Wednesday, March 9, 2011

MLS 2011 Season Preview

Major League Soccer’s 2011 season kicks off next Tuesday night when league attendance leaders Seattle Sounders FC hosts David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy (9:30 PM  ET ESPN). Nine months of the best soccer in the United States and Canada will follow culminating with MLS Cup 2011 in November. In a league known for a great deal of parity, just about any team has a chance of being crowned league champions as the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake have proven over the past two years.
To get you ready for all of the upcoming action, here’s the World Soccer Shop MLS 2011 Season Preview.

New Teams
MLS expands to an eighteen team league in 2011 with the entry of longtime United Soccer Leagues (USL) campaigners the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps FC to the league. The new entrants join the Seattle Sounders FC in the Northwest United States / British Columbia region and will both play in the MLS Western Conference. The Whitecaps become MLS’ second Canada-based franchise along with five-year old Toronto FC. Finally, the Kansas City Wizards have rebranded themselves as Sporting Kansas City.
The 2011 MLS Conference setup changes slightly for 2011 because of the league’s expansion. With Portland and Vancouver joining the Western Conference, the Houston Dynamo now moves to the Eastern Conference.  The 2011 MLS Conferences will look like this:
Chicago Fire                                                  Chivas USA
Columbus Crew                                             Colorado Rapids
D.C. United                                                      FC Dallas
Houston Dynamo                                           LA Galaxy
Sporting Kansas City                                     Portland Timbers
New England Revolution                              Real Salt Lake
New York Red Bulls                                       San Jose Earthquakes
Philadelphia Union                                       Seattle Sounders FC
Toronto FC                                                       Vancouver Whitecaps FC

League Changes
With more teams and a growing fanbase, MLS has added another round and two more teams to its playoffs. This is the league’s explanation of how the 2011 MLS Cup Playoffs will work.
· Ten clubs will qualify for the 2011 MLS Cup Playoffs:
· The top three finishers in each conference, based on regular season points (six automatic berths)
· The next best four clubs based on regular season points, irrespective of conference (four wild cards)
· The four wild cards will play single elimination games against each other, with higher seeds hosting (1 vs. 4; 2 vs. 3). These play-in games are part of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
· After the two play-in games conclude, the lowest remaining seed will face the Supporters’ Shield winner in the Conference Semifinals; the other will face the No. 1 seed in the opposite conference from the Supporters’ Shield winner.
The four Conference Semifinals will be decided by two-game aggregate series, with each club hosting one game. The two Conference Championships will be single games hosted by the higher seed. MLS Cup will again be a single championship match hosted at a predetermined site to be announced at a later date.
Reserve League
After a three year absence, the MLS Reserve League will be resurrected. It will feature a 10-game regular season and followed by playoffs. As with the reserve divisions of major European soccer leagues, the MLS Reserve League is designed to give young players development opportunities via regular game action. It will also allow squad fringe players and those returning from injury to see playing time.
MLS rosters will be expanded from 26 to 30 players to now that the Reserve Division is back. Six of the roster spots are designated for players 24 years old and younger. Finally, MLS club’s academy players and those on trial will be allowed to suit up in for reserve teams.

Major Transfers
MLS didn’t see any signings of the magnitude David Beckham or Thierry Henry this offseason. Nevertheless there were signings of several proven internationals, including Mexico’s Omar Bravo by Sporting KC and USA’s Jay DeMerit, along with a few major inter-team moves. These are the biggest of the signings and transfers. The player’s last clubs are in parentheses.
Colorado Rapids: Sanna Nyassi (Seattle Sounders FC)
Columbus Crew: Jeff Cunningham (FC Dallas)
Houston Dynamo: Hunter Freeman (IK Start, Norway)
Sporting KC: Omar Bravo (Chivas de Guadalajara)
L.A. Galaxy: Juan Pablo Angel (New York Red Bulls)
New England Revolution: Didier Domi (Olympiakos)
New York Red Bulls: John Rooney (Macclesfield Town)
Portland Timbers: Kenny Cooper (1860 Munich)
Vancouver Whitecaps: Jay DeMerit (Watford FC)
Match Schedule
The full MLS 2011 schedule may be found at this link.
Some of the biggest matches of the early season include:
03/15/11: Seattle vs. L.A. Galaxy
03/18/11: Vancouver vs. Toronto FC
05/07/11: L.A. Galaxy vs. New York Red Bulls
Where to Watch
Major League Soccer matches will be broadcast on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and (21 matches) , Fox Soccer Channel (up to 31 matches) and Galavision / Telefutura (30 matches) in the United States during the 2011 season. TSN will air 24 matches involving Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps for MLS fans in Canada.
Highlights of all matches can be viewed at the MLS Soccer video website while the MLS YouTube channel is updated regularly with interviews, behind the scenes and on the field match footage and even a look back at some classic MLS matches from as far back as the league’s first season in 1996.
Lastly, to whet your appetites for the MLS action starting next week, here are highlights from last week’s CONCACAF Champions League quarter final meeting between the Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake. RSL won the series 4-1 to become the first MLS team to advance to the semi-finals of the tournament.

Photo Credits: Getty Images

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