Major League Soccer set for 16th season

SEATTLE (AP) — Don Garber could pick from any number of story lines to highlight the upcoming Major League Soccer season.

For the commissioner of the MLS, though, nothing tops the creation of a regional rivalry in the Pacific Northwest — one that is likely to become a prototype for others to match, helping the league gain more traction around the country.

“It’s a huge deal for us,” Garber said. “Rivalries are a big part of the DNA of football overseas and I believe those rivalries drive the passion that makes this sport the beautiful game.”

While the idea of Seattle, Portland and Vancouver playing for regional pride has league execs excited, there’s a lot more to MLS 2011.

Entering its 16th season, the league has a chance to create the kind of buzz it hasn’t enjoyed since its inception in the mid-90s, even with the likelihood of 2011 being David Beckham’s final year in MLS with the expiration of his fiveyear contract.

Its two biggest markets — New York and Los Angeles — are home to some of the league’s biggest stars and could have the two best teams.

A new soccer-specific stadium will open midseason in Kansas City, while another is under construction in Houston, giving the league another layer of legitimacy.

There are individual stories like the return of former U.S. national team striker Charlie Davies with D.C. United and his continued comeback from a car accident that cost him a spot on the 2010 World Cup team, and the pending retirement of former U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller at the end of the season.

And, of course, there’s the most talked-about MLS rivalry ever taking shape in the Pacific Northwest, with the arrival of the expansion Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps to sandwich the Seattle Sounders in a fight for Cascadia bragging rights — one that dates back to the old North American Soccer League.

“From a soccer perspective, because of the history and the rivalries that already exist, that’s going to be exciting on the field,” ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas said. “And from the business perspective I think that’s going to be exciting because of the way these ownership groups are going about their business given their history there.”

The MLS season begins Tuesday night with Seattle hosting Los Angeles.

The season concludes in October and features a new playoff format with the top three teams from each conference and the next four teams with the highest point total — regardless of conference — qualifying for the postseason. Those four “wild cards” will play each other with the two winners advancing to a traditional eight-team bracket.

The MLS Cup will be played at a neutral site again in 2011, but Garber reiterated it’s a case of “when” not “if” the championship game will move to the home of the team with the highest seed.

“I believe that will be a very exiting and compelling format that will not take away from the importance of the regular season as some people believe it might,” Garber said in a phone interview. “I think it will create a race for the playoffs for more teams that will be in it up until the last moment and give us more opportunity for memorable games in the postseason.”

From an exposure standpoint, MLS could use the Red Bulls and Galaxy as the class of the league with the star power each brings. They nearly got the perfect scenario last year with both winning their conferences, only to see an MLS Cup final of FC Dallas and Colorado that helped bring attention in smaller markets but might have detracted from the league gaining a wider audience.

Both Colorado and Dallas return strong sides, but could find themselves as also-rans this season in a loaded Western Conference where most of the league’s favorites reside.

Los Angeles may bring the most star power with Beckham in the final year of his MLS contract, Landon Donovan and the addition of former Red Bulls’ star Juan Pablo Angel. But most believe the team to beat in the West will be 2009 MLS Cup champion Real Salt Lake with a roster mostly intact from last season and looking to make up for an unexpected and disappointing opening-round playoff exit.

RSL is already getting tested before the regular season even begins, advancing to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.

“We really raised the level of expectations for ourselves,” Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis said.

While the powers of the West might be the Galaxy and RSL, much of the focus this season will go to the Northwest and the introduction of expansion Portland and Vancouver joining what’s already a rabid fan base in Seattle.

The rivalry between the three clubs started in 1974 when Seattle and Vancouver met for the first time in the NASL and was enhanced a year later when Portland joined the fray. Now it’s being renewed at the highest level of soccer in the U.S. and Canada.

Portland will play at a renovated PGE Park in downtown Portland, making its home debut April 14 against Chicago. Vancouver begins at home March 19 against Canadian rival Toronto FC, playing the majority of its season at Empire Field, before moving Oct. 3 into a renovated B.C. Place Stadium against the Timbers.

“I think the biggest challenge is no different than any other team. You’re looking to put a winning group on the field week in, week out,” Portland coach John Spencer said. “A team that can compete in all different climates and all different time zones. The mentality can’t be any different from any of the other teams in MLS, (like) the Dynamo, the L.A. Galaxy.

“The challenges are the same. We have the same salary cap room, the same roster size. So I think you can go make excuses for yourself or you can go and try to be as competitive as you can, and that’s what we aim to do.”

New York is again favored to win the East, and this time will get a full season out of striker Thierry Henry and defender Rafa Marquez. There’s also midfielder Juan Agudelo, one of the top young stars in the league.

“There’s more lights in New York with the designated players,” Red Bulls’ midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy. “That brings a lot of fans, brings a lot of attention to the team. We have a lot of good players. With a good start to the season, we can do some damage.”

While New York is the favorite of most, there is a rising wave of talent coming from Kansas City, with the signing of former Chivas de Guadalajara star Omar Bravo as its second designated player and the midseason opening of Livestrong Sporting Park. There’s also the addition of Houston to the Eastern Conference making the move with the addition of two West Coast teams. The league has 18 clubs overall, with Montreal coming on in 2012.

“We definitely have a better starting point than we did last year. The coaches have emphasized that to us,” Kansas City captain Davy Arnaud said. “Last year, it took us a while to find our identity as a team, what made us successful and got us wins. Now, we know who we are and how we want to play. Everybody knows from day one what is expected of them.”

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