Friday, March 20, 2009

The top five:

5. New York Red Bulls: After last night's pasting by Seattle I should probably reconsider putting Juan Carlos Osorio's squad this far up the table. Juan Pietravallo and Jorge Rojas looked just as useless as last year, while the backline was keystone-cops comical. But the Red Bulls still have the best forward in the league, a slew of young talent and reinforcements are on their way at the back. Costa Rican Carlos Johnson and Salvadoran Alfredo Pacheco should ensure that the 34 minutes played last night by Andrew Boyens is the only action he sees all year. Last year's surprising run to the MLS Cup should portend better times for New York in 2009.

4. Kansas City Wizards: The Wiz don't have any glaring weaknesses. They should prove a very solid, if unspectacular team. Jimmy Conrad (please check out his new web site) anchors a backline that will likely be among the league's stingiest. The squad now boasts a pair of seasoned Argentines, Santiago Hirsig and Claudio Lopez (the latter at a fraction of the price he was paid last year), in the attack. Rookie playmaker Graham Zusi has also drawn raves during the pre-season, but the dude reminds me of Kyle Martino (not a good thing). In addition, they've added a pair of useful, veteran strikers in Abe Thompson and Josh Wolff since the start of last season.

3. Real Salt Lake: Jason Kreiss has done a marvelous job building this squad into one of the toughest in the league. The back four of Jamison Olave, Ian Joy, Chris Wingert and Nat Borchers should only improve after a year of playing together. Kyle Beckermann is a midfield thug who's also capable of delivering the exquisite pass. Javier Morales should have been an MVP finalist for his wizardry in guiding the attack. And Yura Movsisyan proved at the end of last season that he can be a goal-scoring demon in MLS. They're just another quality forward short (Robbie Findley's too inconsistent) of having all the pieces in place.

2. Columbus Crew: It was a fantastic 2008 campaign for Columbus. They lost just seven times the entire season, winning the Supporters Shield running away. Then Sigi Schmid's crew capped it off with a playoff run in which they seldom looked threatened. And they did it while playing consistently entertaining, attacking soccer. Guillermo Barros Schelloto was (of course) the man who pulled the strings in the midfield. But Robbie Rogers enjoyed a breakout year that should have European teams banging on his door, while Chad Marshall became the dominant centerback that many observers had long predicted. Frankie Hejduk's now such an iconic Columbus figure that he should consider running for mayor when he finally hangs up the boots. Only two departures in the offseason, but they could prove significant: midfield worker bee Brad Evans and Schmid.

1. Chicago Fire: Now is the time for the Fire. They've got the best defense in the league with the likes of Jon Busch, Wilman Conde, Bakary Soumare and Gonzalo Segares. (Even the guys likely headed for the bench could make up a better back line than many MLS squads field: C.J. Brown, Dasan Robinson, Tim Ward and Brandon Prideaux.) The attack is a nice combo platter of veteran guile (Brian McBride and Cuahtemoc Blanco) and young-ish talent (Chris Rolfe and Patrick Nyarko). In just his second year as a head coach, Denis Hamlett should be hoisting the MLS Cup come November.


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