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2016 MLS schedule release: Key dates and the new Decision Day

The 2016 MLS schedule is out! Liviu Bird goes through it and picks out the dates to circle for the year ahead.

The 2016 Major League Soccer schedule is out, and the first day of the season is less than two months away. Each team’s first home game of the season was already announced, but the remaining games are now also known, allowing viewers to look ahead to dates as far away as October.

A rematch of the 2015 final between Portland and Columbus awaits right away, as part of a 10-game slate on March 6. As it did a year ago, Toronto FC will wait until May to play at home because of the end of renovations to BMO Field.

The league, which will be emphasizing its rivalries during a pair of Rivalry Weeks, will be taking a two-week break for Copa América Centenario in June. MLS stadiums including Seattle's CenturyLink Field and New England's Gillette Stadium will be used for the event. The final day of the season–Decision Day–has a new wrinkle, as all 10 league games will start simultaneously (instead of just each conference doing so–that's happening in the penultimate week in 2016), and the All-Star Game will take place on a date to be announced on the last week of July at Avaya Stadium in San Jose.

Naturally, it's hard to highlight every squad when cherry-picking some of the dates to get excited about, but with that said, here are some of the matchups that stand out at first glance of the 2016 MLS regular-season schedule:

Portland Timbers vs. Columbus Crew

March 6

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Fans won’t have to wait very long for a rematch of the MLS Cup final. The league has made it its marquee game of opening week, taking the matchup to Providence Park this time around. The Timbers won both games against the Crew in 2015, in the regular season in September and in the final, by 2-1 scores. This game will again pit two of the most promising American coaches in Gregg Berhalter and Caleb Porter against each other.

New York Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC

March 6

Toronto’s new defensive acquisitions, defenders Steven Beitashour and Drew Moor and holding midfielder Will Johnson, will face a tough test right away as they visit the league’s highest-scoring team in 2015 in the New York Red Bulls. On the other end, the Red Bulls haven’t lost or gained much compared to its Supporters’ Shield-winning squad of this past season, but sustaining success from year to year in MLS is always a tricky thing by design, so starting strong will be important.

Cascadia Cup (Portland Timbers vs. Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Seattle Sounders)

Portland-Seattle: July 17, August 21, August 28

Portland-Vancouver: May 7, May 22, October 23

Seattle-Vancouver: March 19, September 17, October 2

The Pacific Northwest continues to offer the most compelling in-season rivalry matches in the league. Games in Seattle usually steal the headlines because of the stadium capacity, but Portland and the Vancouver Whitecaps ended the season tied on more points and played out a close playoff series in 2015. For the first time since they all joined MLS, all three made the playoffs and finished within two points of one another, making this three-way rivalry as close as ever.

Portland will have a back-to-back against Seattle in August during a week in which Seattle plays Houston in between the two matchups. The Timbers also close the season against the Whitecaps.

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Atlantic Cup (New York Red Bulls vs. D.C. United)

May 13, August 21, September 11

Another one of the derbies now ingrained in MLS culture features two franchises separated by just over 200 miles of I-95, the Red Bulls and D.C. United. The Red Bulls won four of the five matches in all competitions in 2015 (the other finished in a draw), including a 2-0 aggregate win in the playoffs, despite D.C.’s 41-24-10 all-time series lead. Tactically, the matchup offers a contrast of the Red Bulls’ powerful attack and United’s strong defense, adding to the intrigue.

New York City FC vs. New York Red Bulls 

May 21, July 3, July 24

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From established rivalries to a budding competition, New York City FC and the Red Bulls entertained as much off the field in 2015 as they did on the field, with supporters’ groups vocalizing their distaste for one another without hesitation. As NYCFC, under Patrick Vieira, tries to improve from its expansion-season efforts, this should only become a more interesting rivalry, which the league will be quick to highlight with its desire to have two strong teams in New York.

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers

April 13

FC Dallas and Portland played an entertaining playoff series between two attack-minded sides last year. Óscar Pareja’s men put on an impressive comeback that fell a couple goals short after a 3-1 loss in the first leg of their Western Conference final. (And let’s not forget their regular-season match that ended in a sideline blow-up between the two coaches.) These are the two best teams in the West until they’re knocked off, so their first game of the new season could help differentiate them in the table.

Chicago Fire vs. Portland Timbers

May 28

Change usually happens slow in MLS, but as Porter showed with the Timbers, the right coach can have an immediate impact on a team. The Chicago Fire will be hoping Veljko Paunović has a similar effect, and it won’t get a better test of that effect than playing against the defending champion and a team that will play a possession style similar to what Paunović did with the Serbian Under-20s he took to a World Cup win.

That the matchup comes almost three months into the season means Paunović should have established comfort and rhythm with his new team.

LA Galaxy vs. New York Red Bulls

August 7

Traditionally, Bruce Arena’s team doesn’t really get going until the summer transfer window closes. In 2016, the Galaxy’s roster shake-up has been more interesting than ever, as LA lost Juninho and Omar Gonzalez to Mexican clubs and brought in goalkeeper Dan Kennedy from Dallas. Whether this new-look Galaxy can jell will be one of the stories of the season. Last year, a four-game winning streak in August couldn’t translate to playoff momentum, but a 10-game unbeaten run from late August to early October 2014 led to an MLS Cup win.

This August kicks off against the powerful Red Bulls following a pair of games against the Timbers and Sounders. It'll be as tough a stretch as the Galaxy will have up until that point in the season.

New York City FC vs. LA Galaxy

August 20

The Galaxy had no trouble against NYCFC in their 2015 meeting, taking a 5-1 home win despite David Villa and Andrea Pirlo both playing. The expected matchup between Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard didn’t materialize, though, as Lampard struggled with injuries for a while after his move to MLS. So the 2016 game should be the first Gerrard-Lampard central midfield battle stateside.

Decision Day 2.0

October 23

It was such a success last time, it would be silly not to be excited about Decision Day 2015. Last year, the final playoff places and rankings went down to the last day of the regular season, as did the Supporters’ Shield battle between FC Dallas and the Red Bulls. MLS Cup finalists Portland and Columbus turned in big wins on the last day and took that momentum through the postseason. With the parity in MLS, a final-day victory could mean big things for any team.

The fact that the league is taking the added step of starting every one of the final 10 games at 4 p.m. ET will only add to the drama.