As one MLS season ends, the next MLS season quickly comes into focus

MLS Cup and Expansion Draft in focus

Bruce Arena LA Galaxy

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Getty Images

The 2011 Major League Soccer season is nearly at the end, with Sunday night capping a memorable year in North America’s top flight when LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo contest the MLS Cup at The Home Depot Center in Carson, California.

There are many storylines that have the potential of playing out this weekend. Will this be David Beckham’s last match in MLS? Can the Galaxy cap a stellar 2011 campaign with victory? Will Houston continue their surprising playoff run and upset the formbook – not to mention many Galaxy supporters in attendance – with a win over LA?

Only 22 players on the Home Depot Center pitch will have the answer to those questions by the end of the weekend, and before you know it, preparations for the 2012 MLS season will start as early as Monday, with the league’s newest club in Montreal Impact taking a big step towards shaping their squad next week.

End-of-year honours

MLS Cup week has included many announcements and events. Among the many news items were the league’s top individual awards for 2011. Unsurprisingly, the Galaxy’s stellar season was recognized, with Bruce Arena being named MLS Coach of the Year, while Beckham claimed the league’s Comeback Player of the Year honour. In his final season as a professional, Seattle Sounders FC’s Kasey Keller was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, while another Sounders player in Argentine import Mauro Rosales got the nod ahead of Whitecaps FC striker Eric Hassli as Newcomer of the Year. Though he played for three different MLS clubs this season, D.C. United star Dwayne De Rosario was named 2011 Most Valuable Player, with the Canadian international edging the likes of Houston’s Brad Davis and FC Dallas’ Brek Shea to the league’s top individual award.

While it may not have surprised many that Hassli was not selected Newcomer of the Year, there was plenty of shock and dismay that the big Frenchman was not awarded the MLS Goal of the Year award for his spectacular volleyed strike in Seattle back on June 11. Instead, Portland Timbers rookie Darlington Nagbe (…with plenty of votes from Timbers fans…) got the nod for his fine strike versus Sporting Kansas City in Week 16. It makes one wonder if the Goal of the Year award should have been subject to a balanced vote amongst players, coaches, and media in MLS. All water under the bridge now…

Time to expand

Less than 24 hours after the current season ends on Sunday, the 2012 MLS campaign will begin to take shape when the 18 current clubs submit their protected player lists to MLS ahead of the 2011 MLS Expansion Draft on Wednesday. All 18 clubs can protect 11 players from selection in the draft, with Generation adidas and Home Grown players also exempt from selection. Whitecaps FC currently have seven Generation adidas/Home Grown players on their MLS roster. As the league’s 19th club, Montreal will select 10 players from the unprotected lists of those 18 teams, with the Quebec outfit only allowed to select one player from a particular club in the midweek draft.

The upcoming Expansion Draft has many speculating as to whom the Impact will be choosing on Wednesday. As I write this, it will come as little surprise if Montreal’s MLS rivals have spoken to the Impact about possible player deals. This time last year, Vancouver and Portland each moved about half of their Expansion Draft selections in trades for other MLS players, allocation money, draft picks, and international slots. Come Wednesday, many across the league will be sitting on their hands in anticipation of whom Montreal will select.

News and happenings

While much of the week’s focus will have been on MLS Cup, news around the league had next season in mind. In New England, the Revolution surprised many by appointing their former defender Jay Heaps as their new head coach. Other names were thought to be in the frame to succeed Steve Nicol, but New England opted for the 35-year-old, who has no prior coaching experience. Heaps will be tasked with restoring the Revs as one of the top clubs in the league after a couple of disappointing seasons.

There were also some in-house player signings this week. While Vancouver will have delighted Canadian soccer fans by signing youngster Bryce Alderson to an MLS contract, Columbus Crew secured the services of talented midfielder Eddie Gaven to a new multi-year deal. The 25-year-old was “super, super happy” to have re-signed with Ohio-based outfit, with the Crew likely to shape much of their attack around his playmaking abilities. Gaven holds the distinction of being the youngest player to be selected in an MLS SuperDraft. In 2003, a 16-year-old Gaven was selected in the second round (12th overall) by New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls).