Friday, June 22, 2018

SOCCER ASSIST

SOCCER ASSIST

The new advertising campaign for Major League Soccer proclaims: "For Club And Country."

Because nothing stirs passionate soccer fans — and even the sport's casual onlookers — quite like the World Cup, the premier U.S. league is hoping to draw on the excitement surrounding the big event this summer.

"It's a perfect theme for our march to Brazil," commissioner Don Garber said. "It's not just about American players wrapping themselves in their flags, it's Tim Cahill and Robbie Keane wrapping themselves in their country's flags. It's a big connection between our clubs and the national teams."

The league hopes that connection resonates with new fans.

MLS has seen a steady growth in popularity, with attendance averaging from 15,504 in 2006 to a record 18,807 in 2012 before dropping slightly last season to 18,594. The biggest jumps in attendance over that span have come in the seasons following World Cup years. Television viewership, which the league continues to struggle for, also bumped up in the season following the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Because of the World Cup, MLS will take a break from June 12-24. The league's 19th season got under way Saturday. Here are some things to look for this season:

Referee lockout

Because of an ongoing labor dispute, this weekend's opening games featured replacement refs. The Professional Soccer Referee Association, which represents MLS referees, assistant referees and fourth officials, and the Professional Referee Organization, which was created by the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS in 2012 to manage match officials in U.S. and Canadian professional leagues, have been unable to come to terms on a Collective Bargaining Agreement. The PRO announced the lockout on Friday.

Chivas struggles

The MLS purchased Chivas USA from its previous owners and appointed Nelson Rodriguez as president to run the club until a new ownership group is finalized. The team finished 6-20-8 for the league's second-worst record and was hit by several lawsuits alleging discrimination.

Fresh faces

In addition to Real Salt Lake's Jeff Cassar, there are six other new head coaches. But one club, the Colorado Rapids, only named a permanent coach on Saturday. Retired former Rapids star Pablo Mastroeni replaced Oscar Pareja, who left in January to take the same job with his former club, FC Dallas. Mastroeni was in charge of the squad through the preseason after retiring in the offseason.

Landon Donovan

With one more goal, the LA Galaxy striker will take over the league's career goals mark with 135. He and the Galaxy were shut out 1-0 in Saturday's opener. The 12-year MLS veteran matched Jeff Cunningham with 134 goals last October when he scored in the Galaxy's victory over Chivas. Donovan has already set the all-games goal record with 156 and he's ranked second with 117 assists.

Changes coming

The league is expanding next season to 21 teams, bringing in New York City FC and a team in Orlando, the league's first franchise in Florida since the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny folded following the 2001 season. New York City FC already hired RSL's Jason Kreis as its head coach — sending him to Europe to familiarize himself with Manchester City, the expansion team's owners along with the New York Yankees.

Local players

St. Petersburg native Zac MacMath, 22, is in his third season as the starting goaltender for the Philadelphia Union. In Saturday's opener, the new-look Union tied Portland 1-1. "The goal this year is to make the playoffs as a starting goalkeeper," MacMath said. Last season, MacMath started all 34 games and posted 12 shutouts. Clearwater's Jeff Attinella, a 25-year-old who played at USF and starred for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, is the No. 2 goalie for Real Salt Lake behind national team goalie Nick Rimando, who was stellar in Saturday's shutout. "I watch (him) as much as I can and take mental notes to see things that top-level goalkeepers do," Attinella said. "When he goes to the World Cup this year, I'll be ready to step in and not miss a beat."

Contributing: Bryan Burns tbt* correspondent

Having kicked off its new season, the MLS is counting on a boost from the World Cup.

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