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Saturday 2 March 2013

Foresight – MLS Weekend Preview: Round One

    Four questions to be answered on the opening weekend of MLS action.

First Kick, the opening weekend of the 2013 MLS season, hopes and dreams begin here, and the fate of the supporters in several cities lay in the hands of new coaches; how will the five – Ryan Nelsen, Marco Schallibaum, Chelis, Caleb Porter, and Mike Petke - perform in their first league match with preseason having come and gone?

    This season’s class of MLS rookie coaches is a varied group.

    Two – Nelsen and Petke – have little to no experience as the head man, though Petke has at least been on a coaching staff previously.

    Nelsen is a unique case, having been announced while still playing, for a different club, in another country. With little time to address the shortcomings of his Toronto squad, is his new, post-playing career set for a rocky start? Or does he have a little surprise for Vancouver and the naysayers?

    New York’s Petke is a little more prepared, having played for the club, worked in the front office and served as an assistant manager, prior to taking the job.

    The club endured a lot of turnover this season while waiting to address the vacant manager’s chair. Eventually, after all other avenues had been exhausted, Petke was entrusted. His opener on the road in Portland will be a good test of the chemistry in a side that has struggled for cohesion.

    Petke’s opponent, Porter, will make his professional debut, after a twelve-year college career that saw him earn many plaudits as one of the bright, young, up-and-comers in the American coaching ranks.

    His first taste of the highest level came with a bitter bite, as his US Olympic side failed to qualify for London last spring; will this turn appetizer be more satisfying?

    The remaining duo, Chelis and Schallibaum - of Chivas and Montreal respectively - come into the league after long careers in their domestic leagues - Chelis in Mexico and Schallibaum in Switzerland.

    They have vast managerial experience at the highest level at their disposal, a tool the previous three do not, but both are new to a league that is renowned for the intricacies of its regulations.

    Chivas, in the midst of a cultural revolution, face a stiff test in the form of a resurgent Columbus, but they do so with all the comforts of home on their side; Montreal, though a little more internally stable, must enter the lion’s den with a match in cavernous Seattle.

    Does that experience serve them in good stead, to help overcome the repeated failings of foreign coaches in this league?

The coaches are not the only new faces on opening day, across the schedule new players, both experienced veterans and baby-faced rookies will be seeing their first MLS action – not to mention those who have switched side in the offseason; how will these new arrivals fare and who grabs the headlines?

    Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey in Philadelphia, Claudio Bieler in Kansas City, Daigo Kobayashi and Brad Rusin in Vancouver, half of Toronto, Andrew Driver in Houston, Carlos Ruiz and Rafael in DC, Kenny Cooper  in Dallas, Kevin Harbottle and Diego Calderon in Colorado, Djimi Traore in Seattle, Andrea Pisanu in Montreal, most of Chivas USA, Glauber and Matias Sanchez in Columbus, Carlo Cudicini in Los Angeles, Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere in Chicago, Diego Valeri and Mikael Silvestre in Portland, and Juninho in New York, to name but a few, will likely get their first chance this weekend.

    While a handful of draft picks and home-growns may also enter the mix.

Despite all the changes, MLS has stacked opening weekend with a plethora of marquee matches, which will provide the best action?

    Houston-DC, a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Final, though deprived of another Dwayne De Rosario return; Dallas-Colorado, a replay of the 2010 MLS Cup Final; Seattle-Montreal, an former USL clash and finally a chance to revenge the 4-1 defeat that marred the Sounder’s first visit to Montreal in MLS, and saving the best for last, San Jose-Salt Lake, a top of the West must-see match.

And finally, in tune with the previous question, who fires the early salvos in the battle for Canadian bragging rights?
    When Vancouver hosts Toronto on Saturday, three points will not be the only prize on the line. Vancouver was incredulous that a horrible TFC side was able to overcome their issues to win a fourth straight Voyageur’s Cup and earn Canada’s lone entry to the CONCACAF Champions League/

    Though the two will not meet until the final of the competition this season, Vancouver would love nothing more than to get one over on their cross-nation rivals.

One to Watch – The new MLS officiating guidelines have placed emphasis on two key interactions: the first, any contact to the head; the second, mass confrontations of the referee. A third, illegally entering the field of play was spawn from a single incident between Chivas and Philadelphia likely won’t be an issue.

    Who will first come afoul of these new regulations?

Philadelphia v Sporting; Vancouver v Toronto; Houston v DC; Dallas v Colorado; Seattle v Montreal; Chivas v Columbus; Los Angeles v Chicago; Portland v New York; San Jose v Salt Lake.

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