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WEEKLY WHINE

Counting down to the Rhinos

So the 2012 MLS season is about to begin. It is the largest season in the league’s young history, with 19 teams in the competition. And with three teams with a shout in the CONCACAF Champions League, this could be the year that MLS takes the North American title for the first time since the Champions Cup era. Add to that a new format for the next Champions League, for the US Open Cup, and for the league playoffs, and this is looking to be MLS’s most exciting year yet.

But what exactly is making it so exciting? And more importantly, can we convey that information using an old, tired rubric that many before us have used?

That depends. What does rubric mean?

Well, whilst we figure that out, we are going to just go ahead and do what everybody else does: select a “First XI” of important questions about this season and then make up answers to them.

But in an added twist, we are actually going to make a team out of our questions, complete with starters and a bench.

GK: WILL AN MLS CLUB WIN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE?

Yes, Los Angeles. They will defeat Toronto in the quarterfinals, Seattle in the semifinals, and Morelia in the final.

RB: WILL EDDIE JOHNSON AND LEE NGUYEN FIND SUCCESS?

Eddie Johnson made the move to MLS last month. As a transferred player returning to the league, Johnson was eligible for the allocation process. Montréal used its allocation and then immediately traded him to Seattle for Lamar Neagle and Mike Fucito, but by the end of the season, Seattle will wish they had kept those two players. Johnson’s form comes and goes, and this year it will be doing more going than coming.

Lee Nguyen has also been a bit of a nomad. After being unattached for several months, he signed with the league in DEC 2011 and went to Vancouver in a weighted lottery. But Vancouver waived him last week, feeling that they do not need additional help in the midfield. New England promptly claimed him, and with the Revolution, he will make a positive contribution.

CB: HOW WILL THE LEAGUE BE AFFECTED BY THE UNBALANCED SCHEDULE?

With a 19th club joining the league, the schedule could have remained balanced only by extending to 36 matches. Instead, MLS chose to stay at a 34 match season by unbalancing the schedule. Teams play those within their own conference two or three times, those in the other conference once.

This move will actually backfire by causing rivalry overload. Multiple team rivalries, like the three California teams and the three Pacific Northwest teams, will be particularly heavily hit. Portland, for instance, play Seattle three times and Vancouver another three: in fact, two of the Timbers’ three matches in OCT 2012 are Cascadia Cup matches.

Rivalry overload may not sound like a bad thing, but each such match brings a higher intensity level. With a 34 match season, every match cannot be a spectacle. Furthermore, for the viewer at home, being able to see a rivalry match every week will make other matches look dull by comparison. Every match has a story, not just the ones with giant green tifos behind the goals.

CB: WHICH CURRENTLY UNKNOWN PLAYER WILL BECOME A STAR?

Brek Shea.

What do you mean he’s known? Fine, how about Nick DeLeon? He was drafted by DC United and will be an important contributor to DC’s midfield, though he won’t quite become a star this year.

LB: WILL THE TORONTO-MONTRÉAL RIVALRY BE AS AWESOME AS THE CANADIANS SAY IT WILL BE?

You bet, eh.

The rivalry between Toronto and Montréal is best expressed in the National Hockey League, where the Maple Leafs and Canadiens have played 780 times in 95 years and counting. The CFL’s Argonauts and Alouettes also do not care for one another. As for the MLS rivalry, early reports suggest that upwards of a thousand supporters of each club will be descending upon the other club’s city for away matches.

DM: WILL NBC SPORTS’S COVERAGE OF THE LEAGUE BE AS AWESOME AS THEY SAY IT WILL BE?

It will be pretty good, that’s for sure. Fox Soccer Channel, which covered MLS matches for years, often suffered from low budgets. However, reports stated that FSC submitted a higher bid for the current contract. But the league selected NBCS instead, hoping that a new partner would help its ratings.

NBCS has a broader reach: about 76,000,000 homes in the US, almost twice as many as FSC. It has signed popular announcer Arlo White, will include a pregame and postgame show from each match venue, and has scheduled five of its matches to follow broadcasts of Olympic events from London. So there is the possibility for great things here.

RM: WILL THE NEW GROUP PHASE OF THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE BE AN IMPROVEMENT?

Meh.

The next Champions League campaign begins in JUL 2012 with some changes afoot. The qualifying round is gone; instead, all 24 teams go straight to the group phase, in which the teams are divided into eight groups of three. This will improve the competition, as only the group winners will advance rather than two teams out of four.

But on the other hand, the four US teams and four Mexican teams will be kept apart in the draw. That means every group will contain either an American team or a Mexican team [but not both], whereas the previous format guaranteed one of each in every group for maximum cross border animosity.

CM: WILL THE US OPEN CUP FINALLY MATTER?

Maybe.

The most important change for this year’s Open Cup is the elimination of bidding for hosting rights. Previously, clubs would submit checks to the US Soccer Federation. The team that sent the larger check would host the match. The largest beneficiary of this scheme has, of course, been Seattle. Since joining MLS three years ago, the Sounders have hosted eleven out of fourteen Open Cup matches – including all four last year – and turned that into three straight Open Cup titles. But this year, hosting rights will be decided by random draw through the quarterfinals.

The second most important change is the elimination of qualifying competitions for professional clubs. This year, all 16 of MLS’s American clubs qualify automatically for the third round, as do all American clubs in the North American Soccer League and USL Pro division. This means that MLS clubs will not have to fight one another just to play in the Open Cup – their third round matches will all be against lower division clubs.

That said, the Open Cup still has the lowest prestige of the four major trophies that American clubs compete for, falling behind the MLS Cup, Supporters Shield, and CONCACAF Champions League. Since this year’s final is in AUG 2012, keep an eye on the winning team in the last two months of the MLS season. If that club can turn its Open Cup success into league success, other clubs will take notice and begin to take the tournament seriously.

LM: WHICH TRANSACTION WILL THE AFFECTED TEAM REGRET THE MOST?

No doubt New York manager Hans Backe has had plenty of cause to regret picking up Rafa Márquez in 2010. Márquez was more than a handful last year, being handed a suspension by his club for badmouthing his teammates and then another by the league for starting a playoff brawl.

Other moves that will prove ill advised: DC allowing defender Marc Burch to escape in the reentry draft, Philadelphia shipping fan favourite Sébastien Le Toux to Vancouver, Seattle parting with Neagle and Fucito to get Johnson, and Houston failing to protect Brian Ching in the expansion draft.

But without doubt, the most regretted decision is Los Angeles’s loan of Omar Gonzalez to Nürnberg. It was a great idea at the time: it gave Gonzalez a chance to compete in a new environment, keep him match fit, and hopefully draw US manager Jürgen Klinsmann’s attention as well. But, as we know, a collision during his first training session tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. US and Galaxy supporters immediately cried out, “What are the fucking odds?!”

FW: WILL THE PLAYOFFS IMPROVE WITH THIS YEAR’S CHANGES?

No.

This year, the wild card places are removed. The top five teams in each conference reach the playoffs, with teams four and five playing off against one another in a single match. The two leg conference semifinals then proceed as normal. But the conference finals are now played over two legs rather than one, and the higher seeded winner will host the MLS Cup final match.

The elimination of wild cards is a welcome change: last year offered the absurd possibility of Colorado winning their second Eastern Conference title and New York winning their second Western Conference title.

However, there was no reason to extend the conference finals to two legs. The stated reason was to give the higher seeded team a larger advantage by reducing the possibility of an upset, but adding an away match does not increase the higher seeded team’s advantage. The guaranteed home match for the conference final was a massive reward for the team that finished first in the conference. This appears to be an overreaction to the fact that two of the last four conference finals have ended in upsets [Dallas over Los Angeles in 2010, Houston over Kansas City last year].

Changing the venue of the MLS Cup final was also ill advised. Now we will not know where the final will be played until one to two weeks ahead, depending upon the timing of the conference finals. This change may improve home attendance, but it will severely cut down on the number of travelling supporters, both of the away team and of neutral supporters.

ST: WHO WILL WIN THE MLS CUP?

We don’t know.

Los Angeles are the likely favourites, but do not count out Houston, Columbus, or Seattle. Portland are also well placed to make a run this year.

BENCH QUESTIONS

GK: Will Houston’s new stadium be as awesome as they say it will be?

Yes. At a capacity of 22,000, it is about the right size for a football pitch. However, the American football team of Texas Southern University will also play there and carve up the middle of the pitch. So you should hope that Houston do not host the MLS Cup final.

DF: Will Jay Heaps and Jesse Marsch make successful transitions from playing to managing?

Marsch will, but Heaps will not. Marsch has a good squad, with experienced MLS players like Donovan Ricketts, Davy Arnaud, Shavar Thomas, and Justin Mapp. New England, however, is in the midst of a transition, with newcomers like Nguyen, Saër Sène, Fernando Cárdenas, and John Jairo Lozano. In his first year as a head coach, Heaps will have his hands full trying to fit all these new pieces together.

DF: Which previously minor rivalry will flare up this year?

Kansas City have never had any particular rivals, but last year’s loss to Houston in the Eastern Conference final will have stung deeply. Sporting had an atrocious start to last season but turned things around with the opening of Sporting Park. SKC supporters will no doubt feel that a place in the MLS Cup final was theirs for the taking. Add to that the fact that Houston supporters have been sanctioned by the league for their actions during the playoffs – including detonating smoke bombs at both Sporting Park and the Home Depot Center – and this could be the start of a beautiful antipathy.

MF: How will the league be affected by Euro 2012 and the Olympics?

Not much. Robbie Keane is the only MLS player likely to compete in Euro 2012. There could be a number of MLS players in the Olympics, but it will be a while before we know for sure.

MF: Is the league finally taking an interest in the supporters’ culture?

A little bit, yes. It is certainly paying attention, as the Houston sanction shows. There is a code of conduct to which the league holds supporters, but if it is really serious about helping fans become supporters, there also needs to be a code for club offices and stadiums. For instance, supporters in Seattle and Portland are allowed – indeed, encouraged – to make massive tifo displays, but until supporters in places like New England, Dallas, and DC can do likewise, the league’s words to supporters ring hollow.

M/F: Will the league’s 20th club be in Orlando or New York?

Orlando. The New York Cosmos, currently a ghost organisation that operates an under 23 squad and an academy, has had great difficulty finding a location for its stadium. Orlando City, with the Citrus Bowl already available, will instead join the league in 2013.

FW: Will the league ever go to a single table?

No earlier than 2030. Well before then, the league will expand beyond 20 teams and split into a First and Second Division. But each of these divisions will still be comprised of two conferences.

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