MLS predictions: the bottom seven
Major League Soccer's 13th season got underway last weekend. I was in Kansas City to watch the Wizards methodically dispatch last season's Supporters' Shield winners D.C. United 2-0. With San Jose rejoining the league following a two-year absence, there are now 14 teams. The offseason didn't bring any Beckham-esque signings, but rather a steady influx of quality players from around the globe. Among the significant signings: Argentines Marcelo Gallardo (D.C.) and Claudio Lopez (K.C.), and Mexican defender Duilio Davino (Dallas). But the transfer window doesn't close for another two weeks and several teams that have promised to bring in fresh talent (New York and Toronto most notably) are still likely to announce acquisitions. This lack of complete information will not dissuade me from making (undoubtedly flawed) projections for how the teams will stack up. Here's my take on the bottom half of the table:
14. Toronto F.C. The worst team in the league last year did almost nothing to bolster their roster. Seemingly every day during the winter months there was a fresh name linked to Toronto (Kiki Musampa, Amado Guevara, Victor Danilo Pacheco), but the team never managed to put pen to paper. Budding U.S. national team star Maurice Edu will be counted on to keep Toronto from repeating last year's disastrous 6-17-7 campaign. But barring any significant signings rookie coach John Carver and the league's best fans will endure another brutal season.
13. San Jose Earthquakes This re-constituted club will undoubtedly play the most boring brand of futbol in the league. Their roster features about as much attacking prowess as the Iraqi army. If Frank Yallop can get them to stand up it will be something of a coaching miracle. But Yallop's sideline prowess and a solid defense, led by goalkeeper Joe Cannon and outside back Ramiro Corrales, should keep scorelines (if not their overall record) respectable for the Earthquakes.
12. Columbus Crew It's something of a miracle (travesty?) that Sigi Schmid is still at the helm of this increasingly hapless franchise. In two years he's guided the Crew to a 17-26-19 record and missed the playoffs both seasons. Even the squad's star playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto--used to the quick coaching hook of South American clubs--was reportedly bewildered by Schmid's survival. Surely this will be a make-or-break season. The Crew got off to a promising start with a 2-0 victory on Saturday (of course it was at home against sorry Toronto). Youngsters Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers will have to play key roles, and Nico Hernandez will have to rediscover his scoring touch if Schmid is to remain employed past 2008.
11. Los Angeles Galaxy This club is a three-headed monster created by the strange strictures of MLS and the complete idiocy of GM Alexi Lalas. The Galaxy have three of the league's most fearsome attacking players in David Beckham, Carlos Ruiz and Landon Donovan. But the rest of the squad (including furniture wholesaler Ely Allen) resembles something that might have been assembled by scouring the Santa Monica Pier for potential recruits on weekends. Saturday's humiliating 4-0 pasting at the feet of the Colorado Rapids was a poor omen for Ruud Gullit's team (and for the league given how much they've invested in Beckham). The defense is alarmingly old and slow, and the Galaxy's prospects took a further dip this week when it was announced that Ruiz will miss four to six weeks with a knee injury.
10. Colorado Rapids Last year I was taken to task by a delusional Rapids fan for predicting that the team would finish with the eighth best record in MLS. Colorado had just dispatched perennial powerhouse D.C. United in its opening match and this person was convinced that great things were on tap for Fernando Clavijo's club. Well it turns out I was overly optimistic about Colorado's prospects: they finished with the fourth worst record in the league and missed the playoffs. Adding savvy playmaker Christian Gomez to a midfield that already boasts crosser extraordinaire Terry Cooke and hardman Pablo Mastroeni will undoubtedly help. But a suspect back line, a motley crew of forwards that wouldn't inspire fear in a police rec-league squad, and Clavijo's shoddy stewardship should keep the Rapids mired near the bottom of the Western conference.
9. Chivas USA I nearly spit out my glass of Carlo Rossi cabernet sauvignon the other night when Max Bretos announced on Fox Soccer Channel that the Goats were his pick to win MLS Cup in 2008. But a lot of folks seem to agree that Chivas will improve on last year's stellar campaign, in which they finished with the best record in the West. I just don't see it happening. Key cogs Claudio Saurez and Ante Razov are a year older and in the twilights of their careers. The only significant addition is Swiss midfielder Raphael Wicky, and he started on the bench in the team's first match (a 1-1 draw with Dallas on the road). Perhaps Preki will work his considerable magic, but I see Chivas tumbling pretty far down the table. (Of course last year I predicted they would stink as well.)
8. Chicago Fire Last year's team clicked just in time to squeak into the playoffs and (again) knock off a heavily favored D.C. squad. The late-season surge corresponded with the arrival of Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the devilish, dynamic Mexican attacker. The 35-year-old striker proved all the naysayers wrong with a combination of grit and brilliance that few in MLS can rival. But the team was also bolstered by the acquisition of dominating central defender Wilman Conde and the tutelage of coach Juan Carlos Osorio. The latter was wooed away to New York in the offseason, and a disgruntled Conde (who wants to join his former coach) is threatening to be a locker-room cancer. The retirement of defensive mid Chris Armas, one of my all time favorite MLS players, will also hurt.
7. New York Red Bulls This team boasts the most dangerous pair of strikers in the league with Juan Pablo Angel and Jozy Altidore. After a full season playing together they should terrorize opposing defenses. So it's a mystery why the only move that the Red Bulls made in the offseason was to bring in Colombian forward Oscar Echeverry. But Osorio has reportedly been scouring South America for prospects and the squad is likely to announce at least one more signing before the transfer window closes on April 15. The key for New York will be whether Claudio Reyna, who languished through a rotten 2007 campaign, and Mike Magee can provide adequate service out of the midfield for the redoubtable duo up top.
I leave you with this photo of Bruce from the weekend in K.C.:
Who is "The Groin?" I'll post my top seven later this week.
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