Despite lacking a concrete collective bargaining agreement with its players, Major League Soccer released its 2015 regular-season schedule Wednesday. It’s an ambitious move, but it lets everybody inside and outside the league dream about the possible permutations of the upcoming season – the 20th in league history – assuming a deal gets done.
Everything starts March 6 with the defending champion LA Galaxy hosting the Chicago Fire, and a typical slate of Saturday games follows the next day. Each team’s first home game was already announced, with Toronto FC having to wait until May 10 to play at BMO Field due to stadium renovations.
Also, as commissioner Don Garber hinted in his State of the League address last month, all matches on the last week of the regular season will kick off at the same time within each conference. On Oct. 25, all Eastern Conference teams will play at 5 p.m., and all Western Conference teams will kick off at 7 p.m. (Eastern Time) to close the season.
The playoff field has also been expanded from 10 teams to a dozen (first reported by SI.com's Brian Straus in November), in anticipation of further expansion to Garber’s targeted 24 teams. A date hasn't been set yet for MLS Cup, but it will be played either the weekend of Dec. 5-6 or 12-13.
Here are 10 matchups to keep an eye on as the 2015 MLS season progresses (the entire 2015 slate can be seen here):
• Orlando City vs. New York City FC (March 8)
In probably the marquee game of opening week, the two expansion sides go head-to-head right away to kick off their MLS existences. NYCFC’s debacle regarding Frank Lampard has been well documented, while Orlando has been making more modest and practical moves, and probably “won” in the expansion draft.
The match marks the on-field return to MLS for Orlando's Brek Shea, and the sideline return to MLS for NYCFC manager Jason Kreis (his return to Rio Tinto Stadium vs. Real Salt Lake comes May 23). It also is the unveiling of two more international stars to the league, as Kaka, the highest-paid player in MLS, will make his debut opposing Spanish striker David Villa.
• New York City FC vs. New England Revolution (March 15)
Since NYCFC’s announcement that it would play in Yankee Stadium for the foreseeable future, fans and pundits have been wondering whether the baseball cathedral would be a disaster for the beautiful game.
The pitch has worked OK for one-off friendlies, but it remains to be seen how solutions for the infield dirt and pitcher’s mound will work in the longer term. The clash of northeast teams is the first test.
• San Jose Earthquakes vs. Chicago Fire (March 22)
Another stadium, this one soccer-specific and by all accounts very impressive, opens in late March when Avaya Stadium hosts its first match. A mere building won't be enough to boost San Jose’s dismal recent record, but perhaps the return of manager Dominic Kinnear can help. (Also on the calendar: Kinnear's return to face off against the Houston Dynamo on May 5 in Texas.)
• LA Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders (April 12 and Aug. 9 in Los Angeles, Oct. 4 in Seattle)
Besides deciding the Supporters’ Shield in back-to-back matches to finish the 2014 season, this matchup frequently puts some of the league’s best (or at least highest-paid) players on the field at the same time. Steven Gerrard will take Landon Donovan’s place in July, but the rest of the crew remains the same: Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Osvaldo Alonso, Robbie Keane and Omar Gonzalez are the other DPs on the two rosters.
• Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers (April 26 and Aug. 30 in Seattle, June 28 in Portland)
Cascadia Cup games always provide high drama, and usually in every contest, so it’s difficult to pick out just one. Dempsey scored a hat trick in the first meeting last year in a comeback 4-4 draw, while more than 64,000 fans packed CenturyLink Field in July. The third team, the Vancouver Whitecaps, took home the Cascadia Cup last year, though, so don’t sleep on matches involving Carl Robinson’s team, either.
• New York Red Bulls vs. New York City FC (May 10, June 28, Aug. 9)
The first meeting between the two New York teams will pit two franchises going through trying MLS offseasons. City is trying to get off the ground despite a major PR hiccup with regard to Lampard’s arrival, and the Red Bulls just fired head coach Mike Petke, who remains the team’s leader in games played, and replaced him with Jesse Marsch. They'll clash at Yankee Stadium once, in the second of their three meetings.
• Toronto FC vs. New England Revolution (May 16 and Aug. 1 in New England, Sept. 13 in Toronto)
One of the most interesting positional debates for the United States national team has turned into an intriguing domestic league matchup. Jermaine Jones made his MLS debut against Michael Bradley and Toronto last season, and a controversial Lee Nguyen goal was all that separated them in the final match of both teams’ regular seasons. All three of the aforementioned U.S. players should come back refreshed, with the benefit of a full offseason.
• New England Revolution vs. LA Galaxy (May 31)
The rematch of the 2014 MLS Cup final comes in early midseason and on the opposite coast from both of the teams’ meetings last year. The Galaxy won emphatically, 5-1, during the regular season before a much narrower extra-time victory at the StubHub Center in December. The Revs rose well last year, and this could be another good measuring stick for them.
• LA Galaxy vs. New York City FC (Aug. 23)
MLS had the foresight to schedule the first round of Lampard vs. Gerrard for the latter stages of the season, when both should be Stateside. The two have met frequently in high-profile Premier League clashes between Liverpool and Chelsea (or Manchester City, this year), and the constant question surrounding their national team existence was whether they could coexist in the same lineup. They’ll be combatants again for their new teams in August.
• Real Salt Lake vs. FC Dallas (Aug. 29 in Dallas, Oct. 17 in Salt Lake City)
RSL and Dallas seem to play multiple electric matches against one another each year. Both finished in the second-highest layer of the Western Conference in 2014, and they’ll be hungry to prove they can still compete with teams above them that spend money much more freely. Jeff Cassar and Óscar Pareja have proven their ability in MLS in short periods in charge; Year 2 with their respective teams should provide more opportunities for evolution.