In my last post, I recounted the experience at the MLS First Kick 2011 opening match between the Seattle Sounders and the Los Angeles Galaxy. Last year I was also fortunate to watch the Colorado Rapids' home opener in April 2010. Perhaps next year I can experience another home opener. And that's what brings me to today's post: a look ahead at MLS in 2011 and what the league has to offer.
Little did I know in 2010 that the Rapids I watched from the Dick's Sporting Goods Park stands would be the eventual MLS champions. This was over the resilient, steady FC Dallas in a 2-1 finally that went into overtime. This was after FC Dallas had dispatched heavily-favored LA Galaxy by 3-0 and semifinalists San Jose Earthquakes had humbled Henry and Marquez's New York Red Bulls. This season, the Galaxy and the Red Bulls are once again heavily favored due to their considerable pedigree and depth. Real Salt Lake is also quite deep and swelling with talent. The same can be said about the Seattle Sounders, although their finishing needs to improve.
There are also teams in rebuilding mode and others that are, at least in paper, good enough to challenge for silverware. Such is the case with the four-time champion DC United. The club boasts not only Andy Najar (18, 2010 Rookie of the Year), but also newly acquired Dax McCarty, impressive rookie Perry Kitchen, veterans Josh Wolff and Joseph Ngwenya, but also the resurgent Charlie Davies. Clearly a team to watch.
The re-branded and remodeled Sporting Kansas City is coming to the fold with US international Teal Bunbury and Mexican star Omar Bravo. Salt Lake upgraded Saborio to Designated Player (DP) status and has kept its core of players, becoming deeper and more stable. Such is also the case with the Earthquakes, who are hoping Ike Opara can return to form and Wondolowski can continue to impress. New York has Agudelo to build around Henry at forward and Marquez in the back line alongside Tim Ream. Also in the mix are Tchani, John Rooney, Lindpere and Dane Richards. LA may have lost Edson Buddle, but have gained Juan Pablo Angel--how's that for a triple whammy with Donovan and Beckham?
Also on the upswing is the Houston Dynamo. Rookies Kofi Sarkodie and Will Bruin complement Brian Ching and a solidified back line with Hunter Freeman as a new addition. The New England Revolution, Chicago Fire, Toronto FC and Columbus Crew are at a crossroads right now, in a continuously difficult rebuilding process. This was evident in RSL's demolishing of the Crew in Concachampions play. Toronto has much to prove after years of impressive fan base but not enough on the pitch.
Seattle and Philadelphia, recent additions to the league, are going through different growing pains. Seattle is still looking for a stabilizer in its back line and a creative force in the attack. Losing Nkufo and Ljundberg have hampered its ability to finish their chances (clear evidence of this occurred in Tuesday's match). Piotr Nowvak has yet to find a winning form for his Philadelphia Union. The sophomore year for this franchise should be an interesting one now that players like Orozco and Fred have left and Faryd Mondragon and Carlos Ruiz have taken their place.
Not to be outdone, not by a long shot, are the two newcomers: Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps. True to their USL and NASL roots, the Cascadia teams have taken similar, yet uniquely distinct paths to the MLS. Portland boasts impressive rookies like 2nd overall Darlington Nagbe, with experience national team players Kenny Cooper (striker) and Perkins (goalkeeper). Vancouver went for the biggest longshot in league history by snatching 17-year-old Omar Salgado as the number 1 pick and the fullback--and World Cup star--Jay DeMerrit. Portland has a stocked offense. Vancouver is still building theirs, with Salgado months away from being allowed on the pitch given FIFA rules (American with a Canadian team).
So tomorrow as some of us watch intently the NCAA brackets unfold and others catch the early European games, a new chapter will be played out in MLS history. The 2011 season is upon us and the league is 18-team strong and 16 years old. Stars will rise and fall but one thing is clear... American soccer is here to stay. Enjoy the games.
Photo credits MLS