By Ridge Mahoney
Replacing a head coach, overhauling a roster, or both, are really the only ways a team can improve, but change in and of itself is no guarantee, as several struggling teams are proving this season.
In a few places, notably New York, the train is headed down the right track; not so for Toronto FC and D.C. United. Six weeks into the season is enough to draw some preliminary conclusions of how change has affected teams, with the proviso that good teams aren’t nearly so dependent on new ideas and new faces to facilitate success.
For this exercise Philadelphia, as an expansion team, is excluded. Here’s a rundown of which teams have wrought the most improvement through change, which have stayed the same, and which have mucked it up.
1. New York – The team that most needed drastic improvement is doing just that. Midfielder Joel Linpere, rookie defender Tim Ream, and striker Ibrahim Salou are obvious upgrades, yet ex-TFC veteran Carl Robinson is also contributing.
2. Kansas City – A bright start has fizzled a bit in three straight scoreless games. Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen has looked the part, though his premature lunge last weekend allowed Luis Angel Landin to chip him for the first goal. Winger Ryan Smith has speed and guile, yet top prize may go to Stephane Auvray, who has some of the same traits and presence – if not the accomplishments -- of Shalrie Joseph.
3. Los Angeles – There wasn’t much to be fixed on the Galaxy, which topped the Western Conference and came within a penalty kick of winning the league title last year. Still, rookie midfielder Michael Stephens has stepped right in, and Coach Bruce Arena is getting good minutes from his trio of young Brazilians.
4. Colorado – There’s more bite and depth in midfield with ex-Revs Jeff Larentowicz and Wells Thompson, and so far, Marvell Wynne has done pretty well at centerback. The jury is still out on left back Danny Earls and Claudio Lopez has only played 13 minutes, which is 13 more than defender Oscar Murillo.
5. Houston – Jamaican midfielder Lovel Palmer will be valuable with Geoff Cameron sidelined by a knee injury, and rookie Stephen Appiah netted his first pro goal in the Dynamo’s 3-0 defeat of Kansas City last weekend. The pending addition of attacker Joseph Ngwenya is another positive.
6. San Jose – Rookie defender Ike Opara gives the Quakes more stability in the middle than they’ve had since re-joining MLS two years ago. Rookie right back Steve Beitashour is helping out, too. Brazilian forward Eduardo saw his first action last weekend and when fit Scott Sealy will further bolster the front line.
7. New England – Shipping out Thompson and Larentowicz to get defender Cory Gibbs and keeper Preston Burpo looks like a shrewd move with keeper Matt Reis sidelined until the summer. Rookie striker Zack Schilawski has scored four goals, three of them in one game.
8. Real Salt Lake – Nelson Gonzalez, Alvaro Saborio and Collen Warner all look like MLS-worthy upgrades, and their impact should grow as the season unfolds and more playing time becomes available.
9. Chivas USA – Defender Dario Delgado and midfielder Blair Gavin seem to be competent enough players, yet the defense doesn’t look as solid and the attack is sputtering. Maybe more time is needed to implement the wisdom of new head coach Martin Vasquez.
10. Columbus – Status quo for the Crew is working well enough. Once games start piling up its depth will be tested and Emilio Renteria may be used to take some of the burden off Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
11. Seattle – The Sounders can’t be blamed for standing pat, but so far David Estrada has played only two games and Miguel Montano hasn't been needed. Pat Noonan is a good guy to have around. Still, the defense isn’t what it was last year.
12. Chicago – At .500 (2-2-2) under new coach Carlos de los Cobos, the Fire is unsettled at left back, with Deris Umanzor and Krzysztof Krol yet to measure up the departed Gonzalo Segares, and striker Collins John hasn’t established himself in MLS.
13. FC Dallas – Bad luck and quirky officiating decisions can be blamed for only so long. Keeper Dario Sala seems to be have regressed with Kevin Hartman added to the roster, and newcomer Marvin Chavez hasn’t set off any skyrockets. Rookies Zach Loyd and Jason Yeisley are in the mix.
14. D.C. United – The Tommy Soehn Era doesn’t look nearly so bad now. None of what Curt Onalfo has wrought seems to be working, injuries notwithstanding. It’s early but already the spirit of this team seems to be waning.
15. Toronto – Unlike D.C., TFC has actually been able to win games, but of the defenders brought in by Preki, only Adrian Cann and Dan Gargan have done reasonably well. Maksim Usanov and Raivis Hsacanovics don’t inspire confidence, and Wynne and Robinson are flourishing with their new teams.