Sports Illustrated soccer reporter Grant Wahl came to Seattle recently to talk with Steve Zakuani for a feature about his recovery (read here), so we took the opportunity to talk with him about the 2012 MLS season.
Q: Let’s start by talking about how far this league has come in the last five or six years. What kind of things have you seen in terms of the growth of this league?
WAHL: I think there’s a buzz heading into this season that is significantly bigger than it was five years ago. Partly that’s because there are more teams. Partly that’s because there’s more star power in the league. I think the soccer is better. But I think the media is changing too. That part of it is starting to catch up with the growth of the game in the US. Five years ago I wasn’t a full-time soccer writer and now I am. You look around the country and certain cities are ahead of others, but the league has been really smart about how they’ve expanded. The new cities get the sport and I think Montreal will be similar. The new television deal with NBC is going to help, too. It certainly seems like there’s an excitement heading into this season.
Q: When you look at the new stadiums around the league, how much of a boost is that in the area and for the league as a whole?
WAHL: In most cases, the new stadiums have been great, but there have been exceptions. I still find it interesting that Chicago, Colorado and Dallas built stadiums a little ways out from the city and they haven’t really set the world on fire. I think those can be viewed as the exceptions at this point. When you look at the other stadiums that have been built around the league, they’ve really helped. They’ve helped with scheduling and how the game looks inside the stadium and on tv. In most cases, it contributes to a good atmosphere.
Q: What are some of the big stories that you’re looking at this year? What interests you about MLS in 2012?
WAHL: The sheer amount of Colombians in this league. There’s always been Colombians in the league – even back in the mid-‘90s when you had Carlos Valderrama and “El Tren” Valencia and “El Pitufo” de Avila with New York. It’s all over the league. Just about every team has at least one Colombian and now with Oscar Pareja taking over in Colorado you’ve got a Colombian-born coach. I think that influence is interesting – I call them the “Children of Valderamma.”
I think LA are the favorites this year again. They were able to keep Beckham and a lot of folks were surprised by that . To have Beckham, Keane and Donovan – that seemed to work pretty well in the playoffs. But then again, they have their challenges too. Omar Gonzalez got hurt and Juninho isn’t there anymore.
Champions League could be a big story too. I’m hoping it can take the next step in MLS. With the teams that are still alive in the tournament, that could be a great moment for the league and maybe a chance to build on what Salt Lake did last year getting to the final. If an MLS team can qualify for the Club World Cup, that would be a huge thing and an ongoing story that would last until December.
Q: Who are some of the players that people aren’t talking about, but they should?
WAHL: I know Kansas City got all the way to the Conference Final last year, but I think they’ll do even better in the regular season this year. They are a team that’s exciting to watch, playing a 4-3-3 with good, young players. Teal Bunbury is in a position to do this year what I thought he could have done a little more of last year. They also have some good signings. Bringing in Bobby Convey … I think if he’s in a situation where he’s happy, Kansas City can be a real team to watch.
I think Houston can be better in the regular season. They were a team that showed in the playoffs that they may have been under-performing a bit last year.
I think the West is still going to be the better conference. And you look for teams that could improve. I think the Cascadia teams are going to be better. Vancouver is an ambitious club and I think Portland has a good shot at the playoffs this year. I know the fans aren’t totally thrilled with the unbalanced schedule in the Cascadia Cup, but at the same time, I want games in the regular season that matter. And if you have six of those games, those games are all going to matter.
Q: What has the Cascadia Derby added to the league? Has there ever been anything like it in MLS?
WAHL: The short answer is no. But the San Jose-Los Angeles rivalry got to be pretty good when both of those teams were good. When Landon Donovan was with LA, they had some pretty amazing games. New York-LA is sort of this engineered thing, but they’re not going to be playing each other much anymore. I certainly hope the rivalries can grow in other places, and they just seem to get it here more than other parts of the country. In Seattle, you don’t need to sign David Beckham because the team is the star here. That’s a sign that the culture is a bit more advanced.
Q: I know you’re in town to talk with Steve Zakuani. How did the conversation with Steve go?
WAHL: I had a really good conversation with Steve. I’m really impressed with his comeback to get to this point. I know he’s not all the way back yet, but he is such a positive guy. Based on what happened to him, not everyone would be that positive. I don’t think a lot of people realized how serious it was with the compartment syndrome and the nerve damage. That’s tremendously serious stuff. It’s great to see him in a position where we will see him on an MLS field before too long.
Q: What are your thoughts on Seattle?
WAHL: That’s a team that’s going to challenge again for trophies and be at the top of the league. I know it was a bummer the way the season ended for them last year – I’m not a huge fan of the playoff format – but we’ll see what happens this year. The team is definitely in position to take another step forward. Having three US Open Cup titles speaks for itself.
Q: What does Seattle need to do to knock LA off their perch?
WAHL: It’s tough because there’s not a lot of margin for error with the Galaxy. They just find a way to get a lot of points. They are a very tough team now to beat at home. If you’re the Sounders, you can’t have any slip-ups in league play. Especially in the Western Conference. Those are good teams and that’s going to be a demanding schedule for everyone in the conference. We’ll see how everyone handles it.