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Mar 16, 2009

In lieu of Beckham, other MLS stars will step to the fore

So, which are you more tired of hearing about: David Beckham or Nadya Suleman, the octuplet mom? Given all that has transpired since Frankie Hejduk and his Columbus teammates hoisted the MLS Cup back in November, I'll venture that for most U.S. soccer fans, "Beckham fatigue" has won out. The clincher was when Beckham used the words "committed" and "commitment" a combined 13 times in his interview with ESPN's Hannah Storm on March 11. For a moment, I thought I was listening to the old "Mr. Subliminal" sketch from "Saturday Night Live."

Mercifully, with the Beckham circus now making its swing of European stadiums, the league's focus can return to on-field matters. And with Fabio Capello's valet waiting until mid-July to participate in his next MLS contest, here are the players and coaches you should be keeping an eye on after the first ball is kicked March 19.

Five players to watch

1. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Columbus Crew

The league's reigning MVP got the Designated Player money he deserved in the offseason. But will the DP curse claim another victim? Columbus has almost all of its championship pieces from a year ago returning, but the Crew will need another stellar season out of the Argentine if they are to become the third team in league history to repeat as champions.

2. Javier Morales, Real Salt Lake

As crimes go, Morales' failure to be named a finalist for the league's MVP award didn't rank quite as high as, say, Bruce Springsteen's song "The Wrestler" getting snubbed at the Oscars. But it was a travesty, nonetheless. Although I'm guessing the Argentine didn't lose much sleep over missing the MLS awards gala, the best way to change the voters' minds is to follow in the footsteps of his countryman Schelotto by increasing his production and leading his team to championship glory.

3. Christian Gomez, D.C. United

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An offseason trade has rescued Gomez from his Colorado nightmare, one where he made just two substitute appearances in the last 11 games of the 2008 campaign. Now he returns to the city where he enjoyed his best years in MLS, including an MVP season in 2006. But the team Gomez is returning to looks a shell of the side that won the Supporters' Shield in 2006 and 2007, with the defense looking especially suspect. That means Gomez will have to be operating near his peak for the Black-and-Red to make it back to the playoffs.

4. Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chicago Fire

If you're searching for the gold standard of Designated Players, look no further than Blanco, who has delivered not only on the field but at the gate, as well. That said, Blanco did hit a lull in the middle of last season, and it ended up costing the Fire, who would have loved to have hosted the Eastern Conference final instead of losing it in Columbus. The Fire is the trendy pick to prevail in the Eastern Conference. To do that, they'll need a bit more consistency from their attacking hub.

5. Landon Donovan, F, Los Angeles Galaxy

The league's most recognizable American returns after another disappointing spell in Germany. Will Donovan come back the better for it, or will he revert to the kind of up-and-down play that has plagued his MLS career? Donovan certainly delivered last year, winning the league scoring title with 20 goals, and with the Galaxy in rebuilding mode once again, they'll need another outstanding season out of their star.

Five rookies to watch

1. Omar Gonzalez, D, Los Angeles Galaxy

Relying on a rookie center back doesn't sound like a recipe for fixing last year's league-worst defense, especially when your other central defender is a 37-year-old who hasn't played in the league for 18 months. But that is the direction the Galaxy appears to be taking, and although there is plenty of risk, it also amounts to an incredible opportunity for Gonzalez. At 6-foot-5, there is no doubting his aerial ability at both ends of the field. But how he fares against pacy attackers will play a huge part in how his rookie year turns out.

2. Michael Lahoud, D/M, Chivas USA

Back in 2006, Chivas USA's Jonathan Bornstein displayed unrivaled versatility on his way to bagging that year's rookie of the year award. Three years later, a toxic brew of injuries and international commitments could see history repeat itself in the form of Lahoud. So far, the Wake Forest product has lined up everywhere in midfield, and even at outside back. With the injury bug that laid Chivas low last year showing no signs of abating, expect Lahoud to log plenty of minutes this season.

3. Sam Cronin, M, Toronto FC

Cronin has been tagged by many as the rookie most capable of making an immediate impact. Yet with Toronto possessing one of the league's better midfields it's easy to think he won't get much playing time. But with World Cup qualifying and the Gold Cup on this summer's calendar, someone will need to step in for players such as Dwayne De Rosario and Amado Guevara. For that reason, expect Cronin to get his fair share of opportunities to show off his clean passing and vision.

4. Steve Zakuani, M/F, Seattle Sounders FC

The No. 1 overall pick in January's SuperDraft made his name in college as a forward, and with Freddy Montero and Nate Jaqua already on the roster, there didn't appear to be space in the lineup for Zakuani. But good players find ways to shoehorn their way into the first team, and the pacy attacker has impressed in some spells as a left midfielder.

5. Jeremy Hall, D/M, New York Red Bulls

Hall is another player who has had to change roles at the professional level. A left midfielder at Maryland, Hall has been lining up at right back throughout much of the preseason, and given the 14 goals he scored in his final year as a collegian, he clearly has the ability to get involved in the attack.

On the hot seat

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1. Mo Johnston, general manager, Toronto FC

With Toronto in its third year, and with some serious attacking talent at its disposal, it's playoffs or bust for the Scot. Johnston engineered the trade that brought favorite son De Rosario back to Toronto, and with forward Pablo Vitti set to complement the likes of Chad Barrett, TFC have no excuses. Of course, getting occasionally tempestuous Guevera to share the ball with all three of them is the problem of coach John Carver. But if it blows up in everyone's face, no doubt Johnston will be collateral damage.

2. Dwayne De Rosario, Toronto FC

Sharing the hot seat with Johnston is De Rosario, who, after years of dropping hints that he'd like to play for his hometown club, got his wish when Houston finally shipped him to Toronto. But now the Canadian international will be expected to deliver the team's first playoff berth, even as it looks as if De Rosario's game is on a downward slope. Given Toronto's suspect defense, De Rosario will need to bounce back and then some to satisfy the demands of the Toronto faithful.

3. Tom Soehn, coach, D.C. United

After United failed to make the playoffs last year, it was speculated that Soehn would be out of a job, but with injuries doing plenty to scuttle DCU's season, the Black-and-Red's coach was spared the executioner's ax. With injuries already beginning to pile up once again for United, things aren't looking much better for Soehn, and if he delivers another season outside the playoff places, he won't be so lucky, no matter the circumstances.

4. Stuart Holden, M, Houston Dynamo

With De Rosario now plying his trade north of the border, it will be up to Holden to pick up the midfield slack for the Dynamo. The U.S. Olympian excelled in a supersub role the past few years, and chipped in with some vital goals, but quarterbacking the Dynamo attack amounts to a huge jump in responsibility. Is Holden up to the task? He'll need to be if Houston is to make it back to the MLS Cup final.

5. Bruce Arena, coach, Los Angeles Galaxy

Arena now has the total control over team matters that his two immediate predecessors lacked, and it's expected that he'll be given some time to turn the Galaxy around. But let's not forget that owner AEG once fired Sigi Schmid when the team was in first place, and it never has hesitated to make changes when things weren't going well. Arena has shored up his defense by bringing in several veteran players, but will it be enough to get back to the playoffs? We'll see.

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

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