Houston

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

A Texas Senate committee voted Monday to send the House’s open carry bill to the Senate floor for consideration.

HB 910, which Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) authored, would allow licensed gun owners to openly carry handguns in belt or shoulder holsters. Senators reviewed the measure, which passed in the House in mid-April, in the State Affairs committee Monday. 

“I think everyone that is tackling these issues wants to work against violence. Sometimes we see these things in very different ways,” said Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), who laid out Phillip’s bill Monday.

Estes presented the bill with a few adjustments to the House version, including the removal of a controversial amendment by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) that would prevent officers from asking open carriers if they have a handgun license.

Later down the line, lawmakers may attempt to attach “campus carry” to HB 910, according to multiple reports. Several testimonies at the hearing brought up the possible addition.

Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress), author of the House campus carry bill,  proposed a similar amendment when HB 910 was heard before the full House last month, but the measure was ultimately withdrawn.

Campus carry would allow licensed handgun owners over the age of 21 to bring their guns on campus grounds and in university buildings. Certain buildings, such as residence halls, K-12 schools and on-campus hospitals, would be exempt from the policy. Additionally, private institutions could opt out of campus carry.

Middle Eastern studies senior Jordan Pahl, along with other UT students, attended the hearing to testify against open carry and a potential campus carry amendment. Pahl said most University officials and students oppose campus carry, including UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. and UT System Chancellor William McRaven.

“Students and stakeholders will continue to oppose this legislation,” Pahl said. “It doesn’t contribute to the academic atmosphere of universities, and it does not make our campuses safer. We deserve a voice in what happens to our campuses and communities.”

Later during the hearing, Estes added that while most university officials oppose the bill, Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp is in favor of the measure. Estes did not confirm that campus carry would be added as an amendment to the bill.

“There seems to be some concern that these bills will be combined,” Estes said. “I’m not saying they will or they won't.”

Troy Gay, Austin Police Department assistant chief, testified at the hearing on behalf of APD. He said the department believes that while open carry may be better suited in rural areas, it should not be implemented in cities.

“In highly populated areas open carry may cause unnecessary alarm due to our citizens and confusion to law enforcement officers during chaotic situations,” Gay said.

This discussion of open carry follows Sunday’s motorcycle gang shoot out at a Twin Peaks in Waco, where nine people were killed and 18 were injured. The shootout was used as an argument against open carry at the hearing.

Troy said the presence of openly carried guns in similar situations could worsen them. State Affairs Chairwoman Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) said open carry and Sunday’s incident are not related.  

"This bill does not have anything to do with what went on [Sunday,]” Huffman said.

The senate has passed its own versions of campus and open carry this legislative session. For HB 910 to become law, the Senate must pass the bill and the House must approve amendments made in Senate.

The bill must also obtain Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature. According to multiple sources, Abbott plans to sign legislation related to both open and campus carry.   

On a typical night at  Mala Sichuan Bistro, customers dab their watering eyes over dishes of live tilapia or rabbit meat soaked in flaming red chili oil.

The restaurant, located in Houston’s Chinatown, is owned by UT alumni Cori Xiong and Heng Chen. Xiong moved to Texas from the Sichuan province of China when she was 12 years old. Chen left his home city of Shenyang, China, for the U.S. when he was 16 years old. When the now-husband-and-wife met at UT, they discovered a shared passion for Sichuan Chinese food.

After Xiong and Chen graduated in 2009 with economics degrees, they decided to take a leap of faith and jump into the restaurant business. They set up a shop in Houston’s bustling Chinatown, offering lunch plates and Sichuan staples. They lacked experience in the business, which at times made the work challenging.

“We pretty much had to cross the river by feeling the stones,” Chen said. “Hiring the right people, keeping the good people and leading these people has always been a challenge.”

On Friday, Xiong presented some of her restaurant’s signature dishes at Taste of Texas, a part of the Austin Food and Wine Festival.

“I’ve loved seeing so many non-Chinese people enjoying our food and not taking it as something weird and exotic,” Xiong said. “I feel like I’ve bridged some gap between different cultures.”

Xiong and Chen named Mala Sichuan Bistro after the restaurant’s signature flavors. In Mandarin Chinese, ma refers to the numbing sensation caused by peppercorns native to the Sichuan province, and la refers to the spicy flavor of red chili peppers.

“Numbing is a flavor — or more of a sensation — that most people do not know humans are able to taste,” Xiong said. “Our spices activate the touch sensory receptors and make each one of the nerve endings in the tongue and the mouth area think that they’ve been repeatedly lightly touched, like a constant light buzz.”

To set their restaurant apart from the several traditional spicy Sichuan restaurants in Houston’s Chinatown, Xiong and Chen added an alcohol menu and prioritized establishing a friendly ambience.

“I want to excite the diners with the bold flavors of food and perfect pairings of beer and wine that they don’t usually see in ethnic restaurants,” Xiong said. “But I also want to give them some bits and pieces of impressions on Sichuan culture and my hometown.”

The duo will soon open a Mala Sichuan Bistro location in Montrose, a trendy neighborhood of Houston. The restaurant’s new location will be across from the restaurant Underbelly, a critically acclaimed mainstay of Houston’s food scene. Chris Shepherd, Underbelly owner and executive chef, said he looks forward to his new neighbors.

“Mala has become a destination restaurant in Chinatown,” Shepherd said. “People who weren’t previously familiar with Chinatown have now experienced Houston’s incredible Asian cuisine as a result of Mala’s influence. The Montrose location will touch an even larger group of inner-loop Houstonians, and I hope it opens the door for even more exploration.”

Although Xiong and Chen have specifically reached out to non-Chinese customers, they said their priority is to serve up authentic Chinese food.

“I want to offer an experience that is different from other Chinese restaurants,” Chen said. “But I still want to let diners know that this is the real, traditional Chinese food — that this is what people eat in China — not egg rolls or orange chicken.”

On a typical night at  Mala Sichuan Bistro, customers dab their watering eyes over dishes of live tilapia or rabbit meat soaked in flaming red chili oil.

The restaurant, in Houston’s Chinatown, is owned by UT alumni Cori Xiong and Heng Chen. Xiong moved to Texas from the Sichuan province of China when she was 12. Chen left his home city of Shenyang, China, for the U.S. when he was 16 years old. When the now-husband-and-wife met at UT, they discovered a shared passion for Sichuan Chinese food, which involves spicy meat dishes and noodles.

After Xiong and Chen graduated in 2009 with economics degrees, they decided to take a leap of faith and jump into the restaurant business. They set up a shop in Houston’s bustling Chinatown, offering lunch plates and Sichuan staples at reasonable prices. They lacked experience in the business, which at times made the work challenging.

“We pretty much had to cross the river by feeling the stones,” Chen said. “Hiring the right people, keeping the good people and leading these people has always been a challenge.”

On Friday, Xiong presented some of her restaurant’s signature dishes at the Austin Food and Wine Festival. At the Taste of Texas event, Xiong formally introduced her authentic, Chinatown-honed Sichuan cuisine to the Austin food scene.

“I’ve loved seeing so many non-Chinese people enjoying our food and not taking it as something weird and exotic,” Xiong said. “I feel like I’ve bridged some gap between different cultures.”

Xiong and Chen named Mala Sichuan Bistro after the restaurant’s signature flavors. In Mandarin Chinese, ma refers to the numbing sensation caused by peppercorns native to the Sichuan province, and la refers to the spicy flavor of red chili peppers.

“Numbing is a flavor or more of a sensation that most people do not know humans are able to taste,” Xiong said. “Our spices activate the touch sensory receptors and make each one of the nerve endings in the tongue, and the mouth area think that they’ve been repeatedly lightly touched, like a constant light buzz.”

Xiong and Cheng found that several traditional spicy Sichuan shops already called Chinatown home. To set their restaurant apart, they incorporating aspects of contemporary American dining, added an alcohol menu and prioritized establishing a friendly ambience.

“I want to excite the diners with the bold flavors of food and perfect pairings of beer and wine that they don’t usually see in ethnic restaurants,” Xiong said. “But I also want to give them some bits and pieces of impressions on Sichuan culture and my hometown.”

The duo plans to continue their efforts to expand their customer base to non-Chinese people. They will soon open a Mala Sichuan Bistro location in Montrose, a trendy neighborhood of Houston. The restaurant’s new location will be across from the restaurant Underbelly, a critically acclaimed mainstay of Houston’s food scene. Chris Shepherd, Underbelly owner and executive chef, said he looks forward to his new neighbors.

“Mala has become a destination restaurant in Chinatown,” Shepherd said. “People who weren’t previously familiar with Chinatown have now experienced Houston’s incredible Asian cuisine as a result of Mala’s influence. The Montrose location will touch an even larger group of inner-loop Houstonians, and I hope it opens the door for even more exploration.”

Although Xiong and Chen have specifically reached out to non-Chinese customers, they said their priority is to serve up authentic Chinese food.

“I want to offer an experience that is different from other Chinese restaurants,” Chen said. “But I still want to let diners know that this is the real traditional Chinese food, that this is what people eat in China — not egg rolls or orange chicken.”

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

The open carry of handguns state-wide is one step closer to being legal.

The Texas House gave initial approval to its version of the open carry bill, HB 910, on Friday. The Texas Senate approved its version of the bill in March. 

HB 910 would allow licensed handgun carriers to openly carry their guns in a holster. The open carry of long guns and rifles is already legal in the state. Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman), primary author of the bill, said he thinks the bill will expand Texans’ rights under the Second Amendment. 

“This bill goes too far for some and not far enough for others, but I think its a good start to show that we as Texans can be respectful and still protect ourselves,” Phillips said.

Representatives were set to debate the bill Tuesday, but Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) pointed out a technical error that postponed discussion. The error was resolved the same day.

Martinez Fischer and Rep. Borris Miles (D-Houston) brought up points of order Friday, but the points were overruled. One of Martinez Fischer’s points was in response to an amendment Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress) filed that would allow the concealed carry of handguns on college campuses.

“This amendment has to do with what a licensed holder may or may not do,” Fletcher said. “This is the campus protection amendment to campus carry and is acceptable to the author.”

Fletcher, who also authored the House’s campus carry bill, HB 937, ultimately withdrew the measure. Representatives are set to debate campus carry at a later date.

Two of the 18 proposed amendments to the bill were approved. One amendment rewords the phrase “nursing home” to “nursing facility” when referring to facilities where open carry is not allowed.

The other amendment lightens the penalty for openly carrying a gun in a location with the proper signage displayed to ban to prevent open carry. The penalty for disobeying the signage would change from a class A misdemeanor to a class C misdemeanor, resulting in a fine of up to $200.

Additional reporting by Jackie Wang.

Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

In alliance with the Alabama-Coushatta and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribes, state Reps. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) and James White (R-Woodville) authored a resolution in March that would authorize gambling on all Native American lands. 

If passed, House Joint Resolution 129 would lead to a November ballot measure proposing a state constitutional amendment allowing gambling on tribal lands. 

Ronnie Thomas, vice chairman of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe, said he is optimistic that Texans will pass the amendment. 

Out-of-state gaming organizations have shown opposition, but if the legislation passes and the issue goes on the ballot, there is a high chance that voters will approve the measure, Thomas said. 

In 2001, the Alabama-Coushatta tribe opened a casino on its reservation in Livingston. However, after nine months of earning approximately $1 million in monthly revenue, a federal court ordered that the casino be shut down. Currently, the Kickapoo tribe runs the only functioning casino in the state in Eagle Pass.

UT anthropology professor Shannon Speed said gaming rights for Texas’ Native American tribes vary according to the method the tribes used to retain federal recognition.

“The Kickapoo tribe in Texas managed to gain their recognition [in 1983] by applying for it through the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Speed said. “The Alabama-Coushatta gained recognition through a congressional act, which stated that the tribe could not engage in any activity that the state of Texas did not allow its citizens to engage in. Because operating a casino in Texas is illegal, this has become the basis of the disparity in tribes’ rights to engage in gaming activities.” 

Because Native American tribes represent sovereign nations rather than minority groups, Speed said restricting tribal gaming rights within reservations limits the tribes’ ability to self-determine with regard to their economic structure. 

“If you are pursuing your civil rights as a minority, you are pursuing your rights as a citizen of a nation, but most native tribes are actually looking for their rights as sovereign nations apart from the U.S.,” Speed said. “So if tribes are unable to participate in gaming based on an act from a foreign government, it really encroaches on the tribes’ sovereignty.”

Speed, who is a member of the Kickapoo tribe, said legal gaming has the potential to create huge financial and cultural opportunities for the Alabama-Coushatta tribe, as the casino in Eagle Pass did for the Kickapoo tribe.

“[The Kickapoo] began gaming in the late 1980s, and now the Kickapoo Foundation is actually the second-largest employer in the state of Oklahoma after Wal-Mart,” Speed said. “The tribe has been able to effectively redistribute the funds from gaming to tribal members through social services like free medical care, housing loans, fellowships for education, awards for the arts and more.”

Rep. Thompson said the Legislature should pass the resolution to let Texans decide on equal rights for Texas’ tribes.

“[Rep. White and I] ask the Legislature to let the people decide,” Thompson said. “We believe the voters will decide to let them do the same thing the Kickapoo are doing in Eagle Pass. Let the people decide.”

Junior designated right fielder Holly Kern hit a grand slam in Wednesday’s 13-12 victory over Houston. Texas trailed by as many as seven runs, but four home runs helped extend its win streak to six games. Texas has won seven straight road games.
Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

Longhorns fight from seven down to edge out Cougars. After a combined 26 hits and 25 runs, Texas defeated Houston, 13–12, Wednesday night to extend its win streak to a season-best six games and bring its record to 24–9.

The game was an old-fashioned Texas shootout from the get-go. In the top of the first, junior center fielder Lindsey Stephens, last week’s Big 12 Conference Player of the Week, sent one into the stands for a two-run home run to put the Longhorns on the board early. 

In the bottom of the inning, Houston senior shortstop Selena Hernandez countered with a two-run home run of her own to tie the game up heading into the second.

The second inning, which saw no runs scored by either team, was the calm before the storm.

In the top of the third, sophomore left fielder Stephanie Wong hit her second home run of the season to give the Longhorns a one-run advantage. The Cougars reacted quickly, scoring three runs of their own. 

Halfway through the game, the Cougars picked up their play, scoring five runs in the fourth. Down 10–3 heading into the fifth, the Longhorns began to fight back, swinging for the fences. With a couple quick hits and a generous error from the opposing team, Texas loaded the bases for junior right fielder Holly Kern. The pressure of trailing didn’t faze Kern as she hit a grand slam to cut the lead to 10–7 and put Texas back in the game.

Texas produced another strong inning at a crucial point in the game. Following a run by Wong, her third of the game, junior catcher Erin Shireman followed in her teammate’s footsteps and hit a home run of her own. Shireman’s three-run home run helped the Longhorns reclaim the lead for the first time since the third inning. 

But Hernandez hit her second home run of the night to tie up the game and send the Longhorns and Cougars into the seventh inning at 11 apiece.

A single by freshman third baseman Randel Leahy ignited the final flame for Texas in the top of the seventh. Off a pair of singles and a pair of bunts, Texas scored two quick runs to give the Cougars just three outs to make up the deficit in the final frame.

Freshman pitcher Kristen Clark and the rest of the Longhorns wasted no time stepping up on defense, forcing the first two batters to ground out. But Houston junior outfielder Katie St. Pierre pushed one last time. St. Pierre, who is hitting a team-best .367 on the year, doubled to left and scored on the next play to finish 2-for-4 with three runs and a walk.

Down one with one out left, Hernandez hit a single to put two on, but sophomore third baseman Shelby Miller grounded out to second to end the game and give the Longhorns the victory.

The Longhorns will seek their 25th win this Friday against Texas State in San Marcos.  

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

Coming off of a sweep of No. 22 Kansas to open conference play, Texas looks to continue its momentum Wednesday against Houston at Cougar Softball Stadium.

Texas (23–9, 3–0 Big 12) enters the matchup against Houston (17–17, 2–0 AAC) with both teams undefeated in their respective conferences. The Longhorns boast a 7–1 record on the road, while Houston struggles with a 9–8 record at home.

 The Longhorn lineup leads Texas’ strong offensive performance this season. Sophomore leadoff hitter Devon Tunning is batting .279 on the year while accumulating a team-high 26 walks — over a fifth of the team’s total. Second in the order, sophomore outfielder Stephanie Wong leads the team in batting with a .368 average and has reached a base safely in a career-long streak of 15 games.

“Those two are seeing the ball very well right now,” head coach Connie Clark said. “I’m really pleased with our offense, and our ability to make needed adjustments has been tremendous.”

Despite the Longhorns’ road record and strong lineup, they have struggled in opening innings on several occasions this season. Texas is 9–8  in games when recording a scoreless inning. On the other hand, Texas is 10–1  when scoring more than one run in the opening frame. In last weekend’s three-game series against Kansas, this early momentum played a huge role.

In the first game, along with a series of walks, a couple of singles and a three-run homerun in the first inning helped the Longhorns jump to a quick 4–0 lead over the Jayhawks. The next game, the Longhorns took another 4–0 lead in the first, leading to another victory.

“We started off hot, and I think that was pretty significant to set the tone for the game,” Clark said after Friday’s victory over the Jayhawks.

On Friday, Texas gave Kansas starting pitcher Alicia Pille her first loss of the season after she started 18–0, and, in the second, the Longhorns’ opening burst led to Pille’s removal from the mound with just one out in the game.

“Coming into Friday at someone else’s place, you have the leadoff come out and get on and wreak havoc —  that’s one thing,” Clark said. “To do it a second-straight day, you saw a little of the air come out of the tires across the diamond. Kansas certainly kept battling, but to get the momentum is important.”

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

 

Update (2:59 p.m.): The House Homeland Security and Public Safety committee left bills regarding campus carry and open carry pending in committee Tuesday.

Guests attended a public hearing Tuesday to testify on HB 937 and HB 910, dealing with campus carry and open carry respectively. Following public testimonies, the committee made its ruling to keep the bills pending.

HB 937, if passed, would allow the concealed carry of handguns on college campuses by licensed holders. Private and independent universities could opt out of the policy. Certain areas on campuses, such as grade schools and pre-schools, hospitals, residences halls and sporting events would be exempt from campus carry.

“College and university campuses are not crime free zones….” Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress), primary author of the bill, said at the hearing. “The idea that this bill will result in any increase in violence is unfounded.”

HB 910 would allow licensed handgun carriers to openly carry their guns in a belt or shoulder holster.

“While this bill might not go far enough for some and too far for others, it’s a continued step in Texas recognizing citizen rights to self defense,”  Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman), Homeland Security and Public Safety chair and primary author of the bill, said.

The Senate gave final approval to a companion version of HB 910, SB 17, Tuesday. The Senate equivalent of the campus carry bill was set to be heard on the Senate floor Tuesday as well, but the discussion was postponed to Wednesday.

Update (1:35 p.m.): The Texas Senate gave final approval to its open carry bill Tuesday.

The bill allows licensed handgun carriers to openly carry guns in a belt holster or shoulder holster. It also gives private business owners the option to refuse service to open carriers, if the business displays the proper signage.

“I’ve been here long enough to know that you don’t win all of your battles…I wish the loss yesterday would be over something…not quite as critical as open carry,” Senate Dean John Whitmire (D-Houston) said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement this is the first time an open carry bill has made it past committee and onto the Senate floor.

“We’ve worked tirelessly on the issues that are most important to Texans,” Patrick said.  “I applaud the good work our senators have put forth on making sure our Second Amendment Rights are protected, never ignored and properly enforced.”

To become law, the bill must gain final approval in the house and receive Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature. If made law, open carry with a holster will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2016.

Companion bills in the House are set to be heard in committee Tuesday.

 

Original: The Texas Senate gave initial approval to a bill allowing the open carry of holstered handguns Monday.

SB 17, which Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) authored, was approved by a 2011 vote.  The bill must also pass in the House and obtain Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature to become law. The bill is set to be heard by the Senate again on Tuesday and may receive final Senate approval.

Current state law allows for the concealed carry of handguns, but certain rifles and longneck firearms may be carried openly. 

If the bill were to become law, the state concealed handgun license would simply become a handgun license, removing the concealed carry requirement, Estes said at the hearing. Licensed carriers could display their handguns in public as long as they used a shoulder or belt holster.

Texans will be required to pass training, criminal background and mental health checks before they are able to obtain a handgun license. Businesses with appropriate signage would maintain the ability to refuse service to those carrying handguns.

During a four-hour debate, lawmakers considered nearly two dozen amendments to the bill. Three amenendments were accepted, including one that changes the implementation date to Jan. 1, 2016 and one to provide training on properly securing holstered handguns.

Another accepted amendment, which Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) proposed, prevents open carry at private, independent and public higher education institutions. 

Huffman said she supports Second Amendment rights but wants to prevent open carry on college campuses, regardless of whether the campus carry bill passes. The Senate will hear the campus carry bill Tuesday.

Concealed handgun license holders can already carry guns openly on public areas of campuses such as sidewalks.

“I believe [licensed gun carriers 21 year olds and above] will be able to be responsible on a college campus, but I am sensitive to the concerns of parents and others who would feel uncomfortable with the open display of a weapon on a college campus," Huffman said.

Concerns expressed by opponents of open carry included the accessibility of the handguns for theft or crime, if they were to be stolen from the carrier, as well as police opposition and its implementation in cities versus small towns.

Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) said he thinks the bill could have unsuspected consequences, including a risk to law enforcement officers. He said that when officers arrive on the scene and multiple people there are carrying guns openly, it could make it hard to identify the criminal.

“[Police officers] have literally told me that when they pull up they will not know what to do,” Whitmire said.

According to Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), the Texas Police Chief Association conducted a survey about police chief support for open carry. He said 207 chiefs of the 285 surveyed were against the open carry of handguns.

Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) said she thinks open carry will not be successful in large cities, such as Houston, where there are larger crowds and higher crime rates.

“When you’re in a big city it’s a different arena. … I just cannot imagine walking in anywhere where there is a gun openly carried,” Garcia said.

The House Homeland Security and Public Safety committee is set to hear bills, identical to their Senate counterparts, regarding campus carry and open carry Tuesday morning.

For the first time in program history, Houston bested Texas, 6–1, over the weekend.

The teams split the first two doubles matches as Texas freshman Dani Wagland and sophomore Ratnika Batra defeated sophomore Despoina Vogasari and senior Elena Kordolaimi, 6–2. Houston sophomore Tina Rupert and junior Maria Cardenas dropped Texas’ junior Lana Groenvynck and sophomore Neda Koprcina, 6–5.

The Longhorns only had five healthy players for the match and did not have a third doubles team, so the Cougars took the doubles point by default.

In singles, Houston took a swift lead, taking victories over Wagland and senior Lina Padegimaite.

Batra was the only Longhorn able to take a singles win. She defeated Rupert in third singles, 6–2, 6–2.

In the last match of the day, Koprcina pushed back against No. 34 Vogasari, Texas Regional Champion — but lost in the end, 1–6, 6–4, 6–2.

The Longhorns continued their slump, but look to turn it around next weekend when they play Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament openers.

MLS Touchline- Week One

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.

Predictions

·      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

Power Rankings

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