With 2012 nearly upon us, a look at what each MLS team should resolve to accomplish in the new year.
Chicago Fire: Carry momentum forward from the end of 2011.
Most of 2011 was a trying affair for the Fire. The team won just one of its first 11 games before sacking coach Carlos de los Cobos. Interim coach Frank Klopas fared a bit better, but the team squandered too many points from winning positions en route to setting a league record with 16 draws. The Fire started to turn things around at the end of the season though, going 7-2-1 in their final 10 games and nearly making the playoffs. Midseason acquisitions Pavel Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini keyed the turnaround, and with Klopas returning on a full-time basis in 2012, the club will hope to build on the late momentum it created in 2011.
Chivas USA: Find an identity.
In their seven years of existence, the Goats have been stuck in the shadow of not one, but two teams: “Parent” club Chivas de Guadalajara, with whom they share a name and colors, and the LA Galaxy, with whom they share the Home Depot Center. And while the Mexican version enjoys stratospheric popularity and their housemates won MLS Cup with a star-studded cast, Chivas USA just, kind of, exists. Last season, in the same stadium, Chivas USA averaged nearly 9,000 fewer fans per game than the Galaxy. A Sporting KC-style rebranding and/or a move away from the Home Depot Center would be a welcome change.
Colorado Rapids: Get some stability at the top.
After an unseemly public spat between technical director Paul Bravo and head coach Gary Smith, it was obvious one of the two wasn't returning in 2012. Sure enough, Smith was relieved of his duties, and the Rapids are now the only MLS team without a head coach. Meanwhile, club GM Jeff Plush also left the franchise. With owner Stan Kroenke rarely heard from and even more rarely seen, the Rapids need to fill their leadership void soon, or it will begin to negatively impact on-field results in 2012.
Columbus Crew: Replace lost offense.
The Crew have already released Andres Mendoza, the team's leading goalscorer in 2011, and are about to lose their leading assist man, as Robbie Rogers is out of a contract and rumored to be on the verge of a move to the English Premier League or the Championship. Much of the burden will fall on Dilly Duka, who will be expected to have a breakout season if healthy, but with Mendoza's departure opening a Designated Player spot, the Crew might have to look outside MLS for a proven attacker.
D.C. United: Find a home.
Although DCU's preference has always been to stay in the D.C. area, continuous roadblocks and a money-hemorrhaging lease at RFK Stadium mean that the team's priority now has to be finding a new stadium anywhere it can. Baltimore has been mentioned as a possibility and if it can produce a new facility, United might just have to skip town. Commissioner Don Garber has said he is “concerned” and “continually frustrated” by the situation, and now speaks openly about potentially moving the team. Something is going to happen soon and for D.C. soccer fans, it might not be good.
FC Dallas: Get a striker or two.
On a fairly strong FCD roster, there is a Texas-sized hole at the forward position. After a strong midseason run saw the team near the top of the league, the Hoops didn't score a league goal the entire month of September, and were forced to start Jackson out of position at forward in the Wild Card match against the Red Bulls. Unsurprisingly, FCD was dumped out of the playoffs in a 2-0 loss. The team appears unlikely to bring Maicon Santos back, leaving Maykel Galindo, Rubin Luna, Andrew Wiedeman, Fabian Castillo and Jonathan Top as the only listed forwards on the roster. Combined 2011 MLS goals for that group: Three.
Houston Dynamo: Solve the Ching debacle.
It's been a bit of a PR nightmare for the Dynamo since they exposed Brian Ching for the Expansion Draft, then saw the forward threaten to retire if the Impact selected him, which, naturally, they did. The anger the team has shown towards the Impact for taking a player the Dynamo themselves made available has been laughable, and now Houston is left with a dilemma on its hands. To make amends to Ching and their fan base, the Dynamo would do well to ensure one of the best and most popular players in team history is wearing orange when brand-new BBVA Compass Stadium opens in May.
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LA Galaxy: Replace lost talent and lost buzz.
It's been a tumultuous period for the Galaxy since they lifted MLS Cup in November. Juninho and David Beckham are on their way out, with Omar Gonzalez possibly to follow. Landon Donovan's loan to Everton won't help matters either, as a good performance could tempt the Merseysiders into a permanent bid. As one of the league's richest and most popular franchises, the onus will be on owner AEG to replace the talent and box office losses. Rumored moves for Ronaldinho and/or Didier Drogba wouldn't be bad options to fill seats and the win column.
Montreal Impact: Make an impact.
Sorry, that was just too easy. I resolve to not to use that one (much) this year. Point is, in its first season, Montreal should aspire to be more Portland, less Vancouver, at least in terms of on-field results. If the club can build a solid foundation of core players, and if coach Jesse Marsch can instill a system that the team buys into, then the results will come. They may not make the playoffs right away, but Montreal can go a long way towards solidifying itself as a solid MLS franchise by building the groundwork in year one.
New England Revolution: Throw the fans a bone.
The Revolution have a dedicated fan base that makes the slog each home game to Foxboro (30 miles from downtown Boston). Unfortunately, the club hasn't given these fans much to cheer about over the years, with little hope of a soccer specific stadium, two straight seasons missing the playoffs, and a bizarre incident last season where nearly the entire supporters' section was ejected from a home game for a barely-profane chant, with arrests and scuffles with security to boot. The Kraft family needs to do something to show their fans they actually care about them and the team. Lets not hold our breath.
New York Red Bulls: Buy Rafa a one-way ticket.....anywhere.
The Red Bulls currently employ a player that A. Eats up a large portion of the salary cap. B. Openly criticized teammates amidst claims they aren't on his “level”. C. Has demonstrably hurt the team on the field both with lackadaisical play and with an infantile (choice of term entirely mine) red card for fighting/diving in the playoffs. D. Has confirmed interest from teams abroad that are apparently willing to pay for a transfer, and hasn't exactly committed himself to staying in New York with his subsequent comments.
With all this in mind, and considering the DP spot his exit would open up, why isn't Rafa Marquez gone already?
Philadelphia Union: Find a second goalscorer.
The Union's second-leading goalscorer in 2011 was Carlos Ruiz, which is a problem considering Ruiz left the club in July after only 14 matches. Sebastien Le Toux carried the load for the Union with 11 goals but after Ruiz, the team's next highest scorer was Danny Mwanga, who battled injuries most of the season and scored only five times after tallying seven his rookie year. Somebody will have to take the burden off Le Toux for the Union to take the next step in 2011.
Portland Timbers: Win the Cascadia Cup.
Rivalries do funny things to fan bases. Sure, winning a championship is important, but when it comes to the most bitter rivalries in sports, many fans will say if they beat their arch-enemies and lose every other game, it would still be a successful season. If the Timbers don't make the playoffs in their second season, they will be disappointed, but if they get the better of the Sounders and Whitecaps to win the Cascadia Cup, no doubt many will at least feel some satisfaction with the way 2012 turned out.
Real Salt Lake: Erase bitter CONCACAF Champions League memories.
RSL suffered a painful defeat in the finale of the 2010-11 CCL competition, losing 1-0 at home to Monterrey in the second leg after drawing 2-2 away in the first leg. The club failed to qualify for the 2011-12 edition of the tournament, but RSL is through to the 2012-13 competition, which is set to begin in summer 2012. With the scars still fresh from April 2011, no doubt Jason Kreis will be eager to advance to the knockout round and be given the opportunity to make amends in early 2013.
San Jose Earthquakes: Create some buzz.
In a way, Chris Wondolowski is the perfect star player for the Earthquakes: A journeyman made good on a roster full of them. It's safe to say that San Jose is one of the more overlooked sides in MLS, playing in tiny Buck Shaw Stadium and with a roster full of many players unknown to all but the most fervent of MLS supporters. The club has only signed one DP in its history, Geovanni, who lasted just half of a season in 2010. The Quakes have two big reasons they should attempt to make a splash in the transfer market: The potential financial boon of a new stadium that's likely coming in 2013 or 2014, and the selling point of the Bay Area, one of the best places to live in the country.
Seattle Sounders: End the playoff curse
By any measurement, the Sounders have been not only one of the most successful expansion franchises in MLS history, but in U.S. professional sports history as well. In all three of the team's seasons, however, trouble has arrived in the playoffs. Three consecutive first round exits has officially turned into a trend, and a fourth in a row would be cause for some serious hand-wringing in the Pacific Northwest.
Sporting Kansas City: Avoid the sophomore jinx
If 2011 was Sporting KC's honeymoon period, then it was a long, luxurious getaway to some tropical paradise replete with fruity drinks, on-call waiters, and crystal-clear waters. The challenge in 2012 will be to return home and make the marriage actually work. In the season after the team's name change and move to Livestrong Sporting Park, and in the year after breakout campaigns from Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong, the challenge will be to avoid complacency, and equal the dizzying heights of 2011.
Toronto FC: Stay the course.
Could Aron Winter's 4-3-3 “total football” system work in MLS? Halfway through his first season, the answer was a definitive “no”, as the Reds lost games and shipped goals like they were going out of style. However, once Winter and technical director Paul Mariner started to shape the team a bit more to their liking, the results turned. Midseason DP additions Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans played a huge part as the team went a much more respectable 3-2-5 in the last three months of league play, and qualified for the knockout phase of the CONCACAF Champions League. With a defensive addition or two in the offseason, TFC has a great chance to end its playoff drought in 2012.
Vancouver Whitecaps: Win a road game.
In their inaugural season, the Whitecaps achieved a bit of MLS history they would have preferred to avoid, becoming only the fourth team in league history to fail to win a road match in a season. Luckily for the 'Caps, the league is changing to an unbalanced schedule in 2012, meaning the team will play a greater number of its games closer to home. For a team that traveled farther than any other in 2011 – over 60,000 miles – the shift is a welcome change.