The countdown is on ... 3-2-1.
That's three new head coaches: Peter Nowak with D.C. United, Colin Clarke with the Dallas Burn, and Dominic Kinnear with the San Jose Earthquakes. Or, if you prefer, three stands for the amount of U.S. internationals who headed across the Pond this past off-season to ply their trades in other leagues around the world: Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride to Fulham of the English Premier League, and Clint Mathis to Hannover 96 of the German Bundesliga.
Two National Teamers coming home from Europe: Cory Gibbs in Dallas and Jovan Kirovski in L.A.
One Freddy Adu.
And zero -- please repeat -- zero amount of snooze-inducing overtime periods to sit through in 2004.
Welcome to the ninth season of Major League Soccer.
While so many rosters and coaching staffs have changed over the past four months, the team to beat remains the same - the San Jose Earthquakes.
Despite losing head coach Frank Yallop and general manager Johnny Moore, the lineup that powered the Earthquakes to their second MLS Cup title in three years remains mostly intact. There's also a nice sense of continuity with assistant coach Dominic Kinnear taking over the reigns on the sideline while having a former teammate in Alexi Lalas step in as his boss as the team's president and general manager.
There are teams in the league whose talent jumps out at you more than San Jose, but there is no team in MLS that shares the ball the way the Earthquakes do.
With Richard Mulrooney and Ronnie Ekelund returning as the team's central midfield combination once again, that will likely not change. Strength and leadership is prevalent up the middle in the back, as well, with captain Jeff Agoos returning to man the back four, as well as reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Pat Onstad in the net.
|Marc Connolly will continue to look at the season ahead:|
What opposing teams will have to match is San Jose's firepower on offense led by the league's best player in Donovan. He's joined by rising star Brian Mullan, and a Three Amigos group of strikers in Brian Ching, Dwayne De Rosario and Jamil Walker, who will all see time alongside last season's MLS Cup MVP up top.
In a league where parity is the key theme, any one of four or five teams can legitimately be described as a threat to win it all in '04. And, for the most part, they come from the East.
Though losing both Bocanegra and goalkeeper Zach Thornton (Benfica) will be hard to replace, the Chicago Fire may very well have the most talent in the league.
In Ante Razov and Damani Ralph, they have the top scoring duo in the league, which is primed once again to prosper, being that last year was their first year as a tandem, as well as being Ralph's first year as a professional. Re-signing creative midfielder Andy Williams was vital, as the team has a different look when he's on the field.
With Bocanegra and Thornton gone, head coach Dave Sarachan will rely upon third-year pro Kelly Gray and rookie Leonard Griffin in the back, and will need strong performances out of Henry Ring and D.J. Countess in the net.
Two other teams in the East are likely to vie for the top spot in the conference throughout the season are the New England Revolution and MetroStars.
The Revolution, when healthy, have a potent attack up front with a threesome of Taylor Twellman, Pat Noonan and Joe-Max Moore. Throw in a four-man midfield that consists of Brian Kamler on the left, Steve Ralston on the right, Shalrie Joseph as the defensive midfielder and Jose Cancela as the schemer behind the strikers, and you have one of the more well-rounded contingents in the league. Noonan and rookie Clint Dempsey will see time in the midfield, as well.
The X-factor for the Revs is in the back, where injuries have hampered this squad over the past few years. There's also the question whether or not 34-year-old centerback Carlos Llamosa will show his age this year?
The key for the MetroStars will be Eddie Pope. With him, Bob Bradley's back three has leadership, experience and the league's best defender. Without him, there are several question marks and a lack of experience.
What Bradley doesn't have to worry about is attacking options. With the signing of Argentine forward Sergio Galvan Rey and, most recently, Trinidad & Tobago national team striker Cornell Glen, as well as the off-season additions of Jamaican striker Fabian Taylor and midfielder Joselito Vaca, the Metros have more attacking options than any team in the league considering that John Wolyniec and Mike Magee will be options up front, as will Eddie Gaven in the midfield. The constant will be playmaking midfielder Amado Guevera, who may very well be the best attacking midfielder in the league.
Columbus has improved the most, adding proven veterans such as Simon Elliott, Robin Fraser and Manny Lagos, as well as draft picks Chad Marshall and Chris Wingert. The question for the Crew is whether Edson Buddle can stay healthy for a full year, and how Jeff Cunningham does without having Brian McBride as his running mate for the first time in his career.
The three teams that will give San Jose a run out West are Kansas City, Colorado and Los Angeles.
For the Wizards to prosper in the first few months, Bob Gansler will need exceptional performances out of either Diego Walsh or Francisco Gomez. They're the two players he is considering for the attacking midfielder role that's up for grabs now that Preki is out until at least June after he suffered a broken left leg and dislocated ankle in a preseason scrimmage last month. If Josh Wolff gets hot early on, K.C. could make it interesting at the top of the Western Conference standings.
Los Angeles will be better up top with Kirovski, as well as rookie Joseph Ngwenya, who looks like the real deal already. The Galaxy also added Austrian National Team midfielder Andreas Herzog to play in the center of the midfield with Peter Vagenas behind him in a holding role. The key for the Galaxy is how the back four plays with a combination of players fighting for time, including Paul Broome, Danny Califf, Tyrone Marshall, Ryan Suarez, Ricky Lewis, Scot Thompson and South Korean international Hong Myung Bo, who needs to make more of an impact this season after a mediocre year in 2003.
All eyes are on D.C. United, and Freddy, but too many question marks exist to consider Peter Nowak's side as a contender in the East. The same goes in the Western Conference for an improved, but still lacking-talent side in Dallas.
Here's how we see it shaping up in 2004:
2. Chicago Fire
3. New England Revolution
4. Columbus Crew
5. D.C. United
1. San Jose Earthquakes
2. Kansas City Wizards
3. Los Angeles Galaxy
4. Colorado Rapids
5. Dallas Burn
MLS Cup champion: San Jose Earthquakes
Scoring champion: Taylor Twellman, New England Revolution
Rookie of the Year: Chad Marshall, Columbus Crew
Five MVP candidates
1. Landon Donovan, San Jose -- He's an old man now at 22 years old, with championship rings to wear on both hands after playing in MLS for three seasons. Expect to see his totals from last year (12 goals and six assists) improve as his game continues to get better.
2. Taylor Twellman, New England -- Having scored 38 goals in two years, the third-year striker will once again be a marked man for the Revolution. Now that he'll have a playmaker like Jose Cancela playing behind him from the get-go, look out.
3. Carlos Ruiz, Los Angeles -- No one has scored as many goals (39) as Ruiz has in the last two seasons. The addition of Jovan Kirovski will take some of the pressure off the 2002 MLS MVP, and allow him to stretch the defense from a higher position.
4. Josh Wolff, Kansas City -- The word around U.S. National Team camp earlier this month was that the Wizards striker's first step is back to pre-ACL form. That's not good news for defenses around the league. Finally healthy after two surgeries to his knees, a lingering hamstring injury and broken ribs over the past two seasons, the 27-year-old is primed to post double-digit numbers in goals and make up for the offense lost while Preki is sidelined.
5. Amado Guevara, MetroStars -- The 27-year-old Honduran international will be like a kid in a candy store this year with players all around him who can finish. His 10 assists (third best in MLS) last year should rise with the addition of Glen, Taylor and Galvan Rey, as well as the trade that brought another creative-type in Vaca to the Metros over the winter. Now in his second year, we're hearing that Guevara has embraced his leadership role. He was the definitive team leader while Eddie Pope was away with the U.S. National Team during the side's preseason trip to Spain where he was the MVP of La Manga Cup.
Five impact players to watch
1. Justin Mapp, Chicago Fire -- The 19-year-old midfielder is already entering his third season, and second with the Fire after playing with D.C. as a rookie. After flourishing in a wide-variety of roles for Sarachan throughout his 18 starts, Mapp appears ready to take it to the next level as a regular for Chicago.
2. Cory Gibbs, Dallas Burn -- Based on his play for F.C. St. Pauli in Germany as well as with the U.S. National Team over the past two years, the 24-year-old defender will enter his first season in MLS as one of the top defenders in the league. Anyone who saw Gibbs shut down Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy when the U.S. tied Holland last month, realizes how well of a man-marker he can be. His partnership with former MetroStar back Steve Jolley in the central defense will be vital to the team's success in '04.
3. Bobby Convey, D.C. United -- Now that Marco Etcheverry is gone, the playmaking duties have been handed over to this 20-year-old midfielder. It's time, too. While much of the focus will be on Adu this year by the media, it will be Convey's play that will dictate the direction this side goes.
4. Simon Elliott, Columbus -- It only took two months for this New Zealand international to emerge as one of the Crew's true leaders on and off the field, resulting in his being named as one of the team's three captains. After a frustrating year in L.A., Elliott is refreshed, and comfortable in a role where he'll link the defense with the offense and see more of the ball than he did with the Galaxy. Expect to see attacking midfielder Kyle Martino benefit from his presence, as well.
5. Sergio Galvan Rey, MetroStars -- Bradley got the goal-scorer he's been searching for, which reportedly was for the league's maximum of $280,000 a year. This 30-year-old striker's track record speaks for itself having scored 160 goals in eight seasons with Once Caldas of the Colombian first division. Do the math on that one, folks. Galvan Rey is said to be relentless in front of the goal, and can be likened to former MLS All-Star Ariel Graziani.
Five games to watch
1. San Jose at D.C, April 3 -- Starting off with a bang on national television (ABC Sports, 4 p.m. ET). Forget that it's a mismatch pitting last year's champs against a team that barely made it into the playoffs. This is Freddy's big opener, and the start to what should be a fabulous professional career. Just don't be surprised if Landon steals the show.
2. Chicago at San Jose, April 10 -- A repeat of last year's MLS Cup title match. Expect Chicago striker Ante Razov to be fired up for this one after missing a penalty kick and two other golden opportunities to score in San Jose's 4-2 victory last November.
3. Los Angeles at San Jose, May 22 -- Are you seeing an Earthquakes theme here? Sorry, this matchup is too good to leave out, as L.A. returns to the scene of the crime where it collapsed in a 5-2 series-ending loss that saw San Jose erase a four-goal aggregate deficit and knockout the defending MLS Cup champions.
4. D.C. United at Chicago, June 5 -- Peter Nowak returns to Chi-Town, where he was worshiped as a player for five seasons and was voted in as the first inductee to the team's "Ring of Fire" last year while working for the club in a front-office role. Oh yeah, Freddy will be there, too.
5. New England at MetroStars, September 11 -- The final match of the season between these two rivals. As always, this late-season showdown will surely have playoff implications.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.