Catching up with MLS
Welcome back, MLS fans. Major League Soccer is hoping there are a lot more of you now, after the soccer buzz provided by the World Cup. And for long time supporters, those new to the game, and those in between, America's league is confident it has something to offer you this summer.
MLS forgives you if your soccer attention has been elsewhere for the last month. In case you didn't notice -- and who could blame you, with the games in Africa taking up all the column space? -- the league shut down for the group stages this year. The strategy this time around, rather than going head-to-head with the world's biggest sporting event, is to take the momentum built by the World Cup and run with it.
There are plenty of storylines on tap for the second half of the season to hold attention, enough to keep longtime fans entertained while captivating some new ones. Here are a few to follow as MLS heats back up post-World Cup:
Can MLS capitalize on America's new found interest in soccer?
Let's start with the big picture. The World Cup set American soccer records for television audiences, and the Americans' performance seems to have raised the bar for interest in the sport domestically. So the question for MLS naturally becomes what can be done to prevent interest from waning, as it has after previous World Cups.
MLS bosses in New York surely have been pondering the issue for months, if not years. But turning newly-baptized soccer fans into MLS followers has never been an easy task. Few domestic leagues can live up to the World Cup standard for quality, and there's no way to match the emotion of the once-in-four-years world championship.
So much of the league's work will be keeping soccer in the American public eye. To do that, MLS has more material and markets to work with than ever before. An all-star matchup later this month with famed Manchester United shouldn't hurt, either. And then there's the subject of fresh faces, which brings us to...
Which big name players are coming?
It's not quite the Lebron-athon, but rumors of big moves to MLS have been swirling for months. With the addition of extra designated player spots in the newly signed collective bargaining agreement, this summer could see the greatest influx of just-past-their-prime, big-name European stars to date.
Topping the list, of course, is Thierry Henry, whose stock has plummeted this year along with his playing time in Barcelona. Henry was a non-factor at the World Cup, but New York still has some competition from the Premier League for his services. Despite his struggles, if he does head across the Atlantic, Henry would be a sure bet to liven up the Red Bull attack and the soccer buzz across the country.
But the real story in terms of quality of play might be some more under-the-radar moves. Toronto FC fans, for example, won't have to wait long to see a former European star in action, as former Valencia star and Spanish international Mista has joined the Reds. Seattle will add Swiss international Blaise Nkufo to its ranks, and in the capital Argentine forward Pablo Hernandez and Montenegrin playmaker Bronko Boskovic have joined D.C. United.
Where do U.S. World Cup team members go from here?
The possible addition of Henry and the arrival of Nkufo will bring an international taste of the World Cup to American shores, adding to the American World Cup national teamers (plus one each from Honduras and New Zealand) who have returned from South Africa.
Both Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley -- perhaps somewhat frustratingly for American fans -- found the net immediately on their returns to MLS, and Findley added another Thursday night. As has become the routine in L.A., Buddle scored his league-leading 10th goal with an assist from Donovan, who still heads MLS in that category, just as Buddle does in goals, despite their more-than-month-long absences.
With Donovan continuing to find MLS defenses relatively simple to open up, speculation persists that he might not be around for long. The new American icon continues to be linked to a permanent move to England. Fellow World Cup vet Jonathan Bornstein also has been tipped for a move, in his case south of the border to Atlante of Mexico's top division.
How will the rookie crop fare in the second half?
The 2010 MLS season has provided one of the deepest classes of rookies on record. An outstanding Generation Adidas class has been joined by some surprising additions out of college, many of whom have secured spots in starting lineups across the country.
There's a great race on for rookie of the year, led by Michael Stephens of the Galaxy, Tim Ream in New York, Blair Gaven at Chivas USA and Ike Opara in San Jose, among many others. Union forward Danny Mwanga and young DC United midfielder Andy Najar also have made impressive showings of late.
It's great for the league when young players shine, but as the season wears on the question will become how many can keep it up. MLS is a long haul compared to the college campaigns most have come from, and the training schedule tends to wear down all but the fittest of the newcomers as the playoffs near.
The race for the playoffs - every game counts.
This time, they mean it. In the past, when the vast majority of clubs made the postseason, teams could afford to sail through the regular season and mount a late charge. But ongoing expansion has meant the percentage of those left on the outside looking in has risen quickly, so a late season surge might no longer be enough to secure a playoff berth -- fully half will miss out this year.
The window to get on track is rapidly closing, so games from here on out will all be meaningful for those still on the wrong side of the playoff divide. It's just one more little improvement on past years for MLS, and another reason the league is optimistic that after the World Cup the nation's soccer fans will find something to like at home.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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