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Feb 10, 2008

Five games to watch in 2008

Euphoria is not an emotion that usually accompanies the unveiling of a schedule, and while I wasn't in Los Angeles when MLS announced this season's slate of games, I'll go out on a limb and say Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas is probably the happiest man in the league right now.

Unlike last year's long march, Los Angeles' schedule is much saner this time around. With David Beckham in the United States for (almost) the whole campaign, there is no back-loading of road games, meaning a more rested Galaxy squad likely will avoid the virulent injury bug that plagued it last season.

So who assumes the mantle of the most heavy-legged team in MLS? That honor falls to league champion Houston, along with Supporters' Shield holder D.C. United. A crowded schedule is nothing new for either side. In addition to their league commitments, last season saw both teams compete in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, U.S. Open Cup and SuperLiga. United also participated in the Copa Nissan Sudamericana, the result being that both teams played 43 competitive games. That might not sound like much compared to most European teams, but when you consider that MLS has about two fewer months to complete its season, the number begins to look more impressive.

This year, both teams almost certainly will have the added burden of the new CONCACAF Champions League that is set to begin this fall. All told, Houston and D.C. will play about a dozen additional games, a mark that easily could reach 15 if either achieves a deep run in any of the extracurricular competitions.

Of course, these additional tournaments, along with the usual problems of stadium availability, weather and television will see MLS yet again ignoring the international calendar. This is a reality -- however distasteful -- that isn't likely to change any time soon, especially since teams pleaded with the league during the offseason to eliminate the three-games-in-eight-days congestion brought on by Thursday night matches. This year, the earliest an ESPN Primetime Thursday participant will return to league action is the following Wednesday, and more often than not, those teams will have more than a week until their next matches. That leaves MLS precious little wiggle room in a year that will see World Cup qualifying, and probably an Olympic tournament, rob teams of personnel.

MLS

2008 regular season schedule

Despite these limitations, there are plenty of matches on the calendar for fans to circle, beyond the usual rivalry games that graced last year's schedule. Here are a few that immediately catch the eye:

1. Houston at New England, March 29

This year's opening day (or First Kick, in MLS parlance) sees the participants from the past two MLS Cup finals squaring off, begging the question: Which will be colder, the chilly March weather or the icy stares from New England? The corresponding fixture last year ended in a 3-3 barn burner, and although both teams were shorn of some attacking talent in the offseason, plenty of firepower remains in the form of New England's Taylor Twellman and Houston's Dwayne De Rosario. The suits at MLS headquarters would love nothing more than to see the two teams repeat their fireworks of last summer.

2. Los Angeles at San Jose, June 14

The California Clasico will resume hostilities on April 3 in Los Angeles, but that will be a mere prelude to the rivalry's Bay Area return later this summer. While Quakes coach Frank Yallop will be looking to stick it to his former team, the biggest problem for Quakes fans can be described as: So many villains, so little time. Previous owners AEG will not be present, so expect the Landon Donovan pinata, complete with receding hairline, to be resurrected, allowing him to remain Public Enemy No. 1. Carlos Ruiz, long the target of San Jose fans prior to Donovan's defection, will receive his share of venom. Then there is Beckham. The cavernous Oakland Coliseum will accommodate plenty of his fans, leaving it to the Quakes diehards to make life difficult for the Galaxy star.

3. New York at Chicago, Sept. 6

This match has all the makings of a guy showing up at his ex-girlfriend's wedding. Will Fire fans keep things civil toward former coach Juan Carlos Osorio, or will they make liberal use of the open bar and let things get ugly? Last year, Chicago fans showed their mettle by refusing to fall for the Beckham hype and booing him for all he was worth. I'm guessing that a similar reception awaits Osorio. At the very least, current Fire coach Denis Hamlett will attempt to prove that the pupil is now the master.

4. Colorado at D.C. United, Aug. 23

By the time this late-summer fixture rolls around, we should know plenty about the respective fates of these teams. In particular, the results of United's trade of Christian Gomez to Colorado should be apparent. Gomez is the sixth MVP in league history to be traded, and it's safe to say that none of his predecessors went on to bigger and better things. Will Gomez return to the nation's capital as the conquering hero, or will United's latest infusion of Latin American talent help ease the pain of the Argentine's departure?

5. Chivas USA at Houston, May 3

Simply put, any road to the championship goes through Houston, and Robertson Stadium has not been a happy hunting ground for the Goats. But the balance of power might be shifting in the West. The losses of Nate Jaqua and Joseph Ngwenya severely weakened the Dynamo's attack. Meanwhile, Chivas has added significant depth all over the field. This early season fixture should provide a good indication of where each team stands.

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