MLS: Midseason Report

MLS has thrown everyone for a loop. The Galaxy and Crew, the preseason favorites, find themselves at or near the bottom of their conferences. Expansion may be pushed up a year to accommodate the eager Jorge Vergara. At midseason, here are answers to nine key questions about MLS present and future.

1. How can MLS be made Mexican-friendly?

After years of struggling to attract Mexican-Americans fans into MLS through player signings and hit-or-miss promotions, the league is taking a direct route.

Jorge Vergara, owner of Mexican club Guadalajara, will start up a team in MLS next season, and negotiations are well underway to form a partnership between Anschutz Entertainment Group and Club America to jointly operate the San Jose Earthquakes.

Visits to San Jose, Houston and San Antonio were planned prior to a city for Vergara's team being officially named, but a source said the team will play in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, which will lose the baseball Padres as a tenant when a new stadium for them opens.

''We truly believe MLS is a powerful opportunity in the U.S., and Chivas wants to be part of that,'' said Vergara. ''We will have a team here next year, and I hope - I don't hope, I know - we will be a contender for the tournament, and a big rival for all the teams in the U.S.''

Vergara will have to adhere to MLS restrictions on salaries and foreign players. One candidate is Galaxy midfielder Antonio Martinez, who is nicknamed ''Chivas'' and holds dual citizenship.

2. When and where will MLS expand?

Commissioner Don Garber emphasized Vergara would come into the league in 2004, and MLS would motor ahead with its plans to have 12 teams by 2005. ''We tried to get him to hold off until 2005,'' said Garber, ''but he's ready to go, so if we have to play with 11 teams in 2004, we will.''

Garber said the league would not expand beyond 12 teams by the 2005 season. Cleveland, backed by former MISL Cleveland Force owner and real-estate mogul Bart Wolstein, is heading a list of expansion candidates that includes Houston (if Vergara doesn't set up shop there), Seattle, Tulsa, Edmond (Okla.) and Philadelphia.

''We will definitely finalize our plans for expansion before the end of the 2003 season,'' said Garber.

Just as important to the league is expanding its ownership pool. In addition to partnering with Club America in San Jose, AEG has been negotiating the sale of Colorado to Stan Kroenke, who owns the NHL Avalanche and NBA Nuggets as well as the Pepsi Center in which those teams play. He's also co-owner of the NFL St. Louis Rams.

3. What's the future for four-year college wonders?

If the 2003 season is any indication, there's still a place - actually many of them - for college boys in MLS.

Once again, a stellar collection is defying the odds by winning starting jobs.

Would the Fire be dueling for top spot in the East if not for Damani Ralph (Connecticut)? Could the Quakes back line be as secure had not Todd Dunivant (Stanford) emerged as a replacement for Wade Barrett? Is it coincidence that the Rapids posted three consecutive victories by shutout once Nat Borchers (University of Denver) had established himself alongside Robin Fraser in central defense? Has not Pat Noonan (Indiana) answered the question of whether he could cut it with the Revs?

Borchers got his shot because of a knee injury suffered by Jeff Stewart, who came out of Santa Clara to play 23 games (20 starts) for the Rapids last year. A defensive midfielder in college, Borchers was asked to fill in when the injury-depleted Rapids scrimmaged their reserve team.

''It was unfortunate what happened to Jeff,'' said Borchers. ''It wasn't the way you want to get an opportunity but you still have to take it.''

Dunivant, who was moved from midfield to left back late in his junior year, has played every minute for the Quakes; his long throw-ins add an unusual element to the San Jose attack.

''He serves a good ball and is a good passer,'' Quakes coach Frank Yallop had said in preseason. ''We have a few things to work on but he can play football.''

Midway through the season, Ralph seems a sure bet to break the MLS rookie record of eight goals in a season. He had seven heading into the All-Star break.

As a change of pace, Ralph, taken in the second round, set up goals for Justin Mapp and Kelly Gray with perfect through balls, then polished off a 3-1 victory over the Revs with a well-placed penalty.

''We thought he was the best forward still available [in the draft],'' says general manager Peter Wilt. ''He might have been the best forward available, period.''

4. Which U.S. under-20S have done well?

Postponing the FIFA World Youth Championship in the United Arab Emirates until late autumn has given players like Mapp a chance to get into the U.S. under-20 squad as well as provide valuable experience for Mike Magee and Ricardo Clark.

Magee and Clark have been vital cogs for the Metros and, like Ralph, are strong candidates for rookie of the year.

''The most impressive thing about both of them is they have good heads on their shoulders,'' says Metros defender Eddie Pope. ''They listen, they ask questions, they don't talk back, they're really good kids. That's enabled them to be successful. It started with the young guys a few years ago, with Landon [Donovan] and Bobby Convey. They're not scared of anything.''

Two third-year U-20 MLS players haven't fared so well. Santino Quaranta has one goal in 11 games with D.C. United, and Eddie Johnson hasn't hit the scoreboard in nine games for Dallas.

5. What's wrong with the Crew?

Crew fans must be tired of their players warming up the same clichés to be dished out again and again.

After beating Los Angeles, 1-0, in the season opener, Coach Greg Andrulis and his men reiterated the absolute, unshakable importance of being a dominant team at home.

It hasn't happened. A favorable schedule during the first half of the season (10 of 17 at home) yielded a 3-3-4 record. For all its importance as a signpost to the future, a forbidding cauldron Columbus Crew Stadium is not. Opposing teams like playing there.

It has a nice surface and suitable dimensions. The fans are loud but hardly boisterous. And the Crew doesn't win there all that often so any team can get a result.

Only in 2001, when it was 7-1-5 at home (and not coincidentally posted its all-time best mark at 13-7-6) has Columbus swaggered in its custom-built backyard.

The Crew doesn't rally - it was 0-7-1 in games in which it conceded the first goal. It doesn't take a lot of shots (eighth in MLS with 203 after 17 games) and not a lot of them go in (ninth with 19 goals).

A trade with Los Angeles for Alex Pineda Chacon is an attempt to spark the attack, but the APC of 2002 and 2003 hasn't been anything like the 2001 version. Still, a team that has been deprived of Brian McBride, Brian West, Freddy Garcia, Ross Paule, Edson Buddle and Kyle Martino has the weapons to challenge in the East.

''We've had guys in and out all year,'' says defender Frankie Hejduk. ''It's been tough for the coach and tough for the players. On top of that we've had a lot of injuries. Now we'll be able to be together as a team for a significant amount of time.''

But with only 13 games to play, starting with a Aug. 9 game in Los Angeles, the Crew doesn't have a lot of time.

6. WhY has the Galaxy dimmed?

On its way to the title last year, Los Angeles won four of its first seven games, played .500 ball for a few months, then took six of its last seven to finish as the No. 1 seed.

This year, the Galaxy didn't win its fourth game of the season until July 30, when it beat the Crew, 2-1, to lift its mark to 4-6-7.

To shake up his team, in early July Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid traded Ezra Hendrickson and Gavin Glinton, along with a draft pick, to Dallas for Ryan Suarez, Paul Broome and Martinez, who scored in that 2-1 win over the Crew.

''That team has to get back to playing the way it used to play,'' says Hendrickson. ''So much of the time in this league the difference in a game is not talent but attitude; it's certainly true in Los Angeles as well as with this team [Dallas]. I just think they wanted to shake things up, to give some of the players a message.''

Cobi Jones hasn't been searing defenders and conjuring scoring changes like he did after coming home from the 2002 World Cup. Midfielder Simon Elliott is laboring as he tries to re-adjust to playing with Mauricio Cienfuegos, whom Schmid tried to phase out in the first portion of the season but brought back to inject some rhythm and flair into the attack. Defenders Tyrone Marshall and Alexi Lalas struggled through some shocking nightmares as Schmid tinkered with Hong Myung Bo in midfield as well as the back line.

''Starting with eight games on the road doesn't help,'' says Hendrickson. ''That's a big hole to climb out of.''

In August and September, the Galaxy plays seven of nine games at the Home Depot Center. ''As long as we remember the stadium doesn't play the games, we should be all right,'' says Lalas.

7. Will MLS complete the season without a coaching change?

The Rapids reversed their dismal season by rolling to four straight wins, and D.C. has climbed into the playoff race, so the heat on coaches Tim Hankinson and Ray Hudson has cooled somewhat.

But things are hot for the Burn.

Three years ago, Dallas general manager Andy Swift dismissed Coach Dave Dir and hired Fire assistant coach Mike Jeffries with the primary intent of getting his perennial playoff participants into MLS Cup.

Right now, Dallas looks like the best bet to miss the playoffs, and Swift is stepping down at the end of the season.

Jeffries, though, is in the first year of a two-year contract and the extremely frugal Hunt Sports Group won't be anxious to pay off his contract and hire somebody else. After the second season of his two-year deal the new stadium in Frisco is scheduled to be ready.

After a timid 3-0 post-trade loss to the Quakes dropped the Burn's record to a miserable 3-10-4, Jeffries said, ''We've tried hanging together and being positive, we've tried getting on each other in training, but nothing seems to be working.

''The game tonight was absolutely typical. We're playing OK in the back, not great, but then we give up a shocking, men's league goal when we can't clear a corner kick, and they get their second goal on a set play [free kick], where we don't mark up [their two forwards].''

Dallas also hasn't adjusted to its ugly turf field in Southlake. It is 2-5-2 at home , where it's been outscored, 17-13.

8. Who's on the MVP ballot?

Both of last year's top candidates, Carlos Ruiz and Taylor Twellman, are knocking in goals consistently enough to merit serious consideration again this season.

Yet Twellman might find competition in his own locker room. Some of Adin Brown's contortions in goal defy belief.

An atypically leaky defense in Kansas City has been camouflaged somewhat by the cutbacks and switchbacks of the ageless one, Preki, who has to be a finalist for MVP honors if the second half of his season is anything like the first.

A penchant to collect yellows and reds clouds the persona of Metros midfielder Amado Guevara. If he stays on the field and Metros finish strong, he has a shot. Ditto for Clint Mathis, if he can hang his numbers next to those of Ruiz, Preki, Twellman and Ante Razov.

Somebody deserves credit for the success in San Jose, but the team ethic preached so eloquently by Yallop and practiced so zealously by his team complicates the singling out of an MVP. Keeper Pat Onstad, veteran defender Jeff Agoos and Donovan are all crucial contributors. And the most indispensable of the bunch may be Richard Mulrooney.

9. Who should be Coach of the Year?

Yallop's success with a team that lost several starters puts him high on the coach's list. Bob Bradley's conversion of the Metros from creampuffs to contenders is admirable.

Dave Sarachan, in his first head coaching stint, has built smartly on the Fire's solid core of players with Mapp, Ralph, and Logan Pause. Bob Gansler has a very different Wizards team than the one that won the title in 2000 yet might make another strong late-season run. If Schmid can reverse the Galaxy's terrible start and get back to the final, he'll earn some votes.

With many teams capable of strong finishes, picking a Coach of the Year may be just as tough as predicting which team will win MLS Cup 2003.

By Soccer America Senior Editor Ridge Mahoney

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