Soccer

MLS buzzing about new Atlanta team as season kicks off

The Sounders’ Roman Torres holds the MLS Cup trophy during a victory rally in Seattle in December. Seattle beat Toronto FC 5-4 in a penalty-kick shootout to win its first championship and should be a contender again this season.
The Sounders’ Roman Torres holds the MLS Cup trophy during a victory rally in Seattle in December. Seattle beat Toronto FC 5-4 in a penalty-kick shootout to win its first championship and should be a contender again this season. AP

Another Major League Soccer season will begin Friday without a firm plan for David Beckham’s long-awaited Miami team. But sources in the league and Beckham’s inner circles insist South Florida fans should remain optimistic that good news is coming soon.

In the meantime, welcome Atlanta United and Minnesota United, MLS teams No. 21 and 22.

Expansion teams rarely have huge success in their inaugural season. The Seattle Sounders did make the playoffs in 2009 but that is unusual. Atlanta is one team that could surprise from the get-go.

It has a marquee-name coach in former Barcelona and Argentine national team manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino. Its Designated Players are Paraguayan national team midfielder Miguel Almiron, Venezuelan Josep Martinez and Trinidadian team captain Kenwyne Jones, a 32-year-old forward who has played much of his career in the English Premier League.

U.S. national team goalkeeper Brad Guzan, also an EPL veteran, will join the team in the summer.

The Atlanta team is already a success at the box office. More than 27,000 season tickets have been sold, and 40,000 tickets are sold for the March 5 season opener against New York Red Bulls. Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium will be the temporary home and the glitzy Mercedes-Benz Stadium is due to open later this year.

Minnesota United, meanwhile, is more likely to go through growing pains the first season.

Minnesota management announced it will not be signing any Designated Players before the start of the season. Stadium construction is delayed. The club has sold in the neighborhood of 15,000 season tickets.

Adrian Heath is a good, engaging coach, but if he doesn’t have top-notch players, it will be tough to win. The team is transitioning from NASL to MLS and kept two of its best players — Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez. Trinidadian Kevin Molino joins from Orlando City and should be a key player.

Although the Loons have a loyal carryover following from their years in NASL, the team isn’t generating nearly the national or regional buzz as Atlanta.

Looking around the league:

EASTERN CONFERENCE TEAMS TO WATCH

▪ Toronto: Toronto FC played for the MLS Cup on its home field last season and was poised to win its first league title. But the team fell short in a penalty shootout, and Seattle took the trophy.

Watch for Toronto to make another run this year, with the return of all 11 starters, including Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and 5-4 dynamo Sebastian Giovinco.

▪ NYCFC: Andrea Pirlo and David Villa are back with NYCFC, and they always foster hope. Among the additions to the lineup is Costa Rican Rodney Wallace, who previously played in MLS and Brazil. New York should be among the top teams in the East.

WESTERN CONFERENCE TEAMS TO WATCH

▪ Seattle: The Sounders won the MLS Cup in December, and there is no reason to think they won’t be in contention against at the end of this season.

New players include Will Bruin, Harry Shipp and Gustav Svensson. One of the big questions is how big a role Clint Dempsey will play. The U.S. national team star sat out the latter part of the 2016 season with an irregular heartbeat. He has been cleared to play, but time will tell how long it takes for him to get back to peak form.

▪ Dallas: Mauro Diaz is still recuperating from an ACL injury and won’t be available until summer. That is a huge hit for a Dallas team that has tons of talent and a proven coach in Oscar Pareja. Javier Morales is a capable replacement for Diaz, and this team should not be counted out.

▪ Los Angeles: The most unrecognizable team in 2017 is the Galaxy. Longtime coach Bruce Arena left to become U.S. national team coach and took his entire coaching staff. This year’s team will also be missing familiar faces Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Steven Gerrard, AJ DeLaGarza and Alan Gordon.

L.A. will rely on newcomer Jermaine Jones, the 35-year-old U.S. national team midfielder, and returning players Giovani dos Santos, Ashley Cole, Gyasi Zardes and Sebatian Lletget, who had an impressive showing with the U.S. team in recent friendlies.

▪ Dark horse: Sporting Kansas City. Three postseasons in a row have ended in heartbreak for Sporting KC. In 2014, it wase eliminated with a 90th-minute goal. In 2015, it was a PK shootout that knocked it out. And last year, KC lost 1-0 to eventual champion Seattle on an 88th-minute goal — one of Seattle’s only shots the entire match.

There is no question KC has the talent to make a deep run again. Peter Vermes is the coach, and his roster includes Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza and Benny Feilhaber. All they need is a little good luck, for a change.

Lewis Scores: Plantation native Jonathan Lewis scored a goal Friday night to help the U.S. Under-20 National Team advance to the classification stage of the CONCACAF Championship in Costa Rica. The U.S. team beat St. Kitts and Nevis 4-1 and will next face Mexico and El Salvador in its bid to qualify for the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup.

Lewis, 19, was selected No. 3 by NYCFC in the recent MLS draft. He attended South Plantation High and Akron University, and played club soccer for the Plantation Eagles and Kendall SC.

El Clasico in Miami: Hard Rock Stadium officials would not comment, but Barcelona will play Real Madrid in a pre-season "El Clasico" on July 29 at the stadium, according to ESPN and reports out of Spain. An official announcement is expected in the coming weeks.

Real Madrid is committed to play at the newly-renovated, soccer-perfect stadium as part of the International Champions Cup. Real Madrid vs. Barcelona would likely feature world superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Barcelona, which played in the ICC last summer, is also expected to play Juventus July 22 and Manchester United July 25. Those sites have not been announced.

Who’s leading

EPL: Chelsea (60), Manchester City (52), Tottenham, Arsenal (50), Liverpool (49).

La Liga: Real Madrid (52), Barcelona (51), Sevilla (49), Atletico Madrid (45), Real Sociedad (41).

Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (50), Leipzig (45), Dortmund, Hoffenheim (37), Eintracht (35).

Serie A: Juventus (63), Roma (56), Napoli (54), Inter, Atalanta (48).

Ligue 1: Monaco (59), PSG, Nice (56), Lyon (43), ASSE (39).

On TV

Sunday: Tottenham vs Stoke City (8:45 a.m., NBCSN); Villarreal vs. Real Madrid (2:45 p.m., BeINSport).

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