2009 MLS Preview: Western Conference

1 - Salt Lake
Team on the rise has eye on the big prize

Clint Mathis says he's healthier and fitter than he's been the past few years, and that could be bad news for the rest of MLS.

"I feel good," said Mathis after scoring both goals in a 2-1 Real Salt Lake win over Toronto FC in the preseason Carolina Challenge Cup. "I'm still trying to get fit from my knee surgery, but I feel good, younger than I have in a number of years."

Mathis, 32, played 11 games for RSL last year after leaving Greek club Ergotelis and did not score a goal or register an assist in MLS play. Yet he contributed, prompting attacks and covering more ground than during his high-scoring MLS days.

The former U.S. international has bought into the tactics and philosophies of head coach Jason Kreis, who is a stickler for doing things the right way, right away. The well-traveled (Galaxy, MetroStars, RSL, Rapids, Red Bulls, Germany, Greece) Mathis adds a vital element as RSL aims to top last season's 10-10-10 record, first-ever playoff appearance and triumph over Chivas USA in the Western Conference playoffs.

Predicting which up-and-coming teams have the resources to take that next step and crack the elite tier of championship contenders can be maddening, but the response of Mathis to what's unfolding in Salt Lake City is intriguing. A brand-new stadium that will host the 2009 All-Star Game and competition for spots among youngsters and veterans are just two more reasons a team that already includes rugged defenders Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, midfield fulcrum Kyle Beckerman, playmaker Javier Morales and promising youngsters Robbie Findley and Will Johnson is firing up fans in Utah.

"The work that Clint has put in has been second to none," said Kreis, whose doctrine has demanded, and extracted, a lot from Mathis. "He's such a smart player. He's a difference- maker, so to see him get on the end of a ball in the box is big time for us. We need that from him because we need him in the box."

In the box is where striker Yura Movsisyan operates. Powerful yet fast, he scored eight goals last year in his third pro season after coming to MLS out of Pasadena City College and endeared himself forever to RSL fans by scoring a last-minute goal against Colorado in a 1-1 tie that edged RSL past Colorado into the playoffs, and striking very late again to down Chivas USA, 1-0, in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals.

The pairing of Findley and Movsisyan up top with Morales and maybe Mathis and Andy Williams in support gives RSL, potentially, one of the league's best attacks. During the offseason, the team cut loose forwards Fabian Espindola and Kenny Deuchar, who scored eight of RSL's 40 goals between them.

RSL charged into the playoffs on Movsisyan's last-minute equalizer at Colorado. After Movsisyan scored late to beat Chivas USA in the first leg of the quarterfinals, RSL held firm for a 2-2 away tie to advance.

The dream season died one step short of MLS Cup with a 1-0 loss to New York in a raucous Rio Tinto. A Morales shot that glanced off the post in stoppage time typified how nicely the ball bounced for the Red Bulls last year, and just might bounce the other way in 2009 for someone else.

Last Season
Record: 10-10-10 (40 points).
Finish: 4th in Western Conference.
Playoffs: did not qualify.

Luis Miguel Escalada (LDU Quito), Ned Grabavoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Jean Alexandre (Lynn Univ.), Raphael Cox (Univ. of Washington).

2 - Houston
Group effort needed to replace departees

If Houston is to regain the MLS Cup title it won in 2006 and 2007 and surrendered last year, it will do so with fewer impact players and fewer games.

Playing in both the Concacaf Champions League and SuperLiga last year, along with domestic duties required nearly constant competition from late February to late November; three days after Columbus beat New York in MLS Cup 2008, Houston qualified for the CCL quarterfinals.

Without attacking catalyst Dwayne De Rosario, forward Nate Jaqua and rugged defender Eddie Robinson, Houston tied at home, 1-1, and lost in Cancun, 3-0, against Atlante. The Dynamo starts the 2009-10 version of that competition later this year, by which time some major issues need to be sorted out.

De Rosario (Toronto) and Jaqua (Seattle) have moved on, and Robinson will miss much of the season after undergoing surgery on his left knee. Coach Dominic Kinnear does have ready replacements in Stuart Holden, Kei Kamara and Julius James, respectively, yet the depth he's instilled the past two seasons means he'll roll out Geoff Cameron, Corey Ashe and Chris Wondolowski if any of them should falter.

Houston still looks strong up the middle, with Brian Ching (13 goals last year, 57 in his MLS career) leading the frontline, Ricardo Clark anchoring midfield, Bobby Boswell stationed in central defense and ageless wonder Pat Onstad (41!) in the nets. Experienced veteran Richard Mulrooney has played on three championship teams.

The Dynamo needs solid seasons from all of them and contributions from everybody else to counteract the loss of De Rosario's spectacular bursts, and Jaqua's presence in the penalty area.

Holden has played more on the flank than in middle since coming to MLS in 2007, and Kinnear could utilize Holden on the right wing and move Brian Mullan, a forward with the Galaxy earlier in his career, up top.
"There are a lot of expectations on my head this year, but I am a different player than Dwayne," Holden told MLSnet.com. "I know I am going to help the team in different ways, but I want to score some goals and get some assists, too."

Last year, Holden scored three goals and recorded four assists in 27 games, 18 of which were starts.

"But I am going to do some things off the ball, too, that a lot of people don't notice as much. At the end of the day, I am on the field to help the team win, and if the team is winning, then I am doing my job."

The team ethic and pressure tactics preached by Kinnear has given him and the Dynamo the league's most resilient defense. Houston set a league record in 2007 by allowing just 23 goals. Last year it gave up 32, still best in the league, and its plus-13 goal differential was a very close second to champion Columbus (plus 14).

The loss of Robinson is significant, yet last season was far from his best, and by midseason Boswell had established himself among the league's elite. There's inexperience beside him, though; James played only 13 games (10 starts) as a rookie with Toronto last year. Veteran Craig Waibel has played mostly right back the past few seasons and struggled through a rough night playing in the middle against Atlante.

"We had some key guys leave, one of them is injured, but I know there will be guys ready to step up," Boswell told MLSnet.com. "We're going out there to win, and we know what we have to do. This is a very experienced group."

Last Season
Record:  13-5-12 (51 points).
Finish: 1st in Western Conference.
Playoffs: Lost in quarterfinals.

Julius James (Toronto FC), Tally Hall (Elfsborg), Danny Cruz (UNLV), Tyler Deric (Univ.of North Carolina/Houston Dynamo academy).

3 - Seattle
Sounders set sights on playoffs in Year 1

In the decade since Chicago won the 1998 MLS title in its first season, no expansion team has come close to making the playoffs.

Chivas USA won four games in 2005; Real Salt Lake did a bit better with five. Toronto FC garnered just six wins two years ago and last year's debutant, San Jose, managed eight but still fell well short of the postseason.

Indications are vivid that Seattle Sounders FC can surpass those totals, yet even the presence of 2008 Coach of the Year and MLS Cup-winner Sigi Schmid, plus a enticing roster that includes U.S. veteran Kasey Keller and former Arsenal star Freddie Ljungberg, can mask the fact new teams take their lumps.

Off the field, Seattle is a booming success, with more than 20,000 season tickets sold and average attendances projected to exceed 25,000. The upper tier at Qwest Field will be closed off for most games, yet still capacity will be 27,700.

"There's definitely been a buzz," says Schmid, who wrangled free of a clause in his Crew contract to sign with Seattle. "Now we have to do our part, to step on the field and be competitive from the opening go, and try to get into the playoffs as quickly as possible."

Offseason surgery delayed Ljungberg's acclimation to his new teammates and MLS. Schmid anticipates he will play centrally, rather than on the flanks as he did for his clubs and Sweden.

"He's going to play a vital playmaking role as well as an attacking role," says Schmid, implying that Ljungberg will be free to either run at defenses or probe them more subtly. "We want Freddie to play where he feels comfortable and how the group fits together."

Schmid has built a solid spine with veteran central defender Tyrone Marshall, ex-Crew midfielder Brad Evans and striker Nate Jaqua. All three have won MLS Cups, as has ex-Galaxy veteran Pete Vagenas.

There are numerous positives but also many question marks for Schmid and his staff to answer as MLS takes its first foray into the Northwest, where the NASL Whitecaps (Vancouver), Timbers (Portland) and Sounders once drew large, fervent crowds.

Two young Colombians - defender Jhon Hurtado (24) and forward Freddy Montero (21) - may need time to settle in, and a long list of former USL Sounders must adapt to the top flight of American soccer.

No. 1 SuperDraft pick Steve Zakuani, like Ljungberg, dealt with injuries in preseason as he vied for a starting slot at left mid. Outside back Evan Brown, taken in the second round, is being mentored by one of Schmid's former players, defender Ezra Hendrickson.

Technical director Chris Henderson has known Schmid since playing for him at UCLA in the late 1980s. In three seasons (2006-08) at Columbus, Schmid transformed the Crew from doormat into champion. With the Galaxy, he won an MLS Cup (2002) and reached the final two other times (1999 and 2001). He's the only MLS head coach to reach the final with two different teams.

"The fans want to have a team that competes, and Sigi's a guy who doesn't leave a rock unturned," says Henderson of Schmid. "He knows the league inside and out. He's a very hard worker, and very thorough. I think we got the right guy."

Freddie Ljungberg (West Ham United), Kasey Keller (Fulham), Jhon Hurtado (Deportivo Cali), Fredy Montero (Deportivo Cali), Brad Evans (Columbus Crew), Patrick Ianni (Houston Dynamo), Nate Jaqua (Houston Dynamo), Stephen King (Chicago Fire), Tyrone Marshall (Toronto FC), James Riley (San Jose Earthquakes), Jarrod Smith (Toronto FC), Nathan Sturgis (Real Salt Lake), Peter Vagenas (Los Angeles Galaxy), Tyson Wahl (Kansas City Wizards), Chris Eylander (Seattle Sounders), Taylor Graham (Seattle Sounders), Sebastien Le Toux (Seattle Sounders), Roger Levesque (Seattle Sounders), Sanna Nyassi (Seattle Sounders), Zach Scott (Seattle Sounders), Osvaldo Alonso (Charleston Battery), Steve Zakuani  (Univ. of Akron), Evan Brown (Wake Forest Univ.).

4 - Dallas
Revamped FCD out to rectify playoff failure

For much of the past few years, the FC Dallas midfield has been a muddle. It could be the team's strong point in 2009 or once again devolve into a mess.

Denilson came to Dallas as a Designated Player in 2007 and while playing just eight games completely unhinged the midfield. Last year, Juan Toja left in midseason to play in Romania and late in the season, after taking over from Steve Morrow as head coach, Schellas Hyndman gave more playing time to Andre Rocha. He responded by leading the team with eight assists.

But stability didn't emerge. A squabble with Dax McCarty over playing time prompted efforts to trade him, which failed, and Rocha reported for preseason training in such poor shape McCarty took over his spot on the right side of midfield. To the mix Hyndman has added former Red Bull lefty Dave van den Bergh and playmaker David Ferreira, a 29-year-old Colombian playmaker who has signed on loan from FCD's sister team, Clube Atletico Paranaense.

"Obviously he's a quality player," said Hyndman to FCD-TV regarding Ferreira. "Now it's just a case of players getting accustomed to his quick play. He thinks so fast, he's ahead of the game. It's just an adjustment period but I think it's everything we wanted. He's a difference-maker."

For FCD, the primary difference in 2009 will be to make the playoffs. Under Hyndman, the team won four games, lost five and tied eight to finish fifth in the Western Conference, its lowest placing since winding up last of five teams in 2002 and 2003. FCD scored 45 goals but won only five of 15 games at home.

The defense has undergone a renovation with the departures of Duilio Davino and Adrian Serioux and arrivals of Steve Purdy and Daniel Torres. A promising preseason for midfielder Marcelo Saragosa at right back stalled when he underwent knee surgery that will sideline him until late April.

Purdy (6-foot-4, 190 pounds) went to Germany two years ago after finishing his collegiate career at California-Berkeley. He adds some muscle and size yet both he and Torres, who played for RSL and Columbus several years ago, will need time to adjust to the league and each other.

"I think they're both really athletic," Hyndman told mlsnet.com. "I think the two of them bring a little bit more athleticism than we've had. There's calmness out there and I think that helps tremendously."

In Saragosa's absence, Drew Moor will probably play right back, though if Purdy or Torres struggle he could be moved back into the center. Torres also played on the left side in his previous MLS stints.

Like several teams, FCD started the season unsure if one of its players will head overseas during the summer. Last season bids for Kenny Cooper came from PSV Eindhoven, Cardiff City and Eintracht Frankfurt but team management decided to keep him and offer him a new MLS deal. Those discussions petered out late in 2008, with Cooper declining a salary in the range of $350,000. Cooper finished second among the league's top scorers with 18 goals.

Last Season
Record:  8-10-12 (36 points).
Finish: 5th in Western Conference.
Playoffs: did not qualify.

Dave van den Bergh (New York Red Bulls), Steve Purdy (1860 Munich), David Ferreira (Atletico Paranaense), Daniel Torres (Bryne), George John (Univ. of Washington), Peri Marosevic (Univ. of Michigan).

5 - Chivas USA
Preki moves few to injury-plagued team

Chivas USA continues to confound. It entered MLS in 2005 as the sister team of the Chivas Guadalajara, so popular in Mexico - and among Mexican-Americans - because it fields only Mexican players. So it was assumed that its MLS version would bring a Mexican flavor to MLS.

But Chivas USA, which has never had a Mexican head coach, is not so Mexican. Its preseason roster included just one Mexican player, and two Mexican-Americans.

Coach Preki, a Serbian-American, enters his third season after first-round playoff exits in his first two years. He hasn't made many adjustments for 2009, besides the departure of two Mexican players, Claudio Suarez and Francisco Mendoza. Mexican forward Eduardo Lillingston, a Guadalajara native who last played for UAG Tecos, arrives to help boost the attack.

The 31-year-old scored more than 50 Mexican league goals in a 12-year career but last hit the net in 2007, when he scored four goals for Tecos. He'll compete for a spot on a forward line whose production was woeful in 2008.

Chivas USA ranked ninth in goals last season with 40. Midfielder Sasha Kljestan and forwards Alecko Eskandarian and Ante Razov were the team's top scorers with five apiece. Like Razov and Eskandarian, Cuban Maykel Galindo suffered through an injury-plagued season. He scored once in 10 games after striking 12 times in 2007.  All three strikers limped into the 2009 season.

Razov, the team's all-time leading scorer who has scored 114 career goals for five teams since joining the league in its inaugural 1996 season, turned 34 in March.

The frontline injury problems create an opening for second-year Justin Braun, who scored four goals last season.

Kljestan, who tested the waters in Europe with a Celtic tryout in the offseason, is a rising star on the national team. He'll attack from the right midfield, while Jonathan Bornstein, also slowed by injury in 2008, looks to repeat the form of his 2006 rookie year, when he scored six and assisted four times as a left back while earning national team attention.

Jesse Marsch, 35, and Brazilian Paulo Nagamura patrol the central midfield for the team that finished second in the West before falling to Real Salt Lake in the first round of the playoffs. The spate of injuries forced Preki to use 30 different starting lineups in the team's 32 games.

Sasha Victorine was acquired late in the 2008 season, then went down with a knee injury.

"I think we need to be more physical this season - find a way to make it tougher for teams to play against us," Victorine told mlsnet.com, even though Chivas USA led MLS with 495 fouls in 30 games last season, 82 more than the second most-fouling team, the New York Red Bulls.

Club officials are still hoping they can land a Mexican star this summer. In the meanwhile, Preki hopes for better health and better play from the players he's staying faithful to.

Co-owner Shawn Hunter explained the team's reluctance to shake up the roster to the Daily News: "We're not in a hurry to make any moves that would disrupt our core [group]. We don't want to make a move that would disrupt the chemistry that started three years ago."

The only other projected newcomer in the starting lineup besides Lillingston is on the backline with Canadian left back Ante Jazic, a Canadian international who played 15 games for the Galaxy last season.

Last Season
Record:  12-11-7 (43 points).
Finish: 2nd in Western Conference.
Playoffs: reached quarterfinals.

Eduardo Lillingston (UAG), Ante Jazic (Los Angeles Galaxy), Michael Lahoud (Wake Forest Univ.).

6 - Los Angeles
Arena's key challenge is rebuilding the D

That David Beckham is returning in July instead of at the start of the season - or that he's even returning at all - really isn't the main issue as America's most successful coach tries to end a three-season playoff drought.

Coach Bruce Arena's rebuilding project isn't about a player who hits some decent crosses. It's about getting the Galaxy's defense in order.

And what challenge would a coach rather have? Getting a team to defend better or getting them to score?
For sure, it's easier to destroy than to create, and Arena has a team that scored a league-high 55 goals last season - Landon Donovan had a league-high 20 and Edson Buddle was third with 15 - but conceded a league-worst 62 goals.

So when Donovan and Beckham were making it clear that they'd rather stay with the teams they were loaned to for the offseason - Bayern Munich and AC Milan - Arena's concern must certainly have been more about Donovan.

Beckham managed five goals and 10 assists, but between the two, the 27-year-old Donovan is a far more valuable player. That he failed on his attempt to make it in the Bundesliga on his third try doesn't take away from the enormous success he's had in MLS.

He's won three MLS titles - two with the San Jose Earthqaukes and one with the Galaxy - and each of those triumphs were thanks to his clutch performances. He has 14 goals and seven assists in 18 postseason games.

Donovan returned from Bayern in time for a couple weeks of preseason training, while Beckham hammered out a compromise that allows him to play with AC Milan for the rest of the Serie A season. He'll have to wear the Galaxy jersey when it plays the Red Bulls on July 18.

By then it will be apparent if Arena has solved the Galaxy's defensive problems and created a midfield that can keep possession long enough to take pressure off the backline.

To that end, Arena has reached back to his past. To bolster the backline, he's brought in Tony Sanneh, a key player for Arena when he won two MLS titles with D.C. United in 1996 and 1997. Sanneh also played every minute for the USA when Arena coached it to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup.

Sanneh is 37 years old and last saw action when he played nine games for Colorado in the 2007 season. And Sanneh isn't the only oldster that Arena has brought in from his past successes.

Eddie Lewis accepted Arena's invitation to return to MLS after playing eight years in England and played the Galaxy's last few games in 2008 on the left flank. Lewis is 34 years old.

Then there's Jovan Kirovski. He went to Europe as a teen, played in England, Germany and Portugal, then came to MLS in 2004 and played modestly for three MLS teams. But back in 1999, he was the star for the USA as Arena had a magnificent start to his eight-year national team coaching tenure. Kirovski is 33.

But Arena did add some youngsters to the squad who may play key roles. Omar Gonzalez, 20, can step into a starting central midfield role a few months after helping Maryland win the NCAA championship. And his Terrapin teammate A.J. DeLaGarza, 21, is an outside back option. Sean Franklin - the 2008 rookie of the year and a rare bright spot on last year's backline - returns at right back.

Last Season
Record:  8-13-9 (33 points).
Finish: 6th in Western Conference.
Playoffs: Did not qualify.

Donovan Ricketts (Village United), Todd Dunivant (Toronto FC), Jovan Kirovski (San Jose Earthquakes), Dema Kovalenko (Real Salt Lake), Mike Magee (New York Red Bulls), Stefani Miglioranzi (Columbus Crew), Tony Sanneh (Colorado Rapids), Leonard Griffin (Portland Timbers), Josh Saunders (Miami FC), Omar Gonzalez (Univ. of Maryland), A.J. DeLaGarza (Univ. of Maryland), Yohance Marshall (Univ. of South Florida), Kyle Patterson (Saint Louis Univ.).

7 - San Jose
Improved Quakes still have much to do

An expansion team last year, San Jose looks a lot better heading into its second season. Unfortunately, that's not saying much.

The 2008 Quakes won just three of 15 games in the first half of the season, so by the time midseason additions - including Darren Huckerby and Francisco Lima - wielded their influence, they had too much ground to make up.

Lima is among the departees, so the signing of U.S. midfielder Bobby Convey and forwards Cam Weaver and Pablo Campos had best take effect, and soon.  Coach Frank Yallop projects a pairing of Weaver and Ryan Johnson up top. Johnson scored five goals in 28 games after arriving from Chicago in a trade; Weaver is a 6-foot-4 offseason signing who played two seasons in Norway after one year in the USL.  

"When [Weaver] and Ryan are running well and both healthy, they've had a good partnership," says Yallop. "They've sort of fed off each other a little bit. They give a different dimension to us that we didn't have last year." In addition to size, that dimension would be scoring. San Jose trailed every other MLS team with 32 goals in 30 games, but did net 22 of those in the second half of the season.

Campos is a Brazilian who came to MLS from Swedish club GAIS  Gothenberg. He had scored 18 goals and won honors as PDL Player of the Year (with the Fresno Fuego) in 2007. He's 6-foot-3 with very good feet. Former Crew and Galaxy midfielder Simon Elliott adds depth in the middle.

Huckerby scored six goals and contributed four assists in 16 league games with slashing, searing runs that unhinged more than a few opponents, who will be deployed to stop him this year.  On the right, Arturo Alvarez and Shea Salinas, who showed promise in playing 22 games as a rookie last year, offer up more wide play that can open up space for Convey, but he may need time to find his form. He left MLS five years ago to sign with English club Reading from D.C. United, which used him a lot on the left side.

 "I've seen enough of Bobby to know footballing-wise, there's no problem," says Yallop, who coached Convey, then on a youth team, as an assistant with D.C. United. "He knows the game whatever position he's in, which will probably be centrally for us."

Only three teams conceded fewer goals than the 38 given up by the Quakes in 2008, and to a backline that includes captain Nick Garcia, Yallop has added veteran Chris Leitch at right back.  Jason Hernandez, a four-year MLS veteran, enjoyed his best season playing on the outside as well as in the middle.

The Quakes look stronger, and they'll need a stronger start this year. They play five of the first seven games at home and can't leave it late as they did last year.

"We waited until August to start winning, and it cost us," says keeper Joe Cannon, who ranked among the league leaders with nine shutouts and a 1.27 goals-allowed average in 2008. "We let a lot of points get away and it came from not scoring.

"Our defense held up pretty well at the start of the season last year, and I think we addressed those problems in the attack.  In saying that, though, the defense needs to keep doing its job."

Last Season
Record: 8-13-9 (33 points).
Finish: 7th in Western Conference.
Playoffs: Did not qualify.

Bobby Convey (Reading), Cam Weaver (FK Haugesund), Pablo Campos (Djurgarden IF), Simon Elliott (Fulham), Chris Leitch (New York Red Bulls), Michael Zaher (D.C. United), Andrew Weber (Montreal Impact),
Quincy Amarikwa (UC Davis).

8 - Colorado
Smith revamps the Rapids in the offseason

After it spent much of the past decade mired in mediocrity, is this the year - with the decade nearly over -  Colorado breaks into the elite?

Coach Gary Smith, who replaced Fernando Clavijo with 11 games to go, managed the team to a 5-4-2 record. It fell just short of a playoff spot when Real Salt Lake scored a stunning last-minute goal to edge into the playoffs at the Rapids' expense. That thrilling finish somewhat masked the stark fact Colorado finished three games under .500 in a hardly formidable conference.

Still, Smith has revamped the team. Burly striker Conor Casey (6-foot-1, 170 pounds) took on a greater role and set a career mark with 11 goals. Christian Gomez, the odd man out under Smith, went back to D.C. United in a trade, and veteran defender Mike Petke returned to New York in another deal.  Veteran Ivan Guerrero, who last year bounced from Chicago to San Jose to D.C. United, landed in Colorado via the Gomez transaction.

"In return, we get some much-needed support and strength in a left-sided player like Ivan Guerrero, whose international and MLS experience is tremendous," said Smith when Gomez departed and Guerrero arrived. One of the coach's options is to use Guerrero at left back, where Jordan Harvey played 15 games last year, or in midfield.

Smith also shook up the team in goal, where spectacular but erratic Bouna Coundoul dazzled and mystified fans and teammates last year. He balked at the team's contract offer, so during the SuperDraft Smith flipped spots in the second round with Chicago and sent the Fire some allocation money in exchange for the rights to Matt Pickens, who played out his MLS contract and sat on the Queen's Park Rangers bench injured before coming back last summer. If he regains his form of 2007, he'll beat out Preston Burpo for the starter's jersey.

The elements are in place for Colorado to grind its way into a playoff spot. Paired up top with Casey, Omar Cummings utilized his pace to score six goals and register four assists. If the Rapids are strong anywhere, it is in midfield, where Terry Cooke (12 assists) and Colin Clark can stretch teams from the flanks, and Nick LaBrocca and U.S. veteran Pablo Mastroeni can look to go forward while stabilizing the center.

Casey is an obvious target for Cooke's crosses, Clark's slashing runs can also provide service to the frontrunners, and in his rookie year LaBrocca played in all 30 games. He faces competition for playing time, though, from dribbler Jacob Peterson and the enigmatic but talented Mehdi Ballouchy.

In defense, the central pairing of Cory Gibbs and Ugo Ihemelu is decent but wasn't all that effective last year when the Rapids conceded 45 goals. Yet they played only a combined 27 games after Gibbs arrived from Europe and Ihemulu struggled through a series of injuries, including a concussion, that limited his playing time.

Mastroeni is another player with a new contract in hand, and at age 32, it may be the final deal of his pro career. He cited the choice of Smith to replace Clavijo as a major factor in his decision to re-sign.

His performances for the Rapids have ranged from stellar to stilted; the Rapids' playoff chances would be greatly enhanced by a captain who plays consistently well from game to game, and cuts down on the bad tackles and excessive cautions he's accumulated in his MLS career.

Last Season
Record:  11-14-5 (38 points).
4th in Western Conference.
Playoffs: Did not qualify.

Matt Pickens (Queen's Park Rangers), Ivan Guerrero (D.C. United), Ty Harden (Los Angeles Galaxy), Steward Ceus (Univ. at Albany), Ross Schunk (Univ. of Redlands).

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

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