The preseason is history, with the 14th MLS season fast approaching. The league fattened up to 15 teams, which makes playoff spots a little harder to reach. That should crank the intensity meter a bit. Meanwhile, here are the 10 top story lines to follow from now through November's championship.
1. The ongoing Beckham drama: You didn't really think that David Beckham's pledge to ditch his Milan rental in July and reapply for a job with the Galaxy would finally subdue the Becks-related drama? You did? Oh, that's so cute!
No, alas, that's not the case.
Yes, it would be nice if we could wander into the MLS season musing over matters more mundane, such as how many assists the English international might stack up in 2009. But we may as well dream about bottomless ice cream delivered by benevolent unicorns -- because that's not going to happen either.
Drama there will be, with abundant and relevant questions to answer: Will Becks overextend that 33-year-old body and injure himself before July? Will he reach for the escape hatch, opting out of his MLS contract at season's end as so many assume? Will the Galaxy locker room even accept him? Will his noted professionalism prevail in L.A., or will his heart remain at the San Siro? Will anything trump Beckham's overriding desire to remain in Fabio Capello's graces?
Will some $30,000-a-year defender, proud of his league and happy to be part of MLS, make world headlines with a nasty, injurious tackle on some random Wednesday night?
Here's one issue we don't need to address: What's up with all the recent media backwash over Beckham's visits to opposition MLS stadiums and whether they will elicit boos? Uh, wasn't everyone paying attention? He was catching plenty of grief at most stadiums already.
2. Wither the Galaxy: Then, there's the matter of the Galaxy. Remember them? Can Beckham, Landon Donovan and coach Bruce Arena finally restore respect after three years of missing the playoffs? Arena's personnel moves smartly tilted toward lower-profile transactions as he tried to tamp down the circus and restore order around the HDC. He has gathered competent, although lesser-decorated, talent -- a meaningful shift from previous days when superclub-wannabe ethos dictated "the sexier the better."
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3. The expanding universe: Major League Soccer will soon be an 18-team operation. And won't that be something, considering how perilously close to collapse a 10-team league was just a few short years ago? Commissioner Don Garber hopes to announce franchises Nos. 17 and 18 soon, and the smart money says Vancouver, Portland and St. Louis are scrapping it out for the two spots.
St. Louis and Portland are the populist choices, but Vancouver makes sense in helping to reinforce the MLS brand in Canada. Still, Anheuser-Busch's recent land donation adds some financial heft to Jeff Cooper's bid in the "The Lou," and Portland just approved some necessary development money that nudges its bid forward. This one is gonna be close.
4. Rebuild for the Red Bulls: The amount of Red Bull roster churn seems a bit curious. Yes, the entire body of work in 2008 was underwhelming, but the team did finish on an upswing, just 90 minutes from claiming its first MLS title. Makeover architect Juan Carlos Osorio probably deserves the benefit of the doubt after that stirring push through the playoffs. Still, midfield linchpin Dave van den Bergh, steady defender Jeff Parke, defender Diego Jimenez, underrated midfielder Mike Magee, fullback Chris Leitch and others are all gone. Osorio now has more speed and a deeper midfield to support the gold standard of MLS strikers, Juan Pablo Angel.
5. Big days in Seattle: Who can't get excited about the promising launch in Seattle, where season-ticket sales have surpassed a whopping 19,000? GMs in most MLS cities won't get anywhere near that number in average attendance, much less in season-ticket holders. As for the product, so much depends on noted Calvin Klein model and aspiring MLS midfielder Freddie Ljungberg and his ability to recover efficiently from offseason hip surgery -- a bid that's complicated by Qwest Field's artificial turf. The last three expansion sides have struggled initially, although San Jose 2.0 did make a late push and nearly crashed last year's playoff party. It'll take something special from Ljungberg and Keller to push Seattle past the playoff hump.
6. Better tournament performance: Major League Soccer's contribution in 2008 to the newly created CONCACAF Champions League went about as well as Bernie Madoff's investments. In other words, a stinkin' fiasco. New England and Chivas USA became early road kill. United lasted just a wee bit longer before collapsing in a heap, and Houston crashed out in the quarterfinals. SuperLiga unfolded a bit better for MLS, with New England finishing on top. And only one MLS club made the U.S. Open Cup final, with D.C. United claiming the final at home. An improving USL could further close the gap between it and MLS this year, and that bears watching.
7. So long, Sigi: For the second time in MLS history, a club will attempt to defend its league title under a new manager. By the time Sigi Schmid won his crown in Columbus, his heart was already halfway to the Emerald City; the lovable lug of a coach was upset with Crew ownership's lack of initiative in extending his contract. So now it's up to well-respected, longtime Columbus assistant Robert Warzycha to keep the party going around Crew Stadium. We'll soon discover how much Schmid contributed to the Crew's 2008 crown, or if the men from Ohio can manage just fine without him.
8. H-town redemption?: Did Dominic Kinnear's Dynamo simply run into the mother of all matchup problems last fall when Red Bull New York carjacked the playoff series? Or was it emblematic of bigger issues? We got an early peek as Houston was swatted out of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals -- although that tournament was always secondary to MLS prep around Robertson Stadium. Dwayne De Rosario is gone, but his seven goals and two assists surely can't be too difficult to replace, and rising attacker Stuart Holden seems ready to tote the burden. They may still need one more quality forward to punch their way forward.
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9. Young guns rising: MLS will be a better place if Columbus winger Robbie Rogers can build on his breakout 2008 campaign, if Red Bull midfielder Dane Richards can summon more of the magic that flummoxed Houston in the playoffs, and if young defenders like Bakary Soumare (Chicago) and Chad Marshall (Columbus) can climb the next rung on their advancing careers. Other young players on the potential "breakout year" watch: Houston's Holden, New England's Sainey Nyassi and RSL's Chris Wingert. And it will be interesting see what kind of bag of tricks Sounders rookie (and top overall league pick) Steve Zakuani brings.
10. Collapse watch at RFK: This might surprise you: D.C. United has more wins over the last three seasons than any other club. But the playoff performance has been undistinguished, to say the least. United prevailed in a first-round series in 2006 and hasn't claimed a playoff series since. The RFK bunch didn't even qualify in 2008. Collapse down the stretch has been the common denominator. Tom Soehn must get it right this year or managerial change surely will visit the nation's capital.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.