Seattle hosts the Los Angeles Galaxy as Major League Soccer’s 16th season begins tonight at Qwest Field. I have a feeling L.A. is going to be motivated and strong in this one … while Seattle still struggles to score. We’ll see.
MLS commish Don Garber calls this the league’s most highly anticipated season. If memory serves, he says the same thing every year. Still, The Don has a point about 2011, a year of 18 teams, a 34-game season, three great teams and a bunch of good ones and, of course, a roiling three-way rivalry that’s going to crank the intensity meter up to 11.
Here are the five stories I’m most interested in for 2011:
- Real Salt Lake’s run in the CONCACAF Champions League. It’s a damn shame, but RSL’s huge match tonight against Costa Rican power Saprissa falls on the same eve as MLS first kick. This will be a bear for RSL – and not one of them cuddly little build-a-bears. This is a mean old, snot-tossin’, grizzly. If Jason Kreis’ team can survive over two legs (including one in the Costa Rican cauldron), they might have something really special going on at Rio Tinto in 2011.
- The Pacific Northwest rivalry is going to open chapters in MLS that most observers haven’t even considered. Look, let’s be honest. There are some fine rivalries that have developed organically in MLS. New York-D.C. United, Chicago-Dallas, Galaxy-Chivas USA among others. But Seattle-Portland-Vancouver is a whole different box of streamers. First, there’s history, going back to the 1970s and the North American Soccer League’s salad days. Now, 30-plus years on, the stadiums are better / more appropriate, the foundation is 10 times stronger, soccer’s overall awareness is in a much better place … hell, man, it’s just a new day. It’s American soccer 2.0 … and this Pacific Northwest rivalry is going to blow up like Mel Gibson at a traffic stop! Game on! (Even without the rivalry, following the progress of Vancouver and Portland and all the local interest they are sure to attract will be hoot all of its own.
- Colorado, FC Dallas, Seattle, New England and Houston … I find these teams fascinating for completely different reasons. But I cannot wait to see how it all plays out.
- In Los Angeles and New York, there are talented teams with legitimate stars and a real opportunity to claim MLS hardware. I can’t remember a season when teams from the largest two markets were among the season favorites. (That’s mostly been New York’s fault, but let’s allow bygones to be bygones and just move forward.) Bottom line: when the big-market sides rise, interest nationally tends to rise with it. You may want New York or L.A. to lose, and that’s fine. But for the good of the league, it’s better when they can be competitive, at least. All that, plus David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez are on site. Those qualify as the above-mentioned “legitimate stars.” On the marathon SI.com podcast we recorded yesterday, some really smart guys picked Donovan, Henry and/or Marquez to walk with individual honors this year. Check it out.
- Two months ago, Ben Olsen was the story at D.C. United. The league’s youngest coach (he’s just 33!) is in front and center in the effort to rebuild this formerly boffo brand. Then Charlie Davies came along. Now the erstwhile international star striker is the story du jour. And what a story it will be, watching the fallen U.S. marksman try to get his career off the mat around RFK.
From there we’ll have dozens of delicious subplots to consider: Marquez’s move to center back, the chase for the Golden Boot, for Rookie of the Year, Toronto FC’s Dutch movement, Juan Pablo Angel’s ability to stay healthy, the reserve league’s return, the burden of a 34-game schedule, international date conflicts, deciding if Chris Wondolowski was a one-hit wonder … I could go on and on.
And branching off from there, each team has subplots the locals are leaning into: Where Donovan is most effective in L.A.’s arrangement, Robin Fraser’s new-day regime at Chivas USA, Brek Shea’s potential new home at center back in Dallas, the ability of youngsters like Marco Pappa, Steve Zakuani and Robbie Rogers to become consistent game-changers, whether Carlos Ruiz (who loves him some nonsense) and no-nonsense manager Peter Nowak co-exist at PPL Park …
Again, I could go on and on. But I’m just ready for the darn games to start. Tonight. 9:30 ET. Let’s get this fiesta started …