2011 Season Preview
In what will be the first of many articles about the passion, drama and bone-dry statistics in one of the fastest growing leagues on the planet, the top of the pyramid in United States Soccertainment. And as MLS enters it’s 15th season we take a look at the teams- who’s rubbish, who’s nae bad and who should probably win it if all goes to plan.
In the close season there have been some minor changes to the MLS from last season, adding two more teams to bring the league up to a more European size of 18 and in doing so giving the play-offs system a little more credibility. The new teams now give the state of Oregon an MLS representative through the resurrection of the Portland Timbers and also further representation for America’s hat, Canada, in the form of the Vancouver Whitecaps. In addition to this the Kansas City Wizards also got an extensive, if unconvincing, sex-change by becoming Sporting Kansas City. We start our preview with the only team in Major League Soccer under Scottish management; new expansion side Portland Timbers and the Western Conference.
Head Coach – Former Motherwell and Chelsea striker John Spencer has landed his first senior team management role at the expansion side though he has previously been a part of the coaching set-up at Houston Dynamo, leading the reserve team to the 2008 MLS reserves championship. It will be interesting to see how the only Scottish manager in the league fares with this completely new team.
Key Player – At this stage it’s difficult to say who the key player in this brand new squad is, much like Average Joe’s gymnasium in Dodgeball- though I seriously doubt Portland’s best player thinks he’s a pirate. Though ex-Manchester United youth and former FC Dallas striker Kenny Cooper is likely to lead from the front for Portland and has a great track record in MLS. Spencer was also able to bring Kerrea Gilbert, Troy Perkins and former Ross County and Elgin City player Adam Moffat to the club.
One to Watch – Picked from the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, Darlington Nagbe, has been one of the brightest talents for a number of years at college soccer level. A quick, creative forward ,originally from Liberia, who won the MAC Hermann Award last year as the best College Soccer player for his role in the University of Akron’s first ever national championship with victory over Louisville in the college cup final. Scored 7 and assisted 13 in 2010 for Akron. It’s likely that Nagbe will be a regular starter for Portland in the coming seasons.
Prediction – Ah, God knows. Reaching the play-offs would be a pretty good achievement though they are lacking some what in midfield. They may need to tempt an established Designated Player over to the MLS in the few months before the season starts.
Head Coach – Icelandic Teitur Thordarson has a tough job to do this season with a fairly weak squad. He has done well with Vancouver since his appointment for the pre-MLS edition in 2007 where he went on to lead the Whitecaps to victory in the USL First Division in 2008. He has plenty of experience in football, coaching several high profile Scandinavian clubs- such as SK Brann, Lillestrøm SK and Lyn Oslo- as well as the Estonian national team.
Key Player – Vancouver pulled off a bit of a coup by bringing in Jay DeMerit on a free and have made the United States international their captain. However, the rest of their squad seems really weak and the speculation linking them with Robbie Savage won’t exactly help much. As a footballer he has seen better days (although not much better) and as a human now resembles a cannibalistic Nicky Clarke.
One To Watch – Vancouver surprised pretty much every team in MLS by not taking up the option to choose Darlington Nagbe with their first round SuperDraft pick, they had the option to choose any one in the draft as they had the very first pick, but instead going for 17 year-old USA under 20 international Omar Salgado. He caused controversy during his time at Chivas Guadalajara by opting to play for the USA instead of Mexico; and due to Chivas’ strict policy of only Mexican eligible players he was forced to leave the club. He went on to feature for the USA under 20 team helping them to win the prestigious Milk Cup in summer 2010. His impressive performances in this tournament landed him a trial at Everton and he is, at the time of writing, Vancouver’s only contracted centre forward.
Prediction – Vancouver need a lot of work to become competitive though they do have the makings of a strong defence with Jon Leathers and DeMerit in front of an experienced goalie in the form of Joe Cannon. Will do very well to make the play-offs without signing some better players.
Los Angeles Galaxy
Head Coach – They have some one who knows the league incredibly well, Bruce Arena. The former USA Senior team coach is one of the more successful coaches in America having led DC United to two separate MLS Cup triumphs in the 1990s and winning the MLS Supporters’ Shield(the trophy awarded to the team with the most regular season points- the way it is done virtually everywhere else in the world, just a token prize here) last season with LA whilst also leading the USA through two World Cup campaigns (Quarter Finals in 2002) and two Gold Cup CONCACAF trophies. Would, we imagine, also be quite good at Football Manager.
Key Player – Their captain and star striker Landon Donovan is arguably the best player in the league. The all-time leading goalscorer for the USA national team has decided to focus fully on Los Angeles in the close season, ruling out a loan to Europe which he excelled in last season during a brief spell at Everton and the year before at Bayern Munich. In doing this he puts pressure on that English guy they pay too much to do not enough into staying in America during the close season. Whether it works or not remains to be seen.
One to Watch – With quite an experienced squad , it’s quite hard to pick out a young player to keep tabs on at Los Angeles but Dan Keat has the potential to become quite an important player for the Galaxy. He was their first pick in this year’s supplemental College Draft (not nearly as catchy a title as SuperDraft). An olympian for his native New Zealand, his performances for Team Wellington as a teenager (now 23) earned him trials at Blackburn (twice) and at Rangers.
Prediction – LA are traditionally one of the stronger teams in the league and have a very strong chance of winning the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield as long as they don’t screw up in the play-offs. Again.
Head Coach – Seattle have another very experienced coach. Sigi Schmid has coached in the United States since 1980- 19 successful years at the helm of the UCLA Bruins soccer team (won 77% of his 418 matches in charge), 5 years as the coach of LA Galaxy (’99-’04), 2 years at Columbus Crew (’06-’08) and since 2009 has been in charge at Seattle. At both LA Galaxy and Columbus Crew he won the MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield and has already brought some of that success to one of the newest teams in the league by winning the US Open Cup 2 years running in 2009 and 2010. In other words Sigi Schmid is the balls.
Key Player – Seattle have a very strong squad. Particularly up front with Designated Players, Swiss international Blaise N’Kufo and the Colombian Fredy Montero. Montero was the main man for Seattle last season, to go all ESPN on your ass he led the team statistically last season with the most goals(10), most assists(10), most shots(94, 34 on target), most fouls against him(60) and (probably) most songs from the Sounders fans in his name(let’s say at least 10, at least).
One to Watch – Seattle tend to not concede too many goals and this is thanks largely to the experience of Kasey Keller. But, at 41, is this a season too far for the grandfather of American goalkeeping? Probably not but hey, we’ll see as the season unfolds.
Prediction – Another strong contender for the championship. If things work out well for them they should certainly be there or there abouts at the end of the year. Vague statements like that make sure you don’t look like a fool if it doesn’t happen.
San Jose Earthquakes
Head Coach – Frank Yallop had some success with San Jose at the start of last decade with two non-consecutive MLS Cup victories(in 2001 and 2003) before deciding to pursue international management in his home land of Canada. Before making his way back to San Jose, he managed LA Galaxy where he had the honour of being replaced by the ever available Ruud Gullit. Though he has yet to be able to replicate his early MLS success with a wooden spoon finish in 2009 and as semi-finalists of MLS Cup playoff finish last season. Could be a make or break season for the Canadian hall of famer.
Key Player – Their striker Chris Wondowlski was vital to the side last side claiming the league’s Golden Boot in the process with 18 goals. The pressure is on him to prove that last season was not a fluke and to try and force his way into Bob Bradley’s international plans. Another of their key players is the left sided USA international Bobby Convey who was instrumental in their great run in the play-offs and topped the club’s assists chart with 10.
One to Watch – San Jose’s 1st SuperDraft pick from last season, Ike Opara has impressed since college soccer level, coming close to winning the prestigious MAC Hermann Trophy and twice selected as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year prior to joining San Jose. He’s also a brilliant buy on Football Manager, which is all that really matters.
Prediction – In the absence of the old Kansas City Wizards, the San Jose Earthquakes are now officially the team with the coolest name in the league. Whether this will serve as an advantage remains to be seen. They knocked out big spending New York in last year’s play-offs and Yallop’s side are more than capable of pulling off similar shocks this time around.
Head Coach – Chivas have just appointed their 6th coach in 7 years displaying a Latin American style loyalty to their head coaches. The new lucky incumbent is Robin Fraser this is his first managing role having been assistant coach to Jason Kreis at his successful Real Salt Lake side. The Chivas USA board may have been impressed by his work in the late 1990s co-managing at local girls club Santa Anita Soccer Club. An intriguing appointment but good luck to him.
Key Player – Not a very strong squad and losing two USA internationals, Sacha Klejistan to Anderlecht and Jonathan Bornstein to Tigres, is going to impact badly on the team, fairly strong contenders for weakest in the league as things stand. No obvious stand-out players but Justin Braun led the team in goals scored (9) and assists (3!) last season and his form may be the difference between embarrassment and total embarrassment.
One to Watch – One thing that Chivas USA can be commended for is not just relying on the draft to give them University’s youngsters but have invested in an academy which is starting to generate first team players for them. The most promising who may get his break this season is 18 year-old USA under 20 international Bryan de la Fuente. The midfielder was part of the side that won the Milk Cup last summer.
Prediction – Last. Like, dead last. In a strong league, they are only getting weaker. Will need some better players and will probably look for a more experienced coach. Think McGhee’s Aberdeen. No, don’t think about that. Too painful.
Real Salt Lake
Head Coach – 38 year-old Jason Kreis is one of the most talented managers in the league. Building his side on a strong defence, and for a brief spell in 2008 Gretna legend Dr. Kenny Deuchar, has built a decent team at Salt Lake- the highlight being 2009’s MLS Cup victory over LA Galaxy.
Key Player – Captain and USA international Kyle Beckerman has vast experience in the MLS, in 2009 became the youngest player to surpass the 200 game mark in MLS history. He is very much the midfield dynamo for Salt Lake which has earned him recognition for the league’s “All-star” team for the matches in the summer when the Europeans come over for a holiday. He’s used primarily in a deep role in a midfield diamond, breaking up play and what-not.
One to Watch – 17 year-old Luis Gil despite speculation linking the talented youngster with Real Madrid and Arsenal (but then, what youngster hasn’t?) he chose last year to sign with MLS and Real Salt Lake. Was named as USA’s young soccer athlete of the year following his impressive form in the Nigerian Under 17 World Cup and is a graduate of the IMG Soccer Academy in Florida. He’s fresh from a loan spell at AC St Louis and has been described by some pundits, me, as the American Fraser Fyvie but less ginger. Time will tell if this is true.
Prediction – Despite their ridiculous name they were one of the hardest teams to beat last season, losing only 4 times and conceding only 20 goals. Expect much the same though the goals may dry up in the absence of USA international striker Robbie Findley. They’ll be fine though, probably. Still plenty of time to bring in a partner for Alvaro Saborio.
Head Coach – Is a fairly insignificant former lower English leagues midfielder from the 1990s, Gary Smith. Quite how he ended up here, we have no idea but he’s doing a pretty bang-up job, surprisingly. Appointed in 2008 after being assistant to Fernando Clavijo. An ex reserve team coach and has an eye for a player as evidenced by his work as a scout for Arsenal in 2007 and his signing of “The Slayer of Copenhagen” Jamie Smith in 2009 for Colorado.
Key Player – Jamaican me crazy (sorry) striker Omar Cummings, or more accurately Gerard Houllier is going crazy over the guy. A crucial reason for Colorado’s triumphant 2010 season, the Aston Villa boss was very close to signing him until work permit issues got in the way. Not to be deterred by this latest stumble in their never-ending pursuit of badly named strikers Villa will now be pursuing David Goodwillie, to add to the ridiculous strikeforce of Bent, Young and potentially Keane. Anyway, Cummings scored 14 and assisted 3 last season.
One to Watch – Even if Colorado had the best crop of youngsters in the league, they don’t, we would still be urging you to watch out for Jamie Smith. The 30 year-old seemed to have rid himself of his injuries last season playing in 22 matches and leading the team’s assist chart with EIGHT. We could bore you to death about all that Jamie did at Aberdeen, when he actually played, but instead, we’ll leave you with this- he is being coached by Celtic legend Steve Guppy who is the assistant at Colorado. Exactly.
Prediction – A fairly strong squad with a strong chance of making the play-offs but it’ll take a lot of convincing to take last season as more than a fluke. Even with Jamie Smith.
Head Coach – Dallas are another team who have looked at a coach’s success at college soccer level and taken it into the top level of American soccer. Schellas Hyndman, prior to his appointment in 2008 had been a coach at three different Universities since 1974, his most successful spell being a 24 year spell at Southern Methodist University where he won 368 matches, losing only 38. The guy is also an Aiki Ju-Jitsu coach, so please for God’s sake don’t mess with the Hyndman.
Key Player – One of several Colombian internationals in the league, David Ferreira was very much “the man” for FC Dallas last season when he was voted as the the league’s Most Valuable Player. He contributed 13 assists and 8 goals to Dallas’ charge to the Toronto final of the MLS Cup. They’ll need their number 10 to be at his very best yet again this time around.
One to Watch – The extremely versatile Brek Shea is adept in defence, midfield and up front, primarily on the wings. He was a first round SuperDraft pick by FC Dallas in 2008 having turned professional immediately after leaving High School and graduating from the IMG Soccer Academy. Since then he has gone on to become the first player born in the 1990s to represent the USA in a full international when he played in October last year against Colombia, and had been on the fringes of the squad since he was 18. This season should be big for him and the other impressive youngsters at Dallas- Josh Lambo and Eric Alexander.
Prediction – There is no reason that FC Dallas cannot go that extra step this season and win the final. They have a strong spine but Jeff Cunningham will be missed up front and Hyndman will be focusing on replacing him in the pre-season.
Head Coach – When I said John Spencer was the only Scottish manager in the league it was slight hyperbole as Houston Dynamo can boast Glasgow born, former American international Dominic Kinnear as their coach. Has a good track record having already twice won the MLS Cup in 2006 and 2007 for Houston Dynamo- having already tasted success at San Jose when assistant to Frank Yallop at the start of the decade. The Stuart Holden of football management.
Key Player – Brad Davis was probably the best player for Houston Dynamo last season, filling the void left by the departure of Stuart Holden to Bolton in the European winter transfer window. Though they should have attempted to replace him with a better, more established name Davis did a decent job scoring 5 and assisting 12 last season. The guy has a sweet left foot and operates mostly from that flank and has been at the club since the beginning of the franchise in 2006 when the rights of San Jose were sold to Houston but then San Jose decided to come back anyway.
One to Watch – May have pulled off a bit of a coup when drafting attacking defender Kofi Sarkodie in this year’s SuperDraft. Another member of the impressive University of Akron team with his impressive displays earning him a place in the NSCAA All-America team, Soccer America player of the year, College Cup’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player and part of the ESPN Academic All-America team of the year. The guy is a machine and should get his big break with Houston this season in a fairly average squad.
Prediction – Will struggle to do well in a strong Western Conference. Not completely terrible but certainly needs some work.
Our man in
Havana Miami America Scotland will be back on Scheidt’s Footballing Miscellany with more tales of Major League Soccer and football in that there North America starting with his preview of the MLS season for the East Coast very soon.