March 23, 2007 MLS teams ready for Carolina Challege Cup (from MLSnet.com)
MLS sides ready for Challenge Cup
Toronto, Houston and New York in preseason tournament
By Andrew Mosier / MLSnet.com Staff
CHARLESTON, S.C. - For the three MLS clubs participating in this year's Carolina Challenge Cup - hosted by the USL First Division's Charleston Battery - the round-robin "tournament" is more than just a final run-through before the season kicks off April 7. The tournament - which begins Saturday night with Toronto FC facing Houston at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the New York Red Bulls playing Charleston at 8:15 - has, since its inception, been a close reflection of the MLS season that follows. Consider this: Every CCC tournament winner has gone on to raise at least one of the two major trophies in MLS that same year.
In 2004 the Columbus Crew captured the CCC title over D.C. United. The Crew went on to raise the league's Supporters' Shield, finishing 12-5-13 in the regular season, good for 49 points. United, of course, hoisted the MLS Cup. The following year, CCC winners San Jose lifted the Supporters' Shield with a league-best 18-4-10 record (64 points). Last year, newly-transplanted Houston Dynamo successfully defended their CCC title, raising the MLS Cup trophy at the end of the season.
Though coaches are quick to brush off any coincidences, instead sticking with the preseason mantra that the tournament is simply just another step in preparing for the season, it cannot go without notice that the same coaches keep bringing their teams back to the friendly confines of Blackbaud Stadium year after year: Columbus the first two years; D.C. United the first three; and Mo Johnston has brought his expansion side, Toronto FC, to participate in the tournament after bringing New York last year. It's also a third consecutive year for Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear with his club.
Even if they are preseason contests, the games are highly competive - though with a few hitches. With an unlimited number of substitutions, coaches often run their first 11 for a half before filtering in their reserves for some much-needed game experience. In the past two years, D.C. United have deployed two entirely different teams in the same game, switching all 11 players at halftime.
And sometimes, a few basic rules are overlooked, like in last year's heated match between Houston and D.C. After a duo of first-half red cards were dealt to Houston, a friendly conversation in the locker room tunnel at halftime between coaches saw Dynamo trot out a full team for the second half.
"These are practice games," said then-United coach Peter Nowak. "It would not help either team prepare for the season if they played with nine."
Most would think that with three competitive games in the form of CONCACAF Champions' Cup already in the books, Houston would be at an advantage over the other clubs coming into the tournament. Not so. Dynamo will be without the services of five, possibly six starters: Pat Onstad and Ricardo Clark, who are both nursing injuries, as well as Wade Barrett, Brian Mullen, Brian Ching and Dwayne De Rosario, all of whom will be away for the balance of the tournament with their national teams.
Toronto, on the other hand, will essentially be at full strength, missing only Wales international Carl Robinson and the team's top draft pick, Maurice Edu. Robinson received a national team call-up and Edu is still out injured.
Earlier in the week Toronto played Coastal Carolina University in Charleston, winning 2-0 with goals from Alecko Eskandarian and Abbe Ibrahim, both in the second half.
Bruce Arena's Red Bulls side is, reportedly at least, at near full strength for the tournament. Unlike the other two clubs who have been training in Charleston for the better part of the week, New York was not scheduled to arrive in Charleston until Friday afternoon.
In years past, the hosts have gone into the tournament with only a week to prepare, as the USL season does not begin until the end of April. Despite the lack of time to prepare compared to the three MLS clubs, the second division side has always shown strong, managing several impressive draws, including against a full-strength D.C. United last year, but has only managed one win, also last year, 1-0 against New York.
"The MLS sides have a distinct advantage," said Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser. "They have a lot more time to prepare. We just go out and play the best we can with what time we have to prepare."
After Saturday's doubleheader, play continues Wednesday with New York and Toronto squaring off at 6 p.m. ET followed by Houston and Charleston at 8:15. The tournament concludes on March 31 when Charleston faces Toronto at 6 p.m. ET, with Houston and New York playing at 8:15.
Andrew Mosier is a contriburor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.
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