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Old 03-09-2012, 08:54 AM   #502
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Major League Soccer kicks off its 17th season this weekend. Here are some of the storylines worth watching.

New faces and new places

This off-season didn’t feature a marquee signing on par with David Beckham or Thierry Henry. (The closest a team came was Portland adding former Scotland scoring dynamo Kris Boyd.) Instead, this was the off-season that Major League Soccer kept its stars and brought a few old faces back home.

Beckham flirted with Paris and London teams, but he’s back bending the ball and looking pretty for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Henry spent the winter on loan
with his former team Arsenal, but he’s back with New York now. Landon
Donovan and Robbie Keane, both Galaxy stars, spent the break turning in solid loan spells in England.

MLS also managed to keep a few young budding stars, notably Brek Shea (Dallas), Fredy Montero (Seattle) and Juan Agudelo (New York), from bolting overseas. MVP candidate Sebastien Le Toux stayed in the league, although he shifted coasts, from Philadelphia to Vancouver.

What talent MLS did import mostly came from South America. Or, more specifically, Colombia. Not since Juan Valdez and his donkey have so many relied on a Colombian to kickstart their system.

Colorado picked up attacking midfielder Jaime Castrillon, the Chicago Fire added 27-year-old midfielder Rafael Robayo and San Jose will count on playmaking midfielder Tressor Moreno. All three be asked with orchestrating and rebuilding his team’s attack.

There will be a new team this season, the Montreal Impact MLS’s 19th-franchise (and third Canadian) will be lead by former Kansas City midfielder Davy Arnaud.

Also, a new soccer-specific stadium will open in May: BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. It will be the league’s 13th soccer-specific stadium.

A New TV home for MLS

While the new players and locations might draw all of the attention on the field, an off-the-field deal might have the most impact in the long run. NBC Sports (formerly Versus, formerly the Outdoor Life Network) and MLS signed a three-year agreement last year that could radically change how fans view soccer in America.

The deal calls for 45 televised matches (and four U.S. national team games) produced by one of the Big Four networks.

Englishman Arlo White, formerly the Seattle Sounders play-by-play man, will call the action from the booth with former MLS player and analyst Kyle Martino broadcasting from the sideline. NBC and the NHL have a similar announcing set-up.

MLS will no longer have a league presence on Fox Soccer Channel, but ESPN will still air games on its family of networks.

Sporting Kansas City will be featured on NBC Sports four times this season and ESPN twice.

The Jabulani is dead!

“It was a nightmare,” Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said about the dipping, bending and hard-to-track adidas Jabulani, which was the official ball of the 2010 World Cup and Major League Soccer the last few years.

Well, Nielsen’s “nightmare” is over, as MLS and adidas will kick off the 2012 season with a brand new ball — the adidas Prime. The early scouting report from Sporting’s goalkeeper is that it’s a vast improvement.

“It’s the best thing MLS has done since I came here,” Nielsen said about the switch.

According to adidas, the design of the Prime will improve “accuracy, consistency and performance” under all field and weather conditions.

The ball is definitely a bit heavier, which might not bode well for guys who get paid to head the ball.

An unbalanced schedule

Because of the addition of Montreal, MLS will have 19 teams (10 in the East, nine in the West). This makes a balanced schedule (playing each team twice as it did the last two years) fairly difficult.

The compromise was to unbalance the 34-game schedule — a common feature in all American sports leagues, but fairly rare in the world of professional soccer.

Every team will have 17 home games and 17 road games, of course. But it gets a little confusing when you break it down.

All Western Conference clubs will play each other three times (24 games total) and play each of the 10 Eastern Conference teams just once (five at home, five on the road).

The Eastern Conference, because of the extra team, will play 25 conference matches. Each East club will play seven conference opponents three times each (21 games) and the remaining two conference opponents twice (four games). Then, the clubs will face each Western team once (split five at home, four on the road — or vice versa).

Of course, since both conferences are created equally, this won’t be a major issue. Oh, wait...

The Power is Out West

The West is stacked this year.

Four of the five favorites to win the MLS Cup to start the season reside in the Western Conference. (The other team is Sporting Kansas City.)

Most of the big names were already there. Most of the big acquisitions are
headed there.

Los Angeles, the reigning MLS Cup champs, in addition to retaining their stars, also brought back U.S. striker Edson Buddle and Brazilian midfielder Juninho.
Real Salt Lake will get playmaking midfielder Javier Morales back to go with one of the staunchest defenses in the league.

The Seattle Sounders, winners of the U.S. Open Cup trophy last year, kept its solid foundation intact while adding former KC forward and U.S. veteran Eddie Johnson.

Dallas will also be in the mix after adding Panamanian forward Blas Perez and keeping Shea and stud defender George John. For good measure, former MLS MVP David Ferreira is back from injury.

Portland and Vancouver, expansion teams last year, both have invested heavily in attacking talent. San Jose has done the same. Colorado, two years removed from an MLS Cup trophy, was hamstrung by injuries last year and should be better this year. That’s eight of the nine teams.

By comparison, the East is a muddled mess. New York has money but faded mightily last year. D.C. United and Chicago improved as 2011 wore on and should be pushing for the playoffs. Columbus and Philadelphia, both playoff teams last year, have lost key players and might suffer. Toronto is intriguing but erratic. New England is rebuilding. And Montreal is an expansion team with expansion-team parts.

Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo (the reigning Eastern Conference champs) figure to lead the conference.
And, thanks to the unbalanced schedule, they might be fighting for the Supporter’s Shield — given to the team with the best regular season record.
| Charles Gooch writes for The Star’s soccer blog, The Full 90. Follow him on twitter @TheFull90

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