MLS Talking Points: Atlanta United's big debut, the LA Galaxy's new era and more

Atlanta United
The 2017 Major League Soccer season kicks off this weekend, and Atlanta's much-anticipated arrival headlines a year with plenty of talented new faces

From the two expansion teams launching in Atlanta and Minnesota to the wave of talented newcomers brought in with the help of increased funds, Major League Soccer has undergone an offseason of change unlike any we've seen in the past two decades.

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Plenty of big names left MLS after the 2016 season — including Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane — but the overall talent pool is now deeper after a winter of spending spurred on by MLS giving teams more money to work with. The result has been an infusion of exciting young talent bolstering rosters from coast to coast. There may not be as many global superstars in MLS this season, but you can argue there are now more players who have the qualities to become stars in MLS.

The past offseason wasn't just about new players brought in, but also changes made by several teams. Whether it was the New York Red Bulls trading Dax McCarty or the LA Galaxy losing Bruce Arena to the U.S. national team, several teams are facing new challenges after recent changes.

Not everything has changed though. Some of the same teams considered the best in MLS at the end of 2016 are back to compete again for the top spot, and you can argue FC Dallas, Toronto FC and New York City FC all have strengthened their squads this winter.

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Other teams have many more question marks heading into 2017. The Houston Dynamo, under new coach Wilmer Cabrera, the Galaxy under new coach Curt Onalfo, and Orlando City, in Jason Kreis' first full season, are just three teams of the teams facing uncertainty as they look to unveil new projects.

We will also see several MLS veterans in new uniforms in 2017. McCarty is now in Chicago and Alan Gordon in Colorado. Brek Shea made his way to Vancouver and Rodney Wallace will now be a key player for New York City FC.

With all the transformed teams, here is a closer look at the biggest talking points to watch for in Week 1:


Atlanta United fans

More than 50,000 tickets have been sold for Atlanta United's inaugural MLS match Sunday against the New York Red Bulls. The expansion team has already made waves with one of the most impressive roster constructions in recent history, with high-priced signings Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Josef Martinez leading the attack.

Former Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino has the task of shaping Atlanta's impressive collection of talent into a cohesive unit, and while it might be ambitious to think that will take place quickly, there is too much talent on this team not to expect a respectable start to the season.

Martino puts his stamp on Atlanta

Working Atlanta United's favor on Sunday is the fact the New York Red Bulls will be coming in off a disappointing CONCACAF Champions League elimination at the hands of the Vancouver Whitecaps on Thursday. The Red Bulls played a first-choice squad in Thursday's loss, so fatigue could certainly be an issue against a rested Atlanta United side.

The big question to start the season will be how Atlanta's defense comes together. The Red Bulls attack is still not at full sharpness, as evidenced by its struggles against Vancouver, but Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips are still good enough to capitalize if Atlanta's defense isn't in sync.

The atmosphere expected at Bobby Dodd Stadium, with a sellout crowd of 55,000 likely, should be an unforgettable moment, and the ingredients are there for a game capable of matching the surroundings.


Gio Dos Santos Carlos Gruezo MLS 08102016

The post-Bruce Arena era begins for the LA Galaxy on Saturday, with a very difficult opener against title favorites FC Dallas. This match is the clear-cut top choice of the opening weekend's slate, even if the Galaxy are facing the likelihood of missing both starting fullbacks and lead striker Gyasi Zardes.

The Galaxy still boast plenty of star power, led by Gio dos Santos, and newly acquired French winger Romain Alessandrini. Perhaps just as important for the Galaxy will be the new central midfield pairing of Jermaine Jones and Joao Pedro, which will face a good battle from FC Dallas' midfield.

Oscar Pareja's side could have a field day against the Galaxy defense, with Roland Lamah and Michael Barrios working the wings against a back line set to miss Ashley Cole and Robbie Rogers for the opener.

Working in the Galaxy's favor is the fact FC Dallas had a midweek CONCACAF Champions League match, but Pareja did manage to rest some starters, including newly signed striker Cristian Colman, who should be a handful for the Galaxy's defense.


David Villa 08062016

New faces abound in the top week one matchups, led by the sizable crop of impressive attacking talent making league debuts. Here are the top matchups to watch this opening weekend:

1. Cristian Colman vs. Jelle van Damme. FC Dallas unveils its multi-million dollar striker against one of the league's best defenders in what should be a very fierce battle.

2. David Villa vs. Jonathan Spector. Brought in to help solidify Orlando City's porous defense, Spector faces a brutal first test, against the reigning MLS MVP Villa.

3. Josef Martinez vs. Aurelien Collin. Atlanta's dangerous forward looked outstanding in preseason, and could have a field day against the slower, and potentially fatigued, Collin, who just played on Thursday.

4, Kekuta Manneh vs. Keegan Rosenberry. Two of the better young players in MLS, and two players who just spent some time together in U.S. national team camp square off in what should be a fun clash.

5. Federico Higuain vs. Dax McCarty. The Fire are banking on McCarty solidifying the midfield and his first assignment will be a tough one, but one he's familiar with in the ever-dangerous Higuain.

6. Kei Kamara vs. Axel Sjoberg. New England is counting on Kamara having a big season, but he could find chances scarce against the imposing Sjoberg and Colorado's stingy defense.

7. Dom Dwyer vs. Steve Birnbaum. A foot injury could keep Dwyer out of Saturday's opener, but if he starts, he and Birnbaum should engage in a great clash of two of the league's best.

8. Chris Wondolowski vs. Laurent Ciman. San Jose relies on Wondolowski's goal production, but goals could be tough to come by against a stingy Montreal defense led by the excellent Ciman.

9. Kevin Molino vs. David Guzman. Two midfield standouts making their debuts for their new teams, Molino is no stranger to MLS, but he hasn't had to deal with Guzman's imposing presence in central midfield before.

10. Yura Movsisyan vs. Drew Moor. After an excellent 2016, Moor looks to get the new season off to a positive start by helping neutralize RSL's lead striker.


TIMBERS 3, Minnesota United 1. Providence Park celebrates a winning start to the season as Diego Valeri shines and newcomer Sebastian Blanco impresses.

CREW 2, Fire 1. The Crew endured a disappointing 2016, but start the new season well at home, with Ola Kamara and Ethan Finlay leading the charge over the Fire.

Galaxy 1, FC DALLAS 2. StubHub Center isn't an easy place to play for visiting teams, but FC Dallas' wingers have a field day to help earn a valuable road win.

Real Salt Lake 0, TORONTO FC 2. The MLS Cup contenders from Canada will have to contend with altitude, but TFC's attack will be too much for RSL to deal with.

RAPIDS 1, Revolution 0. As dangerous and dynamic as New England's attack is, the Revs aren't likely to find a ton of chances against a Rapids team that went unbeaten at home in 2016.

D.C. United 1, Sporting Kansas City 1. D.C. United begins its last season at RFK Stadium with a disappointing draw, though a win would be more possible of Dwyer can't play for Sporting KC.

Houston Dynamo 0, SOUNDERS 2. It's tough to bet against the defending champions, especially when facing a Dynamo team that is likely to need time to come together after so many personnel changes.

Earthquakes 1, IMPACT 2. It's a make-or-break season for Dom Kinnear and the Earthquakes, but the opener could be a struggle, with Ignacio Piatti running wild in the road win.

Orlando City 1, NYCFC 2. There will certainly be buzz provided by playing its first match in its new stadium, but Orlando City's defense will find it tough to deal with NYCFC's attack.

ATLANTA UNITED 2, Red Bulls 1. The league's schedule-makers have set up Atlanta for a nice debut, facing a fatigued Red Bulls side that look vulnerable after Thursday's CCL loss.

WHITECAPS 2, Union 1. Despite the short rest, you have to like Vancouver's chances of riding the momentum from Thursday's CCL triumph to knock off the visiting Union.