The 16th season of Major League Soccer kicked off on Tuesday night, as the Los Angeles Galaxy clipped Seattle Sounders FC 1-0 on a rainy, chilly night in Seattle.
LA midfielder Juninho hit the winner, a knuckling 20-yard strike in the 58th minute that temporarily silenced the raucous sellout crowd at Qwest Field. (Complete highlights here.)
This weekend the rest of the league joins the party. There are eight games on Saturday, one on Sunday, and about 3,206 storylines as the league kicks off what should be its best season yet.
Let’s take a look at some of the juiciest matchups (home teams listed first; times EST):
Matchup: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Toronto FC, Saturday, 6:30 TSN (Canada; also available on Direct Kick and Match Day Live)
Backstory: The Whitecaps are one of two expansion teams—the Portland Timbers are the other—that swell the league’s ranks to 18 this year. They will be a part of the MLS Cascadia rivalry with Seattle and Portland, but first, they host the Canada derby vs the revamped Reds.
While Vancouver is an expansion team, Toronto is practically one, having turned over most of their roster after failing to make the playoff for the fourth straight season last year.
Rivalry? For the past few years, Toronto, Vancouver and the Montreal Impact (who will join MLS next season) have been contesting the Nutralite Canadian Championship, the winner of which gets a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. Now, they bring that tussle to MLS.
Key Players: Vancouver—D Jay DeMerit, US international; F Eric Hassli, French designated player. (No. 1 draft pick F Omar Salgado has not been cleared to play before he turns 18 in September.)
Toronto—MF Dwayne De Rosario, Canadian international and perennial MLS all-star; F Maicon Santos.
Atmosphere: Expect lots and lots of white at Empire Field.
Matchup: DC United vs Columbus Crew, Saturday, 7:30, Direct Kick, MatchDay Live
Backstory: Charlie Davies returns to Washington, the site of the horrific car accident that nearly killed him in October 2009. He’s made remarkable strides since then and has looked good in the preseason. His potential MLS debut on Saturday is the dramatic storyline of the new season.
Rivalry? They’re longtime Eastern Conference foes, and both teams are in the midst of major rebuilding projects, loaded with new faces.
Key Players: DC—F Davies, MF Dax McCarty; F Chris Pontius, back from injury; D Perry Kitchen, No. 3 overall draft pick who’s expected to start.
Columbus— F Andres Mendoza, newly minted designated player; F Jeff Cunningham, who enters the game one goal shy of the all-time MLS lead; and MFs Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven.
Atmosphere: DC has one of the worst facilities in the league (RFK Stadium)—but one of the best fan bases. You can bet they’ll be out in force for Davies.
Matchup: New York Red Bulls vs Seattle Sounders FC, Saturday 7:30, MSG, DK, MDL
Backstory: The Red Bulls are starting the season with marquee DP’s Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, along with U.S internationals Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream, and the expectations are sky high. They have a stiff challenge in their opener, though, as reigning US Open Cup champs Seattle come to town, with high expectations of their own for 2011.
Rivalry? Believe it or not, Seattle fans make a good showing at Red Bull Arena, despite the continent separating the two teams.
Key Players: New York—F Henry, D Marquez; new Finnish signing MF/D Teemu Tainio; MF Joel Lindpere.
Seattle—F Fredy Montero, MF Osvaldo Alonso.
Atmosphere: Red Bull Arena is the best stadium in the league, and fans want a title this season.
Meet the Champs, Newbies
Matchup: Colorado Rapids vs Portland Timbers, Saturday, 9:00, Fox Soccer Channel
Backstory: The expansion Timbers will start former (and future?) U.S. international Kenny Cooper up top alongside superfast new signing Jorge Perlaza. Add recently acquired veteran midfielder Jack Jewsbury and former U.S. U-20 star Sal Zizzo, and Portland looks like a team that can compete. They’ll need to be, because they kick off their MLS experience against the defending champion Colorado Rapids. Only two expansion teams have won their first MLS games—Chicago (1998) and Seattle (2009). Both finished the season with winning records, and the Fire won the ’98 MLS Cup.
Rivalry? Not yet.
Key Players: Portland—the above-mentioned group, and goalkeeper Troy Perkins. (No. 2 draft pick F Darlington Nagbe is out after sports hernia surgery.)
Colorado—F Omar Cummings, F Conor Casey, MF Jeff Larentowicz, and new striker Caleb Folan.
Atmosphere: Dick’s Sporting Goods Park has always had a good, not great, environment. Look for that to improve with a defending champion now in the house.
Buck Shaw Showdown
Matchup: San Jose Earthquakes vs Real Salt Lake, Saturday, 10:30, DK, MDL
Backstory: San Jose, coming off a surprise run to the conference finals last year, meets a Real Salt Lake team fresh from an impressive win over Saprissa in the CONCACAF Champions League. Having played three meaningful games already, RSL is further ahead in terms of match fitness, but could they be ripe for a letdown after the pressure-filled CCL encounter? Also, can San Jose—and 2010 breakout star Chris Wondolowski—keep it going in 2011?
Rivalry? Salt Lake crushed the Quakes 3-0 in their season opener last year, a game from which San Jose midfielder Bobby Convey was pulled, calling it the most embarrassing experience of his professional career. The Quakes managed to right the ship, but you can be sure they want to avoid a similar start this year.
Key Players: San Jose—F Wondolowski, MF Convey, DF/MF Ramiro Corrales.
RSL—MFs Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Andy Williams; Fs Alvaro Saborio, Fabian Espindola.
Atmosphere: Quakes fans are encouraged by their team’s late run last season. They should fill the cozy confines of Buck Shaw.
The rest of the opening slate:
Houston vs Philadelphia, Saturday, 8:30 , DK, MDL. Dynamo Rookie F Will Bruin had a productive preseason. Will he get time up top alongside veteran Brian Ching? Philly could trot out former MLS Golden Boot winner F Carlos Ruiz.
FC Dallas vs Chicago, Saturday, 8:30, DK , MDL. Look for erstwhile winger Brek Shea to start at centerback for Dallas, which could also start recently signed 18-year-old Fabian Castillo to fill out its thin forward ranks.
Chivas USA vs Sporting Kansas City, 10:30, DK, MDL. Chivas tests its total-rebuild project after gutting its front office, coaching staff, and roster following last season. SKC will be without rising forward Teal Bunbury (dislocated elbow) but has bruising Kei Kamara and Mexican DP Omar Bravo to pick up the offensive slack.
Los Angeles vs New England, Sunday, 8:00, TeleFutura. The Galaxy will look to build on their impressive away win this past Tuesday, while New England wants to get off on the right foot after missing the playoffs last year.