Major League Soccer
Today I looked at my calendar and realized that MLS First Kick is only hours away. I also realized, though, that I hadn’t written any sort of “preview” for the season. My bad. So, with today being a professional day at school, I figured I’d catch up on the 2012 prediction curve and look at what could happen in the coming season. For my preview, I decided to organize our lovely league’s 19 clubs not by conference, but by four categories that, yes, I completely made up. This includes “Stars”, those teams whom we can expect to carry success from 2011 into 2012, “Extra Push-ers”, who are just on the cusp of glory but need that little shove over the edge, “Wild Cards”, who seem to have an equal chance of jumping or tumbling in the standings this year, and “Warning Notice”, who, frankly, need to clean up their act. These groupings are based on how well the team is projected to do in 2012, with consideration of their 2011 outcome and changes made in the offseason. I’m sure I don’t need to explain that this is far from an exact science, and that many of our predictions will inevitably be wrong, but, as our friend Henry would say, c’est la vie. Enjoy.
LA Galaxy: Come on, even Chivas fans have accepted that Galaxy is the king of MLS. Look at this friggin’ lineup: you’ve got the DP Trinity of Keane, Donovan, and Becks, with backup from both the youth explosion of Juninho, and Edson Buddle, and veterans such as Andrew Boyens and Pat Noonan. Defense could concievably be a problem, given Omar Gonzalez’s injury while on loan in Germany, and international duty could take a toll on the roster in the summer months, but there remains little doubt in my mind that LA will be making a run for a second MLS Cup.
Seattle: We tend to underestimate Seattle. Despite disappointing playoff runs, the team that essentially carries our attendance numbers has quietly gone three for three in US Open Cup runs. Eddie Johnson, back from a run around Europe, could be a powerful addition, though it will be hard for the club to fill in the hole left by Kasey Keller. At the end of the day, Seattle could have another stellar season, but it will take a solid effort from Rosales and Montero to break their postseason blues.
Salt Lake: In 2011 RSL pushed through the injury of their playmaker Javier Morales, going on to knock the favored Sounders out of the Playoffs. It was only in the Western Conference Final against the Galaxy, widely considered the best game of the year, that they lost, rounding out a solid season. Going into their 2012 opener, though, a similar rally will be necessary, as Salt Lake lost a number of key players to trades, retirement and the expansion draft in the off-season. Kreis’s boys will be depending a lot on young talent, such as the newly signed Enzo Martinez, if they should want to make a run against LA or Seattle.
Dallas: There is a certain caveat to saying that Dallas is about to have a good season: it could be their last. With 2010 MVP David Ferreira back to join US star Brek Shea and the Panamanian Blas Pérez, 2012 could surely be the year that Hoops fans have been waiting for. Even with their 2010 MLS Cup appearance, it seems that Dallas has been undervalued in recent years, as we tend to ignore that the team’s victory against Pumas in the CCL was the first ever by an American club on Mexican soil. In 2012, the stars are very literally aligning in Dallas’s favor, and a run at the Western Conference title could easily come to fruition. I submit, though, that, as much as 2012 will be a proud year in Dallas, it won’t last much past that. Success this season will surely draw Shea and Ferriera toward Europe, leaving Dallas in a goal scoring draught. It may be irrelevant to this year, but it’s definitely food for thought.
- Extra Push-ers
Kansas City: I honestly think that the degree to which Sporting’s 2011 rebranding was a success was the most criminally understated story of 2011. In 2010, Sporting was lost. They’d floundered in the standings since 2005, and their lack of wins was coupled with a serious lag in attendance. Only a year later, their home at Livestrong Park is the envy of the league, as is consistently filled by supporters coming to see the club that finished atop the East in 2011. Vermes may have lost Omar Bravo, but, with both Teal Burnbury and Graham Zusi, his youth talent is arguably the best in the league. It’s time for Sporting to take the next step, and use its thoroughly deep roster to solidify its position as a force for MLS teams to reckon with.
Philadelphia: Okay, so they lost Le Toux. Get over it. The Union boast Freddy Adu, Danny Mwanga, Josué Martínez, Michael Farfan, and Roger Torres. Their progress since inception has been positive: they played what qualifies as a good starting season in 2010, then made a playoff run in 2011. Should Adu jell with what is admittedly still a fairly new team, Philly may find the extra push they need to dominate the East, a conference still ripe for the taking. That goalscoring potential is definitely enough to claim glory in a Conference whose top team was only the 5th best overall last year.
Houston: It’s the season of solidarity for Houston. They’ve finally found their own home, the gorgeous downtown facility that is BBVA Compass Stadium, which is set to open in May. The real question is whether they’ll able to keep it full after the buzz of their MLS Cup Final run in 2011 wears off. Brad Davis is sure to notch countless goals, but at least one member of his support staff will need to step up. The team will be without Brian Ching, and its top returning scorers (Geoff Camero, Bobby Boswell, and Will Bruin) each managed only five goals last year. If Adam Moffat and Luiz Camargo can invigorate the mid, it could be a stellar 2012. If not, we can only expect attendance at their new home to match their record. Either way, their “push” will come from the midfield.
Columbus: It seems that Columbus’s “rebuilding” has sputtered. Don’t get me wrong, 2011 wasn’t bad, but the offseason losses of Robbie Rogers and leading scorer Andrés Mendoz isn’t going to help a team looking to return to its former Cup-winning glory. Further, the Crew, like many other professional sports teams in Ohio, are having trouble competing with the Buckeyes for fans. Chad Marshall could definitely provide enough of a boost from the back for Emilio Rentería to find the net, but a lot of responsibility is going to fall on Eddie Gaven.
Portland: I don’t know what it is about the Northwest, but these people know how to support soccer. Sure, Portland didn’t quite make their way into “Best Inaugural Season Ever” discussions, but their attendance was a huge part of MLS’s overall attendance rise. Even fans here in New York stood in awe of their rendition of the national anthem, and Timber Joy is probably the most badass team mascot in professional sports. Next time someone calls soccer wussy, remind them that, while they have cheerleaders, Portland has a dude with a chainsaw. As for 2012, the loss of Kenny Cooper could be big, the team has proven that, with Jack Jewsbury at the helm, big things can happen. Jeld- Wen field deserves to strike fear in the hearts of opponents, and it seems that it already has, as eventual champions LA Galaxy lost 3-0 there in August, and Chicago Fire let 4 goals in in April. If not necessarily the Western frontrunner, Portland definitely has the stuff to be a solid mid-to-top team, and will surely help attendance numbers along the way.
- Wild Cards
New York: It must be tough to be Hans Backe. He is, for the New York Red Bulls, in a very similar situation as Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos is regarding the Greek economy. Papademos seems to have all the right things in place for the market to start turning around- a bailout from the European Union, the seizing of various toxic debt assets, and new settlements with creditors. But a rebound just isn’t happening yet, and Greece continues to drag the European economy, still clawing back from the brink of the Great Recession. Similarly, Backe’s lineup boasts Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Juan Agudelo, Joel Lindpere, Kenny Cooper, Dane Richards, and Dax McCarthy; all big names, but all to no avail. Even with the loss of Tim Ream, New York is really one of the strongest MLS teams on paper, and by all accounts should be dominating out league. But it continues to under-deliver, barely making the playoffs in 2011, and going out in the first round against San Jose in 2010. I’d be lying to you if I were to say that I know why, and I suspect that Backe is at a similar loss. New York will be a wild card in 2012 in the same sense that it has been for the last few years: the club really should be doing well, and may, but could definitely find itself as inept as it often is.
Colorado: What makes Colorado a Wild Card is how much we simply don’t know about the team as a whole. Coming off Cup glory in 2010, the Rapids faced a bomb of a season, finishing 5th overall in the West. 2012 brings in a lot of questions: How will things work out with new coach Oscar Pareja, who didn’t make many big changes over the offseason? Will the attacking playmaker Martín Rivero, who joined on loan from Rosario Central, ease the pressure of Colorado’s stringent strategic outline? And, most importantly, will Conor Casey, the fulcrum of the 2010 Championship team, be in full form after missing the second half of last season to injury? If the answers to these questions are positive, there’s no reason why Colorado can’t succeed in 2012. If not, they’re pretty doomed.
Chicago: The fate of the Fire really rests with Frank Klopas. Taking over in May, he rejuvenated a struggling Fire, bringing them a 7-2-1 record in their last nine games, an appearance in the US Open Cup final, and a position within four points of playoff birth. He’s gone on to use his postseason to the fullest, signing two South Americans, and brokering new deals with Pavel Pardo and Marco Pappa. In 2012, with Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko leading the offense, it’s entirely reasonable to say that the Fire could be playoff contenders. It all depends on how Klopas’s efforts unfold.
Montreal: Look, I’m sure I don’t need to give the “THIS IS AN EXPANSION TEAM” talk. We all know that it would be wrong to expect too much from Montreal, and that most teams don’t soar in their first years. With Brian Ching and Justin Braun on board, it doesn’t look like the club will be so bad, and the defensive strategy they’ve announced under Jesse Marsch could very well be successful. Montreal should focus on building and learning, and I’m sure the club will.
- Warning Notice
Toronto:: Five years, no success. And now, no De Ro. Despite having the league’s third highest payroll, TFC hasn’t been able to find any chemistry on the field, missing the playoffs in 2011 for the 5th year in a row. It isn’t pretty, and it’s a shame, given Toronto’s strong base of fan support. The club has done fairly well in the CONCACAF Champions League, but it’s about time that TFC rolled up its sleeves and made the freaking playoffs. Signings like Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans will definitely help, but a failure in 2012 will surely test the patience of an already disappointed city.
Chivas: There is only one thing going for Chivas, and his name is Juan Pablo Angel. Unfortunately, at 36, Angel may not be “going” at quite the rate he used to. Keeper Dan Kennedy should continue his strong play from 2011, a surprise return given his huge 2012 injury, but the loss of Justin Braun is big. It looks like we’re going to have to wait a few more years for the club’s investment in youth development to pay off, given its tendency to allow its better players finish off their polishing elsewhere.
DC: Even with Chris Pontius, Andy Najar, and the heroic Dwayne De Rosario, our league’s most storied club missed its fourth consecutive playoff birth in 2011. Olsen needs to end this. The acquisition of forward Maicon Santos is a good start, but may not be enough to help DC, who simply lacked luster through most of last year. But that’s only half of Olsen’s responsibility this year, as the coach will have to play a good deal of politics in 2012 and find some solution to DC’s stadium woes. Frankly, I don’t care if the answer lies in Baltimore; what’s best is what’s best. To avoid a move, though, Olsen needs to rejuvenate the club’s field work, perhaps thus renewing interest in soccer locally. I really think that DC can turn it around, but it will be no easy task.
Vancouver: New coach Martin Rennie will be looking to build form among a frenzied Whitecaps in 2012. Like their co-newbies in Portland, Vancouver has a huge fan base, and its home at BP Place is a fine one. But unlike Portland, the Whitecaps totally floundered last year. There is definitely a lot to hope for: Rennie turned the club’s roster on its head, letting 12 players go and adding 15, including his old friend Sebastian Le Toux. But there is a lot of ground to cover, and a whole lot of respect that needs to be earned from the rest of the league. Of all the “Warning Notice” teams, I have to say that this is the one with the most hope.
San Jose: Bobby Convey’s gone, leaving all the pressure on Chris Wondolowski. This isn’t really anything new: Wondo scored more goals in 2010 than the next three top scorers for San Jose combined. But that’s really all San Jose has, and it simply isn’t enough. Their playoff luck in the past few years has been just that, luck, and the clock is about to strike midnight on their succession of Cindarella stories. Sorry, but the facts are the facts: San Jose is going to have a rough 2012.
New England: And the most hopeless team in MLS is, drumroll please…. Come on, there’s no surprises here. Benny Feilhaber was just one of New England’s many disappointments of 2011, a season of thorough folly and shocking futility. If not for keeper Matt Reis, the club’s record of giving up 58 goals in 34 games could have easily been twice as bad. And it’s not like people haven’t noticed. Even in Boston, a huge soccer market and a hub of sports fandom, the Revs were lucky to sneak by with a 13,000 attendance average. Even the new signing Jose “Pepe” Moreno doesn’t seem to want to be there, announcing soon after joining the club that he’d rather be playing at Columbia’s Once Caldas. Ladies and gents, prepare to witness the downfall of a downfall. College teams could beat New England.
Four hours and 2600 words later, there it is. And so, we enter 2012. Let the games begin.
Though most of us will never get far past managing our son’s rec league, entering an MLS fantasy league can help us all channel our inner Sigi Schmid. Luckily, there are countless free MLS fantasy games available online, each with its own nuances and flavors.
MLS offers their own, called MLS Fantasy Soccer: Manager. Connecting through facebook, points are given for both the usual reasons (goals, assists, playing time, etc) and some crafty ones. Midfielders are awarded points when their team keeps a clean sheet (a not to their defensive efforts), goalies see a reward for every three saves they make, and players can get attacking or defending “bonuses” for knocking in a string of crosses or making a strong defensive tackle. The game can be played in a “head to head” league, where teams face of one on one in simulated games each week, or in “Classic” mode, where teams are ranked based on accumulated score.
A favorite of many MLS fans ins Major Fantasy Soccer League. Now in its 17th season, it offers both public and private leagues, with enough graphs and spreadsheets to make any math nerd’s mouth water. It may not be quite as pretty as others, but it’s logic is simple: put 11 players on a field, get points based on individual and team performance, and add. It will take a lot of effort to find success in this game, given that its ranks are composed mainly of die- hard fans willing to not forget about their team after a week, but victory here secures respect among MLS supporters.
Both games run on a salary cap as opposed to a draft, meaning that players are each worth a certain “salary”, and that the manager must then select a team whose total payroll falls under the limit. This prevents teams from becoming too inflated with starts, or trading on a whim. An advantage with the MLS sponsored game, though, is the hundreds of prizes up for grabs, including a VIP trip for two to the 2013 MLS All Star Game.
I won’t lie to you: I gave up on my fantasy team, the Tempe Tantrum, after two weeks. Don’t follow my lead; and MLS fantasy team is a great way to more deeply enjoy the league as a whole, and is a quick way to become much more knowledgeable about players from all corners. And the bragging rights you could win are pretty sweet.
Get to work.
I want to run a bit of a thought experiment. Close your eyes. Okay, don’t close your eyes. Now, imagine Freddy Adu, but only consider the past year of his career. Forget his being drafted while still only halfway through puberty, the magazine covers, and the pictures with Pelé. Wipe away the memory of the buzz that surrounded the US’s wonder kid, and definitely (definitely) make sure to leave behind all thoughts of how very disappointing he turned out to be. No, just think of Adu as he’s existed in the past year, since his MLS return with the Union. In fact, let’s pretend that he’d never gone on his famously failed walkabout in Europe, where playing for four clubs between 2008 and 2010 didn’t help him find any success. Let’s imagine that Adu is a young breakout, whose potential is only just being discovered. At 22, he’s still a young’n, whose talent is being showcased alongside Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo with the US U-23’s. He isn’t doing too bad, either: he’s held his ground with the youth squad, and preformed surprisingly well when called up to the national First Team in the 2011 Gold Cup, assisting both goals of the 4-2 Championship loss to Mexico. He’s got skill, and time to develop. Heck, if he keeps building on his strong debut last year, he could be the marquee player on the Union in the blink of an eye!
Now open your eyes. No, Freddy Adu is not a 22 year old breakout, whose skill is just coming to fruition. Indeed, there is no looking past his history. The hype surrounding America’s “soccer savior”, a beacon of light to the huddle mass of fans across the nation still fighting for respect and desperately awaiting a taste of glory, left the young Ghanaian-American in way over his head. He was playing professionally at only fourteen years old, becoming the youngest person in a century to sign any professional athletic contract in the US, something no young player should be burdened with. We must remember to take the boy with a grain of salt: short of scoring a hat trick in the MLS Cup final, there was no way Adu could have possibly lived up to the expectations the world soccer media placed on his shoulders. His venture into Europe was unfortunate, but can only be expected to have been so, given now hastily it was initiated.
But I’m not here to try to defend Adu’s past. As we enter the 2012 season, we have to consider who could “break out” over the next year, and Adu is a clear contender. Despite obscurity since 2007, his play for the US in the summer of 2011, considered a happy if surprising success by most, was marked by a character we hadn’t seen before: one of an Adu ready to move on from the past, and take a big bite out of the future. That’s why I asked you to imagine Adu from only the past year on- the past few years can justifiably be considered a development phase, with current time being the result. 2012 may well be the year of Freddy’s long-anticipated glory, with his teenage years only a precursor. Adu is still young, only 22, not even nearly at his prime, and still definitely has the potential to become the mainstay of the USMNT that we all hoped he’d become.
Or maybe he’ll just burn out again. Only time will tell. Ill keep my fingers crossed that the US still has a chance to produce its wonder kid.
Thoughts? Disagreements? Rants? Comment box, my friends.
With First Kick only two weeks away, the MLS Preseason is coming to a climax in Arizona’s Desert Cup.
In the first of two games this past weekend, LA overcame a nine-man RSL 2:0, with goals from Paulo Cardozo and Mike Magee. Salt Lake’s ejections included an immediate red for Ned Grabavoy in the 70th minute after a a rough tackle on Marcelo Sarvas, and a second yellow for Yordany Alvarez in the 77th for a challenge on LA’s Cardozo. Galaxy first found the net in the 81st, just after the second ejection, when a scramble before the goal led to a shot rolling right through the hands of RSL’s keeper Nick Rimando, then sealed the deal with Magee finishing a signature Beckham cross in the 87th. Beckham didn’t come on until the second half, subbing in for Kenny Walker in the 66th, but surely made his mark on the game.
Later on, a revitalized New England bested the Red Bulls 2:0, with a pair of goals from the rookie Kelyn Rowe. New York compromised a number of chances early in the first half including Dax McCarty’s 12th minute screamer over the crossbar, and Brandon Barklage’s wide header off of Jose Angulo’s corner in the 19th. Rowe finished first in the 77th, cleaning up a loose ball fro Tyler Ruthven, then again in the 84th, curling a left footed shot into the upper 90 after a pass from Saer Sene.
The tournament continues at 8pm Eastern on Wednesday (the 29th) with RSL v. New England, and LA v. New York. Both games will be streamed live on MLSsoccer.com Channel 1.
The LA/ RSL match really doesn’t show us much; RSL was down on men, and LA played like LA. If anything, it’s surprising they didn’t find a way to capitalize a third time with a two man advantage. The Revs/ New York match, though, could be a very telling preview for the 2012 season. Despite a seemingly stacked lineup (Henry, Agudelo, McCarthy, Lindpere, Marquez, I could go on…) New York’s 1-2-3 preseason hints that 2012 could be another long, frustrating season. The club is still fighting for striker Luke Rodgers to be allowed back into the country, and hasn’t yet found the right formula to create forward momentum on the pitch. New England, though, is just the opposite, as it seems that 2012 could be the end of the club’s plaguing mediocrity. With a handful of new talent such as Saer Sene and Kelyn Rowe teaming up with more senior players like Benny Feilhaber, this could be the most exciting season for the Revs in recent memory.
There you have it. Granted, it is preseason, but there’s still a lot we can take from watching these teams prepare for First Kick. Keep on supporting, and check back for an update later in the week.
Guess who’s got two thumbs and a brand new twitter account? THIS GUY!
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It would be impossible this early in 2012 to predict the “Story of the Season”, that one piece of news that dominates over all others. We know now that more stadiums in the works, including those in Houston and San Jose, that MLS is poised for huge growth, and that a number of talented American youngsters may make big moves into Europe (*cough* Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo *cough*). But when we’re talking about a season that’s still weeks away, the only certainty is uncertainty, and the only assurance we can have is that many predictions will prove false as time moves on.
Still, Edson Buddle may have a huge impact on the league in 2012, as the American’s return to LA from a year off in Germany could lead to a huge breakout.
It’s easy to overlook Edson Buddle in such a busy offseason- having bounced around from club to club until finally breaking out with the Galaxy, Buddle was poised to be the next big American name. His face donned the front pages of the MLS blogosphere, he began scoring for the national team (with a memorable goal against Australia in a 2010 pre-World Cup friendly), and expectations were high. Germany, though, turned out not to be all that it was cracked up to be, and Buddle found himself markedly unfulfilled, struggling to make his mark on a second division side.
But now he’s back, returning to the same Galaxy jersey where he first proved he was capable of doing more than drifting between clubs. The question stands: will 2012 be Buddle’s best season yet? If so, just how good will it be? Biggest Story of 2012 good? Of course, these are questions whose answers can only come with time. It’s more than possible that he could break a scoring record, and it’s more than possible that he could break a leg at Galaxy’s First Kick (knock on wood). But all the starts seem to be very literally in line; Buddle will find himself by a roster including Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Robbie Keane, De La Garza, and more. That attacking team of Keane and Buddle is enough to give even the most seasoned defenders the chills, as the target man- finisher relationship that they embody is a powerful one. Even with Keane gone over the summer to captain the Irish national side, Buddle, the 8th highest goalscorer in MLS history, should find no lack of finishing ability up front with whomever Bruce Arena sends. Buddle is skilled, fast, and effective, and could easily outmatch the 42 goals in 87 games he notched between 2007 and 2010 in LA.
Agree? Disagree? Is Buddle the real deal, or full of hot air? Sound off below.
Bored? Tired? Pissed off because the DP you bought blew out his knee before playing a single game, limiting himself to the bench for 6-12 months?
Well, I can’t preform invasive surgery on Jose Adolfo Valencia, but I sure can give you a wonderful way to waste your time until March. Meet rated90.com, a player rating website, recommended to me by a reader, which lets you gauge the performance of players from MLS and abroad. Sign ups are free, news articles are included, and the site links through Facebook.
Have fun. Yeah, school’s been crazy, so I haven’t been able to blog much. What a shame; there’s been just SO MUCH going on (though I have to say that Buddle’s return and Le Toux’s move are pretty significant). For the record, though, I wasn’t paid to endorse this site. It was just something a reader recommended.
Joe Paterno wasn’t one of us. He was a football coach, and damn good one a that, but an outsider to the world of soccer. He may have won 409 games with Penn State and made himself one of the most storied characters in the history of collegiate football, but he definitely wouldn’t have known Kyle Beckerman from David Beckham.
Yet, in the wake of his death, and with the MLS season inching closer, there’s a lot we can learn from his philosophy toward winning, even if it concerns a completely different ballgame. I offer the following quotes that Paterno gave in a 1968 Sports Illustrated profile:
“We’re trying to win football games, don’t misunderstand that,” said Paterno. “But I don’t want it to ruin our lives if we lose. I don’t want us ever to become the kind of place where an 8-2 season is a tragedy. Look at that day outside. It’s clear, it’s beautiful, the leaves are turning, the land is pretty, and it’s quiet. If losing a game made me miserable, I couldn’t enjoy such a day.
“I tell the kids who come here to play, Enjoy yourselves. There’s so much besides football. Art, history, literature, politics. The players live all over the campus. I don’t want ‘em to have a carpeted athletic dorm or be bunched in together where they can’t associate with all types of students. When a kid takes a look around here and says, ‘Gee, there’s nothing to do,’ I tell him I suppose there was nothing for the Romantic poets to do in the Lake District of England. As far as getting an effort on the field is concerned, we stress the fact that this is the only time in a kid’s life when 50,000 people are gonna cheer him. He can write the greatest novel ever, but 50,000 people aren’t going to cheer him at once where he can hear it.”
So Penn State players give their best for Paterno and listen for the cheers, and they really don’t worry about No. 1. “You know what happens when you’re Number 1?” says Paterno. “Nobody is happy until you’re Number 1 again, and that might be never.”
As much as rhetorical questions may be a huge journalistic faux pas, I’ve found myself able only to sit here and ask, “aren’t his words just freaking beautiful?” In today’s world, sports have evolved to become a matter of life or death where only victory matters. Soccer and Football may have their differences, but the players, managers, and manic fans of both sports share this savage drive for glory. That’s why characters like Paterno are so profound: they see the beauty in the game itself, win or lose. When modern athletes say that they love their sport, what they are often referring to is a sort of mindless, life-or-death dependence in victory, leaving the game itself to become little more than a vehicle to achieve that glory. Paterno’s breed profess love for their sport, but mean it in just the opposite way: they find the beauty in the simple act of playing the game itself. Victory is preferred, of course, but these people can just as easily savor the art that lies in the essence of the game during a loss. For them, athletics exist to enrich our lives and bring us joy. At the end of the day, they remind us , these sports over which we obsess are just games, and games exist as a way for us to have fun and challenge ourselves to achieve. Behind the million dollar contracts, the sponsorship deals, the national TV coverage, the manic fans, and the cult of untouchability that surrounds the players, professional soccer and football are the same sport we all played on the playground as kids. Paterno’s ultimate lesson was that the exponential difference in skill between collegiate athletics and playing ball at lunchtime shouldn’t cause athletes to approach their game any differently than they did as a kid: as a release, and as a way to have fun.
The need to keep Paterno’s creed in mind extends well into the world of American soccer. When describing why his series “The Office” needed to be radically changed for an American audience, Ricky Gervais said, “Americans are brought up to believe they can be the next president of the United States. Brits are told, ‘it won’t happen for you.’”. This is absolutely true; the 2012 MLS Season is only six weeks away, and all nineteen MLS teams are eyeing the MLS Cup, even the ones for whom that dream is clearly ludicrous. Any club that seems to have a chance at taking the Cup this year has long since articulated the desire clearly, telling reporters in preseason camps that their eyes are already on the prize, and managers of clubs who clearly have no chance at playoff glory spin the upcoming season a time for “rebuilding”, as if to say that 2012’s only function is to begin setting the foundation of future victory.
It goes without saying that this is hollow. When we concentrate only on W’s and hardware, we forget the fact that MLS, our fandom, and professional soccer as a whole are built on the world’s love of the Beautiful Game. And that’s where we’re letting JoePa down. He wouldn’t want us to look at Portland’s 11-9-14 record in 2011 as a failure; he would want us to see the beauty in a new-born side that continued MLS’s strong trend of expansion, consistently drew huge numbers of fans, and, most importantly, played dozens of legitimately exciting games. He would want us to look at the magic that Thierry Henry, Juan Agudelo, Joel Lindpere, and Luke Rodgers produced at Red Bull Arena, not at the team’s thoroughly disappointing finish. And with one look at Eric Hassli’s wonder-goal against Seattle, Paterno would surely be able to make light of Vancouver’s last place finish in the West. Even if we do still want our teams to finish strongly, we should all try to see the art of soccer as its played in each game, even if it’s a loss.
In all, then, it is our job to keep Joe’s vision alive by remembering his lessons. As professional sports become more of an industry, and as professional athletes are further raised on their pedestals as distant demigods, we can be sure that Paterno’s breed is a dying one. But in 2012, we should all approach the fresh season with a bit of Paterno in mind. Let’s try to remember that your team doesn’t have to finish the season with thirty wins and the MLS Cup to be successful. Let’s try to find the value in a great game of soccer, as long as both teams give it their all and put on a good show. Because, as cheesy as it sounds, this is ultimately what watching soccer games is about. The game.
Rest in peace, Joe.
This article was sent in by reader/writer/ Fire fan Daniel Casey. Feel free to follow Daniel’s example; send in any articles you like! We love to hear what you have to say, and could always use the help.
The pre-season for any sport is an exciting time, full of anxiety and hope. Unlike baseball’s Winter Meetings and the ‘silly season’ of the English January Transfer Window, which dangle the hope of changing a team midstream there is no moment of the sports year that can see such a maddening mix of arrivals, departures, rumors, fantasy, and cold hard reality. Though the MLS is no different, I would argue that the league’s labyrinthine, counterintuitive modus operandi create an even more rousing atmosphere during the preseason. A positive outcome of this is the wonderful room for speculation that is afforded supporters.
Last year, Twitter luminary and world-class centerback Rio Ferdinand asked his “Tweeps” a bit of a throwaway question in between his chiding of Piers Morgan and constant updates about the goings on of his kids. That question, “Is it easier to be loyal when your [sic] part of a successful club??,” (Sept 17) got stuck in my head because at the time my MLS team, Chicago Fire, were in the throes of a two season skid. I think it is easier to support a successful club, but a supporter’s true colors are revealed when a club is in crisis. Neutrals and ‘tourists’ will always swell the ranks, but they are regular like tides and to complain about them is meaningless. What makes one loyal to a club is just how serious you take the club and that seriousness has no time for petulant complaint or sour grapes.
Former Fire manager Carlos de los Cobos had no success in Chicago. Quite simply, it just didn’t work out. To release vitriol upon him for the club’s woes is a bit out of line, but only a bit. De los Cobos did a great disservice to Dasan Robinson and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, essentially failing to allow them to maintain match fitness. I didn’t understand his disregard of the journeyman Robinson and the grinder Watson-Siriboe. By the time Frank Klopas took the reins, neither of these talented centerbacks could lay claim to regular playing time. So much so, Robinson became trade fodder and has since retired, and Watson-Siriboe was loaned out to the USL. Combine this with a style of play that was anything but controlling or elegant, I found myself in a woeful state as a supporter. Yet it was inappropriate to demand de los Cobos’s head on a plate. Supporters have gotten a bit out of control over the past few years (American Arsenal fans, the MUST Green & Gold, and most recently those calling for the blood of Blackburn’s Steve Kean). Acting out like this is adolescent. A genuine supporter though they might disagree with the manager still reason their way through decisions and offer proper commentary; knee-jerk lager fuelled disgust is best kept in the pub (where it’s damn fun).
The Fire have issues: the backline is not solidified, midfield is needlessly crowded, and the attacking third is more than a bit shaky. But let’s be honest, I just described nearly every MLS team this preseason. What specifically should we Fire supporters look for out of the preseason? Who should get the starting call for the beginning of the season?
As mentioned, Robinson is gone and Watson-Siriboe is going to have to fight his way back into the lineup (although I can easily see him stepping up and having a ‘comeback’ season like Cory Gibbs did last season). Chicago’s starting centerbacks should be Cory Gibbs and Jalil Anibaba, the perfect mix of veteran and youngster. Gibbs isn’t going to be around much longer, ideally when he does step aside he will have passed on to Anibaba enough experience that Anibaba will be able to form a long-term partnership with First-Round Draft Pick Austin Berry.
Although many Fire supporters became enamored with him Yamith Cuesta, too often he demonstrated poor decision making, poor marking, and an inability to win anything in the air. Similarly, Josip Mikulic garnered support but I couldn’t get past his rash challenges and hot-headed demeanor. The two of them, Cuesta and Mikulic, make up an error prone defense where at any moment opposing forwards can be assured lack of vision or a poor challenge will gift them a goal. Having said that, there’s no reason not to have them both on the squad because they’re both young, strong, and talented which means they are deserving of a spot. Unfortunately, Cuesta is out of contract with little movement made to change that (he isn’t in camp) and Mikulic recently had to leave the country due to family issues.
This leaves the defensive line a bit thin. But if promising draftee Hunter Jumper and deep-round pick Justin Chavez are able to prove themselves, they could easily fill out the roster while gaining experience in the revived Reserve League simply because there is a stark lack of fullbacks in the MLS. Dan Gargan has become, rightfully so, a crowd favorite at rightback; he’s grinder, has the heart and skill to play every minute of a season much like his teammate Gonzalo Segares at leftback. For both of these fullbacks the minutes they are putting in on the pitch will come back to haunt them—the Fire needs suitable depth. So, look to resurgence from Steve Kinney. Kinney and Watson-Siriboe could, due to the current situation, find themselves in an advantageous situation they just have to make it happen. Recently, there have been rumors of an international signing from Greece to shore up the defense, but giving Pari Pantazopoulos more or a look would be a better move for the money. And let’s not forget, Michael Videira has been willing to drop to the back third since the Fire midfield is a crowded scene.
There it is, midfield, and there is a whole starting line-up of players waiting to get their chance. You really can’t have too many midfielders given the regularity of injury or the need to rotate players. It’s maddening for the players because they want to start every week. This is a point not nearly mentioned enough, part of what makes Frank Klopas a good manager is his man-management and he will certainly have that put to the test this season. Of course there are certain players that should be guaranteed starting spots: Marco Pappa and Patrick Nyarko are the wings. If the Fire play their cards right, these two will be running down the way for years to come. But when these two are out, who steps into the position? With Chicago having given up on Mike Banner and the wait for Victor Pineda to ripen continues, Corben Bone needs to step up and be given the chance to shine. With new signing Rafael Robayo and the retention of the last season’s sparkplug Sebastian Grazzini Fire have a two brilliant ‘creative’ attacking center-mids. We’ll see if training camp invitees Ivan Guerrero, Alex, Fabrizio Pittaluga, Omar Persad, and supplemental draftee Tony Walls can make a case for a role on the wings or as a bench option.
With the re-signing of Pavel Pardo the Fire have a veteran who can boss the midfield, someone who alongside captain Logan Pause, only enhance the skill of Daniel Paladini. I was rather disappointed that the Fire didn’t make a move in this year’s draft for midfielder Callum Mallace, who would have been an excellent immediate addition to the squad as well as a long-term investment. But without a midfielder drafted, the departure of Baggio Husidic, and the age of Pardo, Paladini should have a much more significant role this year. It would be one he could quite easily fill with great success. If we mull it over for a moment, we come to realize that the Chicago midfield isn’t as crowded as once thought, it is a midfield where players need to recognize their role and strive to fulfill it—a platitude certainly but clichés are clichés for a reason.
What really makes me flinch is the attacking core simply because, outside of Dominic Oduro, I’m certainly uncertain who the number two striker is. The release of Christian Nazarit, a hulking forward who was never able to look like anything but a bull in a china shop when in the final third, was wise. But we can all understand the desire for a target man whose physicality makes rival centerbacks cringe. However, the Fire had no one last season and continues to have no one that can do that (one of the reasons, the Fire win nothing in the air and are no threat at all from set pieces). Fire fans love Orr Barouch, our super-sub last season, and would adore seeing the youngster in a regular role coupled with Oduro—thinking of the speed and quickness alone makes one dizzy. But Oduro and Barouch both had an evil relationship with the woodwork last season (partially because of their dizzying speed and quickness). Enter Klopas’s new signing Federico Puppo, a striker who can dish the ball off with a bit more flare than Barouch. For a handful of we Fire supporters, the departure of Diego Chaves was a great disappointment but one that did certainly make sense. Puppo looks to be a forward who has all the pluses of Chaves with none of his minuses. Add to this crop former New England Revolution striker Kheli Dube, a forward who has good instincts in the box. I have no idea how late round draftees Lucky Mkosana and Evans Frimpong or camp invitee Walter Restrepo will fair and it’s certainly still too early for Kellen Gulley.
But something that should be mulled over is the status of forward Etienne Barbara. Last year, Barbara dominated the NASL with the Carolina RailHawks (Daniel Paladini’s former team) winning the Golden Boot (28 goals) and MVP. His ‘rights’ were held by MLS expansion team Montreal who made it a point to keep him in a ridiculous state of limbo. Finally Vancouver made a move for him, a partnership with Eric Hassli or new Whitecap Sebastien Le Toux could see a goal glut for the Canadian team. I mention this because Barbara would be a nice compliment to Oduro, Barbara is fast, strong and able to orchestrate goals. These traits could only enhance Oduro’s quality.
Lastly there is the field marshal position, Goalkeeper. Sean Johnson is the Chicago Fire keeper and should be for years to come. His star is rising in American football and soon Johnson will be vying for the number one shirt on the US National team with Bill Hamid of DC United. Once Tim Howard retires internationally, it will be one of these two young men that will take his place. Johnson’s position is secure with the Fire, in fact the club should strive to make him the face of the Fire, but he can still improve. Training for a few weeks during the offseason with clubs in the English Premier League was a good idea but honestly Johnson should have been loaned for out for two months to England. Johnson’s skill would soar if he were to get to face Premiership competitors or even saw regular playing time with a Championship side. The Fire need to encourage players to strive for national teams, the only way an MLS team will be able to dominate is with a squad of players with international experience, players who expect to play or train ten months out of the year. Sean Johnson is a star and he needs to be allowed to shine ever more brightly. The Fire have also brought in Supplemental Draftee Carl Woszczynski, who’s boyhood club was the Fire and who I’d love to see on the pitch at Toyota Park so that supporters could chant ‘Polish Power’ after every save. The first (and only) time I saw the Fire play live was in 1997 at Soldier Field, I really remember only one thing—the drumming and cheering of the fans, a cheerful, motley mix of Mexican-Americans and Polish-Americans, so Woszczynski brings back that memory for me. With Jay Nolly and Woszczynski the Fire have a deep, rock solid keeper core, which is a relief after the hesitancy in the beginning of last season between Conway and Johnson.
Going into 2012, the Chicago Fire are facing pressure. After two subpar seasons (to put it nicely), the Fire are expected to pull it together. Manager Frank Klopas has all the pieces he wanted and now he is controlling how they are deployed; the team knows there are no excuses now. Things look positive, if the Fire start off with the form they ended 2011 with then we will see a resurgent, successful team. The death from a thousand cuts that is the draw still haunts the club. But roles are clear this season, players know what is expected from them and they know that they have a manager that will let them play in the ways that suit their strengths and not try to mash them into a particular system. Again, the pre-season is a time of madness and hope; it is a time of nervous energy. Yet, I think Fire supporters are looking forward with more than just a glimmer of hope—they are looking forward with confidence, a confidence that has been in short supply over the last couple of years.
Projected Starting IX 2012
RB Dan Gargan
CB Jalil Anibaba
CB Cory Gibbs
LB Gonzalo Segares
RM Patrick Nyarko
CM Daniel Paladini
ACM Sebastian Grazzini
CM Logan Pause
LM Marco Pappa
F Dominic Oduro
And so it was. In the English matchup of American titans Everton bested Fulhman 2-1, led by the efforts of a Man of the Match-worthy Landon Donovan, who assisted on both goals for his side. Clint Dempsey may have found success where Donovan never could, but in this match, at least, Donovan hushed his frequent teammate.
Meanwhile, back here in the states, we continue to inch closer to MLS Firstkick 2012. Sure, it may be an agonizingly slow march toward March, but we’re already almost at February, right? For those who’ve forgotten, our season kicks off at 6 pm EST on Saturday, March 10, as the expansion Montreal Impact play their first ever MLS match at Vancouver’s BC Place.
The Galaxy released their 2012 home jersey recently, and I can’t tell if their kidding. I like the jersey, but I can only speculate as to whether or not the blatant resemblance to the US’s jersey’s is an f-you to the other clubs, a smug statement of “we’re the best in America and we have America’s best player”, or just a coincidence. It’s not like the Galaxy would be wrong to think they’re the best, but I didn’t expect they’d be so glib about it. Unless I’m wrong.
I’ll be back a few times this week. I’ll be honest, there really isn’t much to writ about at the moment. This season really couldn’t come any faster. See ya soon.