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MLS season to open with many new things in place

A five-year collective bargaining agreement has players happy, and there’s a new stadium in New Jersey, new team in Philadelphia and three new coaches to usher in season.

March 24, 2010|By Grahame L. Jones

It was touch and go for a while, but Major League Soccer will open its stadium gates Thursday evening to usher in a new season and perhaps even a new era.

The threatened players' strike was avoided when a new five-year collective bargaining agreement was reached Saturday afternoon.

That left enough time for Don Garber, the MLS commissioner, and assorted other dignitaries to make their way to Harrison, N.J., for Saturday night's unveiling of Red Bull Arena, the league's eighth and latest soccer-specific stadium and one that immediately put all others in MLS into the shade.

"Spectacular," Garber said of the $200-million 25,000-seat arena that is connected by rail to New York City.

This one actually looks and feels like a soccer stadium. Even all-time German great Franz Beckenbauer, once of the late lamented New York Cosmos, was impressed. "Fantastic, a real home" for soccer, said "Der Kaiser" before the New York Red Bulls upended the reserve team of Santos, Pele's old club, 3-1, in the stadium's inaugural match.

With its newest stadium up and running, the league Thursday will take the shrink-wrap off its newest team when the Philadelphia Union makes its debut against the Sounders in Seattle (6:30 p.m. Pacific, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes).

The Sounders and Toronto FC were the only two MLS clubs to make a profit last season and Thursday night's game at Qwest Field is sold out. The other 14 teams open Friday and Saturday.

The addition of the Union has not only brought the league to 16 teams but has allowed MLS to put in place a balanced schedule that mimics the top European leagues. Each team will play the other 15 teams home and away for a 30-game regular season that runs from Thursday until Oct. 24, with playoffs to follow for the eight top teams.

A new stadium and a new club are not the only bright and shiny things in MLS in 2010;, there are also three new coaches. Two of them will go head-to-head Saturday when the first MLS game is played at Red Bull Arena between the Red Bulls and the Chicago Fire.

Swedish coach Hans Backe has been handed the task of reinventing the Red Bulls, who had the worst record in the league in 2009.

On the opposing bench will be Mexico's Carlos de los Cobos, who over the last three years turned around the fortunes of El Salvador's national team and now hopes to do the same with the Fire.

Also, Martin Vasquez now holds the coaching reins at Chivas USA, which opens its sixth season Friday against the Colorado Rapids at the Home Depot Center.

Peter Nowak, who coached the U.S. at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games after leading DC United to the 2004 league championship, returns to the MLS fold as the coach of Philadelphia.

The new labor agreement, meanwhile, apparently was largely brokered by Garber and has the 390 MLS players in a much better frame of mind going into the new season.

The per-team salary cap has been raised by just more than 10% to an admittedly still paltry $2.55-million, while the minimum wage for players has risen 17.6% to $40,000.

"I think we're happy with where we are," said Galaxy forward Landon Donovan, the league's most valuable player in 2009. "Now going forward we feel like we have a lot more rights that we didn't in the past."

Real Salt Lake comes into the season as the defending champion, having defeated the Galaxy in the 2009 final in Seattle, which is where it all begins anew Thursday night.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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