Here's a look at 10 storylines that will resonate through the 15th Major League Soccer season, which begins Thursday night in Seattle:
1. New York Red Bull's rebirth: Nothing has symbolized a league still finding its feet like 14 years of the mess in New York. MLS' most visible club was stuck in a loser's loop competitively. The bigger picture was worse, a team tethered to a horribly ill-fitting stadium; Giants Stadium represented a financial sinkhole and a venue wrong for MLS in every way. However, the favorable reviews are pouring in for fashionable, new $250 million Red Bull Arena. "The stadium has over-delivered in almost every way," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. Finally, New York has a showpiece venue worthy of a potential flagship franchise.
2. The all-time-high 16-team field: The number "16" may seem important. But the real number to keep in mind is "50." That is, 50 percent of the 16-team field will make the playoffs -- with the bottom half cast aside, bound for an offseason of sackings, sadness and uncertainty, since accessing the postseason has always been seen as the minimum standard. Consider that just a few years ago, eight of 10 teams reached the playoffs, a comically high percentage that stripped almost all urgency off the regular season. This enhanced backdrop adds weight to every match; there will be fewer contests in which teams can afford to coast or outright switch off. With improved game bonuses now at stake and playoff pressure mounting, nothing will do more over the long haul to improve the overall quality of the product. Game on!
3. The debut of the Philadelphia Union: The scene along the Delaware River and the side of Brotherly Soccer may not land with such force as last year's expansion revelation, Seattle. However, the newbies at the Union seem ready to make some noise at the gate, at least. They'll play at Lincoln Financial until June, when they can finally switch on the lights at PPL Park. The club has sold more than 10,000 season tickets, so good days seem ahead for the highly engaged Sons of Ben supporters group and the rest of the Philly fandom.
4. The Galaxy and Landon Donovan: If you get weary of hearing about the league's reigning MVP and U.S. soccer poster boy, well, you're in for a tough time in 2010. His importance to Los Angeles went supersize when David Beckham suffered a potentially season-long injury. Plus, Donovan will be prominent in this year's World Cup, and then he'll almost surely be the subject of transfer speculation; his splendid 10-week loaner to Everton assured as much. Beckham's ability to return this year will be another Galaxy-related story worth monitoring.
5. Seattle's title hopes: Seattle made the playoffs as an expansion outfit in 2009. Can coach Sigi Schmid and his Sounders make a dash for the big cash this year? Could be. All the elements are in place: a good mix of young and old, goal scorers, a solid defense, a balanced midfield, dynamic attackers (Freddie Ljungberg and Steve Zakuani) and an ageless goalkeeper (Kasey Keller) who can still get it done. It's all backed by engaged ownership and a record-sized fan base coiled for more.
6. More expansion: Sounds like Montreal's addition is a fait accompli. Garber said that hammering out the new CBA temporarily derailed his aggressive drive for further expansion, but promised to get it back on track soon. Portland and Vancouver are already set to come aboard in 2011, creating an 18-team league (not to mention a roiling three-way Pacific Northwest rivalry). Barring something unforeseen, look for Montreal to be announced at some point this year as the league's third Canadian entry. As for a 20th team, no front-runner has developed, and Garber has always said that timetables aren't as important as identifying candidates with all the requisite elements for success nicely buttoned up. These things can evolve rather quickly, however, so a leading contender (St. Louis, perhaps?) is sure to emerge before season's end -- possibly one that could join Montreal as early as 2012.
7. New bosses galore: There are new coaches at Chicago, Chivas USA, D.C. United, Red Bull New York and Toronto. Kansas City coach Peter Vermes is in his first full season and everything is new around expansion Philly. Only two skippers are completely new to MLS: former El Salvador national team coach Carlos de los Cobos now leads Chicago and Swede Hans Backe heads up New York. Martin Vasquez has played in MLS and spent time as an assistant, but the Chivas USA post represents his first time in charge. He's also the league's first Mexican-American coach, which is significant. And speaking of managerial flux, Frank Yallop probably needs to show progress in his third year at San Jose or we could see a new boss there before season's end.
8. Designated Players could increase. Garber hinted that changes were afoot on the Designated Player structure. (The DP rule allows each team to sign one player to a substantial contract, only a small portion of which counts against the salary cap.) Technically, the three-year span of the original rule expired at the end of calendar 2009, so ownership must take some action, even if it's just stamping the status quo. Is an additional slot for each side in the offing? Ownership in Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and D.C. United has been bullish pursuers in that direction. (Teams would then have two DP slots each, with the ability to trade for a third.) It would mark a meaningful shift, signaling a league more willing to gamble (Spend a buck to make a buck, ya know?) and fulfilling the aggressive owners' desire to push the tempo for growth.
9. Defending the title: Repeating as champions is hardly new to MLS. D.C. United did it back in the day, as teams steered by Marco Etcheverry and bossed in the back by Eddie Pope captured the 1996 and 1997 titles. Houston won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. So now Real Salt Lake gets a shot at championship defense. Coach Jason Kreis, the youngest to win a title, remains MLS' youngest manager. FYI: League officials haven't confirmed where the 2010 MLS Cup final will be staged but did say Red Bull Arena's time is coming -- just not this year. The smart money is on Toronto's BMO Field.
10. Trouble in the nation's capital: Garber has nibbled around the edges on his frustration over D.C. United's unsustainable stadium situation. Two days before the season opener, he bit the head off the darned thing. He assailed D.C. politicians for two-faced ways and the inability to generate any progress on developing a facility for a franchise that deserves one. Oscar De La Hoya never threw harder punches. Bam! Garber sounds like he means business. Something's got to give. Soon.
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