April 3, 2007

Heard Around the League: The 2007 Eastern Conference Preview Edition

I believe that somewhere in the Code of American Soccer Bloggers, there's a rule about doing an MLS season preview and predictions. MLS is a tough league to predict, this season especially. Teams are still adding important pieces to their rosters (Blanco in Chicago, Fred in DC, Mathis in NY, Ricchetti in Dallas, unnamed guys in Columbus and KC) and it will take time for them to mesh. The biggest signing of them all (sorry Claudio) won't be here until July.

I'll take a stab at the prediction game though. Remember, if you make any money off my picks, you can pay me in cupcakes. Just don't let Meola or Big Zach know, I could get attacked...

To make this a little more interesting, I'll try to combine my love of MLS with my love of music and compare each team to an artist. Sorry, even though it would be fun, I just couldn't compare the Crew to the Village People. I didn't even consider the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for RSL.

Enough of my rambling, away we go...

1. DC United: U2
The most successful team in league history gets one of the most successful bands of all-time. Both started out with a bang. DCU won three of the first four league championships. U2 won critical and popular acclaim for their work in the 80's and early 90's.

Due to salary cap issues, United had to rebuild in the 2000-2003 period and they struggled. Due to an infatuation with electronic music, U2 changed their style up beginning with the Zooropa album and continuing through Pop. Both eras were not without their successes. For all the problems they had on the field, DC helped develop quality young players (Bobby Convey, Santino Quaranta). For all the criticism U2 took about their output in the mid-90's, they produced some amazing songs (Miss Sarajevo, Stay (Faraway, So Close), Staring at the Sun, Please).

2004 saw a resurgence for DC. Led by new coach Peter Nowak, United went on to win the MLS Cup for a fourth time. 2005 saw the club reach the CONCACAF semis and become the first MLS club to participte in the Copa Sudamericana. 2006 saw the Supporters' Shield return to DC as United finished with the best record in the league. U2 also saw a resurgence, beginning in 2000 with the release of All That You Can't Leave Behind. That album was followed by another strong one, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (my personal favorite), and two hugely successful world tours. U2 was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has returned to being one of the biggest bands in the world.

As for what 2007 holds for United, I think they are the favorite to win both the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup. The team has started strongly with their play in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, dispatching Olimpia of Honduras rather easily. They lost Junior Captain America Freddy Adu and Alecko Eskandarian, but added Luciano Emilio (who could end up leading the league in goals) and Fred (he of the Performance Enhancing Underwear fame and a fans' MVP in the Australian A-League). Keep an eye on the young players DCU has brought in as well. Kasali Casal, Kiki Willis, and Bryan Arguez all have a chance to contribute as DC navigates through a huge number of games in all competitions. Barra Brava, the Screaming Eagles, and La Norte all should have a good time cheering on the Black & Red this season.

2. New York Red Bulls: Damn Yankees
Combining Ted Nugent, Tommy Shaw of Styx, and Jack Blades of Night Ranger should have resulted in a band that take the charts by storm. Their debut album did go double platinum, and High Enough was one of the greatest songs of its time. Their second album wasn't as successful, but it did go platinum. The band just faded away as Nugent went back to his solo career and Blades/Shaw did an album of their own. They recorded songs for a new Damn Yankees album in the late 90's, but no one was all that happy with it and it wasn't released. There's no talk of a reunion these days, which is kind of a shame.

Combining Red Bull's money and Bruce Arena's MLS success should result in a team that will take MLS by storm. It still might happen, but it has been a slower process that some originally thought. The team traded playmaker Amado Guevara for a 2nd Designated Player slot, but so far have only signed Claudio Reyna. Attempts to bring in Ecuadorian striker Augustin Delgado stalled when FIFA upheld his worldwide suspension for being involved in an ugly brawl during a league match in Ecuador. All the other big names mentioned in rumors have not materialized either. Clint Mathis doesn't quite fit the bill, sorry Cleetus.

However, there is some potential for New York this season. Jozy Altidore sure looked like the real deal late last season, and you would figure he'll continue to improve. Dave van der Burgh has impressed in the preseason, and he now has a green card to help with the roster situation. Dane Richards is another preseason success story, we'll see if he can do it when it counts.

Also, I think Red Bull will splash some cash on a big name (and actually get him to sign this time) during the summer transfer window. That, combined with Bruce Arena's coaching abilities, should be enough to get New York to the playoffs.

3. Columbus Crew: Fall Out Boy
This pains me a little to admit (and will probably make at least one Brewhouse regular happy), but I think the Crew are heading in the right direction. Also, it pains me a bit to admit that I get Fall Out Boy songs stuck in my head on a semi-regular basis. I can rarely understand a word they're saying, but the songs are just so damn catchy.

As much as Pete Wentz's stupid facial expressions make me want to punch him in the face, I can't deny the stupid fun of some of their songs. This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race was probably my guilty pleasure song of the year so far. The rest of the album really isn't too bad. They've also got a track with Timbaland on his new album that surprised me.

I can't think of any Crew players I want to punch in the face, but I am surprised with the results they've been getting in preseason. Even though I laughed at the Crew trading their first round choice in the draft, denying all the Crew fans in Indy the chance to cheer on TV, I think getting Andy Herron is a really good move. Robbie Rogers will also be a big part of the team this year, he was great in the U20 World Cup qualifiers. Rogers, Tim Ward, and Danny Szetela are all part of that US U20 team. Other youngsters like Eddie Gaven, , Ned Grabavoy, Jason Garey, and Ricardo Virtuoso give the Crew a great young base to build on. Frankie Hejduk and Duncan Oughton are two good leaders. My main concern is between the sticks, which one will step up and make the job theirs?

It's pretty much a crap shoot behind DC in the East, and I have a feeling that the Crew could take advantage of that. Now, let's just hope Hejduk and Szetela do a remake of the Dance, Dance video...

4. Chicago Fire: LL Cool J
LL Cool J was great once. I wouldn't quite call him the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time), but he was one of the best in his time. Unfortunately, that time has passed. His last album was just boring. Nearly every song featured a similar, played out, R&B hook from random performers. Everything just ran together, with little standing out. What did stand out, were a few of the worst wongs of LL's career. With few exceptions, his greatness ended with Mama Said Knock You Out. He just keeps tarnishing his legacy at this point.

The Chicago Fire were great once, but I think they are currently on the decline. They started out on fire, much like LL, doing the double in their first season. The Fire have went on to win a Supporters' Shield and four US Open Cup championships. Last year's Open Cup title might be Chicago's last trophy for a little while. The club bowed out of the playoffs in the first round against New England. Their top two forwards have left the Windy City (Herron, Nate Jacqua), along with two veterans (Zach Thornton, Tony Sanneh). I don't know if Section 8 would admit it, but the remaining veterans (Chris Armas, CJ Brown, and Diego Gutierrez) are starting to show their age. Dasan Robinson stepped up as a rookie last season and earned significant playing time, but the youngsters the Fire will be relying on up front this year (Calen Carr, Chad Barrett) might not be ready to shoulder the burden on a regular basis.

There's a lot of question marks in Chicago, and I wonder which direction the Fire will go. Hopefully, 2007 will be more like Radio and less like Todd Smith. I'm leaning towards the latter. If so, maybe Blanco can at least get a sitcom with Alfonso Ribeiro. What I wouldn't give to see Cuah start doing the Carlton Dance after his goals.

5. New England Revolution: Guns N' Roses
I really hope that the Kraft Family, Sunil Gulati, and/or Steve Nicol are not turning into Axl Rose on us. Axl somehow single-handedly dismantled one of the best straight up rock bands of the last thirty years. We only get three true albums out of them (I'm not counting Lies or The Spaghetti Incident?, sorry). They put out Appetite for Destruction, one of the greatest debuts in music history. It takes them three years to complete the Use Your Illusion albums, but they still pulled out moments of sheer greatness (Don't Cry, You Could Be Mine, November Rain). Then, it was all over. Axl gets rid of everyone in the band, goes through band members like he went through hair extensions, announces that Chinese Democracy is coming out (someday), makes a big return at the MTV awards (but starts losing his voice approximately thirty seconds into the performance), and starts a tour and ends it in a matter of a few weeks. He's went from being one of the greatest frontmen in rock to one of the biggest jokes. Axl thought it was all about him, and forgot about the men around him.

The Revs will look a bit different as they take the field in 2007. Deuce has been let loose, with was inevitable. It appeared that Shalrie Joseph would be following him, but the Revs denied his transfer to Celtic for a second time and made Shalrie captain instead. Joseph wanted more than the armband, he wanted to be paid like a man who could've been starting in the Champions' League. Revs' management decided to kick more money to Taylor Twellman and Pat Noonan first. Both were deserving, but Shalrie felt slighted. On top of the Shalrie drama, last year's captain Joe Franchino is on a leave of absence after an issue with the local police. Jose Cancela is also gone, but he was never truly valued by Nicol and the coaching staff (the Izzy Stradlin of the team, perhaps?).

The loss of Dempsey's creativity, combined with Joseph's disenchantment, could make things very difficult for New England. It's going to put a lot of pressure on Twellman and Noonan, two men who haven't exactly been the picture of perfect health in recent years. Noonan recently had surgery on a sports hernia for the second time in six months. All parties involved say the Shalrie situation won't affect the team on the field, but how can it not? He publicly asked for a trade, that type of stuff just doesn't disappear.

I have a bad feeling that Shalrie could end up being the Buckethead for the Revs.

6. Toronto FC: Katharine McPhee
It's an expansion team, who knows what to expect. She's an American Idol runner-up, who knows what to expect. Expansion teams have won the MLS Cup in their debut season (Chicago in '98), but more recently have struggled (Chivas and RSL in '05). Idol runners-up have had successful debut albums (Clay Aiken's debut has sold 4.5 million copies) , but lately have had their problems (Diana DeGarmo's album sold a disappointing 200K copies and she was eventually let go by her record company). Bo Bice is getting close to platinum sales, but was largely a disappointment. As many viewers and votes as Idol gets, it still doesn't guarantee success out of the chute.

Toronto has some nice pieces to fit into the puzzle. The forwards (Alecko Eskandarian, Edson Buddle, Conor Casey) should produce some goals. There's a nice midfield with Richard Mulrooney, Ronnie O'Brien, Carl Robinson, and Jose Cancela. Adam Braz, Marco Reda, and goalkeeper Greg Sutton are mainstays for the Canadian national team defense. As nice as the individuals might be, you never know how long it takes for everything to come together on the field.

While it's possible Toronto could surprise and sneak into the playoffs, I think it will just take them too long to mesh. As such, I had to go with Katharine McPhee as my choice for Toronto. I was close to picking Daughtry, but their album has already gone double platinum. Besides, I'm partial to throwing a picture of Kat up on the site. Sorry Chris...

7. Kansas City Wizards: Dave Matthews Band
The Dave Matthews Band are a very talented group of musicians. They have done quite well for themselves over the years, building a loyal fanbase and touring constantly. However, they've become pretty bland musically. Pretty much all their stuff sounds the same at this point, maybe it's just me. I'm kind of worried I'm going to get some Birkenstocks thrown at me now.

I might also get some rainbow jerseys thrown at me, but I think the Wizards are also a bit bland this year. They have some good individuals, but nothing really stands out to me. Kevin Hartman is a nice upgrade in goal, but they lost Josh Wolff, possibly their most consistent forward. They have some other solid individuals (Nick Garcia, Davy Arnaud, Jose Burciaga, Kerry Zavagnin, Jack Jewsbury), but no true game changing players. Eddie Johnson could be that guy, but the way he's been playing over the last year, it's hard to tell when he'll regain his form.

The Eastern Conference is wide open, but I think Kansas City is going to get left in the dust. The organization has definitely made some nice moves off the field, solidifying their local ownership situation, building a solid front office staff, and making moves to setting up a training facility. Their next step should be to make significant improvements on the field.

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