By Ridge Mahoney
MLS kicks off its 16th season with 18 teams this weekend, when everybody gets into the act following the Galaxy’s 1-0 victory in Seattle Tuesday.
Expansion teams Vancouver and Portland are already winners at the gate; more than 28,000 season tickets combined have been sold. There are Designated Players to be scrutinized intensely, another precocious group of rookies, key additions to the growing ranks of Colombians, and more playoff spots to be claimed.
There will be plenty to absorb this weekend, when nine games will be played, but here are some topics to follow:
MIRACLE AT RFK? Seventeen months ago, thousands of posters and placards and flags were raised at RFK Stadium in tribute to Charlie Davies, who instead of playing for the United States in its final Hexagonal game against Costa Rica that night lay in critical condition recovering from surgeries and procedures in a nearby hospital.
His long, excruciating road to recovery has brought him to MLS from French club Sochaux on a loan deal and no opposing player will be more popular in otherwise hostile stadiums this season. He’ll generate a lot of media exposure and sell some tickets, and hopefully regain his pride and confidence as a person as well as a player.
Ideally, the Charlie Davies Watch will quicky transcend the human-interest phase, and he’ll be healthy enough to play regularly, regain his national-team place, and perhaps help lift D.C. United out of its morass. The excellent goal he scored against Toronto in the Carolina Challenge Cup -- a sharp touch away from a defender followed by a tight-angle blast into the top near corner – is perhaps just an appetizer.
NORTHERN EXPOSURE. Adding a second Canadian city is a far cry from the North American Soccer League days, when teams in Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto (several incarnations thereof) dotted the league standings at one time or another. How much MLS competition can help the Canadian national team programs is a dicey question, yet this week Toronto announced it had signed four more academy players to pro contracts, and Vancouver has steadily expanded its academy programs the past few years, so development of talent is among their priorities.
Scheduling some excellent matchups for next weekend, when many teams will be missing players because of international games, dumped a lot of criticism on MLS. Yet the opening-day pairing of the Whitecaps and TFC at Empire Field is a masterstroke of scheduling.
Along with Montreal, the Whitecaps been contesting the Nutrilite Canadian Championship to determine a representative for the Concacaf Champions League in the same home-and-away format they will now contest on a league basis as well. In the last NASL meeting on July 18, 1984, the Whitecaps beat the Toronto Blizzard, 2-1, at Varsity Stadium. Bragging rights, eh!
DP DOWN-LOW. New York hosts Seattle, with both teams adjusting to Designated Player departures. Juan Pablo Angel left the Red Bulls for Los Angeles during the offseason, and Blaise Nkufo and Seattle shockingly parted ways just prior to Tuesday’s opener.
Last year, Seattle traded Freddie Ljungberg to Chicago after his insistence on a new contract forced the two sides into an impasse. The Sounders, remember, had earlier floated the possibility they, and not the Red Bulls, were going to sign Thierry Henry, which had no chance of happening. Henry and Rafael Marquez are two reasons many pundits pick New York to win the Eastern Conference, in Seattle, Fredy Montero has looked the part of the DP status bestowed upon him during the offseason, while Alvaro Fernandez hasn’t.
SPENNY’S BACK IN TOWN. Former Rapid John Spencer draws a tough assignment in his return to Colorado; his expansion team Portland is playing the defending champion.
His 16-year pro career ended with four seasons (2001-04) in Colorado, and the team entered him into its Rapids Gallery of Honor two years ago while he worked as an assistant coach for Houston. He’d been interviewed for several head coaching job before getting the Timbers’ post last summer.
Photos and video of Spencer blowing bubbles and goofing around at training sessions may have portrayed him incorrectly. His love for the job and the game he’s played since his earliest memories won’t generate joke-fests if the results are sour. “There’s a time for fun and a time for work,” he said during preseason. “If my players don’t know the difference they’ll find out soon enough.
“If you come in willing to work hard every single day and you gain the respect of the players you’re playing with, once you gain that respect American players will guard your back all day long. My mentality was to be the hardest working guy in practice every day and lead by example. I think players respect that.”
ROBIN’S RETURN. Former U.S. defender Robin Fraser also gets a home game to kick off his head coaching career when Chivas USA hosts Sporting Kansas City.
Like Spencer, Fraser – formerly an assistant for Real Salt Lake – interviewed for other positions before landing his first chance. He began his playing career for the Galaxy and also played in Colorado and Columbus before retiring the year after Spencer. And like Spencer, his pedigree as a player – both were named on Best XI and All-Star teams -- and several years as an MLS assistant coach lend him a knowledge of league nuances and eccentricities that often befuddle foreign coaches with no prior involvement.
“Figuring out the league can be complicated,” he says. “It really helps to have played and coached in it, that’s for sure.”
Fraser has chosen former Galaxy teammate and business partner Greg Vanney as one of his assistant coaches to rebuild Chivas USA, which dismissed head coach Martin Vazquez following a last-place finish in the Western Conference.
“From what I’ve seen the past few years the league has changed off the field but on the field what you need to do to be successful hasn’t changed,” says Vanney. “The teams that are organized, the teams who play together, the teams that work hard for each other and do the right things are still going to successful, regardless of the Designated Players or anything else. Those are the things that are making teams successful today.”