Today marks the start of Major League Soccer's 17th season. As First Kick always seems to do -- at least in recent years -- there is more anticipation than anyone knows what to do with. Literally every team is giving out vibes that this could be there year. Even teams many of us expect to be near the bottom of the standings, have done enough in the offseason to engender some feelings of hope.
Now we get to see just how much of that was justified. By the end of the weekend, there will be a handful of teams whose fans are pulling their hair out and there will be others trying to size up the trophy case. It will all be over-reaction, probably, but that's what makes this fun.
Can your team beat an expansion side/last year's worst team?
There might not be a simpler litmus test for seriousness than the first game of the season: Montreal Impact at Vancouver Whitecaps. Simply put, the loser of this game probably can start focusing on making sure everything is in order for next season. If the Whitecaps can't beat an expansion team, we can stop talking about all the improvements they made during the offseason. If the Impact can't beat last year's worst team -- even if they are improved -- it seems ridiculous to consider them a playoff contender. Kick off: Saturday, 6 p.m. ET (MLS Live, Direct Kick)
Are you bored to tears by watching your team?
The Columbus Crew and Colorado Rapids have taken a lot of stick from rivals teams. Why? Because despite their relative successes they seem wholly incapable of grabbing and keeping our attention. There's hope that both sides have transformed themselves into more attractive teams, as the Crew have added some intriguing players and the Rapids have entirely made over their coaching staff. If this game is a snoozer, I give you permission to keep ignoring these teams and check back in a few months from now. Kick off: Saturday, 6 p.m. ET (MLS Live, Direct Kick)
Has anything changed?
A year ago, D.C. United looked to be -- at various times -- ready for primetime. But big wins were almost invariably followed by even bigger losses. Every step forward was inevitably followed by a step or two back. United was immensely improved over a year ago, but Ben Olsen was not able to get his young team over the hump. One team, in particular, United struggled with was Sporting Kansas City, the only team to hand DC a pair of losses in 2011. Kick off: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET (MLS Live, Direct Kick)
Is Kelyn Rowe worth the hype?
Even though Kelyn Rowe was the third player taken in the MLS SuperDraft, no rookie enters this season with higher expectations. The 20-year-old is expected to start in central midfield for the New England Revolution in their season opener against the San Jose Earthquakes, a team that should give him a decent test. The Earthquakes aren't expected to be a dominant defensive team, but they have some quality players patrolling their defense. Rowe has a big game here, it could mean something special for the Revs. Kick off: Saturday, 10:30 p.m. (MLS Live, Direct Kick)
How does your team treat this game?
As odd as it may seem, First Kick might be the least important game the LA Galaxy play over the next few weeks. That's mainly due to their involvement in CONCACAF Champions League, which should take up the majority of their attention as long as they're alive. It seems doubtful that they'll be putting out a reserve side, or anything so extreme, but they might be satisfied with a tie against Real Salt Lake. If they do come out guns blazing, we can safely assume this is a team ready to compete on multiple fronts. Kick off: Saturday, 10:30 p.m. (MLS Live, Direct Kick)
Does anyone watch?
Making fun of FC Dallas attendance has become one of the tired MLS cliches. The crowd should be solid on Sunday, just as it was for the season-opener a year ago. But this isn't about people inside the stadium. Rather, someone made the curious decision to make this the first MLS game of the NBC-era. I'm sure that had a lot to do with the likes of Thierry Henry and Brek Shea being on opposing teams, but will it be enough to convince people who aren't fans of either team to watch? A good Nielsen number could herald the beginning of a bright new era in MLS broadcasting. Kick off: Sunday, 3 p.m. (NBCSN)
Can your fans manage to keep things off the field?
OK, that's a low blow. Chivas USA fans are usually quite well behaved. OK, that was another low blow. In all seriousness, this is a pretty big game for the Houston Dynamo. They open the season with seven games on the road and none of them look more winnable, at least on paper, than this one. A loss here could herald some pretty tumultuous times heading into the opening of BBVA Compass Stadium. Kick off: Sunday, 7 p.m. (Galavision)
Is there a mob assembling at your coach's house?
In an offseason where seemingly every team managed to improve, just one felt compelled to issue a statement to its fans proclaiming that everything was OK. To say the Philadelphia Union made some strange moves this offseason is a bit of an understatement. Already one of the league's youngest sides, they managed to get even younger after parting ways with two of their veteran leaders. Supposedly, it's all part of Peter Nowak's master plan. But a loss to a Portland Timbers team that has high expectations and the relationship with fans could start getting ugly. Kick off: Monday, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)