It's been said before and it will be said again: 2012 is potentially a huge year in the history of Major League Soccer. There's a new team, a new broadcast partner and as much about this league as there's ever been.
As we sit here on Jan. 2, it is now looking that Arsenal is bringing Thierry Henry on loan as a way of boosting THEIR profile; David Beckham is reportedly ready to turn down truck loads of money to go to Paris St.-Germain in order to return to the LA Galaxy; numerous amateurs appear to have opted to enter the MLS SuperDraft instead of trying to play in Europe. Almost no matter where you look, the trends appear positive for MLS.
I say "appear" because they could all turn. Maybe the ratings on NBC are just as bad as they were on Fox Soccer. Maybe Thierry Henry forces his way out of New York or Beckham leaves the Galaxy and no big names come into the league to fill the star vacuum. Maybe all the best laid plans just crash and burn in perfectly forgettable manners.
With that in mind, here are my 12 things that will define MLS in 2012 (from least important to most):
12. How does the Brian Ching situation play out?
On the surface, Brian Ching may not seem like the most important player. He's an aging mid-level star who has been hampered by injuries for the past few years. It might not seem like that big of a deal to anyone outside of the Houston Dynamo and the Montreal Impact what happens to him. But the league's observers are definitely watching.
Will MLS force their teams to play nice in this single-entity world? Will they be content to let these two organizations handle it themselves like most leagues would?
Where Ching plays (or doesn't) is not the important thing here. What's important is that whatever happens is allowed to happen without the league giving the appearance that it engineered a solution. If MLS wants to be taken seriously, it needs to allow teams to stab each other in the back and then deal with the consequences.
11. How are rivalries affected by the schedule?
Soccer, as we're constantly told, is all about rivalries. The hyperbole of that statement aside, we're going to find out just how much stomach MLS fans have for them this year as most rivalries will now consist of three games. Do Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps fans get tired of each other? Do Earthquakes fans chafe at playing the Colorado Rapids three times?
Somewhat related is what the unbalanced schedule does to the Texan and Canadian rivalries. FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo will play just once. The Whitecaps may not host either the Montreal Impact or Toronto FC. In the past, we've been told these are important rivalries too. Does absence make the heart grow fonder or does it just make us forget?
10. Is Thierry Henry complaining about fitness during the summer?
Erik Soler recently said he couldn't see a downside to loaning Henry to Arsenal for two months. I'm assuming he's being purposefully obtuse as there are some pretty clear downsides to sending your player to another league to play games you aren't paying them to play. Just ask the Galaxy if anything bad can happen while your star player is out on loan.
Even assuming Henry is able to avoid a serious injury, we'll really find out how good or bad of an idea the loan was sometime this summer. If Henry is complaining about needing some time off in July, you can bet this loan spell was part of the reason why. If we never hear about the loan once he returns, that's a good thing.
9. When does the schedule come out?
We've been promised that the schedule will come out in early January. I'm not going to hold my breath on that, but if we're getting close to February when we finally find out when games will be, that's a bad thing.
I don't know that you could ever fully explain why the schedule came out last year in mid-February, but things like that hurt the league's reputation in ways that are hard to quantify. No other major American league struggles to put out their schedule in a way anything like this and MLS simply can't afford to do this again.
8. How much time do fans spend complaining about referees?
Fans are going to complain about referees. It happens in every league all over the world. But in MLS it has taken a different level. Refs aren't considered to be plain old bad here. Fair or not, it seems that every referee in the league has a reputation as something less than acceptable.
Once again, we've been told the league offices are taking measures to rectify this. If we're at midseason and fans can't immediately name their five least favorite referees, we should consider that a sign of progress.
7. Who gets MLS team No. 20?
MLS has told us that it intends to at least temporarily stop expanding once it gets to 20 teams. Chances are that teams will be named by the end of the 2012 season. Where that teams ends up being placed and who that ownership group is will clearly be a massive part of this league moving forward.
As of today, it seems like that team will be placed in New York. But no clear ownership group has really emerged. Maybe another group in another city emerges. Whatever happens, MLS better get it right because that team and owner is going to be around a long time.
6. How big of a deal is the Supporters' Shield?
The league's regular-season title is called the Supporters' Shield because that's who actually invented it. The trophy didn't even exist until after the 1999 season. Ever since then, though, it has gained significance. In each of the past two years, when the league played a truly balanced schedule, many fans even considered it more important than the MLS Cup.
With the schedule being more unbalanced now than it has ever been, it's hard to imagine anyone holding the trophy in nearly how that high of a regard. At the same time, the MLS playoffs are still widely criticized. The danger here is that the league will not have a single "legitimate" title in the eyes of many. That's clearly a massive problem, from a perception standpoint.
I'm not sure how the league goes about answering this concern, but how big of a part of the narrative this issue becomes could be a massively telling tale.
5. Does the league make any significant efforts to rid itself of dual-ownership?
As last year's MLS Cup reminded us, there are still fewer owners than there are MLS teams. As big as the strides the league has made to get rid of these situations, they need to finish the deal. AEG has openly been trying to offload the Dynamo, something that should be made easier with their new stadium opening this season.
The other dual-ownership situation -- Hunt Sports Group owns both the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas -- does not look nearly as close to ending. In many ways, that's the situation that is begging to be fixed even more than AEG's. At least with AEG, they have two successful teams that draw reasonably well and are clearly having money invested into them. The Crew and Dallas, meanwhile, are two of the worst-attended teams and show precious few signs of turning the corner from a business perspective.
In order for MLS to be considered a real major league, they need to rid themselves of these conflicts of interest.
4. What kind of ratings does First Kick draw?
NBC's investment in MLS goes well beyond the money being paid for broadcast rights. Bringing MLS aboard is part of a broader rebranding of Vs. to NBC Sports and early indications are that few expenses are being spared. They've already hired a top broadcasting talent in Arlo White and the production value on their MLS promos seems to be a significant step up from what we've seen before.
We will get a strong indication if it was all worth it on First Kick. If ratings are strong and buzz is high, it will be a sign MLS has truly turned a corner. If they are stagnant with little interest outside of the respective fan bases, it could be a sign of serious trouble.
3. Does a MLS team reach the CCL finals?
Last year MLS found out what it's like to finally send a team to the CCL finals. Although Real Salt Lake ultimately lost in grueling fashion to Monterrey, it was a sign that MLS teams can compete on the international stage. This year's MLS teams face a tougher hill to climb in order to repeat that feat.
Unlike RSL who didn't face a Mexican team in the knockout round until the finals, someone is going to have beat Santos Laguna in order to get there this year. If one of the Sounders, Galaxy or Toronto FC can do it, that will be another rather significant benchmark. If they don't, well, it's just another indication of how far the league has left to go.
2. Do people care about MLS Cup outside of the home markets?
Throughout MLS's history, it has always been a struggle for fans to get excited about games that don't directly involve their teams. Sometimes it's predictable, like when FC Dallas plays the Colorado Rapids in Toronto and half the crowd doesn't even show up. Last year was a little better, but that was mainly because the Galaxy were essentially playing a home game.
With this year's final being played at the home of the team with the best record, we can be reasonably assured that the stands will at least be filled. How much interest there is beyond that will be a massively telling thing. Does the home-field advantage help build the hype or does the lack of visiting media -- this is almost a given as they won't be able to plan their trips months in advance -- make it easier to ignore?
1. Are fans crying foul when playoffs teams are decided?
Of all the changes MLS will have made between this year and last, the playoff format has to be the most significant. There will be no more conference crossover, opening the floodgates for "undeserving" teams to leapfrog seemingly better teams in order to get into the playoffs.
Even if an outright bad team doesn't get in, there's a very good chance that one conference will look much easier than the other. While both of those things happen in most sports, MLS is still much more sensitive to it as playoffs are not as big a part of the sport's makeup.
If the complaints about the unfairness overwhelm the excitement, we know this has been a bad decision. If fans are more focused on their own teams fortunes and less on others, we can deem it a success.