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Chicago Fire
"Every Rose Has Its Thorn" (Poison)
"Every rose has its thorn, Just like every night has it's dawn, Just like every cowboy sings a sad, sad song, Every rose has its thorn, Yea it does."

The Fire, a team that is solid to the core, begins the 2001 season the way it played most of the 2000 season, with the same old thorn in its side, injuries to its best players and national team callups on every horizon. Peter Nowak and Hristo Stoitchkov are both expected to miss the first three games, which means they'll return to action about the time Chris Armas and Josh Wolff are called into camp for the U.S.-Costa Rica match in Kansas City. The Fire will also lose DaMarcus Beasley for the U-20 World Cup, but hey, it's nothing new to a team that played huge portions of last season without Stoitchkov, Armas, Lubos Kubik and Diego Gutierrez. Players like midfielder/forward Dema Kovalenko and reserve forward John Wolyniec become very important to a team that knows expectations are high.

Probable Opening Day Lineup: 4-4-2
Zach Thornton, C.J. Brown, Carlos Bocanegra, Diego Gutierrez, Evan Whitfield, Jesse Marsch, Dema Kovalenko, Chris Armas, DaMarcus Beasley, John Wolyniec, Josh Wolff.

The Fire live and die with their passing and combination play. A player who likes to take more than a touch or two on the ball does not fit in well with this group ... Stoitchkov and Wolff should form a brilliant partnership as the Bulgarian just loves to play balls behind the defense and Wolff's strength is finding that exact space ... When Nowak is out, the Fire will challenge Armas to add to the attack ... It will be interesting to see how Sergi Daniv is integrated into the team when he returns from an ankle injury (probably late May) as the Fire have never had a true right flank player ... Still in search of a reserve forward, that player could be arriving in the coming days, possibly in the form of DaMarcus Beasley's older brother Jamar.

Kansas City Wizards
"Separate Ways" (Journey)
"Break those chains that bind you, One night will remind you, How we touched And went our separate ways."

Steve Perry sang it, folks, and I'll never forget Beavis screaming at Butthead, as they watched the video "C'mon Butthead, turn this crap off!" Oh well, the Wizards will soon find out just how bad it's going to hurt since they decided to go their separate ways with Preki and Chris Henderson, their two best assist-men during last year's championship season. Coach Bob Gansler believes veteran Mark Santel can fill Henderon's slot on the left flank while the central midfield triangle of Matt McKeon, Kerry Zavagnin and Franciso Gomez will supply the attacking ideas necessary to create scoring chances for Roy Lassiter and Gary Glasgow. And if all that fails, Tony Meola's still in goal.

Probable Opening Day Lineup: 3-5-2
Tony Meola, Mike Burns, Nick Garcia, Brandon Prideaux, Chris Klein, Kerry Zavagnin, Francisco Gomez, Matt McKeon, Mark Santel, Gary Glasgow, Roy Lassiter.

Such a good defensive team last year that they were seldom recognized as a team that also moved the ball well and attacked more than adequately ... Obviously, this year, big responsibility falls on the shoulders of Gomez, who's got to deliver the through-balls to Lassiter if the Wizards think Rocket Roy is going to score goals. Certainly, at this stage of his career, Lassiter is not suddenly going to turn into a forward who will get on the end of crosses and score with his head ... If the Wizards are going to repeat, they're going to do it the same way they did last year, that is, on the shoulders of Meola.

Miami Fusion
"Talk Talk" (Talk Talk)
"Talk, Talk, Talk, Talk, All you do to me is talk talk."

You've got to like Ray Hudson's enthusiasm, his humor, his candor. But if the Fusion don't produce victories on the field, they're going to be known simply for having a coach who talks a lot. You have to like the Fusion's possibilities, though. They've had the busiest and, as things look today, most productive offseason of any team in MLS, adding Preki, Chris Henderson, Alex Pineda Chacon and, most importantly, Carlos Llamosa. The big question is going to be how Hudson pieces it all together. Or, if Hudson is true to his word and doesn't get involved in tactics, how the players sort things out on the field.

Probable Lineup: 3-5-2
Nick Rimando, Tyrone Marshall, Pablo Mastroeni, Ivan McKinley, Jay Heaps, Jim Rooney, Ian Bishop, Preki, Chris Henderson, Diego Serna, Alex Pineda Chacon.

Certainly, a lot of talented and technical players, but just how they're going to work as a team is what everyone's dying to see ... Rooney and Bishop both like to sit deep in midfield and hit long balls. Can you afford two players like that on the field at once? ... Chacon is said to be a player with subtlety and vision, in other words, everything that Serna is not. Can those two form a good partnership? Heaps and Henderson will both run forever on the flanks and serve some nice crosses, but is there anyone to get on the end of those? A lot of questions, but definitely worth watching.

Tampa Bay Mutiny
"Dancing with Myself" (Billy Idol)
"Well there's nothing to lose, And there's nothing to prove And I'm dancing with myself, Oh, oh, oh, oh"

All winter and spring, we've listened to the Tampa braintrust talk about how the Mutiny need to find a partner up front for Mamadou Diallo. New coach Alfonso Mondelo says the league is too familiar with Diallo at this point and he needs a foil. We'll see, I guess, but I'm still trying to figure out why there's a need to put a guy up front with a player who just seems to thrive as a lone front-runner? We all know by now Carlos Valderrama might as well be called a forward, with as much defensive work (none) as he puts in, so by putting another man up top with Diallo, the Mutiny might just turn their midfield into an expressway for opposing teams. None of this even gets into the fact that Diallo's partner is likely to becoming a whipping boy for the over-emotional Big Mama.

Probable Opening Day Lineup: 4-4-2
Scott Garlick, Chad McCarty, Joe Addo, Ritchie Kotschau, Kevin Anderson, John Maessner, Steve Ralston, Carlos Valderrama, Eric Quill, Mamadou Diallo, Gus Kartes.

Well, last year, they made sure to have a ton or working, running,scrapping players around Valderrama -- Josh Keller, Stever Ralston, Manny Lagos, Dominic Kinnear, et al -- and they made sure to give El Pibe as many touches as he wanted. And it worked. Wrote many times how Valderrama looked like a kid last year, doing what he likes to do best, float around behind a forward and try to make incredible passes ... This year, I have no idea what they'll do, given the organization's stance that they need to "get over the hump," whatever that means ... I expect they'll miss Steve Trittschuh's leadership while he's out injured, but Joe Addo is one of the most underrated players in MLS.

D.C. United
"Broken Wings" (Mr. Mister)
"Take these broken wings, And learn to fly again, And learn to live so free, And when we hear the voices sing, The book of love will open up, And let us in."

Hold on a second, let me wipe my eyes. Can the mighty Eagle learn to fly so free again? I think so, but only if Marco Etcheverry is ready to return to his pre-2000 form. The popular school of thought is that D.C. is in a rebuilding mode, but when I looked on the field and saw the lineup they played in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, all I could think was, "This team didn't make the playoffs and Colorado and New England did." Toughest job will be replacing Carlos Llamosa in the back as he's one of the best pure stoppers in the history of MLS. But if D.C. can play competently in the back and Etcheverry is back to being El Diablo, United can not only be a playoff team again, but a Cup contender.

Probable Opening Day Lineup: 4-4-2
Mark Simpson, Craig Ziadie, Carey Talley, Mark Watson, Eric Denton, Brian Kamler, Ryan Nelsen, Bobby Convey, Marco Etcheverry, Chris Albright, Raul Diaz Arce.

I'd like to say this is the sweetest, most rhythmic passing team in MLS, because at one time they clearly were by a wide margin. But I can't say it again until they show they've returned to form ... No one passes over 50 yards like Etcheverry and no forward in the league is as dangerous in all regards (dribbling, passing, shooting) as a healthy Jaime Moreno. When they're both on top of their game, D.C. is class ... But when they're off, or frustrated, this team can get all out of kilter, all over the field ... It's been said a million times over, but Chris Albright has to become more than a threat up front. He has to score ... One thing that could immediately propel D.C. back to the head of the class is a return to its old ways on set pieces. This team used to be good for almost a goal a game off a corner or free kick ... Don't be surprised if the D.C.-Metros is a dogfight in the East.

Next: Outside Looking In

Jeff Bradley covers soccer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail

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