MLS Midseason: Changes muddle Race

It’s never easy predicting the second half of an MLS season based on what transpired in the first three months, but playing Nostradamus this year is especially vexing.

More than two dozen foreign players arrived to start their MLS careers in the 2008 season; by contract-guarantee date on July 1, several of them, as well as a handful of others acquired in the past few seasons, had been sent on their way.

With the opening of the U.S. transfer window July 15, scorers were in demand. Toronto landed Scotsman Paul Dickov, San Jose grabbed Englishman Darren Huckerby in a trade with TFC and also obtained ex-Wizard Scott Sealy, Kansas City enticed U.S. striker Josh Wolff to return, and goal-challenged Houston brought back Nate Jaqua.

The Red Bulls had signed a quartet of foreign players and were auditioning several more. Stuck in limbo for more than a month was Olympics-bound striker Brian McBride, claimed via allocation by TFC, which rebuffed trade offers from Chicago, which was where he wanted to play. Likewise, New England played hardball with ex-Rev Pat Noonan, who left MLS last winter but couldn’t play for the Crew unless it could obtain his rights.

Players changing addresses might have a greater impact. How can Chivas USA replace Brad Guzan? Carlos Ruiz played little for the Galaxy in the first half of the season, but if he’s traded how can his teammates cope when Landon Donovan and David Beckham leave for international duty?

Toss in SuperLiga participation for D.C. United, Houston, New England and Chivas USA, and CONCACAF Champions League preliminary-round play for the latter two teams. Good luck predicting how all that will shake out once the regular season ends Oct. 26.

Eight teams qualify for the 2008 playoffs, with the top three teams in each conference guaranteed a slot. Points, regardless of conference position, will determine the seventh and eighth spots.

Teams in each conference play each other in 16 of their 30 matches, and thus Eastern Conference teams – despite their superiority to Western foes — could suffer by playing a tougher schedule. The conference-v-conference results stood 27-17-5 in favor of the East as of mid-July.

Here is how they might finish up.

1. NEW ENGLAND. The Revs have been marginally affected by international callups and have few U.S. candidates. Still they have so much depth they can probably hold the top spot to the finish line.

Young Gambians Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi, who joined the team only last August, have spiced up the attack in the absence of injured Taylor Twellman, and so has rookie Kheli Dube, a possibility for the Zimbabwean team. They inject energy into the attack, and the powerful if sometimes blind runs of Khano Smith add punch to a solid core of central midfielders Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz.

As a rookie, forward Adam Cristman scored four goals but flattened out in the final months, as rookies are wont to do. By mid-July 2008, he’d netted six, as had Steve Ralston, who stepped in effectively at forward when not pulling strings in midfield.

The back line is a good one and keeper Matt Reis, solid in every game as well as spectacular when he needs to be, gives New England a great shot to finally break through after losing four MLS Cups, including the last three in a row.

2. COLUMBUS. It has pace, guile, experience and cohesiveness. Playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto is ringing up assists, Alejandro Moreno and Robbie Rogers are scoring goals, rookie forward Emmanuel Ekpo is an exciting prospect, and the defense ranks in the top half of MLS. So why is the Crew getting so little mention as a championship contender?

There might be a lingering stench of last year’s 9-11-10 record and playoff miss, the third straight failure to qualify for the postseason. Head coach Sigi Schmid insisted his team could build on season-ending road wins at D.C. United and New England, and so far in 2008, he’s been proven right.

The loss of midfield fulcrum Adam Moffat to a season-ending injury could be costly, as Brian Carroll works well with a reliable partner.

3. D.C. UNITED. A nice winning streak, fueled by Luciano Emilio’s goals, heading into SuperLiga eased calls for the head of Coach Tom Soehn. United won four league games in a row, went unbeaten in six straight, and knocked off rival Chicago in the U.S. Open Cup before losing a tough 2-1 decision to Chivas Guadalajara in its SuperLiga opener.

Issues remain. Keeper Zach Wells has yet to inspire confidence, the gritty Ben Olsen is on the shelf again following more ankle surgery, and breakdowns through the middle that result in preventable goals continue.

Marcelo Gallardo gives D.C. a game-breaker to take that load off Jaime Moreno, just as Christian Gomez did after arriving midway through the 2004 season, which is the last time D.C. won an MLS Cup. But the Eastern Conference is stacked with good defenses, which United must emulate to reach the final.

4. HOUSTON. More than Nate Jaqua, who came aboard in midseason last year to score six regular-season goals and another one in the playoffs, will be needed to liven up the attack, yet he can take some pressure off Brian Ching and provide another target for Brian Mullan and Brad Davis, who by July had shaken off rust from injury recoveries and were creating chances.

The Dynamo set a league record last year by conceding only 23 goals in 30 games; it won’t match that mark this year, but the return of regular right back Craig Waibel from injury helped stabilize the back line. Yet with Dwayne DeRosario (Canada), Ricardo Clark and Ching (U.S.), and Stuart Holden (U.S. Olympic team) on international call, Coach Dominic Kinnear will be juggling personnel constantly, which might impair his efforts to infuse consistency in time for the playoffs and could cost them the conference title.

5. CHICAGO. Such a furor has arisen from McBride’s stated preference to play for the Fire and Toronto’s hoarding of him that the question is seldom asked: Does Chicago really need him?

Certainly it wanted a warrior like McBride. No doubt adding a proven scorer can bulk up any team. The cost, though, might be unbearable.

The Fire’s championship hopes rest in midfield catalyst Cuauhtemoc Blanco, obviously, and an excellent defense of eclectic makeup. Young Malian Bakary Soumare, Costa Rican Gonzalo Segares, Colombian Wilman Conde, and veteran Americans Diego Gutierrez, C.J. Brown, Brandon Prideaux and goalie Jon Busch are the league’s best defensive group.

The sharp goalkeeping of Kevin Hartman, a resilient defense and the prospect of Wolff teaming with Claudio Lopez up front give the Wizards playoff hope. In the second half of the season, they also get to play two games apiece against bottom-feeder San Jose, and Guzan-less Chivas USA.

Adjusting to cozy CommunityAmerica Ballpark should aid KC’s playoff push. It endured a six-game road trip during the spring, but must do better than its 3-4-2 record against conference foes (as of mid-July). With only 14 goals scored in its first 15 games, there’s no ambiguity about where the weakness is.

Can one man transform a leaky defense? Galaxy fans will find out if Argentine defender Eduardo Dominguez can shore up The Paragon of Porosity that is LA’s back line.

There’s plenty of excitement with Donovan, Beckham, and Edson Buddle storming through the opposition. Chances and goals aren’t a problem, as shown by 34 goals scored in the team’s first 16 games. Despite the endless spirit of veteran right back Chris Klein, the international experience of Abel Xavier and Greg Vanney, and the promise of rookie Sean Franklin, Los Angeles can’t seem to stop anybody, home or away, and also led the league in goals allowed with 31.

Ruud Gullit didn’t waffle when ballyhooed Nigerian defender Celestine Babayaro couldn’t cut it during preseason, and the Galaxy coach dropped him. Yet the back line is only one element of defensive play, and unless it tightens up midfield, LA can’t survive the playoff gauntlet if it qualifies. It also plays nine of its last 14 games on the road.

8. CHIVAS USA. Nearly impregnable at home last year, Chivas USA lost three times at HDC as the host in the first half of 2008 and in its first seven away games won only once.

The return to full fitness of defenders Claudio Suarez, who missed time due to the death of his father and various injuries, and Shavar Thomas can help mask, somewhat, the loss of Guzan. Defender Bobby Burling won’t get as many Rookie of the Year votes as he should, since he’s quietly played well both at right back and in the middle.

Another rookie, forward Justin Braun, has filled in admirably for another injury victim, Maykel Galindo, but depth up front is rather thin, since Alecko Eskandarian needed a follow-up sports hernia surgery in June after undergoing the procedure during the offseason.

Francisco Mendoza has found a new zest for the game at left back. He and Jonathan Bornstein often interchange positions and their dynamism in midfield was needed when Sacha Kljestan left for the Olympic Games.

Success can be attributed somewhat to the difficulty opponents encounter on the hard, artificial turf at Rice-Eccles Stadium, yet RSL has the tools to maintain its home superiority in early October when it moves to a new facility in suburban Sandy.

Strength up the middle is a necessity in any team sport, and that’s where RSL can send out forwards Kenny Duechar and Robbie Findley, midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales, defenders Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, and keeper Nick Rimando. That’s a strong enough spine to get a team into the postseason, if RSL can improve on a poor road record.

RSL has tough road trips to Chicago, New England, D.C. United, Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Columbus in the second half of the season. No matter where it is playing at home, the road will decide its postseason fate.

10. TORONTO FC. A woeful road record (1-6-0) as of midseason disguised somewhat the fact TFC had yet to play most of its Western Conference games. Nine of its finaºl 15 games are against teams from the supposedly weaker West; of the first five it won four.

In different games, different players have provided the attacking spark. Midfielders Amado Guevara, Laurent Robert, and Rohan Ricketts have served as catalysts, while Maurice Edu (occasionally) and Carl Robinson (rarely) pick their spots to get forward in support of forwards Danny Dichio and Jeff Cunningham. Dickov, a quick, bustling pain-in-the-neck, can ratchet up the pressure on defenders already rattled by the BMO barmy army.

Captain Jim Brennan and his defensive counterparts are competent yet prone to errors of miscommunication and fluffed assignments, and keeper Greg Sutton is capable but hardly among the elite. Still, the great strides made since last year’s six-win season have landed TFC right in the playoff chase.

11. NEW YORK. Head coach Juan Carlos Osorio toughened the Fire defense last year when he brought Wilman Conde with him from Millonarios, but he wasn’t able to take along Conde when he took the Red Bulls job.

Instead, he scouted and signed Venezuelan midfielder Jorge Rojas, Argentine defender Juan Pietravallo and Mexican defender Diego Jimenez, and brought in another Venezuelan, defender Gabriel Cichero, on loan. Will this revamp the Red Bulls, who look competent one game, confused the next, and by the midpoint of the season had suffered losses of 5-1, 4-0, and 4-1?

If Juan Pablo Angel, bothered by back, hamstring and ankle injuries in the first half of the season, stays healthy, New York can hit the playoffs as long as the new signings pan out. But if takes time for those talents to emerge, RBNY may be too far behind to catch up.

An offer from Norwegian club Rosenborg for Kenny Cooper added yet another headache for new head coach Schellas Hyndman, who left the college ranks after a 31-year stint to replace the fired Steve Morrow in June.

Colombian Juan Toja has struggled through a sophomore jinx; fortunately, Brazilian Andre Rocha has assumed some of the playmaking burden. Cooper’s scoring earned him a spot on the All-Star first XI; forwards Dominic Oduro and Abe Thompson are speedier options and dangerous running with the ball.

Former Mexican international defender Duilio Davino hasn’t been the rock that Morrow believed him to be; neither has he been poor. Hyndman needs to infuse stability into the back line, and throughout the lineup, or FCD will be squeezed out of the playoff picture.

13. COLORADO. In first place for the first two months of the season, the Rapids are good enough to slug it out in the playoff arena but may be forced to rely too heavily on rookie midfielder Nick LaBrocca and second-year forward Omar Cummings.

After a strong start, Christian Gomez hit a lull in midseason and the attack stagnated at times. To get necessary points in August and September, Colorado needs his canny playmaking, strong flank play from Colin Clark and Terry Cooke, as well as toughness and leadership from Pablo Mastroeni whether he plays in midfield or central defense.

Head coach Fernando Clavijo is in the last year of his contract. The frugal Kroenke Sports Group won’t hesitate to cut him loose if Colorado slips too far from the playoff octet.

14. SAN JOSE. The Quakes’ anemic scoring hastened a bid — and a wasted allocation slot — for Pegeuro Jean-Phillipe, whose bad knees quickly forced him onto the season-ending IR list.

The midseason transfer window added Huckerby and Sealy to earlier additions John Cunliffe and Brian Johnson. They give San Jose greater depth, but someone on the roster needs to blossom into a regular goalscorer, or the rebuilding of this expansion team — particularly in midfield — will begin sooner rather than later. San Jose scored just 11 goals in its first 16 games.

After struggling for a few months adjusting to MLS, Ramiro Corrales contributed several solid games in central midfield. The back line and keeper Joe Cannon have, for the most part, done their part.

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

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