Major League Soccer’s regular season opens this weekend. Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl joined Bill Littlefield to answer whether or not the defending champion L.A. Galaxy – or the league itself – will be any good without what’s-his-name, who left for Paris.
BL: What’s-his-name is David Beckham, who has joined Paris-Saint Germain. How will Landon Donovan and the rest of the Galaxy do without him?
GW: Well, we’ll have to wait and see here, but I think the Galaxy has a decent chance to become the first MLS team ever to three-peat. They’ve won the last two championships. And Beckham certain helped with that, and yet I don’t feel like the team is taking a huge step backward by not having Beckham, who’s in his upper-30s now.
One question, though, is Landon Donovan, who is currently on a kind of self-imposed sabbatical. He’s a guy who’s talked about wanting to re-find the hunger in his game. So right now, this LA team is Robbie Keane’s team. He’s the captain now; he’s the guy who I think could be the MVP. Omar Gonzalez is a really good defender. I think they’ve got a decent shot at winning another championship.
BL: Attendance in Seattle has been extraordinary by MLS standards. They averaged nearly 44,000 people per game last season – nearly twice as many fans as any other team. How soon does that enthusiasm and support translate into a championship?
GW: Well, that’s the big question about Seattle. It really does feel like a European, South American style atmosphere when you go to a game in Seattle. They draw over 43,000 fans a game, really festive crowds. They know the game there, and it feels major league – and not every MLS city does. But I think those great fans are getting a little frustrated at this point because Seattle has not gotten to an MLS Cup final yet, and they seem to sort of flame out in the playoffs. They got a step further in the playoffs last year, got to the Western Conference final. But those Seattleites, they want to see a championship in the MLS Cup.
BL: Some of the most recent teams to join MLS – Montreal, Vancouver and the aforementioned Seattle – have all been successful at the gate. Does MLS now know something that it didn’t know before, as far as placing teams?
GW: I think so. When you look at the cities they’ve chosen in recent years to expand, they’ve been really smart about doing that. These places, there are soccer communities that already existed there, and the fans have come out to support these teams. And the big issue, actually, for MLS is in some of these original cities that they chose in 1996, like Dallas, or Columbus – places where the crowds aren’t very good and the atmosphere doesn’t feel major league. And I think that’s the big challenge, is to try and turn those cities into something like a Kansas City, which went from this soccer dead zone to being a really big event in Kansas City, with a $200 million stadium, and a good team, and owners who care.
BL: Alright, time for your picks. Which two teams play for the MLS cup in the fall and who wins?
GW: Well, you know what? The last two finals have been Los Angeles against Houston, with Los Angeles winning, and I say it’s going to happen again for a third-straight year. I think Houston actually is going to get to host the final this year, and this time they’ll actually beat Los Angeles.