FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Everyone involved with Major League Soccer – including fans, players, coaches, owners and club staff members – breathed a huge sigh of relief when a new five-year collective bargaining agreement was signed last Saturday, clearing the way for the 2010 season to kick off as scheduled this week.
Thankfully, it’s now time to turn our attention from the off-field speculation to the on-field performance.
The New England Revolution opens its 2010 schedule this Saturday, March 27, when the club visits last year’s MLS Cup runner-up, the LA Galaxy, at The Home Depot Center. Kickoff is set for 11 p.m. ET and the match will be nationally-televised live on Fox Soccer Channel. Local radio listeners can tune in to the action on 98.5 The Sports Hub.
Despite being separated by just six points in the standings at season’s end last year, the Revs and Galaxy had contrasting 2009 campaigns.
LA cruised into the playoffs as the Western Conference’s top seed with a record of 12-6-12 (48 pts.) and parlayed its’ home-field advantage into a meeting with eventual champion Real Salt Lake in MLS Cup 2009. The Revolution, meanwhile, needed a series of results in other matches – and a result of its own – in the season’s final weekend to qualify for the postseason with a record of 11-10-9 (42 pts.).
Unfortunately for the Revs, their annual first-round playoff meeting with the Chicago Fire ended in disappointment for the second year running, with a 3-2 aggregate loss to their Eastern Conference foe.
Saturday night’s season opener against the Galaxy will go a long way in erasing the memory of last year’s playoff loss, as the 2009 season can finally become a distant memory while the 2010 campaign comes into focus.
“The past is the past – you’ve always got to put it behind you,” said second-year defender Kevin Alston. “It’s a new season, a new day, a new game. We can’t worry about things that happened in the past, we’ve just got to go out there feeling brand new.”
Alston and his teammates will have to be particularly fresh if they hope to contain 2009 MLS Most Valuable Player Landon Donovan, who recently returned from an offseason loan with English Premier League club Everton. Donovan excelled in his stint with the Toffees – even earning the club’s player of the month honors for January – and his performances prompted Everton to inquire about a permanent move.
The move did not materialize, however, and Donovan is back on the west coast of the United States. After adjusting to the dramatic time change, he is expected to be in the lineup against the Revs on Saturday night.
Steve Nicol is well accustomed to the danger Donovan presents – the 28-year-old scored the 2009 AT&T Goal of the Year against the Revs – but New England’s head coach doesn’t necessarily believe that Donovan’s recent experience with Everton makes him any more lethal than he already was.
“Whether he’d been away or whether he’d stayed, it wouldn’t have made any difference,” he said. “He was always going to be a threat.”
Alston got his first taste of playing against Donovan last season in the 2-1 loss at Gillette Stadium on Aug. 8, and witnessed first-hand what he called the Galaxy captain’s “wonder goal.”
“He’s just a really smart player,” Alston said of Donovan. “He’s fast, he’s one of the fittest guys out there, he’s very technical – he’s just a good all-around player.”
Of course, soccer is an eleven-a-side sport and it can be deadly to focus too narrowly on one player. While the Galaxy will be without international icon David Beckham – who was lost for 5-8 months after suffering a torn Achilles tendon while on loan at AC Milan – there are plenty of other players who were instrumental in carrying LA to the league’s title match last year.
Goalkeeper Preston Burpo – set to make his first start for the Revolution on Saturday night after arriving in an offseason trade – noted that beyond Donovan and Beckham, the Galaxy has a deep roster filled with contributors.
“It’s a shame Beckham’s not around,” Burpo said. “He’s a great player for the league, for the Galaxy, and having him on the field is exciting and it’s more of a challenge.”
“With that said, they’re going to be a tough team,” he continued. “Donovan’s been flying over in Europe, they’ve got some good leadership with (goalkeeper Donovan) Ricketts, (Gregg) Berhalter, Eddie Lewis and (Dema) Kovalenko. So we’re just going to concentrate on what we’re trying to do and stay compact defensively.”
While the Galaxy remains largely unchanged from last year’s MLS Cup runner-up finish, the historically steady Revs went through more roster turnover this season than in years past. Gone are veterans Jay Heaps (retirement), Steve Ralston (signed with AC St. Louis), Jeff Larentowicz (trade), Chris Albright (trade) and Wells Thompson (trade).
But with every ending comes new beginnings, and offseason additions like Burpo, Cory Gibbs, Zack Schilawski, Joseph Niouky, Seth Sinovic and Zak Boggs are ready to contribute. After seeing extended time in preseason matches, many of those newcomers could find themselves in the starting lineup on Saturday night.
Despite the new faces, team chemistry shouldn’t be an issue.
“I think we’ve come together well,” said Alston. “We learned a lot about ourselves (this preseason).”
“I also think it’s good that we have new faces” he continued. “It’s kind of like we feel refreshed. Everyone wants to get out there and make their mark and start the season off right.”
Perhaps an infusion of fresh talent is just what New England needs to match LA, which swept the season series with the Revolution for the first time since 1999 last year. Included in that series was a 1-0 loss to LA when New England visited The Home Depot Center on July 4.
No matter the circumstances on Saturday night, one thing’s for sure. As all early-season meetings seem to be, it will be a battle.
“It’s going to be a grind, for sure,” said Burpo. “The environment will be hostile.”
“But to finally start the season, everyone’s looking forward to it,” he added. “Without a doubt.”