By THOMAS FLOYD
Winter’s chill may still linger in many markets, but it matters not. Forget the freezing temperatures and forecasts of snow that dot the country. Three short months after the Los Angeles Galaxy claimed their second straight league title, MLS is back for its earliest start yet.
Thus we begin Year 18.
Highlighting Saturday’s slate is a nationally televised rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference final, with D.C. United — minus suspended captain Dwayne De Rosario — attempting to exact revenge at the Houston Dynamo.
Come Sunday, the Galaxy will kick off their attempt for a three-peat by hosting the retooled Chicago Fire. And last but not least, the Supporters’ Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes will take on fellow Western Conference power Real Salt Lake as the injury-riddled clubs test their depth.
Here is a rundown of the full Week 1 schedule:
PHILADELPHIA UNION vs. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (Saturday, 4 p.m., MLS Live)
There will be plenty of new faces to evaluate on both teams, with Kansas City adding Claudio Bieler and Benny Feilhaber to the mix while Philadelphia will be re-incorporating Sebastien Le Toux and introducing Jeff Parke and Conor Casey.
Depending on what look Union coach John Hackworth decides to go with, this could be a clash of 4-3-3 formations. If Kansas City trots out the new-look trio of Feilhaber, Paulo Nagamura and Uri Rosell, it’ll be intriguing to see how those players gel.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS vs. TORONTO FC (Saturday, 6:30 p.m., TSN/MLS Live)
Many will be keeping an eye on this revamped Toronto side, led by coach Ryan Nelsen. Can the Danny Califf-Darren O’Dea partnership stabilize that leaky defense? Will Torsten Frings’ leadership be missed? Questions abound.
For Vancouver, newcomers Nigel Reo-Coker (for whom match fitness is still coming along) and Daigo Kobayashi are players to watch. If they get that Whitecaps midfield clicking, it could pave the way for a breakout campaign from Darren Mattocks up top.
HOUSTON DYNAMO vs. D.C. UNITED (Saturday, 8 p.m., NBCSN)
After making it through preseason more or less injury-free, United’s preparations were dealt a blow Friday morning when word came out of captain Dwayne De Rosario’s suspension. Reverting to a true 4-5-1 formation seems likely, with Perry Kitchen, John Thorrington and Marcelo Saragosa possibly forming the midfield trio.
With Omar Cummings (knee) not ready for opening day, the Dynamo will have to wait for another day to show off that new Cummings-Will Bruin partnership. But on the plus side, the group that played in the MLS Cup three months ago remains essentially intact.
FC DALLAS vs. COLORADO RAPIDS (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., MLS Live)
Gone are many of the familiar faces in this 2010 MLS Cup rematch. Omar Cummings and Conor Casey no longer harass defenses for Colorado. Brek Shea no longer roams the flank for Dallas.
With Edson Buddle sidelined by a knee injury, the Rapids will have to make due without their prized new striker. Dallas, on the other hand, will be without the suspended Blas Perez, and Eric Hassli will be limited as he gains fitness. That puts a lot of pressure on Kenny Cooper up top.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS vs. MONTREAL IMPACT (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., MLS Live)
The post-Fredy Montero begins for Seattle, shifting the attacking responsibility to the likes of Eddie Johnson, Mauro Rosales and Steve Zakuani. Not having the suspended Osvaldo Alonso, of course, will be painful.
For the Impact, new coach Marco Schallibaum faces a tough task trying to steal a result at CenturyLink Field in his first MLS match. But Having Marco di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta available for a full preseason should be a boon to the team’s chemistry heading into 2013.
CHIVAS USA vs. COLUMBUS CREW (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., MLS Live)
Well if nothing else, Jose Luis Sanchez Sola’s Chivas USA side should be interesting to watch. After jettisoning much of the team’s talent, Chivas kick off the new season with a thrown-together group that has had little opportunity to develop true chemistry.
Columbus, on the other hand, will be looking forward to seeing what a full season of a Federico Higuain-Jairo Arrieta duo can do, especially now that they have Dominic Oduro’s speed to further distract defenses.
LOS ANGELES GALAXY vs. CHICAGO FIRE (Sunday, 5 p.m., UniMas)
No David Beckham. No Landon Donovan. But the Galaxy do still have newly proclaimed captain Robbie Keane, along with Omar Gonzalez anchoring that rock-solid back line. And Carlo Cudicini should provide an upgrade in goal.
With newcomers Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere partnering in central midfield and Dilly Duka offering another option out wide, the Fire have added some nice complementary pieces to what was a solid core. Watching Arne Friedrich match up with Keane at Home Depot Center should be a treat.
PORTLAND TIMBERS vs. NEW YORK RED BULLS (Sunday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2)
In a clash of new coaches, Portland’s Caleb Porter and New York’s Mike Petke will match wits amid the raucous season-opening atmosphere of Jeld-Wen Field. In central midfield, the creative battle between newcomers Diego Valeri and Juninho figures to entertain.
For both sides, how the new pieces work in their 4-3-3 formations will be crucial, with Fabian Espindola and Ruben Bover Izquierdo trying to fit in for New York while Ryan Johnson and Will Johnson do the same for Portland.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES vs. REAL SALT LAKE (Sunday, 10 p.m., MLS Live)
With Jamison Olave, Will Johnson and Fabian Espindola gone and the trio of Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert and Javier Morales injured, RSL could be a bit disjointed against San Jose, to say the least.
But San Jose won’t be without its own injury woes, with Steven Beitashour, Marvin Chavez, Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart sidelined by injury as well. Depth, it’s safe to say, will be a major decider in this one.