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MLS Preseason Preview
by Ridge Mahoney, February 2nd, 2009 5:18PM

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A new team in Seattle, the fifth expansion franchise added by MLS in the past five seasons, added drama to the MLS SuperDraft. As the teams prepared to start preseason training, most of them are facing further personnel moves based on their selections.

SEATTLE
Surgery for Designated Player Freddie Ljunberg is the bad news; more than 19,000 season tickets sold two months before the opening game is very good news.

Of the MLS veterans acquired in the expansion draft, not many were established first-teamers at their previous teams. Exceptions are Pete Vagenas, who played nine years for the Galaxy, defender Jeff Parke, who started regularly in New York, and midfielder Brad Evans, who played a robust role in the Crew's championship season.

Nate Jaqua is a reliable big man (6-foot-4, 190 pounds) up top and veteran Kasey Keller should provide an inspirational presence in goal. Stephen King didn't get much time as a rookie in Chicago but is yet another solid product from college powerhouse Maryland.

Ljungberg underwent surgery in December to repair a torn hip labrum and is expected back around the season opener, March 19, against New York.

Draft: Seattle used the No. 1 pick on forward Steve Zakuani (Akron). The former Arsenal youth player scored 26 goals in 44 games during two college seasons, yet his reputation in England was clouded somewhat by a tendency to shy away from harsh treatment. During his stint with the Crew, head coach Sigi Schmid scouted Zakuani playing for Akron and disregarded a rather tepid showing at the Player Combine. Defenders Evan Brown (Wake Forest) and Jared Karkas (Azusa Pacific) harken from radically disparate backgrounds, yet for the expansion team, nothing is set in the back line.

COLUMBUS
Evans, lost to Seattle in the expansion draft, isn't irreplaceable. Yet his box-to-box work, knitting the back line and holding mid Brian Carroll with Guillermo Barros Schelotto and the other attackers, worked perfectly in the Crew's system.

One of the most important decisions for head coach Robert Warzycha - an assistant for the past three coaching reigns, including that of predecessor Sigi Schmid - is whether tweaking the system or finding a similar replacement for Evans is the way to go forward.

To keep Schelotto on his current salary ($650,000) and without allocation money available to buy down his cap number, Columbus made him a Designated Player. It also retains Defender of the Year Chad Marshall, who went on trial at German club Mainz before signing a new MLS contract.

Draft: Not many needs for the defending champion, so the Crew - with no first-round pick - opted for defender Paul Gerstenberger (Boston College), forward Alex Grendi (Penn) and defender Chris Clements (Tulsa).

NEW YORK
Of the four international players NYRB added in midseason, only defender Diego Jimenez started in MLS Cup 2008, and he has returned to Mexico.

Guaranteed contracts for holding midfielder Juan Pietravallo and attacker Jorge Rojas will tie up a chunk of cap space and constrain head coach Juan Carlos Osorio in his second season in charge. He needs skill and experience to replace midfielder Dave van den Bergh, whose poise and versatility carried NYRB through some rough patches on its way to MLS Cup.

Dominic Oduro, acquired in the VDB trade with FC Dallas, gets an opportunity to establish himself as Juan Pablo Angel's regular partner up top. There's a hole in the back left by Seattle claiming defender Parke, though Red Bull rolled to the final with him suspended for violating the league's substance policies.

Jon Conway, suspended along with Parke, will duel with late-season sensation Danny Cepero in goal.

Draft: Midfielder Jeremy Hall, taken at No. 11, was a key member of Maryland's 2008 championship team. Defender Babajide Ogunbiyi (Santa Clara), at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, is tough to fend off. Defender Jack Traynor (Notre Dame) is yet another good player from an excellent program.

HOUSTON
Replacing attacker Dwayne De Rosario will be done by committee, not the straight replacement of DeRo by midfielder Stuart Holden.

The Dynamo system is predicated on pressure and effective flank play, which Brian Mullan (right side) and Brad Davis (left) didn't provide consistently until late in the season - one reason Corey Ashe, Geoff Cameron and Holden played a combined 72 games.

Any combination of those players, plus central midfielders Ricardo Clark and Richard Mulrooney, will be tasked with picking up the slack.

Cameron also deputized in the back line, where Kinnear has added Julius James in the De Rosario trade with Toronto as a possible replacement for Bobby Boswell, who headed to Turkey on trial.

An attempt to acquire Mexican striker Luis Angel Landin on loan fell through, so Kei Kamara - who scored two goals in 10 games after arriving in a trade from San Jose - has first call to replace Jaqua, taken by Seattle in the expansion draft.

Draft: Coach Dominic Kinnear hardly needed to show up but he did and grabbed the last GA player available, midfielder Danny Cruz (UNLV), at No. 41.

REAL SALT LAKE

Coach Jason Kreis revamped his forward line by selling Scottish striker Kenny Deuchar and terminating the loan of Argentine forward Fabian Espindola. RSL also sent fiery midfielder Dema Kovalenko to Los Angeles for a 2011 draft pick and allocation money.

The elements that remain are formidable. Playmaker Javier Morales is a master at unlocking defenses, and central partner Kyle Beckerman complements him perfectly. Striker Yura Movsisyan, outside back Chris Wingert and central defender Jamison Olave are among the league's best.

Draft: RSL pulled the most stunning surprise of the first round: midfielder Jean Alexandre (Lynn University) at No. 12.

CHICAGO
Mexican playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco signed a new contract and with a full preseason to work with striker Brian McBride, could form one of the most potent attacking forces in MLS. Both are far past 30, however, and will need capable backups.

Coach Denis Hamlett has to decide whether Chris Rolfe, a forward by trade, should keep the right mid spot he filled so well last year, or whether speedy second-year man Patrick Nyarko or somebody else is a better fit. And defender Wilman Conde hasn't stopped talking about a move to New York.

Draft:
The Fire traded up (with Colorado) to take local midfielder Baggio Husidic (UIC) with the No. 20 pick. His skill is off the charts and on a good team, he'll have time to settle in.

NEW ENGLAND
The outstanding MLS career of defender Michael Parkhurst is over, or at least on hold. His move to Danish club FC Nordsjaelland after four stellar seasons leaves an enormous gap in the back line and deprives New England of a stabilizing presence.

Rugged Rob Valentino, who didn't play a league game while recovering from a knee injury but was highly enough regarded that the Revs took him with the No. 13 overall pick in the 2008 SuperDraft, is one of the candidates to take over for Parkhurst.

The health of striker Taylor Twellman and midfield catalyst Steve Ralston are of primary concern. Ralston played just 21 games and Twellman 16, yet they finished one-two in team scoring.

Signing Michael Videira, who bypassed MLS after the 2008 SuperDraft to play briefly in Scotland, adds flair to a midfield that looks strong in the middle with Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz but has some questions on the flank. Lefty Khano Smith departed in the expansion draft, and right-sided Sainey Nyassi struggled for consistency.

Draft: The Revs led all teams with seven picks. All eyes will be on the first-round picks: tenacious defender Kevin Alston (Indiana), and a typical Revs' mystery pick, Jamaican midfielder Ryan Maxwell (Tampa), who'd been projected to go lower yet was by no means an unknown. Andrei Gotsmanov (Creighton) at No. 24 was followed immediately by Dado Hamzagic (Saint Louis); both are midfielders with a few questions but much quality.

CHIVAS USA
Midfield questions in the wake of Francisco Mendoza's move to parent club Guadalajara and Sacha Kljestan's trial with Glasgow Celtic, and the status of strikers Ante Razov, Maykel Galindo and Alecko Eskandarian gave Coach Preki much to ponder as he readied his team for the start of preseason training.

Razov and Eskandarian each scored five goals in seasons marred by injuries. Razov let his MLS contract expire and sought out alternatives; Eskandarian's history of concussions will plague him for the rest of his career. Galindo, hampered by injuries the past two years, scored just one goal and played 10 games in 2008.

Veteran midfielder Sasha Victorine played just five games before suffering a serious knee sprain. If healthy, he can address some of Preki's issues in midfield, where captain Jesse Marsch is 35 though still effective. Partner Paulo Nagamura played perhaps his best season.

Draft: After getting flank midfielder Michael Lahoud (Wake Forest) at No. 8 overall, Chivas USA traded away its second-round pick for Galaxy left back Ante Jazic.

KANSAS CITY
To the duo of tricky Claudio Lopez and pacy Josh Wolff, the Wizards have added ex-Rev Adam Cristman, who scored six goals last season and can provide a focal point for a creative attack. Colombian Ivan Trujillo proved to be a bust and was waived.

The midfield will sport a new look. Kerry Zavagnin has moved into a coaching role, and Carlos Marinelli was waived. Regulars Jack Jewsbury and Roger Espinoza will be challenged for playing time by Kevin Souter, Aaron Holbein and Kurt Morsink. Head coach Curt Onalfo is also likely to add a foreign player or two in this department.

Right back Chance Myers, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 SuperDraft, played only 10 games because of injury and has a battle on his hands with Jonathan Leathers.

Draft:
Notre Dame defender Matt Besler, the No. 8 overall pick, is a candidate to start soon alongside veteran Jimmy Conrad. The departures of Trujillo and Marinelli open up opportunities for forward Doug DeMartin (Michigan State) and midfielder Graham Zusi (Maryland). Keeper Neal Kitson (St. John's) has more than a puncher's chance of landing a roster spot.

LOS ANGELES
It ain't saying much, but LA looks better already.

Jamaican goalie Donovan Ricketts and midfielders Stefano Miglioranzi and Kovalenko have altered the landscape, regardless of what happens with loanees David Beckham and Landon Donovan.

There will be a change at left back as well, with Jazic moving down the Home Depot Center corridors to the Chivas USA locker room. Might Eddie Lewis move to that slot, or can Mike Randolph fill the bill?

Draft: To speed the rebuilding, coach Bruce Arena took a pair of champion Terrapins in the first and second rounds to strengthen his flimsy defensive core: 6-foot-4 Omar Gonzalez, another GA jewel, and defender/midfielder A.J. Delagarza, respectively.

TORONTO
De Rosario in, Carlos Ruiz out. What's not to like?

De Rosario gives TFC one of the league's most unpredictable and productive players, as long as head coach John Carver can manage his moods. With steady heads like captain Jim Brennan, Tyrone Marshall and Carl Robinson anchoring the team, De Rosario has the framework to buttress his quirky bursts.

Imposing striker Danny Dichio, who turns 35 this year, was persuaded to re-sign. Chad Barrett scored four goals in 13 games following his arrival from Chicago in the McBride trade and is poised for a good performance.

Draft:
With two of the first four picks, TFC took a bit of a risk on the injured knee of Connecticut forward O'Brian White at No. 4, and despite the presence of Greg Sutton and Brian Edwards on its roster used the No. 13 pick on Cal goalie Stefan Frei. Sam Cronin, taken at No. 2 is, a very solid midfielder and yet another ACC product who can - as did Maurice Edu before him - learn quickly alongside veteran Robinson, not to mention De Rosario

FC DALLAS

Both family and professional concerns spurred van den Bergh's move to Texas. His wife has relatives in Dallas who can help with the care of the couple's oldest son, who has a medical condition. He scored seven goals and registered five assists in the regular season for RBNY last year.

Paired with Andre Rocha on the right side of midfield, van den Bergh gives FCD potent methods to supply service to forwards Kenny Cooper and Jeff Cunningham. Coach Schellas Hyndman must replace Mexican defender Duilio Davino, who despite his experience never adjusted to MLS.

Draft: Hyndman used his No. 5 and No. 14 picks shrewdly, nicking tricky forward Peri Marosevic (Michigan) and rugged yet refined defender George John (Washington), respectively. Forward Brian Shriver (North Carolina) helped the Tar Heels reach the final four in 2008 and is a real steal at No. 27.

D.C. UNITED
Falling short of the playoffs for the first time since 2002 isn't what team management had in mind when it signed DP midfielder Marcelo Gallardo, who missed half of the season with groin and sports hernia problems. He is just one of many question marks.

Midfielder Ben Olsen, hobbled by ankle problems and surgeries for more than a year, will give it a go in preseason. Defender Gonzalo Martinez, as of January, had not been offered a new contract.

Attacker Santino Quaranta impressed sufficiently while recovering from substance addiction to earn a new deal. Young defender Greg Janicki played three very solid games at the end of the season.

Draft: Back-to-back slots in the middle of the first round netted midfielder Rodney Wallace (Maryland) and forward Chris Pontius (U.C. Santa Barbara). The second-round picks - goalkeeper Milos Kocic and defender Lyle Adams (Wake Forest) - have more than a fair chance to stick, given all the issues D.C. must resolve.

SAN JOSE
A scouting trip to the Caribbean in December by general manager John Doyle prompted negotiations for the rights to striker Peter Byers, an Antigua & Barbuda international who scored three goals in seven games for Montreal of USL-1 last season. He's a likely alternative to Scott Sealy, who let his contract run out and tested the market overseas.

Brazilian midfielder Francisco Lima's unhappiness with his contract clouded the enticing prospects of full seasons from Newcomer of the Year Darren Huckerby and Arturo Alvarez.

Management declined the option on keeper Joe Cannon's contract, due to pay him approximately $225,000 in 2009, and offered him instead a guaranteed three-year deal at a lower number.

Draft:
Questions up top and in midfield prompted San Jose to use its two picks wisely. Midfielder Brad Ring (Indiana) went at No. 17 and is rated highly enough to mark this move as a good one. Forward Quincy Amarikwa (UC Davis) is a powerful presence.

COLORADO

If the power and prolific scoring displayed by Conor Casey (11 goals) late in the season can be sustained over 30 games, Colorado has a vital element it needs to make the postseason.

There's enough quality in the team - Colin Clark, Terry Cooke, Pablo Mastroeni, Cory Gibbs, Nico LaBrocca - to be a factor in the Western Conference. Veteran defender Mike Petke was waived after playing only 12 games in 2008.

Draft: The Rapids traded their only pick in the first two rounds (No. 20) to get the rights for ex-Fire keeper Matt Pickens, and took 6-foot-6 goalie Steward Ceus (Albany) at No. 37. Incumbent keeper Bouna Coundoul's insistence on a much better contract didn't go over well.

Wake and Maryland top the charts

To eliminate some of the guesswork inherent in drafting college players, MLS coaches in the past few seasons have adopted two general themes: go with the names you know, and go with the programs that win.

At the 2009 SuperDraft, three players from Division I champion Maryland were taken in the first round and ACC rival Wake Forest, the 2007 national champion, landed two selections. In all, a record six Demon Deacons and five Terps were among the 60 players drafted.

Terps Omar Gonzalez, Rodney Wallace and Jeremy Hall made up three of the first 11 selections. Wake contributed Sam Cronin (No. 2) and Michael Lahoud (No. 8), and also provided the first pick of the second round, defender Evan Brown.

The three first-round picks matched the accomplishment of UCLA, which had three players selected in the first round of the 2000 SuperDraft: Steve Shak (No. 1), Carlos Bocanegra (No. 4) and Sasha Victorine (No. 11). Midfielder Pete Vagenas went to the Galaxy in the second round that year, and goalie Nick Rimando followed him to LA in the third round. Shak fizzled but the others are still going strong.

 "Anyone who landed a kid out of Wake Forest or Maryland has to be pretty happy," said Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, who used his first two selections (No. 3 and No. 19 overall) on Gonzalez and A.J. Delagarza coached by Sasho Cirovski. "Jay [Vidovic] does a fabulous job with that program and Sasho does at Maryland."

"Those are the kind of kids who've had the right kind of training to take on this kind of challenge because every year we see some college kids who are not prepared to take on the challenges of professional soccer. If you get them out of the right programs, they're going to be a step ahead of everybody, and that's what you get with the kids from Wake and Maryland. Not to say that there aren't other programs who do that as well."

As for prepping for the pros at Maryland, Gonzalez said, "The coaches at Maryland did a very good job of teaching me the game, and what was necessary for me to get to this level."

Wake Forest midfielder Sam Cronin, who went to Toronto with the second pick, praised his coach, Vidovic.

"He's the best coach in the country in my opinion and he does a great job of developing players every year," he said. "That's why we have five guys here ready to get drafted."

That number rose to six when Marcus Tracy, who was intent on signing with Danish club Aalborg yet was drafted anyway, was chosen by Houston in the fourth round.

Maryland midfielder Maurice Edu, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 SuperDraft, won Rookie of the Year honors that year and last summer played in the Olympics before being sold to Glasgow Rangers in a $5 million transfer.

"I don't want to knock any other programs but some places coaches will let you get away with a mistake here and there," said Edu last year. "But Sasho is big on details. I think that's why Maryland's been so strong over the past few years. I'm very appreciative and very thankful for him demanding the most out of me."

(This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)   



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