MLS at Mid-Season
It is time for a mid-season review of the 2009 Major League Soccer season. There are still many games to be played and all of the teams are still alive, although we are almost at the point of tossing in the damning “mathematically” into any sentence that includes New York. Considering that the various MLS teams have played a varying number of games, if you extrapolate the results so far based on a 30 game season and Houston, Chicago, Columbus and Chivas USA would win playoff berths by finishing at the top of their respective conferences. Seattle, DC United, Colorado and Toronto would grab the remaining four spots. Los Angeles, Kansas City, Salt Lake and New England would fall just short. Dallas, San Jose and New York would get to work on their golf game early. Instead of giving a report card for the various MLS teams – positions on the ladder and point totals already do that better than I can – I’m going to grade myself by comparing the reality of today with my prognostication powers of the past. Let’s just say I’ve done okay, but I probably should not be waiting by the mailbox for that letter from Harvard. EASTERN CONFERENCE
First, the East where I was close for the most part, but the two blunders are doozies. Chicago, Columbus and Toronto are all fighting for the pennant, while Kansas City and New England are still in contention for a playoff berth. On opposite ends of the spectrum, DC United and New York are nowhere near where I imagined them three months ago.
DC United Preseason Quote:
“Unless DC can shore up their defense, spark their moribund offense and find a leader like the constantly injured Ben Olsen, United’s next title will not come until they have moved to Maryland.”
Instead of bringing up the rear, which is where I thought DC United would be after an off-season filled with more problems than answers, United leads the pack. With only one win in their first five games, it looked as though DC would be in the doldrums, but the job Tom Soehn and company have done is fantastic.
The red and black then went on a run with only one loss in their next ten games. How did they do it?
The deal that brought Josh Wicks (a player who first caught my eye in his USL days with Portland) and his eventual takeover of the starting spot has helped solidify the defense. Even more than the return to form of Luciano Emilio and the welcome return of team leader Ben Olsen, it was the emergence of rookies Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace.
Only New York has given up more goals than United, but the offense leads the league in scoring. Luciano Emilio shook off a slow start to lead the attack, while Jaime Moreno, Gomez and Pontius have also chipped in.
The early leader for comeback player of the year is Santino Quaranta who leads the team with six assists and is playing well enough to get a call-up to the national team for the Gold Cup. With the club sold to MLS Superfan Will Chang, the only black spot is the continuing search for a home to call their own.
New York Red Bulls Preseason Quote:
“It looks to be another season in the shadow of the Cosmos and another year of rebuilding. This time it is on the defensive side as the Red Bulls have held on to much of their promising attack from last year. However, keeping the opposition at bay will be the key to New York's success in 2009.”
Well, I was right about the defensive woes, but even the harshest critic could not have predicted the woeful state of the New York Red Bulls. A year ago, they were in the MLS Cup Final. Today, they have a league worst 15 goals scored, and a league worst 30 goals allowed. It’s no surprise New York is already counting down the days to Opening Day 2010.
Injuries to Juan Pablo Angel and Mac Kandji have slowed down the attack, but the shear incompetence in the back always seems to have the Bulls playing catch-up. Neither Jon Conway nor Danny Cepero have played consistently well enough, which means ex-Rapid Bouna Coundoul has a chance to make an impact in the second half of the season.
Head coach Juan Carlos Osorio finally cut bait with Juan Pietrovallo, but despite his class and pedigree Alberto Celades hasn’t adapted much better to his new surroundings. When healthy, Kandji hasn’t turned many of his parlor tricks into goals, and Angel’s broken body has gotten the better of the Colombian striker.
With only two wins in their opening 19 games, the Bulls find themselves 11 points out of the final playoff spot. That’s nearly four games back with only 11 left to play. Can they fight back to respectability? If they can turn the tide of bad luck, absolutely. However, respectable won’t be good enough to make the post-season and that won’t be good enough for Osorio to keep his job.
In the West, most of the teams are still too close to separate. However, there are two obvious ‘deviations’ from my pre-season rankings, Chivas USA and FC Dallas. I still think it’s too early to write off the Hoops chances, especially now that it appears they’re finding their form. However, it looks like Preki has the Goats in good shape for another post-season run.
FC Dallas Preseason Quote:
“In some ways, FC Dallas will finish atop the west by default. A good team, but not a great team yet. The addition of Dave Van den Bergh should give Kenny Cooper some good service from the left flank, and with a pre-season under his belt Jeff Cunningham will provide even more firepower … The one area that will keep them from winning everything is in defense. Adrian Serioux is the latest to leave Big-D – and they still have not adequately replaced Clarence Goodson after his departure a year ago.”
I really thought that the addition of Colombian midfielder David Ferreira would be the final piece of the puzzle to propel Dallas to the top of the table. He’s starting to find his legs, and Dallas is starting to win but it’s been a horrible start to the season in Big-D.
The potential of Brek Shea is starting to gel into reality, Jeff Cunningham is hitting his stride and Brazilian midfielder Andre Rocha is showing signs of returning to the form he showed at Atletico Paranaense. The injury to Dario Sala has seriously hurt the side, both defensively and by sidelining one of Dallas’s leaders on the field.
Chivas USA Preseason Quote:
“There is plenty of veteran leadership on the side, but not enough difference-makers. The team is still trying to sort out the goalkeeper situation after Brad Guzan left last year. However, I think their real problems lie elsewhere. There is too little oomph in the midfield and too little depth up front to consider Chivas a serious contender.”
I don’t feel as bad about misreading Chivas USA because within days of picking them to finish near the bottom of the West, Preki had take steps to strengthen his squad.
Picking up Mexican veterans Eduardo Lillingston and Mariano Trujillo and Serbian midfielder Bojan Stepanovic shored up the starting lineup and the return of Claudio Suarez to the fold brought in some locker room leadership. The Goats continue to mine the rich vein of young talent in the system. Homegrown midfielder Gerson Mayen has been a very pleasant surprise.
Still, goalkeeper Zach Thornton has proved to be Quaranta’s biggest competition for the best comeback this season. After taking a trip in the time machine, Thornton is showing the skills that helped lead Chicago to MLS dominance at the beginning of his MLS career.
I could also include Colorado as a surprise, but in my pre-season predictions I admitted, “if all the pieces fall in place perfectly, the Rapids could finish as high as fourth.” Head coach Gary Smith might not be working miracles, but he does have the club headed in the right direction.
Conor Casey is fulfilling his promise and Colin Clark continues to be one of the most underrated players in the league. Two other players deserve mention as Jordan Harvey has arguably turned into the best left back in the league, while Omar Cummings skills are finally catching up to his speed.
As we head towards the All Star break, you have to feel good standing with Houston, Chivas and Chicago right now. And it’s rally cap time in Dallas, San Jose and New York. There are still a lot of games to be played and coaching changes and new faces can make a difference down the stretch.
|Chicago||DC United||Chicago (48)|
|Toronto||Columbus||DC United (42)|
|New York||Toronto||Toronto (41)|
|New England||Kansas City||Kansas City (38)|
|Kansas City||New England||New England (37)|
|DC United||New York||New York (16)|
|Houston||Chivas USA||Chivas USA (54)|
|Salt Lake||Colorado||Colorado (42)|
|San Jose||Los Angeles||Los Angeles (39)|
|Chivas USA||Salt Lake||Salt Lake (38)|
|Los Angeles||Dallas||Dallas (32)|
|Colorado||San Jose||San Jose (26)|