Noah Davis
Wednesday March 18th, 2009

The author has changed but the deal is the same. MLS Free Kicks are back every Wednesday, with your weekly dose of quick takes, plot lines to watch and Power Rankings. So without further ado ...

With its best player (Landon Donovan) and biggest star (David Beckham) loaned out to high-profile European clubs, Major League Soccer managed to keep itself in the news for much of the offseason. Both men will return to the Los Angeles Galaxy for Season 14 -- although the Englishman won't be back until midway through the year -- and will provide highlight material for the most visible franchise. Their brilliance will be equaled around the league where the product has never been better, which is good news during a season when the economic conditions could hurt ticket sales.

Speaking of those economic conditions (they seem to find their way into every discussion these days), the transfer market will be interesting to watch as the season unfolds. Kenny Cooper and Sacha Kljestan are the top players who could follow the path blazed by Brad Guzan and Jozy Altidore and leave MLS midseason for European clubs. It remains to be seen which, if any, teams will shell out cash for the fledgling stars. Likewise, teams such as Seattle could improve their rosters by bringing in a part or two during the summer, but can anyone afford to spend?

Aside from a juicy Houston vs. Columbus clash on Saturday, the league's opening weekend features pitched battles that will offer a measuring stick for a number of teams. In the season's opening game on Thursday night, both Seattle and New York have a lot to prove. Colorado could make a quick impression with a result at Chivas USA, while we'll know a lot more about whether overhauled Toronto FC is worthy of the hype after its match with Kansas City. The game between New England and San Jose pits two squads going in opposite directions against each other, and Donovan gets his first glimpse of how his new mates respond to the big stage against D.C. For every team except Real Salt Lake, the talk is over: Kickoff calls (finally!).

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