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MLS 2004 - Winners / Wait & See

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.

Here's a quick look back at some of the Winners and Wait & See topics that emerged in MLS in 2004, a topsy-turvy season in American soccer if ever there was one:

D.C. Back in the Cup:
After winning three of the first four MLS Cups, D.C. fans went through some lean years from 2000-03 that surely tested their faith in the Black & Red.  But the dog days are over, at least for now, with their spirited return to the top of MLS.  Who knew Peter Nowak would be able to sidestep the pressure to play Freddy early and work the kind of magic he did to get them to the final?  This current D.C. squad doesn’t match the dominant talent on the teams of the late 90’s, which makes Nowak’s feat that much more impressive, but they do have a hard-working, plucky mix of youth (you-know-who, Eskandarian and Brian Carroll, e.g.) and experience (Ben Olsen, Jaime Moreno and Earnie Stewart). They seem destined to win their fourth title and that could mark the beginning of an Adu Era of success and championships.

Fabulous Foreigners: It’s unlikely that they’ll go on the greatness of the likes of retirees Marco Etcheverry, Carlos Valderrama and Mauricio Cienfuegos, but midfield maestros Amado Guevara (the league MVP) and Ronnie O’Brien continued their solid performance in MLS, while first-year players Christian Gomez, Andreas Herzog, Jean Phillipe Peguero and Andy Herron proved their worth for their respective teams. While he didn’t match his enormous output of the last two seasons, Carlos Ruiz still led the Galaxy in scoring.  And let’s not forget the rebirth of Jaime Moreno, who led D.C. in scoring and guided them to MLS Cup like he did in ’96, ’97 and ‘99.

Freddy’s Ready: Shook off a slow start weighed down by heavy hype and unrealistic expectations to post solid rookie numbers in his first season, with five goals and three assists while appearing in all 30 regular season matches.  And as fate would have it, like another U.S. Soccer golden boy (Landon Donovan), he’s now playing in an MLS Cup in his first year. Coincidence? I think not. Actually, it probably is, but it’s still evident that Freddy is a special player that might only be a year or two away from realizing the league’s potential for him to be one of the top players in the league. And he gets bonus points for being the first American soccer player to be mentioned in a rap song (see the line “With out further Adu, Like Freddy, Get Ready" from Jay-Z and R. Kelly’s collaboration “Don’t Let Me Die.” Trust us, the song is a lot better than the tour).

Greece What?: One of the best stories of the year in MLS was how a crop of promising young American players quickly overcame the disappointment of missing out on the 2004 Olympics and went on to have their best seasons yet as professionals.  Alecko Eskandarian (10 goals, 2 assists) showed people why he was last year’s top draft pick and was a major reason why D.C. is in the final, while 20-year-old Ed Johnson (12 goals, 3 assists) and 18-year-old Eddie Gaven (7 goals, 7 assists) were two of the only bright spots on the Burn and MetroStars teams that missed the playoff cut. Defender Chad Marshall also had a strong season, teaming with Robin Fraser on the Crew back line to start 28 games.

You’re Fired! You’re Hired!: When Sigi Schmid was sacked, coaches around the league had to wonder what it takes to keep their job.  So the team wasn’t playing “exciting” soccer. They were also in first place and just two years removed from an MLS title. But while his ouster was surely a blow to the ego, he did land on his feet by being nabbed as the new head coach for the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team, who will begin qualifying for the 2005 FIFA Youth World Championship in January in a familiar stadium in--you guessed it--Carson, Calif. It will be a bittersweet experience walking out the tunnel at the HDC, but here’s to hoping he can match the success he had with the U-20s in ’99, when he led them to an 11th place finish.

Wait & See:
FC ReAL Chivas?:
New names abound in MLS, for new teams and old. Only time will tell how these "traditional soccer names" fit into the American soccer landscape. Real Salt Lake, F.C. Dallas, CD Chivas USA … those three join D.C. United in the wave of classic soccer monikers. The prediction here is that no one will be longing for the good old days of the Rowdies, Tea Men and (yikes!) Team America. But, let's just hope we never see a change to "Kan. City" or "AS Rapids."

Three’s a Crowd?: While on the outside everyone’s all smiles at the addition of Chivas USA to MLS, all of the sudden the already busy Home Depot Center facility got a whole lot busier and a whole lot more diverse.  Having the Galaxy and Chivas living in the same house, not to mention one that’s also the home of U.S. Soccer West, could create a “Carson ain’t big enough for the both of us” showdown. In addition to learning Spanish, Chivas head coach Thomas Rongen might want to expect to serve as an Ambassador around the halls of the HDC. It’ll be interesting to see the built-in derby rivals duke it out on the field AND in the stands. While the Galaxy will probably have the competitive edge on the pitch, it’s hard to think they’ll be able to match the crowds that their opponents will draw.

Super Sampson?: Rumored to have been in the works since Sampson was displaced as the head coach of Costa Rica, the abrupt switching of coaches in the middle of a winning season seemed fishy from the start. Only time will tell if trading one of the winningest coaches in MLS history for one that has never coached a professional team on any level was the right move to right the ship.  All we know now is that the results in his first 11 games at the helm aren’t very promising.  A new coach is supposed to light a fire under a group of players and spark them to success, but instead the Galaxy limped to a 3-5-3 record to close out the season and let another opportunity to have a home-field advantage for an MLS Cup go to waste. I’m sure he’ll overhaul the team in the off-season and put a more competitive side on the field in ’05, but there’s a lot to be done for that to happen.