USA: Major League 2011 Season Preview
A new season of Major League Soccer begins on Tuesday and for defending champions Colorado Rapids it will prove to be a tough task keeping hold of their title. Two more teams have joined the league and there will be a longer Play-Off series after the regular season. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog looks ahead to the 2011 season.
Major League Soccer is growing all the time and this season is no different with two more franchises – Portland Timbers & Vancouver Whitecaps – jumping on board to increase the size of the league to 18 teams. Vancouver’s inclusion is a significant one as it increases the Canadian representation to two teams (along with Toronto FC) and paves the way for a Montreal franchise to join MLS in the 2012 season. As a result of the expansion there will be more regular season games (34) and a tougher play-off series with ten of the eighteen teams qualifying for the post-season MLS Cup.
The defending champions are Colorado Rapids who won the 2010 MLS Cup final on a rainy night in Toronto. The Rapids qualified for the play-offs having ‘only’ finished 5th in the Western Conference during the regular season but were one of the eight best records in the league as a whole. Having defeated Columbus Crew and San Jose Earthquakes en route to the final, Colorado’s win over FC Dallas ensured that they became the third team in a row to win a maiden MLS Cup title following Columbus (2008) and Real Salt Lake (2009). Colorado now have the experience to win the title but their playing roster still isn’t as strong as some other teams so a title defence may prove beyond them.
The usual suspects will feature amongst the pre-season favourites for the championship. LA Galaxy, 2010 Supporters’ Shield winners by virtue of having the best regular season record, have featured prominently in the play-offs in the last couple of years but they still cannot go all the way despite having seasoned pros such as Landon Donovan and David Beckham in their ranks. New York Red Bulls, owned by the Austrian drinks manufacturer Red Bull, have a good chance of taking the crown if marquee players such as Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez can stay fit for most of the season. Real Salt Lake are the sole American representative in the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League semi-finals so there is a possibilty that they could start the season slowly as they try to rotate their squad between both competitions but will get stronger as the MLS season progresses.
Amongst the rest of the league arguably the potential dark-horse for a title challenge could be the Seattle Sounders. Now in their third full season as an MLS club, the Sounders have already experienced silverware having won the US Open Cup – America’s equivalent of the FA Cup – in each of the last two years and their experience in knockout football could bear some fruit if they make the MLS Cup play-offs this season. The club have been a great addition to the league in the short time since its inclusion. Seattle have recorded the highest attendances in each of the last two years and one wouldn’t begrudge their loyal fan base some further silverware this season.
Houston Dynamo, the last team to win back-to-back MLS Cup titles in 2006-07, have been moved over from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference in order to make space for the two new members of the league. Record champions DC United, four-times winners of American soccer’s greatest prize, have had a terrible time of it in the last few years compounded by the fact that they had the worst record in MLS last season and, sadly for them, it doesn’t seem that their luck will change anytime soon. New England Revolution, still under the stewardship of former Liverpool and Scotland player Steve Nicol, had an uneventful season in 2010 perhaps dispirited by a number of defeats in major cup finals in recent years. Philadelphia Union, last season’s expansion team, were some way off qualifying for the post-season last time so it will be interesting to see if they have spent well during the off-season.
The opening match of the new campaign takes place between Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy with a bumper crowd expected at the former’s QWest Stadium on Tuesday night. The first complete round of fixtures take place this weekend with a Canadian derby and the champions’ opening game amongst the highlights:
MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER FIXTURES – MATCHDAY 1
15/03/11 Seattle Sounders v LA Galaxy
19/03/11 Vancouver Whitecaps v Toronto FC
DC United v Columbus Crew
New York Red Bulls v Seattle Sounders
Houston Dynamo v Philadelphia Union
FC Dallas v Chicago Fire
Colorado Rapids v Portland Timbers
Chivas USA v Sporting Kansas City
San Jose Earthquakes v Real Salt Lake
20/03/11: LA Galaxy v New England Revolution