SpreeGoogs’ 2012 MLS Preview

If you’ve made it past the headline, congratulations; you’re one step closer to embracing your inner internationalist and becoming a fan of the fastest-growing sports league in the United States.  In spite of minimal coverage in the national media, the MLS continues to improve its on-field product, move toward operating at a profit (due to the construction of team-owned soccer-specific stadiums), attracts ever-improving talent from overseas and creates a unique fan atmosphere in American sports.

“Now we see the United States in a different light.  There is evidence now that they are starting to produce their own players,” said Sir Alex Ferguson, famed Manchester United manager.  “They have advanced their game because of the coaching and their sport science.  Their preparation is first class.”

There are still problems with the league.  The playoffs, a concept unique to American soccer, are confusing and neutralize the regular season, meaning the best team over the long-haul doesn’t always win (the Colorado Rapids slid into the 2010 playoffs, but ended up winning the MLS Cup while the regular season points leader, the Los Angeles Galaxy, lost in the Western Conference Finals to FC Dallas); the Designated Player rule helped infuse the league with a sense of legitimacy after the arrivals of David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, etc. but now threatens to widen the gulf of “haves” and “have-nots”; and, for every successful sell-out in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Houston or Philadelphia, low attendance and lackluster facilities harm charter franchises in Washington, D.C., Boston and San Jose.

There are a number of stories that help make the 2012 MLS season intriguing.  Let’s take a dive into some of them:

Expansion

Montreal Impact join the MLS this year, becoming the nineteenth (and third Canadian) club in the league.  Like the Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, the Impact draw their history and support from playing the NASL.  While the MLS doesn’t have a second-tier promotion/relegation system like European leagues, the last three expansion sides have all been born from unusually-successful NASL markets (and the promise of big crowds and new stadiums).

The Legendary Cosmos of the NASL featured Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia.

And while the Impact will open a new stadium later this year, the real expansion story is who the twentieth MLS team will be.  Ever since an investment group bought the rights to the famed New York Cosmos, and brought Pele and Eric Cantona on board, speculation has been that MLS will jump at adding a second club in the New York market (New York Red Bulls play in New Jersey).  However, it’s notoriously difficult to get anything built in New York.  It’s even more difficult to find financing for urban stadium projects.  And MLS, having learned its lesson from its infancy spent in cavernous football stadiums, insists that stadium plans be finalized before awarding expansion franchises.  The Cosmos have great brand recognition and would immediately become the second-most important team in MLS, behind Los Angeles.  But they first need to find the financing to make the dream a reality before a city like Orlando swoops in and becomes MLS 20.

Star Power
In a shocking development David Beckham returned to the Los Angeles Galaxy after winning the MLS Cup in November.

David Beckham returns to the Galaxy

It was speculated that he was going to return to Europe and play for either Paris Saint-Germain (flush with cash and offering a huge contract) or Tottenham Hotspur (his grandfather’s favorite club) for the chance to represent Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics (and, in a far-fetched idea, England in Euro 2012).  However, Becks pulled a fast one and resigned with the Galaxy.

And, really, who could blame him?  He has young children, young and likely more American than they are British, who call Los Angeles home.  He is a star in a growing league that has promised him ownership of a future team (New York Cosmos?) and he’s coming off of a championship.  Most importantly, Beckham is a brand.  At this point in his career, he understands that part of that brand is being linked to the fastest-growing football market in the world – the United States.

When it came down to it, Beckham maintained the course his handlers set out in 2007 when set out to grow soccer in America.  As any public relations professional knows, brand consistency is important and bolting for one last pay day in Paris would’ve damaged the Beckham brand.

Beyond Beckham, Thierry Henry returns to MLS after tearing it up during his loan to Arsenal this past winter.  Henry caused Gunners fans to swell with pride and nostalgia as he brought to mind his leading role on their famed “Invincibles” side that didn’t lose a league game in 2003-04.

Landon Donovan (who, in this writer’s opinion should stay in Europe forever and build a name for Americans abroad) also returns to the Los Angeles Galaxy after another brief stint with Everton, where he teamed up with American hero Tim Howard and energized the Toffees’ fan base with precision passing, brilliant goals and American swagger.

Landon Donovan during his brief loan to Everton in 2012.

Derbies
MLS recognizes the importance of regional rivalries and has developed some of the best in North American sports.  The Cascadia Cup between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver features some of the best crowds on the continent and bad blood that looks strange to neutral observers.

Watch a Seattle-Portland game on NBC Sports this year and try to not become a MLS convert.  Other rivalries include Los Angeles/San Jose, Colorado/Salt Lake City, Houston/Dallas, Toronto/Columbus, New York/Philadelphia and Kansas City/Chicago.  Add the national rivalries within Canada and you have a league full of subplots and a schedule that encourages them.

So how do the teams look to fare this year?  It’s hard to say.  There is a lot of parity in MLS due to players constantly moving to other leagues, big names arriving in certain markets and the aforementioned odd playoff structure.  But there are interesting things to note for each club and, although I don’t pretend to be an expert on each, I’ll do my best to provide the SpreeGoogs’ readership with a starting point for its budding MLS obsession.

Eastern Conference

Sporting Kansas City (11-9-11)
A grueling road trip to start the season ended on a high note as SKC opened Livestrong Sporting Park, one of the best stadiums in the United States.  They were able to develop a clear homefield advantage late in the year and should build off of that in 2012.  However, the loss of DP Omar Bravo may prove to hurt the club.

Philadelphia Union (10-7-13)
The Union made their second year one to remember, but lost to Houston in the first round of the playoffs. They lost leading scorer Sebastien Le Toux to Vancouver, so goals will need to come from somebody else.  They kept onetime American golden child (and still 23-years-old and promising) Freddy Adu.  Now that Adu is getting regular playing time, he may remain a fixture in Jurgen Klinsmann’s national team lineup.  The Union also have some of the strongest support in MLS, thanks to the Sons of Ben supporters group that creates a great in-game atmosphere.

Freddy Adu is still younger than all of your SpreeGoogs contributors.

Houston Dynamo (10-9-12)
The Dynamo qualified for the playoffs late and rode a wave of good chemistry and stingy defense all the way to the MLS Cup Final where they lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy.  They were able to bring back face of the franchise Brian Ching after losing him to Montreal in the Expansion Draft and, most importantly, open the brand new BBVA Compass Stadium in May.  As a regular at Dynamo games at decrepit Robertson Stadium the past five years, I can tell you that this is a blessing.  Before they can open the first MLS stadium located in an urban downtown area, the Dynamo have to survive a seven-match road trip to start the season.

Columbus Crew (11-12-8)
A mid-table team in a mid-sized American city with a mid-sized following.

New York Red Bulls (8-7-15)
A club that should be a centerpiece of MLS is instead always a disappointment.  Despite featuring Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, the Red Bulls posted a weak record last year and lost to the Galaxy in the opening round of the playoffs.  With the money invested in this team, and amazing Red Bull Arena, there’s no excuse for failure.

However, the Red Bulls also have young American star Juan Agudelo on their team.  The lastest “next great hope,” Agudelo struggles to find playing time for the Red Bulls, despite playing prominently for the US National Team.  Watching his development, and future in New York, will be an interesting subplot this season.

D.C. United (9-9-11)
Despite resigning (personal) favorite Dwayne De Rosario, D.C. United is stuck in neutral due to stadium negotiations.  Rumors of a move to Baltimore grow louder as D.C. can’t reach an agreement to move out of crumbling RFK Stadium.  It’s a shame that one of the charter MLS franchises has to exist in such limbo, but they’re not the only one (San Jose and New England come to mind).

Chicago Fire (7-8-15)
Have not a relevant moment since Cuauhtemoc Blanco left in 2009.  They play in the suburbs and have a new kit sponsor in Quaker.  This is the “soccer mom” team of MLS.

The Chicago Fire landed a big-name kit sponsor, but at what cost?

Toronto FC (6-13-12)
Traded Canadian hero Dwayne De Rosario to New York after he tried to jump ship to Celtic last year.  The club has squandered initial excellent fan support through poor management and a failure to ever make the playoffs.  There isn’t much hope for 2012 either.

New England Revolution (5-13-12)
Odds are that Robert Kraft doesn’t remember that owns the Revolution.  They play in cavernous Gillette Stadium, have no notable players and are the MLS version of the Buffalo Bills after losing three consecutive MLS Cup Finals.

Montreal Impact
A new team that will start playing in Olympic Stadium before moving into expanded Saputo Stadium this summer.  There’s a lot of money behind this team and a strong NASL following.  But I can’t hear any of that over the French.

Western Conference

Los Angeles Galaxy (17-3-10, MLS Cup and Supporters Shield winners)
As mentioned, David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Juninho return to MLS’ premier franchise.  Robbie Keane will return from a loan to Aston Villa and LA looks like the team to beat again.  Seriously, they’re really good.

Seattle Sounders FC (15-6-9)
Have some of the best supporters in the league and are consistently in the playoffs.  They’ve also won the US Open Cup twice.  But none of that has translated to MLS postseason success.  Fredy Montero is a great, young player who is making waves for both Seattle and his native Colombia.  Also, did you know that Drew Carey is a part-owner?  Well, now you do.  Come on down.

The Price is Right host Drew Carey

Real Salt Lake (15-9-6)
For as out-of-place as Kyle Beckerman looks in the midfield for the United States National Team, he anchors a consistently good RSL side.  They missed out on the chance to become the first MLS team in the FIFA Club World Cup when they lost to Monterrey last year in the CONCACAF Champions League.  However, they are a strong side built on system play that is always a threat.

FC Dallas (13-10-7)
The only thing worthwhile about FC Dallas is Brek Shea.  A rising star under Jurgen Klinsmann, he trained with Arsenal in the off-season and will hopefully be making the jump to Europe soon.  He’s young enough that he needs to make the leap professionally.

Colorado Rapids (10-9-12)
After a shocking 2010 MLS Cup Championship, they returned to frigid irrelevance in 2011.

Portland Timbers (10-13-7)
Some of the best fans of any sport in any league.  Listen to them sing the national anthem on ESPN last year before a game:

If you’re looking for a first MLS game to watch, check out anything being held in Portland and make your way onto the bandwagon.  Darlington Nagbe also scored one of the best goals in the world last year for the Timbers:

Chivas USA (8-12-11)
Move this team already.  They share the Home Depot Center with the Galaxy and Mexican-American fans of Chivas Guadalajara never transferred their allegiances to this team.  Instead, they kept rooting for the original Chivas.

San Jose Earthquakes (6-11-13)
One of the blights of MLS, the Earthquakes returned when the ownership group and city of San Jose promised to build a new stadium (the original Earthquakes moved to Houston because of stalled stadium negotiations in 2006 and became the Dynamo, winning two straight MLS Cups), but there has been little to movement since.  Despite having one of the best young scorers in the league in Chris Wondolowski, the Earthquakes were a disappointment in 2011 and still play in a 10,000 seat soccer stadium at Santa Clara University.

Vancouver Whitecaps (4-15-10)
They were terrible in 2011, but Eric Hassli did score this goal, which may have been the best goal in the whole world, last year:

So, there you have it.  The first piece in what may be a few SpreeGoogs posts on the MLS.  If you’re looking for a team to support, look toward your hometown first.  MLS is constantly growing and it will only be as strong as its individual clubs.  Yes, even if you live in the Bay Area, go see an Earthquakes game and sit near the most rabid supporters.  Watch a Portland-Seattle derby on the newly-created (and MLS-friendly) NBC Sports Network.  Follow the United States National Team.  Most importantly, understand that being a fan of both soccer and American football is perfectly normal.  They’re completely different games and once you begin to understand the flow and nuances of soccer, you may just see why it’s the most popular sport on earth.

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