First XI: Most intriguing
presents her list of the Most Intriguing People of the Year -- so why shouldn't First XI? By definition, the word "intrigue" means to "arouse the interest or curiosity." As we all know, there are plenty of people in and around MLS who make us go "hmmmmm ...". In this list, we're going to spin forward to 2005 and make a few predictions about who's going to arouse our interest the most.
11. Tony Meola. You just wonder where the Meola saga is headed. I give Tony credit for being (pretty much) a model citizen down the stretch in Kansas City this year. Sure, at the end, he expressed some frustration when he said he was ready to play in the MLS Cup Final and no one told him he would not play. That's probably not what Bo Oshoniyi needed to hear. But, does anyone doubt Meola can still play well in MLS? I don't. Still, as the 'keeper pool expands -- look at Henry Ring and Adin Brown, for example -- you can see that most coaches in the league are not going to break the bank to sign a veteran to fill that role. Can Tony take a big step back in terms of pay? Or, is it really a possibility that he'll try to find work in Italy -- a claim he's been making since the beginning of MLS. Whatever the ending, I expect Meola is going to be making a lot of news in 2005.
10. Edson Buddle. Is he misunderstood? Or is he a troublemaker? Why did he not start Game 2 of the Crew's playoff series with New England? Is he going to be traded? Is he good enough to get some call-ups to the national team? I love watching Buddle play. For a big, fast player, he's got tremendous touch on the ball. I also like his arrogance -- to a point. Players like Buddle always challenge coaches. You have to always walk that fine line between pulling back on him and letting him go. Which Buddle will emerge?
9. Alexi Lalas. A championship team in '03, the Quakes are now being rebuilt under Lalas. Can he and Dominic Kinnear get them back to the highest level? And if they do, where will they be playing? Honestly, I'm shocked that the Quakes have not been a bigger hit in San Jose. When I compare my experiences watching games at Spartan Stadium with my experiences watching MLS in places like Giants Stadium, I just can't figure out why a person who loves the game would not be watching the Quakes live on a regular basis. There's just a nice buzz around Spartan on a game night and the weather always seems to be perfect. That's going to be a heavy lift for Alexi, but so is replacing Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario.
8. Amado Guevara. In the first half of the '04 season, Guevara was everything the MetroStars imagined he could be. He was a leader. He was paying two-way soccer and knocking in huge penalty kicks. But, most importantly, he seemed to have overcome his annoying tendency to question every referee's decision that went against him. At some point in the second half of the season, Guevara reverted back to his old petulant self, and his whole game went the way of his disposition. How he still won the MVP award is a mystery to everyone who covers the league. Sure, he had it won by a mile at the midway point, but he gave it all back and then some as the Metros stumbled down the stretch. What led to his downfall? Was it an injury to Mark Lisi, who seemed to form the best partnership with him in the midfield? Or was it -- quietly -- an injury to Gilberto Flores, who for a stretch during the regular season seemed to be Amado's perfect lieutenant? We'll see this year. The MetroStars looked like Supporters' Shield favorites at the 20-game mark, but looked a pretty rudderless down the stretch. They need Guevara at the top of his game if they're going to take a big step forward this season.
7. Landon Donovan. No, Donovan is not really an MLS story anymore, but in some ways, he could develop into MLS's biggest story. Just how good is he? That's really what a lot of us have wanted to know these past few seasons as he's pretty much turned a switch on and off when he was/wasn't in the mood to play MLS matches. Can he be a top attacking player in the Bundesliga? Can he lead the U.S. back into the World Cup? He and his buddy DaMarcus Beasley are no longer unknown kids. They have to be leaders.
6. Eric Wynalda. He keeps getting better in the booth, but I want to see him (and John Harkes) working his way onto MLS sidelines in the near future. This will be a fun part of the league's evolution, to see some of its higher-profile players emerge as coaches. From my frequent conversations with Eric, I know he's full of ideas on how he'd run a team, from a management and a coaching standpoint. I look forward to seeing him in action. Of course, for '05, he'll just have to keep intriguing me with his comments on ESPN and ABC.
5. Brian Ching. Is he going to supplant Target Man for Life Brian McBride? He's big, he's tough, he's even light on his feet. And, probably more than any MLS forward -- except maybe Carlos Ruiz -- Ching lives to score goals in the rough spots. Talk about an success story. Imagine if Ching -- who got bounced around for a couple of seasons -- emerges as one of the U.S. national team's starting strikers? That would say a lot for how much the U.S. talent pool has grown in the last 10 years.
4. Ante Razov. He's laying in the weeds now, recovering from a groin injury, but I expect Razov to return to 15-goal form this season for the Fire. If you're looking for a sleeping giant, by the way, look no further than Chicago, where they could have an arsenal of strikers -- Razov, Andy Herron and Damani Ralph -- that's the best in the league. They've also got a leader in Chris Armas who won't put up with another year without playoffs.
3. Thomas Rongen. Let's be honest, this was the most shocking announcement of the 2004 season, that CD Chivas USA -- America's Spanish-first soccer team -- had hired a Dutchman to be their first coach. I think Rongen is a good coach with a real love for attacking soccer. I know it was a different time and place, but his early Tampa teams were really fun to watch, with Carlos Valderrama and Roy Lassiter. Call me crazy, but I'm going to pencil Chivas USA in as a team that will contend for every championship this year. There's just something about a clandestine operation that excites me and no one around MLS seems to have a real feel for what the Goats are going to try to pull off.
2. Clint Mathis. Is he coming back to MLS to finish his career or re-ignite it? Really, watching that alone will make Mathis an intriguing figure in 2005. We have to remind ourselves that 2000 was a long, long time ago. And, really, that was the last time we saw Mathis produce magic over an extended period of time. On the day of the expansion draft, we heard people talking about a Mathis-Jason Kreis partnership in Salt Lake as if it was a given they'd produce tons of goals. Let's just say, both have a lot to prove.
1. Bruce Arena. Just a reminder, the water could get rough this year for Bruce and the national team. World Cup qualifying is never easy and when things start to get a little out of control, it's going to be interesting to see how Arena responds in terms of player selection. Will he trust the final stage of qualifying to the vets, or will he be looking for young blood to carry them home? Will a loss or two change his thinking? It'll all make for good theater.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff at email@example.com and he promises to read (but not respond to) all of them. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.