Thursday, March 19, 2009

The next five:

10. Colorado Rapids:
Fernando Clavijo's long, boring reign of reliable mediocrity is finally over. You always knew the Rapids would find a way into the playoffs under Clavijo -- and you always knew they wouldn't last very long. Luckily for new coach Gary Smith, Clavijo didn't leave the cupboard completely bare. Conor Casey has the potential to be an absolute beast in this league if he can stay healthy. Despite missing the first third of the season to injury last year, he found the net 11 times (and he's still only 27 years old). Matt Pickens should be a significant improvement at 'keeper, while having Cory Gibbs for an entire season at central defense should add composure in the back. Young-ish midfielders Colin Clark and Nick LaBrocca seem to get better with each season. This looks like a reasonably strong squad, but if Casey breaks down again (a distinct possibility given his track record) where will the goals come from?

9. Seattle Sounders: Sigi Schmid's expansion side should be in the mix for a playoff spot. Colombian youngster Fredy Montero turned heads by scoring nine goals in the pre-season. We'll see how he fares after a couple months of getting beat on by the likes of Shavar Thomas and Craig Waibel. The midfield is expected to revolve around Freddie Ljungberg, but given his recent spate of injury woes and poor play he looks like an extremely expensive gamble. Kasey Keller still has the chops to be the best goalkeeper in the league, but he might lose what little hair he has left trying to clean up the messes left by what looks to be a very shaky defense. The key to whether Seattle is battling for a playoff spot or propping up the bottom of the table will be Colombian defender Jhon Hurtado. If he can keep the backline from going to shambles in front of Keller, the Sounders should prove a formidable foe.

8. San Jose Earthquakes: Frank Yallop's squad put together a dull, respectable inaugural campaign, even making a late charge at a playoff berth. The defense, anchored by Joe Cannon, was solid from day one. The attack, however, was utterly anemic. Darren Huckerby's mid-season arrival provided some much needed juice to the roster. Now with Bobby Convey arriving to take over the central playmaker role, San Jose should have one of the best midfields in the league. If they can find a reliable goal scorer in either Pablo Campos, Ryan Johnson or Cam Weaver, the Earthquakes should make the playoffs in the weak western conference.

7. Houston Dynamo: They inexplicably gave up Dwayne De Rosario, arguably the best player in MLS over the last six seasons, for an unproven defender. They lost their thuggish, but effective central defender Eddie Robinson to a season-ending injury. They got humiliated by Atlante in the CONCACAF Champions League. And their already weak corps of forwards will be minus Kei Kamara for the first two matches after the genius apparently threatened a referee. Suffice it to say, the off-season was not kind to the perennial league heavyweights. The midfield should still be formidable with the likes of Ricardo Clark, Stuart Holden and Brad Davis. But the defense suddenly looks spotty, with Julius James likely to be counted on for serious minutes. Houston looks to be an injury or two away from outright disaster.

6. Toronto F.C.: They will be the most entertaining club in MLS. With Amado Guevara and Dwayne DeRosario roaming around the midfield together, Toronto should drive defenses batty. Even Chad Barrett should be able to net double-digit goals with the chances that are likely to appear before his stone boots. The problem, of course, is still the defense. Adrian Serioux will likely help, but the arrival of two Gambian teenagers (what's up with MLS's mad crush on Gambians?) provides little reassurance. And somehow Jim Brennan is still getting paid to play soccer. On a completely arbitrary note: Richfield, Minnesota's very own Abdus Ibrahim is now known as Fuad Ibrahim.

The top five tomorrow.