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Jan 5, 2009

Looking into the crystal ball for 2009

If the big brains at the Fed can't predict what will happen with the economy or when the elevator will finally reach bottom on the housing market, what chance do the rest of us have?

We can only assume crash position and hope for the best, while perhaps focusing on something easier to forecast. To wit, here's what's likely to happen in domestic U.S. soccer in 2009:

U.S. national team predictions

U.S. sails in World Cup qualifying: Have you found yourself Googling "South Africa" lately as visions of a World Cup trip for 2010 take shape? Well, Google forth: The United States will qualify with relative ease.

It'll start with a 2-0 win over Mexico in snowy Columbus, Ohio, as Bob Bradley's bunch rides the confidence and hoodoo of recent series dominance. Clint Dempsey, heroically overcoming an increasingly unstable hairdo, will get one of the goals. (What, is he hanging with Pete Doherty?)

From there, the games will be predictably unlovely, but the United States will pound out enough points, with room to spare. Bradley's preferred central defensive pairing (Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra) may get exposed later in South Africa, but those two and a legacy of winning at home is more than enough to prop up a consistently inconsistent offense.

The kids still need time: No reason to think goalkeeper Tim Howard will go wobbly. Beyond that, expect to see some steady development but no big splashes. Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu will continue to inspire in brief bursts. But as neither is playing regularly in Europe, it's difficult to see much more. (And fans, forgetting that both players are still 19, will continue to expect too much. So take it easy on the kids, eh?)

Beasley to tread water: Speaking of not playing regularly, DaMarcus Beasley will continue to be a question mark, especially as Rangers are looking to offload their mercurial American midfielder. Beasley is only 26, and he'll return to form eventually -- but probably not in 2009.

Roster clarity: By year's end, we'll all have a fairly clear picture of the 23-man roster for South Africa. A ridiculously busy docket of internationals will clarify matters; Bradley has already reduced the pool from 40 or so at this time last year to about 30 today. Bradley will deploy the European-based players for summer tests against Brazil, Italy and Egypt in the higher-profile Confederations Cup, and then task the "B-team" with defending the Gold Cup title.

Big-name clamor: Finally, by year's end, a cry will rise to replace Bradley with a sexier name heading into South Africa. The usual suspects -- Juergen Klinsmann and Guus Hiddink -- will rise as "rumored replacements," meaning only that some dude on TV is saying it should happen. It won't.

Slightly plausible long shot: Superfan Drew Carey, aiming to whip up media clamor for the qualification effort, challenges the entire cast of "The Hills" to a PK contest. The stunt backfires as the show's cast becomes increasingly intolerable to Americans … but Bradley's boys get a new BFF in Lauren Conrad.

Major League Soccer predictions

Beaing the recession: The economic folly, fraud and failure will continue to affect pro sports. But MLS, already fairly lean and rocking lower ticket prices generally, will suffer less than others.

The David Beckham enterprise: He'll play a handful of mostly uneventful minutes at AC Milan before returning to the Home Depot Center in March. The man turns 34 in May, and that nonstop marketing and midfielding will start to catch up a bit. But as this isn't Bruce Arena's first rodeo, the Galaxy boss will understand the long-term value of resting Beckham in spots. And since Arena is Arena, he won't be afraid to tell the Galaxy suits to butt out as they try to squeeze the most from Beckham's ability to sell tickets. Look for Beckham's MLS assists total to climb from 10 in 2008 to about a dozen this year.

Dynamo in the know: On the field, the league will discover that Houston manager Dominic Kinnear knew what he was doing in trading Dwayne De Rosario. Former understudy Stuart Holden will replace "De Ro's" seven goals and two assists by late July. The Orange will sign a striker and a center back and rise anew as a serious title contender.

Don't count on a repeat for the Red Bulls: For all the hoopla over manager Juan Carlos Osorio's playoff sorcery, the Red Bulls will limp along in 2009. His meddling just won't mesh over the long haul with American athletes, who thrive on stability and clearly defined roles.

Earthquakes on the rise: San Jose will mine the foreign market (probably in England) to turn up a talented striker. He'll combine potently with Ronnie O'Brien and Darren Huckerby, forging a surprise contender out of Frank Yallop's side.

A short stint in Europe for Landon: Landon Donovan will wear the Bayern Munich colors, but only on loan as the powers can't settle on a sell price. So he'll return to SoCal to help Arena, Beckham and the Galaxy scrape up enough points to get into the playoffs -- but that's about all.

Failing to live up to expectations: Cracks will appear in Chicago, and D.C. United will finally give up on Tom Soehn. The expansion kids in Seattle? Eh. Freddie Ljungberg will discover, as others have, that outside midfielders struggle to dominate in fast and physical MLS. But Kasey Keller's big gloves and Sigi Schmid's fresh scarf allow the Sounders to challenge for a playoff spot -- but fall just short.

Coming or going?: Kenny Cooper will stay, then he'll go. That is, the big fellow from FC Dallas passes on January offers but moves to Europe in the summer.

Naming the new additions: As for league machinations, two new franchises will be introduced, with the smart money on Miami, plus Vancouver or Portland. Something else to keep an eye on: Paul Allen is the money behind the Seattle Sounders, of course. But the name you'll start hearing more is Joe Roth. The Hollywood filmmaker, 60, will quickly rise as one of the bold, premier voices of MLS.

Construction delays: That swank new stadium in New Jersey, scheduled to open in 2009? Don't be surprised if it opens in 2010. The facility conundrum in D.C. will plod messily along without resolution. Same for Houston.

No go: Finally, the league will not even consider scrapping the playoff system for a single-table format that crowns the top points earner as champion. That small fan faction that knows everything about soccer -- but nothing about the intersection of sports, culture and practicality -- will raise a stink about it. Again. Book that one.

Sleeping on the job: A TV commentator working a local broadcast, prattling on about some player's spirit turtle or something equally irrelevant, will actually fail to notice that a goal has been scored.

Predictions for other leagues and operations

The "other" league prospers: USL will benefit from MLS roster reductions. A scattering of decent players will reject paltry, end-of-the-bench MLS offers to double their pay (to perhaps $35,000 or so) in USL. That will strengthen the second-tier sides, although a repeat of 2008 CONCACAF Champions League success will be difficult to duplicate.

Open Cup glory: As more MLS teams attack the Champions League with greater regard, the U.S. Open Cup will suffer in terms of emphasis, further marginalizing a cool tournament that has never gotten its proper due. With that, a USL side will win the Open Cup for the first time since 1999.

Growing pains: The fledgling WPS, launching operations in seven cities, will find a tough slog. Why? First, it's a bugger of a time to be launching a league, with sponsors cutting back or jumping ship on athletic properties all over the map. Plus, startup leagues always face a treacherous uphill climb in any sport.

The exception: WPS will work better in St. Louis, with no MLS competition. In shared markets, the pinched economy and MLS competition will serve to cannibalize audiences on both sides. In other words, it will often be an "either-or" decision for potential ticket buyers rather than a "Let's go to both!"

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

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