- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2009

There’s plenty to look forward to in soccer in 2009. Taking center stage will be the World Cup qualifying games, which will be played throughout the year. Out of 200 entrants, 31 lucky teams will have earned the right by Nov. 14 to make the trip to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The U.S. national team, aiming to reach its sixth consecutive World Cup, will get a good workout at the Confederations Cup - traditionally a World Cup dress rehearsal - in South Africa in June. The Americans face a tough field that includes reigning world champion Italy, five-time champion Brazil and Africa champion Egypt in Group B. Spain, New Zealand, Iraq and South Africa make up Group A.

The U.S. team kicks off its 10-game World Cup qualifying schedule against Mexico on Feb. 11 at Columbus Crew Stadium. Games against Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago follow in the battle for the three automatic berths to the finals. The United States, Mexico and Costa Rica look like favorites to advance. The Americans’ first game of the year is the annual friendly against Sweden on Jan. 24 in Carson, Calif. In July, the team will try to defend its title in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Major League Soccer will welcome the league’s 15th team, the expansion Seattle Sounders. The club is owned in part by comedian Drew Carey, a Los Angeles Galaxy season-ticket holder. Highlighting the Sounders roster are former Arsenal ace Freddie Ljungberg and veteran American goalie Kasey Keller.

The year also will feature the rebirth of women’s professional soccer: The seven-team Women’s Professional Soccer league debuts in March.

American star Abby Wambach leads the latest incarnation of the Washington Freedom into their debut, a meeting with the Los Angeles Sol at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., on March 29.

As the big leagues in Europe get back into action this month after the winter break, MLS fans will monitor the progress of Galaxy stars Landon Donovan and David Beckham. Donovan is seeking a starting role at German giant Bayern Munich. Beckham hopes to crack AC Milan’s star-studded lineup, stay fit and keep a place on the England squad. Both players are on three-month loans.

Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, meanwhile, hopes his two key players will return for MLS action by March 22, when the club opens at home against D.C. United.

United will hope to forget last season, when it failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Third-year coach Tom Soehn will be watched closely early on, and questions still abound about the direction of the club.

Will designated player Marcelo Gallardo still play for the team, and, if so, how fit will the Argentine midfielder be? Will Ben Olsen’s ankle be healed, or will he retire? Will there be a breakthrough in the team’s hopes of getting its own stadium?

Back in Europe, the Champions League will be closely watched. Defending champion Manchester United faces a tough two-game series in the last 16 against Italian leaders Inter Milan beginning next month, while Premier League leader Liverpool faces an intriguing battle against Real Madrid.

As for World Cup qualifying, Paraguay leads in South America and looks like a good bet to advance along with Brazil, Argentina and Chile. In Asia, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Iran look the early favorites. In Europe, Denmark, Greece, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia, Italy and Netherlands lead their respective groups in the early going. In Africa, the final-round games have yet to begin.

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