Saturday, March 5, 2011

MLS 2011 Schedule Preview: Must-See Games

AP Photo/Alex Gallardo

Anticipation is building for soccer fans in America with the 2011 edition of the Major League soccer season less than two weeks away. There are a lot of new faces in new places as well as two new teams: the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps.

Each team will play 34 games in 2011, with each team playing everybody twice. That means there are a total 612 games. There will be some very entertaining soccer to be played, but here are the top 15 regular season games that you need to watch.

Tuesday, March 15: Seattle Sounders vs. Los Angeles Galaxy

The MLS season kicks off with a great matchup. 2011 opens in Seattle, which has had arguably the best fan support in the league in their short two years of existence. Facing the Sounders will be the media darlings of the league and perennial contenders Los Angeles Galaxy.

Both these teams figure to be favorites to win the West and they should get the season off to a nice bang.

Saturday, March 19: Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Toronto FC

Toronto, you have company. With Vancouver joining MLS through expansion, Toronto is no longer the lone Canadian franchise through the league. Which also means that the underachieving Reds will have competition vying for the Canadian fan base’s approval.

This will also be the first home game for Vancouver and it will be exciting to see how the fans come out to support the new home team.

Saturday, April 9: FC Dallas vs. Colorado Rapids

A rematch of the 2010 MLS Cup. These two teams surprised many to get that far and this season they’ll have to work that much harder to get there since they’ll have targets on their backs, especially Colorado.

With FC Dallas season ticket sales reportedly up 300 percent, the new fans at Pizza Hut Park should make this interesting, supporting their club as they look for revenge for the loss in the title game.

Saturday, April 16: New York Red Bulls vs. San Jose Earthquakes

The New York Red Bulls went from last in MLS in 2009 to first in the East in 2010. Hopes were high heading into the playoffs, and even higher when they went up 1-0 after the first leg of the opening round of the playoffs against the Earthquake.

Then everything went terribly wrong for New York when they returned to Red Bull Arena. A 3-1 loss at the hands of the Earthquake (3-2 on aggregate) knocked them out of the playoffs and left everyone in shock.

This game won’t have nearly as much riding on it that the November one did, but it’s a start for New York to amend what went wrong last year.

Thursday, April 21: DC United vs. New York Red Bulls

One of the oldest rivalries in the league will have a new wrinkle to it this season. DC will be looking to take a page out of the Red Bulls’ book going from worst to first. They made a lot of moves, bringing in some big names to try and help Rookie of the Year Andy Najar win more games. In are Dax McCarty, Josh Wolff, Joseph Ngwenya, Perry Kitchen, Pat Onstad and Charlie Davies.

No matter the records, it’s always a fight between these two teams. The new players thrust into this rivalry will just make it that much more entertaining.

Saturday, May 7: Portland Timbers vs. Philadelphia Union

Not only will this game be two young franchises squaring off, but it will also pit two of the more intriguing young forwards in the league against each other. Last year’s No.1 overall draft pick and Rookie of the Year finalist Danny Mwanga of the Philadelphia Union had a good first year, and with the departure of Alejandro Moreno, his role with the team should increase significantly.

Portland has a stable of forwards at its disposal, but their selection of Darlington Nagbe in the 2011 MLS Super Draft has gotten a lot of praise. Nagbe is a top prospect and an early favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award.

Having these two on the field at the same time will certainly be exciting.

Saturday, May 14: Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers

The cities of Seattle and Portland are huge rivals in any sport they play each other in and their experience in MLS will be no different. The Sounders have been a huge success in the league since their inception in 2009 and they’ve become the model all expansion clubs look at now.

Without playing a single game, the Timbers have already intensified the rivalry when they put a billboard up blocks away from Seattle’s home at Qwest Field stating that Portland was “Soccer City, USA.” The many Sounders fans will surely be in full force helping to prove otherwise.

Saturday, May 21: Chivas USA vs. Los Angeles Galaxy

The SuperClasico. The matchup between Chivas and Galaxy is the only true local derby, with both teams playing not only in the same city, but the same stadium. It has been pretty one-sided though: the Galaxy has won five of six derby series, Chivas has won only three times in 21 games and they haven’t beaten the Galaxy since 2007.

This year though Chivas has made considerable improvements along their backline, bringing in Heath Pearce, Jimmy Conrad and rookie Zarek Valentin. The defensive mindset comes from new head coach Robin Fraser, a former MLS defender who has been an assistant coach with the very successful Real Salt Lake squad since 2007.
It remains to be seen if this new backline is really improved and if they can help Chivas in the battle of Los Angeles.

Thursday, June 9: Sporting KC vs. Chicago Fire

The rebranded Sporting Kansas City plays its first 10 games of the 2011 season on the road. It will be a welcome homecoming for the team when they open their brand-new, state-of-the-art $180 million dollar project Sporting Park.

For the second year in a row, Chicago will help a team open their new stadium. Last year Chicago lost in the debut of Red Bull Arena.

Saturday, July 30: Real Salt Lake vs. Columbus Crew

These two teams have been at the top of the MLS standings the past couple of years, and they’ve also made some waves in the CONCACAF Champions League. RSL recently beat Columbus to reach the semifinals of the tournament.

The Crew look like they are set up for a little bit of a down season with the departure of a lot of talent, including midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto, but they still have a solid foundation and organization that plays good soccer. It should be a good battle.

Wednesday, August 17: New England Revolution vs. Houston Dynamo

Relocated to Houston, the Dynamo won back-to-back MLS Cup championships in 2006 and 2007. The team they beat both years? The New England Revolution.

Both teams have fallen down the standings a little, with neither making the playoffs in 2010. For this season (and probably this season alone) Houston has moved to the Eastern Conference. This late-summer tilt between two of the league’s best teams will be a good dogfight for a playoff position in the East.

Saturday, August 20: Portland Timbers vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

The two newest MLS franchises won’t face off until the end of August, but a battle of expansion teams will certainly be interesting, especially since they are a part of the Cascadia Cup and have been rivals since the days of the NASL.

Portland gets the honor of hosting the first meeting of the two clubs in MLS, certainly a milestone moment in the rivalry.

Sunday, August 28: New York Red Bulls vs. Los Angeles Galaxy

It seems like MLS has always pushed for these two teams to have a rivalry worthy of the highest stage, something akin to what the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers have in basketball. It has never developed, mostly to the underperformance of the Red Bulls on a yearly basis, but these games are always exciting.

Big markets, star players and entertaining matches on the pitch always make this match up a must see. Add to the mix RBNY All-Time leading goal scorer Juan Pablo Angel making his first appearance at Red Bull Arena as a member of the visiting team and it becomes that much more of an emotionally-charged event.

How will the fans in New Jersey respond to their former idol?

Saturday, September 10: New York Red Bulls vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

This is the first day that Omar Salgado, the Whitecaps No.1 draft pick and first selection ever, will be eligible to play for Vancouver.

Due to FIFA age restrictions, Salgado will be unable to play for the Canadian team until his 18th birthday, which is this very day. Whether he plays or not will depend on how fast the Whitecaps want to integrate him into the lineup as well as what paperwork needs to get done when.

Anticipation for his debut will build as the season goes on.

Saturday, October 1: Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake

The two best teams in the Western Conference the past two seasons will play in a critical late-season matchup that could very well decide the top seed in the Western Conference as well as possibly who wins the Supporter’s Shield.

Both teams added talent to their already stacked rosters and anything short of a championship will be a disappointment. This game will have a great playoff atmosphere.

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