The super-duper MLS season preview By Steven Sandor Posted on March 14, 2011 1 0 511 Share on Facebook Share on Twitter From 2010: Colorado Rapids’ Kosuke Kimura sips from the MLS Cup in the bowels of BMO Field. It’s become obligatory for every sports journalist to provide season previews for the league he or she covers. It’s automatic, and a great space killer! In that vein, The 11 presents its “waited until the last possible second before the regular season” season preview! Why the wait? Because it’s hard to figure out the East. The West? Wow, a lot of power and depth there. As for the East? Last season, New York and Columbus and six other mediocre to bad to awful clubs were in the conference. New York and Columbus left them all in the dust. Problem is, this season, Columbus is rebuilding. So, outside of New York, you can put the other eight Eastern teams (remember that Houston made the move) into a hat, and your guess is as good as any. Meanwhile, the West is stacked. In the new 10-team playoff format, the top three in each conference are guaranteed spots, then the next best four clubs, regardless of conference, get in. The last two seasons, we’ve had all-West MLS Cups, and it could happen again. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t believe the West is deep enough to send six, maybe even seven teams to the playoffs? Remember, it’s a balanced schedule, so it’s not like the Eastern teams get any sort of bump by playing each other a little more. So, at the end of the year, the records are based on each team playing the other 17 the same amount of times each. Heck, if Vancouver and Portland, the two teams coming into MLS this season, were in the East, they might challenge for the top three in the conference. But, they are in the minefield that is the West. And, in the West, it’s better to finish down in the standings than in the top three. The top three all know they have to slug it out with each other in the playoffs in order to get to MLS Cup; meanwhile, a team in the West that finishes as a wild card could cross over, face Eastern teams and actually have an easier time getting to the big game than the No. 1 seed in the West. In the East, the race for the second and third playoff spots will be decided by which coaches are able to implement systems and get their teams to gel the fastest. The disparity between the conferences is that stunning. But, enough about imbalance in MLS. Let’s talk predictions. Print this out, paste it on your refrigerator door, and then laugh at these when they all go horribly wrong! MLS Cup Champ: Real Salt Lake Supporters’ Shield: Real Salt Lake MVP: Javier Morales, RSL Golden Boot: Conor Casey, Colorado Most disappointing team: Los Angeles Galaxy Biggest surprise: The team that takes third in the East. (D.C. United? Houston?) Rookie of the year: Perry Kitchen, D.C. United WESTERN CONFERENCE (let’s start with the good one) Javier Morales 1. REAL SALT LAKE — Deepest team in the league. With that midfield of Will Johnson, Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales (heck, and Arturo Alvarez, gulp, who starts on any other team, on the bench), defender of the year Jamison Olave and the likes of Chris Wingert and Nat Borchers in the back… it’s an embarrassment in riches. As well, RSL plays in Rio Tinto Stadium, arguably the toughest place for a road team to visit in all of North American pro sports. Could go undefeated at home again this season. 2. COLORADO — No, it wasn’t a fluke. Colorado showed us last season that it can win away from the Mile High City, and that the Rapids’ are SOBs to play against. This team presents so many physical challenges, from Conor Casey in the box to Pablo Mastroeni ripping balls away from the opposition. The Rapids showed their teeth in the playoffs and in MLS Cup. Only thing that could slow this team is the MLS promise to crack down on fouls. 3. FC DALLAS — FCD coach Schellas Hyndman felt his club was deep enough to give away Heath Pearce, rated as one of the best outside backs in MLS. The club should be able to withstand the loss of strikers Jeff Cunningham and Atiba Harris. If Brek Shea can step up and replace those goals, Dallas will be fine, even if Hyndman backs off on his offensive-minded vision and plays more conservatively in 2011. Any team that has MVP David Ferreira is dangerous. 4. SEATTLE — The Sounders are a bit of a wild card. Really, this team could finish anywhere between second and fifth in the West. This club will possess and press. Fredy Montero will score goals. Steve Zakuani can outrun defenders up the middle or on the touch lines. Osvaldo Alonso is a beast in the midfield. The wild card? New acquisition Erik Friberg — who has looked like he can deliver some killer crosses and dangerous set-piece balls in preseason. Seattle will be fun to watch but, like the Galaxy, this team needs to show it can win big games (outside of the U.S. Open Cup, that is) 5. LOS ANGELES GALAXY — This team has become awfully old, awfully fast. Yes, Juan Pablo Angel and his thirtysomething legs could still score 15 if he’s healthy and the lone option. Yes, Frankie Hejduk could forget he’s well on the wrong side of 30. David Beckham isn’t get any younger. With a heavy schedule that includes the CONCACAF Champions League, the Galaxy has the legs to be a playoff team. Problem is, this club has a history of choking in big games — playoffs, MLS Cup, and Puerto Rico in the CCL come to mind. Kenny Cooper 6. PORTLAND and 7. VANCOUVER — Of the two expansion teams, Portland ranks ahead simply because of its ability to score goals. The Whitecaps didn’t get a lot of scoring from the strikers in preseason games against MLS opposition and, bringing in Eric Hassli as a Designated Player — a man who has struggled to score outside the Swiss League — is a gamble. Vancouver’s midfield is solid, look for Terry Dunfield to be a heck of an impact player, and Alain Rochat has looked great on the left side of defence. Portland, meanwhile, has Kenny Cooper. Which, for one, means two wins over Toronto FC, the team he made his own personal whipping boy in his FC Dallas days. Having Jack Jewsbury, a shrewd veteran midfielder, is another solid move by Portland. (Both of these teams are better than half of the East at the moment.) 8. SAN JOSE — The great thing about San Jose? Chris Wondolowski accounted for half of this team’s offence last season. The bad thing? Chris Wondolowski accounted for half of this team’s offence last season. Steven Lenhart, who disappointed in Columbus, is cover — and he starts the season hurt. If Wondolowski can’t score 17 or 18 again… 9. CHIVAS USA — Coach Robin Fraser has Chivas going back to its defence-first style; and, with veteran Jimmy Conrad and U.S. national teamer Heath Pearce in the back, Chivas will improve in the back. But, if you have 34 0-0 draws, you get 34 points. Not enough for the playoffs. But, if Chivas can find any kind of offence, it will challenge for a playoff spot. EASTERN CONFERENCE Joel Lindpere 1. NEW YORK — As close to a default pick as you can make. Even though the club sacked its assistant coaching staff in the preseason, there is more than enough depth and talent to take the East. Thierry Henry may get the headlines, but a midfield led by Rafa Marquez and Joel Lindpere is second only to Real Salt Lake in terms of talent. 2. COLUMBUS — Yes, the Crew is rebuilding. Yes, the team’s maestro, Guillermo Barros Schelotto is gone. The striker position is a massive question mark; can’t see all-time No. 2 MLS scoring leader Jeff Cunningham putting together another 15- or 16-goal campaign. But, with Chad Marshall running the back line, and Robbie Rogers leading the midfield, there is still enough left of the Crew to allow it to be competitive. No, the Crew won’t be as good as in years past, but this team should still be better than most in the East. As soon as Will Hesmer can get back into the goal, the Crew will be competitive. 3. HOUSTON — If the Dynamo hadn’t been moved to the East to make room for Vancouver and Portland, you’d pick the club to finish no better than sixth in the West. But, in the East, this team — ravaged by injuries in 2010 — could make a reappearance in the post-season. If Geoff Cameron can remain healthy to provide the midfield spark, if striker Brian Ching doesn’t get called up to the Gold Cup squad or struggle with injuries, if winger Danny Cruz and midfielder Lovel Palmer can transform their flashes of brilliance into consistency, there’s no reason the Dynamo can’t finish well up the Eastern standings. 4. D.C. UNITED — After enduring the worst season in this franchise’s history. D.C. United retooled nicely. Midfielder Dax McCarty was acquired in the expansion-draft day trading frenzy. And striker Charlie Davies, if he can return to the form that made him the No. 1 striker on the U.S. national-team depth chart, could be the signing of the year. Still a lot of questions on the back line and, heck , Pat Onstad had to come out of retirement to play in goal. D.C. United will need Davies to score, because it will take coach Ben Olsen a while to figure out how to keep the goals out. Hey, the club won seven of its nine preseason games. Dare to dream, right? 5. SPORTING KANSAS CITY — Veterans Jimmy Conrad and Jack Jewsbury are gone. Former Real Madrid defender Juilo Cesar is in. So is Designated Player Omar Bravo, who got more attention in preseason for his role in the brawl with Real Salt Lake than what he did on the field. There’s a lot of potential here, but will it mix? Striker Teal Bunbury — the most reviled MLS player north of the border — has looked OK in some friendly action for the American national team. But there’s a lot of pressure on a guy who scored five goals in his rookie season. The wild card s Ryan Smith. When he is healthy, the former Arsenal youth prospect can push this team ahead of the crop of the other mediocre Eastern teams. Dwayne De Rosario 6. TORONTO FC — Aron Winter is going to need time to get this squad to adapt to a 4-3-3, and opening games against Vancouver and Portland could be banana skins. TFC still hasn’t addressed left or right-back weaknesses, where the Reds were constantly exposed last season. Adrian Cann could be moved from the middle to left back in an emergency, as Winter toyed with in the preseason. Still no real offensive depth behind Dwayne De Rosario. If Alan Gordon and Maicon Santos could score 10 between them, it’s a bonus. And, this is an awfully small team. TFC has traditionally struggled on defending set pieces, and you have to wonder how it will fare this season. But, give Winter the benefit of the doubt — and he might have this team in some kind of competitive shape by midseason. Maybe. 7. PHILADELPHIA UNION — Another year, and the Union should improve. Sebastien Le Toux is one of MLS’ most reliable forwards. And, the Union bled potential points last season thanks to shaky goalkeeping. Former Colombian No. 1 Faryd Mondragon should help that. Danny Mwanga, last year’s No. 1 draft pick will be called upon to provide more offence. But the fact that this team went out and got Carlos Ruiz out of mothballs — last seen not scoring and sulking at Toronto FC —is a sign of trouble. 8. CHICAGO FIRE — After last year’s disastrous season, in which the Fire struggled to score, the club comes in with a heck of a lot of question marks. Gone are DP disasters Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg. Croat midfielder Marko Maric will make his MLS debut for the Fire, and Guatemalan string-puller Marco Pappa is one of the league’s best. But, it’s hard to see any one player in this lineup getting more than 10 goals this season. 9. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION — Have to pick someone to finish last in the East. New England is as offensively challenged as Chicago, but give Chicago the edge because of its dynamic midfielders. Shalrie Joseph, despite the charges laid against him in a hotel earlier this year, is still the unquestioned leader on this team. Problem is, he’s 32. And he doesn’t have a lot of help.