MLS soccer season preview

MLS opening weekend schedule

Saturday

Kansas City at Philadelphia, 4; Toronto at Vancouver, 6:30; D.C. United at Houston, 8 (NBC Sports Network); Colorado at Dallas, 8:30; Montreal at Seattle, 10:30; Columbus at Chivas USA, 10:30.

Sunday

Chicago at Los Angeles, 5 (Univision); New York at Portland, 7:30 (ESPN2); Real Salt Lake at San Jose, 10.

The Starting XI

Bye-bye, Becks: David Beckham has moved from the Los Angeles Galaxy to Paris Saint-Germain. After a rocky start to his six-year MLS journey, Beckham met expectations on and off the field by winning consecutive league championships and helping grow the league with transcending appeal. To say he saved MLS, though, would be inaccurate: The league was in good shape when he arrived and, thanks in part to his charm and performance, MLS appears to be in very good shape entering the post-Becks era.

Donovan, in concert?: Landon Donovan spent the winter not on loan in Europe or on U.S. national team assignment, but contemplating his future. With year-round demands taking a heavy toll (MLS, World Cup qualifying, American poster boy for the league), the Galaxy superstar went on sabbatical and doesn’t plan to resume workouts until late March. Will he rediscover his hunger for the sport? Although only 31 (as of next week), Donovan has performed in a glaring spotlight since he was a teenager and just seems mentally exhausted.

Sir, yes, Sir: Two of the five new head coaches are familiar names to MLS fans — Toronto FC’s Ryan Nelsen and the New York Red Bulls’ Mike Petke, defenders on United’s last championship squad (2004). Nelsen, 35, abruptly retired after eight years in the English Premier League, while Petke, 37, was promoted from an interim position. The other newcomers are with Portland (Caleb Porter), Montreal (Marco Schallibaum) and Chivas USA (Jose Luis Sanchez Sola).

House of Payne: With new management stamping its imprint on United, Kevin Payne was nudged aside after running the club since its inception 17 years ago. He moved to Toronto FC, a mess of an organization that has burned through seven coaches and never qualified for the playoffs in its six years of existence. Payne’s first bold move was hiring Nelsen, who captained his United teams but has no coaching experience. Payne’s patience will be tested as Nelsen learns the craft and the club redesigns the roster.

Notable departures: D.C. United D Andy Najar (Anderlecht/Belgium) and MF Branko Boskovic (Rapid Vienna), Kansas City MFs Kei Kamara (Norwich City/England) and Roger Espinoza (Wigan/England), Dallas MF Brek Shea (Stoke City/England), Seattle F Fredy Montero (Millonarios/Colombia), New York D Rafael Marquez (Leon/Mexico), Toronto MF Torsten Frings (retired) and Philadelphia MF Freddy Adu (to be determined).

Notable arrivals: Kansas City F Claudio Bieler (LDU Quito/Ecuador), Portland MF Diego Valeri (Lanus/Argentina), Real Salt Lake F Robbie Findley (Nottingham Forest/England), Los Angeles GK Carlo Cudicini (Spurs/England), D.C. United Fs Rafael (Bahia/Brazil) and Carlos Ruiz (Veracruz/Mexico), New York MF Juninho (Vasco da Gama/Brazil), Montreal F Andrea Pisanu (Bologna/Italy), Portland D Mikael Silvestre (Werder Bremen/Germany) and Dallas GK Raul Fernandez (Nice/France).

Chivas exodus: Chivas USA, Los Angeles’s lowly sideshow, caused the greatest stir this winter by trading several non-Latin players, including four-time all-league selection Shalrie Joseph, for little in return and adding Mexican and Mexican-American players. The club is owned by Chivas Guadalajara, Mexico’s most popular team, which fields Mexican players only. The U.S. offspring, however, has failed to bond with California’s enormous Mexican soccer fan base — much of which supports Chivas Guadalajara’s rivals.

Little Italy: Montreal is the most European of MLS destinations, so it’s no surprise that the Impact has embraced a continental flavor. Instead of French, however, the second-year club continues to go Italian: Pisanu joins returning players Marco Di Vaio (nine Italian clubs), Alessandro Nesta (AC Milan and Italian national team legend) and Matteo Ferrari (six Italian teams). The club is run by the Montreal-based Saputo family, which has Sicilian roots.

D.C. stadium?: United’s new investors are giving off positive vibes about reaching agreement with the city and developers to build a new facility at Buzzard Point. Supporters have good reason to remain skeptical, however. This process has been dragging for a decade and United remains camped at RFK Stadium, a creaky facility with soul and atmosphere but little else.

Back off, buddy: MLS has implemented a rule to discourage players from swarming the referee or an opponent. If three or more players do so, their team and coach would be subjected to $5,000 and $1,000 fines, respectively. The league will also crack down on any contact to the head, even non-malicious acts; players or coaches approaching game officials; and anyone leaving the bench area during an on-field incident.

Four seasons: With the earliest start in league history, MLS is moving closer to matching the length of European calendars but also flirting with weather issues in several cities the first few weeks. It’s still less risky than moving to the standard timetable (August through May), as FIFA President Sepp Blatter has suggested without consulting meteorologists in, among other places, Boston, Chicago and Montreal. The regular season will run until Oct. 27, making for a 7-month 3-week agenda. There is also a month’s worth of playoffs, culminating with MLS Cup, hosted by a finalist.

 
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