Portland Timbers forward Ryan Johnson (9) kicks the ball against AIK during a soccer game at Jeld-Wen Field, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, in Portland, Ore.
AP Photo/The Oregonian, Thomas Boyd

Major League Soccer kicks off its 18th season on Saturday and Sunday, March 2-3 with matchups involving 18 of its 19 teams in a two-conference alignment. Among the matchups this weekend is the contest between the New York Red Bulls and hosts Portland Timbers on Sunday, March 3. Both teams have new coaches and will have more new faces than old ones on the field.

The Red Bulls gained the fourth of five playoff berths in the Eastern Conference last season but was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by third-place DC United. The new front office handed the coaching reins to former Red Bulls fullback Mike Petke and proceeded to deliver fresh faces for Petke. Gone are defenders Raphael Marquez and Wilma Conde; they were replaced with defenders Jamison Olave, Kosuke Kimura and Digao, who will team with Connor Lade, Brandon Barklage, Marcus Holgersson, Roy Miller and Heath Pearce to form the defense. Midfielders Joel Lindpere and Teamo Taino are also gone, as well as forwards Sebastien Le Toux and second leading scorer Kenny Cooper.

Brazilian World Cup veteran Juninho will join Dax Mc Carty, Tim Cahill and Englishman Lloyd Sam in midfield, while Thierry Henry will form a forward tandem with Fabian Espindola and hope for support from Costa Rican international Josue Martinez. Goalkeepers Luis Robles and Ryan Meara are back.

Changes often bring a period of instability until players get to really know each others tendencies and work together. It seems New Red Bulls are not immune to this instability; the team was winless and was outscored, 9-3, in four games during the four-team Desert Diamond Cup in Arizona just before the season opener. New York lost, 2-0, to New England in the third-place matchup, after losing games to Seattle and Real Salt Lake.

Despite the poor showing, Petke cited Henry, Juninho, Cahill and Espíndola for their positive work. “The real positive side is how much we created, how much those guys influenced what we did as a team after going down 2-0, not hanging heads, pushing everybody on,” Petke said. “To us, that was a big turning point in preseason today.”

Petke had no such words for his defense because he says that they are “giving goals away.” Petke couldn’t really name a starting back four except to say that Olave is the only one he is sure of that will man the backline.

Meanwhile, the Timbers, with a very strong fan following in the Northwest, are looking forward to the leadership of former University of Akron and U.S. Under-23 coach Caleb Porter. Porter has at his disposal Kris Boyd, the Scottish Premier League’s all-time leading scorer, Colombian José Valencia and Jamaican internationals Ryan Johnson, a top scorer acquired from Toronto FC in the off-season, and experienced goalkeeper Donovan Rickets who recently was outstanding for Jamaica in his country’s historic goalless draw in Mexico’s Azteca Stadium in a Word Cup qualifying showdown. Portland missed the playoffs last season and now seems determined not to repeat the mistake.

Defense seems the most worrisome for Porter; Ryan Miller, former University of Connecticut standout Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Hanyer Mosquera and Mike Harrington are among a new backline that is inexperienced and may just be its Achilles heel this season unless they learn quickly to work for each other and maintain a very high work rate.

Portland’s midfield has experience in Diego Valeri, Steven Evans, Diego Chara, Jack Jewsbury and Will Johnson.

The Timbers real strength, though, is in its offense. A front tandem of Boyd and Johnson supported by José Valencia, Darlington Nagbe, Danny Mwanga and Sebastián Rincón could score goals, but a potent offense could take a team only so far – it is Portland’s defense that could make it a champion.

The New York-Portland matchup is a fairly even one with New York having the edge in experience on the field. The game kicks off at 7:30 PM at JELD-WEN Field (TV: ESPN2). May the better team win!

In other matchups on Sunday, two-time defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy will be without top forward Landon Donovan when it hosts Chicago Fire; Donovan is expected back with the team by the end of March. Western Conference champion San Jose Earthquakes will host Real Salt Lake.

On Saturday, March 2, Columbus Crew hosts Chivas USA, Colorado Rapids will entertain FC Dallas, DC United is at Houston Dynamo, Eastern Conference winner Sporting Kansas City travels to Philadelphia Union, Montreal Impact goes to Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC is at Vancouver Whitecaps. The New England Revolution has a bye opening weekend. Each team will play 34 games in the regular season.

New York Red Bulls’s ThierryHenry moves the ball up against FC Dallas in the second half of an MLS soccer match in Frisco, Texas.
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

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