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MLS starts earlier in 2009 & juggles international conflicts
by Ridge Mahoney, December 3rd, 2008 7AM



[MLS] March 19 isn't the earliest starting date for an MLS season. It's not even in the top two. Still, it's 10 days earlier than the 2008 season, and the third earliest in league history. Only the 1998 (March 15) and 2000 (March 18) seasons got underway prior to the 2009 campaign, which will be the first that league officials make significant concessions to the FIFA international match calendar, though details of those arrangements have yet to be confirmed.

"One of the real stories about 2008 was, for the first time beyond media questions, we had real fan feedback as it relates to playing through the dates," said Commissioner Don Garber. "Scheduling without 12 dates is a virtual impossibility, but that doesn't mean we can't look at some selected dates and see how we can manage a change in approach, be willing to take a financial hit, and put some pressure on our teams and our fans into a compressed period in and around some select dates."

MLS has released the schedule for first week of play during which 14 of the 15 teams will in action. The odd number of teams necessitates one team sitting out, which in this case is Real Salt Lake. Each team will play 30 games, two against each league foe and an extra game against each of two rivals. The complete schedule won't be released until January or early February.

Expansion club Seattle Sounders FC hosts New York in the March 19 opener on ESPN2; a Fox Soccer Channel/Fox Sports en Espanol doubleheader (Houston-Columbus, Chivas USA-Colorado) highlights the first Saturday of play two days later; and "First Kick" weekend concludes Sunday, March 22, with the Galaxy hosting D.C. United on TeleFutura.

The league's fourth broadcast partner, HDNet, isn't yet committed to televising games next year. Its deal with the league expired at the end of the 2008 season.

In his state of the league address two days before MLS Cup, Garber stated the league could suspend play during two of the windows, or play a lighter schedule on four occasions. The FIFA windows that fall within the MLS season are March 28-April 1; June 6-10, Aug. 12, Sept. 5-9, Oct. 10-14,.and Nov. 14-18.

In referring to "12 dates" Garber included Feb. 11, which is officially a friendly date but will be utilized by Concacaf for its Hexagonal openers. Another wrinkle is U.S. Soccer has received permission to play June 3 instead of June 10 because of the Confederations Cup, which begins June 14.

In the other March 21 (Saturday) games, Brimstone Cup rivals Chicago and FC Dallas meet at Pizza Hut Park; New England travels cross-country to play San Jose, and Kansas City hosts Toronto FC.

On the second and third weekends, only four games per round have been announced. More games may be added, as league officials haven't yet decided if those are to be weekends featuring a lighter schedule during FIFA international dates.

As it stands right now, the early schedule at that point is very Beckham-centric, as the Galaxy isn't yet scheduled to play on either weekend. And the Galaxy isn't simply the odd team out, either: New York, New England and Toronto play on both weekends; Chivas USA and Houston, along with LA, are idle.

The loan of Beckham to Milan, theoretically, will have concluded before the Galaxy's March 22 opener, but England has a qualifier scheduled for April 1, a Wednesday. (It does not play on the preceding weekend, March 28-29, which is the second weekend of the MLS season.)

Though fewer teams than ever will face conflicts with football, MLS can't finalize its schedule until 2009 dates available at the Meadowlands (Red Bulls), Gillette Stadium (Revs) and Robertson Stadium (Dynamo) are known. Kansas City will share CommunityAmerica Ballpark with the minor-league T-Bones. Several teams will share stadiums with WPS operations. The odd number of teams and the increased number of games (225 instead of 210) further complicate the scheduling task.

"One of the great things about being in an emerging, young business," says Garber, who has been commissioner since 1999, "is you can really research the market and listen to our fans and evaluate the changing marketplace as to how it relates to our decisions financially, and come out of it with new direction."

(Scheduled games so far) 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

New York Red Bulls at Seattle Sounders FC, 9 p.m. (ESPN2/Deportes)

Saturday, March 21, 2009
Columbus Crew at Houston Dynamo, 8 p.m. (Fox Soccer Channel/Fox Sports en Español)
Chicago Fire at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.
Toronto FC at Kansas City Wizards, 8:30 p.m.
Colorado Rapids at Chivas USA, 10:30 pm (Fox Soccer Channel/Fox Sports en Español)
New England Revolution at San Jose Earthquakes, 10:30 p.m.

Sunday, March 22, 2009
D.C. United at Los Angeles Galaxy, 3 p.m. (TeleFutura)

Saturday, March 28, 2008

Toronto FC at Columbus Crew, 4 p.m.
San Jose Earthquakes at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.
New England Revolution at New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.
Kansas City Wizards at Colorado Rapids, 9:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Columbus Crew at Real Salt Lake, 9 p.m. (ESPN2/Deportes)

Saturday, April 4, 2009
Seattle Sounders FC at Toronto FC, 3 p.m.
FC Dallas at New England Revolution, TBD

Sunday, April 5, 2009
New York Red Bulls at Chicago Fire, 3 p.m. (TeleFutura)


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