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For Cup, MLS Eyeing Home-Field Advantage

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 22, 2008

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 21 -- As MLS prepares to stage its championship game in a stadium thousands of miles from the homes of the participants, the league announced Friday that it is exploring the possibility of providing home-field advantage in the final.

Since its launch in 1996, MLS has designated a venue up to a year in advance to host the title game, creating a neutral setting for the finalists. The only exceptions were in 1997 and 2002, when D.C. United and the New England Revolution, respectively, happened to advance to an MLS Cup being staged in their home stadium.

Sunday's final, featuring the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew, will be played at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., for the third time in six years. Next year's championship will also be decided at a prearranged site, but a proposal allowing the higher seed to host the game is "something we are taking a serious look at," Commissioner Don Garber said.

"Three, four, five years ago, we didn't have the ability with the number of stadiums we had -- quite frankly I don't think we have the ability in a handful of our markets to be able to play that final game on a week's notice in any particular stadium throughout the league today," he said. "Maybe not today, but maybe two years from now, three years from now, we will have that ability."

Ten of MLS's 14 clubs have almost exclusive use of their stadiums and two others are expected to open new facilities in the next two years. Those setups allow teams to host games, such as MLS Cup, on short notice. In the early years of the league, many clubs played in stadiums also used for football.

In other developments:

· The league will cut rosters to 24 from 28, but increase the number of senior players -- those who earn at least $34,000 -- from 18 to 20. The decision eliminates dozens of developmental positions that paid $12,900 or $17,700 this year.

· To help ease the demands on clubs at midseason when nonleague games and national team call-ups have a severe impact, the 2009 regular season will begin March 21, a week earlier than this year. Clubs will also have the option of not playing on two weekends or softening their schedule for a four-week stretch in the summer.

· No club will have to play in both the SuperLiga, held in the summer, and the CONCACAF Champions League, which begins in the fall. D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo had to do just that this year and seemed to suffer from the congested calendar. United will play in the Champions League only next year.

· Montreal has dropped its expansion bid, leaving Miami, Atlanta, St. Louis, Ottawa, Vancouver, B.C., and Portland, Ore., in contention for two teams in 2011. A decision is expected by late March.

Been Here Before

Columbus will make its first MLS Cup appearance Sunday, but for midfielder Brian Carroll, the trip to Home Depot Center for a championship game has stirred memories.

Carroll, a West Springfield High graduate, started for United in the 2004 final in Carson, a 3-2 victory over Kansas City, and was a three-year starter for his hometown club until losing his job to Clyde Simms late last season.

Exposed in the expansion draft, Carroll was claimed by San Jose and then traded to Columbus, where he regained his form, started all 30 regular season games as well as three playoff matches, and sat out only eight of 2,970 minutes.

Though teammate Guillermo Barros Schelotto was named MLS's most valuable player, many in the Columbus organization credit Carroll for bringing stability to the lineup.

"I looked at it as a new start, a new transition," said Carroll, 27, whose younger brothers, Jeff and Pat, were on United's roster this year. When he was acquired by the Crew, "I talked to [Coach Sigi Schmid] and he thought we would have a good mix of experience and young players, and as we have grown throughout the season, he has proven to be correct. We were able to put together a decent year and now hopefully we can top it off as a great year."

Crew reserve defender Ezra Hendrickson was also on United's 2004 championship roster, his only year with D.C. and the fourth of his six MLS clubs in 12 seasons. Columbus has two former University of Maryland stars: starting midfielder Robbie Rogers (six goals, three assists) and reserve forward Jason Garey (three goals). General Manager Mark McCullers is a former assistant stadium manager at RFK Stadium. . . .

The U.S. national team's first game in 2009 will be Jan. 24 against Sweden at Home Depot Center, 2 1/2 weeks before the final round of World Cup qualifying begins. The Americans will learn their 10-game qualifying schedule Saturday morning.

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