Thursday, March 10, 2011

Football Americana: 2011 MLS Season Preview (Part 2)

Our MLS season preview continues. You can read Part 1 here.

Building from the bottom

Rarely before has the term "basement club" been more apt; DC United's 2010 season was not only in the basement but chained high on the wall with rats nibbling at its toes. A league-worst 21 goals in 30 games tells its own story, and coach Curt Onalfo didn't see out the season. His replacement, United legend Ben Olsen, took the reins permanently during the winter break and appears to be working seamlessly with the DC front office to work systematically to fix the problems of the past couple of seasons.

There are enormous positives in the capital, and plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Their headline signing is US striker Charlie Davies, who joins on a year-long loan from Sochaux as he looks to step up his recovery from the injuries sustained in a car accident in October 2009. Davies went through a week of training under Olsen's watchful eye and even at 75% of his best would bring goals and pace, surely both priorities for the new coach after assessing his squad through the back end of 2010.

The real lucky break probably came way back on Expansion Draft day, when FC Dallas left midfielder Dax McCarty unprotected and Portland Timbers, after selecting him first, moved him on to United before Olsen could say "yes, please, one of the most complete young midfielders in MLS would be lovely." McCarty's energy is second-to-none, and he offers both the quality and dynamism to improve on last season's appalling showing. It's difficult to tell where DC will end up come October, but it most likely won't be bottom. Mind you, it's all upside from the basement isn't it?

Something to prove

2010 was a difficult season for Houston Dynamo, and the departures of Rico Clark and Stuart Holden combined with injury to Geoff Cameron to leave La Naranje's midfield looking far weaker than it had in 2009, a relatively successful season at Robertson Stadium. Having broken ground on their own soccer-specific stadium in February, the Dynamo will be desperate to improve this term and at least pick up a playoff spot. If Cameron can remain fit, he's exactly the kind of player that can effect such a change.

However, the striker pool seems a tad empty. Everybody knows about Brian Ching's capabilities (and limitations), but while rookie Will Bruin offers decent backup, Cam Weaver and co will need to step up their game if Ching can't play through the whole season. The other question mark hovers over the goalkeeping position, where veteran Pat Onstad finally hung up his gloves - temporarily, as it turns out - to leave Tally Hall and Tyler Deric with a lot of responsibility on their shoulders.

There's also plenty to prove for Steve Nicol and the New England Revolution. Nicol has been head coach at Gillette Stadium since 2002 and has taken his side to MLS Cup final four times, losing in '02, '05, '06 and '07. It was a remarkable run but Nicolball, the Scot's pragmatic style of play, has come under scrutiny after the Revs failed to make the playoffs for the first time under his tutelage last season. New England have lost some leaders lately, with Jay Heaps, Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman retiring. Shalrie Joseph's discipline takes the edge off his leadership qualities. Questions can and will be asked of the Krafts, but the same is true of Nicol and 2011 will be a big season for him.

Toronto FC came into the league in the 2007 in a blaze of red, civic pride and supporter bluster. They seemed to have it all: a soccer-specific stadium, passionate support and the attitude of a noisy underdog. They are, however, yet to qualify for the playoffs and after four attempts it wasn't suprising to see owners MLSE cut all ties with Mo Johnston, a man who failed to achieve success as both coach and director of soccer, back in September.

Now, Jurgen Klinsmann is knocking around the club as a consultant and Aron Winter is the new head coach and technical director, with an immediate backroom staff of Paul Mariner and Bob de Klerk. It's an experiment for TFC, an attempt to bring a little of the Ajax structure to Canada. It might be just what they need, and if it is then the impact must be immediate. A fifth failure out of five doesn't bear thinking about.

It's also a big season for Robert Warzycha's Columbus Crew. The Crew won MLS Cup in 2008 and the Supporters Shield in both 2008 and 2009, but had to settle for second in the East and an early playoff exit in 2010. It's not a dramatic decline by any stretch of the imagination, but with other teams strengthening it's difficult to see how Columbus can re-establish themselves as a leading team in MLS. As if to illustrate the point, Real Salt Lake demolished them in the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League tie recently.

It's also worth noting that Guillermo Barros Schelotto, a crucial player for the Crew, is no longer at the club. The 37-year-old former league MVP wasn't in the best of form last year before he returned to Argentina for a last hurrah with his first club, Gimnasia la Plata, but his skill and influence will be very difficult to replace. Without him, someone else will need to step up into a vital role for the club. Frankie Hejduk has also departed.

With pride at stake, Philadelphia Union could do with significant improvement this season. Joining the league in between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, it seems as if Philly are strangely forgotten as an expansion club and a poor first season on the field won't have helped that. Despite bringing in Faryd Mondragon in goal, the Union could still be too reliant on Danny Mwanga and Sebastien Le Toux - fine players both, but they can't do it all themselves. The addition of Carlos Ruiz clearly strengthens that, but further suggests that the Union are a little top-heavy in talent terms.

That's it for part two. Part three will be with you in a few days' time. In the meantime, let us know what your predictions, hunches and opinions are ahead of MLS 2011. Comments are most welcome below.

1 comment :

Unknown said...

Ouch - my Fire are in the 'glad there isn't relegation' group (or whatever you'd call it).

Mind you, I understand. De los Cobos, if he gets the axe, needs to get to steppin' before the summer transfer window. Pleeeease?