MLS Trades Stir Things Up

In the last few weeks, the flame has been turned a little higher beneath the caldron that is Major League Soccer and the waters of intrigue have begun to bubble and boil.

In other words, things are starting to get interesting in MLS after a relatively quiet off-season.

Trades involving key national team players that might have seemed unlikely, if not impossible, as recently as six months ago have been made, and the results should be fascinating to watch when the season begins April 5.

Who, for example, could have imagined that D.C. United, once the league's flagship team and a three-time champion, would have parted with such fixtures as U.S. defender Eddie Pope and Bolivian forward Jaime Moreno? But both now wear the red and black of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.

The Chicago Fire, too, has done the unthinkable and jettisoned Polish playmaker Peter Nowak and U.S. forward Josh Wolff. Nowak will play for the New England Revolution and Wolff for the Kansas City Wizards in 2003.

The Colorado Rapids, meanwhile, have sent the league's oldest player packing, turning down Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama's request for one final season at 41. Instead, the Rapids imported French playmaker Gilles Grimandi, whose most recent club was English champion Arsenal.

The San Jose Earthquakes last week bade adieu to Argentine-born one-time Ecuador national team striker Ariel Graziani, a player any team in MLS would have yearned to sign. The Earthquakes made sure he did not come back to haunt them, however, by lending him to Barcelona in Ecuador.

In most cases, salary cap considerations forced the hands of MLS coaches. The cap, not surprisingly, is way too low, but MLS can only afford what MLS can afford, and a league with a low cap is better than no league at all.

Because D.C. United, the MetroStars, the Fire, the Rapids and the Earthquakes all are operated by the Anschutz Entertainment Group, it is tempting to contemplate whether AEG has made the above player decisions with an eye toward strengthening one or more of its teams at the expense of others, or whether it is trying to strengthen all five at the expense of the league's four non-AEG clubs.

The sixth AEG team -- the league-champion Galaxy -- has not made any moves and therefore does not enter the equation for the moment.

But the only conclusion so far is that while AEG has helped New York and Colorado, it has hurt Chicago and San Jose. Meanwhile, its moves have aided Robert Kraft's New England Revolution and Lamar Hunt's Kansas City Wizards.

In other words, don't look for any conspiracy in the AEG trades.

Clearly, the Fire has taken the brunt of the hits. Chicago lost one of the league's top coaches, Bob Bradley, who has moved on to New York/New Jersey, where he will turn the MetroStars into a power, if not this season then certainly by 2004.

Moreno gives the MetroStars a genuine scoring threat, assuming he can operate as effectively without Bolivian compatriot Marco Etcheverry, who will be back for one more, almost certainly final, year with D.C. United.

Pope will add backbone and composure to the MetroStars' defense, even though he might not be as popular among fans as Mike Petke, who was shipped to D.C. United in the same trade. Defensive midfielder Richie Williams made the move from RFK Stadium to Giants Stadium with Pope and Moreno, and Bradley will get the best use out of the U.S. veteran.

Losing Bradley is a big blow to Chicago, although it is clear something drastic had to be done to end the MetroStars' seven-year streak of never having reached the final of either the MLS Cup or the U.S. Open Cup. All nine other teams have reached one or the other or both.

One of Bradley's more interesting challenges will be to get Moreno and U.S. striker Clint Mathis working in tandem.

Former U.S. assistant Dave Sarachan takes over the Fire but has been undercut right away by losing Nowak, the engine of the team since its founding in 1998. Wolff, if he can stay injury free, will greatly boost the Wizards' attack.

Sarachan's loss, however, is Steve Nicol's gain, and the former Liverpool player, who guided the Revolution to the title game last season and who now prepares for his first full season as coach, will be delighted that New England has acquired a professional of Nowak's experience and stature.

It is sad that Valderrama's MLS career was allowed to sputter out when he should have been accorded a better farewell after seven years of adding credibility to the league. It remains to be seen if Grimandi, accustomed to the fervent fans at Highbury, will be able to cope with the polite, not to say indifferent, gatherings in Denver.

The same, to a slightly lesser extent, goes for U.S. midfielder Earnie Stewart, who is leaving the comfort of the Dutch league to end his career in MLS. Where he will land is still up in the air, but D.C. United and the Dallas Burn have been mentioned as the most likely possibilities.

Another U.S. World Cup veteran, Joe-Max Moore, also reportedly is heading to MLS, with his former club, New England, the likely destination.

The Columbus Crew, meanwhile, will be keeping its fingers crossed that Moore's former team, Everton, will not opt to keep U.S. striker Brian McBride, who is in England on three months' loan.

These are early days yet, however, and more trades will be made, some even between now and Friday, when the MLS draft will be held in Kansas City. Barring any other trades, this is the order of the draft: 1. D.C. United; 2. New York/New Jersey; 3. Chicago; 4. Dallas; 5. D.C. United; 6. San Jose; 7. Columbus; 8. Galaxy; 9. New England; 10. Galaxy.

With two first-round picks at his disposal, there still is time for Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid to heat up the water in Los Angeles too, but so far it remains only lukewarm.

Must be that El Nino thing.

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