Setting the Stage for March: The Eastern Conference's Battle Royale (Round 1)

USA TODAY Sports

MLS's Eastern Conference starts the season with a no-holds-barred battle royale. March is the opening round. See which teams will be coming off the top turnbuckle, which will be looking to avoid a pin, and who will be standing at the end of March.

We've been anticipating the start of the 2013 Major League Soccer season here at Black and Red United pretty much since D.C. United fell to the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference finals back in November. Well, it's almost here now, so we're instituting a new monthly feature that will set the stage by reviewing the upcoming month's schedule for all the Eastern Conference teams. Hopefully, we'll be able to identify some early trends, figure out which teams have real opportunities to move up the standings, and which teams are in danger of falling.

As regular B&RU commenter Madavis noted when the 2013 MLS schedule was revealed, D.C. United has a furious beginning to the season with multiple games against the Houston Dynamo, New York Red Bulls, and Sporting Kansas City all in the first eleven games. He threw out the term "battle royale" to describe the start of the season, and I think it fits. For D.C. United, March will only be round 1 of that battle royale, however, with games against playoff contenders Houston, the New York Red Bulls, and the Columbus Crew all on tap.

So, what does the March schedule look like? The table below shows the schedule for all Eastern Conference teams over March's five weekends (there are no mid-week games this month!).

2 Mar/3 Mar 9 Mar/10 Mar 16 Mar/17 Mar 23 Mar/24 Mar 30 Mar
Chicago Fire @ LA New England @ Sporting Chivas
Columbus Crew @ Chivas @ Vancouver San Jose @ DC
D.C. United @ Houston RSL @ New York Columbus
Houston Dynamo DC @ Dallas Vancouver San Jose
Montreal Impact @ Seattle @ Portland Toronto New York @ Sporting
New England Revs @ Chicago @ Philadelphia Sporting Dallas
New York Red Bulls @ Portland @ San Jose DC @ Montreal Philadelphia
Philadelphia Union Sporting @ Colorado New England @ New York
Sporting Kansas City @ Philadelphia @ Toronto Chicago @ New England Montreal
Toronto FC @ Vancouver Sporting @ Montreal LA

1. Let's start by looking at the teams that have favorable schedules during March.

a. Houston Dynamo. Without a doubt, Houston has the most favorable MLS schedule among the Eastern Conference teams in March. First, they are the only Eastern team to get to play three of their four games at home (where they didn't lose last year, going 11-0-6), and their one road game is at Dallas. To be fair to Houston, their three home games are against 2012 playoff teams, but they have a dominant all-time record (8-0-1) against D.C. United in Houston throughout their history, and the Vancouver Whitecaps were clearly last year's weakest playoff side. And, with their singular road trip to Dallas, they will not leave the state of Texas during the entire month in MLS play. Houston does have two CONCACAF Champions League games in March (5 Mar vs. Santos Laguna, and 13 Mar in the return match at Santos), so how those games impact their MLS fortunes will be a key factor for the Dynamo.

b. D.C. United. In general, D.C. United's schedule looks very even with two home games and two away games, all against playoff or playoff-contending teams in 2012. A closer look, which Martin provided when the schedule first came out, shows that D.C. United gets to play two teams very early, RSL and New York, that have undergone significant roster changes headed into the 2013 season (and New York built their new roster before they even named their head coach). With D.C. United bringing back almost the entire core roster from last year, they have a chance to hold form at home against RSL and steal a win at New York (like they did in heart-stopping fashion in the 2012 playoffs). Additionally, D.C. United will be favorites to win at RFK against the Columbus Crew the week before they have a bye weekend on 30/31 Mar. That leaves the season opener at Houston as the key to a potentially big month for D.C. United. The Black-and-Red can lose this game, as history says they likely will, and still be fine. But if they can produce a result against the Dynamo at BBVA, the month of March could set up particularly well for them.

The season opener at Houston is the key to a potentially big month for D.C. United.

2. Here are the Eastern teams that have an unfavorable schedule during March.

a. Columbus Crew. The March schedule is going to force Columbus to work very hard to not start the season slowly. The Crew are the only Eastern team to play only one home game during the entire month (to go along with their three road games). Like the Montreal Impact and New York Red Bulls, Columbus starts the season with two games on the West Coast, visiting Chivas USA and the Vancouver Whitecaps on the first two weeks of the season. They then come home the third weekend of the month to play their singular home game in March against the defending Supporters' Shield holders, the San Jose Earthquakes. Finally, the Crew close out their March schedule by traveling to RFK to play D.C. United.

b. Montreal Impact. As already mentioned, Montreal starts the season with two road games on the West Coast. In fact, they will get an early look at Cascadia, taking on both the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers right out of the gate on the road. They then come back to Montreal for two home games, but both will be played indoors at Olympic Stadium. Finally, they play their fifth game in as many weeks at Sporting Kansas City. If you keep track of such things, Montreal won't play their first game in their usual home stadium of Stade Saputo until Apr. 13, their seventh game of the season.

c. New York Red Bulls. New York will also start with a two-game West Coast tour, playing at both Portland and San Jose. The newly retooled team and their rookie coach, Mike Petke, will then take on D.C. United at Red Bull Arena during MLS Rivalry week, before heading up to Montreal for their third road game of the month to play on Olympic Stadium's indoor field. New York will then close the month by playing their fifth game, this time at home against the Philadelphia Union.

d. Sporting Kansas City. Sporting also opens with two games on the road, at Philadelphia and at Toronto FC (but fortunately for Sporting, the game in Toronto will be indoors at the Rogers Centre--because an outdoor game on Mar. 9 in Toronto could be brutal). Sporting then gets to play at home during Rivalry Week against the Chicago Fire, before heading to the New England Revolution for their third road game of the month. They then play their fifth game of March at home against Montreal. Sporting will need to be ready for cold weather during March because their only guaranteed warm weather game will ironically be the indoor game at Toronto.

3. What to expect during March before being proven wrong when the games start being played?

Obviously each game in the schedule will be decided by the players on the field based on the skill and effort they put forth on that day (and perhaps a referee call/non-call or two). With that said, home field advantage is a real factor in MLS. Based on the way the March schedule sets up, the winner of the Houston vs. D.C. match on opening day likely has the inside track to be leading the east at the end of March. And, both of these teams only play four games during the month, so they could take an early lead even though they play one fewer game than many of their competitors.

For the other end of the table, I look for Columbus and Montreal, along with Toronto and New England, to be lingering at the bottom of the table when March comes to a close.

The month of March is just the first of eight months that make up the 2013 MLS regular season. Over the course of the season, the good fortune (or bad scheduling luck) some teams are facing during March will mostly even out. We'll keep taking a look at each of the remaining seven months as we get to them, including reviewing the Eastern Conference standings as we enter each month, but until then, keep coming back to Black and Red United for all your D.C. United regular season coverage.

How do you see D.C. United faring during March? Which teams do you predict will be leading the conference at the end of the month, and which will be at the bottom of the table? What other wrestling metaphors have we missed?

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