Soccer Features: Major League Soccer: An Introduction
Published: 06 Oct 08, ByMajor League Soccer: An Introduction
I'll be looking to provide match previews and betting tips on what's left of this MLS season 2008, and thought before I do so, that I should first introduce the league and write some brief profiles of the 14 MLS teams.
The MLS is split into two conferences; Eastern and Western, which each consist of 7 teams. The season runs from March 29th until October 26th and each team plays 30 games. Like in most American sports there is no promotion or relegation.
The top 3 teams in each conference at the end of the regular season earn automatic qualification to the play-offs for the MLS Cup (the league’s championship). The two teams who finish outside the top 3 with the highest amount of points qualify via wildcards regardless of conference, receiving ‘wildcard berths’. If more than four teams qualify from one conference, the team finishing lower than fourth in its conference will shift over to the other conference bracket.
The regular season ends on the 26th of October, and the MLS play-offs run from early November to culmination at in the Grand Final between Eastern Conference Champions and Western Conference Champions on Sunday November 23rd at the Home Depot Centre.
The league in general
The MLS is structured in a similar way to most mainstream US sport leagues (such as NFL), both in terms of geography (East and West) and transfer structure --- The MLS has various pre-season drafts, the main one of these being the selection of the best young prospects, and can only acquire players from other MLS teams through trading (either players or draft-picks). This system is aimed to ensure that the league is as competitive as possible, with no one team being significantly better to the rest.
The MLS was formed in 1996 and has seen 6 different winners of the MLS Cup; DC United (4), Chicago (1), Kansas City (1), San Jose Earthquakes (2), LA Galaxy (2), Houston Dynamo (2).
Houston Dynamo have won the last two MLS Cups and are generally considered the strongest team in the MLS at present. The New England Revolution have made the last 3 MLS Cup finals, but agonisingly missed out each time.
The Playoff race 2008
This season has been the most completive in MLS history, with just 3 games to go for most, 4 of the playoff places are completely up for grabs, and the regular season looks like reaching a nail biting finale.
With so many of the teams still in the play-off hunt, I’ve decided to write brief profiles of the 14 MLS teams, which will hopefully help provide a good introduction into the league.
The current MLS league table can be found at here:
* all teams in conference played 26 games
1. Columbus Crew: 1st Conference, 53 Points, 1st overall.
The surprise leaders of 2008 have been at, or near to, the top of the overall standings for the entire season, and have only got stronger as the regular season comes to its conclusion.
Defensively: Ranked 3rd overall; outstanding goalkeeper in Hesmer, colossal central defender in Marshall, attacking threat from left back with raiding runs of team captain Hedjuk and overall a very solid unit. Defensive midfielders O’Rourke and Carroll shield defence and allow offensive players to flourish.
Offensively: Ranked 2nd overall; built around the mercurial abilities of playmaker Schelloto (6 goals, 18 assists) coach Schmid has surrounded him with pace; the likes of Gaven and Rogers out wide, plus capable traditional forwards Moreno and Evans. No prolific goal scorer, but the most fluid offence in MLS.
Key Man: Guillermo Barros Schelotto - the team is completely built around their playmaker Schelotto, who orchestrates the offence with his world class passing ability and provides outstanding set-piece delivery. The most influential player in MLS and his 18 assists speak for themselves.
2. New England: 2nd in Conference, 43 Points - Joint 2nd overall.
For much of the season had looked to be the best team in MLS, but their recent schedule has caught up with them and their form has dipped massively as the regular season reaches its climax.
Defensively: Ranked joint 8h overall; outstanding goalkeeper in Reis, and in Parkurst have the most intelligent CB in the MLS. Have switched between their traditional 3 at the back and a flat back 4, but following a poor run seem to have decided upon the 3 at the back system that has served them so well in the past. Deep sitting defensive midfielders Larentowicz and the outstanding Shalrie Joseph are vital.
Offensively: Ranked 7th overall; blighted by injuries for much of the year coach Steve Nichol has been unable to field a settled line-up, with playmaker Ralston and the predatory Twellman both out for lengthy spells. Whilst the majority of their attacking talent is now available they simply haven’t looked as sharp as previous years. They have the class, but look in desperate need of a break and some much needed rest combined with training-field time.
Key Man: Shalrie Joseph - the leagues outstanding defensive midfielder and one player who could certainly make the transition to a top European League. He reads the game fantastically, breaks up play, and is the transition man from defence to attack. Has recently found a knack of scoring some crucial headed goals.
3. Chicago: 3rd in Conference, 42 Points - 4th overall.
A very solid and hardworking team who have the brilliance of Blanco to call on in attack.
Defensively: Ranked 1st overall; very solid and possessing of some of the league’s outstanding defenders in Conde and Segares. Their brilliant defensive record (just 25 conceded) is reflective of their hard work throughout and good organisation combined with a sometimes negative approach.
Offensively: Ranked joint 10th overall; somewhat reliant on Blanco to provide some inspiration from his traditional number 10 position (5 goals, 8 assists), although he is capably assisted by the likes of wide midfielder Justin Map (2 goals, 7 assists) and pacey forward Rolfe (6 goals, 5 assists). The arrival of US legend Brian McBride should prove huge as we approach the playoffs, and although the team and McBride have to get used to the way each other play, he should provide a huge boost offensively.
Key Man: Cuauhtemoc Blanco - the talented number 10 is relied upon to provide creativity and general attacking inspiration. Whilst he is not as influential as his compatriot Schelotto at Columbus, he is still a class act in this league and at his best is unplayable.
4. New York: 4th in Conference, 35 Points - joint 6th overall.
A generally well organised and hardworking team, supplemented by some decent creative midfielders, pace out wide and the best striker in MLS - Juan Pablo Angel - up front.
Defensively: Ranked 12th overall; strangely generally solid, but prone to aberration - conceded 4 or more goals 4 times this season. Difficult to explain exactly why this is the case, but perhaps suggests that the team aren’t totally comfortable with the defensive set-up.
Offensively: Ranked 9th overall; hugely reliant on the goals of Angel, and as such the team is geared to just provide good service in the box and let him do the rest. The likes of Van Den Bergh and Richards are dangerous and provide threat from out wide, whilst the rest of the midfield are capable ball players and work hard for the team. Coach Osorio has spent much of the season looking for a second striker to supplement Angel, and hopes the recent introduction of lanky striker Kandji will solve his problems
Key Man: Juan Pablo Angel - he’s the reason why New York finds itself in the play-off race and is a class apart in this very mediocre team. 11 goals in 18 starts speaks volumes, added to this is the huge amount of attention he gets from opposing defenders freeing up space for his team.
5. D.C United: 6th in Conference, 33 Points - joint 10th overall.
A team possessing of much attacking talent and flair but lacking massively in a defensive sense, at least their games are fun to watch. A hectic schedule of late seems to have destroyed the team completely, they have extensive injury problems, and those who are taking the field look tired. With just 2 wins and a staggering 10 defeats on the road they look like recording their worst ever set of away results.
Defensively: Ranked 13th overall; conceding 41 goals in 26 games, DC are an absolute shambles defensively, from a nervous goalkeeper to severely limited defenders who are left unprotected by the rest of the team and seemingly let down by managerial tactics. The only rival to LA for worst defence in the league.
Offensively: Ranked 3rd overall; with the likes of Moreno, Emillio, Gallardo and Fred the team looked potentially awesome going forward, and the amount of goals they’ve scored characterises their attacking play. Moreno is still a class act, even at this veteran stage of his career, with his 10 goals and 9 assists illustrating his role as the main man in DC’s attack. Emillio is a natural goalscorer and rates as one of the best out and out strikers in the league (11 goals). However, injuries have deprived DC of the number 10 Gallardo and pacey Brazilian wide-forward Fred for much of the season.
Key Man: Jamie Moreno - with career figures of 122 goals and 98 assists in 293 MLS games, this league legend is still amongst the best players in the league, even if he has lost a bit of the pace of youth. His movement, passing, and finishing is still a level above the majority of other strikers in the league.
6. Kansas City: 5th in Conference, 33 Points - joint 10th overall.
A team searching for direction; hard working and technically capable, but missing an offensive spark.
Defensively: Ranked joint 6th overall; marshalled by influential captain Jimmy Conrad, KC’s defence are fairly well organised and are generally solid.
Offensively: Ranked 12th overall; it was hoped that the acquisition of former Argentine international Claudio Lopez would provide the spark to ignite Kansas City’s attacking play and to get over the loss of Eddie Johnson to Fulham, however it just hasn’t gone to plan. To put it bluntly, Lopez is past it, he is a player who relies on his pace and is at an age where that speed has pretty much gone, rendering him a very average footballer indeed. The rest of the attack is distinctly average and lacks any real quality, although the recent addition of US international striker Josh Wolff has improved the team.
Key Man: Jimmy Conrad - the captain and central defender is an inspirational leader, but from centre-back there is little he can do to spark the team going forward in general play. The fact that Conrad leads the team in goals scored with 6, all from set-pieces, tells you all you need to know.
7. Toronto FC: 7th in Conference, 31 points - 14th (last) overall.
A hard-working but severely limited team, their position at the bottom of the conference and MLS overall, is an accurate reflection of their talents.
Defensively: Ranked joint 8th overall; solid at home (just 10 goals conceded in 14 games), atrocious away (26 goals conceded in 12 games), is emblematic of their current situation as a good home team but a terrible away one. Capable at their tightly packed home stadium, where the intimidating atmosphere combined with the artificial turf makes it difficult to play good football, they are often made to look amateurish on the road where they manage to conceded to goals a game on average, despite putting 10 men behind the ball.
Offensively: Ranked 13th overall; highly negative style of play and limited options in an attacking sense has lead to Toronto being the lowest goal scorers in the league. One could argue that any team that has Danny Dichio at the head of their attack is in dire straights, and their average of just 1 goal scored per game is a pretty shocking in what is generally a fairly open and attacking league. It is hoped that the recent acquisition of goal poacher Carlos Ruiz can change things around.
Key Man: Armando Guevara - the temperamental yet talented Honduran playmaker looked to be taking Toronto in the right direction earlier this season, but a few suspensions, injuries and a general loss of form has left Toronto more toothless than usual of late. If he regains some of that form then he is a player capable of winning a game on his own and inspiring the rest of his team-mates to a greater level of play.
* all teams played 26 games bar two - Houston (25), FC Dallas (27).
1. Houston Dynamo: 1st Conference, 43 Points, joint 2nd overall.
MLS Cup champions for the last two years, and a team packed full of experience, Houston know what it takes to win the MLS, and with a balanced team and attacking problems solved they look in prime position to do so again. Their quality is underpinned by the fact that they are perhaps the hardest working team in the league. Houston also have the greatest strength in depth in the MLS.
Defensively: Ranked 2nd overall; quality goalkeeper in Onstad and a back four of steady and experienced campaigners who defend very physically and look to bully opposition strikers. This steady base is supplemented by the hard work of midfielders such as Ricardo Clark in defensive midfield and the tireless Brian Mullan on the right wing.
Offensively: Ranked joint 5th overall; manage to strike a very good balance between defensive and attack, the relative lack of goals scored is as a result of the teams early season form and their lack of a partner for Brian Ching until early September, which saw the acquisition of Kei Kamara and Nate Jacqua - who, returning to his former club, has made a particularly impressive impact. The physicality of the two strikers Ching and Jacqua, combined with the goal scoring and creative abilities of Davis, Mullan, and their talisman De Rosario, make Houston a very difficult team to defend against.
Key Man: Dwayne De Rosario; Houston are near unplayable when “D-Ro” is on song, and whilst he’s had a few quiet seasons he always seems to up his level in the big matches (three career MLS Cup winning goals) and is capable of producing that bit of magic that others simply can’t.
2. Chivas USA: 2nd Conference, 39 Points, 5th overall.
A team that play neat, possession football and who have done remarkably well considering a torrid time with injuries.
Defensively: Ranked 10th overall, decent centre back partnership of Thomas and veteran Claudio Suarez now back together after being disrupted by injury. Hard work of team disguises most defensive frailties, however are prone to leaving themselves hugely open defensively when chasing the game and as a result a close defeat can become a rout in the closing minutes.
Offensively: Ranked 8th overall, have made the best of what they’ve had available to them, with as many as 9 likely first team players out at the same time, Chivas have struggled for offensive quality for much of the season. Now with their two best creative players, Kljestan and Razov, available to play, they should have carry a much greater goal scoring threat. Supplemented by workmanlike players who are high on confidence they look to be a decent team at present.
Key Man: Ante Razov; a league legend and in the top 3 all-time goal scorers in MLS history, Razov is not just key for his goal contribution, but for his general link-play which he has developed hugely in the last few years. When Chivas have a fit Razov on the pitch, as well as the likes of Kljestan, they are capable of dazzling attacking play.
3. FC Dallas: 3rd Conference, 34 Points, joint 7th overall.
Dallas are a hugely unpredictable team, and something of a conundrum from a betting perspective. They have lots of technically good players and on their day are a very good possession team who carry a lot of bite up front in the form of Kenny Cooper (16 goals this season) and the recent signing Jeff Cunningham (who has over 100 career goals).
Defensively: Ranked 5th overall; generally very capable defensively without having any stand-out players, although Mexican international Davino should provide a boost, the midfield shield provided by the likes of Richetti and Saragossa is perhaps more notable for their defensive successes.
Offensively: Ranked 4th overall; lots of technical ability and talent in midfield, combined with physicality and predatory instincts up front, Dallas are a team that carry a lot of attacking threat and who provide a lot of ammunition for their strikers. However at times the midfield can be bullied and the build up can be lethargic, a reliance on Kenny Cooper for goals has been somewhat eased by a Cunningham’s arrival.
Key Man: Kenny Cooper; scorer of 17 goals this season Cooper has perhaps been the league’s most consistent striker and combines a good touch, decent pace, and immense strength to be a nightmare for any MLS defender. The league’s most well-rounded striker and a future US international, as mentioned Dallas would be down and out without his goal contribution.
4. Colorado: 4th in Conference, 34 Points, joint 7th overall.
A physical, technically capable team, who are capable of beating anyone on their day, but again are fairly inconsistent and poor away from home.
Defensively: Ranked 11th overall, generally fairly miserly at home (conceded 13) but hold the league’s worst defensive record away (conceding an incredible 27 goals). This stat pretty much sums up this team, very capable at their high altitude home ground but often very lax away. No stand out defenders as such, but defensive midfielder and captain Mastroeni is still a class act even in the veteran stages of his career.
Offensively: Ranked joint 5th overall, have quality on the flanks with Clark and Cooke, and now have a genuine goal scoring threat and physical presence with the return of Connor Casey from injury. However a lack of creativity in central midfield results in the team being fairly one-dimensional at times. The signing of traditional number 10 Christian Gomez from DC United at the start of the season was hoped to remedy this, but the Argentine has been a massive disappointment, and is currently confined to the subs bench.
Key Man: Connor Casey; the return from injury of this burly target man has lifted a Colorado team who were in a complete slump. His no-frills style and physical presence up-front is a nightmare to defend against and his work rate and on-field leadership seems to inspire his team-mates.
5. Real Salt Lake: 5th in Conference, 35 Points, joint 6th overall.
One of the leagues best teams to watch when on song, but far too reliant on their fantastic home record to be considered serious contenders just yet. A recent move to a new Stadium with a grass pitch, as opposed to their previous artificial turf, could lessen the edge that seem to have in front of their own fans.
Defensively: Ranked joint 6th overall; 8 goals conceded at home (the leagues lowest total) compared to 28 goals away from home tells you all you need to know. The artificial turf of their previous stadium, combined with high altitude, made it extremely hard for away teams to adapt their football to conditions, and very few managed to do this successfully. This, combined with seemingly greater concentration and work rate in Salt Lake goes some way to explain the disparity in defensive records. Furthermore, whilst technically gifted, their midfield is perhaps a little bit lightweight and they lack a disciplined defensive midfielder.
Offensively: Ranked joint 10th overall; capable of fluid interchange, quick one-two’s and scoring stunning goals, with some of the leagues most technically gifted midfielders in Beckerman and playmaker Morales, however are in need of a genuine goal scorer. Whilst they have a few capable strikers in the speedy Findlay and abrasive Movsisyan, but their chance to goal ratio is pretty shocking.
Key man: Javier Morales; Salt Lake’s gifted Argentine playmaker is a joy to watch on his day, with a great first touch, an ability to find space and an eye for a pass, and he’s the key link between defence and attack. However (as touched on previously) he’s a bit of a lightweight and can be bullied away from home.
6. San Jose Earthquakes: 6th in Conference, 30 Points, 12th overall.
The MLS’ expansion team (formed this year) San Jose, under the guidance of coach Frank Yallop, have had a remarkable season, and after a poor start find themselves in with a chance of making the play-offs with a run that ranks them 2nd in the latter half of the season’s points totals.
Defensively: Ranked 4th overall, Yallop has smartly built his team around a solid and experienced defence, with the Cannon in goal, and Garcia and Cochraine at centre-back; protected by unsung hero Ramiro Corrales who does a disciplined job in defensive midfield. This solidity at the back, supplemented by the recent acquisition of new attacking talent has been the key to San Jose’s success.
Offensively: Ranked 14th overall; the Earthquakes were utterly hopeless in attack during the first few months of the season, and no-end of hard work could disguise their lack of any real class or quality in the final third. However, through shrewd transfer dealings Yallop has managed to turn this around; signing the likes of Lima (former Roma), Alvarez (US under 23’s) and Darren Huckerby (former Norwich) has brought the team forward massively and they now pose a genuine attacking threat. This extra bit of quality, combined with the hard-work, commitment, and physical play that had already become team trademarks, has lead to San Jose becoming a very capable outfit.
Key Man: Darren Huckerby; the veteran Englishman has been an absolute revelation since joining the Earthquakes back in August, with his good movement and willingness to run at defenders making a huge impact on the league. Is already considered a shoe-in for ‘best new player’ despite having only joined the league half-way through the season.
7. Los Angeles Galaxy: 7th in Conference, 29 Points, 13th overall.
Wow, where do we start….? To put it bluntly LA are a complete mess, with a combination of internationals, formerly world class players, talent less journeymen and enthusiastic youngsters, and playing a Harlem globetrotter brand of football, it was never going to go well.
Defensively: Ranked 14th overall; undoubtedly the worst defensive team I’ve ever witnessed in professional football. Completely clueless tactically and left hopelessly exposed by a midfield who are more interested in getting in the limelight than tracking back. Only one defensive player has come out of this season with any credit; relative youngster Sean Franklin, who although tactically naïve at times has enough going for him to suggest that he has the ability to become a half-decent defender. The blame for LA’s defensive frailties should not be fully attributed to the playing staff, but to the Coaches (Ruud Gullet for most of the season) whose cavalier tactics have left a group of very average players hopelessly exposed.
Offensively: Ranked 1st overall; with Beckham and Donovan, supplemented by the likes of Buddle and the recently acquired Eddie Lewis, LA are understandably extremely free-scoring, with Donovan a complete class above anything else in this league, mainly due to his outstanding movement off the ball combined with a better finishing touch than usual. Strike partner Buddle has also bagged a fair few goals this season, but is a streaky player and can be woeful in front of goal when not fully confident.
Key Man: Landon Donovan; regarded as the USA’s greatest ever player, and rightfully so, Donovan has enjoyed a good season personally, scoring some scintillating goals and generally performing at a level or two above any other attacker in the league. His fantastic form has renewed talk of a move back to Europe (where he failed miserably in the past in two spells with Bayern Leverkusen) and I have no doubt that he has the ability to play at the highest level, whether he want’s to or not is a different matter.