Well, we're a week late in announcing it, but here it is. Starting this week, Match Fit USA will host a season-long competition to determine the best Major League Soccer match prognosticator in the land.
Here are the (very simple) rules:
- Each week Match Fit USA will have a Predictions League post, with a list of upcoming matches and my own predictions.
- In the comments section, readers will predict the score of every MLS match for that week. Get your predictions in before the first game of the week kicks off. I may cap the number of players, so enter early.
- Predict the scores for the matches and receive 5 points for a correct score and 1 point for the right result.
- At season's end the winner will earn a fabulous prize*.
In the spirit of friendly, fun competition the winner will be able to choose between two prizes from my eclectic collection of MLS paraphernalia.
Prize Option 1: A soccer ball autographed by former Brazilian national teamer and failed MLS Designated Player, Denilson.
Prize Option 2: An officially licensed MLS T-shirt that proudly announces the New England Revolution as 2006 MLS Cup Winners.
*Sorry, Canada, only US Citizens eligible for prize.
Below are my predictions for Week 2. Enter your predictions in the comments section. Good luck to all!
Houston Dynamo - 1
Real Salt Lake - 1
LA Galaxy - 2
Chivas USA - 0
Colorado Rapids - 3
Chicago Fire - 1
DC United - 0
New England - 1
New York Red Bulls - 1
Seattle Sounders FC - 1
Admit it. When you heard that Wayne Rooney injured his ankle in Manchester United's Champions League match with Bayern yesterday, you let yourself dream. You let yourself dream that the striker, who is the most dangerous man in the world (apologies to Lionel Messi) in front of net at the moment, might miss the World Cup.
Consider your dreams (and mine) dashed.
Rooney will miss some time due to the problem ankle, but it won't be enough to affect his World Cup participation. Two to four weeks is the prognosis, and if I were a betting man, I might put a little on his return coming closer to two rather than four. Manchester United's title hopes take a major hit without Rooney, and there's little reason to doubt his heart or commitment. Ferguson won't be able to keep him out of the lineup as soon as the swelling subsides.
It's possible the Rooney's injury is actually a boon for England's chances; the time he will miss now, provided he returns completely healthy, is a bit of a rest for a player expending himself week in and week out in multiple competitions for United. Still, any injury at all to their most important player is trouble for England, especially if Rooney rushes back and risks re-injuring himself closer to the tournament in South Africa.
How much better would the American chances of a victory be on June 12th if England was without Rooney? Better, of course, though it doesn't look like we'll get to find out.
Maybe you weren't hoping for Rooney to be out longer. Maybe your of the mind that the US needs to take on England on their best, because if they are able to pull off the upset, it will mean that much more. In that case, you can be happy today.
For the rest of us, it's a dream unfulfilled. Damn.
Even while I disagreed vehemently with the comments of Union head coach Peter Nowak in the wake of their inaugural loss at the hands of Seattle, I reveled in them. I loved Sigi Schmid hitting back, and found myself riveted by the defensive posture taken by the Sounders faithful in the wake of the criticism.
MLS too often lacks this kind of off-field intrigue, the kind that spawns a slew of blog posts, keeps fans interested during breaks between games, and adds new plot lines to what happens on the field. The Union's remaining match with Seattle, set for June 27th in Philly, is now a must watch game, and all thanks to a coach who shot off at the mouth in the heat of the post-match moment. Whether Nowak was right or wrong doesn't really matter; what does is that people are now talking up bad-blood between the Sounders and Union (who don't the Sounders have bad blood with?), a dynamic which makes them that much more interesting to the casual fan.
Meanwhile, Dave van den Bergh labelled FC Dallas as moral-less bastards (okay, I'm paraphrasing), criticizing the club for the treatment he received when they kicked him to the curb after last season. I don't know that FCD is particularly evil, or that Schellas Hyndman likes to sacrifice goats in his Dallas-area home, but now I wonder if it might in fact be true. Van den Bergh said what? Hmm...maybe FC Dallas are soulless creatures of the night!
Again, in the end it doesn't matter, and it's impossible to know right now if van den Bergh was screwed over by Hyndman or if the club simply chose to part ways with the Dutchman and he's taking it a little hard. Either way, I'm anxious to see van den Bergh sign elsewhere so he can play against his old club, hopefully put on a clinic, and stick it to them in spades. The dynamic just got a whole lot more interesting.
MLS needs the intrigue.
In that vein, it's really too bad that DC United head man Curt Onalfo chose not to speak ill of his former employers before the club's season opener in Kansas City. It's too bad Preki has behaved himself, it's too bad no coach has chosen to declare themselves favorites outright, or been cornered into something we can take out of context. It's too bad no one in Houston will go on record that the Western Conference final power outages were a conspiracy on the part of the league or the Galaxy.
Would that be completely off the wall, deserving of criticism and give the person that said it a tinfoil hat reputation? Of course, but it would make things much more interesting.
It's not that MLS is boring, or that there isn't enough to see on the field to make the league compelling; it's just that there's something missing from week to week, when the only way to fill the time is to review the previous weekend's matches, create power rankings that mean nothing, and look ahead to the next set of games.
Where are the crazy quotes, the withering criticisms, the bigger-than-life personalities stirring the pot with over-the-top statements that draw our interest and add a new depth to the competition on the field?
Without the standard arena of soccer scuttle, the rapidly moving transfer rumor mill, on the level of leagues abroad, MLS has a deficit of nonsense. Nonsense is an integral part of the game the world over, and as our little league grows, I hope we see more of it.
So come on! Who's next? Any player or manager want to call Preki a maniac or take a shot at the LA Galaxy for playing ugly soccer? Anyone?
Red Bull Arena is a big hit, and finally gives the New York MLS franchise a proper home. PPL Park opens in June, starting the Union off right in their first MLS season. Kansas City has broken ground on a park set to open in 2011. Houston is closing in a on a deal that would get them out of the college football stadium they call home now, and San Jose is still working towards sponsors to get the ball rolling on a new facility in Northern California.
Things are looking pretty darn good on the MLS stadium front, DC and New England aside.
Despite all the good feelings from grand openings and positive local negotiations, though, a sobering reality has been voiced by MLS commissioner Don Garber; stadiums don't necessarily mean immediate profitability.
It seems like common sense, but the Don was forced to remind everyone that clubs must market themselves well, integrate into their communities, and have solid broadcast deals. Control of facility revenue is nice, but it's doesn't immediately guarantee anything in terms of the bottom line.
Even with the additional inroads to be made, a dedicated soccer-specific or designed-for-soccer and team-controlled venue is a crucial element to eventually becoming profitable. But it's also more than that, because it sinks the roots of the game into the community in which it resides. The stadium is an insurance policy against the sport simply disappearing on a high professional level, the way it did from so many cities in the mid-80's when the North American Soccer League flamed out so spectacularly.
Would the NASL have survived if it had stadiums of its own? Maybe, because the financial mindset of the league and its owners was so flawed; but it's very possible that the sport would have weathered the storm, or the gap between the death of NASL and the launch of MLS would have been much shorter (or non-existent).
Stadiums are an insurance policy, keeping a club tied to their market. There simply aren't enough locales willing to put up the money for soccer stadiums to make relocation worthwhile if the club is already occupying an SSS in their current home. It's why FC Dallas isn't going anywhere despite their attendance concerns.
The more clubs playing in stadiums built purposefully for them (even if there's a stage or a deal with a college/high school American football program), the more entrenched MLS becomes in the American sporting culture. The more entrenched the league is, the less chance there will be that clubs will fold completely, the league itself will face failure, or professional soccer will fade away again.
Profits would be nice, and let's hope a few of these teams can figure out how to squeeze money out of their venues, bring more capital into the league, and help increase the quality of the sport in American over time.
But soccer stadiums secure Major League Soccer's roots in the landscape, regardless of whether the fruits of profit appear or the tree to provide them sprouts immediately. That, by itself, makes them crucial.
Some of the few that did show up
Major League Soccer has a problem, and it's the stickiest possible kind. One of the league's original franchises, owned by the family of perhaps the game's most important American benefactor, has become an embarrassment.
The saying goes "Everything's bigger in Texas". Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to apply to the crowds at FC Dallas games in Frisco.
An announced crowd of 8,016, of which perhaps 7,000 were actually in attendance (though these things are admittedly difficult to assess), showed up at Pizza Hut Park on Saturday to watch the Hoops draw 1-1 with the in-state rival Dynamo. That number represents an almost 50% dip from last year's home opener, and only 35% of the capacity of the stadium. Any way you cut it, those numbers are disgusting, disappointing, and ultimately, troubling.
Of the eight clubs that opened at home this weekend, only two saw a drop from their 2009 home opener attendance (Columbus and FC Dallas). Both happen to be owned by the Hunts Sports Group, currently controlled by Clark Hunt, son of the late American soccer pioneer Lamar. What conclusion can be drawn other than that HSG itself is the problem?
Major League Soccer has a lot going for it. New stadiums, new teams, labor peace, and a World Cup year to leverage for more attention. Perhaps the league's leadership is content to allow HSG to fail miserably at the gate in Dallas because of those positives; or perhaps it's a simple matter of deferring to the legacy of the Hunts in the sport, no matter how poorly they're performing. The club does do okay on the bottom line, after all, but only because soccer is just one of their revenue streams. For HSG, Pizza Hut Park is as much a concert venue as it is a soccer stadium. With so many teams in the red, are the league's hands tied when it comes to forcing things to change in Frisco?
The excuse in Dallas is location. The club took the only deal offered and put their stadium too far removed from the region's population center and its Hispanic communities; after falling flat and alienating their fan base in previous years, the club was forced to find a way to attract people to a stadium in the middle of no where (figuratively speaking, of course). Pizza Hut Park opened in August of 2005; in the four full seasons since, the club has averaged 15k, 15k, 13k, and less than 10k last year (excuse the rounding). With more time to market the club, educate the fans about where they play, and make inroads in the community they now inhabit, how is it possible for the club to be going backwards?
Last year FC Dallas started terribly and used a late-season push to get themselves in playoff contention. Winning is always a draw, and it's possible that the fans stayed away because the team was poor to start the year. That conclusion might be reasonable if the ownership of the club didn't have such a poor track record, both in Dallas and Columbus; the Crew are in the midst of a trophy winning streak yet have failed to crack the top half of league attendance the last two seasons. Dallas' problems on the field combined with Pizza Hut Park's location is a double whammy; but even bad teams and those playing in massive American football stadiums far from their natural base can draw more than 10k.
Regardless of why it's happening, it seems obvious that something needs to be done. Lamar Hunt has passed, and his legacy as an architect of professional soccer in America will no doubt live forever. There is no more debt owed. HSG and Clark Hunt cannot be afforded a free pass simply because Lamar's contributions loom so large.
MLS makes so many of its decisions based on the business of running the league that one wonders if they're simply willing to eat failure in Dallas because the club doesn't lose money. That may be fine for the bottom line, but it does a disservice to the rest of the league, the image of game as a major sport, and the future of professional soccer in north Texas. The worse it gets for FC Dallas in the stands, the more we must wonder why Major League Soccer stands idly by and lets it happen.
New episode is now available vis the American Soccer Show website and iTunes.
Zach and I cover the first week in MLS, Charlie Davies' progress, attendance issues, refereeing, Peter Nowak's comments, and more.
You can also download it, subscribe in iTunes (and leave a rating and review, if you please), or get the regular old RSS feed.
People inclined to statistics, which I am not, will tell you that sample size matters. A large number of events is always better than the alternative, and little can be gleaned from one or two events.
Of course, when it comes to soccer, that rule is of little comfort or consequence, depending on the results, to passionate fans.
For the winners, things are bright. The Wizards look like world-beaters, a dangerous attacking team that can challenge the favorites in the East if they play similarly all year, and their fans must be bursting. New York got their first win in their new home out of the way, and no doubt their fans are brimming with optimism thanks what appears to be a much more organized and disciplined team. Colorado actually won on the road, and likely has their fans already dreaming of playoff glory.
For fans of Seattle, Columbus, and LA, this week's win was the first step down the trail they've presumably plotted to the MLS Cup Final.
The losers are bumming hard, particularly in DC, Chicago, and Toronto. There is consolation to be had in the fact that the losses came away from home, but none can be happy with their performances. Perhaps only Chicago fans can take any real positives out of their defeat, while the DC faithful are already in full hand-wringing mode.
The balanced scheduled and additional team, meaning that only half the clubs in the league will make the playoffs, ratchets up the importance of each and every game. With that knowledge comes less patience and more angst if a club has a bad start or shows poorly in their opener.
But MLS is a league of parity, and parity means that one game isn't necessarily a good indicator of a team's quality. Maybe United just had a bad night. The Fire were almost as unlucky as New York was good, and Toronto went into Columbus undermanned.
So relax everyone. Even you Galaxy, Sounders, and Columbus fans might want to put your wins in perspective; LA beat a team missing their best player, Seattle beat an extremely young expansion team, and Columbus beat a Toronto club that seems to think the season actually starts on April 10th. Points are points, of course, but it's a long season, and we won't really know who's good and who's not for at least a month. Maybe more.
The First Kick performance is just one brick in a thirty-brick wall that will be built over the course of the season.
It's curious, then, that Kansas City jumped from last in the Examiner's pre-season power rankings to first after one match. One very good match, to be sure, but one match nonetheless.
In an effort to cover the week of play in Major League Soccer, I'm introducing new feature called "The One Thing". These won't be match reports or recaps but will instead grab the most glaring (to me at least) story or element from the game. Keep in mind that each match's "The One Thing" is dependent on how much of it I'm able to see, and in those cases where I wasn't able to catch any of the action, I'll be focusing on the one moment, player, or decision that influenced the match the most (read: highlights).
If you're looking for a more comprehensive match report, I'll link to one in each capsule.
Here we go with an eventful First Kick weekend, which brought quality goals, dominant teams, and a few surprises.
Seattle Sounders 2, Philadelphia Union 0
Recap - AP via Fox Soccer
The One Thing: Union rough play
It would be nearly impossible to make anything else the focus for this game. The Union came out, with all of their youth and inexperience on full display, and tried to bully Seattle. That's not to say that the Sounders weren't guilty of their own moments of roughness, but Nowak's side was beyond the pale. And then Nowak goes and complains, calling Freddie Ljungberg "dishonest"? I'm no fan of Freddie's penchant for simulation, but Nowak's off his rocker here. Seattle looks good, though it's tough to tell how good they actually are until their tested by a more cohesive team that isn't suffering from debut jitters.
Chivas USA 0, Colorado Rapids 1
Recap - Goal.com
The One Thing: Maybe Wynne's a centerback
Yes, Omar Cummings is good, and yes his goal should probably be the one thing; but Marvell Wynne's steadiness in central defense on Friday night was somewhat surprising, and has me wondering if we'll see the speedster there all year long. Wynne had just joined the Rapids after his trade from Toronto, played in the center due to injury, and looked like he belonged there. It's completely counter-intuitive to put such a speedy player anywhere but fullback, but perhaps Wynne's instincts and inability to cross actually make him more effective elsewhere. TFC tried him in other spots in 2009, and never found the right fit; with Preki dumping him and Smith stumbling into a good performance from Wynne in the center, maybe its finally time for Marvell to solidify himself.
FC Dallas 1, Houston Dynamo 1
Recap: Zach Woosley for Goal.com
The One Thing: Atiba Harris
Just a well taken goal. Harris had way too much space at the top of the box, but the finish was fantastic nonetheless. FC Dallas is an enigma, a team with speed and talent in many spots coming off one of the most uneven seasons in recent memory. If Houston is to be their usual selves despite the loss of Clark and Holden, they'll need to hold on to leads. Credit Harris for getting his shot and curling it nicely to the far post, and FC Dallas for stealing a point in front of a terrible home crowd.
Columbus Crew 2, Toronto FC 0
Recap: AP via Google News
The One Thing: Schelotto's Crew
If GBS goes down with injury for any meaningful length of time this season, the Crew's chances for a top seed in the East might be done. But for now, Schelotto is what makes Columbus go, and Saturday against Toronto was no different. My ability to see this match was hampered by struggles with a certain online streaming service (ahem), but I saw enough to glean that as good as Columbus is, they'd be much different without their Argentine star. Columbus wasn't great, and Toronto is obviously still unsettled (not even having a full compliment of players at the moment) but the better team carried the day.
New York Red Bulls 1, Chicago Fire 0
Recap: ESPN Soccernet
The One Thing: Joel Lindpere
New York's Estonian signing alone makes the Red Bulls a much better team than they were in 2009. With Juan Pablo Angel struggling to impact the game, Lindpere took it upon himself to provide the offense in the regular season debut of Red Bull Arena. It's too early to label Lindpere an impact newcomer, but I'm going to do it anyway; I'm also going to do as far as to say he could be a surprise MVP candidate by the end of the season. His influence is notable both on offense and defense, and combined with a great home environment, should help New York turn around their fortunes.
Kansas City Wizards 4, DC United 0
Recap: Steve Goff at the Washington Post
The One Thing: Wizards In-sync
What was that? United made Kansas City look like an All-Star team, and suddenly I'm worried I've massively underrated the Wizards. Ryan Smith (injury report pending) appears to be a great pick up, Kei Kamara looked dangerous all night, and the Wizards defense shut down DC. It's impossible to know how much of that was United being poorly prepared and how much was Kansas City's talent, but for one night the Wizards looked like East contenders. Their passing was crisp and on target all over the field, they created chances, and finished three. The Jewsbury penalty was simply the icing on the cake for KC and the salt in the wound for DC.
San Jose Earthquakes 0, Real Salt Lake 3
The One Thing: Javier Morales
Wow. Two goal of the year candidates right off the bat for Morales, a player who can carry RSL all by himself when he wants to. The Quakes are poor, and there was no reason to believe they would give the champs a serious test in the opener; but the emphatic way the Utahans won the game, and the quality shown by Morales, bodes well for a good start in Sandy. The first goal was particularly jaw-dropping. I think I'll go watch it a few more times.
Los Angeles Galaxy 1, New England Revolution 0
Recap: AP via the Boston Globe
The One Thing: Donovan's Impact
Though he failed to dominate the game, its clear that Landon Donovan heads into the MLS campaign a very confident player. His class was on display at several points against New England, and thought he'll need to adjust back to to teammates who might not always be where they should, he alone can push LA's offense. The Galaxy methodically beat a Shalrie Joseph-less Revolution that they honestly should have thumped by three or more; but the defense was solid, Donovan provided the perfect service that led to Buddle's game-winner, and the Galaxy showed why they are one of the Western Conference favorites.
If you're not rooting for Charlie Davies to make his US National Team comeback in South Africa this summer, you're either English, Algerian, Slovenian, or you simply don't have a soul.
Charlie's story has been amazing, and he hasn't even yet returned to the field. He is in the stretch run to a post-accident debut for Sochaux, though, and the most recent news is encouraging. CD9 is back in training, talking about things like "shooting" and "finishing" and giving us all the belief that he can be back and a contributor again by the time the World Cup rolls around (in 75 days for those of you counting). The man's singular focus and determination should be rightly applauded.
In that spirit, I wanted to review Davies' journey to this point in his recovery and rehabilitation with a time line of his comeback. Hopefully I'll be updating this post as the days pass by with news of Charlie's progress to end with his triumphant appearance on the field in South Africa. Included with each entry, in order to provide perspective, is a count of the number of days since the accident, and the number of days until the World Cup opener on June 12th.
Days Until the World Cup: 242
The day of the accident. With the US National Team in Washington for their final Hexagonal qualifier against Costa Rica, news begins to filter out that Davies was involved in an accident on Virgina's George Washington Parkway. Twitter explodes, and when it's finally known that Charlie is in the hospital, the American soccer community scrambles to get updates. Charlie undergoes surgery on multiple injuries, including a lacerated bladder, a fractured femur and a fractured tibia.
Days since the accident: 1
Days until the World Cup: 241
The day of USA-Costa Rica. The pro-US crowd, thanks to online word-of-mouth, coordinates a 9th minute tribute to the fallen striker. Banners line the field, and after Jonathan Bornstein's last-gasp goal gives the Americans a draw (and seals first place in the Hex), the players gather at midfield to honor their friend and teammate. Landon Donovan grabs the banner of US fan Erin Dutka, which includes Charlie's number and the initials of Ashley Roberta, the young woman who died in the crash.
Days since the accident: 28
Days until the World Cup: 214
Davies is released from the hospital. Charlie issues a statement saying that he is anxious to attack rehab. His prognosis is reported as favorable, though little is made of his World Cup chances. Washington Hospital Center's director of orthopedic trauma terms is a "long recovery". Most outlets report the time line for rehab at 6-12 months, without mention of an actual return to competitive soccer.
Days since the accident: 46
Days until the World Cup: 196
Davies rehabs in Delaware. Alongside fellow injured Yank Oguchi Onyewu, Charlie works with USMNT trainer Jim Hashimoto. His progress is described as "fantastic".
Days since the accident: 48
Days until the World Cup: 194
Davies appears on ESPN (full audio from ESPN Radio). Jeremy Schaap interviews Davies, who speaks about the personal changes he's gone through since the accident, and states firmly that he will be back for the World Cup.
Days since the accident: 86
Days until the World Cup: 156
Davies visits US National Team camp in LA and is walking on his own.
Days since the accident: 112
Days until the World Cup: 130
Ives Galarcep profiles Davies for ESPN Soccernet. The striker says getting back for the World Cup will be "easy" but that he is focused on returning to his club in France.
Days since the accident: 119
Days until the World Cup: 123
Davies has the last surgical procedure of his recovery, an operation to repair his elbow.
Days since the accident: 126
Days until the World Cup: 112
Charlie returns to France to continue his rehab, intent on getting back to training with Sochaux before the end of March.
Days since the accident: 128
Days until the World Cup: 114
Sochaux posts an interview with Davies, which includes a description of the injuries he suffered and his goals for his recovery.
After returning briefly to Sochaux, Davies heads to Capbreton to finish his rehabilitation.
Days since the accident: 148
Days until the World Cup: 94
Davies hits the third week of his Capbreton rehab stay. Still aiming for an April return to the field for Sochaux, he has two weeks to go before returning to the club. His routine includes running, cutting, and agility drills.
Days since the accident: 161
Days until the World Cup: 81
Charlie returns to Sochaux. He's running, and plans three weeks of individual work before joining his teammates in regular training.
Days since the accident: 164
Days until the World Cup: 78
Davies holds a press conference at Sochaux to discuss his recovery. He talks about training with the ball, and hopes to work on shooting, dribbling and finishing shortly. In perhaps the most heartening news to this point, he states that he has no lingering pain from his injuries. He targets the next three weeks as "very important".
Days since the accident: 189
Days until the World Cup: 49
In a French language interview, Sochaux chairman states that Charlie will not play in any Ligue 1 matches this season. The news is a setback for Charlie's World Cup chances; Bob Bradley's only opportunity to evaluate Davies in game conditions will be during the US send off friendlies scheduled for May.
-Turns out the previous entry may not preclude Charlie from playing; after the news broke, further followup indicated that the chairman was stating his opinion and not a overarching decision by the club.
Days since the accident: 193
Days until the World Cup: 45
On Twitter, Charlie Davies announces that he has returned to full training with Sochaux. This news opens the door for a end-of-season appearance or two, and marks a major milestone in his recovery. After just six and a half months after the accident, he is back on the field with his club teammates. The rush to the World Cup truly begins now, with Bob Bradley's preliminary 30-man roster due in just fifteen days (May 11).
Days since the accident: 209
Days until the World Cup: 30
Charlie fails to make the 30-man preliminary roster that was his first hurdle to getting to the World Cup. The comeback for that tournament ends here, though Davie's return to the field for Sochaux next season is almost certain.
Charlie's comeback came up short of his World Cup goal, but the striker finally returned to the field in a competitive environment. Back with Sochaux, Davies played 45 minutes in a mini-tournament pre-season match against Swiss side Neuchâtel Xamax.
MLS could use a few more of these
As Jason Davis commented on yesterday, Don Garber has again been talking about the renewal of the designated player rule and the possibility of adding a second DP slot. I’d like to make a pitch to the Don if he or his people read this: Steal a page from the Aussies.
The A-League has the “Marquee Player” tag that is similar to MLS’ DP rule. Beginning in the 2008-09, the A-League also implemented the “Junior Marquee Player” rule. This Junior Marquee must be under 23 and $AU 150,000 of his salary doesn’t count against the cap. I would structure things a little differently, namely, I’d bump the age up to under 25 and have only the first $150,000 count against the cap. Because of the US college system, there is a smaller pool of U-23 players in MLS than in the A-League. Also the Generation Adidas program, fills some of that gap at the youngest end of the spectrum.
There are multiple reasons that I think this would be a better move than adding another DP slot, starting with the limitations of the current DP rule. Because of the size of the contracts necessary to invoke the DP rule, the players brought in under this rule will be older, established players that can be used for soccer and marketing purposes. When players like Schelotto, Joseph, Twellman, and De Rosario do not need to be DPs to be in the salary confines of the league, then a decent amount of high level talent can be bought without using the slot. Loading up on players at this pay level is impossible given the cap, but fielding a player of this caliber and a DP is already a possibility. For instance, Columbus’ movement of Schelotto out of the slot still makes me suspect that they will be one of those teams looking to grab a player after the World Cup.
The second limitation of the current DP rule is one of supply. Currently there are 16 DP slots, with that number rising to 18 or 19 next year. There are currently 5 DPs in MLS. Even if that number doubles this summer with teams like New York, Philly, Columbus, DC, and Chicago positioned to grab DPs this summer, at some point the pool of players worth the DP tag and willing to come to MLS starts to get shallow. While that number is likely more than the mid-teens, is it really anywhere near the almost 40 slots that would exist by giving every team a second slot?
A DP slot oriented to younger players counting $150,000 against the cap for a player like Davies, Altidore, Holden, Edu, Bradley, or Adu would certainly have made it easier for MLS to have attracted or kept these players for a few more years. The combinations of DPs and junior DPs in MLS leads to awesome potential tandems. Charlie Davies receiving through balls from Ljungberg, Altidore on the end of Beckham crosses, Adu learning from Henry.
Outside of attracting and retaining US nationals, a junior DP slot would incentivize clubs to go find and then retain the next Fredy Montero. While his base salary was $155,000 last year and not substantially over the limit that I’ve put forward, there are other young attackers in South and Central America and Africa that MLS could compete against European teams for with this structure. Also, a player like Montero could be brought in under normal rules for a year and then offered an increase using the junior DP slot if his performance warranted it.
While theoretically tradable, DP slots have rarely changed hands. The reason for this illiquid market is obvious, it’s difficult to imagine getting a DP slot back. While not every team wants to drop $700,000 on an impact player even if only $400,000 counts against the cap, few want to give away the ability to do it in the future. Paying $250,000 for a developing 23 year old and only have $150,000 count against the cap may be more enticing for some clubs. It’s not that hard to imagine a team like Dallas trade its DP slot to a team like LA in return for a package including LA’s junior DP slot. Also, as MLS continues to expand its commodity list to include reentry draft picks, more creative trades should be expected and a different type of DP would be another bargaining chip to get deals done.
The flexibility offered by having junior DP slots gives MLS clubs another way to build their teams. More flexibility means more personality in a league where clubs can have a generic feel. Incentivizing keeping American talent and scouting better young foreign talent would mean more in long term league growth than the ability to have 40 high paid players nearing the end of their careers. Finally, a move like this would fill a void for super-talented Americans in MLS: sign as Generation Adidas, graduate from GA and sign a junior DP contract, turn 25 and become a full DP. Currently that middle piece is missing which makes it hard for MLS to retain them. For all of these reason, if MLS expands it DP rules, it should seriously consider following in the footsteps of the Australians.
In the wake of his new club's loss in Seattle, Peter Nowak cried foul over the "diving" of the Sounders, identifying Freddie Ljungberg as the biggest culprit. The Union were rough, got burned because of it, and were forced to play a man down for more than half the match. Nowak's words come off as whining, even if there is an element of truth to his assessment that Ljungberg and certain other Sounders dive on occasion.
Because of the reputation of those Sounders, referee Ricardo Salazar was in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation; call the game tightly and by the rules (as he did, for the most part), and he's castigated for handing out too many cards or unnecessarily influencing the game. Let more of the Union tactics go, and he'd be called to the carpet for allowing rough play, a characteristic of MLS bemoaned by many of the same fans who criticize the referees for "over officiating" or "losing control of the game".
Pick one, please. And yes, I realize that the plight of the referee is a difficult one, that it's not only MLS were they are harshly criticized no matter their what they do, and that much of the anger directed towards them is due to club loyalty. But there's a hypocrisy on that part of some fans that needs to be identified.
Do you want an open league where passing is actually possible, players aren't hacked down on a regular basis, and the game is more pleasing to the eye? Or do you want the physical, less skillful game that exists now where players too often make illegal challenges simply because the referees fail to penalize for it?
I'm not going to go to the wall for Ricardo Salazar, but I find little reason to criticize his performance last night. Nowak made excuses, something I can empathize with even as I wonder what kind of message it sends to his young team; but Major League Soccer needs an adjustment to the way the game is called, and whether or not Ljungberg and other Sounders dived does not mean that the Union were not guilty of card-able offenses.
Instead of lashing out at referees who may have had poor matches in the past, perhaps fans should applaud Salazar for calling the game as it needed to be and setting a tone for the season. The transition from a loosely-officiated league where overly-physical play is rewarded to one in which players are cautioned for fouls that were previously not called won't be pretty. While the players adjust, there will be ugly matches with an abundance of cards and the (perhaps more than occasional) sending off. If you want better soccer, you must be prepared to take a long view and deal with the repercussions of a fundamental change.
I don't know that the game Salazar called last night is indicative of a directive by MLS or US Soccer. I can't recall any announcements being made on the issue, though it's possible I missed it during the CBA mess. But if the season moves forward and Salazar and his colleagues call tighter matches that end with less than twenty-two players on the field, I hope fans (maybe just those not too blinded by club loyalty) can recognize the end result over time should be a better overall product. If you want to criticize, criticize those players who fail to recognize that there are things they just can't get away with anymore.
As difficult as it is to say, I have a small hope that 2010 sees the most cards in the history of the league because that will indicate to me that something is changing. It's time for Major League Soccer to become less about what players can get away with and more about who plays the best soccer.
Feel free to call me out if you think I've used too general a brush when it comes to fan assessment of the referees; but I know several people guilty of talking out of both sides of their mouths on the issue.
We'll have more evidence after tomorrow's matches to determine if something is changing, or if this will be the same old MLS. If it's ugly, in a way that sees cautions and dismissals in numbers, keep in mind what it might mean.
You can add the Philadelphia Union and its fans to the long list of people who aren't too fond of the Seattle Sounders, and it's not because Sigi's boys beat the newest MLS team convincingly and by a 2-0 scoreline in Major League Soccer's 2010 debut last night.
The defeat, I suspect, they can handle. They are an expansion side after all, and a young one at that; no, the Union will find their reason to despise the Sounders in the post-game comments made by Philadelphia manager Peter Nowak.
"We got to see all this flopping and diving and when you see the stats we have eight fouls and six cards that is too much. There is guys rolling around on the pitch like they got shot. I think we need to recognize there are guys doing this stuff and trying to take advantage of the referee decisions."
Stern words from the MLS veteran player and manager, words that ring true for many around the country decry the actions of certain Sounders players on a regular basis. Though the Union got pushed forward against the Sounders and threatened to make a game of it on a few occasions, Toni Stahl's second booking and resulting ejection in the 40th minute simply handicapped them too much.
The Union collected six cards on the night, the Sounders one. Though the line between a dive and a legitimate foul is often imperceptible, there is room to question; Nowak took that room and made the most of it.
"I expect someone like Freddie Ljungberg who has scored so many goals and played hundreds of games with the national team and won so many trophies would be more honest than he is. He is complaining and whining about missing a goal and trying to push the referee for a yellow card is not up to his standards. I believe and we both played the game and I believe when you play the game you not only try to win but try to be honest with your effort. I think it is below his standards."
MLS refereeing already takes its fair share of criticism, and the opinion of Nowak with a rabid new fan base behind him won't help matters. Make no mistake, the Union were physical, perhaps by strategy, and likely because they knew they would have trouble keeping up with the likes of Freddie Montero and Steve Zakuani; but when a manager chooses to call out players individually for dishonesty on the field, it's going to reverberate.
Union fans were likely to hate almost everyone, mostly because they're from Philly. It's what they do, and it's probably a good thing; the more heat for MLS the better, real, contrived, or otherwise. New York will be at the top of the list purely due to geography, but that doesn't mean Philadelphia's support will hold back in their disdain for others. Seattle, by merit of their win over the Union in the expansion team's debut, the comments of Nowak, and the perception thats pervades about their fans, might take an immediate step into the first tier of Union rivals. Like DC United fans, Philadelphia might not be able to help themselves.
On the field, the Union have a lot of work to do. The team, as mentioned, is extremely young. Nowak's tactics will develop as he learns more about his team, and his players will get better with experience. Though Nowak certainly knows these things, that doesn't mean he won't call things as he sees them. Seattle deserved to win last night, and were clearly the better team. It's just that, well, Peter thinks they weren't exactly honest.
Even as Union fans look forward to their club's next match on the schedule, I'm sure they've already circled June 27th, when the Sounders head to Philadelphia for the return date.
When David Beckham went down with his unfortunate achilles tendon injury a few weeks back, I wrote that the loss of their English superstar increased the league's imperative to sign a new star. That logic was based solely on the prospect of a Beckham-less MLS, one that would want for mainstream attention in the US and a higher level of interest from abroad.
Some of the loss of Beckham will be mitigated by a new found fan respect for Landon Donovan, however, because the American star finally proved himself in Europe. But no matter how much Donovan has raised his stock, he can never be the star Beckham, Henry, Raul, or Shevchenko are, or bring the soccer credibility to the league that they would.
So the imperative remains. And if Don Garber's recent statements are any indicator, the league appears ready to make a push to bring in more top-level talent this season. Garber intimated that the Designated Player rule is up for review, and changes could be in the offing that would increase the DP slots for each team. Though only a handful utilize theirs now, an extra superstar would certainly be handy for teams like LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Toronto, and Seattle. New York's link to Thierry Henry was renewed again today courtesy of The Telegraph, and if the Red Bulls are intent on making a large splash in their market with their new arena as the linchpin, a second (and possibly third) big name would go a long way.
There's also belief that a new DP slot will be added that is roster and salary cap-exempt; this would free up clubs who are currently hesitant to bring in a big name player to do so without hamstringing themselves elsewhere.
If MLS clubs are going to dip their toes into the high-priced waters this summer, it will be due in part to leveraging the World Cup; post-tournament signings can either be name players American fans will have seen play in South Africa, or big names who missed out but are still bright stars in the football world. American soccer fans coming out of the World Cup will be more likely give MLS a chance if they might see a Henry, Trezequet, or Shevchenko on the field at their local park.
Perhaps the imperative, then, isn't just to sign Thierry Henry or a player of his ilk to replace Beckham, but to to bring in a larger wave of players in the mold of Freddie Ljungberg to do the job. Spreading money around to several stars should create a larger marketing impact on the established soccer community in the United States, even as it fails to have the pop culture impact that Beckham did. If the league is serious about going after soccer fans in this country who don't currently follow MLS, then it's a strategy that makes sense.
It's going to be an interesting summer, both because the American performance at the World Cup could raise soccer's profile dramatically at a time when MLS is better prepared take advantage once the tournament is over, and because MLS appears ready to spend money (even if it's not in the way some people would like) to raise its profile and become more attractive.
Here we go. First kick is here, and I'm beyond ready. I'm so ready, in fact, that I completely forgot that NCCA basketball tournament Sweet 16 games start tonight, going directly up against the Sounders-Union showdown in Seattle.
I know what I'll be watching, and I know a small and dedicated MLS fan base will forsake the basketball games for the soccer match; but I doubt that will be the case for most casual sports fans, and even some soccer die hards will struggle to switch from CBS and the Sweet 16 to ESPN2 and MLS at 9:30 ET.
So is it just a matter of poor planning on the part of Major League Soccer, or are they snake-bitten when it comes to going up against higher-profile sporting events?
I tend to put it in the latter category, especially since MLS is beholden to ESPN for their season debut. It's likely Bristol that presents the league with dates to kick off the season, and I have trouble believe Garber and co. would choose to battle college basketball unless they had no choice.
MLS has refocused their energies on the passionate soccer fan, a smart move in an country where snagging casual general sports fans was always going to be extremely difficult. Because of that, perhaps the thinking is that the head-to-head with the NCAAs is of little consequence, because their core audience will watch First Kick and any causal interest would be minimal and outside of their target anyway.
And yes, I realize that's a weak rationalization. Just thinking this through.
Would tonight's match do better without the competition? Possibly, though I don't think it's a slam dunk (pardon the metaphor), and might make little difference in the final rating anyway. We've learned that MLS matches just don't do that well, no matter the night of the week they're on (though there was a small bump last season when ESPN moved their broadcasts around rather than locked them into Thursdays), or the programming they are up against. The league and the network need to find a way to attract American soccer fans who haven't previously given any of their time to MLS before they worry about the lack of casual sports fans who might wander by and stick with the game.
But for those of us interested in both events, it does present a bit of a problem. I'll be watching Seattle-Philly because I've committed so much of my time and energy to the product and I'll take much more from the start of a new MLS season from a stadium with 35k fans than I will a third round tournament game for a sport I only follow in March.
There might not be that many like me, though.
Do you have any issues with First Kick going up against the NCAAs?
Finally, Major League Soccer returns tomorrow night in Seattle, with a full slate of matches to follow this weekend. I'm buzzing with excitement, and plan to take in every possible minute of action I can manage (provide MLS gets their act together on their Match Center streaming video service).
But outside of the actual play on the field, who's good, who's not, which new players make a difference for their clubs, and which head coaches seem to have a grasp on their teams early in the year, I'll be paying attention to something else: attendance.
Opening weekend should be an attendance winner. Clubs have had all off-season to pump awareness of their product into their communities, and though this year's CBA melodrama may have hampered some efforts, a properly marketed club should have no problem getting a sellout or close to it.
A big average number would be nice, but I'm much more interested in how the games do in terms of percent of capacity; with two tiny stadiums in the mix and Seattle on the other end, that's the truer indication of success.
We know Seattle will have in excess of 30k, selling out the seats they make available in the 60k+ capacity Qwest Field. New York will sellout for their opener in their brand new arena against Chicago. Kansas City should have no problem filling their tiny stadium, with just over 10k in attendance, and I would hope San Jose can do the same. If we're being optimistic, that's four clubs with one hundred percent capacity.
After that, there are some questions.
Columbus, despite the quality of their team, continues to come up short at the gate. Last year's opener drew just over 14k in a 20k capacity stadium (70%). That's not terrible, but keep in mind that none of the TFC supporters groups are organizing away support for the match. How will that affect things? I'm not sure, but I don't know that there's any indication that Crew fans will make up the difference. That's disheartening considering that Columbus will once again be contenders for the title this season.
Both LA and Chivas did better than the Crew in terms of raw numbers for their '09 openers, but each came up short of the percentage of seats Columbus filled. Will they do better this year? I'm not sure there's any way to tell, though Donovan's return as a conquering hero from England might help LA.
That brings us, unfortunately, to FC Dallas. Pizza Hut Park is a beautiful place to watch a soccer match that is simply too far removed from the population center of the area. Dallas drew 15k for their opener in 2008, their best crowd of the season (throwing out a Cotton Bowl crowd for a doubleheader that included Mexico); from the rumblings out of Texas (rumors, to be clear), it sounds like they'll be supremely lucky to get half of that on Saturday, despite a weather forecast of 76 degrees and partly sunny. If FCD does draw as poorly as some think they will, they'll have moved beyond a simple concern to a major problem; no club with a consistent history in a market and soccer-specific stadium should come up short of 10k in their first match of the season, when record has no bearing.
I'm sure you don't need me to point out the common element shared by Columbus and FC Dallas, two teams that struggle to draw consistent crowds despite built-in advantages. Pizza Hut Park's suburban location doesn't fully excuse FC Dallas' issues, while any club with the success of Columbus over the past few seasons should simply do better in the stands. After each of their openers I'll be particularly curious to see how many fans showed up.
Attendance on opening weekend is guaranteed to be better this season than last for the simple reason that there's one more match on the schedule. But the more interesting measure of how much MLS was affected by the CBA uncertainty will be seen in Columbus, LA, and Dallas, where there is no buzz over a new stadium (New York), track record of massive sellouts in an expansion market (Seattle), or tiny stadium that obscures the real level of attention on the local team (Kansas City and San Jose).
For reference, here's 2009's opening weekend attendance from MLS Daily.
Keep United in DC march, May 2009
Pinning down just where Major League Soccer and DC United's ownership is on the frustration scale when it comes to finding a stadium deal for the club has always been difficult. Though the team (through team president Kevin Payne) continues to say they are exploring options in the DC Metro, there have been few specifics and almost no reason for hope.
And there's your problem.
The DC United fan base cannot be comfortable. RFK has been a serviceable home for the team, in part because United's supporters have made it so through their own efforts, but character doesn't pay the bills; Will Chang bought out Victor MacFarlane's share of the operating rights, seems committed to the club and the fans, but cannot expect to eat the cost of running the club with no return forever. This isn't about United being just a little in the red, it's about millions of dollars going out the door because RFK is such a drain on the bottom line.
Chang wants new investors for United, and would likely have little trouble finding them if a new stadium was on the horizon. But without a deal, one has to wonder how hard it will be to find funds, money that might be necessary to bolster the teams ability to contribute to stadium costs. Chang has made it clear he's open to a functional stadium without the mixed-use developmental aspects that seemed to drive MacFarlane; that would require significant investment (see Houston's 75/25 split on their deal), something Chang's position probably doesn't allow.
Garber sounded clearly frustrated in yesterday's conference call. He ripped local government for "backslaps and faux press conferences" and identified their inability to "get out of their own way". He stopped short of commenting on relocating the club, though he's already on record about the possibility. While Kevin Payne continues to evade any real discussion of who the organization is talking to, United fans twist in the wind; how can you give yourself full to a club when they may not be here in a few years?
Even worse that Baltimore appears serious about making a run at luring away United. Perhaps Payne is avoiding specifics because the only locality serious about a stadium is 40 miles up I-95; if that gets out, the fan reaction would be devastating.
The one thing we can count on is that United staying put as long as there's no ready-made deal in Baltimore or elsewhere. The league isn't going to go through the Houston experience again, but with Baltimore studying the prospect of a building a soccer stadium, they're already well ahead of the game. The timeline is getting shorter with every passing month, and though United has assured fans that something would be happening in 2010, it's not good that the future will be more of the focus, again, than the present. Sure, United's passionate support want to see the team back in the playoffs and playing good soccer; but they also want to hear that they're not showing up and cheering for a lost cause.
No one wants to be be backing the lame duck.
Is United definitely headed for Baltimore? I don't know, but I think the possibility is very real and much closer to happening than most would like to think. Still, there's much that needs to happen in Charm City for United's relocation to make any sense, and there's always a chance the club can convince a suburban locality to go in on a facility; but we've heard nothing since the Prince George's County deal fell through, and with legitimate business questions surrounding the wisdom of going too far from the city center, one wonders if the lesser of two evils for Chang and United isn't to head north.
DC Area Counties - with Loudoun misspelled (I didn't make the map)
I don't know where the breaking point is for the club or the league, but Garber's comments lead me to believe that it's just around the corner in relative terms. United's relocation won't be taken lightly, even if it is only to Baltimore. But DC's history with the team only means so much for a league that cannot afford to have one of its leading lights historically withering on the financial vine because of a dilapidated stadium and no area prospects.
I'm crossing my fingers and toes that there's a super-secret deal in the works, that United is destined to land in a DMV locale not too far from their fan base, and the it will be 2010 when the news finally gets good.
There's a big market for former Arsenal youth players. Players like Seb Larsson, Fabrice Muamba, Steve Sidwell, and Matthew Upson have all managed to carve out Premiership careers after leaving the Gunners, and others like John Spicer, Anthony Stokes, and the USA's own Frank Simek have settled nicely at lower levels. And the money's not bad, either. An average League One player in his early-to-mid twenties earns in excess of $100,000 a year, and one with the cachet of a big-name youth system on his resume will squeeze even more out of a prospective club.
So why would an Arsenal youth product, one made his first-team debut at just 16, and who Arsene Wenger himself was confident of being a "big success," move over four thousand miles away, away from his friends, family, and most of the footballing world he's been apart of since he was a child, for what is likely going to be a pay cut, in an early stage of his career? It seems absurd at best, career suicide at worst.
This is the case of Ryan Smith. Last seen with Crystal Palace, the former Derby County, Millwall, and Southampton man is just 23, and a well-known youngish player of upper League One/lower Championship quality. Although beset by unlucky injuries at early stages in his career, he should be setting himself up for a career similar to that of Nottingham Forest's Nathan Tyson or Scunthorpe's Ben May. Instead, he's just signed for Kansas City. With no disrespect to either of KC's fans, Kansas might as well be Siberia, as far as mainstream English Football is concerned. It could turn out to be a smart deal for the Wizards, but one wonders what Smith is getting out of it.
An interesting thought creeps into the mind when one fact is taken into account. Ryan Smith's father is American. This means Ryan Smith can easily get American citizenship, if he doesn't have it already. This means that Ryan Smith could theoretically play for the USMNT.
Suddenly, this murky, confusing situation becomes a bit clearer. Championship and League One players don't play for England. MLS players, bar Davey Becks, aren't likely to get considered for the Three Lions either, no matter how well they perform in the US. But you know what country DOES tend to fill out its roster with MLS-based players? The US. And, by this lucky coincidence, Ryan Smith just happens to be an "American," who finds himself at an MLS club two and a half months before the World Cup.
It's an interesting proposition for the US. The US player pool, especially in attack, isn't so strong that we can afford to turn our noses up at someone for being a johnny-come-lately mercenary foreigner, especially one with a rock-solid pedigree and buckets of upside. Now, unless he's an amazing revelation in MLS, or there are an unimaginably huge number of injuries, he's probably out of the running for South Africa (although seeing Fleet Street explode over an Englishman playing for the Yanks against England would be absolutely priceless), but he'll only be 27 by the time Brazil 2014 rolls around. Any young American striker playing well in MLS is likely to get a look or two with the National team (see: Rolfe, Chris; Jaqua, Nate; Findley, Robbie), and come the next round of World Cup qualifying, don't be surprised if Smith is mentioned as a potential option.
Maryland fans at their finest (photo credit Gazette.net)
Guest Post by Tim Staub
Last week Real Salt Lake (per BYU Student Paper and Footiebusiness.com) launched a student punch card program. This program allows the students of BYU, Utah and Utah Valley to buy a punch card that will let them in for all 15 games for around $75 ($5/game). Multiple students can also use the punch card as long as they have an ID and the card. As Daniel Ng of the Universe put it, it’s a money saving deal of a lifetime. Aside from the financial aspect, the students will be placed with Barra Real, a supporters section on the south end of the field. While not offering playoff tickets (assuming Real continues their title defense), this idea is a great marketing tactic.
Now one should ask, why take a financial hit to get college students? It’s a good question; college students usually live the definition of frugality. College students are also at their last impressionable stages of their lives. It's at this point where most Americans develop their tendencies, relationships, etc. It is this idea that reminds me of my first run in with Major League Soccer, when I attended the first ever NY/NJ MetroStars game. At the time I was seven years old and playing recreational soccer. My father, who loves sports as much, if not more than, I do, decided to take me to the game in the hopes of teaching me about soccer on a higher level. I don’t remember a thing, as I assume many kids of a similar age that attend sporting events don't. Unless there is a reinforced connection with a team, those kids the soccer moms are ushering to the stadiums probably won’t remember they went.
Going after the college student has a potential to be explosive future investment. Campuses already are filled with soccer fans. Pay a visit to a campus on a Champions League day and you will see shirts emblazoned with AIG, Emirates, and Unicef among the crowds. In addition to this, there is always a strong international student presence. This does have a drawback of potential Eurosnobbery; but I have seen first hand, if given a team and put in a supporters section, Eurosnobbery goes by the wayside in support for the MLS side. Once the MLS club has a collegiate fan coming to multiple games and giving their passion to the club, the fan is more likely to return in the future. That future might include children of their own who are reinforced with following their parent's club, and thus a new generation of fanaticism is born. While I'll leave it up to MLS on how and where to market itself, the teams (especially ones like the Crew who are right in a college town) should not miss out what could be a long lasting gold mine that in the impressionable college student.
Tim Staub (tstaub on twitter and blogs, njndirish on BigSoccer) is a Marketing Major at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently working on developing a club for viewing soccer and to support the University’s squads. His website can be found here.
You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If Charlie Davies is to make the US World Cup roster, he'll need to be healthy and in-form by May 11th to have any chance; per FIFA guidelines, that's the date that national team managers must have a preliminary 30-man roster identified*. From that list of 30 will come the 23 players that board the plane to South Africa, a group that must be named on June 1st.
So Charlie's target is pretty clear; make a return for Sochaux, get as many first team minutes as possible, and be worthy of a spot on that 30-man roster. Davies will then have three weeks to become acquainted again with the National Team setup and a full month to get ready for the opening World Cup match against England. Does he have enough time to put himself squarely in that 30 man pool?
Charlie's running, doing ball work, and could return to full first team training shortly. His resolve and commitment are amazing, and if he avoids any setbacks, he should have a chance to be ready by May. If he's not fully reintegrated with Sochaux, however, meaning actual game minutes and signs of a return to form, I do wonder if Bradley will put him on the list; naming him to the 30-man preliminary roster couldn't hurt I suppose, but would Bob really take a player to the World Cup for whom "rust" is just more than a little problem?
So as you track Charlie's progress, keep that May 11th date in mind. Though it shortens the schedule by a full month, remember the Davies would only need to show signs that he could be a full contributor come June rather than be one hundred percent. It's up to Bradley to decide if Davies is close enough to warrant inclusion on May 11th. The question becomes what criteria Bradley will use to decide if Davies should make it to the first phase, with an eye towards being in the final roster come June 1st.
If Davies is in the 30-man roster, I would peg him as a lock for the World Cup version. He's not going to get to that point, able to train with the National Team and perhaps appear in the send off friendlies, only to come up short when Bradley makes seven cuts.
*I have to note that although US Soccer sent out communication that the roster rules are 30-man list due on May 11th and final 23 on June 1st, FIFA's guidelines hosted at their site (.pdf warning) have the initial roster at 35. This either means that US Soccer got it wrong, or that FIFA has changed the rules but not updated their site. I'm going with the latter for now.
Philly v. New York: It started at the SuperDraft
The strength and growth of MLS over the course of the next two seasons will be built solidly upon two geographic pods; with the Northeastern corridor filling up and opening two stadiums, and the Northwest set to come online in full force in 2011, America's soccer identity will come more from rivalry than ever before.
It starts this season, with Red Bull Arena giving hope that New York will have a vibrant stadium atmosphere coupled with the addition of Philadelphia to the league. Philly, in each and every sport, is the city the rest of the Northeast loves to hate. DC United is an immediate natural rival. New York is a step beyond, and the Union-Red Bull clashes in 2010 should be rife with the usual vitriol and aided by a significant away-support element. It will matter little how good either team actually is, and though the matches won't be traditional local derbies, they'll be on par with anything the league has seen to this point.
Red Bull Arena changes things
Philadelphia lives to hate New York, and New York isn't too fond of Philly; like death and taxes it's a certainty, and you can bet that dynamic will manifest itself, perhaps even more explosively (but let's hope not too explosively) in the culture of soccer.
Down the road in DC, the fans are bristling for a shot at the newcomers. United's tradition is a proud one, and though their fortunes have taken a downward turn the last few years, you can bet that La Barra Brava and the other United die-hards are anxious to show the upstarts how it's done. Union-United matches will have almost as much heat as the New York-Philly showdowns, and should swell attendance in the Washington home version. Hundreds (if not more) Sons of Ben in DC to cheer on their boys while the Barra and Screaming Eagles throb with the passionate energy they always bring sounds like a goose bump inducing event if there ever was one. Mark your calendars.
Though DC, Philly, and New York will form a triumvirate of rivalry unmatched until 2011, New England and Toronto will add their own elements to this geographical collection of clubs. The Toronto fans travel, New England is within spitting distance, and the league will benefit from the proximity of two brand new stadiums to passionate fan bases around the region. A confluence of events makes the Northeast, with the potential for New York to take a major step forward in attention in the media capital of the country, a major factor in Major League Soccer's continued development.
United's support set the standard
In 2011, we'll get to see how the Sounders-Timbers rivalry, with the bonus of Vancouver's involvement thrown-in, translates to the bigger stage of MLS. If 2010 proves to be as successful as it can be, then the addition of the Cascadia dynamic will only heighten the excitement, depth of passion, and expanding level of attention the league will have leveraged through the Northeast in 2010.
If MLS is to draw more television viewers to their product, they need full stadiums, loud crowds, and intense, playoff-style atmospheres. No matter the quality of play, a soccer match is always more intriguing on television if it is accompanied by those factors. There's no reason to believe that 2010 won't be a new high-water mark for games of that caliber, with 2011 ready to amplify the gain.
What the hell are they wearing?
Predictions are generally useless. If we held all of the so-called "experts" in any sport to the predictions they make at the beginning of a season, they wouldn't have credibility at all. This is particularly true in Major League Soccer, where parity means you have just as much chance of getting your predictions right as Chad Barrett does of winning the Golden Boot. Essentially nil.
Now watch Barrett go and lead the league this year in goals, just to spite me.
But I digress. Right there on page one of the "Soccer Blogger's Rule Book" is the requirement that we make predictions in whichever league we make our focus. It's rule 1.3 actually, right after "Bloggers must create a list of no real consequence at least every fifth post or be subject to censure and/or fine" and "Any post on an individual player must include the words 'quality' and 'technical' at least once respectively."
So here we go, with 2010 predictions that will ultimately prove egregiously incorrect when the season ends at MLS Cup in November.
1. Columbus Crew
If I was to account for potential injury, I might not have Columbus at the top of the East. Guillermo Barros Schelotto is 37 years old, after all, and I wonder if he'll make it through the entire season. Columbus relies heavily on the Argentine, so if he's goes down for any length of time they'll be in big trouble. Still, there's no reason to doubt them after they won Supporters' Shield last year after an early rough patch.
2. Chicago Fire
The outlook that the Fire will contend is based purely on potential; Collins John is a nice addition, and maybe Marco Pappa is ready to step up, but without Blanco there's reason to believe they could fall short. Keep in mind that the club was maddeningly inconsistent in 2009, and though they missed out on MLS Cup only on penalties, there are no guarantees. Still, there's talent there and I just can't find another team in the East I believe in more.
3. DC United
It's a crap shoot from here on out. United should be better, and if Curt Onalfo can find a consistent first choice lineup, they'll already be better off than they were in 2009. Perkins in goal should help, new talent up top should help (but is it the right talent?) and maybe the old war horse Moreno has one more good year left in him. I'm not saying I'm confident United will be good, but I can't say I rate anyone of the remaining teams in the East above them. With a weak East, though, it still might not be enough to make the playoffs.
4. New York Red Bulls
I'm banking on a stadium bump here, because if any team should see a larger increase in their ability to win games because of atmosphere, it's New York. I've only seen them play once during the pre-season, their win over Santos, and a cursory look shows an improved team over 2009. And that was without Juan Pablo Angel. Again, the Eastern Conference after Columbus amounts to throwing darts, and the Red Bulls would seem to fit in the middle of the pack. Call it a hunch, but I'm guessing New York will be on the verge of the playoffs (but ultimately come up short).
5. Toronto FC
Will Toronto scores goals? Will Toronto keep other teams from scoring goals? Will Mo Johnston last the season if they don't? These are the questions that don't keep me up at night but nonetheless make it difficult to assess Toronto's chances. I will say that I feel much less confident about the club's playoffs hopes than I did in 2009, and we saw how that worked out. This year I'll pick them to finish out of the money, and they'll probably jump up and make the postseason. They have the crowd at BMO, and with a grass field, there shouldn't be excuses about the surface anymore.
6. New England Revolution
Steve Nichol is a damn good coach. The Revs have several very talented players. But over the long haul of a season, that only counts for so much, and I'm finding more reasons the Revolution won't make the playoffs than why they will. Shalrie Joseph and the ten dwarfs will need more than a little luck to be better than also-rans this year.
7. Philadelphia Union
Expansion years are tough, Seattle's ruining of the curve notwithstanding, and Piotr Nowak has a doubly tough task due to a brutal opening schedule. Eight of ten on the road with a young team equals struggles around, and though I'm sure the fans in Philly will stick with their new club no matter what, they might have to weather a rough season. Good thing they'll have the newness of it all (players, stadium, experience) to distract them. I am anxious to see some of the kids the Union have on their squads develop.
8. Kansas City Wizards
"Unsettled" doesn't begin to describe the situation in KC; new full time coach (although he's a holdover and the team's technical director), tons of squad turnover, and a decidedly international flavor to their off-season signings. Conrad and Arnaud are still there, but there's no Hartman or Lopez. What does that mean? Last in the East if you ask me.
Playoff teams: Columbus, Chicago
1. Seattle Sounders
The Sounders made the playoffs in their inaugural MLS season, gave Houston a run in their series (though they couldn't score), bring back all of their most important pieces and will get a summer bump with the acquisition of Blaise N'Kufo. Sigi Schmid clearly knows what he's doing, and as long as Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg don't fall off a cliff with their form, the Sounders should be contenders for the West and Supporters' Shield crown all season.
2. Real Salt Lake
Amazingly enough, I had Real Salt Lake as one of the favorites before the year in 2009, and though they ultimately disappointed during the regular season, my faith in them was rewarded when they made their MLS Cup run. Beckerman, Morales, Findley, and co., should be primed, buoyed by their title, and ready for an large improvement in record. RSL could easily win the West if a few things fall their way.
3. Los Angeles Galaxy
Okay, so they won't get David Beckham back until the end of the season at the very best, and Landon Donovan may be due for a post-World Cup lull at some point; but I don't put the Galaxy here because of their offensive process, but because of their defensive abilities. If Omar Gonzalez can avoid a sophomore slump and Donovan Ricketts is near his 2009 form, LA will again keep teams from scoring and give themselves the chance to win matches tight matches.
4. Chivas USA
No more Preki, but I don't expect anything different out of Chivas. They're a consistent playoff team these days, and 2010 shouldn't be any different. Sacha Kljestan faded in 2009 after his winter transfer fell through, and though I'm no real fan of the midfielder, I'm predicting a bounce-back performance from his this year; especially if he doesn't make the US World Cup roster and decides he has something to prove. Still, just like their stadium-mates the Galaxy, Chivas will rely on a stout defense and the goalkeeping talents of Zach Thornton.
5. Colorado Rapids
Colorado's failure in 2009 came down to road form; they'll have to do much better than two wins and five draws if they hope to get back to the playoffs. Colorado still has Omar Cummings and Conor Casey, one of the best forward tandems in the league, leadership in Pablo Mastroeni, and picked up Jeff Larentowicz in a trade with New England during the off-season. Colorado is a playoff team for me.
6. Houston Dynamo
I'm playing with fire here, I know. Best coach in the league, talented players like Brian Ching, Geoff Cameron, Brad Davis among others, and a passionate fan base that gives them a solid home advantage. But the losses of Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden would seem too much to overcome so quickly, and so I have Houston as a bottom-half team in the Western Conference. Still, they'll contend for the playoffs when it's all said and done thanks to the aforementioned Kinnear and the influence of their returning core of players.
7. FC Dallas
That was a nice run to end the season in '09, wasn't it? Jeff Cunningham was almost unstoppable in winning the Golden Boot, and FCD managed to lead the league in goals when it was all said and done. But they started slow, something which ultimately doomed them, and I see no reason to believe that this year will be any different. Hyndman is a college coach playing at the professional game, and my faith in his ability to push his team to the next level is supremely lacking.
8. San Jose Earthquakes
I like Frank Yallop. He just doesn't have a very good team out in San Jose, and I say this after picking them to make the playoffs in 2009. Ryan Johnson is just about the only player I can get excited about seeing, and that doesn't bode well for a team that finished bottom of the conference last year. Yallop seems to have the backing of Lew Wolff and the organization, but I wonder when patience will finally run out. Not only do I predict the Quakes will finish last again, I'm going to put it out there that Yallop might be the first firing of 2010.
Playoff teams: Seattle, RSL, LA, Chivas, Colorado, Houston
That's right, I've got six teams from the West in the playoffs while only the two automatic qualifiers make it out of the East. Again, call it a hunch.
Supporters' Shield: Seattle Sounders
Eastern Conference Champion: Columbus Crew
Western Conference Champion: Seattle Sounders
MLS Champion: Seattle Sounders
I have almost no faith in any of these picks. Damn parity. Still, what I do know is that the West appears to have a glut of good teams while the East looks extremely weak from after the top two spots.
Rather than tell me where I'm wrong (because trust me, I know there's a lot to argue with here), throw your picks out in the comments. The season starts in 2 (!) days.