Ultimate Guide to MLS Weekend: MLS Cup Rematch Headlines Opening Slate

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistMarch 4, 2016

Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri, left, works for the ball against Columbus Crew midfielder Ethan Finlay during the MLS Cup championship soccer game Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
Paul Vernon/Associated Press

Almost three months have passed since the Portland Timbers hoisted the MLS Cup at Mapfre Stadium with a win over the Columbus Crew. 

When the 2016 Major League Soccer season opens on Sunday, the two sides will meet in one of the marquee fixtures of the 10-game slate at Providence Park in Portland. 

During an offseason in which many clubs across the United States and Canada adjusted their rosters in an attempt to make 2016 a more prosperous year than 2015, the two participants from December's final only made minor alterations. 

The most important of those moves came at left-back for Portland as the Timbers brought in Chris Klute through a trade with Columbus to replace Jorge Villafana, who left for Santos Laguna in Liga MX in the days following the MLS Cup.

A month after Klute traded in Columbus gold for Portland green, the Crew sent forward Jack McInerney to the Timbers in a trade. 

Aug 1, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Columbus Crew defender Chris Klute (3) against Orlando City SC at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus replaced McInerney on the depth chart with Ola Kamara and Conor Casey, both of whom will back up leading scorer Kei Kamara. Corey Ashe, Amro Tarek and Emil Larsen were the three other names brought in by the Crew to join one of the most talented squads in the league. 

Portland also added some minor pieces through a few different mechanisms. Midfielder Ned Grabavoy joined as a free agent, while Zarek Valentin and Jermaine Taylor were acquired through a trade and the Re-Entry Draft respectively. 

We should be in for an entertaining contest on Sunday in Portland, but don't read much into the final score. Week 1 results rarely tell us anything about who will be a contender in November and December. It must be noted Columbus dropped its opener to Houston in 2015, while the Timbers drew at home with Real Salt Lake. 

The title rematch isn't the only must-see contest during Sunday's 10-game schedule that lasts close to 11 hours.

The first match of the season takes place at Red Bull Arena as the New York Red Bulls host Toronto FC. Both teams enter 2016 with a bevy of expectations, and a good performance against a fellow contender would help boost morale in either camp. 

Oct 14, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco (10) works the ball around New York Red Bulls defender Ronald Zubar (23) and midfielder Dax McCarty (11) before scoring at BMO Field. Toronto defeated New York 2-1. Mandatory Credi
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The other two Canadian sides in MLS also come into Sunday looking to get off to a nice start. Vancouver hosts Montreal at 5:30 p.m. ET in a match that will be without Didier Drogba, who fell victim to the turf monster before the season even started, per Doug McIntyre of ESPN FC

Seattle and LA, the two big-money clubs in the Western Conference, each have a chance to showcase their squads in primetime after bowing out of the CONCACAF Champions League this week.

The Sounders no longer have Obafemi Martins, but Jordan Morris and Nelson Valdezalong with a few othersshould be able to make up for the Nigerian's production alongside Clint Dempsey.

In LA, there are countless new faces in the Galaxy squad and a rough start could occur against D.C. United as all the new players acclimate themselves to each other. 

Below in our ultimate guide to the MLS weekend, we'll have a closer look at some of Sunday's biggest games and deliver some predictions for the 2016 season. 

 

Week 1 Schedule (All Matches on Sunday) 

Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls (1:30 p.m. ET, TSN) 

Real Salt Lake at Orlando City (2 p.m. ET, MLS Live) 

New York City FC at Chicago Fire (2 p.m. ET, MLS Live) 

New England Revolution at Houston Dynamo (3 p.m. ET, MLS Live) 

Philadelphia Union at FC Dallas (3 p.m. ET, MLS Live) 

Colorado Rapids at San Jose Earthquakes (3 p.m. ET, MLS Live) 

Columbus Crew at Portland Timbers (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) 

Montreal Impact at Vancouver Whitecaps (5:30 p.m. ET, TSN)

Sporting Kansas City at Seattle Sounders (7 p.m. ET, FS1)

D.C. United at LA Galaxy (10 p.m. ET, UniMas) 

 

Players to Watch

Gideon Baah, CB, New York Red Bulls

Welcome to MLS, Gideon Baah. Your first defensive assignment is to find a way to stop Sebastian Giovinco. 

The new Red Bulls center-back, who replaces Matt Miazga in the starting lineup, will have his hands full with the Atomic Ant at Red Bull Arena in the season opener. 

Helsinki's defender from Ghana Gideon Baah (L) celebrates scoring with his team-mate midfielder Mika Vayrynen during the UEFA Europa League Group B football match HJK Helsinki vs FC Copenhagen in Helsinki, Finland on November 27, 2014.      AFP PHOTO  / L
JUSSI NUKARI/Getty Images

Usually defenders can stop an attacker's rhythm by playing physical, but if Baah goes in too hard, he may set his team up for failure since the former Juventus man is one of the best free-kick takers in the league. 

There is no doubt Giovinco will have a few chances over the course of 90 minutes, but the key for Baah is to make sure those opportunities don't affect the final result. 

 

Joao Plata, FW, Real Salt Lake 

After suffering a heartbreaking defeat in the CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday night, Real Salt Lake travels to a packed Citrus Bowl to face Orlando City. 

Feb 17, 2016; Tucson, AZ, USA; Real Salt Lake forward Joao Plata (10) dribbles the ball against the New England Revolution during the first half at Kino North Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

If the Claret and Cobalt want to steal a point from Orlando, Joao Plata must use his abilities to get around the vulnerable Orlando City full-backs.

If Plata, or any other member of the four-pronged RSL front line, find gaps on the wings early in the match, Orlando's defenders on the wings won't be able to move forward in attack much. 

If the RSL threat in the final third is strong from the start, Jeff Cassar's team should be able to lock in on Kaka and Cyle Larin and suffocate the passing lanes through Kyle Beckerman. 

 

Dom Dwyer, FW, Sporting Kansas City 

The 2016 season should be a fruitful one in front of net for Sporting Kansas City's Dom Dwyer given all the creative midfielders the club has on its roster. 

The former Norwich City youth player, who recorded two goals and two assists in the preseason, will look to get off to a hot start on the road against the Sounders. 

Feb 24, 2016; Tucson, AZ, USA; Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer (14) and Colorado Rapids defender Stephen Keel (26) battle for the ball during the second half at Kino North Stadium. Sporting Kansas City won 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TOD
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

A big day from the Englishman could hand Peter Vermes' side its first win in Seattle since 2009. Since the first-ever meeting between the sides in 2009, the Sounders have three wins at home, and the clubs have drawn twice at CenturyLink Field.  

 

Luciano Acosta, FW, D.C. United

D.C. enters Sunday's finale at the StubHub Center with a lot less pressure on its shoulders than the Galaxy.

Since the Galaxy will press to find a win, the attackers for the Black and Red should be able to play loose against the reconfigured LA back four. 

Mar 1, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; D.C. United midfielder Luciano Acosta (11) controls the ball as Queretaro midfielder Marco Antonio Jimenez (21) defends during the second half at RFK Stadium. The game ended in a 1-1 tie. Queretaro won on total goals 3-1.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The player who should bring a much-needed boost of creativity to the United attack is Luciano Acosta, who joined the club from Boca Juniors on in February. 

If the Argentine is able to break through the gaps in the LA defense, D.C. has a chance to steal three points from a vulnerable Galaxy side in California. 

 

2016 MLS Predictions

When we revisit these predictions in November, most of them will be wrong, but we're going to have a go anyway. 

Eastern Conference Playoff Teams: New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC, Columbus Crew, New England Revolution, D.C. United, New York City FC 

Western Conference Playoff Teams: Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas, Portland Timbers, LA Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City 

Eastern Conference Final: New York Red Bulls over Columbus Crew

Western Conference Final: FC Dallas over Seattle Sounders

MLS Cup Final: New York Red Bulls over FC Dallas 

Most Valuable Player: Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders

Coach of the Year: Carl Robinson, Vancouver Whitecaps

Goalkeeper of the Year: David Ousted, Vancouver Whitecaps 

Defender of the Year: Michael Parkhurst, Columbus Crew 

Rookie of the Year: Brandon Vincent, Chicago Fire

Newcomer of the Year: Carlos Gruezo, FC Dallas 

 

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90