Monday, February 6, 2012

Top 5 MLS what-to-watch-fors

So the soon-to-be MLS season is, believe it or not, fast approaching. Seems like just yesterday we were watching Landon and Becks engage in an epic bro-embrace. Wistful days, those. But upon is the longest MLS season ever undertaken, a startling five weeks hence. As somebody who still considers soccer a cold-weather sport, there's not a lot about 100+ degree mid-July games that entices me, but that's why more games on the front and back ends is something I see as a positive.

Consider this your NSC entry point to the MLS calendar. I'll be back all throughout February and into early March with more previews, offseason reviews and haughty personal opinion than you can fit into a pair of David Beckham boxer briefs (Worst. Super Bowl. Commercial. Ever). You may hate me by the end of this. Greg may hate me by the end of this. But you'll be the most MLS-ed of all readers, gal-dernit. And that's the truth.

So we start with a W2W4 MLS style. Five things to get us started on a season that can't get here quick enough.

#5. Who wins the SuperDraft sweepstakes? 

It's always an interesting case to see who comes out ahead in terms of talent evaluation. If you haven't already done so, check out this fascinating video that chronicles the lead-up to New York's pick of Tim Ream in 2010 (the good stuff starts around 4:30). It lays to rest the idea that Erik Soler is completely inept, but it also became a rallying point of sorts for the Red Bulls going forward, that hey, we can pick 'em too. Last year, DC, Houston and SKC all made strong cases for drafts of the year by collecting talent that helped right away. The league ultimately sided with Peter Vermes. Which will win this year? Did Montreal choose right, going with Andrew Wenger over Darren Mattocks? Will the rest of the field regret not picking up quicker on Enzo Martinez, or was their hesitance warranted? All in due time, friends. One thing that's for sure: the Red Bulls didn't win the draft this year. Hammerlock certainty.

#4. This unbalanced schedule and playoff monkey business

We've already gotten some blasts from angry MLS fans about the perceived legitimacy of any titles won in unbalanced years. It's also not something unfamiliar to the league. It's not impossible to craft a balanced schedule with 19 teams. This dude used an insane amount of math to formulate something that works. But alas, unbalanced is what we have, so it's what we'll work with. I think the season sample size is big enough to overcome any shortcomings like teams not playing everybody the same number of times. When the league schedule is as long as it is, I tend to think that covers up some of the warts from the lack of conference cross-over. All that to say, it doesn't really bother me, and I won't be one of those crowing about illegitimate champions come December. The playoffs are a trickier beast and something I've yet to fully comprehend. I'm in favor of blowing up conferences entirely and going to a single table, but in lieu of that, they've added an extra game to the conference championships and done away with a neutral-site title game set-up that's used by almost every league and every sport in the world. So in the end we've still got the sensibilities of multiple sports grafted onto a single playoff format. It's nonsensical and needs vast amounts of work. But at least the league has been willing to look at it. Garber & Co. just need to look harder.

#3. The 2012 DP crop

We had a nice year for DPs in 2011. Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans helped exhume a Toronto team we'd all buried, gave them a place in the CCL knockouts and restored hope for 2012. Robbie Keane became one of the shrewdest signings we've seen, adding a vital component up top for LA that probably shored up their title run. Even Eric Hassli, who's final DP bill came in under a million bucks for Vancouver, proved to be a diamond. So what to expect this year? Kris Boyd is our highest profile signing so far, as Portland signed its second DP after slapping the tag on Diego Chara last year. New England finally made Shalrie Joseph a DP, while DC splashed for Rapid Wien goal-getter Hamdi Salidi. The fun thing about this list is that it invariably changes throughout the year, and the best pick-ups are rarely made in the offseason. Which leads to rampant, absurd speculation. Could this be the year we see Wesley Sneijder in a Colorado Rapids jersey??? Ryan Giggs and Michael Owen both have expiring contracts with United this summer and are options. Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, Dimitar Berbatov, Clarence Seedorf and Raul are all names that've been batted around as possible options. Sadly, none of these dispel the retirement community myth, but talent is talent. None of us figured Henry would give MLS the time of day, and he's lit the league up. You never know.

#2. Is the league getting smarter and, by extension, better?

We've crowed for years about MLS as a launch pad to better leagues, but there appears to be firmer evidence that talent is beginning to look at the North American league more and more as a destination rather than a trampoline. Nobody is mistaking the league for the EPL, but look at past and present DP numbers for proof of the league's ascension. The bulk of the first crop of DPs - Reyna, Blanco and Denilson - were nearing retirement. That the rule could be used for a developmental tool seemed almost absurd. Hell, the thing was almost pejoratively called The Beckham Rule. Now, eight of the league's 20 DPs are under 30. It's a signal of a broader movement that is helping to retain players like Dilly Duka and Andy Najar, who have the talent to be playing in smaller European leagues but are choosing to spend extra months Stateside instead. The league's quality tends to rise each year, but the bar graph has been spiking the last few years. I'd look for that to continue.

#1. Can anyone unseat LA?

I'm always interested in the parity vs. disparity argument. On one hand, teams shouldn't be punished for having the means to wield buying power. On the other, there remains a very egalitarian sense that everyone should have an equal chance to compete that isn't directly tied to the pursestrings of the owner. So as Houston fans silently curse AEG for allowing LA to surpass them in purchasing ability, we all silently and nervously watch for the big dogs to take the lead. LA was arguably the best team in MLS history, and certainly in the top two when you consider the epic DC United team of the league's early days. David Beckham's return, whatever the motivation, assures that their set pieces are set, and Landon will be fresh off an invigorated stint at Everton that launched him into the stratosphere during his first stay at Goodison Park. The addition of Edson Buddle almost doesn't seem fair. The only place where LA was even moderately shaky was up top, and now we'll have Adam Cristman's name forever stricken from the record. As much as it hurts to say it, the league needs New York to wake up. LA needs a counterbalance, and nobody else is ponying up the cash to keep up.

You want my one crazy prediction for the day? SKC takes a backseat to LA for the Supporter's Shield but wins the MLS Cup behind record-setting years from the back four and Teal Bunbury, who wins the Golden Boot. How's that for bold? Yes, folks, it's just February. Buckle up.

- Will Parchman


Phil McCracken said...

Is you're touting LA as being great again, shouldn't you at least raise the question on how they'll handle the losses of Juninho and Gonzalez? Pretty big holes to fill.

Phil McCracken said...

Expanding on my earlier comment, LA's main competition in the West has gotten better this year. Dallas, Seattle and RSL each lost a key contributor to major injury last year which they'll get back in '12. I think that Zakuani is the biggest question mark of the three that are returning.

As far as SKC goes, it will be interesting to see how they deal with the loss of Bravo. His absence really showed in the Eastern Conference Final as they lacked any creativity against Houston. Plus, the integration of the somewhat difficult personality of Convey to a cohesive side will be a fascinating storyline.

Obviously, I'm excited about the upcoming MLS season and look forward to your posts.

Will Parchman said...

Gonzo, sure, but it's not like the back line is barren. DeLaGarza is coming into his own as one of MLS' top center backs, while Todd Dunivant and Sean Franklin are arguably the top fullback duo in the league. Replacing Gonzo will be an issue, but it's not like it's a make-or-break one. LA could have afforded to give up more goals than they did last year. They can still outscore anybody.

As for Juninho, I'm in wait-and-see mode with his replacement. Marcelo Sarvas has a ton of potential. It's no secret that Juninho was the team's heartbeat, but this is LA we're talking about. Land of money and moving parts.

sostoked said...

If the Rapids signed Wesley Sneijder, I would buy season tickets and his jersey. I promise...

Unknown said...

Does any other team in the league have 3 DP slots like LA?

jon said...

@ Unknown, Toronto does. DC will if they resign DeRo as a DP. Portland would have had 3 if not for the injury and restructuring of their deal for Valencia. NY and Seattle have 2 a piece, but seem like good bets to use their 3rd spot as soon as they find the right player.

Will Parchman said...

Don't forget too, once teams get to three DPs they have to shell out a $250,000 luxury tax for the right to do it. Which means that teams, especially smaller market ones, are typically more shrewd with their decisions once they reach that two-player threshold.

Jon Alan Schmidt said...

I read over the weekend that if Bunbury participates in every national team camp (senior and U-23/Olympics) for which he is eligible this year, he may only be able to get about 10 MLS appearances with SKC. That would obviously make it pretty tough for him to win the Golden Boot.

In any case, I think that Sapong's superior ability to score with his head makes him a better fit at center forward, given that Convey is likely to be sending in plenty of crosses from the left wing. For this very reason, I am not too concerned (yet) about losing Bravo, who was more likely to cut inside and keep the ball on the ground or take a shot himself.

Will Parchman said...

Yeah, I'm all for rash predictions in February. Anything anybody prognosticates at this point of the year is pretty silly just by definition. Which is one of the fun things about it. I generally tend to have my tongue planted firmly in my cheek.

Bravo's departure will be felt, but with an offseason to work through it, I don't doubt SKC's ability to get on firmer footing than they were in the conference final. Dealing with loss short term is always tougher than long term, especially when you have a few months to draw up a game plan to integrate Convey into the fold. I think he's eager to put the whole SJ episode behind him, and the KC locker room is about as functional as it gets. He'll fall in line.

Alex said...

Your Wesley Sneijder comment made me lol

Jay said...

Given his most recent performances, I doubt Bunbury is going to get quite that many chances at the national level this year.

On the schedule madness... ugh. It's like the league was just taunting us last season. Eight years ago I had no problem with a weird, unbalanced schedule; there weren't enough teams in the league, so a traditionally balanced schedule was too short to be worth playing. At this point, however, the league can do it -- they just refuse to. Yes, the season is being extended a little bit, but they can afford to extend it even more. Hertha Berlin just played a match last weekend at around -15°C!

Will Parchman said...

Jay, what I hear is that it's less the climate and more the travel. No club team in Europe has to deal with a road trip like LA to New York for league matches, and the CCL schedule can strain that even further. So they feel that adding games or stretching the season out further will inflame injury and fatigue in one of the most far-flung leagues in the world geographically, if not the most. I agree with you in principle that MLS makes things a lot harder than they need to be, but I at least understand that side of it. That said, will adding a game or two to balance out the sked really make that much of a difference? I don't know.

jon said...

If you're just talking about adding 2 games for each team in order to maintain a balanced schedule, then sure, adding 2 weeks wouldn't make that much of a difference. But presumably the decision makers (as well as several owners and coaches, judging by their favorable response) already felt that the geography combined with the # of games was too taxing. So the question you actually need to ask is whether adding 2 more games each is much worse than going unbalanced and drastically cutting travel miles like they did.
It was nice that they went balanced for the last 2 or 3 years and I would have liked them to keep it balanced a couple/few/? more years until there actually are 20 teams. But eventually with this many teams across a country this big, something had to give.
The seasons/weather thing is a completely different argument.

Jay said...

No, I gotcha on the weather point. I still feel that there are ways to extend the season, allowing for a balanced schedule and have smarter travel schedules. Clearly the owners are happy about the new schedule - how much are they saving on airplane tickets?

In a way, actually, looping back to the travel distance issue, I almost feel that MLS is holding out for two parallel top division leagues. Why else hold on to this notion of "divisions"? At the moment it allows the league to make scheduling decisions like this and it also allows for this potential future split. Having separate leagues and a real, honest-to-mercy cup at the end of the season would really make it much more worthwhile.