Thursday, October 29, 2009

MLS Season Review

Tonight marks the beginning of MLS's second season, the playoffs. Expansion Seattle FC and their smug, coffee drinking fans take on the Houston Dynamo before the remaining three pairings start this weekend - Real Salt Lake v. Columbus, New England v. Chicago, and Chivas USA v. LA Galaxy (boy is MLS happy they get to have a playoff edition of the LA Derby -- note, it is not the Super Clásico! That is reserved for Boca-River and only Boca-River).

So, now is as good a time as any to review what was unfortunately a somewhat ordinary MLS season.

Columbus - 49 pts. For the second year in a row, Columbus wins the Supporters Shield on the back of ageless Guillermo Barros Schelotto. However, indicative of the MLS season as a whole, this year the Crew finished tops with 49 points, whereas last year they finished tops with 57. This was mostly a result of 10 draws this season, as there were an inordinate amount of draws throughout MLS. Parity is rampant and MLS is not the better for it. This is not the NFL, there are other leagues for the best players to go to for better competition and much better salaries.

Indeed, Columbus has a very good team, but they don't really scare anyone or really stir anyone's imagination with their play. Fits the city and stadium I suppose. Schelotto is simply class, and other than Robbie Rogers, the rest of Columbus is merely capable MLS attackers (Eddie Gaven, Jason Garey, Alejandro Moreno). The difference, other than Schelotto, was solid goalkeeping and a defense led by Chad Marshall (despite his missing some games due to injury and the National Team) and Frankie Hejduk (ditto). They have as good a chance as any team to win MLS Cup and repeat as champions, and it's good to see Robbie Rogers hopefully build on his key substitute appearance for the USA against Costa Rica.

Los Angeles - 48 pts. The Galaxy were a team of two halves. Their season started with a ridiculous 1-1-9 record. Just look at that. One win, one loss, nine ties. Like I said, parity. Plus there was this thing about Beckham and Landon Donovan and some book. You may have heard about it.

Anyway, LA finally kicked it into another gear in the second half as their potent offense kicked off and they finished tops in the Western Conference, tied with Houston on points. LA will always be dangerous simply because they have Donovan, who is undoubtedly the best player in MLS. No one in MLS combines his level off skill, speed, goal scoring, and unmatched fitness. Throw in Beckham's passing and set pieces, Edson Buddle being able to finish Donovan's and Beckham's passes occasionally, and you have a dangerous team.

The big surprise in LA is their vastly improved defense. Rookies Omar Gonzalez and AJ DeLaGarza (Terps in the house!) proved to be mature and steady enough right out of college to contribute immediately. Gonzalez was less a surprise because he has the physical frame and potential to be a very very good defender, as well as being dangerous on set pieces. But watching DeLaGarza in college it was unclear whether his size and physical limitations would ever make him a decent pro. You couldn't doubt his heart, character, and reading of the game, and he's managed to do better than I expected.

People also forget that Bruce Arena is a pretty damn good coach. People may have soured on him due to his stint with the Red Bulls (as if anyone could look good with that team) and the USA's 2006 World Cup showing (let's be honest, he got a great performance against Italy, an unlucky game against Ghana where the ref screwed the US, and only the Czech game did the US look unprepared and out-coached). But give him a good team to work with and some continuity and he will surely develop a winner. Many are tipping them to win MLS Cup this year and I might have to agree.

Houston - 48 pts. Houston is pretty much the most consistently good franchise, finishing in the top two of the Western Conference in each year of their existence. They're very solidly built front to back with no glaring weaknesses. Geoff Cameron was one of the top defenders this year, and Bobby Boswell has revived his career there in the back alongside him. The key of course is their midfield trio of Stuart Holden, Brad Davis, and Rico Clark. Holden was always being groomed to take over playmaking duties, and when they traded Dwayne De Rosario to Toronto, they didn't lose a beat with Holden finally showcasing his skills as the lead dog.

If there is a weakness on Houston, it's a true goal scoring forward. Holden and Davis chip in goals, but the leading goalscorer was again Brian Ching. Just the mention of his name must make USMNT fans cringe... Brian Ching. He can hold up play and draw fouls and be a very good MLS player, without ever being considered a finisher. He's like the US Emile Heskey. Like Columbus, it was Houston's tied-for-league-best defense that really sets them apart, not the goal scoring, despite both teams having two of the best attackers in the league.

Seattle Sounders FC - 47 pts. Seattle is a "feel good story" of the year to many observers, what with their inaugural season leading to the playoffs, winning the US Open Cup, and having the best home crowd in the league. Coach Sigi Schmid built a nice roster. Fredy Montero was one of the most exciting players in the league, Nate Jaqua is like the MLS Peter Crouch, a beanpole who's not a true target forward but can score, Steve Zakuani could develop nicely, there's midfield depth, and Kasey Keller can still bring it in goal. Seattle is a beautiful city, they have a nice stadium, if still an NFL stadium with artificial turf, and they have the potential to become a team hated across MLS because they somehow think one season of strong fan support and an Open Cup title makes them the new Real Madrid or Yankees. MLS is more exciting for having them, and it's fun to hate on other teams. Good for you Seattle. At least they're a worthy target. Unlike the Red Bulls. They just suck.

Chicago - 45 pts. Blah. Blanco is good, but he may be headed back to Mexico. Brian McBride is a US hero, but managed only 7 goals and injuries hindered his season, even though he played in 22 of 30 games. Not much else to say, because like Columbus, they don't excite the imagination. They play a dreadfully boring and negative style, though maybe that will change if they decide to not bring back coach Denis Hamlet. Unlike Columbus, they do engender passion from opposing teams because they play a negative, thuggish style. Too bad, they could play better with their talent, and they have a decent crowd at Toyota Park.

Chivas USA - 45 pts. Chivas is an interesting team. They seemed like a young, up-and-coming team heading into the season. Preki had them playing an attacking style. Yet they took a step back this year. A big reason was Sacha Kljestan, who pretty much went into a season long funk. Zach Thornton turned back the clock with a good year in goal, and maybe the most important positive from the season has been the growing connection finally between the team and the LA Latino fan base. Rumors abound that they will look to further that connection with signings, including a Mexican coach, in the offseason. If Preki is let go, he'll immediately be a top candidate for other vacancies across MLS, and I think he'll be a good coach, just this Chivas team was not as good as believed. They finished about right for their talent.

New England - 42 pts. Their season was always going to be somewhat derailed with top forward Taylor Twellman out injured the entire year. Yet credit to the combination of Steve Nichol for being among the best at identifying talent in the MLS draft and the overall brilliance of Shalrie Joseph for keeping them competitive. If only Joseph was an American. Along with that flaming ginger, Jeff Larentowicz, they held down the midfield and got New England into the playoffs. I may have almost fought Jeff the first time we went out drinking at Brown University because of the New England-DC United rivalry, but he's grown on me and I like him as an underrated player who may very well get the Brian Carroll honorary call up to National Team camp at some point. Like LA, the Revs benefited from rookie surprises in defense when Kevin Alston (who played one year at my high school with my younger brothers, it's no surprise he's done well as a pro) and Darrius Barnes (Duke grad, yuck) stepped in after injuries to the back line and more than held their own. This is MLS's perpetual "almost" team - a winning squad that's never won the MLS Cup. Unfortunately I don't really see it happening this year or the next. They need just that new attacker to push them over the edge.

Real Salt Lake - 40 pts. Possibly the worst team name in American sports. I can't get over it. Nice young attackers in Robbie Findley and Yura Movsisyan backed up by hard working Kyle Beckerman. Findley has speed and could find his way into National Team camp with the US lacking a speedy forward after losing Charlie Davies, and I root for Movsisyan because of his last name. Beckerman has slowly over the years become a reliable MLS player and fringe National Teamer. I was never that impressed playing against him when I was younger (as opposed to Oguchi, who we knew was going to be a big time player), but he's become the heart and soul of this team. Don't have much to say about them other than when they played DC United, they never really tried to do much. I hate that.

DC United - 40 pts. Ugh. I have too much to say about them than can fit in this roundup of all of MLS. They were exceedingly disappointing this year because the talent is there. Unfortunately so was Coach Tom Soehn. He should be gone, though he's now using the excuse of injuries, a jam packed schedule with international tournaments and the Open Cup, plus his one year winning the Supporter's Shield with Peter Novak's roster to lobby for another season -- Kevin Payne, do not listen to him! I'm excited for the development of Rodney Wallace and Chris Party Boy Pontius. Santino Quaranta continues to be reborn and started off very strong, and I hope he can make his career turnaround permanent. Big change is still coming, with old folks or underachievers like Jaime Moreno, Luciano Emilio, Ben Olsen, Christian Gomez, and Fred in limbo. I can't imagine Olsen being gone, even if he doesn't have ankles, and Moreno still provides a different element off the bench. The others -- gone. Good thing my last memory of RFK for the season was the USA match.

Colorado - 40 pts. Probably the worst playing style of any team in the league. Maybe not the worst team overall, but man watching them stinks. And that's despite the fact that they have Conor Casey, who for all the angst over his place in the US Team is still a prolific MLS goal scorer, with 16 goals this season. Another year of below mediocrity for this team. Owner Stan Kroenke also has ownership in Arsenal, so he must just be ignoring this team. Not that the MLS structure would allow him to do much to vastly improve this team. They could go out and sign a designated player. Hey, what an original idea! Hey Colorado, go make yourself half relevant.

Toronto FC - 39 pts. I'm never really sure who's playing for Toronto. They seem to constantly trade players. Maybe that's why they've never settled to become a good team yet. However, I think they make something of a leap next year. They have De Rosario, one of the best players in MLS (again, oh why couldn't he be American rather than wasting his international career with the Canadians), signed Canadian star Julian de Guzman (ditto) from Deportivo de La Coruña near the end of the season, have up and coming youngster Sam Cronin, and the universally despised but highly talented Honduran Amado Guevara. That's a strong midfield. But they've never really found a forward, hoping that O'Brien White will blossom next year in his first full pro season, having missed this one with an ACL tear suffered in college. De Rosario was good again, leading the team in goals, but you need a forward to lead your team in goals unless the midfielder is named Ronaldo. A new coach and another forward will be needed for this team to do better than they did this year. They have a great home atmosphere and a fun city and I think it'll be something to see once they have a team to match.

FC Dallas - 39 pts. Though equal on points with Toronto, we've now reached the dregs. A completely surprising late season run pushed this team to a more respectable level, even threatening for a playoff spot. The key was actually selling Kenny "Franken"-Cooper to 1860 Munich. He may have scored 7 goals in 15 games, but by jettisoning the big man, Dallas opened up space for Jeff Cunningham's ego to be the alpha dog striker. He obliged with a league high 17 goals. They scored the most goals in the league, but also allowed the second most. Will they ever be truly good. I don't know. Not that I really care.

Kansas City - 33 pts. Did I say Colorado was boring. Yawn. So are Kansas City. Claudio Lopez was among the quietest designated players ever in MLS, though he didn't necessarily perform poorly. Josh Wolf scored some goals, and Jimmy Conrad continues to play well enough to get calls for a place on the National Team, particularly with the current center back injury crisis. Still, I can't think of any young talent on this team. Let's face it, they don't even belong in KC. Move them to Saint Louis, OK. Done.

San Jose - 30 pts. Yuck again. Just not a good team. I had to look up who their leading scorer was - Ryan Johnson. Never heard of him? Neither have I. Darren Huckerby, with his English pedigree, was a bright spot in their inaugural season, but unfortunately for San Jose, he had surgery on a shredded hip and promptly retired. Add to that fact that Bobby Convey has fallen harder than even DaMarcus Beasley and you have a recipe for disaster. No real bright spots here.

Red Bull New York - 21 pts. Double, no, quadruple yuck. They don't even deserve a write up. 21 points from 30 games, and that's after a very good late season run after interim head coach Richie Williams took over. Basically their entire season was nothing but waiting for Red Bull Arena to open next year and hope they sign a second designated player to play in it. And since there is nothing worth talking about during the season, other than a continuation of probably the worst franchise in MLS, the real focus is on whether management will drop the interim tag from Williams's title, or will they let him bolt, in which case he'll surely be snagged up by DC United (where he won three MLS cups as a player) or some other team. In fact, what am I saying. Red Bull, you need a high profile coach for your new stadium and to handle potentially two designated players. You need European pedigree. Because if there is one thing the NY/NJ MetroStars/Red Bull New York lack, it's pedigree. And talent. And fans.

No comments:

Post a Comment