Major League Soccer 2012 preview


David Beckham is back for the L.A. Galaxy this season. Last year, he had 15 assists as Los Angeles won MLS Cup. (Brad White/GETTY IMAGES)

MLS talking points

A look at the top story lines in Major League Soccer this season

Bienvenue, Impact

MLS expands into Canada for the third time in six years with the introduction of the Montreal Impact, which toiled in a variety of lower leagues since 1993. Montreal joins compatriots in Toronto (founded in 2007) and Vancouver (2011). While Saputo Stadium undergoes a $23 million renovation to boost capacity by 7,000 to more than 20,000, the club will play the first seven home matches next door at the domed Olympic Stadium. Jesse Marsch is coach; he began his 14-year MLS career with D.C. United and served as a U.S. national team assistant at the 2010 World Cup.

Home in Houston

After six years sharing Robertson Stadium with the University of Houston football team, the Dynamo will move into BBVA Compass Stadium, $110 million downtown digs within walking distance of the city’s other sports venues. The home opener is May 12 against United. Next on the new stadium list: the San Jose Earthquakes, who plan to open an 18,000-seater within two years. Only United (RFK Stadium) and the New England Revolution (Gillette Stadium) are in need of a real estate agent.

Shifting out of neutral

The league has always staged MLS Cup at a pre-selected neutral venue, in part to avoid last-minute scheduling conflicts at shared stadiums. The host team reached the final three times: United in 1997, New England in 2002 and the L.A. Galaxy last year. In most other years, bland atmosphere and a noticeable number of empty seats dampened the event. But with almost all clubs now controlling venue calendars, MLS is finally able to stage the marquee game in a passionate, partisan setting. The finalist with the most regular season points will host the Dec. 1 title game. The downside: winter.

Push for the playoffs

Soccer traditionalists argue playoffs are sacrilege and, like in most countries, the team with the most points at the end of the regular season is the true champion. While MLS has no plans to ditch the postseason, it continues to tinker like a mad scientist unhappy with an imperfect monster. The number of playoff teams is the same (10), but with stricter guidelines, New York, for instance, can no longer land in the Western bracket. Conference semifinals will remain two legs, but the conference finals will expand to two games from one. A two-week lull will separate the playoffs and MLS Cup.

Not on schedule

In recent years, the regular season was clean and simple: Every team played every other side home and away. No longer. With expansion raising the league total to 19 teams, a 36-game schedule was deemed excessive. So the 34-game format remains, but with clubs facing some conference opponents three times, others twice and nonconference teams just once. The star-laden Galaxy, for example, will not visit RFK Stadium again until 2013.

A player’s coach

With the appointments of Marsch, Jay Heaps (New England) and Oscar Pareja (Colorado), 13 MLS head coaches are former MLS players. Heaps, a soccer and basketball player at Duke who played 11 years in MLS, was working in the Revolution’s broadcast booth when he was hired over the winter. Pareja built the youth academy at FC Dallas, the club for which he played eight seasons.

Switching channels

NBC Sports Network is in, Fox Soccer Channel is out. The three-year deal calls for NBC Sports Network (formerly known as Versus) to carry 38 regular season matches and three playoff games, as well as two U.S. national team events. NBC will show two regular season, two playoff and two U.S. matches. MLS’s partnership with ESPN continues with 21 regular season matches, plus the All-Star Game, playoffs and MLS Cup. Galavision (Spanish) will again present weekly matches.

Global ambitions

Is this the year an MLS club qualifies for the Club World Cup? Real Salt Lake came close last year, losing to Monterrey of Mexico in the CONCACAF Champions League finals. The Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC are in the quarterfinals of a regional tournament modeled after the enormously popular European version.

Beckham is back

After winning MLS Cup in the final year of his five-year contract, David Beckham flirted with the idea of taking his golden career to London or Paris. He preferred to stay with the Galaxy and inked a two-year extension. Beckham, 37 in May, remains a marketing titan (re: Super Bowl commercial) and a darn good player (second in MLS with 15 assists last season).

Notable arrivals

Chicago D Arne Friedrich (Germany), Colorado MF Jaime Castillon (Colombia), Columbus F Milovan Mirosevic (Chile), D.C. United F Hamdi Salihi (Albania), Dallas F Blas Perez (Panama), Los Angeles F Edson Buddle (U.S.), Montreal D Nelson Rivas (Colombia), New England D John Lozano (Colombia), New York D Wilman Conde (Colombia), Philadelphia F Lionard Pajoy (Colombia), Portland F Kris Boyd (Scotland), San Jose MF Tressor Moreno (Colombia), Seattle F Eddie Johnson (U.S.), Toronto D Geovanny Caicedo (Ecuador), Vancouver D Young Pyo Lee (South Korea).

Notable departures

D.C. United F Charlie Davies (Sochaux, France), Kansas City F Omar Bravo (Cruz Azul, Mexico), New York D Tim Ream (Bolton, England), Philadelphia GK Fayrd Mondragon (Deportivo Cali, Colombia), Columbus MF Robbie Rogers (Leeds, England), Columbus F Andres Mendoza (Atlante, Mexico).

Opening weekend schedule

Saturday

Columbus at Colorado, 6; Montreal at Vancouver, 6; Kansas City at D.C. United, 7:30 (CSN-Plus); New England at San Jose, 10:30; Real Salt Lake at Los Angeles, 10:30.

Sunday

New York at Dallas, 3 (NBCSN); Houston at Chivas USA, 7 (Galavision)

Monday

Philadelphia at Portland, 9:30 (ESPN2)

Steven Goff

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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