After much time away I have return with my predictions for the 2011 MLS season. It has been a long off season, but finally we have MLS opening day (I will never say first kick, what a terrible phrase)! Being on the other side of the world I still have a good 20 hours until kick-off, so I thought it was time I posted my thoughts and predictions on how the season will turn out. As we all know 10 teams (out of 18) will make the play-offs, so with the added expansion I still feel a .500 record will get you in the play-offs; similar to the past three season when we saw the Red Bulls, Salt Lake and Colorado all make the playoffs and the final. Two of which went on to win the final as we all know. Here is how I think the league will look by the end of the season:
1. Red Bull New York
There's no denying the East is the weaker of the two conferences. New York isn't exacty my run away favorites in the East, but I think they'll do that little extra. Marquez and Ream were solid for New York last season and they form the bedrock of this team. Henry didn't set the league on fire, or put too many fans in the stands upon his arrival. However, he is finally rested and could be the catalyst to New York's season. It's still not confirmed that Juan Agudelo will play a major part, but the Red Bulls need someone to fill the void left by Juan Pablo Angel's move to LA. Joel Lindpere was an underrated player last season and for the Red Bulls to
succeed they will need him to have another stellar year in the midfield. I think Angel's goals will be sorely missed as the seasons wears on especially if the Red Bulls find themselves going deep in the Open Cup as well.
2. DC United
I will say it now: Charlie Davies will score more than 20 goals and he will dominate MLS before moving back to Sochaux in France. Davies was in his prime before his car accident, and if he can conjure up some of what made him part of the USMNT he will be on a different level than all other MLS strikers. DC also has a solid midfield with Quaranta, Najar, McCarty, Sims, Morsink, Boskovic and King. I think this is the best midfield in the league with four solid starters and cover for each. However, the problem with DC is the back line and the uncertainity in goal. Will it be Onstad or Hamid or will someone else take control between the posts. DC has made some fantastic additions and some not so great ones (Josh Wolff), but they're better now than at
this point last season. I think they're the dark horse in the East and I wouldn't be surprised if they over take NY for the top spot. However, if DC get off to a bad start I don't expect Ben Olsen to make it past May. I still believe the DC front office is waiting for Mr. DCU to fall, and allow the front office to say, "I told you so," to all of United's supporters.
3. Philadelphia Union
If the Union have solved their goalkeeping problems then they'll be tough to beat. They've signed Faryd Mondragon on a free from FC Koln and despite being in his late 30s he should be an upgrade over Chris Seitz. Sebastion Le Toux showed why he was such a coveted signing for the Union. He was one of the best players in the league last season and if he would have been on a better team he would have gotten more recognition for it. He should have more help from Danny Mwanga who is beginning his second
season and has a lot to prove after being snubbed for last seaon's rookie of the year. This is a good workmen like team that embodies the Philadelphia mentality and they will make the play-offs by holding off the rest of the conference with that workmen like grit.
4. Columbus Crew
Columbus is still finding themselves after winning MLS Cup in '08. This club is a shell of that team, but has gotten younger this season by letting the likes of Frankie Hejduk and Barros-Scheletto leave. I still think the attacking key for this team is Eddie Gaven. A truly underrated MLS veteran still in his early 20s, that when played centrally can hold the key to unlocking defenses. I've never been too impressed by Robbie Rogers: Often injuried and often disappears in matches. I'm not impressed by Mendoza up front either and though
he did score for the Crew upon arrival last season I felt he looked wasteful and in it for himself during the Crew's Champions League matches against Salt Lake. I believe Jeff Cunningham could find a purple patch, however, and if he can chip in with atleast five goals Columbus will avoid the bottom half of the conference. The fullbacks looked weak in the Champions League affair with SLC, and if they can be exploited with pace during the season will be Columbus' undoing.
5. Sporting Kansas City
A lot has happened in the offseason for KC. They've changed their name, signed DP Omar Bravo and released former KC icon Jimmy Conrad. Releasing Conrad was a good move as his best days are behind him, and though he was a good player for the team I'm not quite sure why so many KC supporters have put him on a pedastal. There are high hopes for Bravo, but KC fans don't seem to realize he isn't the scorer he once was. Those days have been behind him since his move to Spain's Deportivo La Coruna. He should atleast chip in with five goals. Unfortunately, he is a DP center forward and more should be expected from him. KC does have an exciting 4-3-3 formation, but with last season's most exciting player Jimmy Smith still recovering from offseason surgery KC will lack pace and creativity on the wing. The backline hasn't improved vastly over last season, and I still don't feel Jimmy Nielsen was much of an upgrade over Kevin Hartman. I think this team is moving in the right direction under Peter Vermes despite some players needing to be moved on like Davy Arnaud, though the team recently moved Jack Jewsbury to Portland. The reason why SKC won't finish in the top half of the conference isn't to do with talent as I think they're just as good if not better than Columbus and Philadelphia. It is their massive road schedule to begin the season. The team will play much of the first half of the season on the road as they wait for their new stadium to open. I feel this will be the team's down fall, and once they open their stadium they will be too far back to contend for a playoff spot.
6. Chicago Fire
Chicago is still paying the price for letting Denis Hamlett go. Which in my opinion was one of the worst pieces of business an MLS team has done in the past few seasons. With that change went Chicago's defensive mentality and in came a team that couldn't prevent goals nor could they score them. I can't see Chicago bouncing back from last season's poor showing. They have found a replacement for Jon Busch in Sean Johnson though it took half the season to find him. But most importantly who's going to score their goals? Brian McBride has retired, Collins John didn't work out and Patrick Nyarko has regressed; not to mention Calen Carr has never lived up to expections and it defies logic he is still in the league. Chicago will continue to struggle and I can't see them improving under their current boss Carlos De Lobos.
7. Toronto FC
This club has been going backwards since the firing/resignation of John Carter. TFC will begin a new season with a new manager, new staff and new players yet again. Fortunately, the club will also begin the season without the clueless Mo Johnston. TFC also has lockerroom unrest to deal with over contract desputes with Adrian Cann and Dwayne De Rosario. Besides DeRo I'm not sure where TFC will get their goals this season. I think Maicon Santos was a brilliant signing, but the recently acquired Alan Gordan will not score many as he has proven in the past. He won't create his own goals and there isn't the service to allow him chances. He will give Santos much needed rest as the season gets into full swing. There's still questions surrounding Julian De Guzman's fitness following offseason surgery and will he contribute to the cause this season or continue to be a passenger on the field. Again there are too many off the field problems for TFC to compete and the playoffs will continue to elude them. Lets not forget Aaron Winter's implemeting of the "Total Football" Dutch system, which in my opinion is not capable of being run by many MLS teams. This isn't a system that can be master in one season, and by the time it starts to look good I think TFC will have had enough of the Dutch experiment.
8. Houston Dynamo
Many feel Houston will have an easy route to the playoffs now that they reside in the Eastern Conference. I'm not sure what team they've been watching over the past two seasons, but this isn't the Dynamo that won back-to-back MLS Cups. There's no more Stuart Holden, De Ro or Ricardo Clark and Brian Ching is one long term injury away from hanging up his boots. Dominic Kinnear is a fantastic manager, but this team is sorely lacking talent; and Bobby Boswell and Geoff Cameron (if he's fit) cannot carry this team. I feel this will be Kinnear's last season in charge of Houston and a rebuidling will be in order as they look to open their new stadium in thenot to distant future.
9. New England Revolution
What can I say about New England? One of the best managers in MLS, Steve Nicol, has done wonders for this team. I honestly can't believe he has stuck with this sinking ship for this long. New England are under funded by the Kraft Family and look ridiculous on the field. Some years ago MLS contemplated contracting this team, and I'm sure Robert Kraft is wishing they would have. They're no closer to their own stadium nor are they closer to having a team that can compete for honors. Yes, they've done well in the Open Cup and
Superliga; but they've struggled mightily in MLS play and look like a second class team. Shalrie Joesph missed much of last season, and is now 32. There's not much left in those legs. Many of his best season were next to the underrated Jeff Larentowicz who did the dirty work and allowed Joesph the freedom to cover more ground on the pitch, much like what Larentowicz did for Pablo Mastroeni last season. There's just not enough quality on this team and if they are able to finish in the top of the conference it shows how good Steve Nicol is as a manager.
Western Conference coming soon...