With 23 players returning from last year, the general consensus around MLS is that Real Salt Lake is the team to beat. The players will try and back up the preseason hype with a similar win to last year's season opener in San Jose in which they prevailed 3-0.
The expansion Portland Timbers are hoping to duplicate the first-year success that the Seattle Sounders enjoyed two years ago in their first season. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but Portland is expected to play in front of a packed house at PGE Park all season. With an intimate setting, it could quickly become the best homefield advantage in MLS. When Real Salt Lake comes to town at the end of April, everyone will be fired up to play one of the best teams league. A win in that type of hostile environment could be huge for RSL.
With Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez on the squad from day one this year, instead of joining midway through the season, the Red Bulls are the obvious choice to win the Eastern Conference this year. Their clash with RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium on Aug. 6 has the potential to be a meeting of two first place teams.
After being eliminated by Dallas in the playoffs last year, you can be Real Salt Lake has been itching for redemption the entire offseason. Its first crack comes in late May in Texas. History says fans shouldn't expect much. In nine visits to Dallas through the years RSL has come away with zero wins, zero draws and nine losses. That includes last year's playoff ouster.
These bitter rivals had to wait until September for their first game against each other last year. In 2011 they'll only have to wait one month. Colorado will stroll into Rio Tinto Stadium as defending MLS Cup champs, but RSL is in the midst of a 25-game home unbeaten streak – and believes it was the better team last year anyway. With that said, RSL needed two late miracles against Colorado last year to salvage draws, otherwise the Rapids would've won both games.
Until things unfold differently, these are the two best teams in MLS. The Supporter' Shield should still be up for grabs when Real Salt Lake visits Los Angeles in the last month of the season. Can you imagine the hype around this match if the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference was up for grabs?
When the past two MLS champs meet at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on the second-to-last day of the MLS regular season, you can bet emotions will be running high. Not only is the Rocky Mountain Cup rivalry arguably the best in MLS, but playoff seeding and positioning will surely be at a premium. Did we mention, these teams really don't like each other.
Throughout the preseason RSL's players have made it known that winning the CONCACAF Champions League is the No. 1 priority this season. No matter what happens in the first leg against Columbus on Feb. 22, the second leg on March 1 at Rio Tinto Stadium will determine whether the club advances to the semifinals.
MLS fans only have to wait until the second weekend of the regular season to see the top two teams from 2010 square off. The Galaxy edged RSL by three points in the Supporters' Shield race last year, and the two figure to be in the hunt for the coveted trophy again this year. Plus, it's early enough in the season that David Beckham probably won't be hurt yet, which means he should start.
OK, so we're jumping ahead of ourselves, but why not. The second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Finals is set for this date. If Real Salt Lake gets through the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, it's guaranteed to host the second leg. Can you imagine the atmosphere at Rio Tinto Stadium if RSL faces a Mexican club in a championship match with a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup on the line? Then, can you imagine the intensity if that club was Cruz Azul. These teams met twice during CCL group play last summer, with Cruz Azul winning in Mexico City 5-4 in a monsoon, and Real Salt Lake returning the favor with 3-1 win at Rio Tinto Stadium. This match would be epic, but a lot of pieces must fall into place to make it happen.