Now, How Stupid Do You Feel Now?

>> Sunday

"There is no chance (MLS) will survive. Absolutely no chance whatsoever."- Nye Lavalle, Sports Marketing Group, in The Sporting News, 6/27/94

"There's a better chance of a national health plan being passed by Congress than of a major pro (soccer) league in America."- Art Spander, San Francisco Examiner, 6/5/94.

"The World Cup, should no one get killed, is a fabulous event. Enjoy it. And enjoy the next one. And if, in between, you patronize any and all pro soccer leagues that begin here, enjoy them too. They'll be gone faster than the girl over there with the hula hoop."- Sportswriter Phil Mushnick, New York Post, 6/15/94.

My annual MLS Season Preview is noted for two things. How few people read it, and how big of a crapshoot it is, making me look like a total dumbass by the end of the season. So I figure if I'm going to look like a dumbass, I might as well drag three other dumbasses down with me; three of the many who anticipated 15 years ago that MLS wouldn't last three seasons, let alone seek to kick off its 14th campaign on Thursday.
That night, MLS debutant Seattle Sounders FC hosts its inaugural game as the league's 15th club against MLS Cup Finalist Red Bull New York at Qwest Field in front of 32,000 people and a league-record 22,000 season ticket-holders (outselling the Mariners). The only thing bad about this game is the fact that it is probably the worst-scheduled season opener in the history of MLS.

Playoff spots are increasingly hard to come by. As recently as 2004, all but two teams in MLS made the postseason tournament. This year, 8 of 15 teams will make the tournament, a ratio more in line with the NBA and NHL. This year, the top two teams in each conference and the next four teams regardless of record qualify for the playoffs.

In addition, qualification for continental competition is at stake over the course of the 30-game campaign and playoffs leading up to MLS Cup 2009 in Seattle. The Regular Season Champion, MLS Cup Finalists, and US Open Cup winner qualify for the 2010-2011 CONCACAF Champions League.

The top four teams in the regular season who have not already qualified for the Champions League qualify for SuperLiga. With that, it's time for the preview.

2008 Finish: Columbus, Chicago, New England, Kansas City, New York, DC United, Toronto FC
2009 Predicted Finish: Chicago, Columbus, Toronto FC, New England, DC United, New York, Kansas City

Sure, it may be the homer in me, and yes, they have some trouble with age (Brian McBride, Cuauhtemoc Blanco are both deep in their 30s) but I am going to go out on a limb this year and say that Chicago Fire will win the Supporters' Shield as regular season champions and qualify for the Champions League for the first time. No team is as complete back to front as the Fire. The Fire's backline was one of the league-leaders last year, the midfield is solidly staffed by stars Chris Rolfe and Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and filled in with great role players like John Thorrington and Logan Pause. Brian McBride up top should be able to consistently deliver, especially if paired alongside another forward (either moving Rolfe up top from the midfield or with speedy striker Patrick Nyarko, who showed great promise last season before going down with an injury. Chicago also has 2008 Goalkeeper of the Year Jon Busch, and some solid young talent in Baggio Husidic from UIC, and Marco Pappa from Guatemala. If one of them can come on for Blanco at about the 70-minute mark, the Fire should be clicking on all cylinders.

Columbus is the defending League and Cup champs, so I have to put them in a close second. They haven't lost too much, but I am slotting Columbus here based on the sheer fact that only one team has managed to repeat as Supporters Shield winners (DC United 2006 & 2007). Columbus loses Head Coach Sigi Schmid to Seattle, but has otherwise kept most of the team in tact. Columbus proved last year (and Houston and New England before them) that one of the keys to beating MLS's system of parity is to play together as a core for many many years. This is why I have Columbus and Chicago at the top.

Toronto similarly should benefit from a core that has been through the fires of the past two disappointing seasons, and the addition of Dwayne DeRosario gives them a powerful force in the midfield. I'm unsure about their back line, but if the Reds can make a signing or a summer transfer to shore it up, TFC could be looking at its first playoff challenge.

New England, Kansas City, and New York should finish middle of the pack in interchangeable order. New England has kept their core together, but they are getting old, and I'm not sure how many years the Revs have left in them to win an MLS Cup. Kansas City suffers from a genuine lack of starpower. A team of role players may win some games, make for a nice story, and maybe even get to the playoffs (like KC did last year) but once you get there, it's one and done as KC was completely outclassed by Columbus last fall. New York's cup final run appeared to have a bit of luck to it. After all, this is the team that got thrashed 5-2 in their final game, and needed DC United to hit the post 3 times to get in. New York re-signed Juan Pablo Angel, but there's too many question marks on this team for me to justify placing them any higher. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but if it's anything like last year, I really don't know which RBNY team will show up week-to-week. I mean, New York lost all three games to Chicago, by 5-1, 1-0, and 5-2 scorelines, but New York went to the Final while the Fire watched on TV. Go figure.

DC will benefit greatly from the return of Christian Gomez, as they sorely missed his playmaking creativity last season. DC also cast off it's cast of South American washouts who were highly touted and woefully disappointing last year. The big question mark is how will DC perform in the Champions League, having qualified via the US Open Cup, but last year finished last in their group, and 9th in the league.

MLS Anthem Dance Remix Video For 2009 First Kick from MLS Rumors on Vimeo.

2008 Finish: Houston, Chivas USA, RSL, Colorado, FC Dallas, LA Galaxy, San Jose
2009 Finish: Chivas USA, RSL, Houston, San Jose, Seattle, FC Dallas, Colorado, LA Galaxy

Out West, I like Chivas USA to win the West, and maybe even represent the West at MLS Cup. Their core of Bornstein, Kleistjan, and Razov have been together for several years now. If Dan Kennedy can step up and fill the shoes of current Aston Villa keeper Brad Guzan, Chivas could become a trophy contender. RSL has a similar record of relative stability. Houston has several good players, but in this season, unlike past, not only will the Dynamo miss the playmaking midfielder Dwayne DeRosario (to Toronto), but you get the sense that unlike past Dynamo teams, the whole team is nothing more than the sum of its parts. There are some solid parts, no doubt, but there's not the sense of anticipation this year.

San Jose came on strong at the end of last season, and with Joe Cannon manning the nets and Darren Huckerby (who is probably one of the 10 best players in the league) for a full season, San Jose looks like they could challenge for a playoff spot.

Dallas is in a total tailspin. Ticket sales are sluggish. The team is terrible, and looks to be more of the same this year with Kenny Cooper likely missing extensive stretches of time with National team duty. After that, the team's talent level drops off significantly. Colorado is in a similar situation, and LA Galaxy is a walking soap opera trying to squeeze every last drop out of David Beckham before he leaves for AC Milan at the end of the season.

Final Standings (if I had to guess)
  1. Chicago
  2. Columbus
  3. Chivas USA
  4. RSL
  5. Toronto FC
  6. Houston
  7. New England
  8. San Jose
  9. DC United
  10. Seattle
  11. New York
  12. Colorado
  13. Dallas
  14. Kansas City
  15. LA Galaxy

Playoff teams
East #1 and #2: Chicago and Columbus
West #1 and #2: Chivas USA, RSL
Wild Cards: New England, Toronto, Houston, San Jose

Champions League Teams
Chicago, Toronto (via Canadian Championship), Houston (Open Cup), Columbus (via some method of qualification), Chivas USA (MLS Cup Finalist?)

SuperLiga Teams
RSL, New England, San Jose, DC United


Paul 10:12 PM  

"In addition, qualification for continental competition is at stake over the course of the 30-game campaign and playoffs leading up to MLS Cup 2009 in Seattle. The Regular Season Champion, MLS Cup Finalists, and US Open Cup winner qualify for the 2010-2011 CONCACAF Champions League. The top four teams in the regular season who have not already qualified for the Champions League qualify for SuperLiga. With that, it's time for the preview."

No wonder nobody watches soccer. The team names don't even tell you what city the team plays in, and the playoff system makes no sense. I'm perplexed.

Mike 8:35 AM  

Playoffs: Top 2 in each conference, plus 4 wild cards.

Champions League: Regular season best record, US Open Cup winner, MLS Cup Finalists.

SuperLiga: Top 4 teams that didn't qualify for the Champions League. Sort of like the NIT.

It's a little complex because no other North American sport has multiple competitions going on at the same time like soccer does.

But compared to wondering how the hell Wisconsin got into the NCAA Tournament, it actually looks relatively simple.

MLSR 4:30 AM  

To Paul: Apparently 32,000 watched soccer in Seattle last night. Buncha nobodies?

Mike 2:44 PM  

Thanks for checking in on our little blog, MLSR. Your site has been kind of like my MLS equivalent of cocaine for a while now.

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