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Apr 11, 2007

MLS Primetime launches on Thursday night

Thursday Night Futbol, anyone? OK, so the phrase isn't ingrained in the American sporting lexicon like the NFL's weeknight offering is. Chances are it never will be. Yet Thursday's match between the Los Angeles Galaxy and FC Dallas represents ESPN's first midweek soccer broadcast it has gone to the trouble of actually promoting. And for most fans, that's long overdue.

In previous years, the burden of marketing MLS games fell on the league itself, but with the league garnering a rights fee for the first time in its history, that responsibility now falls on ESPN, as well as other broadcasters who have jumped on the league's TV bandwagon.

That means more promotion and a commitment to higher-level broadcasts. Of course, it will take more than that to pry people's eyes from other prime-time lineups. What will keep fans glued to the game are dynamic, attacking players. Fortunately, Thursday's game contains plenty of those performers.

The skinny

Los Angeles, after missing the playoffs last year for the first time in the team's history, spent the offseason retooling its roster and secured a credible 0-0 tie against defending champion Houston, giving credence to the theory that the Galaxy are a team on the rebound.

Dallas finished first in the Western Conference last year but was dumped in the first round of the playoffs by Colorado. Coach Colin Clarke was fired and replaced by his assistant Steve Morrow, who proceeded to ax some of his higher-paid, veteran players, replacing them with performers both young and skillful. Dallas looked a bit overwhelmed at times this weekend against Real Salt Lake, but managed to rally for a 2-2 tie.

Five story lines to follow

1. Cobi's final home opener

Almost lost amid the David Beckham hype machine was the announcement that this will be Cobi Jones' final MLS season. Although there are nine or more other active players who were around for the league's inaugural season in 1996, Jones is the only one to have spent his entire MLS career with one team. And if his performance in last week's tie with Houston is any indication, the former U.S. international still has something left in the tank.

"[Jones] still has that vision," Galaxy coach Frank Yallop said. "He's still got that fight and desire."

2. The return of "The Little Fish"

It's been two years since the Galaxy traded Carlos Ruiz to Dallas for an allocation that eventually was used to acquire Landon Donovan. In that time, Donovan has brought another championship to L.A., while former league MVP Ruiz has had his ups and downs. Yet "El Pescadito" claims there is no special motivation for the game.

"It's not like it's a playoff game," Ruiz said of Thursday's match. "It's a game for three points, and that's it."

The fact remains that Ruiz has not scored against L.A. at the Home Depot Center since his departure. And with the Guatemalan having scored a stoppage-time equalizer against RSL this weekend, you can bet he'd love nothing better than to add to his tally at the expense of his former team.

3. Home Depot debuts

Beckham wasn't the only offseason signing made by the Galaxy. Also added to the roster were All-Stars Joe Cannon and Nate Jaqua, who will make their home debuts Thursday. Both players acquitted themselves well in L.A.'s opener, with Cannon looking especially sharp in goal. Now it will be up to the new acquisitions to raise their respective games in front of the home folks.

4. Dallas' road woes

To say the Home Depot Center hasn't been kind to Dallas is kind of like saying Little Big Horn was a bit tough on Custer. The Hoops have dropped all nine matches they've played at the HDC since it opened in 2003, including the 2005 U.S. Open Cup Final. It's been five years since Dallas even escaped from L.A. with a draw, and the Hoops haven't triumphed in SoCal since 2000, when Jorge Rodriguez's goal secured a 1-0 win.

5. Makeshift defenses

Both sides raised some eyebrows this past weekend with their choice of defensive personnel. Morrow vowed to make changes during the offseason, but a combination of injury and suspension caused him to opt for old standbys Bobby Rhine and David Wagenfuhr at outside back. Yallop deviated from the form book even more, starting rookie Ty Harden in the center of defense and playing Ian Russell -- who had spent his entire MLS career as a midfielder -- at right back.

The return of nominal left back Chris Gbandi might bolster the Hoops' back line, and given their performance against Real Salt Lake, they'll need it. Yallop's outfit kept a clean sheet, making any changes unlikely. Still, both coaches believe they can breach their opponent's defense, and it will be interesting to see how each team holds up.

Five players to watch

1. Landon Donovan, M, Los Angeles

Normally a forward, Donovan seemed to take well to the advanced midfield role Yallop placed him in. Although he failed to score in the opener, he did have his share of dangerous opportunities in front of goal, and if those chances present themselves again Thursday, Donovan likely will get on the score sheet.

2. Ramon Nunez, M, Dallas

Asked to man the same attacking role for Dallas that Donovan fills for the Galaxy, Nunez gave a performance that drew mixed reviews. Some of the blame was placed on the abomination that passes for a field at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but some of it also was down to Nunez himself.

"It was good in parts," Morrow said of Nunez's performance. "I think Ramon knows as well that it can get better. I expect better from him, and I know he can play at a higher level than that."

With the surface at the Home Depot Center expected to be a bit more forgiving, the expectation is that Nunez will deliver a more incisive performance.

3. Chris Albright, M/F, Los Angeles

Among the surprises this past weekend was the sight of Albright, who has made a name for himself as an attacking fullback, lining up at right wing. Granted, Albright entered the league touted as "The Great American Hope" at forward before a barren spell in front of goal saw him move toward the back. Now with the likes of Quavas Kirk injured and Santino Quaranta not fully fit, Albright finds himself closer to goal again. And with Dallas' back line looking vulnerable, expect L.A. to try to use Albright's attacking instincts.

4. Kenny Cooper, F, Dallas

Last year, the 6-foot-3 Cooper was a revelation, scoring 11 goals and showing surprising skill on the ball for a player his size. The former Manchester United reserve continued his scoring ways this weekend, hammering home Dallas' opening goal. To maintain that trend will mean getting the better of Los Angeles left back Ante Jazic, who did much in his last match to blunt the influence of Houston's live-wire midfielder Brian Mullan.

5. Ty Harden, D, Los Angeles

Rookie baptisms don't come any harder than having to mark U.S. international Brian Ching, but Harden held his own against the hulking Houston forward.

"He's playing like he's been there ten years," Yallop said of Harden. "It's only one game, we know that, but Ty has played like that the whole preseason. He's not put a foot wrong."

Although the rookie was able to cope with Ching's size and strength, dealing with Ruiz -- whose off the ball antics try the patience of even the most composed defenders -- will be a different matter entirely. Fortunately, Harden has the services of L.A.'s resident enforcer Tyrone Marshall at his side, and that might help him cope with the gamesmanship that has long been a part of Ruiz's arsenal.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.