Monday, March 7, 2011

Football Americana: 2011 MLS Season Preview (Part 1)

So, here we all are then. Another close-season is banished to the record books and Major League Soccer's 2011 campaign is but a matter of weeks away. This has the potential to be something of a low-level watershed for MLS, with the new homegrown players rule arguably edging American football to a brave new era. Arguably.

Of course, with a new season of Major League Soccer comes a new season of Football Americana. Every week I'll be rounding up the latest action from around the league and trying not to be too sarcastic or pro-DC United. There's no doubt that overseas MLS writers like myself observe the American game through a weird lens, but it's one that I feel offers a different perspective. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say the league's fan base is growing in the UK, but it seems to be subject to more curiosity on our humble island than ever before. That can only be a good thing.

Like last year, Football Americana will begin the season with a preview of what lies ahead. It's by no means exhaustive; I won't be breaking down the rosters, predicting the ten playoff qualifiers one by one or nailing my colours to the mast in terms of an MLS Cup winner or a likely league MVP. This is very much a snapshot of where the stories might emerge once the league has returned with the Ides of March. What it will do is look beyond David Beckham and Thierry Henry and share a little more of what MLS has to offer. I won't spend the season evangelising on behalf of the league but I will say this before it gets underway: join in - you won't regret it.

Here's how things are shaping up.

Heading for the top

It's success or bust for LA Galaxy, who are clearly gunning for the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup double with little regard for what other teams might attempt around them. David Beckham remains the headline-maker, of course, with a well-rested Landon Donovan adding guile and pace to LA's midfield. They were both there last season but both had a 2010 interrupted by some combination of injury, loan spells and World Cup preparation. This year, they should be ready to hit the ground running for First Kick.

Bruce Arena's determination to achieve success is demonstrated by the acquisitions he's made over the winter. Experience has been added all over the pitch, bringing in players who know MLS inside out, know what it takes to win and are proven beyond doubt to be capable at this level. Chad Barrett moves to California after being traded away by Toronto in January, and will provide useful back-up to the first choice striker, who will presumably be former New York man Juan Pablo Angel. The Colombian played over 100 times for New York, scoring 58 goals in the process. With Beckham and Donovan providing the service he might just defy his age and notorious wastefulness to take his place in the top few goalscorers for another season.

But perhaps the signing most indicative of LA's intentions is Frankie Hejduk. He joins the Galaxy after being selected in the Re-Entry Draft by Kansas City and then quickly traded away. Hejduk oozes experience, with over 200 MLS appearances, 85 USA caps and a handful of injury-hit years with Bayer Leverkusen to his name. He's added some trophies lately, too; in 2008 he won the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup with Columbus, and the Shield followed again the following year.

The team Angel leaves behind will be favourites to challenge his new club for the title. On star value alone, you have to give New York Red Bulls a chance, but Thierry Henry's got some way to go if he's got any intention of proving he actually wants to be there. Rafa Marquez clearly brings a lot to the table too, but in truth it's some of the Red Bulls' other players that could make all the difference. Striker Juan Agudelo is as exciting a young player as you'll find in the US, while Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere are the men who really have the ability to make this team tick going forward. Tim Ream had a storming first season at the back and will likely be joined by Marquez at centre back.

There will be plenty of eyes on John Rooney and (in England at least) Luke Rodgers, but the likes of Agudelo, Ream and Matt Kassel are probably a more thrilling trio on which to spend your time. The weak link, unfortunately, might well be Bouna Coundoul. The New York goalkeeper is the archetypal average stopper, capable of brilliant saves but equally susceptible to horrible errors. He's certainly got a few blots on his copybook.

Seattle Sounders might be an outside bet at this stage, but Sigi Schmid's men should not be written off in their third season in Major League Soccer. They now know the league, and have strength in depth as well as some fantastic talents. Fredy Montero, the influential Colombian playmaker, has rightly been promoted to Designated Player status, and Steve Zakuani really began to come of age in 2010. Blaise Nkufo has plenty of backup up front, with O'Brian White looking like a shrewd signing. Erik Friburg strengthens the midfield, and holding on to Kasey Keller for another year provides mostly reliable support for a defence boasting Jeff Park and the talented Jhon Kennedy Hurtado.

Searching for continuity

Gary Smith's Colorado Rapids obviously fall into the 'continuity' category after winning MLS Cup last season. The collapse of Omar Cummings' loan move to Aston Villa leaves the champions with Conor Casey continuing to bang in the goals up front. Whatever else the Rapids have going for them (and there's quite a bit), the core of Pablo Mastroeni and the metronomic Jeff Larentowicz is a crucial asset. It seems strange to describe a reigning champion as a dark horse, but this is MLS and that's what the Rapids are. I won't be writing them off for a repeat, but they'll have to improve on last season to do so.

One individual certain to be desperate to continue his form is the 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira (pictured below) of FC Dallas. The Colombian attacking midfielder was the driver of FCD's superb unbeaten streak and run to MLS Cup final, where the Rapids eventually triumphed. He's a great selling point for the league, being the elusive scorer of great goals and an obvious natural footballer. His play is stylish and incisive, and Dallas would be a very different team without him. There is also a section of MLS fans that would argue that without Dax McCarty, Ferreira might be a very different player.

From their base in Sandy, Utah, Real Salt Lake have grown into a genuine force in MLS without excessive use of the designated player rule. Their 2009 MLS Cup win will have surprised anyone in the UK who tuned into ESPN in the middle of the night to see Beckham stoop to allow Don Garber to place a medal round his neck, but it was a deserved accolade for Salt Lake despite their losing record that season. Last year, they were much better and the credit for both has rightly been given to head coach Jason Kreis, who stepped right into the job after his retirement.

However, there was also a great deal of respect from the players and inside the club for his assistant, Robin Fraser, who got his just reward this winter with the top job at Chivas USA. CJ Brown has stepped into his shoes, but there will be plenty of intrigued onlookers eager to find out exactly what the balance of brainpower was at Rio Tinto Stadium.

That's it for part one. Part two will be with you in a couple of days' time to further whet your appetite. In the meantime, I'd love to know what your predictions, hunches and opinions are ahead of MLS 2011. Comments are most welcome below.

1 comment :

Terry Duffelen said...

Despite they're obvious pedigree, there is something about Galaxy that just does not feel right. I can't help but feel that the squad has been assembled for the wrong reasons. Still, I'm probably wrong.

I reckon that this could be the Sounders' season.