MLS preview and predictions

Major League Soccer kicks off its 12th season this afternoon at 2:30 (CST) with the Colorado Rapids hosting D.C. United at their spiffy new (and ridiculously named) stadium Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Catch it on ABC. The league continues to slowly make progress both financially and on the field. Among the highlights:

*Toronto FC becomes the league's 13th team (and first outside the U.S.). The fledgling franchise capped season-tickets sales at 14,000 and sold out. Their brand new 20,000-seat stadium will likely be full for every match of their initial campaign.

*With the addition of the Toronto and Colorado stadiums, seven of the league's teams now play in soccer-specific facilities. New homes for Real Salt Lake and Red Bull New York are now under construction.

*For the first time MLS is getting paid for TV rights. Most notably ESPN is paying the league to air weekly Thursday night matches. This means the country's premiere sports network will actually have to promote the league for the first time. It will also have a financial incentive to provide significant coverage of the league on shows like SportsCenter. Fox Soccer Channel and Telefutura are also paying to air MLS matches.

*And of course there's the arrival of David Beckham.

Here's how I rank the teams heading into the season.

1. D.C. United: Last year's top regular-season team wasn't content to sit idle over the winter months. They shipped out their talented teenage phenom Freddy Adu and forward Alecko Eskandarian, replacing them with Brazilians Luciano Emilio and Fred. The former has already proven himself a dangerous threat up top, scoring four goals in recent Concacaf Champions Cup matches. The latter led Melbourne Victory FC to the title in Australia's A-League. D.C.'s potential achilles heal is its defense, particularly the repeated pratfalls of right back Facundo Erpen.

2. L.A. Galaxy: After a dismal 2006, expect this team to rebound strongly. Landon Donovan is highly motivated after a disappointing World Cup. He has the ability to dominate games, as witnessed recently in the U.S. squad's 3-1 dismantling of Ecuador. The Galaxy have upgraded at forward, with nimble target man Nate Jaqua replacing goal poacher Hercules Gomez. Expect Jaqua to benefit from the pinpoint service of Beckham once the superstar arrives in June. Los Angeles also added the best 'keeper in the league, Joe Cannon. Perhaps the key to this squad, though, will be talented youngster Nathan Sturgis. After impressing in the back last year he's being asked to fill the vital defensive midfield slot.

3. Houston Dynamo: Last year's MLS Cup winners return with almost the same squad. It's difficult to blame them. Dwayne DeRosario and Brian Ching form one of the most potent offensive duos in the league. Expect a huge year from Ching if he can stay healthy. He'll benefit from the solid service of flank players Brian Mullan and Brad Davis. The defense, anchored by strongman Eddie Robinson, is solid. One potential issue: dynamic defensive mid Ricardo Clark is out with a knee injury to start the season. How long will he be sidelined?

4. Kansas City Wizards: This team is an enigma. They could finish last or first. But they're one of the few MLS squads heading into the season with no significant questions at the back. They've added solid veteran goalkeeper Kevin Hartman. The central defending duo of Jimmy Conrad and Nick Garcia is arguably the best in the league. And Jose Burciaga, Jr. is a menace at left back. The Wizards will be extremely difficult to breakdown. The question is how they will score. All eyes will be on Carlos Marinelli, the highly pedigreed Argentine playmaker who was signed just this week. If he can add some class to the midfield and struggling striker Eddie Johnson can get on track, the Wizards will not be fun to play.

5. Red Bull New York: The laughingstock of the league for 11 years, this team finally has reason for optimism. The chief reason: coach Bruce Arena. The former U.S. men's national team coach will have his squad ready to play. The midfield should be dynamic, with veteran U.S. playmaker Claudio Reyna setting things up and talented foreigners Dave Van Den Bergh and Markus Schopp creating havoc from the wings. New York will also get attacking heat from its pair of talented outside backs, Marvell Wynne and Todd Dunnivant. The big question? Who will knock the ball in the net. Arena is putting a lot of pressure on 17-year-old Jozy Altidore to score goals. Expect a significant forward acquisition for this squad before the season's over.

6. Real Salt Lake: This is another team that's tough to figure out. They've got an intriguing mix of young talent and veteran stability. And as Bruce keeps pointing out to me, they had the league's best record in the second half of the season last year. Youngsters Mehdi Balouchy and Freddy Adu should be entertaining to watch in the middle of the pitch. The redoubtable Eddie Pope will anchor the back line in front of either mistake-prone veteran 'keeper Nick Rimando or highly touted youngster Chris Seitz. A key question will be how new Panamanian striker Luis Tejada links up with Jeff Cunningham. They both have reputations as headcases.

7. New England Revolution: I expected big things from the Revolution last year. A team that had created a talented nucleus of attacking players seemed poised to finally win an MLS title. But the Revolution scuffled all year long, finally hitting the accelerator for a playoff run to MLS Cup that ended with their third title defeat in five years. Now they've lost Clint Dempsey and haven't added much in return. With vital defender Michael Parkhurst fighting injury to start the season they could struggle early.

(I'll post the bottom half of the table tomorrow. I've got to run off to watch a couple of pre-season matches for the mighty Minnesota Thunder.)

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