Real Salt Lake finally got its training camp under way earlier this week, the last MLS club to report. Of course, manager Jason Kreis hopes to show that dragging up the rear isn't necessarily a bad thing. He's testing a theory that the traditional MLS preseason is too long, aiming to keep his team fresh over the long haul by the tricky merits of addition by subtraction.
Since RSL returns as defending MLS champion, he's earned the benefit of the doubt.
Either way, RSL is in the house and the preseason is officially under way for all 16 clubs. The league's 15th season still won't begin until expansion Philadelphia meets last year's expansion darling, Seattle, on March 25. Until then, to help keep things interesting, here are 10 storylines to monitor over the preseason.
1. Could it be an awfully short preseason?: Are we two days away from collective bargaining Armageddon? Or is détente at hand, with the actors in this domestic soccer drama just dotting I's and crossing T's on an agreement? Ownership and the players' union agreed to extend the current CBA through Feb. 12. Well, it's almost here. There's been no threat of strikes or lockouts lately, as the principals continue to play nice, but there's no deal until there's a deal. Surely they wouldn't. Would they?
2. Name tags needed after an offseason of change: For about half of the clubs, the preseason is a big ol' "howdy" session, as players and coaches get familiar following significant offseason upheaval. Prominent figures are gone at Chicago, Chivas USA, D.C. United, Houston, Toronto and elsewhere. Houston is coping with the loss of two top men, Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark, U.S. internationals now trying to make their way in Europe. That makes it a huge preseason for Geoff Cameron, who may be prepping to replace Clark in the center of the park.
3. The 11th-hour World Cup bid: Injuries and iffy form for some have left the door ajar in terms of Bob Bradley's final 23-man roster for World Cup. Several MLS players are dangling on the edge of selection, some on sounder footing than others. Performance over the preseason and then into the first few rounds of matches still can weigh heavily in the selections. For Colorado's Conor Casey, Houston's Brian Ching, Kansas City's Jimmy Conrad, Dallas' Jeff Cunningham, Houston's Brad Davis, RSL's Robbie Findley, Chivas USA's Sacha Kljestan, Columbus' Chad Marshall, Dallas' Heath Pearce, Columbus' Robbie Rogers and maybe a couple of others, there's a massive amount at stake over the coming weeks.
4. Red Bull Arena, all set: Long dreamed-of Red Bull Arena will soon be more than merely renderings and 3-D seat-finder software. For soccer enthusiasts who have wanted to embrace MLS and the New York franchise, but had their soccer life force sucked away by years of dreadful performance inside the Giants Stadium echo chamber, well, here's the moment. The 25,000-seat arena with its state-of-the-art translucent roof looks nothing short of spectacular. Let's see if new manager Hans Backe can build a team befitting such a handsome building. There's a "soft opening" set for March 20 against Santos of Brazil; the real lid lifter is a week later against Chicago.
5. Speaking of Backe ...: Red Bull is one of two MLS teams determined to spin the foreign manager wheel yet again. With some notable exceptions, foreign managers often struggle to find their MLS bearings. There's a particularly notorious legacy of foreign-accented bungling at New York. But never mind all that! Backe brings a solid résumé, built largely in Scandinavian soccer, and retained valuable assistant Richie Williams to chart a better MLS course. Just east of Red Bull Arena, Carlos de los Cobos is in charge of Chicago, which came within a penalty kick of the MLS final but jettisoned manager Denis Hamlett anyway. How about this for a proper MLS welcome: de los Cobos must rebuild without internationals Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chris Rolfe and Gonzalo Segares.
6. New coaches galore: As a matter of fact, you're gonna need both hands to count all the new coaches this preseason. Including Peter Vermes, who went from "interim" manager to "the guy" in Kansas City, six clubs are passing and trapping under new coaches. The list: Martin Vasquez at Chivas USA, Curt Onalfo at D.C. United, Preki at Toronto FC, Backe, de los Cobos and Vermes.
7. New England in flux: The preseason deserves special monitoring in New England, where an unsettling degree of change presents Steve Nicol, the league's longest-serving manager, his toughest challenge yet. Not so long ago, the Revs appeared in consecutive MLS Cup finals. Now, eight starters from the 2007 MLS Cup are gone. Plus two others, Taylor Twellman and Matt Reis, remain on the injury shelf, their futures far from assured. There's even change in the management as Nicol is without trusted assistant Paul Mariner for the first time since 2004. Mariner is now leading the relegation-avoidance chase at Plymouth Argyle in England's second tier, where his side is rallying impressively under the former MLS man.
8. One stadium running behind: The grounds in New York may be all set, but Philadelphia's spanking new park in nearby Chester? Not so much. And the abominable snowman of a weather system isn't helping. The expansion Union will play at Lincoln Financial Field initially, with the stately stadium on the banks of the Delaware River targeted for a late-June debut. Meanwhile, manager Peter Nowak took his team south to North Carolina for some team bonding and to avoid the cold. Whoops! Well, he's a soccer coach, not a weatherman, so cut the man some slack, eh?
9. About this snow beast: It's not exactly a nonfactor, but it shouldn't wreck anyone's early preseason, either. Everybody in the north or northeast is already down south, or heading there soon. Houston, FC Dallas, Red Bull and Toronto FC will report to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for the inaugural Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic later this month. Some sides are already in Bradenton, Fla. Others are heading to Phoenix or elsewhere in sunnier sites south.
10. L.A. story: Across the country from New York, the league's other high-profile side will cope for now without its two best players, David Beckham and Landon Donovan. Donovan will report by mid-March, but the Galaxy won't see the former England captain until July, post-World Cup. Meanwhile, Clint Mathis has joined the Galaxy from Real Salt Lake. The move provides cover for Beckham (and Donovan, who will miss time for the World Cup), but also makes the Galaxy's graying midfield that much older. It doesn't help that Mathis himself will miss four to six weeks following his knee surgery.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.