While Sporting Kansas City don't kickoff their 2011 Major League Soccer season against Chivas USA until late Saturday night, most the rest of the league get their season opener earlier that evening. And, while there is no more important team to worry about than the club itself, you are merely a product of your environment; or, something like that. Point being, while Sporting KC are the be-all-end-all as far as we are concerned, it does matter very much so what the rest of the league does; in particular, the teams surround Kansas City in the standings.
With that in mind, rather than doing a broad preview and/or recap of the league in its entirety every week, I plan to focus more on covering and discussing at greater length the games involving comparable teams to our beloved SKC. And, we are more than fortunate to have a handful of quality matchups for MLS First Kick 2011 involving such teams. We've got plenty to look forward to this weekend.
DC United vs. Columbus Crew - 6:30 p.m. CT, MLS DirectKick
DC United were the worst team in MLS in 2010 by miles, and it showed in the standings, where they finished dead last by 6 points. But, they have improved. Immensely, actually. Columbus Crew were, by default in an extremely weak Easter Conference, the second best team this half of the United States. They look to have seriously regressed this offseason.
On paper, this looks to be a very good matchup between two mid-table teams, both of which should be aiming for the third conference playoff spot, or somewhere in that neighborhood.
For Columbus, gone is one of the league's big names in forward Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Gone are the trademark hairstyles of defender Frankie Hejduk and forward Steven Lenhart, 29- and 23-game starting midfielders Bryan Carroll and Adam Moffat, often-used midfielder Jason Garey and 14-game starting defender Eric Brunner. In total, that's 146 games started by those 7 players alone (20.8 on average). It's one thing to clean house a bit when players are underperforming, but in most cases, those were players that were well thought of among MLS followers.
For all of Columbus's subtractions, each has seemingly been matched with addition in the nation's capitol. DC now have a new engine and captain in the midfield, a US men's national team fan-favorite turned comeback hero, arguably the best player to come from the 2011 MLS SuperDraft and a preaseason scoring talisman. 23-year old midfielder Dax McCarty are 24-year old USMNT standout forward Charlie Davies are undoubtedly the premier coups of the offseason for the black and red outfit, though each's career are trending in polar opposite directions at the moment. Perry Kitchen is seen as possibly the biggest international level impact player from the draft this year, and Joseph Ngwenya scored a half-dozen goals in preseason.
Both look to challenge SKC in the second to third range in the conference. DC look to be the stronger side, at least at this point. That said, let's pull for a Columbus upset on the road, because it's never too early to start jockeying and counting for playoff positioning.
Three more games to keep an eye on, after the jump...
Houston Dynamo vs. Philadelphia Union - 7:30 p.m. CT, MLS DirectKick
Josh Wolff's 97th minute winner at CAB last September to keep slim playoff hopes alive. Even six months later, that's still the first thing I think of when I hear "Houston Dynamo". I suppose eventually I'll have to get over that, and Houston's disappointing season as a whole, because this preseason, they looked really good.
Houston, as did Kansas City, missed the playoffs in 2010. For the "Orange Crush" of MLS, that is an extreme rarity. (It had never happened before, even in the team's expansion year of 2006.) So, what do you do when you have a bad season in sports? You go out and revamp your roster, of course. Cue: first round SuperDraft picks Kofi Sarkodie and Will Bruin, trade acquisitions Colin Clark, Jason Garey and Jordan Graye, and international signings Hunter Freeman and Jermaine Taylor. As a whole, Houston's Starting XI should look different by about 50 percent this year, with regulars like Brian Ching and Geoff Cameron still holding down perennial positions.
While Houston did much of their roster work from within the league, Philadelphia went almost exclusively international with their roster overhaul in the offseason. The big new names are goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, defender Carlos Valdes and forward Carlos Ruiz, all of international flavor.
In 2010, the then-expansion Union more than held their own against the Dynamo, winning 3-2 at Houston's Robertson Stadium and holding serve for a 1-1 draw at PPL Park later in the season at Philadelphia.
Houston figure into the race for a playoff spot in the wide-open Eastern Conference, coming up against KC in July at Robertson, and Sporting KC's brand new Livestrong Sporting Park in early September. Philly don't look to be as much in the playoff race at this point, so a win, or even another surprise win on the road would spell good early news for Sporting fans.
Colorado Rapids* vs. Portland Timbers - 8:00 p.m. CT, Fox Soccer Channel
For a team just coming off of winning MLS Cup 2010, Colorado still aren't talked about a ton amongst the top teams in the league. Perhaps it's their lack of a big-time star in the league. Actually, nope, that's not it; forward Omar Cummings is about as dangerous and prolific as any player in the league. He's seriously a top five player in the league, yet is rarely mentioned with the likes of the Henry's, Donovan's, Angel's, etc.
Oh, I got; maybe it's that they rely too much on Cummings, and if you take him out of the game, they're toast. Actually, nope, that's not it either. Conor Casey, for all his ballyhooed reputation with the US national team, teams with Cummings to create the 1-2 strike duo in MLS. Cummings has the blazing speed, while Casey is the big lug capable of overpowering even the strongest of opposing defenders.So, what is it then?
Honestly, it's not their fault they aren't mentioned. If anything, it's because they tend to be a bit boring to watch at times, but in the end, they're effective. That much is evident in hoisting the championship trophy last November. Mark this down: Colorado Rapids will be in the 2011 MLS Cup playoffs, and they will probably be around come conference finals time, too. People must learn to quit sleeping on them.
Portland are the expansion team, obviously. They aren't expected to quite reach playoff level just yet. That's not to say that they can't, because for an expansion roster, they've got some serious talent with some trendy names to go along with it. Still, they're probably a year away from contending. But, they do really hate them some Seattle Sounders, so they're my second favorite team in MLS, by default. Come on, you Timbers.
*Yes, Colorado are in the Western Conference. They could, however, end up being competition for one of the final four playoff spots come end of the season, so they get the mention. Plus, I kind of like them a little bit; I don't know why.