The 2010 season, simmering for months in a pot of uncertainty, is finally upon us. The arrival of yet another expansion team, the secretive trials and training habits of some organizations, and a new CBA have thrown rosters into turmoil not been seen since the formative years of the league. This great flux has some fans concerned about the level of play, and confused about where each team lies in terms of talent. Not to fear; the level of play will be better than ever, and this preview will attempt to sort out the rosters and give a foundation for the average fan.
This year, fans will benefit from the highest level of play since the inception of the league in 1996 for several reasons. First, the increase of the minimum salary will allow several teams to pull players back out of the USL; this combined with the deepest draft in years will result in filling the back-end of rosters with more talent. This will allow for a more consistent level of play as teams can hold tired or slightly injured players out of the lineup over the course of the summer. Second, more teams have been using the scouting agency that provided RSL and Seattle with a wealth of talent from South America. Third, teams are taking a more mature attitude towards international player acquisition. Teams are either signing foreign players to non-guaranteed contracts so that they can be released prior to the season (Dallas with Aziz) or bringing players in on trial for the entire preseason so that they can be properly evaluated before signing. The foreign "bust" ratio has dropped significantly over the past couple of years and should take a hit yet again in 2010. Finally, teams are clearing cap space in droves now in preparation for acquiring a new wave of stars after the World Cup. Last year, Seattle gave the league a much needed boost, and the lead up to this season brought the completion of the CBA and introduction of the new stadium in New York to continue the momentum. But, in my opinion, the lasting impact of the 2010 campaign will be the higher standard of play.
The team previews will be listed from worst to first in order of quality, not necessarily according to final record. I strongly believe that, as a whole, the West is set up to be significantly stronger than the East and once again the champion will come out of that conference. My rankings may come across as a bit different from other previews you might find out on the web. The reason is that I believe that in MLS, athleticism wins versus skill. Whereas in England, the Championship teams are built on skill, and the EPL teams add the required althleticism, in MLS speed and physical play kill. Because a typical MLS game will involve players who lack great technical ability, mistakes (poor passes, bad positioning) become somewhat commonplace. Athleticism allows teams to cover for and take advantage of these mistakes. For example, Ricchetti was a very skilled player in the Dallas midfield, but could not recover when other midfielders lost the ball. Drew Moor was talented at the back, but didn't have the pace to cover for the errors of other defensive players. Replace those guys with Dax and Ugo, who will give the ball away but have the athleticism to cover for their own mistakes as well as those of other players, and you have a much more successful team. Projected lineups are 4-4-2 unless otherwise indicated, and players are listed from left to right.
16) Chivas USA
Thornton; Jazic, Bornstein, Umana, Trujillo; Flores, Kljestan, Saragosa, Lahoud; Galindo, Romero
I know, I know. Every year, Chivas just doesn't look that great, and every year they end up competing. But Preki made those teams fight and claw for everything; will the new boss have the same effect? Bornstein, Kljestan, and Galindo are good players. But Jazic is just a guy, Umana flamed out the last time in MLS with LA, Flores and Lahoud haven't established themselves as players, and Saragosa shouldn't be starting anywhere. Romero is a 23 year old from El Salvador and, sure, he could turn out to be nice, but I don't think it is enough. They are the worst team on paper, with only 4 players who have established themselves as MLS starters; even if the upside potential turns out, I don't think it is good enough for the playoffs.
15) Philadelphia Union
Seitz; Harvey, Thomas, Califf, Orozco; Fred, Jacobson, Miglioranzi, Salinas; Moreno, Le Toux
They have a decent backline, but where are the goals going to come from? Moreno escaped Columbus once before and was awful in Houston; the great midfield service he got for the Gold and Black allowed him to score, but he can't create on his own. Philly is building in the manner San Jose did - domestic base, try to grab some internationals at the first deadline. We all remember how bad San Jose was that first season... and they at least had Cannon to pull things out for them. I rate them over Chivas because there are some established MLS players in the mix here, as well as a home field advantage and salary cap room to pull in some internationals after the world cup. But, things do not look good in Philly. Maybe they can use the batteries thrown from the stands to recharge the team mid-season. Otherwise, relying on 18 year old 5'5 Columbians to spark the offense (Torres) probably isn't the answer.
14) San Jose Earthquakes
Cannon; Corrales, Hernandez, Burling, Leitch; Convey, Luiz, Robles, Gjertsen; Alvarez, Johnson
The firepower up top puts the Quakes above Philly and Chivas. The weak point on the team is the backline, but Corralles (Morrow), Burling (Opara), and Leitch ( Beitashour) may be pushed out of their roles by rookies by mid-season and give them a second half push. Convey supposedly looks great this preseason. Kudos for pushing him out wide and Alvarez up top. The Alvarez-Johnson pairing looks dangerous, and they have some depth in the attack as well. They should be improved, and have obviously cleared out a significant amount of cap room through the recent waiver moves, so expect a big signing in the mid-season transfer window. Robles (Argentine, played in England) and Gjertsen (USL) are the wildcards that could push this team forward a couple of notches, but I don't see them making the playoffs in a very difficult West.
13) Chicago Fire
Dykstra; Krol, Conde, Robinson, Ward; Pappa, Pause, Thorrington, Martinez; McBride, John
I absolutely love the McBride/John pairing up top. And Pappa will be a monster this year. But losing Soumare, Segares, Rolfe, Blanco, and Busch is a lot. Busch wasn't great, but what is the history of young keepers in the league? Not very good. Krol is 23 year old out of Poland who was on the Real Madrid reserves at some point, but reports are that he is slow - a big issue in a league that focuses on athleticism. On top of that players like Pause and Thorrington are going to start losing their impact; the unathletic, well positioned defensive midfielders are the next type of players who will be forced out of the improving league. There is some promising youth in play, and if Martinez (yet another El Salvadorian, I am sensing a theme this season) and John make their mark, they could contend for a playoff spot in a down East. But I don't expect a lot from the Fire. One hope would be that they have lost a significant amount of salary, and should have plenty of room for another signing to help out on the backline or central midfield.
12) DC United
Perkins; Wallace, McTavish, Jakovic, Namoff; Castillo, Simms, Quaranta, Khumalo; Moreno, Pontius
Perkins gives them quality at a position that was severely lacking the last couple of seasons. But there are some problem spots at this traditional power as well. Namoff and Simms still haven't made it back from injury. The central defense is pretty slow. Quaranta is being pushed inside and I have my doubts about his ability to make quick decisions and a consistent first touch. Moreno has been wonderful in the preseason, but is getting long in the tooth. Pontius was strong at the beginning of last season, then tailed off. They have a promising Bolivian defender on trial who could help things out if he is signed, but I really don't like the speed of Moreno, Allsopp and Cristman up top if Pontius ever goes down with injury. Castillo, a young El Salvadorian acquired from Leon, is supposed to be a very good player, but I just don't seen enough here to push them to the upper half of the table.
11) New England Revolution
Reis; Alston, Osei, Gibbs, Barnes; Castro, Joseph, Desire, Nyassi; Twellman, Dube
The lineup above is the first choice; if it actually played they might be a playoff team. But Reis is out for a significant period of time, Castro, Barnes, and Alston haven't really seen the field this pre-season, and who knows if Twellman will return. And I haven't even mentioned Gibbs penchant for injury. Dube has taken strides forward and if he is paired with a good striker could explode. But the odds of that happening are pretty slim because Twellman and Jankauskas are always injured. Depth provided by Tierney and Phelan eases the loss of Larentowicz, and maybe Schilawski will be the rookie of the year. Nicol has worked miracles before, but I think he is too far behind the 8 ball for this one to pan out. As an interesting side note, this will be the year we discover who has the true eye for talent - Nicol or Mariner - with the latter's departure to Plymouth in England.
10) Toronto FC
Frei; Brennan, Harden, Attakora, Wynne; Gala, De Guzman, Saric, Cronin; De Rosario, Barrett
Attakora helped the defense at the end of last season, and having him around for a full year will help. At first glance, the immediate thought is what in the world is Preki doing by dumping Robinson, Serioux, and Guevara all for nothing? But he is reshaping the team into a proper 4-4-2. I like moving DeRo back up top. He and Guevara were the same player, and couldn't be on the field at the same time without limiting the effectiveness of one of them. Saric is an Argentine on trial, but should be signed and by most accounts looks pretty good. De Guzman and Cronin should have a better impact this season. And expectations are that one of the many Central defender trialists in camp will be signed now that the CBA is done, and that player will take Harden's spot in the lineup. They are a bit weak on the wings. I am giving them a little credit because ownership there seems to be willing to pay for players to come in and help, so I think they will sign the trialists needed to stabilize the team. I still have them out of the playoffs in an improved league, however. Again, this is another team that has dumped salary, so look for a potential high impact signing mid-season.
9) Colorado Rapids
Pickens; Earls, Moor, Baudet, Kimura; Clark, Mastroeni, Larentowicz, Smith; Cummings, Casey
The Rapids are great up top and in the midfield; the Cummings/Casey paring worked out better than anyone could have anticipated. I love the addition of Larentowicz which sends a pretty decent player, La Brocca, to the bench, and Wells Thompson will add some cover on the wings. But Baudet/Moor make for a pretty slow center back paring. If Earls, a 21 year old Irishman, and Baudet play well and stabilize the back, this could be an interesting team as long as they stay healthy. Lack of depth may get to them over the course of the summer, and Clark out to start the season won't help their case. Keep your eye on Smith, as the Scottish player had a favorable impact when he arrived last season and will be a key for them in 2010. There is enough upside here to get them into the playoffs, but they will most likely need to rely on staying healthier than teams above them in order to do so.
8 ) Kansas City Wizards
(4-3-3) Neilson; Espinoza, Conrad, Escobar, Harrington; Kostrov, Auvray, Arnaud; Smith, Wolff, Kamara
This is a tough team to place because of the number of unknowns, but I absolutely love what Vermes has done in the offseason. He dumped Lopez, who was a greatly skilled player but limited the team from a tactical perspective. Then he goes out and brings a ton of internationals in on trial for the entire preseason and signs the ones he likes. Smith came out of the Arsenal system and supposedly is a very good player. Kostrov is an Isreali who really impressed in preseason as well. Auvray was discovered playing for Guadaloupe at the Gold Cup last season. Escobar is a Columbian out of Deportivo Cali, and those big Columbian central defenders seem to be panning out in the league. Hrsig, Holbein, Leathers, and Jewsbury are all players who got significant time in the past but are now relegated to the bench, and that suits the emphasis on athleticism in the league. This is a team that could push past some teams and move into a solid playoff position if things work out.
7) New York Red Bulls
Coundoul; Miller, Stammler, Ream, Hall; Kandji, Lindpere, Robinson, Richards; Angel, Salou
Another team where I love what they have done. There is a lot of criticism here because they brought in a foreign coach and a foreign GM, but the key is that they come from Scandinavian countries. The leagues there place an emphasis on physical attributes over skill (which is why former MLS players do so well over there), so their methods of player evaluation should translate well. The overall athleticism of the team has been significantly enhanced, with former starters Sassano, Ubiparapovic, Boyens, Mendes, and Wolyniec shown the bench. Salou has signed, and looked fantastic against Santos. Kandji gives great pace on the wing to balance Richards. Lindpere, a 28 year old Estonian international with experience in Denmark, won rave reviews all preseason and was absolutely fantastic in the middle of the field against Santos; the combination of him with Robinson should be able to dictate possession more than New York has seen for years. They provide a wonderful combination of excellent organization paired with tremendous distribution. The backline is a little iffy - Coundoul gives up rebounds, Ream is a rookie (although, again, he impressed against Santos), and Hall is unpolished and more of a midfielder; Costa Rican Miller looks the part on the left. But the improvement in midfield and overall talent, combined with a fantastic home field advantage, should allow New York to compete for a playoff spot.
6) Columbus Crew
Hesmer; Padula, Marshall, Brunner, Hejduk; Rogers, Carroll, Moffat, Gaven; Schelotto, Lenhart
Yes, I have the best team in the East and two-time supporters shield winner as the sixth best team in the league. They return every starter except Moreno, but he was a big piece for them. He gave the defensive work rate necessary in the 4-5-1, and I am not sure the other forwards provide that. Leinhart looked nice in the CCC, but to me he is a more athletic and skilled version of Abe Thompson at this point - I don't think he will be as clinical as Moreno in the box, and I don't know if he is a top of the line player in the league. But mostly, I think the rest of the league is catching up, and they take a lot of points from a weak East. Hesmer is a very average keeper, and Carrol will start fading significantly against the more athletic competition (take note of his two fouls that set up goals in the CCC second leg). I like the wing play, and Ekpo, Renteria, and Herrera provide athletic depth not seen in Columbus in a while. Full disclosure: I can't stand how Rogers played last season and I think his continued call ups to the US National team are absurd. So, I am a little biased in evaluating this team. They will finish with a lot of wins because the East is so bad, but I rate a lot of teams in the West as better.
5) FC Dallas
Sala; Benitez, John, Ugo, Pierce; Shea, Hernandez, Dax, Ferreira, Chavez; Cunningham
Homer call of the week? I would just like to point out that I have picked FCD to fail or struggle to make the playoffs for the last several years. However, for the first time in recent memory, Dallas has players that can compete athletically in the league at every single position on the field. John, Ihemelu, Shea, and Chavez/Harris are not established starters in the league, but John and Shea have significant upside after getting quality time last season. And Davies off the bench is going to be a great player, in my opinion. If Chavez can beat Harris out at right midfield, the skill level will go up a notch there as well. Right mid is the weak point in the starting lineup, but it will at least be filled by players who can push things with athleticism. The lack of depth up top is a bit scary, and keeps the potential of the team from rising another spot. But all credit goes to Hyndman for coming to terms with the athleticism of the league and dumping players like Purdy, Ricchetti, and Torres in order to significantly improve the speed of the team. With great depth at keeper and on the backline, the defense will take a step forward this season. If the offense can match the output of last year, running through one of the best players in the league (Ferreira), watch out.
4) LA Galaxy
Ricketts; Dunivant, Berhalter, Gonzalez, De La Garza; Donovan, Birchall, Kovalenko, Klein; Buddle, Magee
It might seem a bit of a disrespect to rate LA this low. After all, they won the Western Conference last season, and made it all the way to MLS Cup. But losing Beckham is quite a big deal. And when you add another year onto an aging team, they may take a step back. Players like Berhalter, Klein, Lewis, Kirovski, and Mathis can't afford to lose another step, and would absolutely kill the depth of the team if they are ineffective. To me, they just don't have enough up top, and Donovan will want to play out wide in order to prepare for the World Cup. I think the combination of an improved league and an aging team pushes them back a few spots. If the three Brazilians on loan can make an impact by taking away starting positions from Dunivant, Berhalter, and Klein, we might be on to something. And Stephens has been promising as a rookie in the preseason. But right now, I can't rate them higher than this.
3) Houston Dynamo
Onstead; Chabala, Boswell, Robinson, Cochrane; Davis, Cameron, Palmer, Mullan; Ching, Landin
Yes, Houston is going to miss Clark and Holden. Anytime your two central mids leave to go play in major leagues, there is going to be a drop. Three weeks ago, I was really concerned about the Dynamo... well, not really, because my allegiances lie with FCD. Kinear had Davis playing centrally, and there is no way he would be able to replace the work rate Holden provided in order to allow them to focus attacks on the wings. And there was no depth anywhere on the squad. Then, suddenly, after trialling several central midfielders over the course of the preseason, they finally hit on one they like in Palmer, and signed him up. Then, they go out and grab Serioux to provide depth at center back and in the central midfield. Cochrane beat out Waibel to send one of their least athletic players to the bench. Chabala beat out Barrett, an established MLS vet, for the starting role at left back. And Hainault may send Boswell to the bench. And they get Robinson back. One of the best defenses in the league last season should actually be better. If Landin gets fit (maybe a big if), they have a ton of forward depth with Weaver and Oduro... and on the wings they have youngsters backing up and ready to make their mark. Landin and Palmer are the big question marks here, and will make the difference between just a playoff team and a team competing for the title.
2) Real Salt Lake
Rimando; Wingert, Olave, Borchers, Russell; Johnson, Beckerman, Morales, Grabavoy; Findley, Espindola
I loved this team last year before the season started, and I think it will continue to come together and improve. With the exception of Grabavoy, the players are all outstanding athletes, even if Beckerman lacks speed. The outside backs could use some more skill, but this team is a rock down the middle of the field. Yuri is out, but Espindola back for the entire season more than compensates; additionally, the recent signing of Saborio, a Costa Rican, will either provide depth up top or replace Grabavoy at right mid. Findley should see some improvement, especially after seeing the off season in the US National Team camp. I expect RSL to be better in the regular season this year, and to make yet another push towards MLS Cup come playoff time.
1) Seattle Sounders
Keller; Gonzalez, Hurtado, Marshall, Evans; Zakuani, Alonso, Sturgis, Nyassi; Ljungberg, Montero
Seattle got of to a great start last season, but struggled for a while once Ljungberg was brought in. Prior to his arrival, Sigi had played with a 4-4-2 similar to Houston, with Evans as a two way mid in front of Alonso in the middle and the wings pushing up into the attack. After Freddie arrived, they changed to a diamond, forcing the wings to play some defense, which did not match their strength. I am a big fan of what Sigi has done in the preseason by pushing Ljungberg up to the second forward and allowing the attack to concentrate on the wings, similar to what he did with Schellotto in Columbus. Jaqua is nice coming off the bench, and the forward depth will be significantly bolstered by the arrival of Nkufo from Switzerland in the middle of the season. By pushing Evans to right back, they have sent Riley, the weakest player in the starting lineup, to the bench. The big question is can Sturgis or Vagenas run the central midfield well enough for the wings to attack successfully. Because of Freddie's move to forward and the continued growth of Zakawani and Nyassi, I believe that Seattle has resolved the scoring issues they hit upon last season, and will be the best team in MLS for 2010.