It may be a down week in the 2011 Major League Soccer season, but there has been plenty of news and happenings around the league. While the excitement and build-up to this year's MLS Cup final in Los Angeles, California, will begin in earnest next week, current matters at hand and plans for next season played their part in what unfolded around MLS this week.
At the top of those news items were several announcements from MLS commissioner Don Garber during a conference call with the media on Thursday. He revealed that for the 2012 season, all 19 teams will play an unbalanced 34-match schedule, while the league's Competition Committee will consider changing the hosting criteria for the MLS Cup final from a neutral venue to the home of that season's regular season champions. Speaking on a number of topics with journalists, Garber also said MLS remain committed to placing a 20th team in New York City.
The main reason for the two-week break between the conference championships and the MLS Cup final that will feature LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo at The Home Depot Center on Sunday, November 20, is world soccer is currently in their latest break for international matches. Whether it is 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying, playoffs for the 2012 UEFA European Championship, or international friendlies, Whitecaps FC and MLS players have been preparing to represent their countries during the past week.
'Caps fans will keep a close eye on winger Nizar Khalfan and centre back Carlyle Mitchell to see if they can lead their respective countries a step closer to the next World Cup in Brazil. Khalfan's Tanzania face Chad in a two-leg African zone series on Friday and Tuesday, while Mitchell's Trinidad & Tobago face two crucial games versus Guyana in the CONCACAF region. Youngster Omar Salgado, meanwhile, is continuing his development by participating in his first training camp with the United States U-23 Olympic team in Germany.
There is also international duty for those that will play for the MLS Cup next weekend. Midfielder Chris Birchall has joined Mitchell in the Trinidad & Tobago squad, while Republic of Ireland striker Robbie Keane will try and take his fine form at club level into a crucial two-match European Championship playoff series versus Estonia, with a spot at Poland and Ukraine 2012 at stake. Galaxy star Landon Donovan, however, opted to rest and be ready for the November 20 final by declining a call-up to Jurgen Klinsmann's USA squad for friendlies in France and Slovenia. Another high-profile player not involved with his country is New York Red Bulls Designated Player Rafa Marquez, whose lack of discipline in the playoffs resulted in his omission from the Mexico squad by head coach José Manuel de la Torre.
A second British coach saw their tenure at an MLS club end this week, as Colorado Rapids opted not to renew Englishman Gary Smith's contract. Coming less than a year after leading the Rapids to the 2010 MLS Cup title, Smith joins Steve Nicol in leaving an MLS coaching post following the end of the regular season. The former Liverpool and Scotland man departed New England Revolution after nearly a decade in charge, as the Massachusetts outfit missed the postseason for a second year in a row in 2011.
With coaching vacancies comes the obvious speculation as to who will be the successors. According to reports, former Revolution player Steve Ralston has been strongly tipped to succeed Nicol in New England, with club president Brian Bilello expecting to make an announcement within the next week. Whoever succeeds Nicol, the need to inject new energy in the Revs will be a priority after two underachieving campaigns. As for Colorado, their hopes to lure former Rapids player John Spencer to the role were rebuffed by Portland Timbers. A well-publicized falling out between Smith and the Rapids was seen as the reason in his departure from Dick's Sporting Goods Park. As their coaching search continues, it will be important for Colorado to appoint someone that can form a good working relationship with Rapids managing director Jeff Plush and technical director Paul Bravo.
The three remaining MLS clubs in the 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League learned their path to the final on Tuesday, with MLS Cup finalists LA Galaxy and Nutrilite Canadian Championship winners Toronto FC drawing each other in one quarterfinal series. While much of the talk in Canadian soccer circles surrounds where TFC will host the Galaxy in the first leg in early March 2012, the more challenging aspect of this clash will be figuring out who will suit up for either club in both matches. It is likely that TFC and the Galaxy will look very different next spring to what all MLS fans witnessed from both clubs this year.
The winner of that series may also face the third MLS club that reached the quarterfinals, though Seattle Sounders FC will have to negotiate a difficult series with Mexico's Club Santos Laguna. Facing a team in the middle of their season, Sigi Schmid's side will have to claim an advantage at home in the first leg before travelling to Mexico for the decisive second leg. The semifinals and final series will also be two-leg affairs, with a champion being determined in late April 2012.
Honour and respect
MLS started awarding its best this week, as several players were honoured for their exceptional efforts in 2011. Sporting Kansas City striker C.J. Sapong was the worthy recipient of the league's Rookie of the Year award, while LA Galaxy centre back Omar Gonzalez was this year's Defender of the Year following an outstanding third season in the league that helped LA record the best defensive record in MLS. New England Revolution midfielder Zak Boggs, meanwhile, was named MLS W.O.R.K.S. Humanitarian of the Year. Next week, the league's Coach of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards will be announced, as will MLS Newcomer of the Year, for which Whitecaps FC striker Eric Hassli is nominated.
It is said that honour leads to respect. The progress that MLS and its players have made in recent years earned high praise from two of soccer's most recognized individuals this week. As he prepares to welcome FC Dallas and USA attacker Brek Shea for a training stint with English Premier League giants Arsenal FC, manager Arsene Wenger suggested that MLS and North America will be 'the future of the game'. Meanwhile, one of Wenger's former players in New York's Thierry Henry believes Canadian international Dwayne De Rosario deserves more attention as a top star in MLS. "For me, he’s the face of this league," the Frenchman said of the D.C. United player and former Red Bulls teammate. "His record talks for itself."