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