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Mar 27, 2008

2008 MLS season full of intrigue

One criticism that has been leveled at Major League Soccer over the years is its interminable offseason. Players are idle for too long -- the 120 days or so between MLS Cup and First Kick make it difficult for the league to maintain its profile.

Oddly, as the 2008 MLS season opens this weekend, it seems like just yesterday that captain Wade Barrett and the rest of his Houston Dynamo teammates were hoisting the MLS Cup. Granted, this past offseason lacked the veritable earthquake that was David Beckham's signing in 2007. But some subtler tectonic shifts served to keep the league in the news.

Staying with the seismic theme, there was the reconstruction of the San Jose Earthquakes beginning with November's expansion draft. Then there was the drama surrounding Juan Carlos Osorio's defection from the Chicago Fire to take up the coaching reins in New York. This was followed by the trade of one-time MVP Christian Gomez from D.C. United to Colorado.

But the most tantalizing aspect of the offseason was the influx of foreign players, with several teams ponying up the big bucks to sign their designated players. This second wave of DP signings, as well as some less heralded imports, should raise the level of play on the field, while also making the upcoming MLS season the most intriguing yet.

Five story lines to follow

1. Beckham mania part II

David Beckham, remember him? Certainly, the feeding frenzy that accompanied the Englishman's arrival last summer has subsided somewhat, especially given the injury-plagued nature of his inaugural foray into MLS. But this time Beckham is healthy, and the hope is that some stellar play on the field, rather than just his reputation, will cause fans to flock to MLS stadiums all over the country.

2. The Latin invasion

Almost 20 players from points south have taken up residence in MLS in the past three months, with some of them possessing impressive pedigrees. World Cup veterans like Duilio Davino of FC Dallas, Marcelo Gallardo of D.C. United, and Kansas City's Claudio Lopez will be gracing the league's fields this summer. Others imports like D.C. United's defensive duo of Gonzalo Peralta and Gonzalo Martinez could be just as important. Expansion has diluted the American talent pool, and signing the right foreign player could be the difference between a team's success and failure this season.

3. The Dynamo's quest for a three-peat

Last year, Houston became the second team in league history to successfully defend its crown. This season, the Dynamo will be looking to take sole ownership of the record for consecutive titles. Some player defections to Europe have left Dominic Kinnear's side thin up top, but given his history of making savvy trades, expect the Dynamo to be right in the thick of the championship race.

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4. The return of the Earthquakes

Meet the new Quakes. Same as the old Quakes. OK, not quite, but as San Jose returns to MLS action for the first time since 2005, some familiar faces are back in the Bay Area. Head coach Frank Yallop has returned to the city where he won championships in 2001 and 2003. Old standbys Joe Cannon, Ryan Cochrane and Ramiro Corrales have also returned to the club that gave them their MLS start. Can the Quakes play at a level belying their expansion status? A solid defense will give them a chance, although a lack of attacking firepower remains their biggest hurdle.

5. Will an MLS side triumph in international play?

The league came within inches of winning an international title in 2007. Both Houston and D.C. United suffered narrow defeats in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions Cup, while Los Angeles came even closer, losing the first-ever SuperLiga title on penalties to Mexican side Pachuca. This season will offer even more possibilities. United and Houston have once again reached the semifinals of the CCC, while the SuperLiga and the newly minted CONCACAF Champions League will commence later this year.

Five players to watch

1. Marcelo Gallardo, D.C. United

United took the Supporters' Shield for the second year running, but another playoff failure saw head coach Tom Soehn engage in some serious retooling. Foremost among his moves was to bring in Gallardo to run the team's offense. Given that his arrival resulted in the trade of former league MVP Christian Gomez to Colorado, Gallardo will have plenty to live up to, but the Argentine no doubt has the skill to live up to the high expectations of United fans.

2. Christian Gomez, Colorado Rapids

Hell hath no fury like an MVP scorned, at least that's what Rapids fans are hoping. Gomez is expected to be the offensive catalyst for a team that ranked near the bottom of the league last season in goals scored, and he'll be keen to prove that former employers D.C. United were wrong to give up on him. The only problem is that Colorado doesn't have much in the way of quality front-line players, meaning that Gomez could be just as brilliant as in seasons past, but without the eye-popping numbers.

3. Claudio Lopez, Kansas City Wizards

When last year's leading scorer, Eddie Johnson, made his long-awaited move overseas, it left Wizards head coach Curt Onalfo in the market for a quality striker. Based on past performance, Onalfo looks to have found his man in Lopez, who has played in Italy and Spain as well as in two World Cups for Argentina. Can "The Louse" adapt to the physical nature of MLS? The Wizards' playoff hopes depend on it.

4. Jozy Altidore, New York Red Bulls

Last year, Altidore made a mockery of the dreaded "sophomore slump," tallying nine times in 22 league appearances. But after a subdued Olympic qualifying tournament with the U.S. U-23 national team, is a "junior jinx" in the offing? Having a front-line partner like Juan Pablo Angel should prevent teams from keying on the young U.S. international, and if Altidore enjoys a stellar first half of the season, a big-money transfer to Europe will likely be in his future.

5. Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Chicago Fire

While Beckham got the ink, Blanco got his team into the playoffs, and in the process became the gold standard for what a designated player can do for a team. There has been plenty of upheaval surrounding Chicago, with Osorio's move to New York just one component of the Fire's turbulent offseason. But if Blanco continues to deliver the goods, Chicago should be able to survive.

On the hot seat

1. Claudio Reyna, M, New York Red Bulls

Some anonymous performances combined with his million-dollar paycheck left the former U.S. captain catching some considerable flak last year. The 2008 season now offers a chance for redemption. New head coach Osorio has, for the moment, given Reyna a more attacking role, but whether some increased offensive numbers will be enough to satisfy Red Bulls fans remains to be seen.

2. Fernando Clavijo, head coach, Colorado Rapids

Clavijo has never had a winning record in his three seasons in Colorado, and after failing to make the playoffs last year, and still keeping his job, the former U.S. international is the league's unofficial Teflon Don. Clavijo's acquisition of Gomez gives the Rapids a potent midfield, but it would appear that there are not enough complementary pieces in place to radically change Colorado's fortunes.

3. Sigi Schmid, head coach, Columbus Crew

MLS Primetime Thursday
April 3
New England at Chicago
8 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

San Jose at Los Angeles
10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

In 2006, Schmid arrived in Columbus with one of the league's more impressive coaching résumés, and the expectation was that the one-time MLS Coach of the Year would quickly have the Crew turned around. But after the team failed to reach the playoffs each of the past two seasons, time is running out on Schmid. Rather than go out and sign a big name, the Crew manager is hoping that having Guillermo Barros Schelotto for a full season, as well as the continued improvement of youngsters Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers, will be enough to push Columbus over the top.

4. Wilman Conde, D/M, Chicago Fire

Nothing endears a player to his team's fans quite like a trade demand, and when Conde went public with his desire to follow Osorio to New York last February, Fire supporters were not amused. As MLS' First Kick approaches, Conde still finds himself on the Chicago roster, and with the team's home opener set to take place on April 3 against New England, it will be interesting to see how the Colombian is received by the Toyota Park faithful.

5. Ruud Gullit, head coach, Los Angeles Galaxy

The Dutchman arrives in L.A. with the impressive trio of Beckham, Landon Donovan and Carlos Ruiz at his disposal. And little else. But that won't matter to owners AEG, who will expect Gullit to lead the Galaxy back to the top of the MLS standings. Given that this is an organization that in 2004 fired the aforementioned Schmid when the team was in first place, don't expect Gullit to be given much slack.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.