- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

If you blinked in the preseason, you probably missed something. It’s been quite a busy time for Major League Soccer since the Los Angeles Galaxy won the MLS Cup on Nov. 13.

Entering its 11th season tomorrow, the 12-team league has seen some major changes.

The San Jose Earthquakes packed their bags, moved to Houston and went through two name changes. First came Houston 1836, the choice of fans in online voting. But the name, a reference to the year Houston was founded, upset some Latinos because it brought up bad feelings about Texas’ secession from Mexico. The name changed again, becoming the Houston Dynamo.

But the biggest surprise came just two weeks ago when the New Jersey-based MetroStars suddenly became Red Bull New York after being taken over in a $100 million deal by the Austrian energy drink company from Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG).

The cash-flushed New York Red Bulls, who are referred to as just the “Red Bulls” by the New Jersey media, will roll into RFK Stadium on Sunday with 800 all-expenses-paid fans in tow as the team opens the season against D.C. United.

D.C. United was also in the news for off-field reasons. The $23 million sale of the club to a group of Virginia real estate investors fell through in January, so the team still remains operated by AEG, which runs four MLS teams.

The league lost a visionary when Doug Hamilton, 43, president and general manager of the Los Angeles Galaxy, died of a heart attack while flying back from a team game in Costa Rica on March 9. Hamilton was one of the brightest minds in the league and under his helm the Galaxy won two titles and moved into a soccer-specific stadium.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Fire will move into a new stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., in the next few months, but will play its first nine games on the road while the venue is being completed.

There were also some interesting trades in the preseason, with a number of “bad boys” on the move.

Unsettled former 2002 World Cup star Clint Mathis was sent from Real Salt Lake to the Colorado Rapids and moody Ante Razov went from Red Bull to Chivas USA. In perhaps the biggest move, U.S. star striker Eddie Johnson, the second-highest paid player in the league, was traded from FC Dallas to the Kansas City Wizards.

It’s also a World Cup year, so MLS will be playing in the shadow of the world’s biggest single-sporting event in June and some star players will be missing.

“There are a couple of teams that will miss a number of key players, which will be tough as they will be away for pretty much May and June,” said D.C. United technical director Dave Kasper.

In February, MLS also announced an important change: The team that has the most overall points at the end of the regular season will automatically qualify as one of two entries in the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, along with the winner of the MLS Cup.

If the overall points’ leader also wins the MLS Cup, the team with the second-most points at the end of the regular season will be the second candidate. The change will give clubs the incentive not just to aim for a playoff spot but to earn a place in an international tournament.

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