Strike averted, MLS kicks into 15th season

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Labor strife is resolved, the league’s top player and perhaps best team reside near the glitz of Hollywood, a new $200 million stadium is open in the league’s largest market and the 16th franchise is about to debut.

Seems everything is going great for Major League Soccer, right?

Well, not quite everything.

A potentially crippling strike was adverted when the players union and owners agreed on a new five-year labor contract last weekend.

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But the league begins 2010 with its biggest name, David Beckham, perhaps on the shelf for the entire year because of injury, its second-biggest, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, returning to Mexico, and just two teams that turned a profit a year ago.

The ability of a league entering its 15th season to avoid a work stoppage was crucial to building on the momentum the MLS has gained in recent years. Sparkling debuts in Seattle and Toronto — the only two profitable teams from 2009 — along with a deeper talent pool and some important international signings have boosted the league’s profile.

The old collective-bargaining agreement expired on Jan. 31 and talks were at a stalemate earlier this month when George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, was brought in to help make headway. Players wanted free agency, while owners were steadfastly opposed to anything but the single-entity structure for all contracts the league has used since its inception in 1996.

The owners won out when it came to free agency, but players gained increased rights, better minimum salaries and guaranteed contracts for about 60 percent of the players.

“I don’t think you can truly find any situation where a work stoppage is going to be beneficial,” Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. “I can see how it got to a point where there were a couple of points that maybe it could have come down to that on both sides. In this situation both sides recognized that and made the changes that needed to be changed on that.”

With labor peace, the league kicks off Thursday night when Seattle hosts expansion Philadelphia. Other games the first week are: Colorado at Chivas USA; Toronto at Columbus; Houston at FC Dallas; Chicago at New York in the regular season debut of Red Bull Arena; D.C. United at Kansas City; league champ Real Salt Lake at San Jose; and New England at Los Angeles.

The Galaxy is the team everyone will be keeping an eye on early in the season. They weren’t expected to have Beckham until after the World Cup anyway. But his torn left Achilles’ tendon, suffered while playing for AC Milan, ended his hopes of playing for England in the World Cup and put his return to Los Angeles in question. Beckham’s recovery time is expected to be about six months.

“He’s sacrificed, I think, more than anybody in the world to have a chance at playing in a World Cup,” said Los Angeles teammate Landon Donovan. “When you do that and something like this happens, it’s awful.”

Donovan was named the league’s most valuable player a season ago and returns to Los Angeles after a highly successful loan with Everton in the English Premier League. Even without Beckham in the midfield, the Galaxy could be the favorite in the extremely deep Western Conference.

Philadelphia will be trying to live up to the success of Seattle and Toronto, whose debut seasons redefined the league’s expectation for a new franchise. Philadelphia already has its own stadium, the 18,500-seat PPL Park on the banks of the Delaware River that makes its debut in late June. The Union will play eight of its first 10 games on the road until PPL Park is ready.

The Red Bulls make their home in the league’s other new stadium. The $200 million two-deck oval debuted with an exhibition last weekend and league officials immediately proclaimed it the nation’s finest soccer-specific stadium.

Now that the nation’s largest market has it’s own soccer gem, putting a winning product on the field would help. The Red Bulls hope to add a star later this year. Barcelona’s Thierry Henry and Real Madrid’s Raul Gonzalez often are mentioned as possibilities.

The Red Bulls finished last season with a league-worst five wins and just 21 points.

Columbus is likely to be the class of the Eastern Conference again after winning its second consecutive Supporters’ Shield in 2009. The Crew’s 49 points were one ahead of Los Angeles and Houston, but Columbus was ousted in the first round of the playoffs by Real Salt Lake.

The Crew’s loss seemed like a fluky upset. That was until RSL beat Chicago in the Eastern Conference final and then won a classic MLS Cup championship, beating Los Angeles 5-4 on penalty kicks to win its first title.

RSL should be among the contenders in the West with dynamic young forward Robbie Finley and veteran midfielder Kyle Beckerman, along with the addition of Costa Rican forward Alvaro Saborio on a loan from a Swiss Super League team

Houston was the equal of Los Angeles in 2009, but must find answers in the midfield for the loss of Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark, who both signed overseas.

Seattle will again be the most hostile place in the league to play with 36,000 expected for every home game, but it may not matter if the Sounders don’t find a way to score more goals and take pressure off 40-year-old goalkeeper Kasey Keller.

Chicago could challenge Columbus in the East, but will need to find a playmaker in the front with Blanco returning to Mexico. The Fire hope the addition of Collins John, paired with former Fulham teammate Brian McBride, can make up for Blanco’s loss.

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