Xtra Points: Major League Soccer returns
GazetteXtra readers, I have an apology to make.
During last summer's World Cup and the subsequent start to the European football campaign in August, I made a vow to myself to keep Janesville and the surrounding area in the know when it came to professional soccer, much the way colleague Dave von Falkenstein keeps racing fans apprised of things on the race track.
Aside from calling everyone's attention to a mostly drab 2-0 Old Firm matchup on Super Bowl Sunday, I failed pretty spectacularly.
But no longer!
With the calendar flipping to March, I have a chance to get back on the soccer horse as the Major League Soccer season gets underway.
The players and league reached a labor agreement earlier this week to avoid a work stoppage that might've crushed the momentum of soccer's growth in the U.S. With a new collective bargaining agreement in place, MLS kicks off its transitional 2015 campaign Friday night when the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy host the Chicago Fire at 8 p.m.
The upheaval begins with the MLS Cup holders themselves. Landon Donovan, the marquee name for the Galaxy and the league at large, retired on top by winning his sixth MLS championship in 14 seasons with Los Angeles, a tenure that included an MVP year in 2009.
Despite his departure, the cupboard is hardly bare for the champions. Robbie Keane, last year's league MVP who had an illustrious career in England before his move to MLS, is back, and the Galaxy will be happy to add current Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard when the English Premier League season ends in May.
Big names like Gerrard's and Keane's aren't restricted to Los Angeles. Toronto FC brought Jozy Altidore back to the MLS after his career stagnated with a move to English club Sunderland. He teams up with Michael Bradley, another U.S. men's national team standout, and Italian midfielder Sebastian Giovinco, who said arrivederci to Serie A powerhouse Juventus to make his move to Canada.
Other high-profile players coming into MLS this year will enter with expansion clubs.
Orlando City boasts Brek Shea, another key contributor to the USMNT in recent years, and Kaká, a Brazilian attacking midfielder who not long ago was the toast of the soccer world when he transferred from A.C. Milan to Real Madrid, two of the biggest clubs in the world.
Meanwhile, New York City FC used its ties to English champion Manchester City to add Spaniard David Villa and former Chelsea star Frank Lampard, who will finish the English season with City before moving to the U.S.
With all this change going on, what probably matters most to MLS leaders is the fact that, for the first time, games will be broadcast live across the country in the same time slot week after week. ESPN and FOX will show games early on Sunday evenings starting this weekend.
Sunday's TV schedule starts with NYC FC playing at Orlando at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN2. Then FOX Sports 1 has an MLS doubleheader, starting with the New York Red Bulls at Sporting Kansas City at 6 p.m., followed by a Super Bowl XLIX rematch (of sorts): Seattle hosts New England at 8:30.
Aside from the MLS, there's still plenty going on in England. The FA Cup, the country's top tournament-style competition, is reaching its conclusion.
Chelsea is holding Manchester City at arm's length at the top of the Premier League, but a handful of teams are racing for a spot in the top four and the lucrative Champions League for next season.
That's all up for discussion at another time, though. This weekend is—as it should be—all about the MLS.