By Jon Levy
The second piece of our MLS preview takes a look at five intriguing sides from the Eastern Conference.
New York Red Bulls
Outlook: The Red Bulls were as good as advertised last year, at least in the regular season. They finished first in the East, but were ousted from the playoffs early by an underdog San Jose Earthquakes side that I’m going to describe as “plucky.” This year New York will looks to its still-shiny new(ish) toys to lead the charge in the absence of Juan Pablo Angel, who switched coasts and headed south as many old folks do. Not so fresh from Catalonia, Rafa Marquez and Thierry Henry begin their first full season with NYRB this month. They’ll hope to generate chemistry with mainstays like Dane Richards, and rising stars/U.S. National Teamers Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream. Manager Hans Backe, a proud member of Sven Goran Eriksson’s coaching tree, has quality to spare in the squad, so expectations for the MLS’s New York franchise will be sky high.
Questions: At what position will Rafa Marquez be played? Aside from Henry, who is Backe looking at to make up for Angel’s production? Is it Agudelo’s turn? Will Wayne Rooney’s little bro John make an impact? Is he as big a jackleg as his brother?
Why Love Them: Rooting for the Red Bulls gives you a chance to watch an up and coming USMNT forward learn from one of the greatest of all time in Thierry Henry. The guy’s a World Cup, EPL, and Champions League winner, as well as a great professional away from the pitch. Hopefully Agudelo’s got his ears and eyes open, this could be special. The Red Bulls also employ our own Neil Blackmon’s new USMNT man-crush, Tim Ream. They’ve got sweet away uniforms to boot.
Why Hate Them: New York sports teams are always polarizing, meaning you’ve got full license to hate them just for that! They’re also a big spending club in the world’s biggest media hub who signs players that other team’s can’t, so there ya go. Additionally, Red Bull tastes like what I imagine pee tastes like. Gross. Apologies to Red Bull addict Neil on that one. And lastly, Rafael Marquez plays for this team. How’s that sit with your American soccer fandom?
Outlook: Last year was crap for the Dynamo, which the franchise hasn’t experienced since moving to Texas. They missed playoffs for first time. Stu Holden and Ricardo Clark left. Bring Ching was hurt for a good chunk of time. Now team will attempt to get back on track with mostly the same squad and a healthy Chinger. It’ll have to be a big coaching job by Dominic Kinnear for this team to reach anything near the heights that the Holden/Ching/De Rosario incarnations of the Dynamo attained. But with Chinger’s effort, anything is possible.
Questions: Will Kinnear switch up tactics or plug on-hand parts into his system? The Dynamo pulled a Chicago Bears and missed out on first and second round draft picks a couple years in a row; will side back Kofi Sarkodie deliver on the expectations put upon the first opening round draft pick in a long while? Coming from the Canadian Football League, can Warren Moon successfully run an NFL, I mean MLS, offense?
Why Love Them?: Brian Ching is the Man. Here at TYAC we named the effort award after him, and the Bring Ching Award is a big deal at the site! Ching may not play the beautiful game beautifully, but like the late James Brown, he’s the hardest working man in his business. He and his homeboy Brad Davis have been at the core of this squad for years, and if you can’t root for these two, you’re wrong. Also, former boxing great and current awesome businessman Oscar De La Hoya is a part owner of the team. I used to watch Oscar beat dudes up on HBO when I was a kid. Fond memories…
Why Hate Them?: If you’re not from the great state of Texas, you can’t be faulted for wanting the former independent republic to just the hell up and go away from time to time. I’m generally not of this opinion, but I won’t begrudge you it. Also, former boxing great and current awesome businessman Oscar De La Hoya is a part owner of the team. Oscar decided he wanted to sing after I watched him beat a lot of people up; he cut an album in 2000. His in-ring career has generally been a disappointment ever since. Not fond memories…
Outlook: United are in the midst of the most miserable stretch in franchise history, and they just suffered through their worst season ever. Not the most uplifting sentence I’ve ever written. The news ain’t all bad though. This squad lost some key pieces for sure, but never went full on “Florida Panthers at the NHL trade deadline” crazy, giving away starters for expiring contracts and Hanukkah gelt (translation for gentiles: the little chocolate coins). It’s always nice to return the league’s Rookie of the Year, and D.C. does exactly that with academy product Andy Najar. And while there may be fear of a sophomore slump for the 17 year old, conventional wisdom would argue that the additions of Dax McCarty and loanee Charlie Davies provide the influential youngster with the passing options and firepower to progress rather than regress in 2011. Tried and true forwards Christopher Pontius and Josh Wolff may be little more than serviceable MLS strikers, but they’re consistent, reliable, and able to play the Mike Knuble to Najar and Dax’s version of the Ovechkin/Backstrom combination. Stand here. Score goals.
Questions: Even with the addition of 42 year old MLS goalkeeping legend, can they keep the ball out of their own net? Is it Najar or McCarty’s midfield? Or will they form a great partnership? Charlie Davies.
Why Love Them?: As far as timing goes, you couldn’t pick a better time to get serious about supporting D.C. United. They’ve got a 17 year old that’s one of the league’s most exciting new talents, and they’ve been in the crapper for a few seasons so no one can accuse you of jumping on a bandwagon. They’re also one of the league’s most storied franchises, having won four titles, just one more than the number of supporters groups who have designated sections to cheer them on at storied RFK. Last, and most importantly, Ben Olsen is now the head coach. The team’s former midfield stalwart embodies just about everything right with soccer in America. He also rocks a sweet beard.
Why Hate Them?: Broken promises. Bureaucracy. Soft money whores. Taxation without representation.
Outlook: The Union got some encouraging results and glimmers of hope in what was a typically shitty inaugural campaign for an expansion team last season. Number overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft Danny Mwanga had a good rookie season, and the addition of veteran Guatemalan forward Carlos Ruiz will likely also create more goals for Mwanga and prolific Frenchman Sébastien Le Toux. Captain Danny “Badass” Califf, despite the loss of Michael “Olympic Red Card/The Yanks Are Coming” Orozco, will continue to marshal the defense for the Union, and that should at least form a foundation in the back, but the loss of GK Chris Seitz will be felt. Keep an eye on American middy Amobi Okugo, who was drafted five picks after Mwanga, he’ll get more chances this year and has the skills to crack the national team.
Questions: Will Manager Piotr Nowak have these guys playing the same exciting style as his old USMNT youth squads anytime this season? Are MLS lifers Justin Mapp and Bryan Carroll the answers in midfield, or just stop-gaps? Will Le Toux and Mwanga form a potent strikeforce with Ruiz as the pivot point, or will the addition of the new forward be more hindrance than a help.
Why Love Them: The Sons of Ben are a new and awesome supporters group. Much respect goes out to them for supporting this side in a big way before the team even really existed. They’ve been rewarded with a cool new stadium, a team with an awesome name, crest, and uniforms, and a great manager in Nowak. And just in case for some reason you don’t know, team captain Danny Califf is a TYAC hero. He’s the only guy we put sunglasses on when creating him in video games. He also wears them at night. Nuff said.
Why Hate Them: They’re a Philadelphia sports franchise. They are hateable by definition. The Sons of Ben are awesome, but you know there are some of the same dudes in that group that would boo Santa Claus if given the chance. It’s Philly, you can’t avoid it can you? Also, not quite a reason for hate, but a turn off could be the lacking American contingent with respect to your up and coming USMNT players.
Sporting Kansas City
Outlook: The Wizards, er, I mean Sporting KC, have/has been pretty poor since Eddie Johnson took his ball and went to England (albeit chasing the rock the whole time due to his horrible first touch). But last season a new-look Kansas City side showed marked improvement and managed to finish third in the East, just barely missing the playoffs. The USMNT’s Canadian Sensation Teal Bunbury should link up with Kei Kamara again this year; my money’s on them scoring more combined goals in 2011 and continuing to have two of the most ridiculous names in the sport! Meanwhile perennially disappointing Mexican attacker and former Chivas loanee Omar Bravo is set to report to KC this season. He’ll look to walk the path of ex-Arsenal youth player and new teammate Ryan Smith by trying to revive his career in middle America. With Davy Arnaud providing solid play and better than solid leadership as team captain, Sporting should ride their momentum and make the playoffs under the new format this year.
Questions: Will Omar Bravo work well with Kamara and Bunbury? Can all three play together? How much will Sporting miss defender Jimmy Conrad? Ryan Smith had a good season last year, but can the player who came up with the likes of David Bentley and Kieran Gibbs garner interest from English clubs again, or draw the eye of Fabio Capello?
Why Love Them?: Teal Bunbury could be a huge part of the USMNT setup going forward, and he’s already a huge part of a resurgent KC squad. They rose to third in the east last season, and will lean on their newfound (North) American striker to keep knocking in the goals and pushing them further up the table. A vote for Sporting Kansas City is a vote for a new national team talent.
Why Hate Them?: Horrible name. As if “The Wizards” was bad enough. And it was. Sporting Kansas City sounds sillier and more contrived than Real Salt Lake. I’d rather have my team named after an energy drink’s mascot than have it sound as stupid as “Sporting K.C.” D.C. United works for a name taken from across the pond; Sporting just doesn’t do it for me.
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you should follow his West Ham/Chicago Bears/Florida Gator/NHL/USMNT thoughts on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.