By DAN ITEL
The 2014 MLS season opens Saturday with a blockbuster matchup between defending MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City and the team that many expected to be hoisting the trophy, the Seattle Sounders.
And heading into the upcoming season, both teams are expected to be among the best in the league once again. Although nobody is poised better for another successful run than Sporting, who bring back just about every key piece from their title campaign. The biggest change you’ll see in Kansas City is the absence of longtime goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who road off into the sunset at season’s end and will be replaced by either loyal backup Eric Kronberg or newly acquired Andy Gruenebaum.
Seattle, meanwhile, did some housecleaning after a relatively disappointing season saw them fall to bitter rival Portland Timbers in the Western Conference semifinals. Gone is mercurial forward Eddie Johnson, longtime center back John Kennedy Hurtado and playmaker Mauro Rosales. In comes veteran striker Kenny Cooper, vying for yet another restart to an up-and-down career, and Guatemalan international and former Chicago Fire midfielder Marco Pappa, whose failed European experiment brings him back to MLS after a year away.
And, of course, Sounders fans will be hoping Clint Dempsey brings the magic everyone expected when they signed the U.S. Men’s National Team captain last summer but has so far gone missing for both club and country. This matchup (3 pm, NBCSN) highlights eight matches on the weekend.
Here is a rundown of the Week 1 schedule:
D.C. UNITED vs. COLUMBUS CREW (Saturday, 7 pm, MLS Live)
This is a game between two teams hoping for better days in 2014.
Both sides failed to make the playoffs last year. D.C. United – despite taking home the U.S. Open Cup crown – recorded record futility with the least wins of a MLS team in history, while the Crew’s disappointing season led to the firing of longtime coach Robert Warzycha. In comes USMNT forward Eddie Johnson for DCU, sporting a brand new Designed Player contract and, DCU and head coach Ben Olsen hopes, an improved attitude.
The Crew’s rebuilding project falls to former USMNT defender Gregg Berhalter, who returns home after a stint coaching in Europe. He managed one of the league’s biggest signings of the offseason in U.S. national team defender Michael Parkhurst to go along with attackers Federico Higuain and Dominic Oduro.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS vs. NEW YORK RED BULLS (Saturday, 7:30 pm, TSN)
Talk about building on the fly; the Vancouver Whitecaps have been the biggest moving target of the MLS offseason, and when they welcome the New York Red Bulls into B.C. Place they’ll be an entirely different team that started the preseason two months ago.
The highly publicized mess with reigning Golden Boot winner Camilo Sanvezzo, who is now languishing with Liga MX outfit Queretaro that was reportedly taken over by the Mexican government, may have just left the Whitecaps better off. In his place, they now have two DPs who address major weaknesses from last year in hardman Matias Laba and Uruguayan international midfielder Pedro Morales. Add Iranian international winger Steven Beitashour and the Whitecaps may just be a dark horse in a loaded Western Conference.
Reigning Supporters’ Shield holder New York, meanwhile, flew under the radar this offseason. But will this finally be the year star forward Thierry Henry, 37, finally shows his age. His attack partner Tim Cahill, at 34, is no spring chicken, either.
FC DALLAS vs. MONTREAL IMPACT (Saturday, 8:30 pm, MLS Live)
This is the matchup of the new head coach.
FC Dallas got their man – after the firing of longtime boss Schellas Hyndmann – in former player and assistant Oscar Pareja, who controversially left behind a promising young Colorado Rapids team. He promptly began an overhaul that brought in destroyer Hendry Thomas, from the Rapids, Designated Player David Texeira and midfielder Andres Escobar, while parting ways with Kenny Cooper and longtime FCD playmaker David Ferreira.
After the firing of head coach Marco Schallibaum, Montreal brought in veteran boss Frank Klopas. But aside form that, the Impact didn’t do much this offseason, banking on the continued success of goal-scorer Marco Di Vaio.
HOUSTON DYNAMO vs. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION (Saturday, 8:30 pm, MLS Live)
These two teams bet on continuity this offseason after each made trips to the MLS Cup playoffs last season – albeit short-lived trips.
Houston bring back their leading goal scorer Giles Barnes and forward and team leader Will Bruin.
For New England, outside of the widely anticipated departure of forward Juan Agudelo, they managed to hang onto their impressive corps of young playmakers. Diego Fagundez put up 13 goals and seven assists last year as an 18-year-old and young center back Jose Goncalves won Defender of the Year in his rookie MLS season. Not a bad pair to build around.
PORTLAND TIMBERS vs. PHILADELPHIA UNION (Saturday, 10:30 pm, MLS Live)
The Timbers are kicking off a season rife with high expectations after rookie head coach Caleb Porter brought them to unprecedented heights in a run to the Western Conference finals of the MLS Cup playoffs.
The Union, meanwhile, are hoping the addition of one of the league’s biggest offseason signings, USMNT midfielder Maurice Edu, will change their fortunes from last year.
The Timbers bolstered their already impressive roster with the signings of Argentines Gaston Fernandez – who is expected to form the league’s most dangerous attack when he lines up next to Darlington Nagbe and countrymen Diego Valeri and Maximiliano Urruti – and center back Norberto Paparatto.
In this matchup, we’ll also get to see how the Union deploy their new weapons in not only Edu but DP attacker Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira.
L.A. GALAXY vs. REAL SALT LAKE (Saturday, 10:30 pm, MLS Live)
In a matchup of two Western Conference powerhouses, both teams are once again expected to compete for hardware this season, although they’re going about it in slightly different ways.
Real Salt Lake, which came a breathtaking shootout away from hoisting the MLS Cup, kept in tact their corps group and even replaced head coach Jason Kreis, who bolted to NYCFC, with longtime assistant Jeff Cassar.
Bruce Arena’s Galaxy went on a shopping spree to get help for star attackers Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. In comes Brazilian forward Samuel and Canadian striker Rob Friend. It appears Samuel will start alongside Keane, pushing Donovan to an attacking midfielder role.
CHIVAS USA vs. CHICAGO FIRE (Sunday, 3 pm, UniMas)
Chivas USA kick off their MLS-owned era after the offseason purchase by the league from former owners Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes. And new head coach Wilmer Cabrera’s job of integrating a host of new pieces – center back Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Mauro Rosales, Adolfo “El Bofo” Bautista and Agustin Pelletieri, to name a few – beings now.
The big question for the Fire is whether forward Mike Magee can repeat the magic that won him the league’s MVP award and can he do it under new coach Frank Yallop.