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March Madness
by Ridge Mahoney, February 29th, 2008 6:45AM

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February is a time for MLS teams to get fit and get acquainted. Aside from a few exceptions, the real work starts in March.

Scrimmages against college teams and the U.S. under-17s give way to more rigorous tests against MLS foes and foreign opponents. More than half of the MLS teams are headed overseas this month, and that doesn't include the relatively short hops to be taken by Houston and D.C.  United as they commence play in the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
Broken down by destination, here are the itineraries for the 14 MLS teams in early March.

VIVA MEXICO. In the history of the league, Mexico has been a fairly popular choice for preseason training, though the quality of the fields -- and the refereeing and the facilities-- can be inconsistent. But for one team, at least, Mexico is a no-brainer.

Chicago started its three-game tour Wednesday by playing a 1-1 tie with Dorados, who sit atop the Mexican Primera "A" (second division). A sellout crowd of 20,000 at the Estadio Banorte, in Culiacan, Mexico, watched Cuauhtemoc Blanco play the entire match and Chad Barrett and Lucas Silva score the goals.

The presence of Blanco offers the Fire an opportunity to make money, rather than shell out big bucks, for at least a portion of its preseason. "Teams are willing to pay us appearance fees, even for preseason," says Fire president John Guppy. "It certainly makes the bottom line look better."

Chicago plays Necaxa Monday and then trains for a week before concluding the three-game set against San Luis March 11.

New England is spending a week in Cancun, the popular Mexican resort that is the perfect antidote for players who've been training in snow and slush and chill in February, except for the fact the Revs just got back from a trip to Bermuda, where they twice thumped the Bermudan national team, 2-0 and 6-1. Yet few complaints have been registered about another arduous warm-weather trek.

The Revs play the local club, Pioneros de Cancun, on Monday and the '07 Apertura champion Atlante Wednesday before returning home.

ARGENTINA! With more and more players coming to MLS from Argentina it's not surprising two of the teams who've banked heavily on those players would head that direction during preseason.

Real Salt Lake revived its 2007 season by acquiring three Argentines and last month it added midfielder Matias Cordoba to fill four of its international slots. Colombian defender Jamilson Olave may receive his P-1 visa in time to join RSL for its two-week visit to Rosario.

RSL scrimmages Newell's Old Boys Wednesday and also has scrimmages scheduled for March 11 and 12 against Rosario Central. The scrimmage format should give head coach Jason Kreis ample opportunity to observe every one of the 27 players the team is taking for a reasonable amount of time.

With "only" two Argentines, Kansas City trails RSL in at least one statistic, yet is still negotiating with striker Claudio Lopez to lure him away from Racing. The Wizards are also hoping Colombian striker Ivan Trujillo receives his paperwork in time to join the team during its stay in Argentina.

Sharp preseason performances by Argentine midfielder Carlos Marinelli are justifying the decision by head coach Curt Onalfo to implement a 3-5-2 system which is designed in part to showcase his playmaking skills.

CAP PARTNERSHIP. FC Dallas will spend the next two weeks in Brazil as part of its affiliation with Clube Atletico Paranaense. The liaison has already produced a player capable of lighting up MLS: midfielder Andre Rocha, who joined the team on loan two weeks ago.

He nearly scored with a 20-yard blast against SMU prior to the team's departure for Brazil but was foiled by an excellent save.

"He's starting to settle in and we're starting to see his qualities," said head coach Steve Morrow, who is also still in the hunt for Chilean striker Reinaldo Navia. "He has great range, great fitness and gets around the field well. I would like to see him get forward a little more as well. He's a good passer, works very hard and is a very honest player as well."

THE MAIN OFFICE. Red Bull New York is paying homage to the headquarters in Salzburg, Austria, where it will scrimmage the Red Bull Salzburg reserves prior to the first-team league match to kick off its week-long visit.

Accompanying RBNY to Austria is Mexican midfielder Jesus Mendoza, who trained and played with the Fire in Florida but wasn't able to work out a contract. There's a possibility of discussions regarding 1860 Munich and U.S. defender Gregg Berhalter, a native of New Jersey, moving to MLS this summer.

GUNNERY PRACTICE. The affiliation between Arsenal and the Rapids is a marketing cooperative venture, designed to launch an Arsenal academy and sell Gunners merchandise at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, yet the Rapids will spend the next week or so training at the same facilities David Beckham used in January.

The Rapids have traded attacker Nicolas Hernandez in exchange for Tim Ward, who can provide some cover at left back, though Jose Burciaga was supposedly acquired from Kansas City to play that position. The trip to England will consist mostly of training and scrimmages as head coach Fernando Clavijo implements the abilities of Christian Gomez into his squad.

CREW CALL. Columbus pays a quick visit next week to England and will set up shop in Blackburn, which is where former Crew and U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel is enjoying yet another excellent season.

The Crew plays the Everton reserves on Thursday and also has a scrimmage scheduled against Blackburn reserves. Everton played the Crew in a friendly at Crew Stadium in July, 2006.

GALAXY ACROSS ASIA. After playing South Korean club FC Seoul Friday, the Galaxy plays China All-Star Union in Shanghai next Wednesday, and then has another match in Hong Kong March 9. Maybe.

The Hong Kong FA has not approved the match, which the Galaxy announced earlier this week but conflicts with league matches.

Head coach Ruud Gullit left behind many players, a few of whom are being shopped around the league as trade bait. They could also be waived so the Galaxy can meet the league's salary-cap and roster-limit compliance deadline of Monday. Yet Ante Jazic and Chris Klein, two of the six-figure salaried players the team might need to jettison, were named to the 21-player squad.

Landon Donovan, who sat out out both of the Pan Pacific Championship matches in Hawaii because of a bothersome knee, isn't on the Asian trip.

TEXAS FOUR-STEP. A round robin tournament, dubbed the Texas Pro Soccer Festival, is scheduled for March 5-9 in Cibolo, Texas, near San Antonio.

D.C. United, Houston, Chivas USA, and Toronto FC will get in three games against MLS opposition. Houston and D.C. leave immediately after the tournament to play in the CONCACAF Champions Cup quarterfinals.

HOME COOKING. The San Jose Earthquakes, who beat Columbus and tied D.C. United last weekend in San Luis Obispo, Calif., are training at home until leaving for the Carolina Challenge Cup in the middle of March.

Head coach Frank Yallop will be anxiously watching the aftermath of compliance day to perhaps pick up a player or two as he introduces flank midfielder Ronnie O'Brien, obtained this week in exchange for a 2009 SuperDraft pick and allocation money from Toronto.



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