2012 MLS Season: 10 Reasons to Be Excited
A longtime supporter of the United States Men's National Team (USMNT) but only a recent supporter of Major League Soccer, I'm quite excited for the 2012 MLS season.
Born out of the 1994 World Cup held in the United States, America's first successful professional football experiment began as a humble 10-team league but has since evolved into a respectable 19-team premier league which boasts the 10th highest match-day attendance in the world.
And after watching the second leg of a Western Conference semifinal in which the Seattle Sounders almost battled back from a 3-0 aggregate deficit to force extra time against Real Salt Lake, I realized that the emergent MLS can produce just as much excitement as its European counterparts.
So, in addition to supporting the beautiful game's growth in our country, here are 10 reasons why you'll want to follow the 2012 MLS season.
David Beckham's (Apparent) Departure
While the world's most famous footballer dramatically increased national and international interest in the MLS, he never quite justified his $6.5 million salary on the pitch.
Instead the former Manchester United captain was so concerned with getting back into the English national team that he seemed to spend most of his time flirting with European clubs, which could offer him better quality football.
With his contract with the LA Galaxy now expired and a host of prestigious suitors eager to add the Beckham brand to their club, it seems that Beckham's days in the MLS are now numbered.
Considering the MLS is now stable enough to survive his departure, look for other more accomplished footballers, including his teammates Landon Donovan and Juninho, to bask in the limelight.
Elimination of the Crossover Wild Card
Quite frankly, college football's Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system is more logical than the MLS playoffs.
I know, I didn't think such a feat was possible either.
Under the most recent playoff system, the fifth-place finisher in the Eastern Conference would play the fifth-place finisher in the Western Conference.
The winner of this one-game play-off would proceed to play the highest overall seeded team in the next round of playoffs, regardless of if the eventual opponents were from different conferences.
As a result of this peculiar Wild Card crossover system, two Western Conference teams managed to win the Eastern Conference Championship and an Eastern Conference team managed the opposite feat, winning the Western Conference Championship.
Under the new system, the top five teams from each conference will qualify for their conference playoffs. The fourth-place team will square off against the fifth-place team in a conventional Wild Card match for the right to play the regular season conference champion in the conference semifinals.
Elmination of the One-Game Conference Championship
Some leagues—MLB and formerly the NBA—increase the number of games played between opponents as teams advance further into the playoffs in order to increase the reliability of the eventual outcome.
Other playoff series—the Champions League—decrease the number of games played between opponents as teams progress in order to increase match intensity.
Most playoff systems simply require teams to play the same number of games at every level.
Rather uniquely, the convoluted MLS playoff system consisted of moving teams from a one-game Wild Card play-off to a two-game conference semifinal to a one-game conference final and eventually to a one-game league final.
Realizing the system to be both inconsistent and illogical, the MLS finally amended the system to include a single-game Wild Card round followed by a two-legged conference semifinal, a two-legged final, and a single championship game.
While a two-legged Wild Card play-off would perfect the system, the move to the two-legged conference championship definitely represents a step in the right direction.
Emergence of Future USMNT Stars
There is a bevy of very talented footballers currently playing in the MLS. Unfortunately, the likes of Sébastien Le Toux, Fredy Montero, Steve Zakuani, Juninho, and Andy Najar are not American and thus will not share their talents with the USMNT.
While the influx of talented foreign players is essential in enhancing the league's level of play and international credibility, I hope that MLS academies will produce at least an equal number of future Yanks.
Youngster such as Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo have impressed, but neither seems capable of wielding the same influence as former MLS star Clint Dempsey or current LA Galaxy captain and US legend Landon Donovan.
Charlie Davies' Return to Prominence?
Faster than Landon Donovan and as composed as Brian McBride, Charlie Davies can add a dimension to the United States attack that has not existed since a horrific car accident halted his promising career.
Joining DC United on loan this past season from French club Sochaux, Davies occasionally struggled for form but still managed 11 goals in 26 appearances.
With reports suggesting the 26-year-old might remain in the MLS this season, American fans will look for him to recover his blistering speed in time to join the national team for 2014 World Cup qualification.
Freddy Adu's Redemption?
Another immensely talented youngster who disappeared from the national team setup after several promising performances, 22-year-old Freddy Adu is still young enough to resurrect his fledgling career.
While he played only sparingly this past season for the Philadelphia Union, Adu is still one of the most phenomenal dribblers I have ever seen.
Assuming he eventually rediscovers the form which saw him shine alongside Jozy Altidore in the 2007 U-17 World Cup, Adu could perhaps even benefit from the attention void created by Beckham's departure.
In any event, Freddy Adu's success would mark the greatest comeback story in MLS history.
A Seattle Sounders Playoff Run
Despite benefiting from easily the most passionate fan base in the MLS and boasting arguably the most talented roster, the Seattle Sounders have never advanced past the conference semifinal stage of the MLS playoffs.
Look for that to change next season.
With the full recovey of Steve Zakuani to complement a strong core of Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales, and Omar Alonso, look for the Sounders attack to stifle opposing defenses, especially at CenturyLink Field.
A CONCACAF Champions League Championship
Unbeknown to most American fans, the winner of the CONCACAF Champions League earns a berth into the increasingly prestigious Club World Cup (CWC), which features the best team from North America, Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
No US team has won the Champions League in over a decade, but the Galaxy and Sounders have advanced to the quarterfinals beginning in March and would seem well qualified to compete for the honor.
By virtue of being the best Canadian team (not saying much), Toronto FC also qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League and actually managed to advance to the quarterfinal stage as well.
While none of these clubs would match up well against the likes of Barcelona or (Brazilian) Santos, it would be quite interesting to watch an MLS side compete against a major European or South American power in a meaningful contest.
An unlikely CWC championship might just be celebrated like a World Cup Victory.
The New York Red Bulls' Continued Failure
In accordance with unwritten New York sports franchise rules, the Red Bulls have organized a most impressive array of high-profile players and won far less than expected.
Much like the Yankees and Mets in professional baseball, the Giants and Jets in professional football, and the Knicks in professional basketball, the Red Bulls seemed destined to perpetually underachieve.
Assuming football continues to grow in popularity throughout the United States, mainstream sports fans might join me in making fun of this laughably stereotypical New York franchise.
More Sustained Club Success
Normally, parity is good for professional sports leagues as the unpredictability of match results generally piques the fans' interest. However, largely as a result of a tight salary cap, MLS clubs seem so evenly balanced that new fans such as myself have difficulty distinguishing between the various clubs.
Specifically, I look forward to young clubs with passionate fans developing a particular style of play, signing the appropriate players, and achieving sustainable success. Such success would undoubtedly fuel the already passionate rivalries between the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, and Vancouver Whitecaps.