This weekend another year of MLS kicks off. The following is how I think the season standings will finish up. One new feature to note for 2007 is that only the top two teams in each conference are guaranteed to make the playoffs. The next four spots will be filled by the next four teams with most points, regardless of conference. Playoff qualifiers denoted by '*'.
1. DC United*
I think this team will be the class of MLS in 2007 - and so do most observers. The 2006 Supporters’ Shield winners return without Alecko Eskandarian and Freddy Adu - but have added intriguing talent in the form of Fred, Yinka Casal, and Emilio. As long as the defense holds up, this team should play attractive soccer, and really run rough-shod over the league.
2. Chicago Fire*
There is an argument that the Fire have never reached their potential under coach Dave Sarachan, but I think this year they could be better than most people think. The addition of Cuauhtemoc Blanco in mid-season will be a massive draw to MLS - and will bring a creativity that MLS has rarely seen. But Chicago will succeed or fail this season based on their ability to play cohesively as a team. This team reminds me a little bit of last seasons Dynamo - not a whole lot of flash, but the job gets done.
3. Red Bull New York*
Maybe I overestimate the combined impact of Bruce Arena, Claudio Reyna, and Jozy Altidore - but I think that the Red Bulls could be a major surprise this season. I think they are going to have outstanding wide play from their outside backs and wingers (Dunivant, Wynne, van den Bergh, Schopp) - the questions are down the center. First, can Reyna stay healthy on that nasty turf of the Meadowlands? Second, is the central defense good enough? Finally, have they found a goal-scorer in Altiore? If the answers to those questions are even marginally positive, this team will be a nice surprise.
4. Columbus Crew
Due to a new rule in MLS, the top two teams in each league go to the playoffs, then the next four teams with highest point totals overall make take the remaining spots - so each league is no longer guaranteed four teams in the playoffs. That's too bad for Sigi Schmid and an improving Crew side. I think they will be better, but not sneak into the playoffs due to a considerably stronger Western Conference. Schmid is still in the midst of a rebuilding project - but I think he is on track and this team will be competitive - but lose or draw a lot of tough matches. Their going to have to find more goals than I think they will in order to secure that playoff spot.
5. New England Revolution
Consensus seems to be that this Revolution team will continue the teams recent successes - but I just don't see that happening. It seems to me this is a team in disarray - losing players, unhappy players, players trying to find roles, injury issues...the list goes on. Steve Nicol has been one of the most consistently successful coach's in MLS - but if he is able to keep this team - this year - toward the top of the MLS East, he may well have done the best job of his career. Twellman will get his goals, but unless Noonan and Ralston can stay healthy, Joseph can stay happy, this team will be a major disappointment.
6. Kansas City Wizards
There are very few certain things about the enigma that is Eddie Johnson, but one thing that appears clear is that to this point in his (still young) career, he has not reacted well to pressure. Well, the pressure is on this year. For this team to be successful, Johnson will have to be consistently putting the balls in the back of the net. This team is likely to be well organized at the back - with tons of experience in new keeper Kevin Hartman, backline of Conrad, Garcia, Burciaga Jr., and Jewsbury, and DM Zavagnin. But, creativity and width will be seriously lacking.
7. Toronto FC
On paper - this expansion team looks pretty good up front, and in the midfield. Strikers Buddle and Eskandarian have scored goals in MLS for years, and Casey is a fringe US international. Carl Robinson has lots of international, Premiership, and Championship experience, while Mulrooney, O'Brien, Cancela, and Nagamura have lots of MLS experience. But that experienced talent is thin - and the back line has zero MLS experience, and the keeper has only been a back-up. This team is going to allow tons of goals - and may have trouble finding the net if there are any injuries. 2007 is going to be a long, hard slog for the 14,000 season ticket holders in Toronto.
1. LA Galaxy*
Yes, they will add Beckham in July...but the Galaxy improved last year after Frank Yallop took the head coaching job. This team is young and improving, they have one of the best coaches in MLS (Yallop), one of the best players in MLS (Donovon), probably the best keeper in MLS (Cannon) - this team is primed to be better even before Beckham is added to the mix. The question may well be how the rest of the team reacts to the media and attention he will attract.
2. CD Chivas USA*
Chivas improved dramatically under Bob Bradley last year. Bradley is now gone on the the USMNT, but Preki was an able assistant - and I think the type of coash with a connection to the MLS game and the players that can really get the most out of these guys. Guzan is a real up-and-comer in goal, and the additions of Guevara and Mendoza will help replace Juan Pablo Garcia. I think that Maykel Galindo will prove to be an effective striking partner with Ante Razov, and this team will be even better in its third year in the league.
3. FC Dallas*
New coach Steve Morrow has blown the roster apart after two consecutive first round playoff losses - ditching some of the older, higher dollar veterans, and hanging his hat on the talented youth on this team. It may be a rocky-ride this year - but that will turn out to be a wise strategy. This team will surely score goals with the combination of attackers Ruiz, Cooper, and Nunez. The midfield looks like it will be creative and tough, especially with the additions of Toja and Oduro. The question will be can the young defense learn the ropes quickly enough - especially with Sala suspended at the beginning of the season.
4. Houston Dynamo*
The defending champions have a lot of folks on the bandwagon - and I obviously hope they are all right. But I just don't think this team will be as good this year. This team added no experienced talent to the team - yet the schedule will be very heavy - including international matches that will require several members of the team to be gone during the summer. The starting 11 is great...but the depth just doesn't appear to be there. Either Kinnear is truly sold on the young players he has on the roster already - or team management just isn't willing to spend the money to stay among the MLS elite. If the latter is true - fans in Houston are in for a long season.
5. Colorado Rapids*
I have always though Fernando Clavijo was an effective MLS coach - he just always seemed to be in tough situations. This may be his season to prove he can coach in this league. The talent on this team has improved - and with Terry Cooke providing all-star calibre service from the wing, Nico Hernandez, Roberto Brown and Jovan Kirovski should score plenty of goals. The defense is more seasoned, and Pablo Mastroeni is among the most talented players in MLS. The trade of Joe Cannon still has me concerned about this team - and at the end of the season, much of the success or failure of this side will be determined by Senegalese keeper Bouna Coundoul.
6. Real Salt Lake
This team really needs to make a run at the playoffs this year. John Ellinger should be under severe pressure to get the job done in Salt Lake this year - before interest in this new franchise begins to wane. The big addition is Freddy Adu - who should finally be given the freedom to attack he always lacked in D.C. The problem is that is the only major change from a team that finished dead last in the West last year. RSL has enticing young talent - Ballouchy, Seitz, and Adu - but I just don't see how this team has improved itself dramatically. Fans of MLS will be hoping that Adu, and this franchise, finally make "The Leap."