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Early start to test MLS drawing power
by Ridge Mahoney, December 6th, 2007 7AM

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The league schedule won't be released until January at the earliest, but the lineup for opening weekend of the 2008 season is known. And for a few games at least, heavy jackets, thick gloves, and hot chocolate are recommended. After kicking off its season the first weekend of April for the past few seasons, MLS is moving up its start date.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has been adamant that games played in the colder months must become part of the league's tradition and not be susceptible to mediocre attendances. He sees a product dependent on both marketing and competition.

"I believe that if our games are meaningful, fans will come out even if the weather isn't ideal, as it is at other times in the season," said Garber, who came to MLS in 1999 after a long stint with NFL Europe. "It's our job to do a better job of selling tickets for our games, no matter when they're played."

Good crowds turned out at RFK Stadium last March for the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, yet D.C. fans have always been among the hardiest in the league. And with more international competitions involving MLS teams this season, an earlier starting date had to be implemented.

At least one of the 2008 openers to be played in the colder climes features a great matchup.

Houston and New England, finalists in the last two MLS Cups, open their seasons against each other on opening day, March 29, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. When was the last time the Revs opened their season at home? Well, never.

The Revs drew 18,814 for their 2007 home opener (April 14) against expansion Toronto that was played as a doubleheader with a U.S. women's match against Mexico.

Their best crowd in a home opener was 57,407 in 1997 to see a 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay and a 2-2 USA-Mexico tie in a World Cup qualifier.

The 1998 home opener drew 24,133 fans on the fourth weekend of the season to see the Revs play defending champion D.C. United. (The teams had already met at RFK in the season opener three weeks earlier -- on March 29, coincidentally -- and drew 22,263.)

Two years ago, New England played Columbus at home on the second weekend of the season (April 9) and drew a paltry 9,727, but the weather couldn't be blamed; the temperature was 50 degrees and the skies were clear.

In many cases, Garber's point is well-taken.

Also among the more resilient fans in MLS are those of Real Salt Lake, which has drawn a March 29 home opener against Chicago.

Fire midfield maestro Cuauhtemoc Blanco has been a crowd magnet in most MLS cities, yet he displayed his aversion to chilly weather during last year's playoffs and he bolted from the Windy City shortly after the Fire's elimination.

Let's see how he handles playing at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in the first days of spring.

Two teams - Kansas City and San Jose - will be playing in very small facilities this year, which will offset somewhat the advantage of having a full season of David Beckham, who missed games in several cities last year because of his ankle and knee injuries. (The Galaxy opens on the road against Colorado in another cold-weather clasico.)

Kansas City has yet to average big numbers in their entire existence and cynics are already sniggering about whether they can fill the CommunityAmerica Ballpark (capacity 10,000) in which they'll play while Arrowhead Stadium is being renovated. The park is home to a minor-league baseball team, the Kansas City T-Bones of the Northern League. KC opens at home against D.C. United on March 29.

Expansion San Jose is playing its first two seasons, at least, at Buck Shaw Stadium on the Santa Clara University campus. Capacity is being increased from 6,800 to 12,000; the Quakes have begun the process of fulfilling season-ticket deposits fans have placed in the past few months.

Officials expect from 5,000 to 6,000 season tickets to be sold by this process.

San Jose opens against Red Bull New York; the Quakes have generated a lot of buzz by hiring Frank Yallop as head coach and picking a former Santa Clara player, defender Ryan Cochrane, in the expansion draft.

Last year's expansion entry, Toronto FC, opened with three road games before embarking on a remarkable season of sold-out - or nearly so -- home dates. It will open 2008 at Columbus, which drew 20,818 for its 2006 home opener on the third weekend of the season, and 13,782 last year on opening day as snow flurries fluttered onto the field. TFC gets an April 19 home opener.

To round out its opening weekend, MLS has scheduled a Western Conference match between Chivas USA and Dallas at Pizza Hut Park. No weather worries here, aside from those fierce thunderstorms, one of which forced a USA-Uruguay friendly at the Cotton Bowl to be abandoned in 1995.

Yet both of these teams might look much different next spring than they did during their meeting in the 2007 playoffs: Chivas USA coach Preki and midfielder Francisco Mendoza might be moving on so might be FCD striker Carlos Ruiz. Denilson isn't coming back, either, so this game could lack the star power to guarantee a sellout and a good TV rating for TeleFutura.

FCD did sell out (20,500) its home opener last year against Colorado, yet a later date (April 22, the fourth weekend of the season) made it an easier sell. It drew crowds of 15,773 (on July 4) and 9,454 (on a Thursday night) against Chivas USA last year.



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