With 14 teams in two countries, a host of new signings, the return of the Earthquakes to San Jose and a second year of Beckham-mania on the cards, the 13th season of Major League Soccer (MLS) looks like being potentially the best yet.
Although league Commissioner Don Garber is eager to steer discussion away from the circus-like frenzy that greeted the arrival of David Beckham to LA Galaxy last summer, he knows the England centurion's presence will be a driving force as MLS hunts a wider fan base and increased ticket sales.
"He (Beckham) is a great ambassador for the sport here and abroad," Garber recently said. "(His signing) was one of those key moments in the history of our sport."
Beckham will be joining up with a revamped Galaxy outfit for
2008 including new coach Ruud Gullit (in for Frank Yallop, who
heads to San Jose) and returning Guatemalan goal machine Carlos
Ruiz. Despite the shake-up, the England midfielder, who was injured
more often than not last term, will be expected to do the business
alongside US captain and creator Landon Donovan.
"Any time you miss the play-offs two seasons running, things need to change," Donovan recently told FIFA.com. "And that's what's happening now."
Best in the West
The Galaxy will have some formidable challengers in the Western Conference (the league is separated into East and West). Chivas USA - established in 2004 as another top-flight option for fans in the LA area - share the Home Depot Center with the Galaxy and will be keen on keeping up the sustained progress they built last year by finishing the regular season with the best record in the West. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who saw a move to the English Premier League scuppered in the close-season, has established himself as one of the best in the country and Sacha Kljestan, Jonathan Bornstein, veteran striker Ante Razov and Mexican Claudio Suarez will all be aiming at a run into the play-offs this season.
All the teams in the West will be chasing CONCACAF Champions Cup semi-finalists Houston Dynamo, toppers of MLS two-years running. Formerly the San Jose Earthquakes, the club moved to Texas in 2005 and are loaded with talent and have a solid coach in Scottish-born former US international Dominic Kinnear. Canadian star Dwayne De Rosario is the team's spiritual leader and creative engine.
"Every year we seem to be the invisible team, even back when we were in San Jose," D-Ro recently said about the orange-clad side's perennial low-profile.
Rounding out the west are FC Dallas, led by former Arsenal man
Steve Morrow who will need to deal with the loss of Ruiz, and
Colorado Rapids - who will be relying on Pablo Mastroeni and new
man Christian Gomez (in from DC United). The return of the San Jose
Earthquakes as a club will see a third team in California for the
first time in the league's history. Gavin Glinton and Ronnie
O'Brien will be two of the difference-makers as the Quakes look
to get back with a bang.
Real Salt Lake go into their fourth term in Mormon Country led by ex-player Jason Kreiss.
Beasts of the East
The Eastern conference will be led by the New England Revolution, who are building up an unwanted reputation as the league's nearly men. They lost out in MLS Cup the last two years to Houston (and the year before that to LA Galaxy) and have never won an MLS championship. That said, they are one of the most consistent team's in the league and in Taylor Twellman they have one of its best scorers.
Coach and former Liverpool legend Steve Nicol spoke to FIFA.com about how winning the US Open Cup in 2007 might just be the spark the side needs in their elusive hunt for a first MLS title. "It's a huge boost for us," he said. "No one likes losing finals and this is good for the psyche."
Local rivals Red Bull New York will be looking to challenge for the title of best in the east. Colombian international and former Premiership standout Juan Pablo Angel will want to keep up his scoring ways (19 goals in 24 appearances last year), and his countryman and coach Juan Carlos Osorio is hoping to have the side firing on all cylinders.
DC United - currently in the last four of the CONCACAF Champions Cup - had the best record in 2007 after the regular season, but they spluttered and went out early in the post-season play-offs. They have in their ranks last year's league best player in Brazilian Luciano Emilio and new signing Marcelo Gallardo of Argentina. Chicago Fire, who reached the play-offs last year, will be hoping Mexican icon and captain Cuauhtémoc Blanco can make the difference this season, his second in the Windy City.
Columbus Crew have never reached an MLS Cup final and are hoping for a good run in 2008, with Argentina ace Guillermo Baros Schelotto heading into his second year and looking to settle. Toronto FC, the only Canadian side in MLS, are back for their sophomore season and hoping to improve on their difficult first year when they failed to reach the play-offs, but pulled in an average of 20,000 fans per game.
Kansas City Wizards round out the east, with one of the high-profile signings of the 2008 campaign in Argentina former Valencia striker Claudio 'El Piojo' Lopez. He will slot in for USA striker Eddie Johnson who left for Fulham in the close-season.
Two more teams are scheduled to join MLS in the next two years, in Seattle (2009) and Philadelphia (2010).