David Beckham and Thierry Henry are among an increasing number of foreign internationals chasing success in the United States’ expanded Major League Soccer (MLS), which kicks off this week.
Beckham, entering the final season of his multi-million five-year deal with the MLS, will join his LA Galaxy team mates when they open their title campaign away to the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday at Qwest Field.
The Sounders are the best supported team in MLS, boasting average home crowds of more than 36,000, and their vocal supporters will have even more local derbies to spice up their season with the addition of two expansion teams, the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Both the Timbers and the Whitecaps also have solid fan-bases, having competed in the old North American Soccer League in the 1970s, and were promoted to the top-flight after several years in the second tier.
“Rivalries are part of the DNA of football overseas and I believe they drive the passion that makes this sport the beautiful game,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said.
One rivalry that has emerged without the need for geographical closeness is between the New York Red Bulls and the Galaxy, two high-profile teams that fancy their chances of success.
The Galaxy won the MLS title in 2002 and 2005, before Beckham joined them, and are banking on experience to bring them the title this season.
As well as former England midfielder Beckham, who will be 36 in May, the Galaxy can call on 35-year-old Colombian forward Juan Pablo Angel, who signed for LA after four seasons in New York.
And the US national team’s all-time top scorer Landon Donovan remains the main creative force for Bruce Arena’s team, who finished with the best regular season record last year but tripped up in the playoffs.
“We are clearly driven to win a championship this year, no question about it,” said Arena.
The Red Bulls, with ex-Arsenal and France forward Henry now spearheading their attack and Mexican Rafael Marquez holding fort at the back, have recruited a handful of foreign players to beef up their squad this season as Swedish head coach Hans Backe aims for the club’s first title.
The purists’ favourite, in terms of attractive passing football, is Real Salt Lake, who won the title in 2009 and benefit from the goal scoring abilities of Costa Rican forward Alvaro Saborio and the classy midfield contributions of American Kyle Beckerman.
“In my opinion, every team has an equal opportunity to win MLS Cup, that is the way the league is set up,” Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis told Reuters.
“The biggest challenge we have as coaches is when you have a lot of new faces. For me the teams that have been together a while have a slight advantage.”
The defending MLS champions, the Colorado Rapids, have retained all the ingredients that made them such a difficult team to beat in last year’s playoffs, Jamaican forward Omar Cummings, midfielder Pablo Mastroeni and battering ram striker Conor Casey give English coach Gary Smith a team few enjoying facing.
The Kansas City team has a new home and a new name for this season having rebranded as Sporting Kansas City and set up home in a shiny, new purpose-built stadium, Livestrong Sporting Park.
The 34-round MLS regular season runs until late October, with 10 teams advancing to the playoffs, culminating in a winner-takes-all final.