March Madness is here, baseball is about to throw its first pitch and playoff races are starting to heat up in the NBA and NHL. But that's not stopping Major League Soccer from fighting for its share of the sports fan's attention. Season 16 kicks off tonight with the Seattle Sounders hosting the L.A. Galaxy in what has quickly developed into one of the league's best rivalries (9:30/8:30c, on ESPN). As the road to MLS Cup 2011 begins, here are three stories to watch:
• Pacific Northwest Passion: Two new teams join the league this season, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Portland Timbers. Combined with Seattle, already one of the MLS's most popular teams, and the sport is set to take off in the region. The clubs have a long history from their days in lower divisions, so their MLS showdowns should be electric. "I think it's going to be an incredible environment during those games," says ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas. "You add Seattle to the mix and you have a real soccer culture brewing up there." Whether or not Vancouver and Portland can make an impact in the overall standings remains to be seen. "It's interesting because of the success that Seattle had right out of the gate, the expectations on their neighbors are much higher, and maybe a little bit unrealistic," Lalas says. "Having said that, because of the tradition and the history that exists, I know that they are wanting to do big things both on and off the fields. I think the businesses of both teams will be successful. I think on the field it will be hard for them to replicate what Seattle did, but I think if they can be competitive then they will have done their job." The first leg of the Cascadia Cup competition between the three teams is Saturday, May 14, when Seattle hosts Portland in a nationally televised game on ESPN2.
• Rapids Repeat? Behind the heroics of MLS Cup MVP Conor Casey, the Colorado Rapids were the unexpected winners of the 2010 championship, and while Lalas expects them to be "a solid team through the year," he thinks a title defense is unlikely. "It's so hard to repeat in this league, and Colorado is a team that wasn't necessarily the best team through the year, but got very hot at the end at did what they needed to do," he says. "They're also going to find out that there are no more surprises and they can't creep up on people. Everyone knows what to expect from them now. And they certainly have a target." The Rapids begin their 2011 campaign by hosting Portland on Saturday (March 19, 9/8c on Fox Soccer Channel).
• A Star-Studded Galaxy: The Los Angeles Galaxy — who won MLS's Supporters' Shield last season for the best regular-season record — are determined to be the center of the MLS universe. Already known for their constellation of stars, including iconic (if somewhat underperforming) Brit David Beckham (now in the final year of his contract with the team) and World Cup hero Landon Donovan, the Galaxy have acquired a third superstar, Juan Pablo Angel. Over the past four seasons, the Colombian striker scored 61 goals for the New York Red Bulls, the most by any MLS player during that stretch. Could there be such a thing as too much star power? "No, that's what the Galaxy's about," says Lalas, who was the team's general manager at the time of Beckham's arrival. "They're positioning themselves to be the superclub of Major League Soccer. To make that happen, you need to do big things and have big personalities."