MLS predictions: the top six

Apparently math is not among my stronger skill sets. I inadvertently included eight teams in the first set of MLS picks, leaving just six squads to sort through. MLS returns to ESPN tonight with a double header featuring New England-Chicago and Los Angeles-San Jose. Here it goes:

6. Real Salt Lake No team is more difficult to figure at this early point than Real Salt Lake. After three odious seasons, the squad was significantly overhauled in the offseason and features just two players over age 30. Jason Kreis's club should prove deep and talented along the backline. Last year's Argentine signing Matias Mantilla will be joined by Colombian Jamison Olave and a pair of Americans with European seasoning, Ian Joy and Nat Borchers. The team also features two of the league's most talented young defensive-minded midfielders in Kyle Beckerman and Nathan Sturgis. If Salt Lake's kiddie corps of strikers (Yura Movsisyan, Robbie Findley, and Fabian Espindola) can regularly put the ball in the back of the net, they should prove one of the league's biggest surprises.

5. Kansas City Wizards Eddie Johnson is out. The enigmatic American striker found the net 15 times for last year's squad, but has moved on to help Fulham and its cadre of yanks

flounder towards relegation

in the EPL. In his place the Wizards brought on South Americans Ivan Trujillo and Claudio "El Piojo" Lopez. The latter is a 33-year-old alum of the Argentine national team who's played with Valencia and Lazio. Both strikers scored in their debuts on Saturday against D.C. I think it's fair to say that K.C. fans will not miss EJ. Midfield playmaker Carlos Marinelli showed flashes of brilliance last year and should be poised for a breakout year. Jimmy "The Groin" Conrad will have the considerable task of holding together a re-tooled backline that could frequently feature a pair of rookies in (highly touted) Chance Meyers and Jonathan Leathers.

4. Dallas FC The question for this team will once again be its defense. Veteran Mexican centerback Duilio Davino (who spent the last decade at Club America) was brought in to shore up the backline. He'll pair up with Adrian Serioux in the middle for what should be a solid defensive foundation. With wildman Juan Toja flying all over the pitch and Arturo Alvarez terrorizing defenders with his nifty footwork and jaw-dropping free kicks, Dallas will have one of the best midfield's in the league. It will be interesting to see how Brazilian signing Andre Rocha, who drew raves from 3rd Degree in the pre-season, fits into the mix. A healthy Kenny Cooper should reach double figures for goals, but he'll need some help up top from Abe Thompson, Ricardinho or The Birdman (my pick) if Dallas is going to seriously contend in the West.

3. New England Revolution

If this list was based solely on first week performance, the Rev's would easily claim the top spot. Steve Nicol's squad came out on Saturday and simply eviscerated the defending champs Houston Dynamo 3-0. Most impressively it was the newcomers who fueled the attack. Sainey Nyassi, who just turned 19, was a beast on both sides of the ball, and was justly rewarded with a stoppage time goal. Fellow Gambian Kenny Mansally (just two


older than his countryman) didn't get on the scoreboard, but was an effective menace up top all game long, while new Honduran signing Mauricio Castro caused headaches on the left side of the midfield. Add in the league's best defender (Michael Parkhurst), the league's top defensive mid (Shalrie Joseph), and the league's soon-to-be-all-time-leading scorer (Taylor Twellman, who unfortunately is out injured for at least a month), and you have a lethal mix. But can the Revolution, following three straight MLS Cup defeats, finally take the title?

2. D.C. United Despite posting the best regular-season record in the league for the second straight campaign, the squad has been substantially re-tooled. Gone are goalkeeper Troy Perkins (Valeranga), central defender Bobby Boswell (Houston), and midfield maestro Christian Gomez (Colorado). Veteran MLS backup Zach Wells will get a chance to start between the posts, while a pair of South Americans, Gonzalo Peralta (Argentina) and Gonzalo Martinez (Colombia) will hold down the central defense. Most significantly D.C. brought in veteran Argentine playmaker Marcelo Gallardo, who'd been wasting away on the bench at Paris Saint-Germain, to fill Gomez's considerable boots at the heart of the attack. The results so far in four matches (one MLS; three CONCACAF Champions league) have been mixed. Gonzalo y Gonzalo (not related, thank you Paul Caligiuri) have looked like a potentially dominating duo in the back, but I'm not sure Gallardo will prove an upgrade in the center of the pitch. He's shown moments of brilliance, but also seems to disappear for long stretches. Diminutive striker Franco Niell, another newcomer, has displayed little but the ability to flop on the pitch at any hint of contact. Look for Brazilian Fred, adjusting to the league in his second season, to have a banner year.

1. Houston Dynamo

The two-time defending champs are still the team to beat. They might not look like the most dominating squad on paper, but Dominic Kinnear has consistently guided his side to the top of the table. Midfielder Dwayne de Rosario has been arguably the most valuable player in the league over the last three seasons, while Eddie Robinson anchors the best defense in MLS (allowing a paltry 23 goals in 30 matches last season). The crucial question for Houston will be whether the attack can muster sufficient firepower. When healthy Brian Ching is among the league's most lethal strikers. But with just Chris Wondolowski (two league goals in three seasons) and young Argentine newcomer Franco Caraccio available to help out up top, Houston could struggle to score goals.

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