1 - HOUSTON
Two-time champion Dynamo is not fazed by offseason departures
A packed schedule of domestic and international competitions, a championship squad depleted by offseason departures, and a roster certain to be denuded by national team callups is a forbidding proposition for most teams.
For the Houston Dynamo, it's business as usual. The 2008 season mirrors that of 2007, when the defending champion patched up a few holes during the winter and rolled to the title yet again. Can it be done a third time?
"It seems to be the same every year," laughs goalkeeper Pat Onstad, who anchored a defense that set an MLS record by conceding just 23 goals in 30 games. "We lose players from a great team, but our coaches always seem to find the right guys to plug in, and we go on about our business."
Speaking of business, the two-time champion is also racking up victories off the field. It has attracted investment from boxer Oscar De La Hoya and business partner Gabriel Brener, who have purchased a 50 percent stake in the team, which is now co-owned by AEG, and the city of Houston has approved acquisition of a parcel of downtown land that could be used for a stadium.
Assistant coach John Spencer, who nearly jumped ship during the offseason but decided not to take the top job in Chicago, and head coach Dominic Kinnear have to replace attackers Nate Jaqua and Joseph Ngwenya, who left for Austrian clubs, and defender Ryan Cochrane, taken by San Jose in the expansion draft.
Yet Jaqua and Ngwenya themselves were acquired during the 2007 season, as was midfielder Richard Mulrooney, perhaps the shrewdest acquisition of them all. When MLS meted out a nine-game suspension to Ricardo Clark for kicking a prostrate Carlos Ruiz late in the regular season, Mulrooney stepped right in.
"Every trade we made last year was important at different times of the year," says Kinnear of Mulrooney, a member of San Jose's championship teams in 2001 and 2003 who can also play right back. "I think Richard gets overlooked a little bit, but what happened when Ricardo's suspension came and Richard played all those games? He's been great."
Kinnear obtained Bobby Boswell from D.C. United to replace Cochrane, though Pat Ianni played well in limited duty (16 games) last year. Yet Ianni and midfielder Stuart Holden, who scored five goals in 22 regular-season games and hit a stunner against Dallas in the playoffs, missed most of March playing in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers.
"This year, we have Olympic qualifying, so our squad is not as deep as it was last year," says Kinnear of a preseason that once again included the opening rounds of the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
Midfielder Corey Ashe played 22 games as a rookie last year. Forward Chris Wondolowski, who led the reserve league with 13 goals in 2006, is vying for a starting spot up top alongside rugged Brian Ching, and so is 21-year-old Argentine import Franco Caraccio. If Kinnear dips into the player market it will be for a striker.
Despite the defections, Houston still features proven commodities in midfield (Canadian international Dwayne DeRosario, Brad Davis, Brian Mullan, Clark, Mulrooney) and the back line (captain Wade Barrett, central defender Eddie Robinson, right back Craig Waibel).
"The strength of our team is we have a lot of good players in midfield," says Kinnear. "It makes you a little more flexible; it allows you to push another guy up top, or play five in the middle.
"We need a big squad this year, because we're going to have our injuries, and suspensions, and callups, and qualifiers, so we need as many good players as we can get."
2 - CHIVAS USA
Depth will determine if Preki can improve on stellar 2007 season
Preki is doing what no man has done before. He's coaching Chivas USA for more than one season.
And if the second season improves on his first, it could be quite a year for the fourth-year franchise that in its first year finished at the bottom along with fellow 2005 expansion club Real Salt Lake.
Unlike Salt Lake, which has yet to get a sniff of the playoffs, Chivas USA, under Coach Bob Bradley, reached the postseason in its second year. Bradley then left to coach the U.S. national team.
Preki, who had assisted Bradley, matched Bradley's first-round playoff appearance, but enjoyed a better regular season as Chivas USA won the West and finished second to D.C. United in the regular-season overall standings.
So how to improve on 2007?
"You need to get a little break here and there, and have better luck with injuries," says Preki. "But those things even out if you continue doing the right thing. You need to be strong for the playoffs - after you make sure you get there."
Late-season injuries to forwards Ante Razov and Maykel Galindo, who combined 23 goals, crippled Chivas USA in last year's playoff series against Kansas City, which won, 1-0, on aggregate.
The depth problem, especially because Chivas USA will also be competing in the SuperLiga, the Concacaf Champions League and the U.S. Open Cup, was high on the offseason agenda.
In came forward Alecko Eskandarian and Atiba Harris.
Eskandrian, who has scored 22 goals in five seasons, was the MVP of MLS Cup 2004 when he scored twice in D.C. United's win over Kansas City. But last season Eskandarian scored just twice in 23 games for Real Salt Lake and Toronto. Harris, 23, scored four goals in two seasons with Real Salt Lake.
For the midfield arrives 30-year-old Raphael Wicky, who has 70 caps for Switzerland and started in all four of its games at the 2006 World Cup. Wicky's career includes more than 200 German Bundesliga games for Werder Bremen and Hamburg SV.
"We have added Wicky to Francisco Mendoza, Jesse Marsch, Paulo Nagamura, and [Sacha] Kljestan, and also Lawson Vaughn can help us a little there if necessary," says Preki. "I like to think we're pretty solid in the middle of the field. That's something that's very encouraging."
Boding well for Chivas USA is the play of a trio of young returnees - midfielder Sacha Kljestan, left back Jonathan Bornstein and goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who would be in the English Premier League if his work permit hadn't been denied.
The 22-year-old Kljestan, a member of the U.S. U-23 and full national team, notched 20 assists in his first two years in MLS. With Marsch and Wicky holding down the middle, Kljestan and Mendoza can drive the offense from their outside positions, attacking from the flanks and cutting into the middle.
Mendoza, along with central defender Claudio Suarez, is one of just two Mexican players on the team. The Mexican league's high salaries have made it difficult for Chivas USA to entice Mexican players to MLS.
Chivas USA does, however, have the most ambitious youth program in MLS and its ranks are filled with young Mexican-Americans.
"It may take awhile before the players coming through are ready for the first team, but we're hoping in a few years time come it will be a great benefit for us," says Preki.
3 - FC DALLAS
Dallas bets on another high-priced player to get over the hump
A gambler scorched is often a gambler scarred for life, yet FC Dallas president Michael Hitchcock and head coach Steve Morrow have rolled the dice yet again.
The top honchos of FC Dallas, who burned a big chunk of DP money on Brazilian burnout Denilson last year, are still at the table, having pushed an even bigger stack of chips onto Mexican defender Duilio Davino. He's not the only addition designed to upgrade the performance of 2007 - third place in the Western Conference, ousted by champion Houston, 4-2, on aggregate in the first playoff round - but as the centerpiece of a revamped defense, he'll be scrutinized as the final piece to push FCD into its first MLS Cup.
"I've always said it's the players who dictate your system and your style of play," says Morrow of 32-year-old Davino, a former Mexican international who played 13 seasons for Club America and UAG and 84 times for his country. "He's someone who's very, very composed in possession in the back and I think that's going to bring a calming influence not only to our back line but throughout our whole team."
Before preseason began, Morrow fretted somewhat about who could fill the left side of that three-man back line. When he took over for Colin Clarke in 2006, he retained the four-man system preferred by Clarke and that was a staple of Morrow's playing career at Arsenal. Yet the play of Adrian Serioux, a defensive midfielder who stepped into Houston's back line during its run to the title in 2006 before going to Dallas (via Toronto) in a trade, has eased his anxiety.
"Adrian Serioux has stepped up and done very well in that spot," says Morrow of the Canadian international.
The club's partnership with Atletico Paranaense of Brazil yielded forward Ricardinho on loan last year, and this year has been broadened by the arrival of midfielder Andre Rocha. He joins Colombian Juan Toja, Argentine Pablo Ricchetti, Brazilian Marcelo Saragosa and American Dax McCarty in what figures to be a tough scrap for central midfield.
Least of Morrow's concerns is a replacement for Carlos Ruiz, who returned to LA in a trade after scoring 31 goals (but only seven last year) in three seasons for FCD. Negotiations with Chilean striker Reinaldo Navia dragged through the preseason yet Morrow has Ricardinho, Kenny Cooper, Abe Thompson and Dominic Oduro. That quartet combined for just a dozen goals, however.
"We have good options within the team at the moment," says Morrow. "All of them have played some minutes and all done quite well so there's healthy competition there. Again, if the right striker comes along to make us better, we won't hesitate to make that move."
A strong preseason performance by Brek Shea, the U.S. under-18 attacker taken with the second overall SuperDraft pick, gives Morrow yet another option on the left side of midfield or up top. In those areas, especially, there are more viable candidates than spots.
"It's not going to be easy at times and difficult to keep everybody happy," says Morrow of meting out playing time. "But I think it's healthy to have that competition and we're going to lose players throughout the season as well with callups and the Olympics. The depth we have will help us cover for those times."
4 - LOS ANGELES
Beckham made the Galaxy famous, but his work has just begun
David Beckham declared during the preseason that he's perfectly happy to be playing in MLS, that his children like their schools, and that Victoria is enjoying L.A. But for however convincing his declaration sounded, the megastar's adjustment to playing with the Galaxy can't be easy.
In the season before joining L.A., Beckham won the Spanish La Liga title with Real Madrid, where his teammates included Roberto Carlos, Raul, Robinho and Ruud Van Nistelrooy.
Now Beckham's teammates include players whom Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit describes as having "no experience on this level." Gullit, the man credited with coining the term "sexy soccer," is talking patience.
"It's a matter of looking for the right shape," said the Dutchman who replaced Frank Yallop in the offseason. "We have a good team, we are strong, and are trying to build something for the future."
For Beckham, it means that instead of melding with the kind of world-class players whom he was used to from his Real Madrid and Manchester United days, he's supposed to help out newcomers to the pro game.
"He's a good example for the team," says Gullit. "Especially for the youngsters, he has the experience needed to guide younger players to another level."
Nigerian English Premier League veteran Celestine Babayaro, who played for Gullit when he coached Chelsea in the 1990s, was brought in during the preseason but didn't stick. That left Carlos Ruiz and Brazilian Alvaro Pires as the key offseason acquisitions.
Ruiz, who helped the Galaxy win the 2002 MLS title, reluctantly left the Los Angeles Galaxy for FC Dallas in 2005 to make room for Landon Donovan. Ruiz teaming up with Donovan and Beckham presents the most hopeful and intriguing prospects for the 2008 Galaxy.
Ruiz has scored 81 goals in six MLS seasons and like Donovan rises to the big occasion. Ruiz has scored 16 playoff goals. Donovan has notched 14 postseason goals.
But the first challenge is actually getting to the playoffs. So dismal were the Galaxy performances before and after Beckham's arrival in the middle of the 2007 season that it missed postseason play for the second straight year.
In theory, Ruiz, if he bounces back from his least productive season (seven goals in 22 games in 2007), will thrive with service from Beckham and Donovan, who in turn should benefit as Ruiz occupies opponents' defenders.
If that formula is to succeed, it will be because Gullit has cobbled together a sufficient support staff. The 23-year-old Alvaro, nicknamed "Buffalo," is to handle the bulk of the defensive midfield duties while veteran Pete Vagenas is fighting to keep his spot in the central midfield.
On the Galaxy's preseason Pan-Pacific tour, rookie Ely Allen out of the University of Washington, started wide left in the midfield.
In midfield, Gullit has also tried second-year left back Mike Randolph, who made 15 starts last season, and Josh Tudela, who played nine games in his 2007 rookie season.
Even though injuries limited Beckham to five games last season, he delivered MLS the publicity it had hoped to get out of him.
"The fact people know about the Galaxy all over the world now is great," said team president Alexi Lalas. "There's a pride about being a Galaxy fan."
That pride will be tested if it doesn't improve significantly from last season's third-to-last showing.
5 - SALT LAKE
Will overseas additions ratchet up the intensity?
There are two major questions regarding Real Salt Lake in Year 4 and neither of them concerns the new stadium in suburban Sandy.
For the record, it looks like construction will be finished by late September or early October. By that time, a fan group that ranks among the most loyal and loud in MLS will know: a) how well the building project of head coach Jason Kreis is going; and, b) how far he's progressed up the learning curve.
Kreis introduced three Argentine players last August; this year, he and general manager Garth Lagerwey have signed four more from foreign shores: striker Kenny Deuchar and left back Ian Joy, who have Scottish roots; Argentine midfielder Matias Cordoba, and Colombian defender Jamison Olave. In this category, at least, RSL vies for the league lead. (Joy was born in San Diego and doesn't count as an international player.)
"The message to the players is: even if you're left out of the starting XI for the first game doesn't mean you won't be there the very next week or for long stretches of the season," says Kreis, whose record in charge after taking over for John Ellinger last May was 6-13-7. "Everybody's going to be relied upon, for sure."
By spending nearly two weeks of the preseason in Argentina, Kreis wanted to foster the bonding process while steeping his players in what can be seen and felt in a country stark, raving mad for soccer. Cordoba joins 2007 acquisitions Matias Mantilla, Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales as Argentine products on the RSL roster.
"I always like going to soccer countries like that," says midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who was surprisingly traded to RSL by Colorado last season. "You really feel involved in it. We got to check out a game, Newell's Old Boys versus Racing, and the passion in the fans was unreal. They put their hearts into it and so do the players."
Kreis wants that same ethic applied to every training session, which is commonplace in most countries but not always present in the United States. With four Argentines, two Scottish League veterans, and former Rapids defender Nat Borchers, who has played the last two seasons in Norway, in tow, he expects intense, focused players walking onto the field every day.
"They bring a lot of experience in that environment," says Kreis. "We talk about wanting to create a competitive environment where you've got to compete for your starting job every day. You talk to some of those guys and they're like, 'That's absolutely normal. The competition is what we do.' I don't think the American players are quite used to that philosophy."
RSL finished the 2007 fairly well, winning two and tying three of its final seven games, but still ended up last in the Eastern Conference and a distant 13 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot. Kreis remembers 2006 more vividly; in his final full season as a player, RSL won four straight games to reach contention and fell just two points shy of the postseason.
"The second half of the season or whatever it was in 2006, we were quite a competitive team and barely missed the playoffs," he said of a push that drew plenty of excited fans to Rice-Eccles Stadium. "It was absolutely electric, the whole community reached out with open arms and grabbed hold of us, so we'll be hopeful for the same reaction."
6 - SAN JOSE
Familiar faces land in new surroundings with the Earthquakes
Just about everything in San Jose has changed in the years since Frank Yallop left the ranks of MLS for the first time, and that's just fine by him.
Long gone are Spartan Stadium, Landon Donovan, and the intractability of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which moved the former Quakes, league champions in 2001 and 2003 under Yallop's leadership, to Houston in December 2005. The nickname and a couple of the faces -- including 2002 Goalkeeper of the Year Joe Cannon and longtime Quakes defender John Doyle -- have returned, but not much else has.
There are enthusiastic operator-investors in Oakland A's co-owners Lewis Wolff and John Fisher, an innovative stadium project for a site near San Jose International Airport, thousands of season tickets sold during preseason, and a widespread belief that this time, it will be different.
"You go all the way through it and look at what we didn't have in the past," said Doyle, who came aboard as general manager in October and hired Yallop two months later. "We didn't have a stadium, we didn't have Lew Wolff, we didn't have backing. We didn't have that ownership we needed, the team was always for sale."
Strong ownership and backing and a stadium plan are all well and good, but winning games and titles takes players, and as of mid-March, Yallop didn't have many. "We're in the 20s," he said jokingly and just barely correctly. With 15 on the regular roster and five developmental players, San Jose had eight slots yet to be filled, with another forward high on the list.
Unlike Mo Johnston, who traded every one of the 10 players he picked for Toronto in the 2007 expansion draft, Yallop retained each of his selections except midfielder Brian Carroll, who went to Columbus in a trade for striker Kei Kamara.
Yallop used allocation money to obtain Cannon (Los Angeles) and Ronnie O'Brien (Toronto FC), who has changed clubs twice in the past year and a half after playing five seasons in Dallas. "I told him the same thing I tell everyone," says Yallop of the sometimes testy midfielder who didn't appreciate the artificial surface at BMO Field. "I don't care what happened before; you're here now and if you do what we know you can do, we'll have no problems.
"He can cross the ball [39 career assists] and there aren't a lot of players like him in our league."
Cannon posted 26 shutouts for San Jose from 1999 to 2002 before leaving MLS for France, and played for Yallop last year in Los Angeles. Many of his college days were spent at Santa Clara University's Buck Shaw Stadium, which will be the Quakes' home for the next few seasons while Wolff's stadium project unfolds.
There are other returnees to San Jose. Midfielder Ramiro Corrales (1996-97, 2001-04) came back after playing three seasons in Norway; defender Ryan Cochrane (2004-05), another ex-Bronco, asked to be left exposed by Houston in the expansion draft.
"Last year in LA was just crazy, with all that was going on," says Cannon. "I don't think Frank ever felt comfortable to do things his way, but he showed at San Jose he's one of the best coaches in the league and I'm really excited about playing for him again."
7 - COLORADO
Gomez and Gomes are keys to the Rapids' revival
As the MLS head coach most likely to be fired, it will be Fernando Clavijo, not recent acquisition Christian Gomez or veteran Pablo Mastroeni, on the hot seat.
Clavijo's major issue, assuming he can't find a solution to his problems up top, is that Gomez may be needed to score goals as well as set them up for others. Renowned as a playmaker, Gomez bagged 11 goals (2005) and 14 goals (2006) for D.C. United in his first two full seasons in MLS while also registering, respectively, nine and 11 assists.
After he slipped from seven goals in 2006 to just one last year, Nicolas Hernandez went to Columbus in a trade. Of the returnees up front, Jovan Kirovski led the team with six goals, but scored only two from the run of play, the other four coming on penalty kicks. Herculez Gomez scored four goals in 20 games. Nobody else scored more than two and with just 29 goals the Rapids lagged behind every league rival except expansion team Toronto FC.
The club's, and Clavijo's, fate may depend on Gomes, as in Rafael, as much as the two Gomezes. Clavijo found him on a scouting trip to Brazil in December and MLS signed him on loan from Portuguese club CD Santa Clara. Gomes, 28, played for Vasco de Gama, Bragantino, Olaria and Atletico Mineiro, and scored for the Rapids in his first preason start, so perhaps he can alleviate the goal shortage. His partnership with Mastroeni in the middle will determine if Colorado can control matches and dictate the tempo. They also need to protect the back line and keeper Bouna Coundoul.
The offensive woes overshadowed somewhat an improved defensive performance, and Clavijo added veteran defender Jose Burciaga Jr. in a trade. Colorado allowed only 34 goals, yet much credit goes to the acrobatic if occasionally erratic Coundoul, who posted an excellent 1.08 goals-allowed average while finishing tied for second among the MLS goalkeeping leaders with 120 saves.
Club management decided not to sign a Designated Player, which has hamstrung somewhat Clavijo's search for a quality striker while also stripping him of the DP slot that was traded to D.C. United for Christian Gomez. Talks with Brazilian Reinaldo, who had been playing for Queensland Roar in the Australian league, fizzled out.
Colorado does have a nicely complementary pair of flank midfielders in classic winger Terry Cooke and slashing dribbler Colin Clark. The latter showed a zeal last year to cut inside and go for goal but only hit the net twice on 26 shots.
Herculez Gomez, whose season was cut short by a knee injury in September, took 51 shots to score his four goals, so among the tenets for 2008 should be sharper finishing, no matter who is playing up front.
The forward slots could be filled by Jamaican striker Omar Cummings and third-year pro Jacob Peterson if Kirovski, Conor Casey, and Herculez Gomez can't get the job done. Cummings scored twice last season as a rookie super-sub.
The Rapids' new home, Dick's Sporting Goods Park, opened a year ago and hosted the 2007 All-Star Game. Its design, its playing surface, and the complex of fields that surround it are all top-class. Yet Colorado ranked 10th in average attendance with 14,749 fans per game.
More goals and wins are needed to jack up that number, which is also how Clavijo's status will be judged. His contract is up at the end of the season.
(This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)