'The Doll' leads D.C. United's latest influx of South Americans
Thirteen years before his arrival to MLS this season, Marcelo Gallardo got a taste of American soccer - and it was bitter.
Nicknamed "El Muneco" (Doll) because of his diminutive size, Gallardo was the latest player the Argentines pegged to be the next Maradona when, at age 19, Argentina coach Daniel Passarella gave him the playmaker role in the 1995 Copa America. At the Uruguay-hosted tournament, the USA, with a 3-0 win, handed the Argentines one of their most embarrassing defeats ever.
Passarella left Gallardo out of the national team for two years after that, but Gallardo rebounded. He was in Argentina's 1998 and 2002 World Cup squads and enjoyed an illustrious club career, winning six Argentine league titles with River Plate and the 1996 Libertadores Cup. With Monaco, he won the French La Ligue title in 2000 and was named league MVP.
He joins D.C. United after a season with Paris St. Germain, replacing central midfielder Christian Gomez, who has joined Colorado. Gallardo played 44 times for Argentina and scored 14 goals - a resume that far exceeds that of fellow Argentine Gomez. But Gomez leaves large shoes to fill. As a late-season arrival in 2004, he helped D.C. United win the last of its four MLS titles that season. He was MLS MVP in 2006 and last year notched 10 goals and nine assists.
"Having Marcelo join our team follows a great tradition," said Kevin Payne, the president of D.C. United, which won its first three titles (1996, 1997 and 1999) with Marco Etcheverry pulling the midfield strings. "Our team has always been built around a certain type of play and we have been blessed to always have great attacking midfielders who conduct the symphony on the field. We are very confident that Marcelo will not only maintain that tradition but create a whole new tradition of his own."
Gallardo has plenty of options for his precise passes. Questions of how much D.C. can get out of Jaime Moreno, at age 34, aren't so troubling because, besides the return of MLS leading scorer Luciano Emilio (20 goals), there's the arrival of Franco Niell, a 24-year-old Argentine who scored 10 goals in 60 games for Argentinos Juniors.
Neill playing up front instead of Moreno would mean a D.C. United lineup with five newcomers. That's a significant shakeup for a team that wasn't too shabby in 2007.
D.C. United led all teams in regular-season play with 55 points, earning it the "Supporters Shield," while leading the league in goals with 56. Its 34 goals conceded were the fewest in the East. But a first-round elimination from the playoffs by Chicago put the rebuilding project in motion for a team that considers anything but the MLS Cup title unsatisfactory. And with Houston's back-to-back crowns after a pair of titles when the franchise was the San Jose Earthquakes, D.C. United's claim of historic supremacy is threatened.
To bolster its backline, Coach Tom Soehn has brought in Colombian Gonzalo Martinez and Argentine Gonzalo Peralta.
Martinez, who helped Millonarios reach the Copa Sudamericana semifinals last season, has also played in Italy and Paraguay, where he won a league title with Libertad. He has more than 30 caps for Colombia.
Peralta, 27, arrives from Argentine Second Division club Almirante Brown, which he helped win the 2007 Primera B Clausura title.
2 - NEW ENGLAND
Revs bank on experience, yet add plenty of youth
There are changes afoot in the New England camp, and not just in regards to a possible change of formation.
Some alterations are borne of necessity, as once again, the Revs lost some valuable performers during the offseason. Three young players are being groomed to replace attacker Pat Noonan, and two defenders came aboard in the wake of defender Avery John and utility man James Riley heading out of town.
Every preseason, Revs head coach Steve Nicol starts out playing four in the back so as not to overtax the wide midfielders who, short on fitness, otherwise would be running their lungs out in the 3-5-2 system New England has used as its primary formation since 2005. But this year, there's more than tinkering going on.
New England drafted central defender Rob Valentino with its first pick (No. 13 overall) in the SuperDraft and obtained veteran back-liner Chris Albright in a trade. The prospect of the 6-foot-3 Valentino, who sat out most of preseason rehabilitating a torn ACL in his right knee that cost him his senior season at the University of San Francisco, paired with the quick, smart Michael Parkhurst is formidable.
Whatever the formation, New England can use Albright, Parkhurst and Jay Heaps in the back, or slide another defender - perhaps Valentino in the middle, or Amaechi Igwe at left back -- to deploy a quartet. The Revs conceded 43 goals last season, sixth-best in MLS, after permitting the fewest (35) in 2006 and ranking tied for second (37) in 2005.
Nicol has choices for Taylor Twellman's partner up front. Adam Cristman started his rookie season strongly in Noonan's absence but didn't play much during the second half of the season. Wells Thompson found a starting spot late in the season but not up top; he took over the right side of midfield when Steve Ralston slid into the middle to replace Andy Dorman, who left MLS for Scottish club St. Mirren. Former Costa Rican U-20 forward Argenis Fernandez was signed in March, after the Revs had returned from trips to Bermuda and Mexico.
The midfield retains Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz, one of the league's best inside tandems and capable of throttling many MLS teams. Khano Smith, who at times terrorized opponents down the left flank, scored twice against Honduran club Marathon during preseason. Nicol is working 20-year-old Honduran Mauricio Castro into the mix. He can play on the left side or in the middle.
Former Gambia under-20 internationals Sainey Nyassi and Abdoulie Mansally, who signed last season following sharp showings in the FIFA U-20 World Cup, are other midfield elements who could be called into action during a busy season of league, Open Cup, and SuperLiga matches.
Albright adds an attacking element to the back line with his crossing, yet the four-man system is far more suited to his forays forward. And if Ralston retains the central slot Albright can serve the right-sided balls that are a forte of Ralston's game. Albright also has won three titles during his career with D.C. United and the Galaxy, something the Revs have failed to accomplish in four trips to MLS Cup, including the last three.
"I was surprised and disappointed to be traded, but this is a great organization and I couldn't have come to a better team," says Albright. "The only thing they haven't done is won a championship and I'm willing to do everything I can to get that done."
3 - CHICAGO
Finally the master, longtime apprentice Denis Hamlett Fires up
How about the Chicago Fire celebrating its 10th anniversary with its first MLS title since that inaugural season of 1998?
Considering its late-season performance in 2007, which ended with a narrow loss to New England in the semifinals, it may not be so far-fetched.
Leading the effort is Coach Denis Hamlett, who served the longest apprenticeship in MLS history, having been assistant to Chicago coaches Bob Bradley (1998-2002), Dave Sarachan (2003-07) and Juan Carlos Osorio (2007).
Osorio's short, celebrated stint ended when he left for the New York Red Bulls. So finally Hamlett, 39, gets to be at the helm after having seemed an obvious candidate for the many head-coaching jobs that opened up around the league throughout the years.
The Costa Rican-born Hamlett played college ball in the USA before a pro career that included indoor soccer and one year in MLS as a standout defender for Colorado in 1996.
When Osorio arrived in Chicago to replace Sarachan in the middle of last season, the Fire was in last place of the East with a 4-7-4 record. It finished at 10-10-10 and ousted D.C. United in the first round of the playoffs before the 1-0 loss to New England.
The resurgence under Osorio was sparked by two midseason acquisitions: Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Colombian Wilman Conde.
Blanco's arrival boosted home attendance - Chicago finished at 16,490 - and made the Fire the league's second highest road draw (17,418) next to David Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy.
Blanco, who should have been fatigued after joining the Fire with hardly a break from Mexican league and national team play, notched four goals and seven assists in 14 games. He kept his renowned temper in check while getting fouled 61 times, and his competitiveness and training habits were cited as infecting his teammates.
"To train with a player of his caliber does a lot to raise our level of play," says third-year forward Calen Carr. "He's a great playmaker."
But Blanco is 35 and the Fire will hope he receives more protection from refs during his first full season.
Less celebrated but just as key to last season's run was Conde, whom Osorio brought with him from Millonarios. Key to Chicago's plans for 2008 was preventing Conde, a clever defender able to launch attacks, from joining Osorio in New York.
With defensive midfielder Chris Armas having retired, defenders C.J. Brown and Diego Gutierrez are the only holdovers from the 1998 championship team. But lacking a consistent scorer is what's limited Chicago.
Not since Damani Ralph hit 11 in his last Fire season in 2004 has a Fire player hit the 10-goal mark. Last season's leading scorers Chad Barrett and Chris Rolfe managed just seven and six goals, respectively.
Costa Rican Andy Herron, who scored nine goals in 2006, returns to the Fire after notching four goals for Columbus in 10 starts last season. Carr, like so many college products, has shown promise without consistently finding the net. And so the Fire will hope Polish import Tomasz Frankowski delivers.
Frankowski, 33, has scored 10 times in 22 appearances for his country and led the Polish league in scoring three times while notching 115 goals in 173 games for Wizla Krakow. He's also played in France, Japan, Spain and England.
"He is clinical around the box and we feel he will fit in well with our system," says Hamlett.
4 - KANSAS CITY
Claudio Lopez signing marks another milestone for new ownership
Kansas City technical director Peter Vermes isn't downplaying expectations for Argentine striker Claudio Lopez, signed as a Designated Player by what used to be one of the most frugal teams in the league when it was owned by Hunt Sports Group.
Not so with OnGoal LLC, which has already built a training facility for the team and is steaming forward with a stadium project in south Kansas City. Until it's ready, renovations at Arrowhead Stadium have forced a move to CommunityAmerica Ballpark, a minor-league baseball facility that seats about 10,000.
"The six owners feel that it's extremely important for us to have success on and off the field," says Vermes. "And whether they have 10,000 or 50,000 seats available, they're going to put the best team they can on the field. Committing to this player, to getting a Designated Player, before we move into a new stadium, I think speaks volumes."
Vermes evaluates Lopez in DP terms: perhaps equal to in scoring prowess to Red Bull Juan Pablo Angel, who notched 19 goals in his first MLS season, and more famous even than Fire talisman Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Besides that, there's no pressure on the 33-year-old who played in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups and comes to MLS after playing in Mexico, Italy and Spain.
Head coach Curt Onalfo tried some different things in preseason, using a 3-5-2 formation more often than the 4-4-2 system he utilized most of the time last year. Kansas City also obtained Colombian striker Ivan Trujillo, and the possible pairing of Lopez and Trujillo (or Scott Sealy) up top, serviced by Argentine playmaker Carlos Marinelli, and perhaps Colombian winger Eloy Colombano, radically alters the look and style and ambitions of the Wizards.
"He's more of a target forward and that's something this team really hasn't had since the days of Miklos Molnar," says defender Jimmy Conrad, who arrived in Kansas City long after 17 goals (five in the playoffs) by the robust Danish striker led the Wizards to victory in MLS Cup 2000. "We have options up top, but having those two guys and Marinelli changes the way we move the ball, and makes us really dangerous going forward."
Offseason surgery for Davy Arnaud - to repair a micro-fracture in his knee, the same injury that sidelined 2007 NBA No. 1 draft pick Greg Oden- sidelined him for most of the preseason, permitting rookie Chance Myers to play a lot of minutes on the right side of midfield. Onalfo also gave Myers some time on the back line, where Jack Jewsbury is in contention. Tyson Wahl played well enough in preseason to earn first crack at the left-side spot.
If Onalfo retains the 3-5-2, two midfielders - veteran Kerry Zavagnin and second-year player Kurt Morsink are most likely - will provide cover for Marinelli, whose sharpness in preseason further fuels the optimism generated by Lopez.
"The mentality that we've brought to this club is we're a team that likes to send numbers forward and attack," says Onalfo, who led Kansas City into the playoffs in his rookie season as head coach following two straight postseason absences. "We know he's going to be successful both scoring goals and setting up goals, but most importantly he's a team player. He will make it very easy for the next guy just because he's got so much experience and class on and off the ball."
5 - NEW YORK
Can Coach No. 10 succeed where so many others have failed?
Here we go again - wondering if this is the season MLS's biggest market will finally have a team worth bragging about.
From when they launched in the league's inaugural 1996 season as the MetroStars, to their last two seasons as the New York Red Bulls, the franchise has disappointed despite an array of highly touted coaches and players.
Coach No. 10 is Juan Carlos Osorio, who in 2000-01 served as a MetroStars assistant coach to Octavio Zambrano. Osorio, a native of Colombia, settled in New York in the latter years of his playing career. He was a Manchester City assistant coach for six years (2001-06) before becoming head coach of Colombia's Millonarios and then reviving the Fire after arriving in Chicago last summer.
When the Red Bulls gave up on Bruce Arena after a season and half, Osorio proved a mutually good fit because of his family's desire to return to New York.
Arena, the USA's most successful coach ever, was just one of a long line of big name coaches who failed to win a title with the club. Current U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley had a three-season stint. Brazilian 1994 World Cup winner Carlos Alberto Parreira tried in 1997 after he succeeded Carlos Queiroz, who won youth world championships with Portugal and now is Alex Ferguson's assistant at Manchester United.
Bora Milutinovic, famous as the only man to coach five different teams - including the USA in 1994 - at five World Cups, was the least successful of them all.
"It always comes down to the players," says Osorio, who going into the season was still looking to fill holes in the Red Bulls roster.
The Red Bulls do return their best of 2007: Juan Pablo Angel. The Colombian was MLS's most productive player last season with 19 goals and five assists. Also boding well for Osorio's project is that Angel's 18-year-old frontline partner, Jozy Altidore, keeps getting better.
Altidore scored nine goals in 22 games (15 starts) and in March scored in his U.S. national team debut, a 2-2 tie with Mexico.
Dutch midfielder Dave van den Bergh led the team in assists with eight. Dane Richards, a 24-year-old Jamaican who played college ball in the USA, enjoyed a fine rookie season on the right flank while notching six assists. He'll miss the first couple of months with a knee injury.
The most important factor in Osorio's challenge - besides shoring up a defense that gave up 45 goals - is getting the most out of former U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, who joined the Red Bulls as a Designated Player in 2007 after a 12-year European career.
That injuries limited him to 21 of the 30 regular season games proved frustrating, but when he did play, Reyna was saddled with defensive duty. Should a player who may be the league's best passer be used to defend in his own penalty area?
Osorio is looking for Reyna to provide the "final pass." It would mean converting from the defensive midfielder role he played last season to a more attacking role, behind the two-man frontline in a 3-4-1-2 lineup.
Of course, alleviating Reyna of defensive toil requires the Red Bulls have other players who can competently marshal the back. None of their defenders rated among MLS's top 20 backline players in Soccer America's 2007 rankings.
For Osorio, the challenge won't be any easier than it was for those who came before him.
COLUMBUS - 6
Recent arrivals spark a major makeover in Crewland
While a few new players will certainly influence the fortunes in Crewland this season, several others embarking on a second season of sorts may ultimately decide if a three-year postseason absence is to be ended.
First up is Argentine attacker Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who registered five goals and 11 assists in his inaugural MLS season by playing a floating, drifting, swooping free role that befuddled opponents and also, at times, teammates. He missed most of September with injuries and during that month Columbus fell out of the playoff chase by winning just one of five games.
Alejandro Moreno, whom head coach Sigi Schmid drafted out of UNC Greensboro as coach of the Galaxy, came to Columbus last season from Houston in a trade and ended up leading the team with seven goals in 25 games. With he and Schelotto playing their second seasons together, Schmid believes their interplay with each other and Robbie Rogers - another player in his second season with the Crew -and Eddie Gaven can produce consistent scoring. One of the new arrivals, ex-Rapid Nicolas Hernandez, is also in the mix.
Rogers needed some time to adjust to MLS after arriving in midseason from Dutch club Heerenveen and started just six of 10 games, but he netted three goals, including a pair in the season finale, a 3-2 defeat of D.C. United at RFK Stadium.
"We let our guys roam about a little bit," says Schmid of a fluid formation that can resemble a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3, or a 4-2-3-1 at different times. "We let Guillermo dictate and so sometimes he's in the middle and Niko's on the flanks. Sometimes Guillermo's on the flank and Niko's in the middle and Rogers is on one. As long as one of those three covers those three spaces, I'm okay with it. We want to see Robbie higher more often this year, perhaps playing in conjunction with Moreno at times."
Schmid has taken steps to revamp the back line and like most teams in MLS, has turned to Argentina. Gino Padula, 31, has been signed to take over at left back. A product of the River Plate system, he comes to MLS from French club Montpellier following stints in England with Wigan, Queens Park Rangers and Nottingham Forest.
"He's a left back with good ball skills," says Schmid. "He can come forward from the back and he's also good on set pieces. Those are pluses."
Schmid has moved defensive midfielder Danny O'Rourke to central defense. He replaces Chilean defender Marcos Gonzalez, who was sold to Universidad Catolica in his native country. The tandem of O'Rourke and Chad Marshall in the middle pleased Schmid during the team's visit to England to play the Everton and Blackburn reserve teams, but a proposed three-game trip to New Orleans had to be cancelled and deprived Columbus of some valuable competitive action.
As preseason wound down, Schmid and general manager Mark McCullers were awaiting completion of deals that would land Nigerian attacker Emmanuel Ekpo and Brazilian forward Guilherme So.
Bill Hesmer established himself as the starter in goal last year by playing 20 of 30 games; in 2006, the Crew used five other goalies.
"It's good to get the goalkeeping situation sorted after we had some confusion there," says Schmid. "I think we've addressed the areas we've needed to address, so regardless of when these signings get done we'll be ready for the start of the season."
7 - TORONTO FC
Imports alter the outlook north of the border in the second year
Mo Johnston has shed the role of head coach to serve as TFC manager and director of soccer, but a more apt title might be that made famous by Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.
With less than two weeks remaining in the preseason, Johnston had yet to sign several trialists who had been with the team for more than a month but had reached a serious stage in negotiations to bring AWOL Honduran midfielder Amado Guevara back to MLS.
Outside back Marco Velez, and midfielders Martin Brittain and Kiki Musampa played with TFC in the Texas Pro Soccer Festival and another trialist, Victor Pacheco, joined the team for the Carolina Challenge Cup.
An agreement with Velez of the Puerto Rico Islanders was reached during the latter competition. If Velez can adjust to the rigors of MLS and handle the starting job, Marvell Wynne can keep the right midfield slot he occupied in the second half of the season.
TFC traded for Guevara's rights prior to last season, but rather than accept the move north from Chivas USA, he walked out and eventually went to Motagua in a loan deal. Seeing that TFC could be well-stocked in midfield if its possible deals come to fruition, he may not stay long. Yet Johnston coached Guevara during the last days of the MetroStars and may have a spot set aside for him.
Johnston and head coach John Carver, hired in February after paying a short visit to Toronto just prior to Christmas, didn't rack up many victories in preseason while concentrating most of the time on fitness. At halftime of a 1-0 loss to San Jose in South Carolina, Carver tore into his players for their poor effort.
Rookie of the Year Maurice Edu missed most of the preseason to play for the U.S. national team and the Olympic team, and Wynne was selected for the under-23s as well. In the English style being instilled by Carver, their power and speed can mesh well with the forward pair of Danny Dichio and Jeff Cunningham.
"The team is showing a lot of progress and the mentality and work rate of all the guys is good," says Edu. "The style that Coach John Carver is bringing in, they understand it, and I think it's going to be a good year for us."
TFC is looking good off the field also. After cutting off season-ticket sales at 14,000 last season, which yielded a 6-17-7 record, team management went up to 16,000 before shutting down. Yet with group sales and mini-packages also selling well, only a few hundred tickets, at most, could be available for games.
Despite the BMO bedlam present at every home game, TFC scored just 17 goals, only one more than Colorado and Chicago, bottom-dwellers in home goalscoring. Only one team, Real Salt Lake, won fewer home games than the five managed by TFC.
Johnston and Carver can search far and wide for players, and under new rules adopted by MLS will be able to sign more American players without have them counting against the increased limit of eight internationals per game, but in 2008 job one is to better serve the best environment in MLS.
(This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)