The 2009 MLS season just a few days away from kicking off, meaning it is time to look at how the league's 15 teams stack up heading into the new campaign.
As is the case every season, there will be surprises, disappointments and team performances we just didn't see coming. Just like the MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew, which went from out of the playoffs to league champions, and Real Salt Lake, which went from last place in the West to a within a goalpost of the MLS Cup Final. We also saw D.C. United go from Supporters Shield winner to not even making the playoffs.
With that in mind, here are the first installment of the SBI MLS Power Rankings. These rankings are based on how I see the 2009 MLS season shaking out (although the team at No. 1 isn't necessarily my pick to win it all). There are some teams much higher than you might expect, and some that are lower than you are used to seeing them. Once we get into the season the rankings will adjust to represent a team's performance in the season to date.
Now, without further ado, here are the first 2009 SBI MLS Power Rankings:
SBI MLS Power Rankings
1. Columbus Crew
This Week: at Houston Dynamo on Saturday (8pm, Fox Soccer Channel).
Outlook: Most key players from MLS Cup-winning squad are back as Columbus attempts to become the first Eastern Conference team to repeat as champion since 1997 D.C. United.
2. Chicago Fire
This Week: at FC Dallas on Saturday (8:30pm, Direct Kick)
Outlook: The deepest team in MLS, the Fire will have Brian McBride from the start of the season and youngsters Patrick Nyarko and Marco Pappa ready to take on bigger roles.
3. Real Salt Lake
This Week: Bye week (at Seattle on March 28th)
Outlook: After coming so close to reaching MLS Cup in 2008, RSL brings all its key players back and looks poised to unseat Houston as the class of the Western Conference.
4. Toronto FC
This Week: at Kansas City Wizards on Saturday (8:30pm, Direct Kick).
Outlook: Led by Dwayne DeRosario, revamped TFC could be this year's Columbus Crew. Questions about the defense persist, but Toronto's front six is loaded and another defender is on the way.
5. New York Red Bulls
This Week: at Seattle Sounders FC on Thursday (9pm, ESPN2).
Outlook: Another team that remade its roster, Red Bulls made some bold off-season moves and now boast a deeper team because of it. If Jorge Rojas and Albert Celades play at a high level, the Red Bulls could be a legitimate title contender.
6. Houston Dynamo
This Week: vs. Columbus Crew on Saturday (8pm, Fox Soccer Channel)
Outlook: Traded away Dwayne DeRosario, and lost Eddie Robinson for an extended period due to injury. Will need Stuart Holden to be an all-star to avoid dropping too far down the league pecking order.
7. Kansas City Wizards
This Week: vs. Toronto FC on Saturday (8:30pm, Direct Kick)
Outlook: New addition Adam Cristman is already hurt again, but Wizards still boast a young and talented team. Rookie Graham Zusi could wind up being the steal of the draft while Argentine newcomer Santiago Hirsig should be in the conversation for MLS newcomer of the year.
8. New England Revolution
This Week: at San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday (10:30pm, Direct Kick)
Outlook: After years as an Eastern Conference playoff fixture, this is the season the Revs suffer for losing top talent for so many years. Replacing Michael Parkhurst will be too much for even Steve Nicol to pull off.
9. Seattle Sounders
This Week: vs. New York Red Bulls on Thursday (9pm, ESPN2)
Outlook: Can an expansion team really finish in third place in the West? Have you seen the West? Sigi Schmid's team is strong and more than capable of reaching the postseason in year one. Fredy Montero has Golden Boot ability and we're projecting him to have a 14-goal season (17 was probably a bit too generous).
10. FC Dallas
This Week: vs Chicago Fire on Saturday (8:30pm, Direct Kick)
Outlook: Yes, FC Dallas has added David Van Den Bergh and Colombian playmaker David Ferreira, but the Dallas defense is still questionable at best and Schellas Hyndman has yet to prove himself as a quality tactician on the pro level.
11. Chivas USA
This Week: vs. Colorado Rapids on Saturday (10:30pm, Fox Soccer Channel).
Outlook: The Goats just didn't do enough this off-season to improve enough to merit a higher ranking. With Sacha Kljestan a very real threat to leave for Europe this summer, we see Chivas having a disappointing season.
12. Colorado Rapids
This Week: at Chivas USA on Saturday (10:30pm, Fox Soccer Channel).
Outlook: We were ready to have Colorado be 15th when the pre-season began, but the Rapids kept putting up good pre-season results against MLS competition, leaving us to wonder if maybe, just maybe, Gary Smith will work some magic. Don't bet on it. Colorado simply didn't do enough in the off-season to improve the team.
13. D.C. United
This Week: at Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday (3pm, Telefutura)
Outlook: D.C. replaced Marcelo Gallardo with Christian Gomez, which should help, but the defense remains a serious question mark. There is also the question of how much longer Jaime Moreno has left and whether Luciano Emilio can regain his MVP form. In a loaded Eastern Conference, D.C. will struggle to avoid the basement.
14. San Jose Earthquakes
This Week: vs. New England Revolution on Saturday (10:30pm, Direct Kick)
Outlook: Yes, San Jose added Cam Weaver and Bobby Convey, and the Earthquakes did enjoy that strong second-half run last season, but we just don't see San Jose being a force this year. The defense is decent but not great (Joe Cannon deserves as much credit as anybody for San Jose's low goals-against average), Convey wasn't exactly a dominant force in his last MLS go-round and other teams did more in the off-season to improve.
15. Los Angeles Galaxy
This Week: vs. D.C. United on Sunday (3pm, Telefutura)
Outlook: Bruce Arena is going to turn things around in LA eventually, but the possibility of fielding a defense with two rookies and an aging veteran who hasn't played since 2007 doesn't exactly instill confidence. The Galaxy could be a second-half force, but the question is how deep a hole will LA be in by the time Beckham returns?
So yes, Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC start off very high. With all due respect to the Dynamo, I see RSL as the favorite in the West. TFC is locked and loaded and I could absolutely see them being this year's Columbus. Yes, there are still concerns about the defense, but I'm hearing a centerback is on the way, and if he's as good as I'm hearing, Toronto will absolutely be a force in 2009.
I'm sure there are plenty of people who aren't sold on the Red Bulls, but after seeing Juan Carlos Osorio lead a patch-work team to an MLS Cup final, it is scary to think what he will do if his truck-load of acquisitions actually pays off.
Among the teams I see disappointing this year are New England, D.C. United and Chivas USA. I know there are some people on the FC Dallas bandwagon, but I'm not one of them, even with the addition of standout winger Dave Van Den Bergh. Colorado is 11th on this list but I could just as easily had them 15th.
I'm sure folks on the West Coast will accuse me of having an East Coast bias (what with six of the top eight teams being from the East), but considering how the East did last season, and given how much more East teams did in the off-season to improve than the West teams did, I have no reason to believe that the balance of power will be shifting away from the East this year.
What team could I see myself being completely wrong about? The Red Bulls, if Rojas flops and Celades fails to make an impact; D.C. United, if the defense somehow comes together and Gomez and Moreno go nuts; Chivas USA if Ante Razov and Maykel Galindo stay healthy and Sacha Kljestan stays; San Jose if Bobby Convey stays healthy and Cam Weaver is a monster; and the Galaxy if Bruce Arena builds himself a respectable defense and Edson Buddle has another big year.
For those of you wondering about last year's ratings to start the season, here they are. I was completely wrong about D.C. United (as were most people). Six of my top eight teams did make the playoffs. Who was I off with? Real Salt Lake and the Columbus Crew (as were most people), although I do feel better after having read this prediction:
"If there is a lower ranked team I can see putting it together it's Columbus. The Crew has a good nucleus of young players who just might be ready to grow up and turn the Crew into a serious playoff contender."
Actually, of my post-ranking observations, the only one I was wrong about was Real Salt Lake. You can see by RSL's ranking this time around that I have been converted.
So what do you think of the first installment of the SBI MLS Power Rankings? Think your team is ranked too low? is there a team you think is ranked too highly? Who is your surprise team for 2009?
Feel free to share your thoughts, and your rankings, below.