PREVIEW-Soccer-Toronto seek more MLS glory, LAFC make debut
TORONTO, March 1 (Reuters) - Major League Soccer's 2018 campaign begins this week featuring exciting new faces, notable departures, a hungry Toronto team determined to retain their title and Los Angeles FC's debut.
Toronto, who last December became the first non-American club to win the MLS Cup, return among the favorites to lift the trophy this year along with Atlanta United, who many expect to build on a stunning run to the playoffs in their debut season.
The bulk of Toronto's potent roster that last year captured the first domestic treble in MLS history will return, including all three designated players in Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and captain Michael Bradley.
But, with a desire to establish the league's next dynasty, the Reds have made some key additions, including the signings of Dutch international defender Gregory van der Wiel and Spanish midfielder Ager Aketxe from Athletic Bilbao.
"Even as (MLS) champions from last year, nothing's guaranteed for this year. Not even close," said Bradley.
"So, the understanding from everybody here is to take what we have built and continue to work with humility and motivation and excitement; to make sure that we are not standing still."
Toronto begin their title defense at home when they face the Columbus Crew in the first of six games on Saturday to mark the start of the new season.
The league's 23 teams will each battle through a 34-game regular season that concludes on Oct. 28, followed by the MLS Cup Playoffs which run from Oct. 31-Dec. 8.
Some high-profile players will be missing from MLS action this year as both Andrea Pirlo and Kaka left New York City and Orlando City, respectively, at the end of the last campaign.
However, there are a number of potential breakthrough players to keep an eye on, including Atlanta's 18-year-old Argentine midfielder Ezequiel Barco, whose $15 million transfer from Independiente in January set an MLS record.
Barco, out four-to-six weeks with a right quadriceps strain, joins an already talented Atlanta side that in their inaugural season captured the imagination of the fans, broke attendance records and became the first MLS expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to reach the playoffs.
The addition of Barco, coupled with the acquisition of MLS standout and U.S. international Darlington Nagbe in a trade with Portland, has Atlanta looking capable of being an even more dangerous attacking side than they were last year.
There will also be plenty of eyes on the West Coast where Los Angeles FC, who have a high-profile head coach in former U.S. team boss Bob Bradley, hope to emulate Atlanta's feat.
Helping the expansion team's cause will be Mexico's Carlos Vela, a proven international forward with an eye for goal, and Belgian international defender Laurent Ciman.
The MLS's newest team will battle with LA Galaxy for soccer supremacy in the demanding Los Angeles market and offer the first local derby since Chivas USA folded in 2014.
The two LA-based teams will have the first of their three meetings this season on March 31 at the home of the Galaxy. (Reporting by Frank Pingue; Editing by Ken Ferris)
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