Just one month and one day after they won MLS Cup 2015, the Portland Timbers got their assignments for their title defense. The 2016 MLS regular season will span eight months, kicking off on March 6th and finishing on October 23rd.
The Timbers will play 34 games. Fifteen of those games will be on national television, including an opening day MLS Cup rematch against the Columbus Crew, and the Timbers' broadcast television debut when the Seattle Sounders come to town in July. Here are five thoughts on how the schedule shakes out.
1. National TV Love
The Timbers have always been a popular team for national TV games, but they're even more popular this year as defending champions. Portland has a record fifteen games on ESPN and Fox Sports in 2016, with more ESPN games — eight in total, seven of which are at home — than any other team in the league.
What's more, the Timbers will be on FOX — KPTV in Portland — twice this season. All of the Timbers' matches against Seattle, Los Angeles, and Sporting Kansas City will be broadcast nationally. The Timbers will also have games nationally televised against Vancouver, San Jose, Houston, Toronto, both New York teams, and Orlando City. The lesson as always? It's good to be the king.
2. Stars Coming To Providence Park
Last season was something of a down year for marquee Timbers home games. The team played star-studded Eastern Conferences sides like NYCFC and Toronto FC away, LA Galaxy's only visit came in March before the arrival of superstars Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos, and Seattle were without nearly half their starting lineup when they visited in June.
But there won't be any shortage of star-power this time around. NYCFC and Toronto play in Portland in the spring, Seattle visits twice in the summer, Montreal plays here for the first time since March of 2012, and the Crew are in town for the first match of the season.
If all those teams are healthy, Providence Park will host some of the biggest names in the sport in 2016.
3. Will Johnson Returns
The May 1st matchup with Toronto FC is significant for several reasons. It's an ESPN game, it's a chance to see the likes of Sebastian Giovinco and Michael Bradley, and, most importantly, it will serve as Will Johnson's return to Portland.
Johnson, who was traded to TFC in December, will make his first appearance at Providence Park as former Timber just two months into the campaign. Considering that Toronto won't be back in the Rose City until 2018, this could be the only chance Timbers fans get to see the former captain for quite some time.
Johnson should get a rapturous ovation. His impact on the Timbers' eventual championship was huge, and he'll be hoping to make a similar impact with his new club. One consideration for the game? The May 1st match will be Toronto's seventh and final straight on the road to open the season, as renovations wrap up on BMO Field. It should be Portland's game for the taking.
4. An Easy Final Stretch?
There are all kinds of marquee games for the Timbers in the spring and summer, but the end of the season looks fairly comfortable: Portland finishes with five of its last six games against teams who didn't make the playoffs in 2015.
On the table? Two matches against Colorado, a home game against Philadelphia, and the regular season finale on Decision Day at Vancouver. It was, of course, the Timbers' final few games of 2015 that set up their title run — and in what promises to be a Western Conference that's more competitive than ever, the Timbers could be advantageously positioned for more of the same in 2016.
5. The Offseason Ramps Up
After a lull over the holidays, expect the Timbers' offseason to ramp back up in the next week or so. The team has several player deals in the works, and is still negotiating with Rodney Wallace (and potentially less-so with Norberto Paparatto).
Training camp opens in just two-and-a-half weeks. The new season is upon us. And while it does feel like the championship celebrations should continue forever, there's no way to look at the 2016 fixture list and not get excited about this team playing soccer again. Soon enough, that's exactly what they'll be doing.