Kick Off: 2013 schedule set as focus shifts to MLS Combine

Kick Off: First Kick countdown, Jan 10

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Fifty-one days. The countdown to MLS First Kick 2013 has begun. The fixtures are out. Come on, admit it, you’re super pumped. (VIEW FULL LIST HERE)

Yesterday MLS fans rejoiced, as the moment they’ve been waiting for since the end of the 2012 season arrived.

Plenty of huge games are on the horizon, with no fewer than 87 nationally televised matches.

The season will begin in earnest on March 2 – the earliest-ever start to an MLS season – with the first of 323 matches all being televised nationally, or available via MLS Direct Kick or MLS Live. Another date to pencil into your diaries if you’re feeling optimistic about your teams chances, Dec. 7 or 8 is the date slated for MLS Cup, as the side with the highest playoff seed will once again host MLS’ showpiece finale. 

MLSsoccer.com’s Andrew Wiebe picks his top 10 matches to look forward to in 2013. See which games he believes will make the headlines this season.

Among the many surprises in store for the 2013 schedule, a huge rivalry weekend ensues in Week 3 of competition, with the first Cascadia Cup matchup between holders Portland and the Seattle Sounders taking place.

But one familiar face almost certainly won’t play a part in that match: Seattle Sounders striker Fredy Montero. On Wednesday, Fredy all but put an end to one of the longest transfer saga’s in recent MLS history, posting a goodbye letter to Sounders fans via Twitter.

The 25-year-old Colombian looks set for a loan move back to his native land with Millonarios and wrote an emotional note thanking the Emerald City faithful for their support since he arrived: “Seattle will always be in my heart and be my second home. I will be back one day. Until then, I wish you the best.”

So how will Seattle replace Montero’s attacking prowess? Since joining the Rave Green, Montero notched 47 goals in 119 MLS games, assisting on 34 others. But yesterday was the strongest indication yet that his immediate future lies away from MLS.

Another player reportedly following Montero out of MLS to South America on loan is the Philadelphia Union center back Carlos Valdés  Sante Fe are the interested side, as Valdés looks likely to follow Fredy and head back to Colombia, too.

But it’s not all about potential MLS players departing. D.C. United made a splash in the South American market, bringing in Brazilian striker Rafael as a young DP on a season-long loan.

The 20-year-old Rafael is set to become the focal point of United’s attack, with Ben Olsen excited to begin working with the Brazilian starlet.

“I believe in having a hard-working, physical No. 9,” Olsen said. “He’s also pretty well-rounded in his hold-up game, good in the air and has good composure in front of goal. He is young, so there’s got to be a certain patience we have with him, but I certainly think he has the potential to be a big-time forward in this league.”

With United busy putting the building blocks together for a successful 2013 campaign, the MLS focus switches to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and the MLS Combine. which kicks off Friday.

MLSsoccer.com will be there covering every single storyline as the brightest college talents and selected others seek to impress MLS coaches, scouts and GMs. Check out our latest SuperDraft Special Scouting Report here.

See what our editors are looking forward to most during this year's Combine. MLS Combine junky Simon Borg picks out his top player to watch, while editor-in-chief Greg Lalas is looking forward to eavesdropping on certain chitter-chatter. (WATCH)

And there is news of some late additions to the Combine – find out the who got an invite – as the top college prospects assemble in South Florida to prove their potential worth to MLS franchises.

The guys over at Top Drawer Soccer put together their MLS SuperDraft big board, highlighting the top 75 potential prospects in college soccer. Find out who is high on their list.

Over at Soccer By Ives, the focus is on US national team midfielder Stuart Holden succeeding in the latest step on his long to recovery for Bolton Wanderers. Holden could soon be back in the first team for Bolton after coming through 65 minutes of a reserve match. US fans will certainly be delighted to hear that.

Trotters boss Dougie Freedman told Sky Sports he was “very pleased” to see Holden’s return.

Moving down a little from Europe, the focus in Africa is clearly the Cup of Nations, which kicks off Jan. 19 in South Africa. One MLSer was hoping to be involved. However, despite scoring for Nigeria in a warm-up game vs. Catalonia, Portland Timbers forward Bright Dike didn’t make the final cut for the Super Eagles.

"I am disappointed not to make the AFCON final list,” Dike told MTN Football. “But I am thankful for the experience and opportunity, I was hoping to be at the tournament, that's soccer for you.”

Still, it’s been a meteoric rise for a player who found himself loaned out to the the third tier of US soccer less than 12 months ago. The future is bright … for Bright. (Sorry, couldn’t help ourselves.)

Moving around the league, new Sporting KC midfielder Benny Feilhaber will miss the start of preseason after being selected in Jurgen Klinsmann’s January USMNT camp. But Sporting manager Peter Vermes doesn't seem too worried.

"Would it be better if Benny was with us? Sure," Vermes said. "But I know he's going to get a great environment. I always say, and it's a cliché, but when you have good players, they get opportunities like that."

MLS Cup 2012 MVP Omar Gonzalez will also be present at the January camp, with Klinsmann predicting big things for the LA Galaxy defender.

“We want him to understand that there's another level waiting for him,” Klinsmann said. “That he has to work for that level and that he has to develop a confidence and personality to get to the international level.”

It will be the USMNT boss'’ first chance to work with Gonzalez for an extended period of time, as the towering center back looks to stake his claim for a permanent spot on Klinsmann’s backline.

On the club front, could Richard Dunne be headed to LA after all? Not much sourcing here, but it sure is fun to speculate.

Elsewhere, Canadian center back Andre Hainault could be switching Houston for the Highlands, as Dynamo president Chris Canetti revealed the commanding defender is on trial with Scottish Premier League newcomers Ross County. Could Hainault appear for the Canucks in a unique friendly scheduled for March?

While one man staying put in Texas for a while is veteran Cam Weaver, who penned a new deal with the Dynamo.

With the first-ever National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) kicking off this spring, the league on Wednesday announced the 55 US, Canadian and Mexican national team players who will be allocated to the eight sides. All the usual suspects are there, with Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo headlining the US contingent.

Across the pond, longtime rumored MLS target Nicholas Anelka is still locked in talks about terminating his contract with Shanghai Shenhua. While he’s doing that, Paris Saint-Germain are allowing him to train in the French capital.

And finally, check out this amazing video that’s been making the rounds. AO Giannina, a team of Greek children, show total football is still alive as they score an incredible team goal straight from the kick off. Greece’s Euro 2004 title could be added to in the future with these guys on hand, a thought sure to warm Greg Lalas’ heart. (WATCH)

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