It's about to get real in Florida.
With First Kick a little more than two weeks away, six MLS teams are making their way down to Orlando, Fla., to take part in the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic. For the Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas, Montreal Impact, Sporting Kansas City, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps, the Disney Cup provides one last opportunity for teams to get a realistic read on where they're at before the regular season begins.
And lest you think these games don't matter to the teams competing, Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear has already said that he wants nothing less than to win the tournament, while Sporting striker Kei Kamara still says he's bitter about losing to Houston in the MLS Cup Playoffs last season.
With teams' hopes, grudges, and the roster spots of several players on the line, get ready for a rip-roaring finish to the preseason at the Wide World of Sports.
Houston Dynamo — The big story out of Houston last week was the return of Brian Ching. This week it’s the return of Brad Davis, who’s finally fit after being out since November with a torn right quadriceps. His return means that the Dynamo have 10 of 11 starters back from last season’s MLS Cup finalist side, so there’s no cohesion issues – it’s all about fitness. And they’ll that need if they’re to make a run at the Supporters’ Shield, a goal Dom Kinnear & Co. talked openly about earlier this month. To achieve it, they’ll need to avoid the rocky start they had last year.
Vancouver Whitecaps — New formation, new tactics, new stars. There’s a lot to focus upon, but the center of it all is head coach Martin Rennie. He’s trying to mold his team into an attacking side, and with the likes of Camilo, Sébastien Le Toux, Eric Hassli and Darren Mattocks, he has the talent to do so. The key, though, will be getting playmaker Davide Chiumiento in a position to provide the kind of top-level service the attacking corps needs to thrive. Thus far it looks like it’ll be a 4-3-3 for the ‘Caps, with two more defensive players in the midfield behind the little Swiss playmaker.
FC Dallas — It’s about reclaiming their place among the Western Conference elite for Schellas Hyndman & Co. But with George John, Jackson and Marvin Chávez gone, and Brek Shea off with the US Under-23s, Orlando is a chance for new faces to step up for FCD. Panamanian imports Blas Pérez and Carlos Rodríguez have looked good in preseason, as have new defenders Hernán Pertúz and Matt Hedges. And if 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira keeps finding his game fitness, Dallas could be back in business.
Montreal — Everything’s new for MLS’ newest team, and Jesse Marsch will have to figure out how the pieces fit as the Impact near First Kick. Are Lamar Neagle and Mike Fucito really just role players, as they were in Seattle? Or will they step up as everyday contributors? Will a defense that has looked suspect in preseason hold? Will high-profile signing Nelson Rivas get healthy? And with a forward-light roster, who will be Montreal’s go-to goal scorer?
Sporting KC — Peter Vermes’ team shouldn’t be lacking in confidence as they prepare to build off what was a banner 2011 on and off the field. The club hasn’t lost a preseason match yet, knocking off MLS opponents San Jose and D.C. United in Arizona before arriving in Orlando, and Omar Bravo is the only significant loss from the team that took MLS by storm last summer and fall during a worst-to-first march that ended on a sour note in the Eastern Conference Championship. These days, the biggest issue facing the squad is whether they can live up the ever-expanding expectations of a newly empowered fanbase in Kansas City.
Toronto FC — TFC fans held on tight during the proverbial roller coaster ride that defined the club’s first five years in MLS, but it appears that Aron Winter finally has things on an steady upward trajectory. Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans are back after impressing from July onward, and Julian de Guzman seems poised to justify Toronto’s hefty investment after an up-and-down start to his MLS career. Winter bolstered the defense as well – a must, honestly, after leading the league in goals allowed in 2011 – but that unit must still prove it can keep the ball out of the net consistently, or all the momentum built throughout the offseason (see CONCACAF Champions League) may be for naught.
ESPN Wide World of Sports
|Feb. 24, 6 pm||Sporting KC vs. Houston||MLSsoccer.com Channel 2|
|Feb. 24, 8 pm||Montreal vs. Vancouver||MLSsoccer.com Channel 2|
|Feb. 25, 6 pm||Orlando City vs. Toronto||MLSsoccer.com Channel 2|
|Feb. 25, 8 pm||BK Hacken vs. Dallas||MLSsoccer.com Channel 2|
|Feb. 26, 1 pm||Vancouver vs. Houston||MLSsoccer.com Channel 2|
|Feb. 26, 3 pm||Sporting KC vs. Montreal||MLSsoccer.com Channel 2|
|Feb. 28, 6 pm||Toronto vs. BK Hacken||MLSsoccer.com Channel 2|
|Feb. 28, 8 pm||Orlando City vs. Dallas||MLSsoccer.com Channel 2|
|Feb. 29, 6 pm||Sporting KC vs. Vancouver||MLSsoccer.com Channel 2|
|Feb. 29, 8 pm||Houston vs. Montreal||MLSsoccer.com Channel 2|
|Mar. 1, 6 pm||Toronto vs. Dallas||MLSsoccer.com Channel 2|
|Mar. 1, 8 pm||Orlando City vs. BK Hacken||MLSsoccer.com Channel 2|
|Mar. 3, 6 pm||Consolation Match||ESPN3.com|
|Mar. 3, 8 pm||Championship Match||ESPN3.com|
All matches will be broadcast LIVE on MLSsoccer.com Channel 2. On the mike will be Simon Borg (@SimonBorg), Jonathan Yardley (@jtyardley), Jake Yadrich (@JakeYadrich) and Callum Williams (@CalWilliamsSKC).
CLICK HERE to buy tickets to the 2012 Disney Pro Soccer Classic.
WATCH: Disney Pro Soccer Classic preview