EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece continues our preview of the 2011 MLS campaign. Our first four MLS preview pieces are linked below:
By Sean McElroy
So, the dirty snow is melting around my college, Fulham looks like they are going to just about escape the horrors of relegation, Arsene Wenger is crying because the poor refs ruined his season, and I went for a run yesterday wearing my short shorts. All of this can mean only one thing—it is time for some MLS action.
I will now preview five teams which I think are worth watching (or laughing at) in the MLS Western Conference this year (see, this is what happens when I spend a week writing philosophy papers). I probably should do six, because judging by last year, that’s how many will make the playoffs. But who knows what will happen with this silly new playoff structure. But, alas, here are five to keep an eye on:
Seattle enters its third season with a slight decline in season ticket sales, and a sense of failure having not raised the MLS Cup in their first two seasons. Nonetheless, the Sounders have made the playoffs in both of their first two seasons, and they have good reason to believe that they will raise their first MLS Cup this year. Led by Freddy Montero, Blaise Nfuko, Alavaro Fernandez, and Kasey Keller, the Sounders have an array of individual talent which should lead to on-field success. I would be very surprised if the Sounders don’t find themselves in a playoff spot come October, and they are overwhelming favorites to win yet another piece of silverware in the US Open Cup.
Can they become an effective playoff team? Was soccer just a fad in Seattle, or will the Sounders faithful continue to provide some of the best support in MLS? How will Kasey Keller fare in his final season for the Sounders? Will the Sounders be able to make it 3 for 3 in the terms of the MLS Cup?
Why Love Them:
Seeing a soccer match at Qwest Field is about as close as you can get to the European experience stateside. Their fan base has energy, and their on-field product is exciting. Plus, Drew Carey is a hero.
Why Hate Them:
One of their owners is Paul Allen. He was a founder of Microsoft, and it is his fault that Microsoft software is so awful. I have to use this craptastic program because of you, and thus I cannot, in good faith, support the Sounders.
After their stunning MLS Cup win last season, expectations are high at the all-too-often forgotten about club up in the Rockies. With the now well into his thirties Pablo Mastroeni as captain, can the Rapids forge ahead and make another playoff appearance? The veterans are a bit long in the tooth, but many pundits expect the Rapids to improve, and perhaps even make another deep run in the MLS Cup playoffs, as their young players gain experience and confidence throughout this Scudetto season.
Can they effectively defend their title? Can they prove to everyone (including themselves) that last year was not a fluke? How long until Pablo Mastroeni becomes ineffective (and will that happen this season)?
Why Love them:
Colorado continues to impress me and not only on the field. The state is also responsible for Coors Light—a not-too-expensive beer that will test even the glory of PBR, and doesn’t immediately conjure images of hipsters, the NBA, and “Stuff White People Like.”
Why Hate Them:
They are the prime example of why the MLS playoff system is absolute bullshit. And the Colorado Rapids sounds like a crappy baseball team, to be honest. They need a rebrand as bad as the Wizards and the Chivas do.
After a disastrous 2010—the Goats failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005—Chivas USA looks to new coach Robin Fraser to turn the franchise back into a MLS Cup contender. Newcomers Jimmy Conrad and Heath Pearce look to help Chivas find its old, competitive form. With Justin Braun and others already providing a strong attacking core, it will be fascinating to see how Conrad and Pearce solidify the heart of this team. Chivas remain a team without an identity, but this season brings new promise and hope for what seems to be an otherwise pathetic franchise. As a lifelong Galaxy fan, did you think I could avoid mocking the goats? If you thought this was a partial preview, then you thought too kindly of me, at least when it comes to the other professional Los Angeles soccer team.
Does anybody care about the American version of Chivas? If a Chivas player scores a goal at the Home Depot Center, but there is nobody there to see it, does it count? All kidding aside: Can Robin Fraser turn the Chivas USA franchise around? Was 2010 a fluke, or is Chivas USA on its way to becoming the Buffalo Bills of MLS? Will the acquisitions be enough to put the Chivas back into playoff contention?
Why Love Them:
Uh, Goats can be cute? Their tickets are sort of cheap?
Why Hate Them:
Aside from being the second LA franchise (always a bad idea, ask the Clippers) and alienating about three quarters of the Los Angeles market with a silly team name: they are a bunch of goats. Goats. I mean, really? (Disclaimer: This section has been in no way influenced by my hooligan fandom and devotion to the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Chivas objectively suck).
Real Salt Lake
After having won the MLS Cup in a shootout over the Los Angeles Galaxy, anything but a repeat performance would have made last year a disappointment for Real Salt Lake. It wasn’t all gloom, however. Real made the playoffs, and look again in 2011 to be contenders in what will likely be a very strong Western Conference. In addition, RSL looks to push forward in the unfortunately forgotten CONCACAF Champions League. I have said it before and it bears repeating—wins for MLS teams in the CCL are vital to improving the leagues profile. A semifinalist now, RSL hopes for a breakthrough and that mission continues tomorrow night.
Can RSL find the form to remain a top MLS club? Can they compete effectively in the league and in the CCL, and still have enough left over to provide a challenge for the MLS Cup? Can a team with no “stars” compete with the likes of the Galaxy and the Red Bulls, who are stacked with superstar talent?
Why Love Them:
We need MLS teams at the top of the CCL, every year. All American soccer fans should put their differences aside and cheer on RSL as they try to conquer the CCL, as they are MLS’s final representative in this competition. And they have Jason Kreis, the best dressed soccer coach stateside. I think it was the great philosophers ZZ Top who suggested “Everybody’s Crazy About A Sharp Dressed Man and His Side, Real Salt Lake”, or something along those lines.
Why Hate Them:
Mormonism. Kidding. It’s more of an “I don’t understand thing.” Although this interview in Maxim gave me a newfound respect for Mormonism:
In addition, Real Salt Lake has one of the dumbest names in MLS. It’s almost funny, in a not funny way, if you read it without the Spanish “Real” and just Americanize it to “Real Salt Lake.”
Los Angeles Galaxy
The Galaxy have transformed themselves from the laughing-stock of MLS into one of the strongest teams in MLS history. To me, the Galaxy have to be overwhelming favorites to raise the MLS Cup. Yet, as the Miami Heat have shown, individual talent is not enough to guarantee success. The Galaxy should certainly be playoff bound, but the biggest question is how the younger players will perform over 34 matches (plus six CONCACAF Champions League matches). This Galaxy team has the potential to go a long way in what will likely be Becks last season in MLS.
Will JPA be as effective as Buddle was last year? Will the youthful defense be able to hold off the attacks of the bigger MLS teams? Can the Galaxy translate what has been, for the past two seasons, a great regular season into MLS Cup glory? What new tattoo will Becks be rocking on the first day of the season? And can Landon Donovan take a decent penalty in an MLS Cup final?
Why Love Them:
Part of me is singing “I’m LA ‘til I die” while writing this, so it is a bit hard to explain why to love the Los Angeles Galaxy. They play a good brand of soccer, they integrate superstars with young guys just out of college, and they have AJ De La Garza, a loveable footballer if ever there was one. Great venue, great support, and just al-around awesomeness.
Why Hate them:
The Galaxy have the (arguably) two most recognizable faces in MLS to American audiences. No, I’m not talking about Brian Jordan—I’m talking Goldenballs and Water Fountain Boy. Maybe our female (or some male) readers will be inspired by such photos. Who knows?
Sean McElroy is a staff writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @fulhamerican.