Sunday, March 28, 2010

New England Revolution 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki

The New England Revolution have the longest active streak for consecutive playoff appearance, going to the postseason eight straight times.

A number of other teams look more attractive than New England, but Head Coach Steve Nicol continues to get the best out of his squad. The team is still looking for its first MLS Cup championship, even though they’ve reached the final four times.

The one constant in the lineup since 2003 has been MVP candidate Shalrie Joseph.

He started ever since his rookie season and is an absolute force. He is (in)famous for his strong, physical, and tenacious defense. He is also equally as valuable in the offense. In 2009 he tied for the team lead in goals (eight) and led the team in assists (eight). Both tallies were also career highs.

Joseph is good in the air, challenges hard, and is a sharp passer. He’s a great two-way midfielder and is one of the best players in the league. His presence is what keeps the Revolution going.

The Revolution also have a strong defense.

Last season saw the emergence of rookie defenders Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston.

Barnes, a center back, started and played every minute of every league game. Alston, a right fullback, is a speedster that can make runs up the flank. He was impressive enough his rookie year that he was even called into the US National Team’s training camp.

They will be joined by veteran and US International Cory Gibbs, acquired in a trade with the Colorado Rapids.

The center back has had a multitude of injury problems in the past, but if he can stay on the field he brings invaluable experience and would further stabilize the Revolution backline.

Usually the Revolution’s goal is manned by two-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award finalist Matt Reis. He is one of the league’s elite goalkeepers but will miss a good amount of the season recovering from shoulder surgery.

In his place is a good fill-in. In the same trade that brought the Revolution Gibbs, they also acquired veteran Preston Burpo.

Burpo has started for Chivas USA and Colorado and has a career 1.43 goals against average. He is certainly capable of manning the fort until Reis returns.

Where the Revolution will struggle this year is scoring goals. In 2009 only one team (New York Red Bulls- 21) scored fewer goals than New England (33).

Forward Kheli Dube was the man that tied Joseph for the team lead in goals. Dube was the runner-up for the 2008 Rookie of the Year award and had an even better sophomore season, including registering his first career hat trick. He will need to score on a more consistent rate.

The wings will be manned by two youngsters with significant speed, Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi. Their pace could cause trouble for opposing defense and the Revolution need them to step up even more and create opportunities, even if all they do is get teams to focus on them which would create more space for Joseph.

What would immensely help the Revolution is the return of forward Taylor Twellman.

Since 2001, Twellman has made 174 league appearances for New England and has scored 101 goals. He also has made 29 appearances with the US National Team, scoring six times.

However a neck injury and a serious concussion have derailed Twellman’s extremely promising career.

There is no timetable on his return, if he comes back at all, but there is hope and he would be a huge boost to the Revs’ attack.

He is one of the most-prolific goal scorers in league history and being on the field with playmaker Joseph would be a lot for teams to handle.

New England also drafted Zack Schilawski to help the scoring-deficient team. Playing for Wake Forest, a haven for future professional soccer talent, Schilawski scored 40 goals and added 20 assists in 99 games for the Demon Deacons.

He has had a good preseason and the Revs hope he can help right away.

The Revolution won’t play many pretty games, and no one expects a whole lot from them. They will grind it out though, and they always find a way to make it work and win games.

It would be tough to bet against them doing the same in 2010.

Much Improved New York Red Bulls Start Season Off Right, Beat Chicago Fire 1-0

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

It’s only one game, but it looked so much better than any game from 2009.

Red Bull New York’s 1-0 victory over the Chicago Fire last night was a complete turnaround from what was only a five-win team from last year. Everything was noticeably different.

The most obvious difference was the new stadium and incredible fan support.

Instead of playing in front of a sparse crowd in barren Giants Stadium where the noise made, if any, would just dissipate into the wide open space, the Red Bulls were now the main event at a packed Red Bull Arena where the noise would bounce off the roof over the seats.

There were finally fans at the game and they were finally glad to be there.

Still, to win games things needed to be different on the pitch as well, and they were.

Passing was markedly better.

It all started from the back as rookie Tim Ream showed why he was so highly touted throughout the preseason. Not only was he solid defensively, but his sharp passing was on display as he looked comfortable on the ball and linked up with midfielder Joel Lindpere quite a bit in transition.

Lindpere has looked like a great signing for the team in his short Red Bull career thus far. Again, his passing was very good. He was able to make plays and, most importantly, keep possession for the team.

Last year the Red Bulls had problems holding possession and transitioning from defense to offense, often opting to just bomb the ball to their forwards and bypass the midfield.

Last night, the midfield was able to keep the ball and create scoring chances through their midfield. Lindpere scored the lone goal of the match off a fantastic strike from just outside the 18-yard box.

The organization of the outside midfielders and fullbacks was also much improved.

Fullbacks Roy Miller and Jeremy Hall worked nicely with the guys playing in front of them, Danleigh Borman and Dane Richards. All have good speed, and the fullbacks made plenty of overlapping runs. The difference between 2009 and 2010 was that as the fullbacks made their move into the offensive third, the midfielders dropped back to cover for them.

Not everything was good though.

The offense did not shoot enough. Especially facing a young goalkeeper making his first professional start, the team needed to test the goalie early and often and force him to make plays, but it didn’t happen.

If Macoumba Kandji is going to be partnered up top with Juan Pablo Angel, then his decision making needs to be better. Either shoot the ball or drop it in front of the goal for someone else to come onto it, but too many times did Kandji just hold onto the ball and lose it, blowing the possession.

Also, the defense, while better, still was not entirely perfect. There was Brian McBride’s bicycle kick that he was left wide open for that hit the post. Had that gone in the entire complexion of the game would’ve changed. Goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul was out of position numerous times in the first half as well.

Still, unlike other years, the Red Bulls overcame these deficiencies and closed out the game. Too many times have fans watched their team take an early lead only to watch them give it up in the final minutes and either tie or lose and miss out on three points.

Overall, it was a good victory and the right way for the team to start off its new era.

The Red Bulls are now riding a lot of momentum. An undefeated regular season followed by an exciting home win over an MLS Cup semi-finalist from last year have the team feeling good about themselves. If they can continue to improve and play with confidence, it could be an exciting season for the team and its fans.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

D.C. United 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Nick Wass

One of the most successful MLS teams of all time, D.C. United hasn’t even been to the playoffs the past two seasons.

It won’t be any easier for them in 2010 as some key players left the club.

Gone are former MLS MVP Christian Gomez, 2009 team leading scorer Luciano Emilio, midfield maestro Fred, and 12-season D.C. United veteran Ben Olsen.

There is also a new head coach as Curt Onalfo replaces the fired Tom Soehn.

How can the team possibly cope?

D.C. still boasts striker and MLS all-time leading goal scorer Jamie Moreno.

The Bolivian International has scored 131 goals in 11 seasons in MLS, and is also fourth all-time in assists with 102. He’s had a good preseason and if he stays healthy and fresh he could wreck havoc on a lot of opposing defenses.

Supporting the elder statesman of the club are two players that were nominated for the 2009 Rookie of the Year award, Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace.

Pontius is a versatile player who can either slot in as the second forward or in the midfield. He also showed extreme poise last year scoring some extremely important goals, including putting one in the net against the Los Angeles Galaxy in his MLS debut.

Wallace is also able to play multiple positions both in the midfield and on defense. He was third on the team in minutes played. Known as a tough defender, Wallace also has an offensive spark to his game.

They may not be able to put Wallace’s full arsenal of talent on display however, as a lack of defensive depth to start the season plagues the team.

Starting left fullback Marc Burch has a foot injury and Bryan Namoff is still working his way back from concussion issues. It will be new starting goalkeeper Troy Perkins, who is still fighting for the third goalkeeper’s roster spot on the US National Team heading to the World Cup, who will be responsible for keeping the patchwork defense organized.

D.C.’s x-factor will be attacking midfielder Santino Quaranta.

Once a promising young starlet for United, Quaranta had problems with injuries and drugs that forced him out of D.C. and into oblivion. However, after straightening himself out, Quaranta returned to D.C. in 2008 with a vengeance.

In 2008 he set a career-high in minutes played (1,963), and last season, despite missing eight games, he led the team and set a career-high in assists with six.

In the summer of 2009 he also scored his first goal with the US National Team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Still only 25-years-old, Quaranta says he still has a lot left to prove. D.C. will need him to be really creative and dangerous to take the pressure off the defense.

D.C. United enjoyed a good preseason, culminating in winning the Carolina Challenge Cup. Momentum and morale are both high, but the club and its offense to get out to a hot start to keep things moving in the proper direction.

Otherwise they run the risk of having to play too much defense and really putting the pressure on a group that is not 100 percent together, putting United in a hole early.

Chicago Fire 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

For the third straight season, and fourth out of five years, the Chicago Fire made the semi-finals in the MLS playoffs. Apparently that wasn’t enough for management.

The Fire had a surprising roster turnover heading into the 2010 season. Chicago let go of Head Coach Dennis Hamlett and brought in Carlos de los Cobos, the former head coach of the El Salvador National Team.

Forward Chris Rolfe and left fullback Gonzalo Segares left for Europe and Designated Player Cuauhtemoc Blanco went home to Mexico.

The most surprising move, however, was the release of goalkeeper Jon Busch just days before the start of the season.

Busch was the 2008 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and started all 30 regular season games for the Fire the past two seasons, as well as matching a team record with 10 shutouts both years.

Busch has stated that he felt “blindsided by the whole scenario”

Instead, the Fire will turn the spot over to 24-year-old Andrew Dykstra. An undrafted free agent signee last year, Dykstra has yet to start an MLS regular season game.

Dykstra now has pressure coming at him from a number of angles. Not only does he have the pressure of getting over his nerves of his first start in the league, not only does he have the pressure of replacing Busch, but he also now will assuredly face scrutiny if the he and the Fire struggle to get wins.

The untested keeper can breathe a little easier knowing he has two veteran center backs guarding the goal in front of him.

C.J. Brown has been a starter on the team since its inaugural season in 1998 and has amassed 270 league appearances.

Next to him is Willman Conde. Considered to be an elite defender in the league, Conde was named the team’s Defender of the Year in 2009 and was also selected to the MLS Best XI.

The Fire still have a number of veteran players on offense too.

Up-top the Fire boast striker Brian McBride, a member of the MLS All-Time Best XI. Although he has only appeared in 33 games for Chicago the past two seasons, he’s scored 12 goals. He’s a threat in the air and is one of the league’s, and the nation’s, most respected players.

The Fire will pair him with 24-year-old Collins John.

Formally with Fulham, John had scored 20 goals in 95 appearances with the English Premier League team. However, most of those came in the 2005-2006 season and he has struggled to find the field and that same scoring touch since.

John has good speed and is talented on the ball, and as a former teammate of McBride’s when he was at Fulham, the Fire hope the two can come together to create more scoring magic together.

The Fire are also looking for more offense from creative Guatemalan International midfielder Marco Pappa.

The 22-year-old was originally with the Fire on a year-and-a-half loan, where he scored five goals in 36 appearances, including 28 starts in 2009. Over the offseason Chicago exercised their right to make Pappa’s loan permanent, and will look to him to really control the tempo of the game.

The Fire are a team that expect to compete for the MLS Cup year in and year out, and the number of roster changes suggest that merely competing isn’t good enough.

It may turn out that the team’s success this year hinges on the fast development of Dykstra.

If he can play well and make fans forget about Busch, then the Fire could wind up back in at least the semi-finals of the playoffs.

If Dykstra’s inexperience shows and he can’t handle the position, then all hell will break loose.

Houston Dynamo 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

The two-time MLS Champion Houston Dynamo have lost an incredible amount of talent going into the 2010 season and will be put to the test this season if they wish to continue to be an elite team in MLS.

Stu Holden, a star midfielder in the making for both the Dynamo and the United States National Team, transferred to English Premier League side Bolton.

US International teammate Ricardo Clark transferred to Eintracht Frankfurt of the German Bundesliga.

Also, captain and veteran defender Wade Barrett retired. Throw in forward and leading goal scorer Brian Ching, who could very well miss time playing with the US team in the World Cup, and the Dynamo look to be in trouble.

But Head Coach Dominic Kinnear has put a system in place over the years and gets players that fit that system, so he will make sure that his guys are prepared for the start of the season and anything else that may come along the way.

Obviously a lot of the pressure will go on the shoulders of the veteran Ching. Even though he missed 11 games because of injury last season he still led the team with eight goals. Ching is a very good target forward. He does a good job of getting open, collecting the ball, and holding onto it. He is also a very good passer and a talented aerial player.

A lot of buzz this preseason has centered around Geoff Cameron. The defender will move up into a central midfielder role. The 24-year-old has displayed his versatility and scored two goals and notched six assists out of the defense position in 2009.

While Cameron gets the publicity, he will rely on outside midfielder Brad Davis. Davis is an underrated workhorse who continually plays good team ball and contributes at a high rate. Last season Davis was among the league leaders in assists, with eight.

The Dynamo brought in Jamaican international Lovel Palmer to fill in for Clark as the defensive midfielder in the starting lineup. The 25-year-old has played the last ten years with Harbour View FC of Jamaica’s premier league.

Where the Dynamo really need much more production out of is Designated Player Luis Angel Landin.

With such high expectations, the start to Landin’s time with Houston can only be described as horrendous.

Signed on August 20, Landin played in seven games for the Dynamo, but scored only once. He was also criticized a number of times for being out of shape. Especially with the loss of so much talent and possibly going without Ching for a month, the Dynamo need to get much more return of their investment from Landin.

What carries Houston is their strong defense.

In 2009 they tied for the league lead in fewest goals allowed. Heading that group is 42-year-old goalkeeper Pat Onstad, who returns for his seventh MLS season and is still one of the elite goalies in the league. Last year he posted his third season with a goals against average lower than 1.00 and his sixth with double digits in wins.

At first, the losses of Holden, Clark, and Barrett would seem alarming. But at second glance the team looks to have some quality players that could keep this franchise in competition for the league’s biggest prize.

There will be some bumps in the road as the midfield works itself out, but expect Kinnear to keep this team moving in the right direction as well as keeping them in contention.

Columbus Crew 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Jay Laprete

The Columbus Crew are a veteran squad that has been atop the tables the past few years and are looking to stay there.

The Crew won their second consecutive Supporters' Shield last season— the team with the most points at the end of the regular season— even with a brand new head coach, as Robert Warzycha replaced Sigi Schmid who went to the Seattle Sounders.

This season they return nearly their entire starting 11 from 2009, minus forward Alejandro Moreno, who was selected by the Philadelphia Union in the expansion draft.

Former league MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto will lead the charge. The Argentine is a lethal weapon in the attack as both a finisher and distributor. His contributions are invaluable. In 2009 he led the Crew in goals scored, with 12.

The midfield is young and talented.

Robbie Rogers is a good talent on the flank with good pace. He had his moments last year where he struggled and did not get on the field, but he is an asset and is currently on the bubble for a spot on this summer's World Cup roster.

Eddie Gaven will play on the other side of the midfield and has continually improved each year, also earning a National Team call-up this offseason. He played in all 30 games last season for the Crew, the first time he’s done so since 2006, and scored six goals, his highest total since 2005 when he netted eight.

Emmanuel Ekpo, 23, will play in the center of the field. He led Columbus in 2009 in assists with six. In his third year in MLS he should continue to grow as a player.

The Crew also have a pair of the league's top defenders in center back Chad Marshall and right fullback Frankie Hejduk.

Marshall has won consecutive MLS Defender of the Year awards and will look to continue his dominance.

Hejduk was a member of the 1996 MLS Inaugural Player Draft. After the 1998 World Cup Hejduk spent six seasons overseas before returning to America and signing with the Crew. He has a ton of experience and is still crafty enough to get up-field for clutch goals.

The team will look to third-year player Steven Lenhart to fill in for Moreno. The 23-year-old has scored seven goals in 36 league appearances and has had an impressive pre-season.

This is a squad with talent, championship experience, and enough youth to keep them energized throughout the entire season.

Columbus is in great position to win a third straight Supporters’ Shield, which would be an MLS record, and fourth overall, which would tie D.C. United for most in MLS history.

But it doesn’t end with there for this team. They expect to be contending for the MLS Cup as well, and they are certainly more than capable.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Verteran Seattle Sounders Outclass Young Philadelphia Union

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

The Seattle Sounders proved to the expansion Philadelphia Union that Philly still has a long way to go before they can match Seattle’s success.

The Sounders completely outplayed and outclassed the inexperienced Philadelphia side en route to a 2-0 victory.

Philadelphia displayed their youth and seemed to be disjointed as a team. The starting lineup featured two rookies, five players making their MLS debut, and the starters’ total average age was 24-years-old. Two more rookies came on as late second-half substitutes.

This was quite the bold move by Union Head Coach Peter Nowak, putting these young players in the pressure-filled environment of a packed house of over 32,000 at Seattle’s Qwest Field.

The nerves showed as Philadelphia struggled in the first half with possessing the ball and came in with some bad challenges defensively that saw them given five yellow cards, four in the first half. Two of those went to rookie Toni Stahl, who was thus given a red card and ejected. The Union was forced to play a man down.

Seattle’s veteran squad, despite the physical play, kept calm and stayed cool.

They did not join in on the card party, and seized control of the match from the get-go. Brad Evans scored in the 12th minute and Seattle won the possession battle and capitalized on man-advantage.

Seattle put together a squad last season that had plenty of experience—MLS, other professional clubs, and international alike—that was able to compete last year and is an early favorite to win the MLS Cup this season.

The same cannot be said for Philadelphia, who stockpiled draft picks and will be better for it in the years to come, but will endure plenty of growing pains this season.

One way the Union front office followed the Sounders’ blueprint for success was by establishing a talented, stingy defense. While they performed ok, Seattle, who allowed the least amount of goals against in 2009, was able to do better posting the shutout.

Seattle also proved that the team needs to complement the tough defense with a capable attack. Philadelphia’s biggest weakness is that they do not have many offensively proficient players.

Seattle does have some goal scorers. While they did miss some chances and that needs to be improved upon as the season goes on, they did do enough to break a solid defense and secure a victory.

Seattle’s “win-now” club took the first steps to becoming champions this season.

Philadelphia took the first steps of a long, learning process to be great eventually.

The two teams’ philosophies showed last night.

Colorado Rapids 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

The Colorado Rapids are a competitive team. However, they have epitomized the parity in MLS. They are neither an elite team atop the standings nor are they a cellar-dweller. They sit on the fringes of the playoffs each season.

Last year they were in playoff contention but lost their last two games by a total of 5-1 and missed the playoffs by tiebreaker, marking the third straight year Colorado would miss out on the postseason fun.

This season they will be out to finish the job.

The Rapids boast arguably the league’s best strike force, featuring forwards Omar Cummings and US International Conor Casey.

In 2009 Casey scored 16 goals, second most in the league, and had one assist. He does a good job of finding space and getting open and is a good player in the air. He’s also still in consideration for a spot on this summer’s World Cup squad, so he should be highly motivated.

Omar Cummings shined last year, his third in MLS. He once again set career highs in goals (eight) and assists (12)—also setting a Rapids season record and tying for the league lead— and he was named Rapids team MVP. He complements Casey well with great speed and the two form a good tandem.

After those two there isn’t too much scoring punch. The third most goals scored on the team came from midfielder Colin Clark, who put a whopping three goals in the back of the net.

The midfield is mostly a defensive unit, but they are a strong defensive group.

The group is led by captain and former US International Pablo Mastroeni, an aggressive and tough player. He will be joined this season by another strong central defensive midfielder, Jeff Larentowicz, who in five seasons with the Revolution amassed 111 league appearances entrenching himself into the starting lineup. He learned the position playing next to arguably the greatest defensive midfielder in the history of MLS in MVP-candidate Shalrie Joseph.

Clark is the midfielder that could be the extra push the offense needs in order to be a threat and take some pressure off of Cummings and Casey. His season was cut just about in half last season because of an ACL injury. If he can recover, the Rapids will count on him to have a season like the one in 2008 where he played in all but one game, scored five goals, and assisted three.

It may look like a less-than average performance, but with the duo they have at forward, and if Clark, only 25, can still improve his game, then it may be that extra push the team needs, because their defense is pretty solid.

Matt Pickens will be the man between the pipes after a good 2009 campaign. Last season he posted a 9-6-4 record with a very good 1.16 goals against average and seven shutouts in 19 games.

In front of Pickens, center back Drew Moor will be in his first full season with Colorado after he was acquired in a late-season trade with FC Dallas.

Colorado also acquired yesterday a potential big impact player on defense. The team traded midfielder Nick LaBrocca, a solid player but one that would definitely be coming off the bench because of the team’s depth at midfield, for right fullback Marvelle Wynne.

Wynne has blazing speed, which allows him to both cover for mistakes and also push forward on the flanks into the attack. He needs to be more consistent game-to-game and could improve his touch on the ball, but he is a solid defender who could also support Colorado’s offense.

Colorado is a solid club that one generally knows what to expect from them. They have some good pieces that could push them into the playoffs finally, but they also are maybe a creative midfielder away from getting in.

Chivas USA 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Chivas USA is tired of being the “other team” in Los Angeles and the Home Depot Center.

They are also tried of their season ending in the early stages of the playoffs.

Three straight first round-playoff exits for Chivas USA— who share their home stadium with Western Conference champion Los Angeles Galaxy— also meant the exit of Head Coach Preki. In his place is former assistant coach Martin Vasquez, who will try to transform the team into a more exciting and potent offensive squad.

The franchise is known for its stingy defense.

Last season they allowed 31 goals against them. Only two teams let fewer past their keeper (Seattle and Houston, 29) and two teams tied with them (Los Angeles and Columbus).

Last year, the unit was lead by 2009 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Zach Thornton and US International defender Jonathan Bornstein.

Thornton had a career year in 2009, his thirteenth in MLS, posting a career low goals against average and leading the league in shutouts—12, a career high— and goals against.

Bornstein is a good MLS defender who also likes to push into the attack; although he may be a bit limited if he starts the season as a center back instead of an outside fullback.

What was sorely lacking last season was a scoring punch from Chivas’ offense. Only three teams (New England-33, Kansas City-33, and New York-27) scored fewer goals than the Goats (34).

Midfielder Sacha Kljestan needs to step up. He struggled at times last season and was even benched. He turned it around eventually, equaling a career-high in goals (5). As an attacking midfielder, the offense will run through Kljestan.

His latest effort with the US team in a friendly against El Salvador, where he scored the game-winning goal in stoppage time, grouped together with his assigning to the captaincy and still vying for a spot on the World Cup roster should be Kljestan to perform at a high level.

It isn’t just Kljestan that needs to have a turnaround 2010, though.

Maykel Galindo, who in his rookie season three years ago scored 12 goals, has fizzled out. After a 2008 season in which he only played in 10 games, Galindo struggled again last year, playing in only 23 games, starting only 15, and scoring a paltry four goals even though he is the main target up top.

Winger Jesus Padilla also struggled. He managed only one goal and no assists in 11 games. He never quite found a home on the field. The team hopes that Vasquez’s aggressive offensive mindset will help the winger.

The lone offensive weapon the team had last year, forward Eduardo Lillingston, who scored eight goals and notched two assists in 25 games, was loaned to Mexican second-division club Tijuana and will not be able to return until after the transfer window opens up again on July 15.

In order to improve the offense, Chivas brought in Salvadorian International winger Osael Romero. The 23-year-old is already considered the star of the El Salvador National Team, making 37 appearances and scoring eight goals. He is said to have a good touch on the ball, should provide great help to Kljestan in the midfield, and seems to be a very good fit on the wing for the style Vasquez wants the team to play.

The transition to the offensively astute side that fans would love to watch will take some time for the players to get used to and settle in. There may be some ugly results on the way.

So in order for Chivas to stay in contention until the offense figures itself out, the defense needs to continue to step up, even occasionally rising above the call of duty in order to preserve points.

If the team can gel and scoring chances become abundant, this could be a very good team that would be difficult to beat come playoff time.

If not, it could be just another disappointing season for Los Angeles’ “second” team.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Toronto FC 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

One wonders how difficult it must have been to the loyal Toronto FC fans to watch the expansion Seattle Sounders make the playoffs in their inaugural season while Toronto, who entered the 2009 season with much promise, failed for the third straight time.

Missing the playoffs by a single point last season, Toronto’s first move was to hire Preki as their new head coach. Preki had previously been the head coach at CD Chivas USA, where in his first season as head coach he led the Goats to first place in the Western Conference and was named MLS Coach of the Year.

A talented player in his own right, Preki can still only do so much as coach though. It comes down to the players’ performance on the pitch, and the team looks to be on the fringes.

Toronto will experience a drop-off in production without the services of playmaking midfielder Amado Guevara, a former league MVP, who left the team to return to his native Honduras.

Without Guevara Toronto will put more weight on the shoulders of Dwayne De Rosario.

The two-time MLS MVP and native Canadian enjoyed a successful first season with his hometown team. In 28 league games De Rosario scored 11 goals, equaling a career high, and notched six assists, his third highest total and most since he recorded 13 in 2005.

Toronto will hope that designated player Julian de Guzman will be able to team up with De Rosario and the club will not miss a beat.

De Guzman signed with the team in mid-September and only appeared in five games. Now Toronto will get a full season out of him and will expect him to be worth the DP slot. De Guzman and De Rosario were teammates with the Canadian National Team, so the two do have a history of playing together.

The Reds will also need increased performance from Chad Barrett.

The forward is Toronto’s number one target up top, yet his goal scoring was subpar, managing to only find the back of the net five times. In three seasons with Chicago before being traded he led the team in goals twice. He is well-known for his work ethic and is still a young 24-years-old, so it isn’t hard to imagine that last year was a small bump in the road.

What Toronto needs a lot of help on is defense.

They boast second-year phenom goalie Stefan Frei, speedy right fullback Marvell Wynne, and veteran center back Nick Garcia, yet managed to give up the third most goals in the entire league (46).

They didn’t do themselves any favors, either, when they traded defensive center midfielder Carl Robinson to the Red Bulls.

The hope is that Jacob Peterson, a midfielder that spent that past four seasons in Colorado amassing nearly 100 appearances, can fill in. The problem is that Peterson missed the end of last season because of a torn ACL in his right knee.

He is only 23-years-old still, so if he can recover he could be a valuable asset for years to come.

Still, without a strong attack force the defense really needs to be shored up. Currently there are only two new faces to the defense and both are inexperienced.

They traded for Ty Harden, who after one season with the Galaxy retired only to return the following season with Colorado, where he appeared in only seven league games.

Toronto also drafted in the second round defender Zachary Herold from the U-17 residency program. The 17-year-old drew some attention from teams around the world, including in the German Bundesliga, but settled on a six-year deal with MLS.

The squad had traded its first round pick for veteran defender Adrian Serioux but they could not renew his contract and instead traded his rights to Houston (for a third round pick nonetheless, certainly a poor series of events from the Toronto front office).

It’s difficult to tell where Toronto stands currently.

They have some talented individual players, but collectively they struggle at both ends of the field. Expect the roster to continue to be influx as the season goes on as the team continues to push for its first ever trip to the playoffs.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

FC Dallas 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

FC Dallas finished with the most goals scored in MLS in 2009 (50) but fell a point short of the playoffs in 2009, largely because of an inept defense that tied for the most goals against (47).

The team has taken steps to vastly improve that problem starting at the end of last season. They acquired central defender Ugo Ihemelu from the Colorado Rapids and then signed fullback and U.S. international Heath Pearce.

Since Pearce was signed on September 11, Dallas went 5-2-0 including wins against playoff-bound New England Revolution, MLS Cup runners-up Los Angeles Galaxy, and MLS Cup champions Real Salt Lake. They also gave up only nine goals, an average of 1.29 a game, with two shutouts.

This offseason the team continued to add to its defense by signing goalkeeper Kevin Hartman.

The Hartman signing is a little surprising. Dallas' goal has been manned by captain Dario Sala since 2006 (he did make one appearance in 2005). The team was looking to upgrade the position though and they couldn’t have done much better than with Hartman.

The 13-year-veteran has the MLS record for most career saves, most career victories, and most career shutouts. He was also named MLS Goalkeeper the Year in 1999. Even though he is 35, he still started and played every single minute of league action last season.

While Head Coach Schellas Hyndman has said Sala remains the starter for now, even having arguably the league's greatest goalie in its history pushing him and competing against him can only make the both of them better.

The team also drafted fullback Zach Loyd out of North Carolina with the fifth pick in the draft. Loyd has impressed so much in camp that Hyndman has hinted he may be able to push Pearce up into the midfield.

Pushing Pearce into the midfield would offset the loss of out of contract Dave van den Bergh. Van den Bergh was a threat on the left side of the midfield. The veteran serviced great crosses and could fire off a nice shot of his own.

Pearce has proved in his time with the national team, however, that pushing forward into the attack is definitely a strength of his.

He would join Dax McCarty and second year mid Brek Shea, both talented midfielders but not as strong offensively as Pearce.

The biggest threat that Dallas owns is Jeff Cunningham.

Cunningham is one of the most prolific goal scorers in MLS history, currently second all-time with 121 goals.

After 32 games with Toronto where he only scored six league goals, Cunningham had a renaissance year in 2009 winning the league’s Golden Boot award with 17 goals. His return to prominence also earned him a few call ups with the U.S. National Team.

Colombian David Ferreira scored eight goals in 30 starts last season and will be counted on in 2010 to complement Cunningham.

Behind those two there isn’t much depth at the forward position, so another signing should be imminent.

If Dallas can get its defense to tighten up, and Cunningham continues to be the goal scorer he’s been for the majority of his career the team could return to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Los Angeles Galaxy 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Gus Ruelas

A Landon Donovan missed penalty kick in the shootout prevented the Los Angeles Galaxy from winning the MLS Cup in 2009.

For the regular season and playoff Western Conference champions, it may have been just the beginning of more disappointment for the club.

David Beckham, the team’s designated player and the man media go in a frenzy over, will miss six months—two more additional months than he would have missed after his loan to AC Milan and a trip to the World Cup with England were up—with a torn Achilles tendon suffered in a Serie A match against Chievo Verona.

Missing Beckham is a two-fold problem.

He obviously is a talented player that really helps the team play at its best. Known for his pinpoint bending crosses and shots, Beckham has been very good in transition from defense to offense and providing great service to the forwards.

Although the Galaxy have played well without him in the past, when Beckham returned from loan last season he really pushed the Galaxy over the edge and made them MLS Cup contenders.

The second issue is what kind of fan support will they receive now?

Beckham was a huge draw for the team, both home and away, and generated a lot of income for the franchise. Without him, will the fans still come out to the games? Will Los Angeles have any interest at all in the team, especially if they start to struggle?

The Galaxy’s most important player, Landon Donovan, will also miss a month of the season for the World Cup.

After a successful loan stint at Everton this offseason and if he continues his good play on the pitch throughout the sport's biggest stage, he may be ready to make a permanent move overseas.

With the threat of losing the team's two most valuable players the Galaxy could be in danger of free-falling down the standings.

However, the Galaxy does have arguably the greatest American soccer coach in history in Bruce Arena. He's had success with the U.S. Men's National Team and has won MLS Cups with D.C. United as well as bringing the Galaxy there last year.

He's done so by building a roster of "his players", guys he's worked with before and has a good rapport with.

Since coming to Los Angeles, Arena has brought in fullbacks Todd Dunivant and U.S. international Gregg Berhalter to solidify a terrible defense, former U.S. international midfielders Eddie Lewis and Tony Sanneh, Mike Magee and Clint Mathis both of whom Arena coached in New York, and tenacious midfielder Dema Kovalenko who played for Arena in both D.C. and New York.

All these players are veteran players that know how to win, how to win with Arena's coaching and playing style, and can tutor the younger players. All these traits are important to help cultivate a winning environment.

Speaking of the young players, the Galaxy has struck gold the past couple of years in the draft.

In 2008 the Galaxy selected defender Sean Franklin out of Cal-State Northridge with the fourth overall pick. He played in 27 of the team's 30 league games and was named the Galaxy's Defender of the Year and MLS Rookie of the Year. In 2009 he started all four game of Los Angeles' playoff run.

In 2009 the Galaxy drafted Omar Gonzalez out of Maryland third overall. Standing at a towering 6'5", the rookie center-back started all 30 league games, played every minute of all four playoff games, and was also name MLS Rookie of the Year. This winter he was called into the United States training camp and impressed throughout his workouts.

The Galaxy hope to continue that trend with first rounder and number 16 overall pick Michael Stephens.

The midfielder out of UCLA has had an impressive preseason, scoring a pair of goals in scrimmages against the Bruins, and set up the game-winning goal in a friendly against Puntarenas. Stephens has said that he still needs to work on adjusting to the speed and physicality of the league, but he looks like he can be a solid contributor this season. His ability to play as a center midfielder or out on the wings should come in handy with the absences of Donovan and Beckham.

Arena has managed to build a solid core of role players and improving young studs around the talented but extremely expensive Beckham and Donovan. The big question that will be answered this season is how will they perform without the assistance of the Galaxy's two marquee players?

If no one is ready to step up, it could turn into another long season for Los Angeles.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Philadelphia Union 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/George Frey

The City of Brotherly Love finally has an MLS franchise to embrace.

The Philadelphia Union will embark on its inaugural season with full support from the fan group the Sons of Ben, and they certainly have a good amount to be excited about.

Putting together an entirely new team has its advantages and disadvantages. A positive is that the coach, in this case former U.S. men’s national team assistant Peter Nowak, can shape the team any way he likes. The negative is that there is a hole at every single position, on the field and for reserves, that needs to be filled.

What Nowak and the rest of the Philadelphia front office seems to have done is follow the blueprint put into action last season by the then-expansion Seattle Sounders and that is to start by creating a stingy defense.

The defense will start between the pipes with heralded prospect Chris Seitz.

Seitz was selected fourth overall in the 2007 MLS Super Draft and is considered to be in line to be one of the next best American goalkeepers.

However after three years at Real Salt Lake he had trouble finding playing time. Nick Rimando shined as the starter and Seitz was only able to appear in seven league games.

Now he finally gets the chance to live up to his potential. Seitz played for Nowak in the 2008 Summer Olympics and has been awarded the role of number one keeper.

Playing in front of him are two more U.S internationals: center-back Danny Califf and left fullback Michael Orozco.

Orozco, a teammate of Seitz’s at the Olympics. He is notorious for the red-card he received for throwing an elbow in the final game of group play in the Olympics, a game the U.S. needed to win in order to advance. Still, he is a good defender who became a regular starter at Mexican club San Luis.

Califf was one of the best center backs in MLS when he was a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy from 2000-2004, and was named to MLS Best XI in 2005 as a member of the San Jose Earthquakes. He moved to Aalborg of the Danish Superliga where he captained the squad. A strong and tough defender, Califf has made 22 appearances with the U.S. national team.

Filling out the rest of the backline are MLS-veterans Shavar Thomas and Jordan Harvey.

The Union also brought in a ton of young talent to develop through the draft.

Danny Mwanga, a freshman out of Oregon State, was the team’s first ever draft pick and the number one overall selection. Mwanga is a big, strong target standing at 6’2” that has a knack for scoring goals. Nowak and his staff were also impressed by his ability to see the field, make crisp passes, and his touch on the ball.

Toni Stahl, 24, isn’t as young as the other rookies for Philadelphia, but the midfielder is thought to be most-ready for MLS of all of Philadelphia’s selections and has impressed early on in the preseason.

Amobi Okugo, from UCLA, is another freshman from the PAC-10 the team selected in the first round to develop.

While the defense is the strength and a pool of youngsters that are still developing, Nowak will look to MLS veterans Alejandro Moreno, a forward formally of the Columbus Crew, and Fred, a midfielder acquired from D.C. United, in order to create a solid attack that would complement the defense.

It will be difficult to match the success Seattle had in its first season, and the Union probably won’t be as good as them, but they have put together an impressive squad and in the down Eastern Conference they could really fight for a playoff spot.

They need to upgrade at forward as well as develop the very young roster they currently have before the team is a legitimate title contender, but they should be an exciting team to watch as the season progresses.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Red Bull New York 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

In 2009 the Red Bull New York franchise hit rock bottom. The hope for this year is that moving away from the House of Horrors will exorcise the demons that plague the franchise.

After over a decade of promises the Red Bulls will finally move out of the barren Giants Stadium and into the pinnacle of soccer-specific stadiums in America that will be known as Red Bull Arena.

The hope is that the new stadium will invigorate the fans, and that the increased closeness of the stadium, where the stands are only a mere 21 feet away from the sidelines and 27 feet away from the end-line, will create an entirely different atmosphere compared to the rather empty Giants Stadium.

Still a shiny new place to call home will not really change the performance of the team on the pitch.

Last season the Red Bulls finished with the worst record in all of MLS and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Another offseason completed and another roster overhaul has taken place.

The makeover begins with a new coach.

Hans Backe has become the 12th coach since the franchise’s inception in 1996. Backe has zero experience in MLS, and the past shows that foreign coaches have had more than their share of struggles in the league with strange rules regarding roster sizes, no reserve team, and working with a salary cap.

However the players seem to be impressed with Backe’s coaching style. They say he knows the game, and most importantly, he is extremely organized. The players have been jubilant about how Backe has the team focused, has a single game plan and team identity, and how the players have defined roles and understand what is expected of them; a far cry from the days of Juan Carlos Osorio’s constant tinkering with the game day lineups and tactics.

Along with a new coach are a slew of new players: international signings, MLS veterans, and rookies alike.

The Red Bulls have brought in two foreign internationals at positions that were huge weaknesses on the left-side of the field last year. Estonian Joel Lindpere is a left midfielder and Costa Rican Roy Miller will man the left fullback spot.

At 28-years-old Lindpere already has 74 appearances with the Estonian national team. Although better suited for the left midfield spot, Backe feels that Lindpere is creative enough that he could wind up playing as an attacking central midfielder.

Miller has been tabbed to play on the left-side of a defense that tied in surrendering a league-worst 47 goals against last season.

Miller, 25, has a good combination of size and speed. He likes to push forward and join the attack, and he is a threat when he does so. His defense does not suffer though, where he is a solid option.

Furthering the team facelift there are the additions of MLS veterans Chris Albright and Carl Robinson.

Albright, a member of the 2006 United States national team that competed in the World Cup, was brought in to bring a veteran presence to the right fullback spot. Jeremy Hall mostly played there last season as a rookie, and while he did a lot of nice things, it was obvious that he was new to the position (Hall had been converted from left midfield).

Robinson, a Welsh international, was a two-time team MVP with Toronto F.C. He is a defensive midfielder who would be valuable either as a starter or coming off the bench, as the Red Bulls have a number of central mids, especially if Lindpere sees time at that position.

Then there are the rookies. When you have as awful a season as the Red Bulls did last year, you get prime choosing spots in the draft.

Second overall pick Tony Tchani is a big, athletic center mid who is a very sharp passer. His potential is great, but he may wind up beginning the season as a substitute because of the deep numbers at his position. It wouldn’t hurt him to be brought in slowly though.

Third round pick Conor Chinn has had a productive preseason. He is second on the team in goals, netting four.

The rookie that has shown the most though is second round pick and central defender Tim Ream. Backe has been impressed by his comfort on the ball, his passing ability, his poise, and his efficiency in the air. Ream looks like he could be starting alongside veteran and Red Bull fan favorite Mike Petke when the season starts.

There are still some returning players that are extremely valuable as well. Designated player and forward Juan Pablo Angel is still a lethal goal scorer, Petke still plays with a ton of passion and can hold down the fort, and Hall, even though he was learning a new position on the fly, overall had an impressive rookie campaign.

There is talent on the roster. There is a coach with a consistent strategy in place. There is the new stadium that the league, team, players, and Red Bull fans have dreamed of. An undefeated preseason also gives everyone some optimism.

The consensus coming out of camp is that the team expects to be fighting for a playoff spot. It seems ambitious after the debacle of 2009 and another roster turnover. But with what’s in place it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility. In fact, Red Bull fans will expect a strong campaign from the team this year.

Otherwise that new stadium will just be like dressing up a pig covered in mud.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Seattle Sounders 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Bob Levey

The Seattle Sounders set the blueprint for all of the incoming expansion franchises to follow.

A well—run organization that put together a fine product on the pitch that was heavily supported by legions of fans, made the Sounders one of the top stories in all of Major League Soccer last season.

This year, the Sounders will be out to prove that they are neither a novelty nor a fluke. They will look to build upon their first—round playoff finish last season.

On paper they look to continue on that path, as the Sounders return the core of their team from last season.

Captain and goalkeeper Kasey Keller returns to lead a defense that tied for the least amount of goals surrendered.

Also returning are designated player and midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, 2009 Newcomer of the Year Freddy Montero and Defender of the Year finalist, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado.

These four were the biggest reasons for Seattle’s success last season.

Keller and Ljungberg have countless years of experience at the international level and at some of the world’s biggest clubs, as well as World Cup experience. They along with Hurtado, helped anchor arguably the league’s best defense.

Two returning players to look out for breakout seasons from are last year’s number one overall pick, Steve Zakuani and defender Brad Evans.

Zakuani can play both forward and as an attacking midfielder. He is a quick and agile player who likes to go at players one—on—one. Last year he played in 29 of the team’s 30 league games and scored four goals and registered four assists.

The numbers aren’t that impressive, but he is only a year removed from leading all collegiate players in goals (20) and points (47) at Akron. The tools are there and with his first year under his belt, especially under the tutelage prolific goal scorer Montero, Zakuani is poised for a bigger year.

Evans is a defensive midfielder who, even though he is only 24— years old, continues to gain more and more invaluable experience. Before coming to Seattle, Evans started all four of the Columbus Crew’s playoff games en route to winning the MLS Cup.

Over the summer he played in the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament for the USA and this offseason he was a part of the U.S. men’s national team training camp and came on as a late sub against El Salvador.

Already a solid and steady player, Evans keeps moving on to bigger and better things. While he isn’t really a candidate to make this summer’s World Cup squad, just being in that environment, going to practice against other top players competing to earn the right to go to South Africa and getting more international experience is invaluable and will only continue to make Evans a better player.

Going into the season, the Sounders only lose one player that saw significant playing time from last year’s roster and that is forward Sebastian Le Toux, who was selected by Philadelphia in the Expansion Draft. In 28 games, Le Toux was only able to manage one goal and three assists.

Seattle went out and got not only a replacement, but an upgrade by signing Swiss international Blaise Nkufo.

Nkufo is currently on the Dutch squad FC Twente, where he has been the leading scorer all six seasons he’s played there (excluding the current campaign). Although he is 34—years old, he still has quite the panache for finding the back of the net for both club and country.

Nfuko, however, will not be available until after Switzerland’s run in the World Cup is over.

While no deal is official yet, it has been highly speculated that Seattle will add defender Jeff Parke to an already staunch defensive unit.

Parke was originally selected by the Sounders in the expansion draft, but no contract could be agreed upon. Still without a contract, Parke was invited back to training camp with Seattle and has performed quite well.

A member of the New York Red Bulls for five seasons, Parke was the team’s Defender of the Year in 2007 and was a constant on the backline. Word is he still plays at a starter quality level. Whether he finds himself in the starting eleven for Seattle, if a deal does get done remains in question, but he will most certainly add to an already strong group.

The few additions the Sounders made in the off—season continue to push the team in the right direction, but the continuity of the roster from year one to year two is even more important.

Maintaining a good chemistry really helps build a successful club, as the players gradualy become familiar with their roles, the expectations the coaching staff has of them and the system and playing style in place.

The Sounders will not rest on their laurels after a successful first season that saw them win the U.S. Open Cup. They are already one of the best teams in the league and the MLS Cup is what they are after.

The journey—provided the Collective Bargaining Agreement issue is finally resolved—begins Thursday March 25th when the Sounders will host, in a nationally televised game, the MLS team that will try to follow in their footsteps, the expansion Philadelphia Union.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Fans' Dilemma

AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

When Eddie House entered the Celtics-Knicks game February 23rd at Boston’s TD Garden the crowd of 18,624 gave him a standing ovation. The peculiar thing about the applause was that it was given to a player of the other team; House had been traded from Boston to New York just five days previously.

“He absolutely deserved that standing ovation,” said Celtics fan Gabe Souza. “He had a veteran knack for staying cool under pressure and draining the biggest shots when we needed him.”

Professional sports have become a big business over the years and the players and owners both try to maximize their earning power. Often lost in the shuffle is the fan, the person who’s invested time and money that's helped make these athletes wealthy.

Fans grow attached to both their teams and the players that are employed. But when there is a split between the two, how do the fans take sides?

Sports broadcaster John Rooke says that unless there is some personal relationship with the player—like a real friend or family member—the loyalty of the fan more times than not stays with the team.

“We identify with teams, not with individuals,” said Rooke. “We're always taught that the team is greater than the player, not the other way around.”

The connection with the team comes not only from personal past experiences of going through joy and pain of past seasons, but the family and community traditions fans share.

“My dad brought me up loving the Celtics. He used to take me to the old garden when I was little and would sit in his lap and watch the games,” said Allie Schnapp, a Celtic fan living in rival territory of Los Angeles. “I've basically watched them all my life…so I feel like the team and I have been through a lot together.”

Still, not every fan feels as strong a tie with the franchise as he does with the player.

Pat Curran was a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan, until the ownership, he believes, shoved legendary quarterback Brett Favre out the door for its own selfish reasons.

“I had been following him for ten years. He was that God-like sports figure,” he said. “I hate the management. They wanted to be the Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft of the Packers; the face of the franchise.”

When Brett Favre signed with division rival Minnesota Vikings this past season, Curran had a decision to make. Should he dare root for a team he was bred to strongly dislike?

“I knew he was going to the Vikings from day one,” he said. “It was a long process building up to it and thinking of how you could learn to like them and finding reasons to do so.”

Still, Curran's switch of allegiance seems to be the exception to the rule.

The average fan realizes that players will come and go, but the team will always be there(unless you’re an unlucky fan of the Seattle Sonics, who recently moved to Oklahoma City).

“I feel like I stay loyal because I've invested the time,” Schnapp said. “Even when new players come in, I'm always excited to see what they can add to the equation, and how they can better the team. While both the owners and players may not have the fans best interests in mind, in the end it's all about the game and watching good basketball.”

So players get traded but the team moves forward and the games go on. However, when a player the fans appreciated comes back for a homecoming, just like House did, they make sure to give him the credit he deserves.

“When a visiting player gets an ovation, they've done something extraordinary,” Rooke said. “I'm usually pleased that fans are intelligent enough to recognize that.”

Cheer, that is, until the game starts.

Video of fans cheering for Eddie House in his debut. From YouTube.