MLS 2008 Eastern Conference Preview: Contenders, Dark Horses, Filler, and C.H.U.D.s

(It looks like I got a little ahead of myself down below…if only by implication. Expect the Western Conference Preview tomorrow and pre-season power rankings Friday. Which is how god intended it.)

Between the super-abundance of variables – some directly inter-related, some not – and the parade of blind-spots steadily unspooling behind me, any attempt on my part to provide a detailed and precise run-down of what will happen to each of Major League Soccer’s (MLS) 14 teams between now and MLS Cup 2008 seems either silly, pompous, or slated for failure – or all the above. Given that, I’ll keep things loose. Rather than exactly predicting who will finish where in the standings, this preview, and the one to follow, stops short of ranking teams in the order they will finish, but instead places them into four broad categories. To make things still more vague, I list more than eight “playoff-capable” teams – and I’ll get to the name for that below – an obvious issue with only eight playoff slots available.

This is intentional…I meant “loose” in the first sentence literally…judge me as you will. But, before charging me with cowardice, consider instead that these are the fruits of parity.

To introduce the categories, each team will be tagged with a label: Contender, Dark Horse, Filler, or C.H.U.D. The first two are pretty obvious – e.g. “Contender” attaches to a team with a clear shot at the title, while “Dark Horse” flags a team with the talent and depth to steal the title, but only provided good form and luck through ‘08. For “Filler” teams, the playoffs are within reach, but the title…well, it ain’t gonna happen. Finally, “C.H.U.D.s” – aka, “Cannabalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers”: these are the teams that will suffer in the confines of MLS’s cellars, only coming out for rare feasts on the flesh of the living.

As for resources, what comes below relies on only a few: WVHooligan’s most current list of off-season player movement and Climbing the Ladder’s best guess at starting elevens for the Eastern and Western Conferences.

Finally, if this seems a little weenie, don’t worry: I’ll make an ass of myself tomorrow when I post pre-season power rankings. Odds are I’ll do the same here in any case. Time to get on with the game…for clarity’s sake, teams are listed from Contender to C.H.U.D.

DC UNITED – Contender
Player Moves I Grok
IN: Marcelo Gallardo, Gonzalo Martinez, Gonzalo Peralta, Zach Wells, Franco Niell, Santino Quaranta, Quavas Kirk
OUT: Christian Gomez, Troy Perkins, Bobby Boswell, Greg Vanney, Brian Carroll
The Situation
This team upgraded where it most needed to: in defense – and, yes, that includes in goal; I never thought much of Perkins. The relevant question mark (or, rather, question marks) hovers over Niell. He doesn’t look like the player Jaime Moreno was three, or even two, years ago, but the real question in play is whether he’s the better player right now. That matters because, assuming Moreno won’t start every game – heck, he may not start half of them – United will be a lot stronger if Niell is dangerous enough to stop teams from keying on Luciano Emilio; good as the Brazilian is, he can’t carry the offense alone. Fortunately, the supporting cast – Fred, Clyde Simms, and Devon McTavish for some damn reason – is strong probably enough to keep teams guessing. And, for what it’s worth, I’m a Gallardo fan…so far…I just prefer his style to Gomez’s.

NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION – Contender
Player Moves I Grok
IN: Chris Albright, Mauricio Castro, Kenny Mansally (yeah, I know, but he didn’t play last year), Rob Valentino
OUT: Pat Noonan, Avery John, Andy Dorman, James Riley
The Situation
Of all the contenders I expect to name today, New England counts as the closest call. Between Steve Ralston’s age, the departure of Noonan, and the uncertainty of what the several new faces will bring come game time, it’s hard to know what they’ll do – especially with the ass-kicker of a schedule they’re facing. Against that, they returned the same solid core from previous seasons and their options at forward, where I see most to be concerned with, aren’t terrible: Mansally has had a good pre-season and Adam Cristman showed he’s a pretty competent second banana to Taylor Twellman in 2007. Basically, this remains the same tough-to-beat (and god-awfully hard to watch) team from last year; it all depends on them scoring goals at a regular enough clip.

KANSAS CITY WIZARDS – Dark Horse
Player Moves I Grok
IN: Claudio Lopez, Ivan Trujillo, Roger Espinoza, Chance Myers
OUT: Eddie Johnson, Nick Garcia, Jose Burciaga Jr.
The Situation
KC was pretty mediocre by the end of 2007, so what makes them a dark horse? Two things for me: 1) with Kurt Onalfo looking another year older and wiser, I suspect the naïve obsession with attacking élan, and the defensive lapses that followed therefrom, died for good mid-2007; 2) the assumption that they drafted enough and kept enough to have a solid defense. For my money, the defense is the wild card, the lurking queen of spades that could, in an instant, destroy their hopes of shooting the proverbial moon. KC looked solid enough late last year and I like how they restocked up top in the off-season well enough to think they have a shot, if only an outside one. I’ll be shocked if this bunch misses the playoffs; then again, they shocked me two years running starting with ’05.

CHICAGO FIRE – Filler
Player Moves I Grok
IN: Tomasz Frankowski, Andy Herron, Patrick Nyarko, Brandon Prideaux
OUT: Ivan Guerrero, Matt Pickens, Chris Armas, Jeff Curtin, Jim Curtin, Pablo Wanchope
The Situation
Chicago stands as one of this year’s “mystery teams.” If one looks at the players they acquired – more specifically, the position most of them play – it’s clear they know what hurt them last season and set out to fix it. Going the other way, though, they lost some serious quality in midfield, something that forces the question of whether Cuauhtemoc Blanco has the legs to cover. Then there’s the defense: Pickens leaving hurt and they lost a couple players back there whom I rate as “better than a warm body.” Prideaux is probably worth one of the Curtins, but who replaces Pickens, not to mention the remaining Curtin? What about C. J. Brown’s age? But here’s the funny thing: I think they’re solid enough…even to the extent of thinking they’ll serve up a steaming plate of revenge on the team below. What can I say? These kinds of stretches make me feel like I’m thinking.

RED BULL NEW YORK – Filler
Player Moves I Grok
IN: Oscar Echeverry, Eric Brunner, Luke Sassano
OUT: Dema Kovalenko, Markus Schopp, Clint Mathis, Santino Quaranta, Joe Vide, Francis Doe
The Situation
Here’s the thing: compare what Red Bull lost/gave away last season with what they picked up. Not much gain, not much loss – basically, that spells status quo ante. Making matters worse, they have some serious holes on the left and in middle, something Ives Galarcep has pointed out weekly since January. In their favor – and these aren’t insignificant – they picked up (OK, stole) Juan Carlos Osorio for head coach, who should help fix one of last year’s bigger problems: organizing the defense. There’s also the solid forward pairing of Juan Pablo Angel and Jozy Altidore – though how long they’ll stay together presents another open question (paging Mr. Echeverry). Still, this call – e.g. dubbing these guys Filler – makes me a little antsy. For all I know, playing Reyna near the top could pay off, Osorio works his magic with the defense and suddenly these guys go to Dark Horse…a team to watch, though not for the reasons Red Bull fans would hope. Then again, I don’t expect that to happen…so they’re Filler.

COLUMBUS CREW – Filler
Player Moves I Grok
IN: Brian Carroll, Gino Padula, Nicolas Hernandez, Andy Iro, George Josten, Ricardo-Pierre Louise
OUT: Marcos Gonzalez, Ned Grabavoy, Kei Kamara, Jacob Thomas, Rusty Pierce, Ricardo Virtuoso, Tim Ward
The Situation
Yes, there is absolutely a link between my fondness for and coverage of the Crew and my placing them in the filler category – let it never be said I hide my biases. The reality, however, is that Columbus is to filler as my Dark Horse ranking relates to Contender: in order to make the post-season, the players the Crew currently have will have to freakin’ shine – and for much of the season, as opposed to the familiar little spurts from the past three seasons. This means Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven need banner years, that Guillermo Barros Schelotto sticks around till the end, and that Alejandro Moreno and Nico Hernandez score above their respective averages. Then the defense has to gel and rock, etc. – you get the picture. A more neutral blogger probably would have slipped these guys into the C.H.U.D. category.

TORONTO FC – C.H.U.D.
Player Moves I Grok
IN: Julius James, Pat Phelan, Kevin Harmse, ummm…some other dudes…
OUT: Ronnie O’Brien, Adam Braz, Marco Reda, Kenny Stamatopolous
The Situation
Not a lot of names ringing bells in there, right? That’s kinda the point: a couple of rookies – highly-touted ones, admittedly – replace a couple USL-caliber defenders; then TFC ships their offense to San Jose and picks up a hard-nosed midfielder like Harmse. Long story short, things aren’t adding up in the North Country. Trials have come and gone with no one putting pen to paper and the season keeps getting closer. Having that first, painful year under the belt should help; Toronto certainly won’t start 2008 with the string of lopsided defeats that started their expansion year. But, looking at this team right now and understanding that injury-prone players are just that, I see no reason to expect a lot of improvement from a side that has done so little between last season and this.

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3 Responses

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