Monday, March 14, 2011

Football Americana: 2011 MLS Season Preview (Part 3)

Our MLS season preview continues. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Starting from scratch

One of the most exciting aspects of this Major League Soccer season is the pair of new teams joining the league in the Pacific Northwest. Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps represent a more welcoming approach to the heritage of the North American Soccer League and, more importantly, the revitalisation of a three-way rivalry that could ignite MLS. Neither the Timbers nor the Whitecaps are expected to make the instant impact on the pitch that their Seattle rivals did in 2009, but in the stands it's a whole new ball game. These are soccer cities and between them they'll really add a new dimension to the league.

In Portland, John Spencer has made Jack Jewsbury captain of a side that boasts Kenny Cooper and highly-rated rookie Darlington Nagbe (currently recovering from a hernia) but will face an uphill battle to guide his team to a high enough position to scrape into the playoffs. The Whitecaps will be led by Jay Demerit and have a number of talented players but seem to lack a little bit of punch. First draft pick Omar Salgado is ineligible until September but should be a solid selection in the long run.

On the west coast there's a new face in the Chivas USA dugout. Robin Fraser earned his coaching spurs with Jason Kreis during a successful spell with Real Salt Lake, and the former LA Galaxy defender returns to California as the top dog at Chivas. Fraser's hotly tipped to become an excellent coach and has already strengthened his side after a disastrous 2010. Jimmy Conrad, Heath Pearce and rookie Zarek Valentin make the team's defensive offering look more reliable in front of 'keeper Zach Thornton. Up front, new signing Alejandro Moreno and loanee Marcos Mondaini will duke it out with Víctor Estupiñán, the Ecuadorian striker who might just go down in MLS folklore for failing emphatically to live up to the expectations he's set for himself.

There's also a new-but-not-new club in MLS this season, so they're sort of starting from scratch. Sporting KC's future is bright. LIVESTRONG Sporting Park (yes, it has to be written like that) will be a fitting home for MLS in Kansas City but it's on the pitch that Sporting have a few players worth keeping an eye on. English observers might be interested in the fortunes of Craig Rocastle and Ryan Smith, and US international Teal Bunbury could be the most anticipated player in the division after a breakout season last time out. He'll also be the centre of attention when the USA play Canada, the country he turned down to play for the States, in the first game of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Lurking in the shadows

With the playoffs effectively extended to ten teams this season it's difficult to see any other outcome for San Jose Earthquakes than qualification. They did so last season and Frank Yallop's squad has kept all its important figures. Chris Wondolowski, Jon Busch, Brandon McDonald, Jason Hernandez and Ryan Johnson are all vital players for the Earthquakes and have stayed put through the close-season. Steven Lenhart has joined San Jose from Columbus Crew and provides an alternative up front, as the Crew used wisely in 2009 in particular. It could also be worth keeping an eye on rookie Anthony Ampaipitakwong who, as well as having the best name in the league, could develop into the kind of midfield string-puller that good teams can be built around.

The Quakes' good form dates back to the back end of the 2009 season, when a team with nothing to play for except pride got their heads down and did just that.

Of all the teams in MLS, Chicago Fire might just be the one subject to the most questions. Carlos de los Cobos will quickly be under pressure if the Fire look like repeating last season's failure to make the playoffs, their first since 2004. The loss of Brian McBride (who retired along with CJ Brown last season) and a couple of other high profile departures have left the club with a little uncertainty ahead of the 2011 season. However, in Patrick Nyarko, Baggio Husidic and Marco Pappa, Chicago have players who can make things happen. De los Cobos will be desperate for them to do so.

That's it. Every team previewed, every big move judged on nothing more profound than face value. Welcome to MLS 2011.

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