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Nov 27, 2007

Five stories to watch in the offseason

Little scraps of offseason news fall to the floor, and the soccer geeks among us chase 'em down and lap 'em up like hungry puppies.

And we sure don't mind the headline-making whopper, either. In MLS, these are story lines that most deserve monitoring over the next three months:

1. Expansion/Ownership -- Things must happen fast if commissioner Don Garber wants an 18-team league by 2010 or 2011. The next expansion domino could fall in December, when Philadelphia's bid could become a fait accompli. The Pennsylvania legislature ends its current session by mid-December and may sign off on $45 million targeted for a $115 million soccer stadium. An ownership group has already pledged its share and Delaware County has committed $30 million.

If the legislature doesn't take action, St. Louis is probably next in line. Insiders say concern lingers that soccer enthusiast Jeff Cooper -- who is certainly a rich man by mortal standards -- doesn't quite play in the same financial ballpark as some MLS owners. He might need to add some financial heft to his ownership portfolio. If neither city solidifies matters quickly, MLS probably will play with 15 teams in 2009 and the hunt for No. 16 will slog forward.

The other ownership/expansion item could come from Houston, where a new owner may take the league champion Dynamo from AEG's holdings. A Houston TV station reported that boxer Oscar De La Hoya and his Golden Boy Productions may be involved. The MLS board of directors meetings could get wild, with the diverse likes of AEG's Phil Anschutz, Drew Carey and de la Hoya. We're one Snoop Dogg away from E! Online showing up.

2. Who is coming and who is going -- We probably can't expect the same offseason hullabaloo as last year. After all, the "Beckham rule" inspiration is already here. But news will be made in players migrating either way.

This Jozy Altidore-to-Real Madrid matter has some legs. Remember there is an MLS connection, however tenuous, to the Spanish giants: an All-Star team appearance at the Bernabeu a couple of years ago, ties to Real Salt Lake, etc. Even if he stays put, other young Americans may move during the winter transfer window. Brad Guzan generated interest with his breakout season. Maurice Edu has shown in U.S. national team appearances that he can access a different level with better talent around him.

D.C. United may have unusually high turnover, with Jaime Moreno possibly retiring and Christian Gomez perhaps moving on. Plus, United's pursuit of Juan Sebastian Veron continues.

As for other players potentially signing up for the 14-team league in 2008, this needs to be said: The coming months will be lousy with rumors of big names inbound. Ah, America, the new frontier for agents hoping to squeeze more coin from contracts by floating fables with compliant reporters: "MLS is interested!" For nine of 10 names you hear, it'll never happen.

3. As the Galaxy turns -- Things certainly are falling nicely for the Galaxy in 2008. David Beckham's summer has suddenly opened up. MLS has bequeathed the '08 title match to the HDC. Los Angeles gets to keep Landon Donovan without forfeiting any personnel assets. And league owners have agreed to spot the Galaxy a one-goal lead in every match. (That last one isn't true, of course. But, geez, AEG certainly seems to be calling a disproportionate number of the shots these days.)

Ruud Gullit is getting a first inspection during the team's brief Oceania tour. Then he, Alexi Lalas, Simon Fuller, Paul Bravo (Uh, sorry, who is making the personnel decisions again?) get allocation money to spend for missing the playoffs. The team remains a bit hamstring by two huge salaries; Donovan and Beckham eat up about a third of the team's cap. Some relief is afforded as Cobi Jones' number comes off the books, about $95,000. Still, prudence will rule the day.

4. Other major team news -- Outside of Southern California, Red Bull has a coaching appointment afoot and San Jose deciders Frank Yallop and John Doyle are drawing up plans.

In New Jersey, the chief Bull has copped to an elevated level of soccer nincompoopery. Sounds like a fiasco waiting to happen. And don't we all love a roaring fiasco to keep us warm in the winter?

The early word that Red Bull managing director Marc de Grandpre might look at MLS assistants smacks of a bad smoke screen. Better bet: They'll go the Galaxy route and aim for a splashy hire. Only problem is, they don't have a Simon Fuller, someone plugged in abroad to connect with connectors and get an audience with real candidates.

Besides, if Red Bull were truly looking at assistants, wouldn't it make sense to interview the most obvious two? As of last week, neither Houston top assistant John Spencer nor New England right hand man Paul Mariner had been contacted.

At first glance San Jose's personnel framework looks more solidly constructed than the expansion shanties assembled initially by Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake and Toronto, all of whom suffered from some dubious choices.

Ryan Cochrane, Clarence Goodson, Jason Hernandez and James Riley could make up a decent back line. Not spectacular, but not bad. Young Joe Vide as a holding mid? Not terrible. Ned Grabavoy was playing quite well for Columbus in April and May, but drifted to the backdrop upon Guillermo Barros Schelotto's arrival. Braced by a couple of trades already, Yallop could deploy 11 right now and bother a couple of MLS sides.

5. Draft and player trades -- You may think MLS is too homogonous, the bits and parts too familiar to all parties, for one team to seriously get over another in swaps. Remember that New England's Matt Reis was acquired from Los Angeles in 2003 for -- get this -- Alex Pineda Chacon. Whoa!

A half-day window already saw Clint Mathis move across the country. So big trades will happen. Plus, smart teams will exploit a host of ways to make the complicated salary machinations work for them. Colorado, Columbus, Los Angeles, Real Salt Lake and Toronto receive allocation money for missing the playoffs, cash to be spent on new players or to re-sign marquee talent already on the roster.

New England already has allocation cash aplenty, which can be partitioned and dealt for players. Or, Steve Nicol can use the money to go collect that second forward or attacking midfielder he needs.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.