Thursday April 5th, 2007

Barry Taylor/
MLS' 1-2 punch
Beckham-mania has elevated MLS' profile. But the performance of D.C. United and Houston in the CONCACAF Champions Cup has done just as much to boost its status from an on-the-pitch standpoint. The defending MLS champion Dynamo can become the first MLS side to advance to the final of the CCC by holding off Pachuca on Thursday. Meanwhile, D.C. United, with newly signed Luciano Emilio (above), gave Mexican power Chivas of Guadalajara all it could handle in the semis before losing 3-2 on aggregate. Houston and D.C. certainly look like the class of MLS in April. They'll prove it in November when they meet for the title.
DP thoughts
The "Beckham Rule" didn't live up to its often unrealistic expectations, at least not in Year 1. After an offseason of rumors that went from intruiging to comical -- namely the Red Bulls' worldwide wild goose chase for a striker -- only three of the league's slots have been filled. The Fire (Cuauhtémoc Blanco) and Galaxy (Beckham) will have to wait until midseason for their signings to arrive. New York's Claudio Reyna will be the only DP suiting up on Opening Day. The club's second designated-player slot, which was acquired in an trade with Chivas USA for Amado Guevara, remains unused. But expect the DP chatter -- and the outrageous rumors -- to pick up when the European transfer window reopens this summer.
Season of reckoning
Hot seat, thy name is Eddie Johnson. Could Johnson's career hang in the balance at 23? Not just yet. A brutal MLS season in '06 -- two goals for a cool $875K -- has carried over to more frustrating play (and that's being awfully kind) on the national team. That's especially alarming for a striker who once seemed destined for Europe. Now that Josh Wolff has gone on to Germany, new Wizards coach Curt Onalfo is counting on E.J. to return to his 12-goal MLS form of '04, which now seems like ages ago. "Eddie Johnson playing well is like adding a new player because he didn't play well last year," says Onalfo. "In our mind, that's a real positive." It's now up to E.J. to step up.
Damaging loss for Toronto
Less than three days before its franchise debut, Toronto FC suffered a huge blow when it lost midfielder Ronnie O'Brien for up to six weeks with a slightly torn knee ligament. TFC coach Mo Johnston criticized O'Brien in the Globe and Mail for getting injured on a "silly play." Coincidentally, O'Brien was obtained in an offseason trade with FC Dallas for Adrian Serioux -- who also will be sidelined for the first half of the season with a knee injury. That deal sent Hoops head coach Steve Morrow into a bitter tirade, complaining that he received "damaged goods" with Serioux's pre-existing serious knee problem.
RankLW Team
D.C. United (2006: 15-7-10)
Emilio gives D.C. the powerful forward it's been missing.
Houston Dynamo (2006: 11-8-13)
Trying to become first to repeat as champs in a decade.
New England Revolution (2006: 12-8-12)
Andy Dorman will fill Clint Dempsey's attacking role nicely.
Los Angeles Galaxy (2006: 11-15-6)
Brutal schedule before the Beckham circus comes to town.
Colorado Rapids (2006: 11-13-8)
Just a hunch: Rapids will be MLS' biggest surprise in '07.
Chivas USA (2006: 10-9-13)
Goats will be tough ... if ex-MVP Guevara comes to play.
New York Red Bulls (2006: 9-11-12)
After endless DP rumors, Jozy Altidore must shine at 17.
Chicago Fire (2006: 13-8-11)
Can't wait to see Blanco on the road after his July arrival.
FC Dallas (2006: 16-12-4)
Unpredictable Hoops had stunning offseason makeover.
Kansas City Wizards (2006: 10-14-8)
Twelve of 14 '06 Ls were by one goal. Hartman will help.
Columbus Crew (2006: 8-15-9)
Expect this team to be better than most people believe.
Toronto FC (2007 expansion team)
Loss of O'Brien is a huge setback for the MLS new boys.
Real Salt Lake (2006: 10-13-9)
Here's your big chance, Freddy: No more Nowak excuses.
Three things I'm thinking as the season kicks off
1. -- MLS' new playoff rules will make the postseason race much more interesting. The fourth-place team in each conference is no longer guaranteed a playoff spot. And the gap between the middle and the bottom of the pack is not that large.
2. -- How will team cope with this season's midsummer tournaments? The Copa América, the Gold Cup and the Under-20 championships could leave more teams short-handed than the World Cup did last summer.
3. -- More quick-hit predictions: Surprise teams -- Colorado, Columbus; Disappointing teams -- FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake; Best newcomer -- Luciano Emilio, D.C. United; Coach of the Year -- Fernando Clavijo, Colorado; League MVP -- Dwayne De Rosario, Houston;

Shalrie Joseph
New England Revs

Ricardo Clark
Houston Dynamo

Jason Garey
Columbus Crew
More 2007 Players to Watch | Jonah Freedman's '07 Predictions
Saturday, April 7
DC United 2, Colorado 1 (ABC) -- Battle-tested United will spoil the debut of Dick's Park
Real Salt Lake 1, FC Dallas 0 -- RSL will match its April win total of the past two years
Columbus 1, New York 1 (HDNet) -- Crew won a meager four home games all last season
Chicago 2, New England 2 -- Always seems to be a high-scoring affair between these two
Chivas USA 3, Toronto 1 (FSC) -- Chivas will exploit Toronto's woefully thin backline
Sunday, April 8
Houston 1, Los Angeles 0 (TeleFutura) -- Defending champs open with home victory
Props to Toronto FC fans for gobbling up all 14,000 season tickets for 2007.

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