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Major League Soccer Returns: Five Stories To Watch In 2013

Christopher Coppock |
February 25, 2013 | 1:35 a.m. PST

Staff Writer

The Timbers Army celebrates a home goal. (Ray Terrill/Creative Commons)
The Timbers Army celebrates a home goal. (Ray Terrill/Creative Commons)
Behind increasing attendance and big money TV deals, things are looking up for Major League Soccer as it prepares to kick off its 18th season this weekend. Here are five things that every soccer fan should watch for as the season gets under way.

A Resurgent Portland Timbers

Following an extremely disappointing sophomore season in MLS, which included the firing of once beloved head coach John Spencer, the team giving up in an away match against Colorado, and a goal differential of negative-25, the Timbers finally appear to have the makings of a side that can aim for the playoffs in 2013.

New manager Caleb Porter clearly has a vision for the team, turning over the vast majority of the roster and transitioning the team from the classic clear-it-up-the-field-and-pray style to one that will have his side playing a high-tempo, high-pressure game. Early signs have certainly been promising, and the Timbers' effectiveness in front of goal, led by Argentine Designated Player Diego Valeri, could certainly give them a fearsome attack. In addition, the signing of Miloš Kočić will finally give the Timbers a presence in goal that they have been lacking for the past two years. However, the Timbers' somewhat shaky back-line, although much improved following the signing of ex-Manchester United veteran Mikaël Silvestre, could once again become the victim of injury and inexperience.

Most importantly, it is essential that the Timbers improve their away form, which has proved absolutely woeful through their first two seasons. If the Timbers can manage that, they will almost certainly find themselves in thick of things come November. As for Portland's fans, expectations that were somewhat tempered during the offseason have soared through the roof as the first match has approached, and come March 3, expect Jeld-Wen Field and the Timbers Army to be absolutely deafening as Portland plays host to Thierry Henry and the New York Red Bulls to help kick off the 2013 MLS season.

The Canadian Three to Struggle Again

No Canadian team had ever made the MLS playoffs until the Vancouver Whitecaps finished their 2012 season fifth in the Western Conference before losing in the first round to the eventual champs, the Los Angeles Galaxy. Despite what was on paper one of the best strike groups in the league, the Whitecaps only managed to score 35 goals (a goal differential of negative-14) in 2012, only eleven more than last place Chivas USA and a somewhat staggering 37 less than the San Jose Earthquakes. Don't expect that ratio to improve in 2013 as the loss of Sébastien Le Toux back to Philadelphia will cost them in both experience and confidence up front. In addition, the possibility of a sophomore slump from 2012 SuperDraft first-round pick Darron Mattocks is definitely there.

Toronto FC, a team that has struggled throughout its brief MLS existence, are again expected to perform poorly following a major roster overhaul this season. As for Montreal, expect some improvement in the team's second season, as the whole organization continues to adapt to life at the professional level. Its chances of making the playoffs remain slim, though, most notably because Montreal has by far the worst travel schedule of any team in MLS, something that is a challenge unique to all three Canadian teams, and a problem which will likely keep any of them from making the playoffs in 2013.

Donovan helped the Galaxy to two straight MLS Cups. (Gregg Kowalski/TheDailySportsHerald)
Donovan helped the Galaxy to two straight MLS Cups. (Gregg Kowalski/TheDailySportsHerald)
Landon Donovan's Return

As soon as Landon Donovan slotted home the stoppage time winner versus Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, he transformed not only himself, but the entire U.S. team from cult heroes to national icons. When the United States then went out with a whimper in the first round of the knockout stages against Ghana, many Americans were disappointed. They were able to take solace, however, in the fact that at the age of 28, Donovan, America's most prolific player ever, seemingly still had one more World Cup in him.

Donovan's recent decisions, though, have been cause for consternation among among America's soccer faithful. Following L.A.'s second MLS Cup victory in a row, Donovan, 30, announced in late October that he would be taking an extended leave of absence from the game, saying in an interview with ESPN, "I need time where I can just pause, and breathe and rest, let my body heal, let my mind refresh." This break meant that Donovan was not present during the United States' 2-1 loss to Honduras on Feb. 6, and most likely will not be present for their next two qualifying matches at the end of March, as he and the L.A. Galaxy recently announced that Donovan will return to the squad to begin training around that time, nearly a month after L.A. begins its quest for a third straight title.

Donovan's joining of the club two months late provides the occasion to question how motivated and driven he will be. No one will be able to say for sure until he takes the field in a game for the first time later this season, but keep your eyes peeled for that moment, as how fired up he is over his first couple games back will be an indicator not just for how committed his is to the Galaxy this season, but to the game in general, and by extension the U.S. National team and their campaign to reach Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.

Donovan owes both club and country the courtesy of either deciding to play wholeheartedly, or hanging up his boots for good. Anything in between isn't fair to any of the parties involved.

The Owner and Location of 20th MLS Franchise to be Announced

Until MLS commissioner Don Garber decides to give the New York Cosmos of 1970s American soccer fame a place in MLS, New Yorkers will continue to clamor for another MLS side. Fortunately for New York, another team will be coming to the Big Apple by 2016, with a location and owner to be chosen this year. Sadly for New York, with only 10 months left in the proposed window, the current NASL Cosmos don't seem to be particularly close to winning the bid.

The location of the team has all but been decided, as MLS has been leaving no stone unturned in their quest to build a $300-million soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Who the owner will be, however, is anyone's guess at this point. It could end up being Cosmos chairman Seamus O'Brien and the deep pocketed Sela Sport group or a local venture capitalist (of which, of course, New York City has many). Or it could be a joint venture including David Beckham, whose MLS contract guaranteed him the option of at least partial ownership in a new MLS side.

The Cosmos appear to be the logical choice for everyone except for the two groups that matter most, MLS and Sela Sport. Garber, for his part, doesn't get to make the decision himself, but it is somewhat perplexing that Sela Sport seems relatively uninterested in joining Major League Soccer, having announced in January their plans to build a $400-million stadium of their own in Elmont, N.Y. The mystery around who the next MLS team will be will continue to swirl until the day of the official announcement, but that day will have a long term effect not only on soccer in the Northeast, but the MLS brand as a whole.

David Beckham was subbed out at halftime with the Galaxy trailing 2-0. (DailyHarrison.com/Creative Commons)
David Beckham was subbed out at halftime with the Galaxy trailing 2-0. (DailyHarrison.com/Creative Commons)

Looking Back on Beckham's Legacy

After David Beckham hoisted his second and final MLS Cup last fall, many commentators pointed out that amid all the celebration it was important to remember the early Beckham years with the Galaxy. Starting in 2007 and until 2011, he rather clearly demonstrated that he wasn't too interested in MLS or his commitment to the Galaxy, embarking upon multiple loans to Italian giant AC Milan, missing multiple games and strong-arming manager Bruce Arenas whenever he really felt like it.

Criticizing the Englishman for his occasionally indulgent behavior, however, in light of his massive contributions to American soccer, is unfair. His mere presence in MLS has done volumes for the league, and the fact that he cared enough to stick around and pursue not one, but two MLS Cups did even more to elevate the image of MLS. Granted, many still consider the league as second-rate, or perhaps even third-rate, but that is beside the point. When Beckham joined the Galaxy, the league was floundering. Since he moved to MLS, more than five clubs have joined, and attendance has grown enough to put MLS third in American professional sports. Such growth cannot, of course, be attributed solely to Beckham, but his contribution the sport in America should be recognized

As MLS kicks off its first season in six years without Beckham this weekend, we as soccer fans are able to look out at the league today and smile fondly both at the progress that has been made, and at the memories, good and bad, that we all share of the time David Beckham spent in the league.

Reach staff writer Christopher Coppock here, or follow him on Twitter.



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