One for the ladies as we get started on MLS fantasy. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
I know we are entering the home stretch with the Premier League and you will still find all of the coverage you are used to finding throughout this week. As a bonus for those of you who will be starting up Major League Soccer fantasy with us (or on your own) this coming weekend, here are some initial thoughts. Keep in mind that unlike the Yahoo fantasy Premier League game, both major MLS formats (MLSsoccer.com and ESPN) limit the number of transfers you can make. ESPN limits the total number you can make under any circumstances and MLSsoccer.com limits the number of free transfers you are allowed (like the PremierLeague.com game, the MLS game allows you to pay game points for additional transfers).
Since having a fairly stable line-up over multiple weeks is important, I decided that the first level of analysis should be the first month or so of the schedule (as opposed to doing it week-by-week as we would with the Premier League). Granted, MLS is much more volatile from year-to-year as far as the quality of the teams go but we'll do the best we can based on what we know of the teams from last season and their work in the off-season. With that, away we go with a ranking of the first month of the schedule for each of the 19 (yes, we're up to 19) MLS teams:
Those teams that look to have a very favorable schedule over the first month of the season.
Sporting KC - Kansas City is expected to be one of the contenders for the Eastern Conference title this season. They open at RFK where DC United could be anywhere from mediocre to a scoring machine. They follow that up with a home opener against likely also-ran New England and then home to good-but-not-great Dallas, and then away at likely-poor Chivas. You wouldn't rule out Sporting KC winning all four which could mean a lot of fantasy points to go around.
Houston Dynamo - Another team that is favored to do well in the Eastern Conference this season (Houston? Eastern? Sometimes you just sort of shake your head at MLS). Houston starts off the season with two away matches against likely Western Conference laggards in Chivas USA and San Jose. The only downside of Houston's early schedule is that you may want to get out after two weeks as they then travel to Seattle followed by a week off.
Vancouver Whitecaps - I don't expect that Vancouver will be any better than a mid-table team in the difficult Western Conference but there is a good chance that they will get off to a fast start. Vancouver opens at home against the expansion Impact de Montreal. Just that opener would be enough to get some fantasy managers on board but the good news in this transfer-limited setting is that their next match is at Chivas USA which should also be winnable. The back half of the first month sees the Caps face off with DC United at home (and DC United haven't done well traveling west in recent years) and then finally an away match with a Philadelphia Union team in transition.
Colorado Rapids - The Rapids aren't quite as attractive as the other three teams on this list but they certainly look to have solid value throughout the month. Columbus at home, at Philadelphia, at Red Bull New York, and then home for Chicago - not exactly the dregs of the league but certainly solid for a pretty good team that happens to play in a pretty stacked conference. I'd look for something like 2-1-1 over the course of the four matches which wouldn't be bad at all as fantasy investments go.
Solid Options (but nothing to write home about)
Philadelphia Union - With Sebastien Le Toux gone, the question isn't so much the opponents but how good the Union will actually be themselves. There are a lot of likely mid-table types in the early going for the Union and an even split of home and away matches. @Portland, Colorado, @Chicago, and Vancouver means that if the Union are as good as they were last season then they could be a value pick based on schedule. Most experts seem to think that the Union will fall back slightly which means that the first month will see the Union splitting their matches with other mid-table clubs.
New York Red Bulls - The Red Bulls definitely feature some big names but there are a lot of questions in New York (well, New Jersey really) just like there are in Philly. I'd be inclined to stay away from the Red Bulls for the first two weeks (@Dallas and @Real Salt Lake) but the back half of the first month is more attractive with home matches against Colorado and then expansion Montreal.
Chicago Fire - The Fire would be pretty exciting if they weren't off for the first week of the season. They are expected to be pretty good and the quality of their opponents ranges from poor (@Montreal in Week 2) to mediocre (home to Philadelphia and away to Colorado). If you're looking for someone to stash on the bench for Week 1 or somewhere to use an early transfer then the Fire is probably a good place to look.
DC United - The first two matches look pretty rough in all honesty. In Kansas City and the LA Galaxy, Ben Olsen's team have what may end up being the Eastern and Western Conference champions. The only reason to consider DC players at this point is that a) they look poised to score a lot of goals and b) LA may take some time to adjust at the back with their best central defender on the shelf for most, if not all, of the season. Matches at Vancouver and home to FC Dallas later in the month should be more winnable than the first two. Regardless, there should be goals.
Portland Timbers - Portland is likely to be a mid-table team unless Kris Boyd is an MLS superman. The good news if you want to get in on Boyd or other Timbers is that the early schedule isn't terribly daunting. Philadelphia, at Dallas, and at New England are all winnable and Real Salt Lake at home isn't entirely unreasonable (although unlikely). You are certainly in decent shape holding Portland players through the first three weeks.
Seattle Sounders - Oh, the quirks of the schedule. If only Seattle had a match in the first week, you could feel good about loading up on what should be a very competitive team. After an initial bye week, Seattle gets three straight home matches against Toronto, Houston, and San Jose (two of which should be relative pushovers). This means that you should be putting Sounders on your bench at the outset of the season or planning to buy between Week 1 and Week 2.
San Jose Earthquakes - They aren't likely to be very good but they open at home with another team (New England) who isn't likely to be good which makes things more palatable. The second week features a tough match with Houston coming to town but they quickly rebound with another winnable match on the road at Toronto. A trip to Seattle rounds out the month and you probably don't want to be too invested for that one.
Real Salt Lake - It starts with a trip to the defending champions at the Home Depot Center which I wouldn't recommend investing in but with at New York, Chivas USA, and at Portland rounding out the month I'd be inclined to follow the strategy outlined for Seattle. Stash some RSL talent on the bench for Week 1 and then get them in at Week 2 and beyond. The alternative is obviously buying in between Week 1 and Week 2.
LA Galaxy - Yup, they're the champs and they'll be very good, if not better, this year. The reason that they aren't rated higher on this list is that they get a bye week during Week 3 which will complicate things to no end AND they start out with a relatively difficult opener against Real Salt Lake. DC United struggles with the LAGals which gives you hope for Week 2 but then you have to figure out what to do with your Galaxy players while you wait for the juicy home match with New England in Week 4. You probably don't end up staying away from Galaxy players but you should make sure you don't get caught with that early bye week.
FC Dallas - They're going to be solid and their early schedule is also solid with the Red Bulls (home), Portland (home), Sporting KC (away), and DC United (away) on the bill. That screams "don't over-invest but don't ignore them entirely" to me.
Those to Avoid
Toronto FC - They're not likely to be good. They don't play in Week 1. Week 2 is away to a tough opponent in Seattle. It gets better with the visits of San Jose and Columbus in Weeks 3 and 4 but I'd certainly not be interested until then. Even then you should refer back to that first sentence.
Columbus Crew - The good news is that the opposition isn't that good early with Colorado (away), Montreal (home), and Toronto (away) over the first 4 weeks. The bad news is that there is a Week 2 bye in there and Columbus isn't expected to be very good themselves. I'd think about a short term acquisition for Week 2 against Montreal but that's about it.
New England Revolution - The Revs are in rebuilding mode after the very successful Steve Nichol era came to a close with things a bit in tatters. The team isn't likely to be strong on the field and the one equally poor opponent they face in the first four weeks requires that they travel 3000 or so miles to San Jose which is never an easy trip. After that they head to Kansas City for what will be a very tough match. They finally get a home game against Portland that offers some (but not a ton) of hope but that hope ends quickly as they have to get on a plane to go back out west to play (get beaten by) the Galaxy. In other words, don't expect much from the Revs or the Revs fantasy players in the first month of the season.
Impact de Montreal - If they weren't an expansion team then things might look OK with trips to Vancouver (Week 1) and Columbus (Week 3) offering modest opposition. In Chicago (home) and the Red Bulls (away) there are no world-beaters at all but remember, this is an expansion team and three of the first four matches are on the road. Gonna be a tough March in Montreal.
Chivas USA - They're last for a reason. They are highly unlikely to be good and three of their four opponents Houston (Week 1 at home), Real Salt Lake (Week 3 away), and Sporting KC (Week 4 at home) are all expected to be rather good. The decision to avoid Chivas players doesn't seem to get much easier than that.