By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer
The offseason after the Galaxy’s second consecutive MLS Cup has yet to produce the huge designated player star to replace David Beckham (though New York’s Juninho is of similar quality, just not as worldwide famous). Nonetheless, there has been what the Queen Mother would refer to as a “crapload” of offseason moves by many teams in the league, so we could see some definite improvement by some of the traditionally terrible clubs and perhaps a couple old standbys returning to Earth a bit. Should be fun. Now here is my/our alphabetical team-by-team preview. One thing to always keep in mind is, thanks to MLS clubs penchant for signing players right up until opening day (excuse me, “First kick”), there could be changes to teams that could heavily impact where they finish this season. But we’ll deal with that in the weekly rankings, as usual.
Chicago Fire. Last year’s record: 17-11-6, 57 points, lost in playoffs to Houston.
The Good: The re-signing of Chris Rolfe turned out to be a master stroke, as he scored 8 goals in 2/3 of a season to spark Chicago’s run into the playoffs. Rookie of the year Austin Berry had a fine season in the center of defense, and Sean Johnson looked a little less shaky in goal. In the offseason, the Fire added some experienced MLS vets, while jettisoning dead wood like Dominic Oduro and Dan Gargan. Also, the retirement of Pavel Pardo and Guille Franco guarantees that if nothing else, the team will be quicker. The team has Rich Balchan on trial, and the soccer gods are praying that he ends up in red and white. I mean, come on, they had Gargan on the team last year!
The Bad: The absence of Oduro, Sebastian Grazzini and Alvaro Fernandez means that the team will rely heavily on Rolfe, DP Sherjill MacDonald (4 goals in 14 matches) and (Ugh) Maicon Santos for goals. The Fire also seem light in defense if some combination of Berry/Arne Friedrich/Jalil Anibaba get injured.
We’ll Say: The Fire seem to have the parts of a playoff team, but with the East as competitive as it is, it’s important that MacDonald and Rolfe are a productive partnership up front.
Chivas USA. Last year’s record: 7-18-9, 30 points.
The Good: New coach Chelis has at least had people talking about Chivas, which is more than you can say for anything related to the team in a long time. There is quite a bit of young talent. Oh wait, he traded it all away while I was typing. Oops! I’ll be here all night folks. But seriously, Juan Agudelo is bound to have a breakout year at some point, right? And Dan Kennedy is a very good goalkeeper. That’s all I got.
The Bad: Chelis has brought in nine new players, three of which have combined for a total of 44 MLS appearances. The fourth is Eric Avila, who has always been highly thought of, but has seldom produced or played regularly. The rest are signings who have no MLS experience. Meanwhile, departing players take over 1400 MLS appearances with them. I didn’t make that up. I mean, sure the team was terrible last year, but getting rid of that level of experience? It’s going to be a rough season. Agudelo seems eager to head to Europe – could he be gone by July?
We’ll Say: A team with so many new pieces should probably struggle – on paper, Chivas are the worst team in the West. Without knowing what Chelis has up his sleeve, though, who knows? At least getting rid of fan apathy would be an improvement.
Colorado Rapids. Last year’s record: 11-19-4, 37 points.
The Good: The Rapids wisely (we think) elected to give the rebuilding process under Oscar Pareja another year, and now that he’s largely changed the team to what he probably wants, this season should be a fairer gauge of his ability as a coach. Martin Rivero is one of the best young attacking midfielders in the league, and an influx of new signings has to be exciting for Rapids’ fans. Getting rid of the Conor Casey/Omar Cummings forward combo is a definite plus.
The Bad: Getting rid of Casey/Cummings means that the team will rely heavily on new signing Edson Buddle, who scored 3 goals last season but has 93 in his MLS career. If Buddle can stay healthy and isn’t, well, past it, he’ll be an upgrade. If not, they’ll struggle in that area again. A mostly new defense will be kind of scary, but they can’t be any worse than last year in that department, can they?
We’ll Say: Last year’s injury woes and changes resulted in a season probably not an accurate reflection of the quality on the roster. However, with so many new faces and with Riveros injured for at least the first month, the Rapids could be far down in the playoff race early on.
Columbus Crew. Last year’s record: 15-12-7, 52 points.
The Good: Emilio Renteria, Olman Vargas and Tom Heinemann, who combined for four goals all season, are gone and probably pretty easily replaced, though Renteria was at least a physical presence. The late season fireworks of Jairo Arrieta (9 goals in 18 matches) and Federico Higuain (5 goals, 7 assists in 13 matches) nearly pushed the Crew into the playoffs, and they’ll both be there from Day 1 this year. Josh Williams and Chad Marshall are a decent combo in the center of defense, and Andy Gruenebaum was good enough to claim the starting goalkeeper spot as his own.
The Bad: Milovan Mirosevic, one of the Crew’s better players last year, though maybe not quite as good as he was supposed to be, is gone, though Higuain/Matias Sanchez will probably take over his role. The departure of several experienced players is always worrying, until we at least see the new guys in action. If Greunebaum goes down with injury, his replacement is probably Matt Lampson, who has one MLS cap in his career. Arrieta and Higuain are probably expected to combine for 25 goals and 20 assists this year. What if they don’t? Last, but certainly not least, the team released Rich Balchan. Wherefore art thou, Rich Balchan?
We’ll Say: Similar to the Fire, if the forwards score and key players stay healthy, the Crew look like a playoff team. A couple bad injuries or less convincing second seasons from Arrieta and Higuain could see them back where they finished last year. If they stay relatively injury free – a big if for Columbus, they could compete for first in the East.
FC Dallas. Last year’s record: 9-13-12, 39 points.
The Good: New signings Kenny Cooper and Eric Hassli join Fabian Castillo, Jackson, David Ferreira and Blas Perez to give Dallas one of the potentially most dangerous attacks in the league. Brek Shea finally heading to Europe removes the uncertainty of that situation and should enable Castillo to have the left flank all to his own, where he could be one of the breakout stars this season. Re-signing George John is also a good thing.
The Bad: Ferreira is now 34. How many good seasons does he have left, particularly with his injury record? Further more, can Perez stay healthy? The decision to release Kevin Hartman now leaves either Raul Hernandez or Chris Seitz to establish themselves as the team’s No. 1 goalie, and neither has in the preseason. The retirement of Daniel Hernandez and absence of Hartman leave Dallas with something of a leadership vacuum.
We’ll Say: The talent, at least offensively, is certainly there. As is often the case with this team, their success resides with Ferreira and his health. If he plays the full season, Dallas should make the playoffs comfortably. If he doesn’t or starts to show his age, they might finish as one of the more middling teams again.
DC United. Last year’s record: 17-10-7, 58 points. Lost in the playoffs to Houston.
The Good: After a bad couple years, United were one of the more exciting, fun teams to watch in the league, cruising into the playoffs before getting beaten by Houston. In the offseason, they managed to dump a lot of highly paid, poor-performing players (Branko Boskovic, Maicon Santos, Hamdi Salihi). Another year of experience will only help the likes of Brandon McDonald, Ethan White, Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, Bill Hamid and Chris Pontius. Dwayne DeRosario should be fit again for at least one more season, which is always a good thing.
The Bad: Despite getting rid of Salihi, Maicon Santos and Long Tan, the team still has EIGHT forwards on the roster. How does that work? The defense is still certainly the shakiest part of the team, and none of the new signings have addressed that. DeRosario has to break down and become an average player at some point. Will it be this year? Carlos Ruiz is an established scorer in the MLS, but he’s old, not very mobile and controversial. You could say he wasn’t needed on this team. The loss of Andy Najar leaves the team a bit one-dimensional on the wing.
We’ll Say: This is one of the better teams in the league, but still seems a step below the likes of Houston, Kansas City, LA and Seattle.
Houston Dynamo: Last year’s record: 14-9-11, 53 points. Lost in the MLS Cup final to Los Angeles.
The Good: The Dynamo’s swanky new stadium opened, and the team was pretty much unbeatable there. Despite consecutive up and down regular seasons, Houston has reached the final in back to back seasons, showing they know how to win when it counts. If new signing Andrew Driver discovers the form that made him once one of the most highly sought-after players in Scotland, he could be among the best players in the MLS. In Will Bruin, Brad Davis, Oscar Boniek Garcia and Tally Hall, the Dynamo have four players who could all be called among the league’s best at their position, and the addition of Omar Cummings adds some speed. The defense didn’t implode after the departure of Geoff Cameron, which was a good sign.
The Bad: For all their talent and experience, the Dynamo are noticeably worse on the road. If they could learn to grind out some results there, they could finish first in the East. If they don’t, they’ll be stuck fighting through the early playoff rounds again. A heavy Champions League schedule could exact a toll by season’s end, though it didn’t seem to make much difference last year. There are no standout performers in defense.
We’ll Say: As like last year, Houston should have the talent and experience to be one of the, if not the, top teams in the MLS. They have struggled to produce the goods consistently in the regular season, though.
Los Angeles Galaxy. Last year’s record: 16-12-6, 54 points. Won the MLS Cup.
The Good: Player-for-player, the Galaxy are the best, most experienced team in the MLS. Robbie Keane was excellent in his first full season with the club. Landon Donovan’s ongoing “Will he retire? Won’t he?” antics didn’t keep him from performing on the pitch. Juninho was signed permanently and is becoming one of the best players in the league. In Brian Perk and Carlo Cudicini, they should have a starting goalkeeper who is, at least, less chaotic than Josh Saunders. With David Beckham gone, you can probably expect either Kaka or Frank Lampard to join the team in midseason, and both would most likely excel in the MLS.
The Bad: Donovan will miss at least the first month of the season, and doesn’t seem too committed about the rest. His soap opera caused the team to struggle a bit at the start of last season and could again. The same will be true of the impending DP signing. Though the Galaxy are still a decent team with only Keane of the three playing regularly, they are not the best team in the league. The defense was terrible without Omar Gonzalez for part of last year, and he could leave for Europe in the summer. Should Keane get injured or Donovan retire, the forward line would be woefully thin. Signing Cudicini and the since-retired (since he was told he wouldn’t be a starter) Will Hesmer seemed a strange move, particularly since Cudicini, though a solid backup, hasn’t been a regular starting goalkeeper in 10 years. He also is probably getting paid quite a lot too. And he’s old.
We’ll Say: If everyone is healthy and the perpetual chaos that comes with this team is limited, they will challenge for their third-straight MLS Cup (and possibly a CONCACAF Champions League title). If not, the team could implode under a shower of wounded ego and expensive champagne made from Donovan’s tears, like they almost did last season.
Montreal Impact. Last year’s record: 12-16-6, 42 points.
The Good: Despite what at least I thought was a pretty decent first MLS season, the Impact parted ways with coach Jessie Marsch, apparently over philosophical reasons, and replaced him with Swiss coach Marco Schallibaum. Apparently Marsch not speaking French played into the decision, which is funny, because most of the big-name foreign players are Italian. ANYWAY. On to the team: Midfielder Patrice Bernier was arguably one of the best players in the MLS last season. After a slow start, aging forward Marco Di Viao started to show some of his quality. And Felipe Martins is one of the better young players in the league. In terms of offseason signings, Andrea Pisanu is another Italian player, and at 31, is probably not fast. The Impact’s stable of defenders is experienced and contains some very good players, but no one could stay healthy last year. If they do this year, the team will be much better defensively.
The Bad: Ten of the Impact’s 22 players (as of this moment – I’m sure they’ll sign a couple more) are 29 or older. For a team in its second year, that does not constitute building for the future. There has to be some concern about Bernier (33), Alessandro Nesta (36), Di Viao (36), Matteo Ferrari (33), Pisanu, Davy Arnaud (32) and/or Nelson Rivas (29, but hasn’t played a full season of soccer since 2006) breaking down. If they do, the defense could be terrible again, or the attack will be fully dependent on second-year man Andrew Wenger or the midfield will be solely the domain of Felipe. Wenger and Felipe have potential to be among the league’s best, but this is not a team built around them, at least at this point.
We’ll say: More than probably any team in the MLS, the Impact will be fiercely hoping that their starting 11 stays fit. If they suffer an injury crisis, they could be fighting Toronto for the bottom of the East.