Friday marks the start of the 20th season for Major League Soccer.
Or at least it should.
Currently, there is still no CBA, Collective Bargaining Agreement, between MLS and the players, which, if unresolved by Friday, could result in a player’s strike and games not being played.
But we’re going to go on the assumption that the games will be played as scheduled this weekend.
This season should be an exciting and intriguing year for MLS as soccer is at an all-time high in the U.S. after a tremendous showing in television ratings for the World Cup last year and heightened popularity of the English Premiere League.
Attendance last year for MLS was up across the league, if you take away the stats from now-defunct Chivas U.S.A. The average attendance for the league was just over 19,000, which is roughly near capacity for most of the teams’ stadiums (CenturyLink Field obviously notwithstanding).
There are a number of key storylines going into this year that should keep things intriguing from March to Decemeber. (We’re going to hold off on the CBA issue here.)
First, there are the two new teams coming into this season: New York City F.C., a joint venture between Manchester City and the New York Yankees, and Orlando City F.C. The intrigue here is both on and off the pitch. Both teams ought to do well with their solid rosters and the fact that they’re both in the weaker Eastern Conference. And then there’s the attendance watch for both teams in their first years. Orlando has already announced that their first match on Sunday, coincidently enough against New York City, at the Citrus Bowl is sold out. Whether that keeps up and whether New York City can put up good numbers at Yankee Stadium will be something to keep an eye on.
Then there’s the Western Conference that, much like it’s NBA counterpart, is absolutely stacked with competitors. Last year the conference produced about six or seven teams that would have made the postseason had they been in the Eastern Conference. That goes off both points and the fact they would have had an easier schedule. This year it only gets stronger with the addition of Houston and Sporting Kansas City, though MLS has added an extra playoff slot for each conference which helps. It’s still a long season, but I’d venture a guess that there are four to five teams in the conference with a legitimate shot to win the MLS Cup and another two that could be contenders.
Within that conference are two teams are the biggest contenders to win it all, each with its own big storyline.
First, the Los Angeles Galaxy are going to have to figure out a way to play without Landon Donovan, who retired after last year. The Galaxy are in a good spot, however, with Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes up front on the attack. Still, it’s worth watching to see how the defending champs without the league’s best player.
And then there’s the Seattle Sounders who, despite their regular season success, find their trophy cabinet MLS Cup-less. Last year the Sounders were one round away from making it to the MLS Cup final, but fell short to the Galaxy. Seattle returns the same basic squad, minus defender Deandre Yedlin, so expect them to be contenders this season.
These storylines, along with a host of others, will (hopefully) be answered this year in what will likely be the best season in the history of the league.
That season has to start without a strike, but hopefully those differences are settled before the season begins or without a work stoppage. But that’s another story for another day.
· Supporters’ Shield – Seattle
· Western Conference playoff teams – Seattle, Los Angeles, Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, Houston
· Eastern Conference playoff teams – D.C. United, Orlando City, New York City F.C., New England, Columbus Crew, New York Red Bulls
· MLS Cup matchup – Seattle vs. Orlando City
· MLS Cup Winner – Seattle
1. Seattle – The Seattle Sounders were the best team in the regular season last year, taking home the Supporter’s Shield and winning the U.S. Open Cup. But the Sounders couldn’t quite catch that elusive MLS Cup title that has dogged them the past few years. This year they’re set up once again to be favorites to take the title with forwards midfielder, and Texan, Clint Dempsey and forward Obafemi Martins, as well as a talented supporting cast. With the experience and passionate fan base, Seattle has to be considered a top team in MLS, if only for the start of the season.
2. Los Angeles – The Galaxy will take a hit in their chance to repeat with U.S. legend Landon Donovan retiring, but there’s more to this team than Donovan. Forwards Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes made a significant impact up front for Los Angeles last year and will again team up to be a potent attacking duo. Add in Steven Gerrard at the summer transfer window and the Galaxy are in a great spot to repeat as champs once again.
3. Orlando City – Of the two expansion teams joining the league this season, Orlando City is the most likely to make some noise and potentially find itself in a position to make it to the MLS Cup. Of course, everyone knows about Brazilian forward Kaka, but City features more than that. Orlando should set in goal with Jamaican national team goalie Donovan Rickets. And if midfielder Brek Shea can find the same success he had a few years ago with FC Dallas, City might have a solid attack.
4. New York City F.C. – Of course, the biggest name team coming into this year is New York City F.C. under the combined ownership of Manchester City and the New York Yankees. While some uncertainty still looms over whether or not midfielder Frank Lampard will make the transfer from Manchester, City have a solid team in place anyway with forward David Villa, midfielder Mix Diskerud and defender George John. With a relatively weak Eastern Conference, NYC F.C. will certainly be contenders to make it to the MLS Cup.
5. Sporting Kansas City – Last year was a disappointment for Sporting K.C., dropping out of the postseason in the wild card round a year after making it to the MLS Cup. And things won’t get much easier for them this season either as Kansas City, along with Houston, make the jump to the stacked Western Conference. Still, SKC boasts of U.S. national team players midfielder Graham Zusi and defender Matt Besler, and forward Dom Dwyer became a force to be reckoned with last year. It won’t be easy in the Western Conference, but Sporting will not be an easier out for anybody this season.
The Bench – 6. Real Salt Lake, 7. New York Red Bulls, 8. D.C. United, 9. Houston, 10. FC Dallas
Games to Watch
· New York City F.C. at Orlando City, 4 p.m. Sunday, ESPN2
Great scheduling from the MLS scheduling crew resulted in the two expansion teams facing off against each other to start off the season. But while it seems like a gimmick, this should still be a great match. Both teams come is as contenders right off the bat to top the Eastern Conference. Both teams also feature big names such as Kaka and Villa. This game should be the best game of the weekend.
· New England at Seattle, 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox Sports 1
Of the teams we know about and are returning, this should be the best match of the weekend. New England was oh so close to coming away with the MLS Cup last year, falling in the final minutes to Los Angeles. The Revolution have a bright star in midfielder Lee Nguyen and also feature U.S. national team defender Jermaine Jones. Seattle, as mentioned earlier, have been close to getting to the MLS Cup, but have yet to fulfill that goal. With the great Seattle fans providing the backdrop, this should be a fun one.
Rest of the Schedule
· Chicago at Los Angeles – 9 p.m., Friday, MLS Live, UniMas
· Montreal at D.C. United – 2 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live
· Colorado at Philadelphia – 3 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live
· Toronto F.C. at Vancouver – 5 p.m., Satuday, MLS Live
· San Jose at FC Dallas – 7:30 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live
· Columbus at Houston – 7:30 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live
· Real Salt Lake at Portland – 9:30 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live
· New York Red Bulls at Sporting Kansas City – 6:00 p.m., Fox Sports 1