There's plenty to talk about in the MLS West, which was far better than the East in 2011, providing the league's four best teams during the regular season in Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake and Dallas. That won't happen again this season due to the league's switch to an unbalanced schedule in which teams will play the vast majority of their games in-conference. "The Western Conference is extremely competitive," says Chivas USA coach Robin Fraser, "and with the schedule being the way it is, you need to do well in the conference now."
Let's dive in:
One thing hasn't changed: reigning MLS Cup champion L.A. is still viewed as the team to beat, not least because the Galaxy was able to keep two players who many expected not to return (David Beckham and Juninho) while bringing back Edson Buddle from Germany. With an attacking force that includes Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, the Galaxy has a lot of ways to hurt you.
Losing Defender of the Year Omar González to a long-term knee injury will hurt what was the league's stingiest defense, though, and it's fair to wonder if all those 1-0 Galaxy wins from last season might turn into 2-1 or 3-1 affairs this time around. But coach Bruce Arena won't have any of that.
"Who cares?" Arena says when asked about producing more swashbuckling entertainment this year. "I think the whole commentary on that stuff is stupid. We're trying to win games, and we've won games. Soccer games do end up 1-0. I've seen Madrid and Barcelona and Man U win games 1-0, and we'll probably win some games 1-0 this year. I don't know any other way to explain it. We're trying to win."
With González out, Arena says first-round draft pick Tommy Meyer is "the most logical choice" as his replacement at center back, a choice that would be tested quickly in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals against Toronto. Potential questions on defense are the reason why opposing coaches aren't willing to crown the Galaxy just yet.
"Defensively, they're without Omar," says Seattle's Sigi Schmid, "and with Donovan Ricketts being gone [in a trade to Montreal], [Josh] Saunders has never had to play a full season as a starting goalkeeper. How's he going to do? It's tough to replicate winning as many 1-0 games as they won last year. For me it's a lot more open than maybe people think it is. But certainly the Galaxy has to be considered one of the favorites."
By adding Buddle to a team already loaded with talent and the maximum three Designated Players, L.A. made several observers wonder how the Galaxy was able to fit its roster under the $2.81 million salary budget cap. One helpful solution might be for the league to make public the amount of allocation money each team has to help pay down its salary budget. Currently the league refuses to do so, citing the negotiating disadvantage that would give teams when trying to sign players from outside MLS.
Salt Lake's Jason Kreis, for one, would prefer to see more transparency. "I'm in favor of making things more black and white," Kreis says. "It's a little puzzling even for me to figure out how the Galaxy is affording all these players. At some point I can only worry about so many things. But I've always been in favor of making all the rules more black and white and putting everybody on the same page."
It's good and bad news for Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman: he has two rising young U.S. talents in Brek Shea and George John, who are both on the radar of European clubs. John, a solid center back, is on loan with West Ham, where he hasn't figured on the field yet.
"By Feb. 28 or so, they're going to have to make a response on whether they're interested in purchasing him," says Hyndman. "One thing they said was he doesn't have any national team experience. Well, Jurgen Klinsmann called him into national team camp, so he would have had national team experience if he hadn't gone on trial with them. I think it's going to be 50-50. I don't have a solid pulse on how it's going for him, so it's difficult for us because we don't know if he's going to be back with us. We hope he's back because he's such a good player. At the same time, we want the best for him."
Hyndman had a slightly different tone when I asked him about the chances Shea will play the entire season in Dallas, especially if he turns heads during the Olympics this summer.
"We all love Brek Shea," Hyndman says, "and we take a personal pride in his development. He'll get more and more exposure internationally, but FC Dallas feels right now: Break Shea is important to the success of our team. He's important in our community. We'll continue to explore and listen to offers, but I have to believe there's too many positive things about Brek Shea, someone who the whole league recognizes can be a great role model for so many other American players. We've gotta find a way to keep our best American players in this league."
The MLS Disciplinary Committee will be tougher this year retroactively punishing what it views as over-aggressive tackles, even those that don't cause injuries or earn yellow or red cards from referees, MLS executive VP Nelson Rodríguez told The Washington Post last week.
When I asked Western coaches how they felt about it, six of the nine were unreservedly supportive about what they view as an important initiative to protect players and promote skillful play: Hyndman, Kreis, Schmid, Vancouver's Martin Rennie, Colorado's Óscar Pareja and San Jose's Frank Yallop. (The first three, it should be noted, had star players suffer long-term injuries due to violent tackles last season.)
"I think it's healthy for the league," says Pareja. "It's a way to protect the talent and protect the game." Adds Kreis: "I've been in favor of more disciplinary action and for them to continue to be more involved. We need to do everything we can to make the game more attractive for our fans."
The two clear dissenters were Portland's John Spencer and Chivas USA's Fraser. "It's a very dangerous precedent to set," says Spencer. "If the referee doesn't give a caution or red card at the time of the incident, then how can you go back and really look at it? If you're going to go in afterward and address tackles, then surely you've got to change yellow and red cards, so you're opening up a real can of worms."
"I'm curious as to who is going to determine if it's an over-aggressive tackle if there's no red or yellow card issued," says Fraser, a former MLS Defender of the Year as a player. "Hard tackles are a part of soccer. Having said that, the rules are the rules. I think the ambiguity lies in the interpretation. That will be a difficult thing to police ... and difficult to know exactly how far you can go, how hard you can tackle."
Leave it to Arena to stake a middle ground: that he supports protecting players ("No one would argue that at all," he says) but has questions about the disciplinary committee going overboard.
"I thought they were very inconsistent last year as a committee," Arena says. "Certainly they should be protecting players, but I think the committee has a long way to go in terms of really analyzing things properly and making the right decisions. It's difficult. But one thing you can be at fault for is being an expert on Monday. Everybody, fans and sportswriters, knows everything on Monday, and when you examine videotape and you put it into the speed they can put it in, you sometimes make the wrong decisions."
"You've got to be able to think it out in real speed. A lot of these tackles are off by a split second, so you have to be careful not to overdo it. Some of the tackles are over the top, but for the most part over the last couple years the players have been much better. I remember the early years of the league it was crazy, the Wild West. Now it's better. But we've gotta be careful these people don't take themselves too seriously and get crazy with their decision-making."
Seattle's decision to trade fan favorites Lamar Neagle and Mike Fucito to Montreal for the rights to Johnson (who was taken in the allocation draft) show how much pressure there is in the West to keep up with the champion Galaxy. Taking on Johnson is all about upside, but even Schmid admits there are no guarantees.
"It's a risk," Schmid says. "We always work hard on having a good locker room and a good feel among the guys, so they feel they're part of a family. So when you trade away two guys who are good guys like Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle, who fit in really well with the locker room and community, you feel like you're losing a bit of your family."
"By the same token, Eddie Johnson is an outstanding player who needs and wants another opportunity. I think the upside is very large. He's very motivated. The salary he signed for [a reported $100,000 this year] is evidence of that, and his talent level is very good based on everything in his past. So it's our job now as a coaching staff and a club to help Eddie get to that level, and his job is to work hard to fit into our team so we can pursue a championship."
Schmid did confirm to me that there was no way his team would have been able to bring Johnson on at the salary he would have gotten had he signed with the league last fall. (I was told it was for $415,000.) In a Moneyball league like MLS, Johnson at $100K is a big difference.
Three intriguing new faces in the West are South American midfielders: Ecuadorean Oswaldo Minda with Chivas USA, Colombian Jaime Castrillón with Colorado and Colombian Tressor Moreno with San Jose. South Americans -- and especially Colombians -- are the trend in MLS, and here are three more that are having good preseasons already.
Minda, 28, arrived with Chivas from defending Ecuadorean champs Deportivo Quito, and he could be the kind of player that has a big impact at both ends. "We definitely wanted to make improvements in the areas of experience and focus," says Fraser. "He's a very engaged player with great experience. He plays like a seasoned player. As a two-way midfielder he understands where danger is defensively and is quick to snuff stuff out. He's got a good engine, and he does well getting into the attack."
Castrillón, 28, joined Colorado from Independiente Medellín, where he was the highest-scoring midfielder in club history. "He was the first player I wanted to bring to Colorado to balance the roster," says Pareja, who plans to use Castrillón in the heart of a new 4-3-3 formation. "He can provide a lot of versatility and flexibility. He can work hard on both sides of the ball. He can score goals and be an attacking force."
Moreno, 33, is another Colombian, one of 28 now on MLS rosters. Yallop and his San Jose staff were approached by his agent, who sent them some video of Moreno, a playmaker with promise. "The coaches liked certain things in his game film and decided we wanted to see more," says Yallop. "We got him for a good five or six days and signed him. He was something we were looking for."
Arena can be a cranky guy at times, but he's hardly without optimism when it comes to MLS these days. In fact, he brought up the topic when I asked him about general trends he was seeing in the league.
"One question is: Where is this league really today? How far has it come? Where does it need to go?" Arena says. "I had a statement mentioned to me the other day. It's not 100 percent accurate by any means, but it was an interesting statement. An agent from Europe called me and said Europe is in desperate times right now financially. He goes, 'America has more money now than Europe.' That's not true, but the general consensus is that they have to change the way they do business in Europe, and MLS now is starting to get into the game, which is very encouraging."
"The business side of the product has been moved along to where we've been able to survive, and now perhaps our better days are ahead. And everyone around the world recognizes that. I thought that was pretty interesting. Of course there's more money in Europe. But the point is we're becoming players in the game to a certain degree now where we've never been, and a lot of people want to come here. That's interesting to me. The league's much more respected today than it was years ago."
What else did I learn from my conversations this week? Here are some team-by-team nuggets:
Speaking of talented Colombians, Juan Pablo Ángel returns for another season at age 36, and Fraser feels good about what he can offer. "You look at Juan, and even last year there were questions about whether he could produce, and he ended up scoring 10 goals," says Fraser. "He's incredibly crafty in how he moves around the box, and his finishing is clinical. I think he'll have another year where he contributes and helps us."
The Colombian-born Pareja says he's looking to add more players, and there may be another Colombian to join the Rapids along with Castrillón. "We're looking for another one," the coach hints ... While the new coach may be changing Colorado's style, he thinks stalwart midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz are still good fits. "To be honest with you, what I have seen over the years with Pablo and Jeff hasn't changed much. They're players who are very smart and intense and work hard on the ball and without it. It's working very well [with them]."
David Ferreira was the league MVP two seasons ago, but a broken ankle has taken much longer than expected for him to recover from. FCD's hopes may well rest on whether he can come back at full speed. "It was a really nasty injury," says Hyndman. "We were hoping he'd be back at the end of the season for the playoffs, and here we are now after 11 months and he's just starting to train fully with the team. He's looking good, but there's still a lot to be done to get him back to where he was. His teammates are taking special care not to hurt him, but opposing teams won't care so much. The biggest thing with David right now is getting complete confidence. Is he mentally ready?" ... Hyndman says Panamanian national team forward Blas Pérez is "settling in well" though not yet completely fit ... The roster is not completely filled yet, the coach says. Expect more moves.
When asked if he was confident two months ago that he'd have Beckham, Juninho and Buddle on his '12 roster, Arena had this to say: "I thought all along we had a good chance of David remaining here. With Juninho, we were in discussions for many months with his representatives and knew that was going to be a difficult situation, and it turned out to be that way. We're fortunate that he's able to come back now for another year. Edson, I'd stayed in touch with his representatives all along. If there was going to be a possibility of him coming back, we certainly wanted to be a player in that." ... Keep in mind, L.A. had retained the MLS rights to Buddle, and Arena's agent (Richard Motzkin) is also Buddle's, so communication was no issue ... Champions League is a major priority for L.A.: "We put a lot into it last year just to get where we are today," Arena says. "We're going to give it our best shot."
When I asked Spencer how many potential new starters he has, he said two or three, mentioning forward Kris Boyd ("a natural-born finisher") and midfielders Franck Songo'o and Eric Alexander ... Spencer isn't shy about talking up second-year midfielder Darlington Nagbe: "Darlington definitely has the ability and the technique to be up there with some of the most effective players in the league. I'm expecting him to have a breakout season and let everyone know who he is. We're expecting big things." ... Spencer wouldn't take the bait and pull a Denny Green on the Galaxy ("Crown their a--!"), but he did say this: "Being part of the Houston Dynamo for many years, it's really difficult to win a championship, and even more difficult to go back-to-back."
Kreis says Nat Borchers and Álvaro Saborío won't be 100 percent after offseason surgeries until at least a couple weeks into the season ... Javier Morales has only recently started training again after suffering a muscle injury early in preseason ... When asked about leaguewide changes he'd like to see, Kreis said: "We see a lot of very good young players, and as a country we get chided a lot because a lot of these good young players end up in other countries, in particular Mexico right now. The league's not giving us much weaponry to keep those kids here ... Down in Mexico they sign every good young prospect. Because we're still so hamstrung by salary cap and roster rules, even when it deals with young players, potentially we're losing some of them ... Just brainstorming, what if we all had an under-23 team? That's the way it is in other countries. So if I had a full roster of 10 more spots to put together an under-23 team, now you've potentially got two teams. One is your reserve/U23 team and the other is the first team. So now I'm able to sign all the kids in Arizona that I like, who want to play professionally. With 90 percent of them you're going to be wrong and they won't turn into something, but it's that 10 percent that we could be missing that would be interesting to think about. Are we able to do the right things in this league the way it's set up?"
Yallop's team may have had the second-best offseason after L.A., picking up Moreno, Marvin Chávez (from Dallas) and fellow Honduran Víctor Bernardez, as well as getting Simon Dawkins on loan again from Spurs and signing Chris Wondolowski to a new contract, among other things ... How did it happen? "First you have to clear money out," says Yallop. "You can't do anything in this league without clearing your cap. A big part of our offseason was moving on Bobby Convey, André Luiz and Scott Sealy, just to name three guys, all adding up to around $1 million. With a $2.8 million cap that's a lot of money. That freed us up to move for other players and be able to add quality where we wanted to. The allocation money we got from the league [for missing the playoffs] helps too." ... Ask Yallop which familiar face he's hoping to step up the most this year, and the first player he mentions is forward Steven Lenhart. "I'm expecting him to have a good year," Yallop says. "If Lenhart has a good year we could be good, because Wondo is going to get goals."
Schmid says he's expecting three new starters: Michael Gspurning in goal, Swedish international Adam Johansson at right back and Johnson up top once he's fit ... Another new Sounder who could play a big role is Christian Sivebaek, who Schmid says has shown promise at left midfield and even did well up front ... Schmid says one reason Seattle went after Johnson was the connections he has on the team: technical director Chris Henderson was an assistant coach of Johnson in Kansas City; Seattle assistant Ezra Hendrickson played with EJ in Dallas; and even fitness coach Dave Tenney worked with him in Dallas as well ... Asked if had any surprises from preseason, Schmid says: "We have more offensive options than I would have thought." Mauro Rosales is healthy and has a new contract, while Steve Zakuani is expected to return at some point not too far into the season.
New coach Martin Rennie has a wealth of options on the attacking end, with Sébastien Le Toux, Eric Hassli, Camilo, Davide Chiumiento, Darren Mattocks, Omar Salgado, Atiba Harris, Long Tan and Lee Nguyen, among others in a crowded field. "It isn't possible to get them all on the field at the same time," Rennie says, "but I don't necessarily see Sébastien as a wide player. I think he can play wide, but he can also play through the middle. What you're going to need over the course of the season is a few different guys who can pop up with goals. We've got that firepower and competition for places, which is good, and a number of our attacking players can play in different positions." ... Rennie adds that trades are still a possibility before the season starts ... Rennie has made the jump to MLS after coaching the Carolina Railhawks of the NASL, but he points out that more players are making that jump successfully too these days. "For a long time that wasn't really happening, but the last two seasons there have been so many guys coming into the league from teams in the NASL and USL," he says. "It's a big step forward for professional soccer in the U.S. and North America, something that needs to be fostered."
Check back in here in a couple weeks, and we'll do the same thing with the MLS Eastern Conference.
Last week one of this column's longtime soccer friends passed away in Baltimore. Craig Willinger was an active member of the Baltimore soccer community and a Bayern Munich fan who was diagnosed several years ago with leukemia. He was also the namesake of the Craig Willinger Fund, a group that started in 2008 when Baltimore soccer fans helped raise money so that Craig could make a dream trip to Germany to watch Bayern play in person.
The nonprofit organization, with Craig chairing its board of directors, has since raised money to send other cancer-stricken soccer fans and chaperones to major events. Former University of Richmond goalkeeper Katy Hudson, a cancer survivor, attended the 2010 World Cup and got to spend time with members of the U.S. national team in South Africa. Later that year, Jordyn Farrell, an Atlanta-area Barcelona fan who had suffered from ovarian cancer, was able to attend a game at the Camp Nou and meet several players afterward, including Lionel Messi. (I wrote a column about it afterward).
And last May, Zach Wiley, a lymphoma survivor from Catonsville, Md., traveled to Italy to see AC Milan host Bologna.
Craig Willinger was always thankful for the generosity that allowed him to attend a game abroad, and he worked hard so that others could enjoy the same experience he'd had. He was also a fun guy to talk fútbol with over beers at Slainte, one of Baltimore's top soccer bars. His recent months had been a lot harder, though, due to complications from a bone-marrow transplant, and Craig was forced to return to the hospital. He passed away on Feb. 15. My condolences to his family and many friends and loved ones, who plan to keep the Craig Willinger Foundation going in Craig's memory.