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It Seems To Me . . .

D.C. United, Chicago, maybe Los Angeles are class of MLS in 2000.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, March 17, 2000) -- Here we are on the eve of the first Major League Soccer's first matches of the season, so it is time for the obligatory rubbing of the crystal ball, and guessing how teams will do in the coming season. In MLS, preseason predicting is a very dicey proposition indeed.

Before one of the preseason matches in Florida, I was chatting with the two head coaches outside the locker rooms at Lockhart Stadium waiting for their squads to dress. I won't quote them by name, since it was a chat and not an on-the-record interview.

I asked the obvious question: how you guys going to do this year? What I got was a couple of shrugs. "Who knows," one of the coaches said. "In this league teams don't have all their players and really settle in until the All-Star break. The first half of the year really doesn't mean much."

The other coach agreed, "Tell me who my missing allocations are, and how they will do, and I could maybe guess," he said. "But we'll be adding players even after opening day so it's hard to tell. I think we'll be better than last season."

So with this in mind, that teams are still trying to learn each other's names, I will venture forth and fearlessly try to forecast the future.

I believe that MLS Cup 2000 will be an exact duplication of MLS Cup 1998. Two seasons ago, a rested Chicago Fire defeated an exhausted DC United 2-1 in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. I think the exact same thing will happen on October 15th at RFK Stadium in Washington. A reasonably rested Chicago Fire will become league champion after outlasting a tired United squad.

What will be different this time is why United will be exhausted. In 1998, it was because Columbus forced United to a third game in the division final series, while Chicago won its series in two straight and earned a week of rest. To that extent it was United's own fault.

This year, it will be different. United's players will be tired because, four days before MLS Cup, many of them will have to play in World Cup qualifiers, probably in distant cities.

Although CONCACAF has not announced the schedule of qualifers, it is assumed that Wednesday, October 11 will have to be a full date. Assuming the United States opens it's schedule at home on September 2 or 3, the October date will likely be a road date. So the U.S., with anywhere from four to seven D.C. starters, may well have to play a critical match in Costa Rica or Guatemala, or some other port of call.

Bolivia, probably with United's best two players, Marco Ethcheverry and Jaime Moreno, is also scheduled to play that day. So United's key players will probably not arrive in Washington for MLS Cup ready to play, and Chicago, with only Chris Armas slated for U.S. national team duty, will be the fresher side.

Actually the last two weeks of the MLS playoffs could be chaos. If CONCACAF plays on October 11, MLS should move its playoff schedule up to ensure all teams finish a three-match final series by Saturday October 8. This could compact the final series into a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday affair. And then the league will have to hope that it can keep national team players through the 8th, because the various national team coaches could call players in five days before the October 11 match.

I think D.C. and Chicago will meet in the final because they are once again the best two teams in the league. United has not lost much from last season, and its younger players are developing. They, of course, will have to, because United will be missing so many national team and Olympic team players so often. United could lose a few matches because of missing players, but it would be a surprise if it is not still playing October 15.

Chicago, meantime ended last season with a good team, and then helped itself enormously in the off-season. If Hristo Stoichkov is even a shadow of his former self, and if Junior Agogo and DaMarcus Beasley begin to live up to their promise, this will be a team with awesome firepower. By the end of the season two young forwards with superior talent, Ante Razov and Josh Wolff, could find themselves on the bench. Right now, on paper, Chicago is about dead even with United in terms of strength. The two are heads and shoulders above the rest of the league.

Around the rest of the league, most of the teams helped themselves considerably in the off-season, and should be better than they were last year. How much better is a matter of conjecture at this point, and as the two coaches indicated, might not really be clear until after the All-Star break.

In the East, Miami has assembled an attacking team with a questionable defense. The Fusion will score a lot and, like last year, will allow opponents to score a lot. The open question is whether the Fusion will score more than it gives up. If so, it will finish second in the division behind United.

At this point both the MetroStars and New England Revolution are question marks. Both could be vastly better than last season. Heck, it would be difficult not to be better. But how much better depends on how many good games both team's generic warriors have left in their aging legs. Maybe it will be clearer by the All-Star break.

Chicago is the class of the Central. The Dallas Burn and Tampa Bay Mutiny could be better than they were last season. But then it is possible they won't be. Both teams have decent-to-good offenses, and very questionable defenses. If Dallas has very good seasons from Ariel Graziani and Jason Kreis it will be a factor. If either slips from his sterling performances last year, Dallas could be heading down.

The Tampa Bay does not seem to have enough offense to make up for its questionable defense.

Then there is the Columbus Crew, the Central Division's mystery team. No team in the league has changed as much in the last year. Changed for the better or the worse is one of those questions it will take several months to tell.

My own view is that Columbus has gone from a very talented but generally dysfunctional team, to a more cohesive group without much of the talent. Maybe coach Tom Fitzgerald can turn Colombian John Wilmer Perez into another Carlos Valderrama. Then again, probably not. In the Gold Cup, Perez looked like a run-of the-mill thug-of-the-day. Maybe he is more talented than he shows. He better be, otherwise it's going to be a very long year for the Crew, and maybe a very short one for Fitzgerald.

Right now, even though it is still at least one player short, the Los Angeles Galaxy look the clear winner in the West. If it gets a scorer from Mexico, the Galaxy could be on the same level as D.C. United and Chicago. Its defense is solid, the midfield better than adequate, and Cobi Jones could have a "Player-of-the-Year" season.

Whether he does or not, L.A. should easily outdistance its divisional rivals. The other three teams in the division are all question marks. If Miklos Molnar can carry the Kansas City Wizards and Khodadad Azzizi can carry the renamed San Jose Earthquakes, both will be vastly improved from last season. If the Colorado Rapids can recover from their rash of pre-season injuries, they will be a contender. Those are three ifs we will not know until, well, the All-Star break.

So stay tuned. This should be MLS's best year on the field. Hopefully, it will also be its best off the field. But this too we won't know for quite some time.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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