By THOMAS FLOYD
Major League Soccer is officially back.
In 2012, the league will be bigger and — if all goes according to plan — better than ever. Running from Saturday's First Kick to December's MLS Cup, it will be the longest season in league history. With the addition of the expansion Montreal Impact, MLS now features 19 clubs, including three in Canada. And a new television deal with NBC Sports seems poised to expand the league to new viewers.
The league will look to kick off its new season in fashion this weekend, with a slew of contests including playoff rematches between the Colorado Rapids and the Columbus Crew, FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls, and the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake.
Here is a rundown of the full Week 1 slate:
COLORADO RAPIDS vs. COLUMBUS CREW (Saturday, 6 p.m., Direct Kick)
The Rapids last season ended Columbus' campaign with a 1-0 win in the wild-card round, only to limp into their conference semifinal against Kansas City and fall on a 4-0 aggregate. An offseason later, both teams have made some significant changes.
Colorado has parted way with MLS Cup-winning coach Gary Smith, replacing him with Oscar Pareja, who has implemented a 4-3-3 system keyed by Colombian midfield maestro Jaime Castrillon. Columbus, on the other hand, has brought in Chilean playmaker Milovan Mirosevic and Costa Rican forward Olman Vargas to improve an attack that last year largely lived and died on the sporadic play of since-departed DP striker Andres Mendoza.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS vs. MONTREAL IMPACT (Saturday, 6 p.m., TSN)
MLS is introducing its newest Canadian rivalry right off the bat. After bringing in a myriad of attacking players, including ex-Philadelphia midfielder-forward Sebastien Le Toux, to complement a forward corps that already features the likes of Eric Hassli and Camilo, it will be intriguing to see how new Vancouver coach Martin Rennie manages the minutes up top.
Montreal, on the other hand, has pieced together a talented roster, including what could be a top-notch central midfield duo in Patrice Bernier and Felipe Martins. How much chemistry Jesse Marsch's players have managed to develop during their brief time as teammates will be key.
D.C. UNITED vs. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Direct Kick)
Kansas City enters this season with high expectations, returning 10 of 11 starters from a team that finished atop the Eastern Conference last year. And the one starter who did exit — striker Omar Bravo — has been replaced by winger Bobby Convey, who seems to be a better fit for coach Peter Vermes' 4-3-3 system.
As for United, the club has retained the core from a team that was on the cusp of the playoffs last year and added experienced players such as centerback Emiliano Dudar, right back Robbie Russell and striker Hamdi Salihi. Factor in a full season with league MVP Dwayne De Rosario and the returns from injury of centerback Dejan Jakovic, winger Chris Pontius and playmaker Branko Boskovic, and United could be a darkhorse contender in the Eastern Conference.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES vs. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., Direct Kick)
Two teams that suffered through woefully disappointing 2011 campaigns will be more than ready to start 2012 with a clean slate. In New England, new coach Jay Heaps will look to control the middle of the park with a restructured midfield featuring Benny Feilhaber, Clyde Simms, Kelyn Rowe and captain Shalrie Joseph.
For San Jose, the club will be excited to see what Chris Wondolowski and Steven Lenhart can do together up top after Lenhart made just 14 appearances last year before taking a leave of absence following the death of his father.
LOS ANGELES GALAXY vs. REAL SALT LAKE (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., Direct Kick)
A rematch of last year's Western Conference final, won 3-1 by the Galaxy, this contest is the opening weekend's marquee event. Coming off an emotional 2-2 tie against Toronto on Wednesday in Champions League play, Los Angeles will be focusing on solving the defensive issues that arose early in that contest.
Jason Kreis' Salt Lake side, meanwhile, will be looking to capitalize on any fatigue the Galaxy might suffer through and send an early message that earning the top slot in the Western Conference this year will be a battle. Expect forwards Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola to present Los Angeles centerbacks A.J. DeLaGarza and Andrew Boyens with a particularly difficult matchup.
FC DALLAS vs. NEW YORK RED BULLS (Sunday, 3 p.m., NBC Sports)
With 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira back in the mix and Brek Shea coming off a strong preseason, Dallas will want to make a statement in Sunday's nationally televised fixture and show fans across the country that last year's late fizzle — which ended with a wild-card loss to New York — was a fluke.
On the other side, Red Bulls fans will be anxious to see how rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara fares between the posts. And with forward Luke Rodgers still out of the picture as he clears up a visa issue, Kenny Cooper will hope to capitalize on his opportunity to start alongside Thierry Henry.
CHIVAS USA vs. HOUSTON DYNAMO (Sunday, 7 p.m., Galavision)
Three months after falling to Los Angeles in the MLS Cup final, the Dynamo will return to the Home Depot Center to commence another run at the organization's third title. While Houston's lineup is pretty much set in stone, whoever plays alongside Brian Ching up top — Calen Carr, Will Bruin, Cam Weaver and Macoumba Kandji are all in the mix — does remain a pertinent question.
For Chivas, it'll be intriguing to see what kind of production the team can get out of 36-year-old Juan Pablo Angel, who scored seven goals in just nine games last season following a midseason trade from the Galaxy.
PORTLAND TIMBERS vs. PHILADELPHIA UNION (Monday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN2)
Last but not least, Jeld-Wen Field will take center stage Monday night when the Timbers host Philadelphia, giving eager Portland fans their first opportunity to see Designated Player striker Kris Boyd.
After trading Le Toux, team's leading scorer, Union fans will be focusing on their new-look attack, which features Panamanian midfielder Gabriel Gomez and Colombian striker Lionard Pajoy, as well as increased responsibility for U.S. Under-23 catalyst Freddy Adu.