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MLS thriving decade after barely hanging on

By Tim Booth

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 7 2012 1:55 p.m. MST

Don Garber was still in the infancy of his tenure as commissioner of Major League Soccer when the league faced legitimate uncertainty about its future and was forced to fold two underperforming franchises.

That was 10 years, nine new franchises and 13 new or renovated soccer stadiums ago.

"There were many times where we were wondering whether or not we would be able to continue to operate," Garber said. "The league came out with that launch in 1996 and at that time everybody thought we had cracked the code for soccer in America, and all of a sudden the league would explode on the pro sports scene. In reality, it's difficult to launch a sports league. There is lots of competition and soccer was clearly an emerging sport at that time.

"... We feel really good about the developments over the last 10 years and I feel really bullish about the future."

For the first time in recent years, the biggest story entering the MLS season isn't expansion, even though the league will welcome its 19th franchise with Montreal becoming the third Canadian member of the MLS. Instead, it's acknowledging a decade of successes.

When franchises in Miami and Tampa, Fla., were contracted following the 2001 season, the league was left with 10 teams, just three different owners and only one soccer-specific stadium.

Since that 2002 season, the league has successfully added teams and diversified its ownership in nearly every corner of the country, gone north by bringing on three Canadian franchises and raised the talent level to where the quality of play is gaining international respect.

"I think the improvement of the league over the last 10 years is exponentially more than 10 years," said Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, who was coaching the L.A. Galaxy 10 years ago. "You look at Year 1 through Year 6 and you look at Year 6 to now or whatever, the quality of play has gotten better. The fan bases, every club, every city you go into, with the exception of a few, has a really good base support following."

The MLS season begins on Saturday with expansion Montreal hosting Vancouver; Colorado vs. Columbus; D.C. United vs. Kansas City; San Jose vs. New England and reigning MLS Cup champion Los Angeles hosting Real Salt Lake. On Sunday, Dallas hosts New York and Chivas USA hosts Houston and the first week of play wraps up Monday night with Portland hosting Philadelphia.

Toronto and Seattle both received first-week byes due to their involvement in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, as did Chicago. The Sounders host Toronto in their opener on March 17, while Chicago opens its season at Montreal the same day.

Montreal is the latest franchise to join the fray, hoping to achieve a modicum of the success that recent expansion markets — Toronto, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver — have enjoyed.

But while successful expansion has dominated the league's on-field story lines for much of the past few seasons, this year might as well be highlighted by individuals who turned down overseas offers to continue playing in North America's top league.

David Beckham's groundbreaking initial contract with the league expired at the end of last season when Beckham and the Galaxy claimed the MLS Cup title to cap a dominant season. And while a handful of clubs in Europe — most notably Paris Saint-German — came close to wooing Beckham back across the Atlantic, the English star decided to continue his soccer career in California.

The Galaxy weren't done there. Landon Donovan thrived during his loan at Everton, but returned to L.A. Robbie Keane will have his first full season playing in MLS with the Galaxy, while Edson Buddle returns from Europe and Juninho from Brazil.

About the only question regarding Los Angeles is along the backline, where Omar Gonzalez is still recovering from a serious knee injury.

"I think we've been developing a team that's a little bit deeper than last year. Hopefully, that's a good sign," L.A. coach Bruce Arena said. "The only way we're going to be able to tell the potential of this team is when we get into the season (but) I'm optimistic we can put together another good team."

Los Angeles leads a powerful Western Conference where just about everyone got stronger. The top four clubs in terms of points and six of the top seven last season were in the West and 2012 isn't expected to be much different. Seattle said goodbye to Kasey Keller but added former U.S. national team striker Eddie Johnson and retained MLS newcomer of the year Mauro Rosales.

Real Salt Lake retained the squad that reached the Western Conference finals last year. FC Dallas brings back Brek Shea, while both Portland and Vancouver have upgraded entering their sophomore campaigns.

While the West is loaded, the Eastern Conference is muddled. New York has the name talent with Thierry Henry returning for another season and Rafa Marquez trying to bounce back from 2011 disappointment. But the favorite in the East might be Sporting Kansas City, playing its first full season in its home stadium and with emerging stars Teal Bunbury and 2011 rookie of the year C.J. Sapong.

"We have a core group of guys returning from last year that has an understanding of how we want to play, so it's up to those guys to decide how we're going to be week to week," KC coach Peter Vermes said. "They haven't really won anything yet, so I think hunger is something that goes with wanting to win."

MLS has again changed its playoff format. The highest remaining seed will now host the MLS Cup title game instead of having it played at a pre-determined site. The top five teams in each conference will reach the playoffs, with the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds playing for the right to advance to the conference semifinals.

The conference championships will also be a two-leg, home-and-home series rather than a single game as in the past.

AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.

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