MLS 101: March Madness not just for NCAA

March Madness officially began last week for postseason college basketball fans. However, the “madness” in March isn’t just for basketball or the NCAA. It has been 120 days since MLS Cup 2009, and Major League Soccer fans across North America have gone mad with anticipation of the boys returning to the pitch with the renewed hope of their team hoisting the MLS Cup this fall.

On Thursday, MLS kicks off its 15th season as the expansion Philadelphia Union invades the Emerald City for a showdown with Seattle Sounders FC at Qwest Field. All 16 teams open their regular season this week in MLS’ First Kick 2010.

It’s time to dust off the replica kits, round up fellow supporters and dial in the vocal cords, because the MLS season is finally upon us. Here are MLS’ season-opening matchups:

Thursday, March 25
Philadelphia Union at Seattle Sounders FC – Qwest Field, 6:30 p.m. (Pacific); ESPN 2 The grand opening of the 2010 MLS regular season will take place in Seattle Thursday as the Union faces Sounders FC in its first game in franchise history. The expansion side will likely experience a capacity crowd at Qwest Field topping 30,000 fans as Seattle looks to build upon its first-season success in 2009. Highlighting the match, Philadelphia’s Danny Mwanga returns to the Northwest for his first MLS action. The Oregon State alum from Portland was the No. 1 pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.

Friday, March 26
Colorado Rapids at Chivas USA – Home Depot Center, 7:30 p.m. (Pacific) / Direct Kick After battling snowy conditions late last week, which cancelled their final preseason game, the Rapids kick off their 2010 campaign in Southern California against Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center. Colorado looks to return to the Western Conference’s elite in 2010 after missing out on last year’s playoffs due to tiebreakers. Chivas USA, who allowed a league-low 31 goals last season, has become a perennial contender in the Western Conference, reaching the postseason in each of the past four seasons.

Saturday, March 27
Toronto FC at Columbus Crew – Crew Stadium, 1 p.m. (Pacific) / Direct Kick For a second straight season, the Crew posted MLS’ best regular-season record in 2009 and won another Supporters Shield, but was ousted in the first round of the 2009 playoffs. Poised for another run to the top of the table, Columbus had a head start in competitive play this season, facing Mexico’s Toluca in CONCACAF Champions League action earlier this month. Under the guidance of new head coach Preki and the leadership of veteran striker Dwayne De Rosario, Toronto FC has its sights on the postseason in 2010.

Houston Dynamo at FC Dallas – Pizza Hut Park, 1 p.m. (Pacific) / Telefutura In-state rivals, FC Dallas and the Dynamo, clash in their 2010 season openers in Dallas. Houston finished second in the Western Conference last season, but bowed out of the playoffs in the first round to Seattle. Dallas hopes for another hot season from striker Jeff Cunningham, who scored 17 goals in 2009 to earn the MLS Golden Boot, and to compete for a playoff spot in 2010.

Chicago Fire at New York Red Bulls – Red Bull Arena 4 p.m. (Pacific) / ESPN While it won’t be “the” first game at the sparkling new Red Bull Arena, it will be the first official league match at the venue Saturday when the Red Bulls face 2009 Eastern Conference finalist Chicago Fire. Finishing with the worst record in MLS in 2009, New York revamped its front office and coaching staff in effort to build a playoff contender this season. With long-time veterans Brian McBride, C.J Brown and Jon Busch back in action this season, the Fire will be a threat for the Eastern Conference title once again.

D.C. United at Kansas City Wizards – Community America Ballpark, 5:30 p.m. (Pacific) / Direct Kick One of the most decorated teams in MLS history, D.C. United was one of the several teams on the cusp of a playoff spot in 2009. United looks to open its era under new head coach Curt Onalfo on the right foot, while the Wizards have added young playmaker Teal Bunbury to their roster and will look to him to contribute to an offense that ranked near the bottom of the league last season.

Real Salt Lake at San Jose Earthquakes – Buck Shaw Stadium 6 p.m. (Pacific) / Fox Soccer Channel Real Salt Lake begins defense of its MLS Cup title against the Earthquakes this weekend. Returning several key players from 2009, including goalkeeper and MLS Cup MVP Nick Rimando, the boys from RSL are primed for a repeat. San Jose looks to turnaround a seven-win season from a year ago. The Earthquakes went 7-1-2 during the preseason and hope the early going is a good preview of things to come in 2010.

New England Revolution at Los Angeles Galaxy – Home Depot Center, 8 p.m. (Pacific) / Fox Soccer Channel With arguably the longest distance to travel for their season opener, the Revolution visit the defending-Western Conference champion Galaxy on Saturday to wrap up MLS’ First Kick 2010. New England begins the season with veterans Taylor Twellman and Matt Reis on the sidelines due to injury, but will lean on the knowledge of head coach Steve Nicol – the longest tenured coach in MLS – who has seen it all. Reigning MLS MVP Landon Donovan is back from an offseason loan to the EPL’s Everton and ready to lead Los Angeles back to the promise land.