The 2012 MLS All-Star Game provided plenty of drama and entertainment last week, but it also gave us the marking off point to the second half of the season and all the story lines that will develop as we head toward what should be a tense playoff race.
The most compelling subject to follow in MLS in the coming months will be the playoff race, and how the league’s top teams gear up for potential championship runs. With that in mind, here is a look at the questions facing the ten teams currently in position to make the playoffs:
It is tough to put into words just how impressive and improbable a season the Earthquakes are having. Led by Chris Wondolowski and a cast of characters enjoying standout seasons, the Earthquakes have made it a habit of pulling out late results and continually finding a way to knock off opponents.
At a certain point, either the Earthquakes will start playing well enough to not need the comebacks, or those comebacks will cease to happen. The talent is clearly there for San Jose to make a title run, but it is tough to picture them keeping up their current pace for the rest of the season.
New York has done a masterful job building a team loaded with stars all over the field, with Sebastien LeToux and Tim Cahill the final big pieces to the puzzle. Can Hans Backe get it all to fit together and make a championship run?
The real question marks are in the Red Bulls defense, where persistent injuries issues could cost them in the post-season. If players like Wilman Conde and Heath Pearce can stay healthy come playoff time, the Red Bulls are definitely good enough to win it all.
The Galaxy have looked every bit like a championship contender since June, and have gone from a threat to miss the playoffs to an outside contender for the top spot in the West.
With Robbie Keane in form, David Beckham playing well and Omar Gonzalez back healthy, the Galaxy have all the pieces in place to repeat as champions, but the early hole they dug for themselves will likely force them to take a brutal path to another title.
4- Are the new-look Houston Dynamo ready to win a title without Geoff Cameron?
Houston has done an excellent job of building their team in preparation for the eventual sale of Geoff Cameron, but will the loss of one of the league’s best players really be that easy to overcome?
The arrival of designated player Oscar Boniek Garcia has given Houston a real boost, and the potential return of Ricardo Clark could help the Dynamo off-set the departure of Cameron. Another question for Houston is whether the team can ride their new-look 4-3-3 into the post-season.
Coming into the 2012 season, Sporting KC was seen as a team with a potentially dynamic offense, with a standout playmaker Graham Zusi and stable of dangerous forwards in Kei Kamara, C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury.
It hasn’t quite looked that way lately, with Sporting KC managing just seven goals scored in their past eight matches.
For a team that is just two points away from the best record in the league, Real Salt Lake has endured a fair amount of adversity. From injuries to multiple red cards (some of the questionable variety), RSL has had more frustrating results and developments than you would expect from a team having such a strong season.
The 2009 MLS Cup champions have managed to keep a good nucleus together, but will need it to be healthy by the playoffs. That means having Jamison Olave in the lineup, and Alvaro Saborio continuing to score goals like he is right now. If Saborio cools off, or if Olave finds himself injured again, RSL may not have the weapons to make a championship run.
7- Does the addition of Christian Tiffert make Seattle a title contender?
Seattle boasted the highest-scoring offense in MLS last season, but this year the attack has had its ups and downs. Sigi Schmid sought to revamp that attack with the addition of Christian Tiffert, who will be expected to provide another threat in the offense and a spark for the forward tandem of Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson.
If Tiffert can bring the best out of Montero, Seattle will be tough to stop, but the Sounders still have to count on a defense that has looked vulnerable at times and may struggle against the top attacks in the West.
8- Will all the mid-season changes make Vancouver stronger?
The Whitecaps were on a pretty good roll before head coach Martin Rennie went and dumped Sebastien LeToux, Davide Chiumiento and Eric Hassli and brought in Kenny Miller and Dane Richards. Those changes, along with the arrival of Barry Robson, will make the second-half Whitecaps a very different looking team from the first half.
Will it be an improvement? That depends on how dominant Miller can be, how effective Robson is, and whether Vancouver’s defense can regain the form that had it dominating opponents in the first half of the season.
9- Will DC United finish strong, or have another second-half swoon?
A year ago at this time DC United was looking like a team poised for a strong finish and playoff appearance, but a late-season collapse did them in. There aren’t as many concerns about DC United completely falling apart this time around, but a recent skid has raised some eyebrows.
DCU has the talent, and depth, to make noise in the playoffs, but inconsistency has become an issue and it will be up to Ben Olsen to find the right combinations to get the most out of a very deep team. With the East being far more competitive than most would have expected, DC can’t afford to slip up.
10- Will the lack of big moves cost Chicago, and could Montreal be the beneficiary?
The Fire added a pair of Designated Players before the close of the transfer window in Alvaro Fernandez and Sherjill MacDonald. Chicago is hoping the tandem can kick-start an offense that has been very inconsistent.
The Fire failed to go and sign a marquee player, something the Montreal Impact was able to do with the additions of Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta. If the Italian duo can play at a high level, something they did in Saturday’s win vs. first-place New York, Montreal just might be able to catch Chicago for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
If you think the Red Bulls spent entirely too much for Cahill, you are probably only thinking of the deal in purely soccer terms. That isn’t how the Red Bulls see it though. The added value in signing Cahill comes from a marketing standpoint, where New York’s parent company, energy drink maker Red Bull, can use Cahill to help make strides in the lucrative energy drink business in Australia.
One of the few major countries where Red Bull doesn’t dominate the energy drink industry, Australia is a market Red Bull has been working on for years, with sports marketing and extreme sports events taking center stage in the company’s push to become the top energy drink on the island continent.
If this strategy sounds familiar, it should. The Red Bulls spent big money to sign Mexican star Rafa Marquez in 2011. Not just because at the time he was seen as a talented player who could help the Red Bulls on the field, but because Red Bull was looking to make inroads in Mexico and Latin America and saw Marquez as the ideal good-looking and successful figurehead.
Red Bull’s plans were made clear as the company began mass distributing drink cans with Marquez’s likeness. Unfortunately for the Red Bulls, Marquez has been a disappointment on the field, one the team can’t afford to get rid of just yet because of the investment already made into him by the energy drink’s marketers.
Red Bull is ready to try the same approach again with Cahill, a beloved figure in Australia, and a player who still has enough quality to be an impact player in MLS. Cahill also has a sterling reputation as a good locker room presence and class act, which must surely make the Red Bulls feel a little safer investing somewhere in the area of $12 million for him.
What does this marketing-driven approach to big spending mean for MLS? It means the Red Bulls are able to spend major money to bring in big names, but the big spending isn’t just a case of a rich owner splashing the cash. There is a clear method to the spending madness, but while the approach does carry some risk (see Marquez), Red Bull’s aggressive strategy could not only help sell more little silver cans. It could help the Red Bulls finally lift that big silver trophy, the MLS Cup, which has eluded the team since MLS was born.
This Week’s Best in MLS
Player of the Week-Jairo Arrieta: The Costa Rican striker helped erase an early 1-0 deficit and led the Columbus Crew to an important victory thanks to two quality strikes, including an outstanding long-range blast for the win.
Team of the Week-Montreal Impact: It was a memorable Saturday night, and potentially the turning point of a season, for Montreal during their 3-1 handling of the first-place New York Red Bulls. Alessandro Nesta was outstanding in his MLS debut while Marco DiVaio opened up his scoring account for the Impact.
Rookie of the Week-Bryan Gaul: The 6-foot-3 converted fullback has stepped in for injured veteran Todd Dunivant in the LA defense and he put in a strong performance in the Galaxy’s 1-0 victory against FC Dallas. The left back was key in containing FC Dallas winger Jackson, who was coming off an outstanding performance a week earlier.