With 16 teams in the USA, two in Canada and a handful of star names in the mix, Major League Soccer is set to kick off a sweet 16th season at the weekend. Star-studded LA Galaxy and Red Bull New York will be the experts’ pick, but the last couple of MLS crowns have been won by teams that have prized collective spirit over big names. With two new sides in the mix in Portland and Vancouver, as well as established outfits like New England Revolution and Chicago Fire looking for a return to form, this upcoming season has the hallmarks of a classic.
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Stars on both coasts
New York and Los Angeles boast the big names. Former England international and worldwide celebrity David Beckham finishes out the last year of his five-year contract alongside American poster-boy Landon Donovan at southern California’s LA Galaxy, hoping for a first taste of silverware. On the east coast – some 3000 miles away – Red Bull New York begin their first full season with French FIFA World Cup™ winner and ex-Arsenal ace Thierry Henry lining up alongside Mexico captain and one-time Barcelona star Rafa Marquez.
“Bringing in the big names is huge,” said Red Bull speed merchant and Jamaica international Dane Richards. And Beckham himself had the final word on the matter, telling FIFA.com: “If we keep bringing top quality players from Europe, it [MLS] can definitely get up there with some of the biggest leagues in the world.” It’s a sentiment league commissioner Don Garber, who last week called for more big-name stars to come to MLS, certainly agrees with. With all that said, the last few MLS titles have been won by teams conspicuously devoid of big names, with Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake victorious in the last two.
Ins and outs
The new season brings big changes to a handful of clubs. Most notable is the departure of playmaker extraordinaire Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who led Columbus Crew to their first MLS crown in 2008. Returning to his native Argentina, he leaves the Crew with a gaping hole in the middle of the park and the league short one genuine entertainer.
Going the other way is Charlie Davies. The livewire USA international, who missed out on last year’s FIFA World Cup after suffering dreadful injuries in a car crash, returns from France to line up with Ben Olsen’s one-time powers DC United as they aim to improve on 2010's last-place finish. Elsewhere, Real Salt Lake’s star striker and American national team up-and-comer Robbie Findley has left to chase a dream of success overseas with Nottingham Forrest in England. Chicago Fire have taken big hits too, with Brian McBride retiring and Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg both moving on.
Veteran Swiss international Blaise Nkufo also heads out of the league; his decision to part ways with the Seattle Sounders came just an hour before their midweek opener, a 1-0 home loss to the Galaxy, who have been bolstered by the arrival of Colombian Juan Pablo Angel from New York.
One of the more exciting features of the new season is the burgeoning rivalry brewing in the lovely Pacific Northwest. Since the Sounders first came into the league in 2009, their fervent fans have added much-needed excitement. And now, with the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps (the league’s second Canada-based team) joining the league, the region – known for its devotion to football – will have three teams within 300 miles of one another. It should produce a frenzied rivalry the likes of which the geographically spread-out league has had a difficult time producing.
Though new to MLS, all three of the sides were members of the old North American Soccer League and are rivals going back to 1974. “We want to be as competitive as we can,” said John Spencer, Portland head coach and a former MLS standout.
Holders hope as KC build
While all eyes will be on New York and LA Galaxy to challenge for the title, defending champs Colorado Rapids will be eager to prove their first title last year was no fluke. Without the star power of the flashier sides, they do boast the goalscoring prowess of big man Conor Casey and will be strengthened by the arrival of Gambian Sanna Nyassi.
Kansas City join the likes of the Rapids, New York, LA and the Crew by becoming the 13th team in the 18-team league to boast a new 'soccer-specific' stadium. The newly renamed Sporting Kansas City (formerly Kansas City Wizards, who narrowly missed out on qualifying for last year’s play-offs), also welcome former Chivas star Omar Bravo into the fold.
RSL flying the flag
Shock 2009 champions Real Salt Lake, who only entered the league in 2005, have a head start with their season opener approaching. Having qualified for the quarter-final rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League – a tournament of top club sides throughout North, Central America and the Caribbean – they have already played two competitive games against the Crew and now lead 2-0 against Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa at the halfway point of their semi-final series. Should they win, they will be the first MLS side to reach the tournament’s final since LA Galaxy won it in 2000.
Have Your Say
Will Beckham’s Galaxy or Thierry Henry’s Red Bulls finally get the job done and earn MLS glory this season, or will one of the so-called lesser lights lead the way again? FIFA.com wants to know who you think will win in 2011 and why, remembering to keep your posts clean, respectful, on-topic and in English.