Among the other highlights in 2016 are two Heineken Rivalry Weeks (May 20-22 and August 26-28), along with a new wrinkle to the season-ending #DecisionDay: All 10 finales will kick off at the same time.
The MLS schedule is broken up pretty simply: Every team plays conference opponents either two or three times and they face out-of-conference teams just once. So not every schedule is made the same, making the strength of schedule calculation all the more interesting.
The numbers say the Colorado Rapids have the toughest schedule heading into 2016, while the New York Red Bulls have the easiest road. And while this may not be all that surprising for the Western Conference worst club (Colorado) and the Supporters’ Shield winners (RBNY), the two surprises might just be that the Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy have two of the harder schedules in MLS, despite finishing fourth and fifth in the West, respectively, in 2015.
LA’s tough road can be explained in part by the fact that they have to travel to both Seattle and Kansas City twice. Both of those two teams averaged more than two points per game at home in 2015. Also, two of LA’s home games come against the Vancouver Whitecaps, who finished with the best road record in the league last season.
Seattle are done in by the fact that they have to travel to Dallas twice to face the best home team in MLS in 2015. They also will be flying cross country to take on the Red Bulls and D.C. United, the two teams that finished with the best home records in the East.
Top Ten Games Of The 2016 Season
1. Portland Timbers vs. Columbus Crew SC; Sunday, March 6, 4:30 pm ET
It’s the annual MLS Cup rematch, so of course this is one that everybody should watch. Both teams will be among the Supporters’ Shield favorites, and both have kept the heart of their rosters together, so I expect there to be minimal early-season “getting to know you” choppiness.
2. Sporting Kansas City vs. Real Salt Lake; Saturday, April 2
This isn’t recognized by casual fans as a rivalry in the way of the California Clasico or Cascadia, but these two teams not-so-secretly haaaate each other. They’ve produced some gorgeous goals and some brutal tackles over the last few years, and in Benny Feilhaber and Javier Morales there will be a pair of Best XI-caliber No. 10s on the field.
3. Montreal Impact vs. Toronto FC; Saturday, April 23
Canada’s least polite rivalry across all sports takes its turn in the spotlight. By this point in the season, we’ll probably have a good idea of where Will Johnson fits into that TFC midfield and what the resolution to L’Affaire Drogba is.
4. New York Red Bulls vs. FC Dallas; Friday, April 29, 7 pm ET
The top two finishers in last season’s Supporters’ Shield standings get their one regular-season match-up of 2016, and it’ll be in Harrison, New Jersey. Dallas have trended steadily upward under Oscar Pareja, and I expect them to enter the season as Shield favorites.
5. New York City FC vs. Philadelphia Union; Saturday, June 18
Certain MLS denizens have dubbed the stretch of I-95 from New England to D.C. “The Gauntlet,” and I’m gonna run with that. There are five teams involved, and they’re all out for blood when they face each other. This particular match-up has an extra European influence with manager Patrick Vieira taking over for NYCFC and Earnie Stewart now running the front office for Philly.
6. San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy; Saturday, June 25, 10 pm ET
This version of the California Clasico is played at a packed Stanford Stadium every year, and it’s produced some of the most insane endings in league history. An added bonus is that I could probably put San Jose’s starters on the lineup sheet right now, but I have no idea what the Galaxy will look like.
7. Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Orlando City; Saturday, July 16
The league’s longest road trip will also be a chance to see the progress of two of the league’s most promising youngsters – Vancouver’s Kekuta Manneh and Orlando’s Cyle Larin. By this point in the season, we could see them shoring up their status as superstars or we could see two teams entering desperation mode.
8. Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers; Sunday, August 21, 9:30 pm ET
This Cascadia derby will likely feature a 68,000-seat stadium packed to overflowing and two teams well in the thick of the playoff race. It’ll be interesting to see if a reversal of the “big brother, little brother” relationship happens in light of Portland’s MLS Cup triumph. Whatever happens, neither team will have to wait long for a rematch, as Seattle head down I-5 just seven days later in what amounts to a home-and-home series to start the playoff push.
9. Chicago Fire vs. D.C. United; Friday, September 16, 8 pm ET
This actually has the potential to be a relatively meaningless game in the standings – I don’t think that most people will be picking either of these teams as playoff locks. But I’m excited to see what Veljko Paunovic will do in his first year in charge, and it’s proven stupid to count Ben Olsen’s teams out. Plus it’s my birthday.
10. New England Revolution vs. Montreal Impact; Sunday, October 23, 4 pm ET
Perhaps not the Decision Day matchup you were expecting (Philly vs. RBNY and Vancouver vs. Portland are rivalry games), but Gillette Stadium can get absolutely rocking when the crowd gets over 25k, and given the trend of the last couple of years, it’s a fair bet that there’ll be almost twice that many in the stands. Great crowds generally make for great games, and on top of that I remain an unapologetic fan of the way the Revs play.