NEW YORK — Blink twice and click your heels, and First Kick of the 16th MLS season will be here. It’s that close.
And already preseason camps are in full swing, teams are giving auditions to players from all over the globe and the pace of league-related news is ramping up accordingly.
Last week we got the long-anticipated announcement of conference realignment, the re-signing of the league’s second all-time leading scorer and a hint from a young foreign-born star that he might play internationally for the US after all.
There was also another star who said he won’t play for the US (in their next friendly, anyway), some big doings from MLS alums abroad and a steady drumbeat of player acquisitions.
Let’s have at it.
Houston, We Have No Problem
You knew this one was coming: With this year’s additions of franchises in Portland and Vancouver, something had to give in the Western Conference.
That something turned out to be the Houston Dynamo, who were relocated to the Eastern Conference for the upcoming season to create two nine-team conferences in MLS.
As the easternmost team in the Western Conference, the Dynamo were the logical choice to move. They are now the westernmost franchise in the Eastern Conference (but around a mere 38 miles, mind you)—and we appreciate the symmetry.
Speaking of symmetry, MLS teams will still play a balanced schedule, meeting each of the other 17 teams in the league once at home and once on the road for a total of 34 games.
That’s why Houston players were relatively unfazed by the shift.
“It doesn’t really change anything to us,” Dynamo defender Andrew Hainault told MLSsoccer.com. “We’re going to be playing against each team two times, so I’m not losing sleep over it.”
The league also announced new rules regarding rosters and players. Chief among these: Teams can now sign an unlimited number of “home grown” players, and players designated as US domestics will no longer take up international roster spots for franchises based in Canada.
One week after the LA Galaxy signed their marquee Re-Entry Draft selection (Juan Pablo Angel), the Columbus Crew landed theirs: Jeff Cunningham, the second-most productive scorer in MLS history.
For Cunningham—who enters the 2011 season with 132 career goals, one fewer than D.C. United legend Jaime Moreno—the move is a homecoming. The 34-year-old striker began his career with Columbus in 1998.
In other Week 10 transactions, San Jose won the lottery for the rights to Generation adidas keeper David Bingham and signed former Montreal Impact midfielder Tony Donatelli, while LA Galaxy landed 22-year-old Argentine midfielder Miguel López.
López’s last club was Quilmes of Argentina, where he was a teammate of LA’s first-round SuperDraft selection, Paolo Cardozo.
One of Lopez’s new teammates, US World Cup hero Landon Donovan, all but removed himself from consideration for the Americans’ upcoming friendly against reigning African champions Egypt. He says he needs still more time to rest and refocus himself for the 2011 MLS season after playing pretty much non-stop for the past two years.
That game—scheduled for Feb 9 in Cairo—is still on as of now, but the way things are going politically in Egypt these days, you never know.
Another MLS star who needs to hit the “reset” button is Toronto FC attacker Dwayne De Rosario, who last week pronounced himself “not thrilled” with his situation at TFC. DeRo’s statement follows an offseason in which he embarked on an unauthorized training stint with Celtic and then had a loan bid from the Glasgow giants denied by TFC.
The fans and media up in Toronto have not taken kindly to DeRo’s antics. But the club recognizes their captain’s importance. Director of player development Paul Mariner told MLSsoccer.com’s ExtraTime Radio that the club is “exploring every single avenue that we can to come to an amicable agreement.”
While there’s been a lot of turnover in Toronto, Reds fans haven’t forgotten former TFC midfielder Maurice Edu, who made an impression of his own in Glasgow on Sunday. The 2007 MLS Rookie of the Year powered home the first goal in Rangers’ 2-1 win over Motherwell in the Scottish League Cup semifinals.
The 2004 MLS Rookie of the Year, Clint Dempsey, was also busy in Europe on Sunday. He continued to raise the bar in the best year of his career at Fulham, earning a penalty and nearly scoring twice for the Cottagers in a 4-0 FA Cup romp over Tottenham.
Onetime MLS wunderkind Freddy Adu advanced to the next phase of his European odyssey this week, finalizing a loan deal with second-division Turkish club Rizespor. Since Benfica bought his rights from Real Salt Lake in 2007, the 21-year-old Adu has had trials in Switzerland (with Sion), Denmark (Randers) and Germany (Ingolstadt), and gone on loan to France (Monaco), Greece (Aris) and now Turkey.
Lastly, and most impressively, former MetroStars midfielder Michael Bradley, who’s been with Bundesliga club Borussia Mönchengladbach since 2008, is also on the move. He’s reportedly close to completing a loan to Premier League side Aston Villa.
Zakuani and the Three-Year Plan
Seattle winger Steve Zakuani turned some heads with a great goal in training camp this past week (captured in even greater super slo-mo by the Sounders FC website). Then he raised some eyebrows by saying that the game he played for the Democratic Republic of Congo against Mali back in November did not in fact tie him to Congo’s national team.
“It wasn't an official FIFA game," Zakuani told The Seattle Times. “It didn't really tie me down to Congo.”
Zakuani suggested the door is still open for him to play for the Yanks, adding, “As much as it is a pride decision, it’s also a footballing decision. I have to give myself the best chance of advancing my career.”
He and his Seattle teammates have a golden chance to advance their careers in the upcoming MLS season. Coach Sigi Schmid says he has sky-high expectations for his team in 2011.
“I said, ‘This is year three," said Schmid. "We have a core of players [who are starting their third season with the club]. This is the year now that you have got to step forward.’”
After two consecutive US Open Cup titles, Sounders FC are aiming for an MLS Cup title in Year Three.
Recent history shows there’s precedent: The past three MLS champions have been led by coaches in their third season with the team—Colorado and Gary Smith, Real Salt Lake and Jason Kreis, and Columbus and ... wait for it ... Sigi Schmid!