2011 MLS Season: 11 Outrageous Predictions for the Upcoming Season
One month from today, the 2011 MLS season will kick off.
As hard as it is to believe given its structure, the league is still surviving. The 17th season will begin March 19 with the Seattle Sounders (once again) host the Los Angeles Galaxy. No brainer there. There is nothing better for MLS than showcasing its opening match in front of 40,000 passionate fans with the glitter players of Landon Donovan and David Beckham along with other fan favorites such as Freddy Montero, Kasey Keller and Steve Zakuani.
Some predictions like the one above are easy, but predicting teams' outcomes as well as Cup outcomes come down to figuring out what teams care about what tournaments and just simply drawing names out of a hat.
Alright, it was not that difficult, and this year might be the season with the most disparity in MLS, which actually might be relishing to hardcore fans at least.
New York Cosmos Will Become the 20th MLS Franchise
Can anyone argue against this? Of course not.
With every underlying hint that MLS is keen on a second New York franchise, it's inevitable that the Cosmos will be announced as the 20th MLS club in the coming months, pending the stadium deal, of course.
In the announcement, we can all anticipate Garber saying how the Cosmos will stoke an intense inter-city derby with Red Bull New York, and rant about the importance of rivalries. I look forward to whatever cup name the league calls it. "Empire Derby"? "N.Y. Derby"?
Real Salt Lake Will Win CONCACAF Champions League
There are three days now until the long-waited matchup between Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew. And while every soccer fan across the nation is dismissing Columbus' chances of progressing, they have their right to do so.
Dismantled with the loss of several key cogs, the Crew are poised for a painfully mediocre campaign of rebuilding. Doubt that means a last-place finish, but missing the MLS Cup Playoffs would be far from surprising, especially if the Crew chase after the SuperLiga and U.S. Open Cup as retribution.
Salt Lake, on the other hand, is coming off what I would say is their best year ever. Yes, there was no MLS Cup, no Supporters Shield, nor a U.S. Open Cup title involved, but let's take a look at their season. Including the playoffs, the regular season and the CONCACAF Champions League combined, Salt Lake only lost six matches. Not bad. Additionally, the club amassed over 20 victories.
Salt Lake ended up becoming the first American/MLS club to win a Champions League group, complemented by a second-place overall finish in the league.
Poised to make the World Club Cup, it's going to take a series of roadblocks to kill their momentum.
D.C. United Will Win the U.S. Open Cup
The United seem to take advantage of its talent in the domestic cup tournament whenever it does not have a realistic stab at any other piece of hardware.
Think about it. The United last won the Cup title in 2008, when they failed to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs and failed to qualify out of its Champions League group. Additionally, in 2007, a season highlighted by a semifinal run in Champions League as well as a Supporters Shield league title, their Open Cup performance was horrendous, as they lost their opening Third Round proper to third-tier Harrisburg City Islanders.
Now, the United has a great crop of incoming players, most notably Charlie Davies. One may argue that Dax McCarty and Perry Kitchen were great pickups too. If recent acquisitions gel with current United youngsters like Andy Najar and Chris Pontius, the United might actually be a playoff bubble team headed into 2011. Still, it's too early.
But since only the United and the Sounders have been the two MLS clubs in recent years to give the U.S. Open Cup some dignity, the club might actually just win the Open Cup.
Whitecaps Will Qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs
In spite of MLS spotlight being shined on the Pacific Northwest, it seems more times than not that the talk is solely about the Timbers vs. Sounders rivalry. The Whitecaps aren't thrown into the equation as much.
Additionally, their preseason success could preamble what to expect going into 2011.
Now, fair enough, preseason matches do not mean so much. D.C. United went 6-1-2 in the 2010 preseason, including an way win at Santos Laguna, and looked what happened. Contrastingly, the Colorado Rapids had a 1-3-1 preseason record.
Perhaps it weakens my argument, but these matches can construct confidence within the club, and can carry over to the league season. Whether victories can rack up enough points for a postseason berth is up in the air.
I just think it will happen.
Chicago Fire Will Finish Dead Last
When it comes to major offseason loses for clubs, most soccer fans immediately declare Columbus as the team with the most losses.
I disagree. If any team had the most blows this offseason, it's the Chicago Fire.
Let's begin by listing each of the key players the club lost in the past couple of months: Wilman Conde, C.J. Brown, Brian McBride, Collins John, Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo.
Fair enough, Castillo is only out on a loan, but he will miss a majority of the Fire's season. But in spite of that, that's a serious quantity of talent missing from the core players.
And the Fire were not even that solid last season. Coincidently, they finished in 10th place, like D.C. United did in 2009. Hints?
Yes, I'm going to make a gung-ho prediction and say the Chicago Fire will re-enact the United's horrors in 2011. It's not to say they'll barely nab any victories, nor lose 20 matches, because predicting a final record in MLS is a waste of analysis, but the Fire will obtain that Wooden Spoon infamy and finish with the weakest record.
Freddy Adu Will Not Return to MLS
Listed next to promotion, relegation and single tables, another wish among certain MLS fans is for Freddy Adu to return to MLS, hoping it will ignite a comeback.
Some of the fuel for that may have been lost thanks to Charlie Davies and his loan deal with D.C. United, but as that cools down, the topic of Adu will likely heat up, especially when the summer transfer window opens and his loan to a second-division Turkish club, Rizespor, finishes up, presuming they do not want Adu. Given his track record, that seems likely.
In that circumstance, the soccer niche will, once again, erupt in the hopes that Adu once and for all tries to rebuild himself in the states.
We'll kick, scream and whine that Kenny Cooper's doing it, Davies is doing it and waste time pondering why Adu will not. Whatever the reason may be, it will result in Adu having haughty beliefs that MLS is lower than leagues he's being loaned to.
Some Things Will Never Change
As inevitable as it has already been, the same debates of promotion, relegation, single tables, meaningful vs. meaningless competitions and salary caps will not only linger through 2011, but intensify.
Easily this will not necessarily affect how MLS does day-to-day work, but it might once and for all make them think twice about certain league formats if it consequently leads to a third consecutive fluke, complemented with horrid TV ratings going into 2012.
An MLS Team Will Win SuperLiga
SuperLiga talks this offseason have been incredibly dormant, and my skepticism about the 2011 series actually happening is decreasing day-by-day.
With the mess of U.S. Open Cup propers, the Gold Cup, World Cup qualifying, the All-Star game, European friendlies, CONCACAF Champions League Preliminary Rounds and the MLS regular season all ongoing this summer, it's going to be a miracle for the league to delegate some days for this tournament to happen.
Unless of course the league decides to host it in the spring, which I see as the only realistic possibility if this tournament is to happen.
Should this happen, I see an MLS club winning the title, being the first to do so since the New England Revolution in 2008. Who that club will be is a good question.
My supposition as to why an American club wins this tournament is because they'll be coming to form, whereas the Mexican clubs will be burned out, using this as an opportunity to give reserves some exercise time. Then again, it could be a battle of the B-sides if MLS clubs follow suit.
Given the tournament's rising importance, and thoughts that it could become the Europa League of CONCACAF, it may be to MLS clubs' advantage should they field stronger squads and put interest into this sometimes meaningless tournament.
MLS and Versus Will Not Reach TV Deal
This rumor started as MLS and Fox Soccer Channel contract was nearing expiration, and the possibility of MLS matches televised on Versus could not have been more exciting to daydream about.
The primary belief was that soccer could finally claw its way out of its niche in America and be on a channel that's not solely devoted to soccer, but to a series of sports such as cycling, rugby, hockey and other extreme sports.
Versus probably would have given MLS a decent amount of respect and promotion since they would be televising a top-tier sports league on their channel. It would be secondary to NHL coverage, but as a summer sport, it would likely receive high-end priority.
Odds are nothing materialized due to ratings and money. It's like a college or job application. You can buffer it up with cute perks, but it comes down to grades and achievement.
Consequently, while Versus probably had the upper hand in dictating contracts, MLS wanted the tables to turn, offering a fee that's way too overpriced. Versus likely offered a price too modest for the MLS to consider.
As a result, MLS just extended its contract with FSC for a year with the same terms. Either MLS will pay FSC a slightly higher fee in 2012, or the same deal will be extended. I see the latter happening.
Versus? I wouldn't throw it out just yet, but I'm doubt it for the time being.
3 Eastern Conference Teams Make Playoffs
Thanks to an increase in MLS Cup Playoff entrants, we might just finally see more East Coast clubs enter.
This season, I see three clubs having a legitimate chance qualifying: the New York Red Bulls, obviously, but the other two will barely squeak into the playoffs.
Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United.
Yes, Sporting Kansas City will start 10 matches this season on the road, but this is a team coming to form. Finishing just shy of a postseason berth this year, Sporting will earn its first postseason berth in three years. For United, it will be four.
United will have a new look and a new crop of players hungry for any type of trophy, which could mean a Shield or Cup. But given the circumstances, asking for a Shield from the United is a bit too much to ask for, and the Cup is more attainable.
Still, I doubt either Kansas City or D.C. United actually has a decent shot at the Cup title. They will manage to make it to the preliminary play-in spots of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Red Bull New York Will Win the Supporters' Shield
If you have not heard, Hans Backe has declared that RBNY's primary goal headed into 2011 is winning the Supporters' Shield.
Yes, the Supporters' Shield. Backe's belief is that the Supporters Shield is a more prestigious honor to earn than the MLS Cup, citing that the MLS Cup is a "crapshoot" that a team with a hot streak over six or seven games can nab.
Indeed, the Shield requires much more consistency, and it's refreshing to see a club treat the Cup as a secondary honor to the Shield with equal incentives (Group Stage spot in the Champions League).
New York has the depth, star power and mentality to do so. It has a solid back-line led by Rafa Marquez and rising star Tim Ream, complemented by another rising star Juan Agudelo on the attacking flank with Thierry Henry. Add in the speed of Dane Richards and the consistency of Joel Lindpere, and that alone creates a nightmare for a team to face.
Though its season was thrown into uncertainty at the beginning of the 2010 campaign, the club found its balance and prevented the Eastern Conference clubs from looking like a total joke. Sad thing is, New York might be the only club on the East Coast for any honor this year.
Enough is enough though, and RBNY will finally earn its first major title. RBNY has waited far too long and deserves it.
Seattle Sounders FC Will Win MLS Cup 2011
When Sounders FC fans see their club's trophy record, they envision the U.S. Open Cup as a nice title to have, but the MLS Cup is the ultimate goal.
As for the Sounders FC themselves, winning the MLS Cup is the difference between earning a Group Stage spot in the Champions League, rather than a Preliminary Round spot. Ultimately, Champions League and Club World Cup glory are their most prestigious goals, but first the club's goal will be more near-sighted...and that's the MLS Cup.
Given their arsenal of weapons, Sounders FC should once again be a favorite to win the league title. The club still has veteran keeper Kasey Keller manning the nets, along with the entertaining duo of Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani. They have up and coming Alvaro Fernandez, who hopefully will gel with the club this season, along with the experienced Blaise Nkufo.
The scenario would simply be that the club has its high points, swoons and something as retribution for its shortcomings in the Open Cup and the Champions League: the MLS Cup. I predict they'll have a hot streak just before the postseason tournament.
It will help give the rivalry flare sparkling with Portland and Vancouver going into 2012.