Major League Soccer's 18th season starts Saturday, and this year I decided to have some fun with my season preview piece. Little did I know that I would learn more about the league -- the good and the bad -- in a few days than I had in a long time.
The premise was simple. In private interviews with 18 players from around the league, I gave them anonymity (in return for their honesty) and asked them 25 rapid-fire questions about the league. Who's the most underrated player in MLS? Which stadium has the best atmosphere? Which has the worst? Who's the dirtiest player in the league? Which MLS player would you pick if you were starting a team from scratch? Those sorts of things.
The more players I talked to, the more a critical mass started to develop. I'll address half of the questions in Part I of the survey today and the other half tomorrow. Before we dive in, a bit about the ground rules: Players were not allowed to vote for their own team or anyone from it, and I'm only including choices that received more than one vote (the better to prevent someone with an outlier axe to grind from publicizing it).
Ready? Let's go:
If you were starting a team from scratch and could pick one MLS player to start with, who would it be?
1. Thierry Henry, New York (six votes) 2. Osvaldo Alonso, Seattle; Kyle Beckerman, Salt Lake; Landon Donovan, Los Angeles; Robbie Keane, Los Angeles (two votes)
My Take: The 35-year-old Henry still has it, according to his colleagues -- and by a wider margin than I expected. Donovan might have won more votes had he not been on his self-imposed sabbatical. And I found it fascinating that Alonso and Beckerman, two respected defensive midfielders, would get as many votes as offensive stars Donovan and Keane.
If you could play for one coach in MLS other than your current one, who would it be?
1. Bruce Arena, Los Angeles (six votes) 2. Dominic Kinnear, Houston; Ben Olsen, D.C. United (four votes) 4. Frank Yallop, San Jose (two votes)
My Take: Not a surprise that Arena would receive the most votes, considering his Galaxy won the last two MLS Cups. But it was unexpected that Olsen would tie for the second-most votes despite being a third-year coach who has yet to reach a final. No Sigi Schmid here, either. (Bonus trivia: Olsen once lived in Arena's basement as a rookie at D.C. United.)
If there was one coach you would not want to play for, who would it be?
1. Schellas Hyndman, Dallas; José Luis Sánchez Solá, Chivas USA (three votes) 3. Robert Warzycha, Columbus (two votes)
My Take: Sort of makes sense. Hyndman has cut ties with a few players over the years, and El Chelís has gotten as much attention for the players he doesn't want as the ones he does.
If you could play for one MLS team other than yours, what would it be?
1. New York (five votes) 2. Los Angeles, Portland (three votes) 4. Salt Lake (two votes)
My Take: For all of New York's MLS failures over the years -- i.e., zero trophies in the history of the league -- players still love the Big Apple. Some players I spoke with sense real possibilities in what Red Bull is trying to achieve. But I was surprised not to see Seattle here.
If there was one MLS team you would not want to play for, what would it be?
1. Columbus (five votes) 2. Chivas USA, Toronto (three votes) 4. Dallas (two votes)
My Take: There are a number of reasons not to want to play for a team, whether it's the perceived lifestyle of a particular city or the buzz around the team itself. I suspect Chivas USA and Toronto would have been higher if they didn't happen to also be located in desirable places to live. I certainly didn't expect Columbus to be at the top of this category.
Who is the most underrated player in MLS?
1. Mike Magee, Los Angeles; Dax McCarty, New York (three votes) 3. Chris Wondolowski, San Jose (two votes)
My Take: All three are Americans, and have been steady producers in MLS for years. For all of Magee's playoff successes, his colleagues still think he doesn't get enough credit, and McCarty has become one of the league's most consistent players. It also says something that Wondolowski is still considered underrated despite being the reigning league MVP and scoring champion.
Who is the most overrated player in MLS?
(No critical mass.)
My Take: Not one player received more than a single vote, so we're left with an empty set here. Several players said they would have chosen Rafa Márquez had he still been involved with the league.
If you could ban artificial turf fields in MLS would you?
Yes (15 votes) No (three votes)
My Take: Most players didn't need any time to think about this one. "Hell yeah," was one representative response.
Which team has the best MLS stadium atmosphere?
1. Seattle (nine votes) 2. Portland (eight votes)
My Take: No surprise at all. The only question was going to be which Pacific Northwest team edged out the other. Seattle has bigger numbers (more than 43,000 fans per game), while Portland may have an even harder core.
Which team has the worst MLS stadium atmosphere?
1. Dallas (six votes) 2. New England (four votes) 3. Chivas USA, Columbus, D.C. United (two votes)
My Take: Four of the five teams here are MLS originals dating back to 1996. D.C. United's appearance is a surprise, as is Chivas USA not being higher, while Dallas has clearly not taken advantage of having its own soccer stadium for the team. New England has also gone stagnant from an atmosphere perspective, which is a shame. The Revolution crowd seemed more festive back in the earlier days of the league.
Come back for Part II tomorrow, featuring questions about MLS Disciplinary Committee retro-suspensions, gambling/match-fixing and the issues most important to players that need to be addressed by the league.