Welcome back folks to the most incorrect–politically, figuratively, quantitatively, qualitatively–MLS preview series out there. This is Year IV and if we’re going by Rocky’s or Mission: Impossibles instead of Karate Kid’s then we’re in for a good time. Of course, like all pieces (and authors) here at TSG, we could also regress considerably.
Expect regression, over-deliver as our good friend Devin Pleuler would say.
So we’re back.
Let’s get right to rounding out our MLS debate table….as usual, it’s filled with a cast of character castoffs from Bleacher Report and the New York Times. That’s about one and the same these days. Oh, where have you gone George Vecsey?
Our table of “Bieber-trained thugs”:
Jay Bell. Dude is legit. Started writing about soccer. Moved into beat reporting at his local newspaper. Still contributes decent commentary when he’s not speaking about Jozy Altidore or Arkansas football. Plus he’s in this video somewhere.
Matt “Biggy” Biggerstaff. Now this is the exact opposite. The only thing that “Biggy” is qualified for is being unqualified. Target striker (and now co-captain…yikes!) on the SF Black Sox. Never met an Indian food meal that didn’t have the toilet weeping afterward… whoops got off track there.
Over-under on “Wondo is dreamy” answers below? 13.5 … in Part I.
Will Parchman. Professor Parchy. The Wacko from Waco. Able to drop metaphorical phrases like Michael Gspurning outside the penalty box.
Since your last writing, Professor Von Parchison has taken up haunting the likes of
Top Sock Drawer Top Drawer Soccer. You’re a Hall of Famer in my book coach. What you wrote about those kids…. Jared DuBois.
Dubois! J-Rod! Voodoo Economics!
Seems we’ve lost one folks. Only the strong survive. Only the strong survive.
The Cark Jenkinson of this rambling literary rodeo. Oopfh! Just got punched in the face. Known as Nutmeg Radio, The Arsenal Guy on Twitter and owner of some of the most unique views on American soccer. Welcome to the table this year Nutmeg. ANTE UP!
Zack Goldman: Zack Morris. Zack Efron. Zack Braff.
“Zacks” don’t have a long distinguished history–don’t name your kid Zack–but this is the inverse Zack. Pure….Gold…man. Oxford educated, Spotify-retarded and still a pleasure to have. He’s like an accurate Wikipedia of soccer knowledge–probably due to getting hooked on Football Manager instead of World of Warcraft a few years ago, but we’ll take it.
Zack De La Rocha….that’s fair company. Whew, some company.
And pulling up the rear, yours truly.
Without further adu, time to rage against the MLS machine.
Your 4th annual MLS Prediction Preview starts … now!
* Who is your Supporter’s Shield Winner?
Nutmeg: Kansas City Wizards. Whatever. The safe answer here is LA or The Team Formerly Known as the Wizards. But if — and it’s a big if considering how many games a certain 37-year-old and 34-year-old played last year — the Red Bulls can stay healthy, given the continuity in the team, I’m going to reluctantly pencil them in. Shhh. Stop it. They won’t.
Zack: Portland Timbers. There’s not a year I’ve felt more clueless about who’s going to shine brightest in MLS, but it’s hard to see Porterball taking a step backward in its second season. It’s fitting that PTFC’s home stadium has been renamed Providence Park, as there’s a certain kismet around this team – a squad that plays attractive soccer, has a defined core, a great deal of depth, and that I can only see getting better with experience.
Jay Bell: Seattle. Alright, Seattle invented choking in the postseason, but we’re talking about the regular season here. There are going to be questions about the Sounders’ backline and about whether Martins and Dempsey will thrive up top. However, Seattle has one of the strongest spines in the league and it seems like they have too much talent to fail…again.
Biggy: The Eastern Conference beefed up as Toronto got after it with that Liberace Money during the offseason and Philadelphia improved greatly too, which will make things harder for New York so it’s going to be Portland, if their defense can hold up for the long haul.
Not fully sold on their CBs + the West may beat itself up so much that someone from the East wins it. Who knows.
Parchy: The Portland Porters. God I love Caleb Porter. I love him so much I now have a beautiful, absurd obsession for porter beers. I’ve also become a baggage porter in my spare time at a local Motel 6. They didn’t ask for my help. But they can go screw themselves, I’m busy arranging baggage in formations in parking lots.
Matthew: It’s SKC’s time. They’ll survive the World Cup player drought and button up the East Coast. It’s that simple.
* Who is your most improved player?
Zack: Gyasi Zardes. Tremendous raw athleticism, limited technical polish, and questionable decision-making defined his 2013 – and in order to figure into the LA Galaxy’s first-team plans, he’ll need to improve his crossing and become more patient and clinical in front of goal. LA’s flanks and front line have become a more crowded pool this year, but Zardes’ skill set remains among the most unique in the league – and has the potential to be deadly if he can put it together.
He won’t tear the league up in 2014, but he should be vastly improved.
Parchy: Last year I had Benny Feilhaber, so I obviously don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Naturally, since it has to be an SKC player (why? don’t ask questions) I’ll go with C.J. Sapong this year to flower into the MVP candidate that we all figured he’d be. I now fully expect him to score one goal. And it’ll be an own goal. For a team he is not playing.
Jay Bell: Perry Kitchen. The guy has been in the league for three years now and he’s finally going to have more talent around him than your average USL Pro side. Defensive midfielders are still key to MLS success and Kitchen is going to stand out.
Biggy: Clint Dempsey, because he can’t be worse. Can he? Sometimes I feel like I can taste the tears of Sounders fans when it rains. Do they cry in Seattle or just go outside and let the rain do it for them?
Matthew: As is customary here for the editor, we bend the rules. TSG drops two names, one of whom will be triumphant, the other forgotten–like a bad day at the Colisevm. First up, the Whitecaps’ Erik Hurtado.
While all the hype will be on Kekuta Manneh, Darren Buttocks, Argentine #1 and #2…or even Malaga refugee, it will be Hurtado who possesses the both speed and strength off the corner who sees his stock rise this year. Beware Hurtado, last year one of these picks was Tommy Heinneman.
And the secondary choice, well that’s Fabian Castillo. FC Dallas should just take 75% of Castillo’s contract and give it to Oscar Pareja. In Pareja’s 4-3-3 that favors slipping the cracks between the opposing rightback and right centerback, Castillo will thrive, released into space by the pillow feet of Mario Diaz. Book 10 goals right now, maybe more.
Nutmeg: Clint Dempsey has to be considered. I’m reluctant to put him in this category, but, based on what he looked like last season, he’ll be most improved if he can get back to three-quarters Deuce, which my calculations tell me is 1.5. Maybe he should put his mixtape on hold for now.
Silver: Project Maple Leaf’s Doniel Henry.
* The Luis Landin Award — given to the first-year DP most accomplished in being unaccomplished.
Zack: The tempting pick here is Maurice Edu, but I’m going to go with his teammate, Cristian Maidana (whom—disclaimer—I know very little about). Cost aside, Edu’s a decent pickup for Philly in terms of what they need and I expect him to combine with Brian Carroll well to jump-start the famous Hackworthian counter.
I personally can’t see a journeyman winger who hasn’t had too much of a scoring touch his entire career figuring into the system any better than a guy like Danny Cruz.
Parchy: This will almost certainly be Christian Maidana. One, because he signed for Philly. Two, because he signed for Philly. Three, because. Philly.
Matthew: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Like Geovanni-bad. Tressor Moreno-bad. The eggs in one paper thin basket thing with the Quakes always has me on, well, egg shells.
[Note: Did a full San Jose Quakes preview here.]
Biggy: Gilberto for Toronto. With everything they have added, he will slip through the cracks, and I heard the poutine in Toronto is top notch. Eat up buddy, Luis Landin highly recommends it.
Nutmeg: Are we talking young DP, adult DP, geriatric DP? This tiered DP system is out of control. Bradley and Edu, Individually, will be fine, even if their teams struggle. Drake’s new best friend, Jermain Defoe, like his former teammate Sir Rob Keane, is a natural finisher and will thrive off of actually playing. Predicting the acclimation prospects of the remaining wild cards — Gilberto, Texeira and Maidana — requires Ms. Cleo.
Jay Bell: David Texeira. Somehow, after all these years, Dallas is still young. This team ages slower than Bart Simpson. I don’t see much support their for Texeira.
* Who is your Coach of the Year?
Zack: Ryan Nelsen (by a hair). I like Caleb Porter’s odds to become the first-ever back-to-back Coach of the Year winner (and think he’ll deserve it), but we love a good worst-to-first story in this league – and Nelly should fit the bill in 2014. I like Toronto’s chances to win the East with a supremely talented squad that Nelsen “redknapps” to the top.
Parchy: Mastroeni. Just kidding. I had you for a minute, didn’t I? I’ve already written my poem to Caleb Porter. It begins, “There once was a man from…” I’m still ironing out the kinks.
Jay Bell: Jason Kreis. Wait…no…yeah, Jason Kreis.
Matthew: I argued long and hard and long and…hard for Oscar Pareja in 2013. And it says something that Pareja jump to a bigger budget club and his trusty assistant Wilmer Cabrera rightfully got a head coaching gig too, but this is the Year of Porter. His squad is vamped–the precursor to revamped?–to his desires. He’ll have a bunch of little Argentines running around up top and a bunch of Gambian strong men to patrol the back and he’ll squint-eye his way to at least the Supporter’s Shield?
Nutmeg: Caleb Porter. Again. Even if Toronto ends up waltzing through teams, I don’t think I could bring myself to pick Ryan Nelsen, because this isn’t Friday Night Lights. Sometimes you just land in a good school district. That’s my stance until proven otherwise.
* Who is your 2014 first half MVP?
Nutmeg: Camillo. Too soon? The audacity of his move was worthy of MVP recognition, even in absentia.
[Update: 03/01: Btw, given recent developments, I'd like to retract my Camilo for MVP vote. He has gone from gangsterness to hilarious sadness. He now deserves no award. You can't be most valuable if you aren't getting paid.]
Jay Bell: Robbie Keane. He’s happy and healthy this year. Those circumstances spelled doom for everyone else last year. Keane will be back at his best.
Parchy: Defying God, physics and everything you hold dear, Thierry Henry takes his “MLS ain’t easy” speech to the masses by scoring six goals in his first five. More importantly, this lets Mr. Jermain Defoe know whose backyard this still is.
I’d say Defoe, but really, I’ll believe a TFC player when I see it. And I have to see it first. Because TFC. Remember that TV show Jericho that came out a few years ago? Everybody thought it was going to be amazing, and it turned out to be Joanie Loves Chachi with more explosions? That’s TFC right now. Jericho.
Matthew: Clint Dempsey. I legitimately think that people have forgotten how good he is. They won’t in a few months.
Zack: Michael Bradley. He might not win the box-score battle against other first half MVP contenders, but Bradley will be the lynchpin to Toronto’s success this year and should prove a cut above in the center of the park every time he laces up.
Biggy: Chris Wondolowski, because the only way he gets on the plane to Brazil is if he crushes it right out of the gate. So he will, and he will make that row 26 seat B on Jurgen America’s non-stop flight to the promised land a highly contested spot.
Nutmeg: Camilo. Too soon? The audacity of his move is worthy of MVP recognition, even in absentia.
* Who is your most underrated player?
Parchy: Now that Osvaldo Alonso finally has his DP deal, I guess I have to stop thumping my Ozzie Drum. I don’t think a lot of people realize how good Giles Barnes is for Houston. Gets a lot done, is a lot of fun to watch and added another dimension to that team. With Bruin and Boswell (may he rest in peace in DC) and Boniek and Davis, Barnes occasionally gets overlooked. But he’s what helps that team go.
Zack: Oriol Rosell. Like Michael Bradley, “Uri” does more than what the box score (and even our beloved Opta) will immediately reveal. He’s become a vital presence for Sporting Kansas City in the midfield, setting the tone both in defense and attack—a talented ball-winner with a quick brain, who seems way too savvy on the ball to be only 21.
Matthew: Whew, many to be honest. Nat Borchers should be on this list every year, but I’ll go with a guy a little bit more on the upslope: Sam Cronin. The challenges to Cronin’s game is his pass accuracy, but he plays in a system that values hurrying the ball up the field. What if he had a midfield counterpart that didn’t run like Tom Berenger’s character in Major League. That’d be something.
Biggy: Is it possible for Dan Kennedy to be underrated? If so, he’s the guy after dealing with all the fun at the artist formerly known as Chivas USA last year, and with an actual defense in front of him he will help power Chivas MLS to, dare I say, a playoff spot? Nope, I don’t dare say it, but he’s real good.
Nutmeg: #TeamGrabavoy. He’s perpetually underrated, despite his ability to keep showing up and doing his job consistently, year after year. He’s basically the Frankie Hejduk of technically proficient players. We should treat him better. It’s a shame. It’s a damn shame.
* Player you’re most okay letting go out with your wife for a night in 2014?
Biggy: Thierry Henry, because I want to know how he enjoys his nightlife. Is he a classy lounge with smooth jazz rocking the new USMNT polo type of guy? More of a Gesaffelstein late night in a dark warehouse man? Or perhaps popping bottles with Tony Parker at the 40/40 Club? Why I want to know these things I have no idea, but I DO.
Parchy: Marco Di Vaio seems like the kind of guy who’d get disinterested with anyone other than himself, peace out on the date and go speak to himself in a mirror for a couple hours until he blacks out. Can he speak English? Either way.
Matthew: Terrified to death of Robbie Rogers….still. I’ll go with Diego Fagundez. South American suave, up-and-comer, but he’s got to order chocolate milk and he lives in his parent’s basement. As long as they don’t make a Bron-bron-DWade-Boshasaurus pact I’m in the clear. I think.
Nutmeg: Depends on where they’re going. If tank-top shopping, definitely Eddie Johnson. Otherwise, definitely not Conor Casey, because he fouls even when he’s not trying to. More on Casey below.
Zack: Landon Donovan. Courteous, honest, wonderful. He’d no doubt stick to his word and have her back from Cars 2 before 10. Total sweetheart.
* Who will win the inaugural Roadhouse Award, presented by Danny Szetela for the player most likely to be MLS’s Ron Artest in a game.
Nutmeg: Stevan Lenhart. Define Ron Artest. If we’re talking about brawling in the stands or punching an opponent or teammate on the field, I’m telling you, all of the pieces are in place to make Eddie Johnson the super-angry Ron Artest villain. All it’ll take is for him to breathe too heavily on the wrong person. He’s always one step removed from Ron Artest/Richard Sherman treatment. Having to walk that line can bring the Ron Artest out of anyone. But how about those adorable Bash Brothers?
Zack: Steven Lenhart. It’s a shame that John Valencia, who once nearly decapitated a fan next to me at the StubHub Center by kicking a water bottle into the stands (a move fondly referred to as “The Reverse Artest”) is no longer in the league because he’d be a great candidate. In his place, I select the equally insane chia pet.
Parchy: Since everyone will go Lenhart on this, I’ll go Oswaldo Minda for a final “screw you” mic drop in Chivas USA’s last game as Chivas USA. It’ll be instigated by a breathtaking Robbie Keane studs-to-fart-smelling glance, upon which time Minda will go full roundhouse on Keano, both delighting and horrifying most of the universe.
Matthew: I once interviewed Chad Marshall. Grounded in brevity, Stanford-educated, “Aw-shucks” haircut. He’s Steve Buscemi in Billy Madison and he’s been making a list. Don’t say I didn’t warn you because I’m doing it right now.
Jay Bell: Aurelien Collin. Steven Lenhart is going to throw one too many ‘bows one game. Collin is going to see the words “FINISH HIM” flashing in red, and it’s not going to be pretty.
Biggy: Victor Bernardez. Not only will he jump into the stands, kick your and your friends asses for talking shit while swearing at you in Spanish, he will then sit down and enjoy your beer and nachos while you watch helplessly. Then he will likely get a red card on the field. Or two.
* Who is the best 2014 American MLS player?
Nutmeg: Michael Bradley. At some point, it’s going to be Luis Gil. But not yet. Michael Bradley. If they’re good, he’ll get the credit.
Zack: Michael Bradley. Landon Donovan has been the correct answer to this question for over a decade, but it’s hard to imagine any American player being as large an influence this year as Bradley. He’s the USMNT’s best player, CONCACAF’s best player, and now, quite likely, tops in MLS.
Matthew: MB110%x2 Tab Ramos, Claudio Reyna, Michael Bradley. It’s like that. Yeah.
Parchy: Can I say Darlington Nagbe here to make myself feel better about the general state of humanity? I’m going to say Darlington Nagbe. You cannot stop me. Nagbe 2018.
Biggy: Matt Besler, but only for half the season, because he will be off to the mysterious land called Europe, where great challenges and danger await him. Oh and silly accents.
Jay Bell: Michael Bradley‘s right foot. Second best will be The General’s left foot. And third place will be the trademark Bradley dome at CM for TFC.
* Best player from Europe not including England or France?
Zack: Robbie Keane. Can’t imagine anyone’s even in the same race as this guy.
Jay Bell: Oriol Rosell. He’s from Barcelona and we all know that automatically means he’s better than everyone else.
Parchy: Jose Goncalves. But not for long!
Nutmeg: Marco di Vaio. Probably Silvio Berlusconi. There are documentaries about this stuff. Or Guti. If we’re talking soccer, the good news is that only two players are in contention. The bad news: good luck choosing between Marco Di Vaio and Sir Robert Keane. But if Di Vaio repeats 2013 in 2014, there’s my vote.
Biggy: Well I would say Robbie Keane but he’s from England, and you said not from England. We know the English love Robbie Keane just like he loves playing for his boyhood club, the Los Angeles Galaxy. I kid, I know geography, so cross that stereotype of stupid Americans off your list Europeans. I see you trying to judge me.
Matthew: Uri Rosell. (Keane of course, but that’s boring.)
* The Inaugural Jason Kreis Icy Stair Award for which coach who looks most intimidating on the sideline.
Biggy: Ryan Nelsen. Maybe you will start bleeding spontaneously if he stares at you. And by maybe I mean guaranteed.
Zack: Ryan Nelsen. Absolutely terrifying man. Would not want to be in a dark alley with Nelly — or even an oppositely innocuous public space (e.g.: well-lit place of worship, deli at brunch, Disneyland, etc.)
Nutmeg: Peter Vermes. Still rocking the 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger crewcut. He has that “Down and give me 20, son!” look that scares teenagers. I actually start doing push-ups whenever I see him.
Parchy: It’s Sigi. I have nightmares about his scarf collection. Is it, like, just a couple scarves? What if he doesn’t wash them? Are there entire bacterial cities living in the folks between the S and the O? These things keep me up at night.
Matthew: Can I go with Not Mike Petke. Mike Petke is like Scott Wolf of Party of V all grown up–which means still figuring it out.
But seriously, Porter’s squint makes me laugh. Bruce Arena is Ba-Ba-Booey. Dom Kinnear’s mug flatly states, “Been here, done that.” But Big Peter Vermes? Messed myself.
Jay Bell: Ben Olsen is going to be locked in on the sidelines for DC United. His teams have had so little hope so far. Expect more intensity this season.
* 2014, The year of Darlington Nagbe, Diego Fagundez or DeAndre Yedlin? Why?
Biggy: Diego Fagundez. He will have an opportunity to be the star for New England, Portland has more horses so not as much focus on Nagbe and Yedlin can’t top Rihanna hair from last year, so the only way is down for him. Should have stuck it out under that Umbrella ella ella DeAn Dree eeeee.
Nutmeg: Nagbe. Here’s the formula: special talent + maturity + freedom + supporting cast = special things happening consistently. It’s rocket science, people. Only one of these guys has the package now. That’s Nagbe. He creates, he can finish simply and spectacularly, he can beat players off the dribble. “What can’t he do?” is the better question, and one that I can easily answer about the other two.
Parchy: Every year is the year of Darlington Nagbe. If I’m starting a fantasy draft and I can take any player in MLS No. 1 overall, I’ll take Nagbe every time. Brings people out to games, more skillful than anyone in the league and produces moments of sheer insanity. ALSO CALEB PORTER DID I MENTION HIM YET.
Jay Bell: Darlington Nagbe has been the “next big thing” for so long now. It has to be now, right? He’s got great support behind him.
Zack: Darlington Nagbe. Fagundez and Yedlin will both be spectacular, but Darlo’s team will be better than last year and he’s got some great wide players arriving, most notably in the form of Steve Zakuani, who will allow him to tuck further inside than last year (where I feel he’s much, much more dangerous). 10 goals and 3 assists last year is hard to improve upon for anyone, but the Year of the Nagbe is upon us.
* Merritt Paulson said … “What?!” ____________ fill in the blank with the most outrageous comment the P-Town owner will make this year.
“That was a correct call by the referee, even though it went against us. I’m disappointed that Ricketts would make such a poor decision and hats off to the Ref for getting it right…”
Oh, wait, that will never ever ever ever happen. Too outrageous.
“We’re bringing back the “Feeling Thorny” t-shirt, but to avoid controversy and ambiguity, we’re going to cross out the “T” and … what’s that? I’m sorry, we’ll pull it. It was just meant to be a fun shirt about horny unicorns.”
“I’m sending Grant Wahl anthrax if he doesn’t come to a game here soon. This is not a joke. Goodbye. -MPAUL”
“I love smurfs.”
“That Caleb Porter is the best American coach ever.”
Which he isn’t. (Portland: shh.)”
* Who will win the Golden Crowbar award presented by Jermaine Jones, given to the most unnecessarily physical or fouling player?
Nutmeg: Hot take: The answer to this question is actually Conor Casey. We typically think unnecessary physical fouling is in the defensive midfielder’s wheelhouse. But Casey is an all-star at running into people. And despite his fashionista disguise, Collin is a close second. Reo-Coker with the bronze.
Parchy: Marcelo Sarvas and his stupid haircut. He’s a tornado of teeth and elbows.
Biggy: Have we renamed this the Osvaldo Alonso award yet? Or has that petition not reached the White House still?
Matthew: Really glad Parchman dropped the Sarvas here. That’s just a no-brainer really. But, truly, how long can Aurelien Collin get away with the Frenchie Thierry Henry shoulder shrug after he Roger Espinoza’s someone in the back of the head. There is a reason that KC defense is good. It’s the organization, athleticism and fear of cleat holes that Collin may put in you.
And Jermaine Taylor I’m watching you also.
Zack: Aurelien Collin gets the nod here. So handsy!