Sorry, gang. This one is gonna be long.
See, why do people rush their MLS previews? I waited until after Opening Day one year, still didn't get much right. There might be stuff coming over the wire RIGHT THIS SECOND! I'd better go check!
...nope. Okay, enough procrastination.
If there's one thing we're going to see this year, it's a lot more emphasis on defense. Backlines around the league were weak enough last year, and how many of all those internationals signed over the past year were defenders? Xavier, Conde, Mantilla, Davino, Wicky, Peralta. All the other guys you're excited about? Offensive players.
So the games are going to be goalfests, right? Dream on. Coaches are a supertitious, cowardly lot, but they're not stupid, and don't think they're going to take all this importing of exciting international players lying down. If they don't have the personnel to handle the onslaughts, they do have the formations. To paraphrase Orwell, picture the second game of the Chivas USA-Kansas City playoff series stamping on a human face, forever.
Let's start with the West, because I'm fighting the East Coast bias.
If there's one thing that annoyed the crap out of me last year - and trust me, gang, there was a lot more than one thing - it was all the pundits who picked Houston to win it all last year based on NOTHING except a penalty kick shootout. And it's happening again this year. Predicting what happened last year? How imaginative. That stupid pick paid off last year, to make it worse. Yeah, sure you didn't jump off the bandwagon when they finished up April in fifth place or whatever. Yeah, sure you all knew the Dynamo were going to win without Brian Ching in the final.
And it's happening again. Everyone's picking Houston, because they're a dynasty, after all. In their two Cup wins the past two years, they haven't won a conference title, nor have they beaten a team who has won a conference title. The hard work was always done for them - the teams who stamped their tickets to MLS Cup? Freaking Colorado and Kansas City. Those teams combined were under .500. Then all they had to do was hold it together against a New England Revolution team who shows up in November so tight you couldn't get a green pea between their buttcheeks. I hate the Dynamo.
Depressingly, they're going to win the Supporters Shield at least this year. The main reason is consistency - even if you like the upgrades that the rest of the division made, and for the most part I sort of do, one upgrade Houston will benefit from is Dwayne De Rosario. He was just kind of there last season, until the second game of the playoffs - then he was back to obliterating guys. If people think all these imports are going to tear up the league, then imagine what a motivated De Rosario will do. I think he shows up week in and week out this year, and I think Houston gets nice and fat off teams trying to figure out their best lineups.
Then there's Pat Onstad. The best golfer is black, the best rapper is white, the best MLS goalkeeper is Canadian. What can you do. He's roughly a good month or two away from being hands down the best keeper in the history of the league - he already has the most rings. Unless Onstad goes from best keeper in MLS to sixteenth best, or unless Bobby Boswell is as bad these days as Eric Wynalda says he is, the Dynamo are going to have the best defense again, as well.
One note of worry. Wynalda said "Kinnear is hands down the best coach that this league has ever seen." Last year: "Frank Yallop is hands down the best coach I've ever watched work in this league." RED ALERT!*
Speaking of Soccernet, Jeff Carlisle really pissed me off by calling Franco Caraccio the Dyanmo's X-factor - because he beat me to it. Procrastination has a downside, who knew. My heart sank to the floor when Houston signed him to replace Jaqua and Ngwenya - another tough forward was exactly what the Dynamo needed, filled out the last question mark on the lineup, and set them up to absolutely demolish this little league of ours. Then he sits for Chris Wondolowski. Maybe this is Wondolowski's breakout year. Maybe Caraccio is the latest in a long line of former youth internationals who turn into Memo Gonzalez. He's an inch taller than Brian Mullan, and nearly twenty pounds heavier, so I think Caraccio's MLS career hinges on whether that's muscle or fat.
Still, even if Franco's a bust, I'm seeing Houston handling the West fairly easily.
Hey, what about Bizarro Chivas? They had a better record than Houston last year, and they've got the only keeper right now who can compare with Onstad. Why aren't they Shield favorites? Well, first of all, to paraphrase their target fanbase, who cares? Secondly, Miami and San Jose already have followed up Shield-winning years by moving or folding, and frankly by now it's a little cliched. It also makes keeping track of the Shield way too much of a hassle. Third, teams that stink on the road tend not to win the Supporters Shield.
Look, Houston is deeper, stronger, and more talented. I can see agonizing between Guzan and Onstad. But you'd really take Galindo over Ching? You'd really take Kljestan over De Rosario? You like Jonathan Bornstein over Wade Barrett? Okay, yeah, me too on that last one.
If the Caraccio acquisition is an X-factor, the Raphael Wicky deal is mystifying. First of all, frankly, I've had enough of Chivas USA's ethnic pandering to the Swiss community. More to the point, the league opens up the rulebook to allow an unprecedented number of international players...and Chivas USA brings in a defensive midfielder. And they already had Marsch and Nagamura. Way to address need.
They thought the problem in the playoffs last year was that Galindo was out and Razov was banged up. It wasn't. It was that even a middling team like last year's Wizards could impose a gameplan and dictate the pace of play. If CUSA had gotten the tying goal, you know what would have happened? The Wizards would simply have gotten another goal, and then gone back into the shell. Preki and the brain trust think Alecko Eskandarian risking another concussion, Hospital Harris off the bench, and yet another d-mid is going to make the difference.
And if the rumors have any sort of basis, and they're looking at Bofo Bautista? God help them. First round elimination, same as last year.
It could have been worse. The United Kingdom could have had sane employment policies. So, Matt Pickens can go to Queen's Park Rangers, but Aston Villa can't sign Brad Guzan? Because Guzan would be taking a job away from a Premiership-quality keeper, and there are tons of British subjects at that level? The same ones being shoved aside by Pickens? Bad craziness.
If I wasn't absolutely, 100% convinced that Duilio Davino was going to be a big honking flop, I'd say Dallas was going to win MLS Cup this year. They'll do something almost as impressive, though - win a playoff series.
It's a shame about Davino, because I'm crazy about their other acquisitions. I already liked Toja, Ricchetti and Ricardinho, and I'll bet you did too. I'm pretty positive on Cooper, Oduro and Thompson to help FCD fans forget whatshisname, Gill Slits.
That defense, though. Ugh. Onomatopoeic grunting is all I can say about it. I know it sounds stupid to say "Man, they'll miss Clarence Goodson," but man, they'll miss Clarence Goodson. Yeah, I know Drew Moor is a youth international. So was Franco Caraccio, look what happened to him. FCD, like Los Angeles, is one of those teams that could win it all or miss the playoffs entirely. I'm sticking them both in third and fourth, but if the Rocky Mountain teams smoke them, please don't paddle me.
I think I DID pick Los Angeles to go to MLS Cup already, so I think I'll be insane and stick with that pick. The problem with that pick is, if it happened, the whole world would think the league is fixed. Besides, the Galaxy have never made it to the party when it was held at their house. Oh, and their defense makes statues weep with pity.
On the other hand - Beckham, Donovan, Ruiz. And Ruud Gullit. There aren't that many ways to compensate for a godawful defense, but there are a couple. One is to score a whole lot more goals than the other guys, but the other is to absolutely control possession. That's what Gullit is trying to re-introduce to the Galaxy - they used to be good at it back in the Cienfuegos days - and if that ends up clicking, the league is just not prepared for it. If it works even half the time, that's fifteen wins right there. The other half, of course, is fifteen ugly, ugly losses.
There's no sane reason to expect that the Galaxy beats Houston in the playoffs, except last year Houston nearly booted the playoffs to FC Dallas. Los Angeles is the prototypical miss the playoffs or win it all team.
They're also the prototypical villains. Between Beckham, Donovan, and Ruiz, that's three of the most hated players in league history lining up next to each other. They literally might as well sign Hollywood Hogan, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash while they're at it. (One of those guys can play goalkeeper, right?) They'll have as many fans as the guy who threw his pregnant wife down the stairs in "Fried Green Tomatoes." Probably fewer, come to think of it - she was kind of mouthy.
KIDDING! I'm KIDDING! It's a JOKE! COMEDY! FUN! YAY!
THREE more teams? Seattle and who else? Man, this is taking a while. Sorry.
Salt Lake is a popular choice to improve, and if they had continued to bring in guys like Mantilla, Espindola and Morales, I'd put them in the playoffs. I'm not sold on Dr. Goal, though. I'm really not sold on Ian Joy, love St. Pauli though we all do, and between Dema Kovalenko and Kyle Beckerman, it's like they're trying to get Jason Kreis booed in Dallas. An admirable goal, sure, but not one that spells out victory.
Also not sold on Jason Kreis as a coach. There are a lot of moving parts in this edition of the Royals, and I'm not seeing how they mesh. It's a weird mix of styles between the Three Amigos on the one hand, and Kovalenko, Joy and Nat Borchers on the other. I don't want to moan on their behalf about missing some combination of Findley, Seitz and Sturgis for the Olympics, mostly because I think those guys are a good year away from making a serious impact on the league. But missing them won't help. I think a serious run at the playoffs will have to wait until the new stadium. Like it did for Colorado, oh wait.
When I say "I hate Colorado," I don't actually hate them. I just hate their chances. I think they're importing Christian Gomez just in time for the downturn of his MLS career, and surrounding him with less talented players. Yes, I love Terry Cooke and Herculez Gomez, too. Yes, Bouna Coundoul is wonderful to watch, and he'll have some help through the sheer villainy of Petke, Ihemelu, Burciaga and Ward. That's going to be one of the better defenses in the league...but remember, MLS defenses kind of stink these days.
But it's coaching. Okay, it's Jovan Kirovski and coaching, but mostly coaching. How do you even go about reading good things about Fernando Clavijo? The nicest thing I've read about him in the past two years is that he was underrated in New England picking up the pieces after Walter Zenga - and that was ME, JUST NOW. He doesn't think he went into the Hall of Fame as a coach, does he?
Frank Yallop paid attention over the years, and he is building an expansion team exactly the correct way, if you want that expansion team to compete - serious veteran leadership from the back, and a huge emphasis on defense. Stay in games, don't get blown out, take advantage of opportunities. Cannon, Garcia, Cochrane, Guerrero - good picks. If Goodson had stuck around - and John Doyle should have made sure he did - then the Quakes would have taken the field with one of the top four or five defenses in the league.
They'll go 6-22-2, though. Three wins over the Galaxy, because Yallop and Doyle will play those games under Aztec rules. And three wins over Houston, as the Dynamo keep passing to the guys in Earthquake jerseys by mistake. A couple of scoreless draws - that's what the Crew are for, after all - and the rest of they year, they'll be the league's Johnny Appleseed for points. Might as well put them in cloudy jade.
Okay, let's take a break, then look at the East. Yay, another huge wall of text on the way!
*In all seriousness, I love Eric Wynalda. I'm going to end up being his last living fan. Just like with Alexi Lalas. If Sartre were alive, he'd write "No Exit II - MLS Edition" with the three of us stuck in an elevator, with Lalas and Wynalda kind of glaring at each other and trying to avoid making eye contact with me while I asked them things like if Thomas Dooley was really as nice as he seemed.