Major League Soccer Returns – 2011 Preview

by Michael Orr

Major League Soccer began its sixteenth season last night as the Seattle Sounders lost  1-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy at Qwest Field. The Galaxy, Supporters’ Shield holders, are looking to add the MLS Cup this season while Seattle are still trying to recover from their playoff loss to the Galaxy last fall. The rest of the league begins play on the weekend. The league is very top heavy and otherwise quite average this year. Here is a quick look at the teams who are expected to compete for the Supporters’ Shield, who has a good chance at the playoffs and who will be cellar-dwelling in 2011.

THE TOP:
Real Salt Lake – The 2009 MLS Cup champions were surprisingly eliminated from the playoffs last season but have bolstered their already-strong side with the inclusion of Arturo Alvarez. Salt Lake are also competing in the CONCACAF Champions League, having reached the semi-finals by way of dismantling Columbus Crew in the quarterfinals. The club are well coached and are confident ahead of the season.

Los Angeles Galaxy – Supporters’ Shield holders added Juan Pablo Ángel and Frankie Hejduk to a side that has had title aspirations each of the past two seasons. With David Beckham in his final MLS season and Landon Donovan at his peak, anything less than the MLS Cup will be a disappointment for the Galaxy.

Red Bull New York – Perhaps a step below the top two, New York are quite obviously heavy on big name talent. But beyond Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez are two of the club’s most interesting players: Joel Lindpere and Juan Agudelo. The former is an Estonian international winger who was the team’s player of the year in 2010. The latter is an 18-year old star in the making. Red Bull were the top club in the East last year. Every indication is that they were repeat that distinction in 2011.

PLAYOFF EXPECTATIONS:
Colorado Rapids – The 2010 MLS Cup champions were only the seventh-best team in the regular season last year. Buoyed by their post-season success in 2010, the Rapids should have a better record than 10-10-10 this season. The strike partnership of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings alone give Colorado a chance to finish in the top three in the West but their overall quality is a step below Salt Lake and Los Angeles.

Seattle Sounders – A late season run last year got the Sounders back into the playoffs, but the club were very average for most of the season. With Steve Zakuani and Fredy Montero the Sounders have a potent attack but the question is whether the rest of the side is competent enough to challenge the top teams in the league. Seattle will likely do well against poor opponents and struggle against the better teams in the league, leaving them again in the middle of the playoff picture.

DC United – 2010 was a disaster for United, finishing with the worst record in the league. But an off-season trade brought Dax McCarty into the central midfield, a move that should completely change the outlook in DC. With young Andy Najar continuing to mature, the biggest question for United is in goal as the team have suffered multiple injuries and brought 43-year old assistant coach Pat Onstad out of retirement.

FC Dallas – The MLS Cup runners-up lost Dax McCarty and Atiba Harris in the Expansion Draft but do bring back reigning league MVP David Ferreira. Dallas used a 19-game unbeaten run to earn a playoff spot in 2010. The chances of a repeat performance are low but if goalkeeper Kevin Hartmann plays anywhere near as well as last season, Dallas will be in the playoffs.

San Jose Earthquakes – Chris Wondolowski exploded for 18 goals in 2010, singlehandedly leading San Jose to playoffs and then an upset of RBNY. Wondo has continued that form in the pre-season, scoring in each of the last five warm up matches this spring. If he can continue to score at that pace, the Earthquakes will be in good shape. If not, the playoffs might be out of reach as they were in 2009.

Sporting KC – A new stadium (Livestrong Park) and a true star in Teal Bunbury should propel newly rebranded Sporting to a playoff position this year. The only hindrance will be the 10-game away run to start the season as construction is completed on the stadium. If KC can survive that opening stretch the playoffs should be well within reach with 17 of their final 24 games at home.

THE OTHER HALF:
Houston Dynamo – Nothing particularly wrong with this side, just nothing exciting either. Houston were out of the playoffs last season as the twelfth-best side, a far cry from their back-to-back MLS Cup championships in 2006 and 2007. The Dynamo drafted well adding Kofi Sarkodie and Will Bruin, but that will not given them enough to immediately challenge at the top of the league.

Philadelphia Union – Last season’s expansion team, the Union had a poor record but several strong performances. Sébastien Le Toux had double digits in goals and assists while youngsters Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney showed promise beyond their years. 2011 will likely not be a playoff year for the Union but this is a club certainly building for strong runs in the future.

Columbus Crew – The Crew finished second in the East last season but were ousted in the playoffs by eventual MLS Cup champions Colorado Rapids. Since that time Columbus have dropped off significantly with an amazing loss of talent during the off-season. Adding veteran Jeff Cunningham should provide needed guile and the odd goal but the Crew will be no match for New York this season.

Portland Timbers – Of the two new clubs in 2011, Portland seem to be the more complete at this early stage. Kenny Cooper is a proven goal scorer in MLS and the resolute back line allowed just three goals and an own-goal in eight pre-season games. Obviously pre-season has little bearing on regular season results, but the Timbers were undefeated in their inaugural campaign. Though overall goal scoring might be an issue, Portland appear to be a half-decent side.

New England Revolution – Another largely unexciting team in the East. Defender AJ Soares appears to be a very good draft pick in defense but can the addition of a single defender reverse what was the league’s leakiest side in 2010?

Toronto FC – New manager Aron Winter has brought with him a positivity about play that Toronto have lacked in recent years. Whether his Dutch-styled system will work is another question entirely. With aging stars who are largely unhappy, Canada’s first MLS club could have yet another disappointing season.

Chicago Fire – Young goalkeeper Sean Johnson is probably Chicago’s biggest asset in 2011. If he plays well the Fire will be able to contend to a certain degree. If not, there is little else to look forward to this season.

Chivas USA – Los Angeles’ second team are in the process of a make-over with new manager Robin Fraser moving over from Real Salt Lake. Though the Goats are not very likely to compete at a high level in 2011, the competence of Fraser and his desire to win are impossible to ignore. Chivas were the second worst club last season. Could be a similar finish in 2011.

Vancouver Whitecaps – Difficult to say exactly what team will appear for the new club this season. Still adding players as recently as last week, Vancouver has the potential to be quite good or downright awful. A confusing pre-season and the looming question about the availability of Omar Salgado makes the first MLS season for the Whitecaps one that could be worth forgetting.

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