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    North American soccerball and the MLS Season starts Saturday


    0 Not allowed!
    ...so I've put together everything you need to know.

    MLS Starts again this weekend, with 5 matches scheduled on Saturday. Montreal Impact becomes the 19th franchise in a league whose standing is becoming increasingly respected. The league saw a record 87 sellouts last season, and averaged over 17,800 fans - more than for NHL and NBA games. In effect, the MLS season started on Wednesday as Toronto and LA Galaxy squared up at the Rogers Centre (or SkyDome as it used to be called, home of the Blue Jays and CFL Argonauts) in front of 48,000 for their CONCACAF Champions League quarter final (Seattle played Santos Laguna of Mexico in another in front of a disappointing 23,000). Montreal are expecting a gate of 50,000 for their home opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps, one of last season's two expansion franchises. Indeed, they will play their 8 opening games at the Olympic Stadium while their own stadium next door is expanded to 20,000.
    Two other interesting developments in the league:-
    1) Houston Dynamo open their new 22,000 stadium this season, and it really is a thing of beauty: BBVA Compass Stadium | Houston Dynamo - not as nice as the one in New Jersey (Red Bull Arena) built two years ago, but rivalling the one in Kansas City built last year.
    2) A new TV agreement with NBC, which could potentially lift the domestic profile of the league. NBC are paying less than the what was apparently offered by ESPN, but have promised to treat it professionally and is a cornerstone of their new Sports channel, replacing the rebranded "versus" channel.


    Here is a team by team rundown, some bits I have NICKED off a blog I found because I couldn't be arsed to type it out myself:

    2012 MLS Eastern Conference

    1. Sporting Kansas City

    Sporting are a recent success story by anyone's standard. One of the original 10 franchises, they played in cavernous NFL stadia for too long and watched their core support dwindle to embarrassing levels. Then 3 years ago they were taken over by a wealthy supporter group and the franchise has blossomed. Last year, they opened their stunning new 18,500 seat stadium and his has been overflowing to capacity ever since, including all corporate boxes and gates announced as over capacity with "standing room only" crowds. All 12,000 season tickets long sold out and the side is pretty decent too:

    Spearheaded by a lethal attack—Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong combined for 29 goals in 2011—Sporting Kansas City is in position to repeat as Eastern Conference champions. Longtime captain Davy Arnaud departed in the offseason, but Graham Zusi has blossomed into one of the league’s most consistent midfielders. Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin forged a rock-solid partnership in defense last year and will only get better the more they play alongside each other. If the squad maximizes its potential, Sporting has the best chance of any Eastern Conference team to knock the Los Angeles Galaxy off its perch.


    2. New York Red Bulls

    Home to the best stadium in the league and some of the most recognisable players, but strangely misfired last season, only just stumbling into the post season playoffs.
    The Red Bulls are one of the sexiest teams on paper—Thierry Henry, Juan Agudelo and Rafa Marquez are some of the biggest names in the league—but that certainly didn’t translate into on-field success in 2011: New York narrowly qualified for the playoffs before bowing out in the quarterfinals. The Red Bulls should get plenty of goals from Henry, Agudelo, the scrappy Luke Rodgers and veteran Kenny Cooper. Despite 24-year-old defender Tim Ream moving to the English Premier League in January, it would be hard for New York to underachieve as badly as it did last year. Quite simply, they should contend for the conference title.

    3. Houston Dynamo

    Slated to open their new stadium, there is a massive buzz about this club with all season tix sold and full houses expected every week. The big player side story is that they nearly lost Brian Ching in the Montreal expansion draft and had to trade him back:
    Houston has been one of the most consistent teams for the past six seasons, a time period that includes two MLS Cup triumphs. The Dynamo lost to Los Angeles in the 2011 final, and in order to return there again, midfielder Brad Davis must be as masterful as he was last season (four goals and an MLS-best 14 assists). Houston, which struggled to score at times last season, was on the verge of signing Scottish striker Kris Boyd from Rangers FC in January, but had to settle for 33-year-old veteran Brian Ching. The Dynamo aren’t flashy, but they are disciplined, efficient and experienced.

    4. DC United

    DC were once upon a time the flag ship club of the league. They've always had what you might call proper support, and in the early days they won trophies and lots of them. Now still stuck at a crumbling RFK, they are in dire need of a new home, and a move to Baltimore is being touted. No-one wants that to happen to this storied franchise but finding a stadium in the district is proving a nightmare.

    The four-time MLS champion has missed the playoffs four straight years. But with league MVP Dwayne DeRosario leading the attack and promising new players arriving, D.C. United should improve. Right back Robbie Russell comes from Real Salt Lake, which boasted one of the league’s stingiest defenses last year. Big things are expected from Hamdi Salihi, who replaces striker Charlie Davies. The 28-year-old Albanian scored an impressive 184 goals in 331 appearances during 10 seasons in Europe.

    5. Philadelphia Union

    A fairly recent expansion franchise with rabid support:
    Perhaps no team lost more from 2011 in the offseason than Philadelphia. MLS all-star Sebastien LeToux, who finished in the league’s top 10 in goals and assists the previous two years, departed for Vancouver. The club’s two most experienced players, Veljko Paunovic and Faryd Mondragon, returned to their home countries. However, the Union held onto promising 20-year-old forward Danny Mwanga and the well-known, enigmatic Freddy Adu. Rapid maturation is mandatory if Philadelphia plans to compete for a conference championship.

    6. Toronto FC

    Seattle may be the only team with better fan support than Toronto FC. Toronto regularly sells out its 20,000-seat stadium, which is impressive for a team that has gone a league-worst five seasons without a playoff appearance. Indeed, Toronto is in a rebuilding process, as 13 players left this offseason. Hope sprang at the end of the 2011 season when former German international Torsten Frings and Dutch veteran Danny Koevermans joined the club. Koevermans scored eight goals in his nine appearances. Things look better for Toronto, but it is still far from being a conference contender.

    7. Chicago Fire

    Chicago was one of the worst teams for most of the 2011 season, but surged toward the end, winning seven of its last 10 matches. If the Fire can build on that momentum, it could be a competent. Ghanaian forward Dominic Oduro flourished during the Fire’s hot spell, becoming the franchise’s first player to score 12 goals in a season since 2004. Former Germany defender Arne Friedrich, winger Sebastian Grazzini and midfield playmaker Patrick Nyarko shape the nucleus of an improving team.

    8. Columbus Crew

    While Columbus has consistently been atop the Eastern Conference for the past four seasons, it lost a couple vital players in the offseason. Leading scorer Andres Mendoza departed for Mexico and U.S. international teamer Robbie Rogers signed with Leeds United in England. As a result, many of the Crew’s youth team players have been called into the squad. With inexperience and a lack of depth, the 2008 MLS champions could be staring at a rebuilding year.

    Off the field, Columbus's attendance were a rare low story in MLS, with gates dipping to around 12,000 on average. This season, they have made a massive drive to hit 10,000 season tickets as was the case in their golden days a decade ago and rumour is that they have reached it.

    9. Montreal Impact

    Plenty of excitement surrounds MLS’s newest addition, the Montreal Impact. However, of the eight expansion teams that have joined the league since 2005, only one has made the playoffs in its first season. The Impact picked up a few notable players in the 2012 expansion draft: midfielder Davy Arnaud (Sporting Kansas City), winger Sanna Nyassi (Colorado Rapids), and promising, young forward Justin Braun (Chivas USA) were integral parts of their previous teams. But Montreal should struggle on the pitch during its inaugural season, but expect big and enthusuastic crowds off it.

    10. New England Revolution

    New England used to be the beast of the east, winning four conference titles from 2002 to 2007. Nowadays, things look bleak for one of MLS’s original franchises. Besides U.S. international defender Benny Feilhaber, the roster lacks experience and proven talent. After finishing dead last in the 2011 standings, rumors have circulated that Feilhaber and fellow midfield teammate Shalrie Joseph want out. To make matters worse, the club cannot negotiate a soccer-specific stadium in Greater Boston.

    2012 MLS Western Conference Predictions

    1. Los Angeles Galaxy

    The defending MLS champions have the strongest roster in the league, without question. David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Juninho boast experience at world-class European clubs. Landon Donovan, Edson Buddle and Mike Magee are some of the best Americans in the league. And don’t forget the value of coach Bruce Arena, who led the United States to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002. Something would have to go terribly wrong for the Galaxy not to win the 2012 Supporters Shield (awarded to the club with the best regular season record). Expect Los Angeles to repeat as champions.

    2. Seattle Sounders

    If there is one region in North America where "soccer" can genuinely be considered a major league sport, it is in the Pacific North West. Seattle head the trio of MLS clubs up there, all of whom enjoy phenominal support. Seattle will average 40,000 this year with gates unlikely to ever dip below 38,000. That is on a par with some of the biggest clubs in Europe. And they have a team and history to match:
    The Sounders have made three consecutive conference finals, and if it weren’t for the Los Angeles Galaxy, would probable have at least one MLS Cup. Seattle boasts the best home field advantage in the league, as the team regularly draws 40,000 fans at Qwest Field. Ex-Kansas City Wizard Eddie Johnson joins all-star Fredy Montero, who scored a team-best 14 goals in 2011, to form a lethal striking duo. Mauro Rosales, Alvaro Fernandez and Steve Zakuani make up one of the strongest midfields in the league. If the Sounders played in the Eastern Conference, I would pick them to finish first.

    3. FC Dallas

    If there’s one team that challenge Seattle for second place in the west, it might be FC Dallas. 22-year old winger Brek Shea is one of the United States’ best prospects, and spent the month of January training with Arsenal FC in England. David Ferreira, the 2010 MLS Most Valuable Player, missed most of 2011 because of a broken ankle. If he returns to form quickly, Dallas will be tough to beat. And their fans are optimistic too - Dallas have sold out their home opener, which is unusual for a traditionally weak team at the gate.

    4. Real Salt Lake

    Real Salt Lake owns the title as MLS’s greatest overachiever. The club won the 2009 MLS Cup with limited resources and has remained a consistent force, thanks in large part to an unyielding defense and organized midfield. Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Robbie Russell emanate an aura of toughness characteristic of the club. Russell left in the offseason, but Real Salt Lake remains a competitive team, particularly at home, where it lost just once last season.

    5. Portland Timbers

    Probably the most passionate support in the league, Portland's 20,000 season ticket holders will expect greater things than even from last season where as an expansion franchise, they only narrowly missed the 2011 playoffs. Striker Kris Boyd, who scored 101 goals in 143 games for Rangers FC in Scotland, bolsters an attack that struggled for much of 2011. Colombian defender Diego Chara and Liberian winger Darlington Nagbe have tremendous upside, and should play influential roles in making Portland more competitive.

    6. Vancouver Whitecaps

    Despite their absolutely shithouse showing last season in their first MLS season, Vancouver's support has stuck with them. Playing in the wonderful and renovated BC Place to gates of 22,000, Whitecaps fans will want far more quality than last season's effort. Forward Sebastian LeToux’s arrival in Vancouver couldn’t have come soon enough. The Whitecaps were dreadful last season, largely because it couldn’t score goals. Steps have been made to shore up the defense as well: Veteran Lee Young-Pyo, who was part of South Korea’s 2002 World Cup semifinal team, arrives after a successful 10 years in Europe. Midfielder Barry Robson, who won the 2008 Scottish Premier League with Celtic FC, is another notable addition. Still, Vancouver will be happy with finishing outside the bottom third of the conference, although I suspect a repeat of this against arch rivals Seattle from Eric Hasslie would certainly help:


    7. Colorado Rapids

    Colorado was one of the least active clubs during the offseason, which is puzzling for a team that is aging. Midfielders Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni were instrumental during Colorado’s 2010 championship season and remain integral figures in the squad. But streaky striker Conor Casey currently appears overweight and forward Omar Cummings has indicated he wants to leave for Europe. Colorado must stay injury-free and get quality production from its forwards if it wants to avoid a setback.

    8. San Jose Earthquakes

    U.S. national team forward Chris Wondolowski scored 16 goals in 2011 for San Jose, and in doing so became MLS’s leading goal scorer for the second straight season. Wondolowski has been the club’s lone bright spot during that time period, and that trend may continue. Simon Dawkins is on loan from England’s Tottenham, which gives Wondolowski a valuable strike partner. Defensive improvement is crucial in San Jose wishes to move out of the Western Conference basement.

    9. Chivas USA

    While the Galaxy seemingly has everything going for it, the other Los Angeles club is in disarry. Twelve players departed in the offseason, including two of the club’s best players: young forward Justin Braun (to Houston) and hardworking defensive midfielder Paulo Nagamura (to Sporting Kansas City). Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel has over 250 goals in his storied career, but the 36-year-old isn’t getting any younger. Ever since the departure of U.S. national team midfielder Sacha Kljestan in 2010, Chivas USA hasn’t been competitive. Don’t expect much to change in 2012.
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