely some talent on RSL, but you’ve got to expect that there will be a need for the team to gel, which in turn means some tough times during the first year. The biggest question will probably be Mathis, who Real is betting will be the creative, dangerous forward he showed he could be while scoring 33 goals in four years with the MetroStars. But what if he struggles, can the conservative Utah residents handle seeing the side of him that came out in Germany. Will other untested forwards, including rookie Jamie Watson, be able to step up? In other positions around the field, head coach John Ellinger has brought in a number of former U.S. U-17 Residency players and current member Nikolas Besagno (RSL’s No. 1 draft pick), which has led people to nickname the expansion club Real Bradenton. Ellinger is comfortable with those players, but they might not be able to get them to the playoffs right off the bat.

Chivas USA – 6th Place

Outlook: One thing is for sure: no team in the league will give Chivas any breaks. Every team they meet this year will want to beat the expansion squad…and most likely will. Chivas wants to be better than anyone in the league, even making sure they had better offices then their neighbors, the L.A. Galaxy, in The Home Depot Center, but there are just too many uncertainties as they move toward their opening match. We’ve heard head coach Thomas Rongen, despite his best effort, has yet to master Spanish. We’re thinking his team will also not get totally comfortable playing in MLS as quickly as they would like, providing Chivas fans looking south for some wins by a club in red and white.

Why they end up here: Things don’t appear to be going too smoothly and Rongen is probably beginning to feel the burden of trying to put together a mostly Mexican squad. The biggest news coming out of the Chivas USA front office the past couple weeks was that Ramon Ramirez was back on the team after leaving for a week when he couldn’t get his nanny to the U.S. (Ramon, they have them in the states as well). Rongen did not need that wrench thrown in during the final month before they kick off the season. You’ve got to assume he’d rather be figuring out how he’s going to get his young squad to be able to handle the rest of the league and what players he can count on to get the ball into the back of the net (Romo, Torres, Gomez?). Less than two weeks out, there are a number of other things that are still unsettled as well. Such as, how Brad Guzman will handle directing his above-average backline in a language that isn’t his first and can Suarez be the player that once got him to be a Rookie of the Year finalist in 2001. We don’t know the answers and we’re not sure Chivas does either.