Season 10: We've come a long way
whether through its single entity organization or the simple fact that most American players are pretty much alike -- has a copyright on parity.
Indeed, the level playing field is probably the single most significant development over the first decade of MLS' existence. While D.C. United fans were thrilled to see their side command the opening years and the Chicago Fire faithful cheered the way that their team started life in the USA's top league, the fact that everybody can honestly start this weekend with a belief that a title run is possible makes the league signally different from the other pro circuits in this country.
There simply is not one club which stands out from the rest, and while there must be those who argue over whether that's mediocrity or perfect balance, it doesn't matter whether you follow the New England Revolution or newly-renamed FC Dallas this week. Each has just as good a shot at the title as the other, although you suspect that FC Dallas supporters are cheering the acquisition of Carlos Ruiz with enthusiasm this week.
There will be more than a little argument that the decision to move Ruiz, seemingly to open the door for Landon Donovan at The Home Depot Center, is negative in the sense that it demonstrates orchestrated player movement. But the flip side is that MLS has bent over backwards -- remember Carlos Valderrama? -- to keep its top talent on the field even if sometimes that means a move or two that purists can pick apart. The latest doesn't turn Dallas into an instant title favorite any more than it grandly changes the fortunes of the Galaxy if Donovan indeed winds up The HDC.
Down the road a bit -- perhaps early June -- we will have a better handle on who actually can challenge for the MLS Cup, but it is unlikely that there will be one or two teams clearly above the pack. Think back to when the playoffs started last fall. How many of you believed, as I did, that any of the eight participants could win the title?
The challenge in any season, but seemingly more significant with each MLS year, is the degree to which coaches and general managers spot and assess talent effectively. While it is nice when a Freddy Adu -- or a Carlos Ruiz -- lands in your lap, there is ample evidence to demonstrate that the supporting cast makes the overall product. That is not likely to change soon, especially as the world soccer market makes it prohibitively expensive to think of buying superstar talent at all but the world's five-to-10 elite clubs.
Adu, of course, is worth thinking about on the first weekend. He's just a year older physically, but how much older is he psychologically? The wunderkind survived all kinds of pressure a year ago, being thrown into an impossible situation. Too young, too small, too frail when confronted by bigger, experienced defenders, there were times when Adu looked every bit the young kid. But there were also those moments when you saw what he is capable of and it is certain that many soccer fans will be looking at him this season to see just how quick a learner he will be.
In fact, there is likely a player on every roster who fits that description, someone that the hard core fans have already spotted and will be hoping to say "I told you so" come October.
In Week One, of course, everybody starts even. In MLS, breaking away from that isn't easy and there's nothing wrong with that.
Jerry Trecker covered soccer around the world for 47 years before retiring from The Hartford (Ct.) Courant in June 2004. He is a regular contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.