MLS UK TV Schedule: March 2017 – 12 games in 5 weeks as season begins

The 2017 MLS season is here at last. A record-high 22 teams will be competing for glory in the league’s 22nd year. There are 374 games between now and the end of the regular season, at which point 12 teams will once again go through the drama of the MLS Cup Playoffs until the 2017 MLS Cup Champions is announced in December.

The first month of MLS action will showcase the two new expansion franchises, Atlanta United and Minnesota United – who face each other in Minnesota on the second weekend of the new season. We’ll also see Orlando City’s brand new soccer-specific stadium in action from the opening weekend when the Lions host New York City FC on Sunday, March 5th at 10pm GMT (5pm ET).

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That game is live on Sky Sports 2 for UK fans and is one of 12 fixtures currently scheduled to be broadcast live over the first five weeks of the new season. 15 of the 22 clubs will be in action live in the UK over the course of the opening month, with NYCFC fans lucky enough to see their team play three weeks in a row:

Saturday, March 4th

LA Galaxy vs FC Dallas – 21:00 GMT – Sky Sports 2

Sunday, March 5th

Orlando City vs New York City FC – 22:00 GMT – Sky Sports 2

Saturday, March 11th

Montreal Impact vs Seattle Sounders – *00:00 GMT – Sky Sports 4

*This game is officially Sunday March 12th, but takes place at midnight on the Saturday evening.

Sunday, March 12th

New York City FC vs DC United – 18:00 GMT – Sky Sports Mix

Minnesota United vs Atlanta United – 21:00 GMT – Sky Sports 2

Saturday, March 18th

New York City FC vs Montreal Impact – 18:00 GMT – Sky Sports Mix

Vancouver Whitecaps vs Toronto FC – 20:00 GMT – Sky Sports Mix

Sunday, March 19th

Seattle Sounders vs New York Red Bulls – 23:00 GMT – Sky Sports 2

Saturday March 25th

New England Revolution vs Minnesota United – 18:00 GMT – Sky Sports 5

New York Red Bulls vs Real Salt Lake – 20:00 GMT – Sky Sports 5

Friday, March 31st

Toronto FC vs Sporting Kansas City – *00:30 GMT – Sky Sports 2

This game is officially listed at Saturday, April 1 but will take place after midnight on the Friday evening.

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MLS Preview and Prediction: Portland Timbers vs Minnesota United

Competition: Major League Soccer – Portland Timbers vs. Minnesota United
Venue: Providence Park – Friday, March 3 – 21:30 ET (02:30 GMT) 
Match Odds: Portland 3/5 – Draw 3/1 – Minnesota 4/1

Match Preview

It’s here. The 2017 MLS season kicks off on Friday night as the Portland Timbers welcome Minnesota United to Providence Park in what is an extremely daunting MLS bow for the expansion side.

Portland come into the new season knowing they must improve on last year’s campaign. The 2015 MLS Cup Champions failed to even make the playoffs, let alone get close to defending their title, and Caleb Porter knows his side must bounce back now.

The Western Conference is just as competitive as it was last season, with the addition of Minnesota only making it tougher to seal a top six spot, and Portland’s talented squad will be expected to at least make the top six in 2017.

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Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Adi should continue to make Portland a real threat in the final third, while the addition of new DP Sebastian Blanco should only make them more dynamic this year.

That doesn’t bode well for a Minnesota side that failed to win any of its five preseason games in preparation for what is expected to be a long and challenging season.

They did however earn a draw at Portland three weeks ago, playing out an entertaining 2-2 draw at Providence Park. Johan Venegas scored twice to put Minnesota 2-0 up at halftime, before Jack McInerney and Fanendo Adi fired in to see the game end in a tie.

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In Adrian Heath, the Loons have a head coach who has been in this position before. Only two years ago, he was in charge of Orlando City as an expansion franchise, although he did have a world-class star in Kaka on hand to help deliver week-by-week.

United don’t have any real stars heading into their debut campaign. The club have not filled a single DP slot while building their squad, with any spending likely to come later on in the summer once the club know a bit more about their identity.

Over 150 Minnesota fans are travelling 1,400 miles to Portland for their first ever game and they will be dreaming of leaving with at least a point ahead of their home opener against fellow newcomers Atlanta United next weekend.

Minnesota United Fans

Only one of last 11 expansion sides have made the playoffs in their first season. Some have suggested this Minnesota team could be one of the ‘worst in MLS history’, but that is unlikely to be true. It’s now up to the players to prove they belong in MLS.

This will be the 11th time these two sides have ever faced off competitively but the first in Major League Soccer. They played 10 times in the USL and NASL between 2008 and 2010, with the Timbers winning four and United taking just the one victory in that time.

Key Points

Portland’s preseason form: L/L/D/D/D/W/W

Minnesota’s preseason form: D/D/D/D/D/L

Key Stat: Portland have never lost their their first home game of an MLS season. They have won three and drawn three of their home openers since joining the league in 2011.

Key Player: Diego Valeri – The Timbers playmaker is one of the league’s finest players and will be looking to start as he did last year, by scoring Portland’s first goal of the season in front of the home fans. Valeri is heading into his fifth MLS season and will be hoping to build on last season’s goal tally of 14, which was a career high for the Argentine DP.

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Score Prediction

Portland Timbers 3-1 Minnesota United – On paper, this looks set to be an excellent season opener as both sides have plenty of weapons in attack to cause both defensive units problems. Minnesota couldn’t have picked a much tougher away game for their first ever match in Major League Soccer and they will do well to leave Providence Park with anything, as the Timbers should be out to prove that last year was indeed just a blip. Portland have enough quality to cause the Loons backline endless problems, so it’s hard to look past three points for the home side here.

MLS 2017 Season Preview and Predictions

The 2017 MLS Season is here at last. A record-high 22 teams will battle for this year’s MLS Cup in what is Major League Soccer’s 22nd season. Two new expansion franchises enter the league this year, with Atlanta United joining the Eastern Conference and Minnesota United joining the West, while Orlando City’s brand new soccer-specific stadium will host MLS matches for the first time too. The top six in each conference will make the playoffs once again, but with 11 sides now in each, things are sure to be more competitive than ever before in what could be the most unpredictable season in the league’s history.

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The New Boys

It’s been a busy offseason for Atlanta and Minnesota, with both sides dealing with the challenge of building a squad that can jump straight into MLS and compete. No expansion side has made the playoffs at the first attempt since the Sounders did in 2009, and that will undoubtedly be the aim for both of this year’s new sides in 2017.

Atlanta have splashed the cash to build a team that, on paper at least, looks good enough to earn a place in the postseason at the first attempt. Former Barcelona head coach Tata Martino is the man in the hotseat tasked with getting a talented young group of players to deliver on their preseason promise. Three south American Designated Players have been signed – all under the age of 23, with each expected to get fans off their seats from the first whistle.

They’ll be plenty of fans in those seats too, given the fact Atlanta have already sold a staggering 30,000 season tickets before a ball has been kicked. Expansion sides tend to flatter to deceive in their first campaigns, but Atlanta looks like the sort of team ready to make a real splash.

By stark contrast, Minnesota United have been much more careful in terms of spending. They have not signed a single DP ahead of the opening weekend, with any big spending likely to take place in the summer once the squad has found its feet. Instead, Targeted Allocation Money has been spent to build the squad, along with some clever trading to bring in the likes of Johan Venegas and Kevin Molino. Molino in particular is expected to shine under former Lions boss Adrian Heath, who has his second chance to get an expansion side into the playoffs at the first attempt this season.

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The Loons have also kept a host of names from their NASL days, and they now have to hope that their trust in those players pays off in what is sure to be a fiercely competitive Western Conference. There have been some suggestions that this Minnesota side will be one of the worst in MLS history, but they look to have enough about them to prove those critics wrong.

Standout Signings

As always, there have been a host of changes to squads over the course of preseason. But unlike any other year, MLS clubs have started to look for younger talent as it has become clear all 22 sides are starting to prioritise longer-term goals. Atlanta’s trio of young DPs have already been mentioned, but they weren’t the only side to splash the cash on younger Designated Players this winter. FC Dallas have added striker Cristian Colman, Real Salt Lake have landed Albert Rusnak, Vancouver have brought in Yordy Reyna and Sporting Kansas City have moved to sign Gerso Fernandes. All of those names are sure to make an impression in 2017, along with a host of more ‘traditional’ DPs that have joined the league, although the following five are all still under the age of 30.

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LA Galaxy have added some raw pace by bringing in Roman Alessandrini from Marseille, NYCFC have added creativity by signing Maxi Moralez to replace Frank Lampard and Chicago have added firepower by bringing in Nemanja Nikolic. On top of that Portland have signed Sebastian Blanco, while Fredy Montero is back in MLS after four seasons abroad. He has joined the Vancouver Whitecaps and will be hoping to pick up where he left off with Seattle, where he scored 47 goals in 119 regular season games.

What’s for certain is that the new DP signings will give MLS a fresh feel in 2017. More quality should mean more entertainment and more goals. Oh, and more selection dilemmas for MLS Fantasy managers…

Emerging Stars

With MLS getting younger this year, there will be plenty of focus on some of the league’s emerging talents. Some were here last season and left an impression, while others are looking to prove their worth as early as possible. The average age of squads in MLS this season is now 26.3, with FC Dallas boasting the youngest squad with an average age of 24.31. Walker Zimmerman will look to continue his improvement as an MLS defender, but will also be hoping to make an impression on the international stage if he can keep getting better. Elsewhere, the likes of LA Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget and NYCFC’s Jack Harrison will be looking to have breakout seasons so long as they can nail down regular starting roles.

Jack Harrison, MLS: NYCFC vs. LA Galaxy

Cody Cropper will be hoping this is the year he can become a standout goalkeeper. He had struggled for game time in England in the past but is now in New England, where he’ll expect to impress. While in New York, Sean Davis has the seemingly impossible task of trying to fill the void left by Dax McCarty’s departure to Chicago. But he should be giving the time on the field to prove his worth and will be looking to help lead the Red Bulls to the top of the East once more.

Who Will Be MVP?

As with any season, making a prediction like this before the first ball has even been kicked is brave stupid, but why not do it again? There are a host of new unpredictabilities all over the league this year but the same star names will expect to be challenging at the top end of the scoring charts, and for the MVP award too as a result. Sebastian Giovinco was probably shocked not to pick up the 2016 MLS MVP award, with David Villa instead scooping that award, and both attackers will once again be tipped to dominate defences from day one.

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Strikers have dominated the MVP award over the past five seasons, but playmakers such as Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Sacha Kljestan will fancy their chances of making a case for the honour if they can have standout campaigns.

But it’s impossible to overlook Giovinco. The Atomic Ant has scored 39 goals and picked up 31 assists in 61 regular season games and is arguably the greatest player to ever play in Major League Soccer. If he stays healthy, he’s surely going to be MVP.

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Who Will Win MLS Cup?

The only thing that’s even more brave stupid to predict than the MVP is picking the team that will lift MLS Cup nine months on from now. But hey, why not give that a go too? The way the Sounders marched to MLS Cup glory last season from a seemingly lost position in the summer was incredible, but is unlikely to be repeated this term given the increased competition and quality in the league. No side has retained the trophy for four seasons but the Sounders still have the tools at their disposal to put up a strong defence. LA Galaxy are usually in the mix but they are set for a transitional year and don’t look to be in a position to go and get their hands on a sixth title this year.

MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders

What does look likely is that the winner will come from the Western Conference for the eighth time in nine seasons. FC Dallas have still never lifted MLS Cup, which seems insane considering they’ve finished top of the West for two-straight seasons. They have all the tools to go all the way this year. Mauro Diaz is out for the first four months of the new season, which is a huge blow, but he’ll be back at a key time of the season and will be able to help Oscar Pareja’s men go all the way in 2017.

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Vancouver Whitecaps also look like contenders this year, as the addition of Montero should make them much more of a force this term. Toronto FC were one shootout away from winning the title last term, and if Giovinco and Jozy Altidore can remain healthy for the majority of the campaign, they will likely be there or thereabouts again.

Getting Stuck In: Youth is being served

By David Lewis

The season is about to kickoff. Fresh signings. Fresh kits. Fresh expectations. For many clubs it’s time to roll out their newest, shiny (or rusty) DP that has more wear and tear on its tires than a “68 VW Beetle (See last year’s Drogba model.) But wait, something strange is going on. Front office execs are finally seeing the light. They no longer hang their hats on mid-thirty Europeans like Pirlo (he’s been ok with NYCFC) and Lampard (more Fat Frank than Super Frank). MLS is finally shedding their “retirement league” stigma and going for the twenty-something DP – and in many cases early 20’s. Ok, the league may still revert to their old ways and make a big splash from time to time to up the league’s profile and kit sales (Ibra and Rooney next maybe?), but that’s the exception, we hope.

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Side note: I expect LAFC to make some big over-the-hill signings next year when they join the league, but that’s because it’s Hollywood. It’s a star-driven city, whereas a place like Kansas City doesn’t have the pressure from their fan base to make the big European signing.

So why the seismic shift? Well, the bottom line is that clubs aren’t getting their money’s worth for these aging Euro stars. Gerrard and Lampard played parts of two season each in MLS. Both struggled with injuries which isn’t too shocking since they are geriatric in terms of soccer age. Gerrard played 34 games and Lampard limped around for 29. Considering there are 34 regular season games each year, well, let’s just say they spent more time with the physio than with their teammates. And when it comes to production, the two England internationals managed a combined 20 goals and 18 assists, which is about the same as an average season for Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco.

Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, MLS: NYCFC vs. LA Galaxy

Yes, I was excited to see my hero Stevie G play in MLS. I even contemplated the sacrilegious move of a getting an LA Galaxy jersey (never did). But I wound up feeling sad that this once great man mailed it in and saw his 18-month stay in the states as a holiday. I will always remember Istanbul Stevie and will try to forget about the LA version.

I may be biased, but I feel (my) Columbus Crew started the trend: Get players in their prime, youngish, who want to play in MLS. Federico Higuain, the brother of Napoli star Gonzalo, has been one of the best midfielders in the league since he arrived at the soccer-prime age of 27. He played in Europe and South America and is the heart and soul of the Crew midfield, spraying passes all over the field with aplomb. His 39 goals and 35 assists over 123 games doesn’t tell the entire story. He’s dedicated to the league, has a great attitude, makes a sixth of what Gerrard made, and is the blueprint for what an MLS DP should be. And most importantly, he doesn’t need a cane to get around the field. (Other recent similar successes include: Giovani Dos Santos, Ignacio Piatti, Diego Valeri and Nicolás Lodeiro).

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2017 expansion side Atlanta United have taken it to a new level with their youth movement. Let’s call this MLS 3.0.

Instead of taking established players in their mid-to-late-twenties as their DPs, as has been the trend the last few years, they are blending in signing players with raw potential from Central and South America who are closer to teen age. That means some hefty transfer fees (by MLS standards) so they can beat out European clubs for player signatures. This has never happened before in MLS. Ever.

Here are some of the young blood DPs on MLS rosters right now, ahead of the opening weekend of the new season, some of whom are the envy of the soccer world:

  • Atlanta United have signed three South American DPs. Josef Martinez (23) from Venezuela is on loan from Serie A side Tornio with an option to buy at the end of the season. Hector Villalba (22) is from Argentina and Miguel Almiron (22) from Paraguay.
  • Houston Dynamo have Mauro Manotas (21), a Columbian Under-21 international and Alberth Elis (21) from Honduras, who is currently the youngest DP in MLS.
  • DC United have Luciano Acosta (22) from Argentina, looking primed for a fine second season in the league.
  • FC Dallas have Carlos Gruezo from Ecuador (21) and have added Christian Colman (22) from Paraguay this offseason, a man expected to fire in plenty of goals this year.
  • Vancouver Whitecaps have brought in Yordy Reyna (23) from Peru; not a DP but TAM was used to buy his contract down.

So yes, the Wayne Rooney’s of the world will probably make the trip stateside sooner rather than later. And hopefully Wayne will be more Robbie Keane and David Villa and less Lampard and Gerrard. But MLS 3.0 is the new trend. Hopefully these raw young talents will help MLS become a legitimate league that can grow a player’s career.

Youth might be wasted on the young. MLS can’t afford to do that in 2017.