Predicting the Major League Soccer champions days before the new season begins is an unenviable task.
Firstly, strict roster restrictions and salary caps guarantee a certain level of parity among the league’s 15 franchises.
Secondly, huge uncertainty exists around which players will be available for the entire campaign—flourishing performances can attract summer transfers to Europe, while American expatriates failing to make the grade abroad or nearing the end of their careers may be making the opposite journey.
Thirdly, MLS does not adjourn for international dates—this is especially relevant in 2009 with ongoing World Cup qualification and the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament taking place, as well as the U.S. team’s participation in June’s Confederations Cup.
Finally, as New York Red Bulls showed last year, anything can happen when it comes to the postseason playoffs.
Columbus Crew suffered three seasons of purgatory before rebounding to the top of the regular season table and lifting the MLS Cup last year. Real Salt Lake fell agonisingly short of appearing in that final, having also turned around three seasons of woe to mount a title challenge.
In this year’s Western Conference, I’m going for seasoned campaigners Houston Dynamo to reclaim their crown with Real Salt Lake as their closest challengers.
In the East, another Conference Final between Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire could be in the cards, but with a different outcome.
Come Nov. 22 at Seattle’s Qwest Field, I’ll take Houston to clinch their third MLS Cup in four seasons over Cuauhtemoc Blanco and his Chicago teammates.
Here is a look at this year’s title contenders, playoff hopefuls, and helpless stragglers.
2008—3rd overall in regular season, lost to Columbus Crew in Eastern Conference final.
Head coach Denis Hamlett retains much of the squad that pushed Columbus all the way to the Eastern Conference title last year.
Cuauhtémoc Blanco, the team’s fiery 36-year-old Mexican captain, may be in the twilight months of his career, but he continues to inspire his teammates—particularly the impressive American forward Chris Rolfe.
Brian McBride, another 36-year-old veteran, adds his experience for a full campaign after arriving midway through last year to notch five goals in 11 games.
Former Manchester United trainee John Thorrington will be a major threat from midfield if he can remain injury-free.
This year could be MLS Cup or bust for Hamlett’s aging stars.
2008—1st overall, MLS Cup Winners
The champions’ title defence kicks off with much the same squad as last year, despite fears that 35-year-old Argentine playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto, last season’s league and MLS Cup Most Valuable Player, may not return.
Schelotto is again supported by the highly-rated young winger Robbie Rogers and Venezuelan striker Alejandro Moreno.
Head coach Sigi Schmid’s defection to Seattle Sounders is a huge loss. Former Everton striker Robert Warzycha, who ended his playing days with Columbus, steps in to fill the void.
The Crew will remain near the Eastern Conference summit, but an expanded schedule with Champions League commitments will severely test their squad.
2008—2nd overall, lost to New York Red Bulls in Western Conference semi-final
The 2006 and 2007 champions were arguably the league’s best team last year, but they were undone by the most congested schedule in the league (participating in the Pan-Pacific Championship, CONCACAF Champions Cup, US Open Cup, Superliga, and CONCACAF Champions League), as well as the eminent fortune of New York’s postseason run.
Star player Dwayne De Rosario returned home to Toronto in the offseason, but his departure presents an opportunity for Aberdeen-born attacking midfielder Stuart Holden to cement his first team place. The Dynamo midfield remains formidable with Brad Davis, Ricardo Clark, Geoff Cameron, and Brian Mullan, all capable of making strong contributions.
Houston’s defence has already been cruelly exposed by Atlante in the Champions League quarterfinal, and the news that Eddie Robinson will likely miss the entire season is a devastating blow. Julius James arrives as part of the De Rosario trade, but he will take time to settle into new surroundings.
Head coach Dominic Kinnear, however, is a master of strengthening his squad in the summer. His team remains serious title contenders. They have the experience and hunger to reclaim the title.
No team finished 2008 with fewer points than the league’s self-appointed flagship franchise, leaving Bruce Arena with a major rebuilding job over the winter.
The former U.S. national team manager has overhauled his defence. Steve Cronin, Ante Jazic, Mike Randolph, Troy Roberts, and Greg Vanney have all been shipped out. Of that calamitous group, only Jazic remains in the league at present (with Chivas USA). Ukrainian Dema Kovalenko comes in from Real Salt Lake to fortify the midfield.
Landon Donovan returns from Bayern Munich to link up Edson Buddle in attack—a lethal partnership that netted 35 times for the league’s most potent offense last year.
Arena will definitely solidify this team and should have them mounting a challenge for the first time since 2005, but as always, the key figure will be Galaxy’s English Tourist, even though he misses the first four months due to more pressing commitments elsewhere.
Since Beckham’s MLS debut in August 2007, the team has accumulated 30 points from 30 games in his presence (33 percent). Galaxy performs markedly better in his absence—23 points from 17 games (45 percent).
Success or failure may hinge on whether Arena continues to hold the reins when Beckham returns from his increasingly mediocre loan to Milan, or whether the club’s management will again be undermined by pop Svengali Simon Fuller.
2008—7th overall, lost to New York Red Bulls in Western Conference final
Jason Kreis’ team were the form side toward the end of last season, with only the width of the Rio Tinto Stadium goal frame preventing them from reaching MLS Cup Final.
Kreis has built a solid squad around core team values—there are no high earners on this roster, but there is quality.
The departures of Dema Kovalenko, Fabian Espindola, and Kenny Deuchar frees up salary cap room should Kreis need to reinforce his squad in the summer.
Look for Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Yura Movsisyan to fire this team back into the playoffs.
2008—5th overall, beaten by Real Salt Lake in Western Conference semi-final
No team has endured greater misfortune with injuries in recent seasons, as exemplified by the signing of Swiss international Raphael Wicky. The former Hamburg midfielder was limited to 138 minutes of action last year before picking up an ankle injury which has subsequently led to his retirement.
Head coach Preki also loses the experience of veteran Mexican defender Claudio Suarez to retirement. Francisco Mendoza, another Mexican, returns south of the border to Chivas de Guadalajara.
With no major signings, much will depend on the health of forwards Ante Razov and Maykel Galindo. After contributing 23 goals between them in 2007, injuries restricted the pair to a combined 22 starts and 6 goals last year.
A question remark hovers over the future of midfielder Sacha Kljestan. The U.S. international trained with Celtic in January and remains on the radar of European clubs. Impressive displays in either the Confederations Cup or Gold Cup could see him depart in the summer.
Expect Chivas to reach the playoffs again, but no more.
The most decorated franchise in MLS history suffered a dreadful campaign in 2008, missing out on the playoffs after two successive years of winning the Supporters’ Shield.
Some pride was restored by lifting the U.S. Open Cup, but head coach Tom Soehn knows that vast improvement in the league is essential to keep the pressure off his shoulders.
Argentine midfielder Christian Gomez returns to the capital after one season with Colorado Rapids. He replaces his countryman Marcelo Gallardo who has returned to River Plate after a disappointing campaign as D.C.’s designated player.
Brazilian striker Luciano Emilio and veteran Bolivian playmaker Jaime Moreno continue to carry the attacking threat.
United will improve this season, but not enough to pose a genuine title threat.
2008—4th overall, lost to Chicago Fire in Eastern Conference semi-final
The Revs were another team who stagnated last year as a result of injuries to key players.
After three successive MLS Cup Final defeats from 2005 to 2007, Steve Nicol’s team exited tamely against Chicago in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal.
Taylor Twellman, one of the league’s top strikers, missed half of last year through injury. His health is vital to New England’s success, especially with his understudy Adam Cristman moving on to Kansas City Wizards.
Shalrie Joseph and Steve Ralston remain as the driving forces in midfield, while much will depend on the continued development of Gambian youngsters Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi.
The loss of defender Michael Parkhurst to Danish Superliga outfit FC Nordsjælland is a significant loss at the back.
Another Conference semifinal exit could be in the cards.
2008—8th overall, lost to Columbus Crew in MLS Cup Final
Mired in mediocrity for the entire 2008 regular season, the Red Bulls somehow summoned the spirit—and generous doses of luck—to reach MLS Cup Final, having overcome both Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake on the road.
Head coach Juan Carlos Osorio is a shrewd tactician with a peripatetic nature on the touchline, but he has been unable to enhance his squad for this year’s challenge.
Greater contributions are essential from skillful Venezuelan playmaker Jorge Rojas, Colombian forward Oscar Echeverry, and Argentine midfielder Juan Pietravallo. The South American trio joined during the 2008 summer transfer window but quickly fell out of favour.
Juan Pablo Angel returns to Giants Stadium despite suffering a series of aggravating back and hamstring injuries, exacerbated by the unforgiving artificial surface.
Dane Richards showed his qualities toward the end of last season. The Jamaican winger needs to be more consistent this time around if the Red Bulls are to enjoy further success.
Last year’s debutants finished bottom by virtue of their inferior head-to-head record against Los Angeles Galaxy—a team they had a better goal-difference than.
The summer acquisition of Englishman Darren Huckerby brought the Quakes from the brink of obscurity to the forefront of the playoff race before flaming out in the final fortnight.
Head coach Frank Yallop has been busy in the offseason. His major acquisition is American international Bobby Convey from Reading. His capture, added to the presence of Huckerby for the full year, should provide enough firepower to see San Jose reach the playoffs.
A good start is essential—San Jose have five of their first seven fixtures at home.
2008 – 9th overall
A dramatic injury time equaliser from Real Salt Lake’s Yura Movsisyan in last season’s final game denied the Rapids a place in last year’s playoffs.
Gary Smith enters his first full year as head coach with largely the same squad of players, although Senegalese goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul and Scottish forward Tam McManus have left after failing to agree new contracts.
Conor Casey and Omar Cummings link well in attack and will again thrive off the service provided by English right-midfielder Terry Cooke, but with a weakened squad, a run at the playoffs may be slightly beyond them this year.
2008 – 11th overall
Dallas spent most of last year in the lower reaches of the Western Conference despite the impressive goalscoring exploits of former Manchester United trainee Kenny Cooper.
The 24-year-old striker notched 18 goals, using his combination of size, strength, two-footedness, and pace to unsettle defenders. A $2 million bid from Cardiff City last July was turned down and Cooper remains in MLS…for now.
First year head coach Schellas Hyndman has acquired Dutch midfielder Dave van den Bergh from New York, but he still needs a quality replacement for Colombian Juan Toja following his move to Steaua Bucharest last August.
Another successful start for Cooper may see him leaving in the summer, ending any hopes Dallas may harbour for reaching the playoffs.
2008—6th overall, lost to Columbus Crew in Eastern Conference semi-final
Curt Onalfo’s side is perhaps the hardest to judge in the entire league.
For a start, the Wizards do not attract the same weight of attention as the league’s more successful franchises or bigger market teams. Secondly, their form last season fluctuated wildly.
Kansas fell to the depths of the Eastern Conference after an excellent start, but then mounted an unlikely resurgence to reach the playoffs—16 points from their last seven games saw them finish sixth overall in the combined standings.
That turnaround came after their designated player Claudio Lopez, the former Valencia and Lazio striker, had been dropped to the bench. The Argentine remains with the club despite his disappointing displays.
Adam Cristman is a good signing from New England Revolution, and captain Jimmy Conrad will guarantee that the side remains spirited. The organisation is more settled off the field this time around, but a lack of quality will prove fatal to their playoff hopes.
The league’s newest team embarks on their inaugural campaign with an impressive ownership group in place, last season’s MLS Cup-winning head coach Sigi Schmid at the helm, and a passionate fan base already snapping up over 20,000 season tickets.
Sadly, Seattle faces the age-old problem for expansion teams—trying to get an entirely new squad of players to gel.
Experienced acquisitions such as Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg will bring stability, while the development of this year’s first draft pick Steve Zakuani will be interesting to watch.
Expect the Sounders to be competitive, but a playoff spot will be slightly beyond them.
2008 – 12th overall
General manager Mo Johnston is renowned for his frequent dalliances in the transfer market. This offseason has been no different.
Returning hometown hero Dwayne De Rosario is by far the club’s biggest capture and a real statement of their ambitions. He is not the only Toronto native returning from Texas as Adrian Serioux moves north from Dallas to bolster the defence.
The Reds feel the effects of international dates more than any other franchise with a core of Canadian internationals at the heart of the side.
Last September, head coach John Carver was forced to field three defenders signed on one-week contracts—including one retired MLS player employed as a scout—in a 3-1 home defeat to Chivas USA.
July’s Gold Cup will not help Carver as he bids to take Toronto to a first play-off appearance.