Winning on the road

With the Sounders about to head off to their first road game in franchise history, I thought I would take a look at how past expansion teams have fared on the road. The statistics are... ghastly, really.

San Jose, 2008. 2-8-5. 11 points.
Toronto FC, 2007. 1-10-4. 7 points.
Real Salt Lake, 2005. 0-14-2. 2 points (!).
Chivas USA, 2005. 1-11-4. 7 points.

Those are some truly horrible numbers. But in reality, in MLS it's very difficult to win games on the road no matter how new or old your team is. Last year, no team won more than 6 games on the road. Three accomplished that feat, and those three were the best Eastern Conference teams - Columbus, New England, and Chicago. The average number of games won on the road last year was 3.35. Out of 15 total games!

Clearly success on the road will not come easily, and the Sounders shouldn't expect their success thus far to carry over to Toronto on Saturday, in one of the most hostile environments in the league. Anything other than a loss would be a huge surprise to me. So temper your expectations for the upcoming match.

Of course, if they *do* manage to win somehow, then we could be in for a special season indeed.


The Jeff Parke Saga

Jeff Parke won't be signing with the Seattle Sounders after all. And I honestly don't believe it's his fault.

According to Jose Romero's always excellent blog at the Seattle Times, Jeff Parke is no longer with the Sounders. He was barely just with them to begin with, having played in one reserve match and practicing a couple times without signing a contract. But Wednesday he left the team and seems unlikely to return.

Parke's case has been an unusual one. He was picked by Seattle from New York in the expansion draft, and did not have a contract with MLS at the time, making him effectively a free agent, though his rights belong to Seattle for the next two years. Instead of negotiating a deal with the Sounders, he attempted to fulfill one of his dreams by playing in Europe, but two trials in Belgium met with no success. He returned to the USA and Seattle last week to presumably attempt and work out a deal. That, clearly, has fallen through.

So what the hell is going on? To get some insight, check out this interview of Parke from last week. One particularly interesting quote on his negotiations with New York prior to the expansion draft - 'They gave me a number and at the end of the day I didn't agree with it," Parke said of his final contract talks with New York. "That was that. I obviously had some hurt and some anger toward the club for how it was handled and how I was kind of just left by myself.' He also mentions needing to look out for his family, something that has come up with him multiple times. And that's fair. He made about 60,000 last year, which isn't bad but is certainly less than someone as good as him should be making.

What this insightful interview shows us is that for Parke, it's about the money. The reason he was left unprotected by the Red Bulls wasn't because of his steroid suspension, or because he was an inferior talent. It was that he would have been too expensive. Fair enough. So Parke jumped for Europe, trying to get the big bucks. When that didn't work, he came back to Seattle to begin contract talks. And things looked good. But remember Sigi Schmidt's comment about Parke? Something along the lines of 'It's always good to have depth'. From that, and from the money Parke is probably looking for, upwards of 150 thousand dollars, the problem was clear. In terms of the roster, Parke was a luxury, not a necessity. The Sounders don't have a lot of money left under the cap, and what they do have they'd probably like to save for summer additions. They simply weren't able to offer Parke as much as he wanted.

It's a shame that Jeff Parke apparently isn't going to work out in Seattle. He's a very good player, a quality MLS starter, and we could use some more of those. I would imagine the next step would be shopping his rights to a defense-deficient team that has some salary cap space to work with. (New England, perhaps, to fill the hole left by Michael Parkhurst?)

I don't blame Parke for looking for the cash, though, or the Sounders for not giving it to him. What I do blame is the Scrooge-like salary cap of MLS that makes keeping players like Parke in America next-to-impossible. After this year, with the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring, I hope we can see some major changes to the salary structures of MLS to keep things like the Jeff Parke saga from happening. Because in this situation, there is no winner.


The Sounders ad campaign

I've read the sports section of the Seattle Times for years. As a five year old, it was the first thing I began reading. And throughout all the years I've been doing that, I can't remember any time an advertisement was on the front page of the sports section.

Monday, though, I was shocked and delighted to see a huge Sounders ad in glorious full color, green and blue. It's just a incredibly well done ad. First off, it takes up probably a sixth of the entire front page. In large block letters are the words 'every minute counts,' a reference to both the teams 'give us your full 90!' slogan as well as the scarcity of Sounders tickets. The date of the next match (Saturday!) is given, along with information on how to get tickets. Alongside is a picture of a fan, green-clad, standing, yelling and holding a scarf. Finally, the slogan and a stylized logo are in the corner. [EDIT] And upon reading the sports today, another similar ad was on the front page. Damn. Pictures of both below - Monday's is on top, Wednesday's is on the bottom. Click below for a better quality image.So basically what these ads have done is tell every single literate sports fan in Seattle that the Sounders have hugely passionate fans, that it's going to be difficult to get tickets to join them, and - oh yeah - there just happens to be a game this weekend, so you should probably act fast. It's a brilliant bit of advertising.

Every Sounders fan really has to give huge props to both the ownership and the marketing departments/firms they've hired. The ownership because ads in the front page of the sports can't come cheap. Not only that, I've seen Sounders ads on the front page of the Times website, billboard ads, bus-side ads, you name it, they've done it. Joe Roth and co. are willing to spend big bucks to get big recognition, sacrificing short-term revenue for long-term popularity. And that's on top of the thousand or so scarves that have been distributed across the city for free. Which is where marketing comes in. Whoever thought up the 'scarf Seattle' campaign needs a raise. I've heard many people, not soccer fans, talk about the free scarves, and that's contributed to the overall interest in the Sounders. Guerilla marketing works and the Sounders are going about it wonderfully.
And hanging a giant scarf from a downtown building, from a bridge over Aurora Avenue, to catch the eyes of thousands as they drive by? It's just incredible stuff, especially for a soccer team in America, to be doing.

We're only one game into the history of Sounders FC. We shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back quite yet. There's a lot of stuff we, as fans, still have to learn, and we probably shouldn't be singing praises of everything Sounders related and thinking of ourselves as God's or Allah's or Xenu's gift to MLS. We aren't. But I can say with utter certainty that we have the best marketing in the league. The other 14 MLS teams would do well to take notice.


The 2009 season in review - 4th place

It's been 4 days now. 4 days since the FC Dallas game. And I still find myself checking the MLS website multiple times a day, just to look at the season standings and give myself some tangible proof that no, I'm not dreaming, and yes, we actually did it.

The season is over, but the playoffs are just beginning, and in their inaugural year in MLS the Sounders will be taking part. And maybe it's a little bit silly to recap the year now, since we have at least two games remaining, but just thinking about it makes me want to just smile and jump up and down. Actually writing about it is causing my fingers to shake with glee. I can't help it. Despite what the owners said, what the coaches said, what the players said, I never really expected this team to make the playoffs this year. Even as the 4th place team in the west, 8th overall. My expectations were never that high.

But then who could have forseen, really, the perfect storm of events that seemed to form around this team? I mean, it feels just a little bit too much like one of Joe Roth's cheesy movies. How else could Fredy Montero have led the league in goals, in his first year in MLS, as a friggin 22 year old? In what other world could Keller and Marshall have somehow found the fountain of youth, keeping our goals-against numbers down in respectable territory? It was really a magical run. It's a cliche, but there's no other word. Somehow as the season went along, the team coalesced, the whole being more than the sum of the parts. Or however that phrase goes.

And we were no small part of it. Us, the fans, providing what was arguably the best atmosphere in all of MLS, though I'm sure Toronto and DC United fans would quibble with that. I mean, we had one of the best home records in the league. That seems to be pretty good proof that something is working. And maybe some of it is the turf surface or the long travel distance. But you can't tell me that, when Jaqua poked in that stoppage time winner against the Rapids, that he wasn't being boosted by the crowd somehow. I like to think we gave him that extra inch on his stretch to toe-poke the ball into the back of the net. Crazy? Yes, but that's the way this whole season has been.

You really can't single out one player that made the difference. True, Freddy Ljungberg being healthy and able to start 23 games was a huge boost. But so was Nyassi, flitting down the wing, tormenting outside defenders from every team. So was Alonso, becoming our own defensive force in the center of the pitch. Le Toux, Riley, Evans, you could name any one of the regular starters. And it wasn't just them. Stephen King off the bench, Zakuani as a dangerous reserve. Jarrod Smith! Who would have guessed that Jarrod Smith would become a fan favorite, just for the effort and hilarious clumsiness he showed in his rare appearances? He even got a goal against Los Angeles, bless his Kiwi heart. Although I'm still fairly certain he intended it to be a cross instead of a shot.

So the dream season lives on, at least for a few more weeks. It's been unreal to get to this point. But I'd like it to go further. I'd like to see just how much this city, which has seemingly adopted the Sounders as their own, would go crazy over a deep playoff run. Seeing green and blue scarves on random passers-by in downtown Seattle... who could have guessed? And I'm imagining... I can't help it, but I am... I'm picturing a sold-out Qwest Field, top to bottom, 67,000 strong, to watch the home side in MLS Cup. It is, after all, only 3 matches away.

But first we have to get thru Houston. And I can honestly say I wouldn't mind if this fairy-tale of a season ended after the first round. Because even if this is a movie, it could be Rocky, where the lovable underdog loses in the end. And that'd be alright. The ride just to get here has been indescribably wonderful.

Besides. There's always time for a sequel.


The 2009 season in review - 6th place

(this is the first of a 3 part series previewing the Sounders FC season by reviewing it. confused? great. read on.)

Tonight I put the ticket stub from the FC Dallas game on my shelf, next to the other 14-odd tickets I've gone through since March. Next to them sit an assorted pile of other Sounders FC knicknacks I've accumulated as the inaugural season has gone by. (A Sounders cowbell? Really?) They're probably worth nothing, same as the tickets, but they are tangible reminders of a season that I'll never forget. The sentimental value is far more than the actual product.

That ticket, and the ones next to it, are in a way a microcosm of the season. Sure, the 2009 campaign for the Sounders FC wasn't the best, and a sixth place finish isn't particularly sexy. But it was the first sixth place finish ever. Yes, the tickets aren't worth much more than the 10% off coupon to the team shop printed on the back, but they're the first season's tickets. I'll treasure them forever, as I will this season, much more than I would saving 2 dollars on a Sounders trash bin.

Objectively, it would be hard to make a case for treasuring a season in MLS in which the team placed ahead of only Colorado and the LA Galaxy. For most teams, this is a normal and expected feat. Looking at it from a completely rational point of view, the on-pitch play wasn't the greatest. (Relative to MLS, I mean. You European-only fans can hold your jokes back.) As we expected, it took a while for the team to come together. The defensive line never really did seem to fire on all cylinders, bailed out many times by some timely tackles by President Hurtado and James Riley. But the scoring compensated for that somewhat. I lost count of all the times Jaqua and Montero combined in the area, and their 20 goals between them was nothing to sneeze at. And some of the young guys really stepped up to solidify their places in the starting lineup for years to come - Nyassi and Alonso especially.

There was just never that sense of cohesion. And it showed for the first several games. But something went *click*, eventually, and the early summer months were very promising. I still remember the week in early August where if we had ended the season right then, Seattle would have been in the playoffs. But then a road loss at Salt Lake happened, and another heartbreaking loss on a late goal, and we were back out of the picture. The end of season road trip didn't help, either, losing three straight games against Eastern Conference teams. But by then we were well and truly out of it, and 2009 had dissolved from 'promising' back into 'expansion doldrums". The rational observer would look at the course of the season and regard it as a disappointment.

That's the great thing about sports, though - the complete and utter lack of rationality. Was it logical that my favorite moment of this year, not just in sports, in everything, was walking four blocks through downtown Seattle wearing a garish shade of green singing at the top of my lungs? With thousands more doing the same beside me? Of course not. And yet something stirred in my heart every time I watched 11 men kick a ball around, directed by a Baloo-looking man on the sidelines. It's passion. Pure, nearly unbridled passion. And that's what makes sports, soccer in particular, great. For 90 minutes 15 times a year you can leave all the numbers behind and indulge yourself, along with tens of thousands of your neighbors, in what is truly a beautiful game.

(Granted, the midfield efforts of one Peter Vagenas could hardly be described as 'beautiful'. 'Soul-suckingly depressing' might be a better fit. But let's not ruin the moment.)

So it's true that the season wasn't totally successful. Eight wins is nothing to write home about. Our designated player only appeared in 17 games and tallied but 3 goals. Kasey Keller faced more shots per game than any other keeper in MLS. Le Toux missed a penalty by about 30 feet in that US Open Cup qualifier. Negative numbers all. But not enough to overcome this number - one. As in season number one. I will always remember the 2009 season for reasons that defy statistics and logic.

But if we could just graft Nate Sturgis's one good leg onto Freddy Ljungberg somehow, giving him two functional lower limbs, I think we might just have a shot at the postseason next year. I would treasure that too.


The 2009 season in review - 8th place

(this is the first of a 3 part series previewing the Sounders FC season by reviewing it. confused? great. read on.)

Well, I guess everybody told us so.

Yes, the memorable 2009 season has come to a close for the Sounders FC, and it ends with us settled comfortably in last place, no team within six points of us. Now to be sure, in the stands, in the city, it was quite an experience. The full stadium for the opening day was an indicator of what was to come, as all season long we had sold-out or mostly sold-out games.

Unfortunately, the play on the pitch was an indicator as well. The first 2-0 loss, to the Red Bulls at home, wasn't so bad, with the festive atmosphere in the air. On opening day the result was secondary. But the 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake the next week was a little tiresome. And then the 2-1 loss at Toronto. Hell, we didn't even get a win in league play until May. Far from the surprise contender that the Sounders aspired to be, they were the anchor of the west - and them some. When we lost to San Jose at home, we should have known things weren't going to get a whole lot better. Which they didn't.

The reasons were numerous. The backline was, as predicted, atrocious. I'm a little surprised Kasey Keller never got a sore back from bending over to pick so many balls out of the back of his net. It took a long time for the defense to gel, and when they did, the on-field play had only a minor increase, because the talent just wasn't there. Marshall was constantly beaten, Sturgis was injured, Ianni and Wahl were outclassed, Hurtado struggled to adapt to the physical nature of MLS. But it wasn't just the defense that struggled. With Ljungberg, the supposed superstar, injured seemingly half the season, nonchalantly sitting on the bench eating swedish fish or whatever it is that Swedes eat, the attack wasn't as good as predicted. Evans couldn't do it all on his own, nor could Jaqua. And the callups from the USL proved that there was in fact a large gulf in talent between the two leagues.

But the on-field play wasn't the only negative to come out what can only be described as a nightmare of a season. The justification of all the naysayers, the ones who said we'd be just like every other expansion, was painful. Because we *were* just like every expansion team. The fans in Portland must be dancing with glee while they play catch with their USL trophy. The electric mood in Portland, what with their incoming franchise in MLS and all, is in direct contrast to that of Seattle. The Sounders are just another sports team now. The glamour is gone. Last week I saw a Freddy Ljungberg kit show up on the rack at Value Village, right next to the Supersonics Patrick Ewing jersey. And as I watched, someone bought the Ewing. That hurt me.

All in all, I suppose I can't blame the one bright spot on the pitch, Fredy Montero, for skipping town in July to play in Spain's La Liga. He only had to play out half the season in front of what were mostly passionate, vocal crowds, even at the last game against Dallas. Which, fittingly, was a loss.

I suppose we can't really complain too much. After all, it was the inaugural season. And we did get to witness Chelsea FC beat down the Sounders - our Sounders - in magnificent fashion. We cheered our boys on even when the scoreline was 3-0, 4-0, 5-0. Because they were ours. And dammit, that's the most important thing I can come up with in terms of positivity. All those games where the team in green got manhandled, that was our team in green. The level of play wasn't the highest, to be sure, but it was our team. Seattle's team. And that's what matters.

Even though MLS Cup is next week, and will display the two best teams in MLS going at it, watching the New York Red Bulls take on the LA Galaxy in Qwest Field just won't be the same.

So here's to you, 2009. You sucked. Let's win more next year.


Season Preview - Real Salt Lake

Ten wins, ten losses and ten draws. Real Salt Lake were the very definition of average in 2008. And yet they made the playoffs, and were a post-widths distance away from taking New York to extra time in the Western Conference Final, a game that they dominated. So expectations are higher than they might be for any other average club.

And the Utah club is even easier to figure out going forward, because they hardly made any changes to their roster from 2008. But one of the late additions they made last season proved to have a crucial impact. Canadian winger Will Johnson served as a sparkplug, and had the goal of the year (well, officially, though I'd rate Marcelo Gallardo's audacious volley higher) on a ridiculously sublime flick, turn and blast. Outside of Johnson, this off-season they drafted a raw defensive mid project and claimed Ned Grabavoy off waivers. Pardon me for not being too excited. They are looking at adding Luis Miguel Escalada, a Argentine striker with potential but who is a bit of an unknown quantity at this point.

It is another Argentine that carries their team, and one who is one of the more unheralded stars in all of MLS. Javier Morales, totaler of 6 goals and 15 assists last year, is a fantastic presence in the attacking midfield role. On the other hand, if he gets hurt, RSL will struggle badly. He's joined in attack by Yura Movsisyan, whose name I incredibly spelled correctly from memory. Movsisyan really came on strong at the end of last season, and I'm not sure if he'll keep it up. Also at forward is Robbie Findley, who would be a great player if he didn't have the first touch of a drunken rhinocerous.

The back line, however, is where RSL really looks to stand out. Their defense is possibly the best in the west. A central defense of Nat Borchers and the excellent Jamison Olave, who came to Salt Lake from Fredy Montero's Deportivo Cali, is solid. With Olave signed for 4 more years, they have a good core to build around. Chris Wingert and Ian Joy on the wings are both very quality, plus there's good depth in defense as well. And I can't forget the heart and soul of Salt Lake, holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman. Though he does sport the ridiculous white-guy dreadlocks, he makes up for it with his consistently passionate play on the pitch. It's hard not to like Beckerman.

There aren't really any apparent weaknesses on the Real Salt Lake roster. Striker would probably be the thinnest position, but if Luis Miguel Escalada pans out then that isn't much of a question either. They definitely look to be better than average this year, and they should be drawing increased crowds to shiny new Rio Tinto Stadium, which is for my money the second-best venue in MLS. And a repeat to the playoffs looks likely. Yes, if you're a Real Salt Lake fan, there's a lot of reasons to be excited about 2009. Aside from the fact that you live in Salt Lake.


Season Preview - Chicago Fire

No team in MLS appears more confident heading into the 2009 campaign than the Chicago Fire. If you go to their team website, you will be greeted with an advertisment for a five-game ticket plan which includes, as they call it, 'Playoff Game One.' They're actually that sure that they'll make the playoffs this year.

And to be honest, they have good reason to be. Chicago was extremely strong last year, finishing second to the Columbus Crew both in the Eastern Conference regular season and conference finals, and missing out on MLS cup by just one goal. Everything appeared to be working well for the franchise, whether it was the on-field play, the notably strong and passionate fan support, the uniforms - ok, the block 'Best Buy' with the white stripe across the front does look a bit crap, but that's a minor point.

The best news of all is that they look to be almost exactly the same squad that they had last year. The only players they lost were low-impact reserves like Stephen King and Andy Herron. They return the entire defensive line, which with Wilman Conde, Bakary Soumare and Gonzalo Segares is certainly the best in the league. And if Dasan Robinson can stay healthy, it could be even better. Scary. Marco Pappa oozed potential playing on the wing in limited minutes last year. If he starts, watch out. Opposite him, Justin Mapp could be a truly standout winger if he decides to care for an entire season. Logan Pause couldn't attack goal to save his life, but he is still a solid defensive midfielder. He doesn't have to attack, though, because of the guys up front.

A lot of the offensive responsibilities rest on the hunched shoulders of number-10 attacking midfield Mexican legend Cuahtemoc Blanco. You can hate him for his scowling on-pitch theatrics, and many do, but it's hard to question his heart, passion and creative playmaking ability. And of course, he is aided up top by Brian McBride, himself an American legend. He's played in 3 World Cups, scored 62 goals in MLS, almost single-handedly saved Fulham from relegation in the EPL in 2008... the list of accolades goes on. Oh yeah, and Chris Rolfe is pretty decent too, what with 9 goals and 7 assists last year, playing his way into National Team contention. And I haven't even gotten into the potential of Mike Banner or Patrick Nyarko. Bottom line, Chicago are stacked.

(And did I mention that netminder Jon Busch was the league's top goalkeeper last year?)

In my opinion, the best teams in MLS are always those that have a solid lineup, all eleven spots, with no discernable weaknesses in the core of the starters. Houston had it in 2006 and 2007, as did New England. Columbus had it last year. Chicago looks to be that way this year. Unless they have a ridiculous amount of injuries, or Jon Busch forgets how to play keeper, the Fire look they'll make good on that promise for Playoff Game One. And possibly Playoff Game Two. If they aren't the best team in the league, they're mighty close.

Season Preview - FC Dallas

In some ways, the history of FC Dallas is a microcosm for all of Major League Soccer. They first came into existence in 1996 as the Dallas Burn, with hideous uniforms and a giant football stadium as their home. This existence was very shaky in the late 90s and early 2000's, as they actually played in a high school football stadium one season to save money. But eventually, they moved into their own shiny soccer stadium, rebranded with a less ridiculous name and uniforms, and acquired a local rival in Houston. Since then, the future has been bright.

On the pitch, however, the recent past has been ugly for Dallas. Finishing out of the playoffs last year, the hoops went through an extremely turbulent season involving a coaching change. They finished the year under the guidance of Schellas Hyndman, but still stumbled to the finish. FCD had talent on the team, and one of the leagues best overall players in forward Kenny Cooper, but they never seemed to gel and come together, especially in midfield. At times, the defense was shaky as well, with the sluggish Duilio Davino doing little more than taking up space on the pitch and the salary cap.

A full season under Hyndman - and especially, a full pre-season for the team to come together - sound help this team achieve their full potential. Or at least something close to it. If Cooper doesn't jet to Europe and stays around all season to partner with a rejuvinated Jeff Cunningham, the forwards will be very dangerous. The midfield looks to be much more settled now, with a true attacking midfielder in new Colombian signee David Fereirra filling what had been FC Dallas's biggest hole. Dallas also acquired Dave Van den Bergh, one of the very best left wingers in MLS. Andre Rocha on the other wing showed great promise and could have a breakout season this year. Not a lot has been done to better the defense, and that could be a weak point, though the addition by subtraction of Davino should help. And Dario Sala, my single least favorite player in the league, is nonetheless competant in goal. The team, to me, looks solid.

The biggest worries for FC Dallas may in fact be off the pitch. The franchise has long struggled to draw fans wherever they play. Every time I've watched their home games on tv, the gaping swaths of empty seats that fill Pizza Hut Park are very noticeable. And very recently have come reports that FCD have sold just 5000 tickets for their season opener (INCLUDING season tickets), a high-profile matchup against Cuahtemoc Blanco and the Chicago Fire. My reaction is somewhere between embarassed and saddened. Numbers like that, regardless of which team, are no good for the league.

I really do think that Dallas could make some noise this year, and gun to my head, I'd say they make the playoffs. Even as they have problems off the pitch, they have shored up most of their major weaknesses and look to be improving on it. And their attack looks balanced and powerful. FC Dallas are a club that should be putting on some entertaining displays of soccer under the Texas sun. The only question is if anyone will be there to watch them.


Season Preview - DC United

I like DC United. Really. Their uniforms are classy and their fan support is top-notch. And they have a wonderful tradition of winning, which is something almost every club in the young MLS lacks, and they added to it last year by taking the US Open Cup.

That success was deceptive, because for a team that expects to win every year, they failed to even make the playoffs in 2008. (Although, in fairness, United were still technically not eliminated until the final weekend of the season.) They were even worse in Concacaf Champions League play, looking completely uninspired and often trotting out second-team players who were totally outmatched. Down the stretch, the black and red were relying on USL callups to be the sparks in both defense (Greg Janicki) and attack (Boyzee Khumalo. Yes, that's really his name). The main problem on the field was newly signed playmaker Marcello Gallardo. Or rather, the lack of Gallardo on the field - while brilliant when healthy, he was injured more often than not. Goalkeeping woes and a leaky defense didn't help either.

Over the offseason, there was one big move made, which was the return of Christian Gomez to DC. Gomez, a beloved star central midfielder for United from 2004 to 2007, will hopefully fit right in to his old role after effectively a one-year exile in Colorado. He joins an attack that, when healthy, has more starpower than any other in the league. The legendary Jaime Moreno (who has the most goals all-time in MLS, 122) is partnered up top with Luciano Emilio, who himself has scored 31 times in just 2 seasons. With Fred and Santino Quaranta on the flanks, they have the potential to be very dangerous.

There is a major problem in attack, though - age. DC has some old dudes. Moreno was their best player last year, but he's 35 now, at the age where a striker can completely fall off any given season. Gomez himself is 34 and Emilio is 31. Relying on 3 over-30 players to lead you offensively is very risky, especially since the reserves at forward are somewhat lacking. Another question is keeper. Even when healthy, Louis Crayton is always an adventure between the pipes. But the biggest trouble spot is the back line. The USL callup Janicki will be relied on to start, most likely, and Canadian signing Dejan Jakovic will be relied on heavily since the team lacks a standout defender.

I went into this article with the idea that DC United would be back in the playoffs, where they feel they belong, this year. Trouble is, they've got far more areas to worry about than to be confident about. If everyone stays healthier than last year, yeah, they could still be competitive in the east. It'll be tough, though. I think that when summer comes, they'd be better off putting a serious effort into the Concacaf Champions League this time around. Maybe that'll be how they get the trophy that their fans crave and deserve, because I don't see them winning MLS.


Season Preview - San Jose Earthquakes

For obvious reasons, last year, the San Jose Earthquakes were of special interest to Sounders fans. As the expansion club in 2008, the Quakes were an example of what Seattle will go through this year. We can only hope that there will not be similarities in the points column.

As most expansion clubs do, the Quakes struggled. And I’ve written a lot about their struggles. The main point is that they had very little scoring options for much of the season. After picking up British winger Darren Huckerby, their attack was rejuvenated. (Perhaps just ‘juvinated’?) San Jose found more success toward the end of the season, getting themselves back into a tie for last place with Los Angeles while staying in the playoff hunt longer than most thought possible.

Apparently the Quakes are thinking this success will continue, because they made few changes to their roster. The only major ones were signing target forward Cam Weaver, who was a standout for the USL Sounders a few years ago and had most recently been playing in Norway, and the acquisition of former USA nat Bobby Convey. Arguably their most important move was re-signing keeper Joe Cannon, who had a stellar 2008. The rest of the moves were mostly effective-looking shoring up of squad depth. They did lose starters Francisco Lima and James Riley, the latter of whom is now one of Seattle’s best defenders.

Even without Riley, the defense – San Jose’s strength last year – still looks solid. Jason Hernandez remains one of the best one players nobody has heard of. The midfield is solid as well, with Convey, the ever-dangerous Huckerby and Ramiro Corrales. Cannon is a quality presence in goal. Forward is still the question. Arturo Alvarez might play up top, but that would probably relegate Jamaican Ryan Johnson to the bench, and he’s starter quality. On the other hand, Johnson and Weaver are both big banger-type players, and I’m not sure if they’ll work well together.

I’ll just say it right now – I think San Jose can make the playoffs. Not sure if they will, but the talent is there. The nucleus in defense and goal remains, which is what coach Frank Yallop wanted. His team construction is a multi-year process, and I think it’ll pay off this year. Adding Convey is a bit of a gamble – they want him to play attacking mid, which is not his natural position. If he gets his form back, expect San Jose to seriously compete for a spot in the postseason.


Season Preview - Toronto FC

Over the last two years, no club has garnered as much praise for their fans as Toronto FC. And rightfully so – they always sell out BMO Field, have rowdy and passionate fans, and support their team through wins and the much more common losses.

Over those two years, they haven’t really had a lot to cheer about. As an expansion club in 2007, they were flat out terrible, and were marginally better in 2008, but still last in the East. A high degree of roster turnover led to the team never really gelling. Toronto really didn’t have an area of strength on the pitch, and had weaknesses everywhere, particularly at forward. This past offseason they’ve continued to rework the roster, but the difference is the number of quality players that have joined the Reds.

First, obviously, is Canadian soccer legend Dwayne De Rosario. The attacking midfielder was picked up from Houston, delighting TFC fans. He’s getting old, but is still a dynamic presence on the field and has moments of brilliance matched by almost nobody in MLS. And he’s getting a chance to be the star for his hometown club. You think he’ll be energized this year?(DeRo is my favorite player in MLS, though, so I’m admittedly biased.)

Toronto made all sorts of other acquisitions. They traded for veteran Canadian defender Adrian Serioux and signed forward Pablo Vitti, a former member of the Argentina U-20 national team. They also had 3 picks in the SuperDraft, and acquired two of the very few college players who can contribute right away – forward O’Brien White and central midfielder Sam Cronin. All this, and they only lost two players who could even contribute somewhat, with one of them being Seattle’s new defender Tyrone Marshall.

There’s a lot of new talent on Toronto, and in some ways they look similar to how the Sounders’ roster is at the moment. Lots of midfield depth and attacking talent, what looks like a good combination at forward (Vitti and Chad Barrett), an old but still solid national team keeper (Greg Sutton, Canada), and a very thin defense. There’s a lot of ingredients there, but will they go together?

Defense is the main worry, as an injury to any one starter would create a huge talent drop-off. But the thing I’m most curious about is how De Rosario will work with Amado Guevara, who is Toronto’s current attacking midfielder and is pretty good in his own right. What type of formation will accommodate them both? Can they work together and still share the ball with the rest of the midfield? Hard to say. And they will probably still struggle to contend. But it’s clear that Toronto – just like Seattle – will at a minimum be a very entertaining team to watch.


Season Preview - Los Angeles Galaxy

If the Sounders were looking at a list of MLS clubs to emulate, the Los Angeles Galaxy would probably be right at the bottom. Which is exactly where they finished in MLS last year.

Embarrassingly, the MLS team with the most recognition worldwide was also the league's worst club, ending the season in a tie with San Jose on 33 points. And that was with David Beckham playing at mostly full strength and Landon Donovan playing with the strength of 3 men. Their heroics were not nearly enough to make up for an atrocious backline and the ineptitude of goalkeeper Steve Cronin, who lost playing time to the just as bad Josh Wicks. Wicks came from USL club Portland Timbers. If you’re relying on Portland to help fix your team, you know you’re crap.

The Galaxy are looking to put their multiple years of futility behind them. Coach Bruce Arena, a name familiar to any American soccer fan, is leading the renovations. And on paper they look much improved. Dema Kovalenko has been brought in to bring some brutality to the center of midfield; Todd Dunivant (left back) and Mike Magee (forward) are decent veteran options. Donovan Ricketts, Jamaican international goalkeeper, has signed on. The talismanic Donovan looks to be coming back to Los Angeles, fresh off a successful loan to Bayern Munich. Some good college picks have joined the mix, notably huge centerback Omar Gonzalez. Oh yeah, and that Beckham guy may or may not be coming back.

With so many changes, can the Galaxy actually rise up and compete this year? While they’ve suddenly become an experienced team, they’re not made up of washed-up veterans. Ok, maybe a couple. The core of their attack is all back, and the defense is almost completely new except for the lone decent defender they already had, Sean Franklin.

On paper, they look much improved. But that’s the key. On paper.

Arena’s coaching skill is well documented – he might be the best American soccer coach ever – but his last task was New York in 2006 and 2007, and he did nothing to improve that team. And he is notoriously egotistical… how well will he work with the star personalities of Donovan and (presumably) Beckham? Will Donovan even be around all season? Will the young defense be able to form a cohesive unit early on in the season? They didn’t look so hot in some of their preseason games… And will the new keeper Ricketts live up to expectations? They’re really banking on him to close the revolving door they’ve had at the keeper position.

These are, in my mind, the biggest questions facing a team that has plenty of them. And they have to answer a lot to get up into playoff contention in the West. I will say this with confidence, though – at a minimum, the Galaxy have improved enough to get off the bottom of the league. As for how much they’ve improved, we’ll have to wait and see.