MLS preview: Red Bulls-Toronto FC, Timbers-Crew SC headline First Kick

AP Photo/Kevin Hagen

It’s here. It’s finally here. Major League Soccer’s First Kick 2016 is here.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Just like last year, in this space we’ll discuss the biggest MLS games each weekend and I’ll hazard a prediction for each and every one of them — last year’s picks were so-so — thus opening myself up to loads of ridicule over the next eight months, beginning on Sunday. C’est la vie.

New York Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC — Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET, MLS Live

Without a doubt in my mind, this is the game of the weekend, and a worthy curtain raiser for the 2016 season. It’s hard to see past these two teams battling it out for top spot in the Eastern Conference this season — the Red Bulls finished top and won the 2015 Supporters’ Shield; TFC finally made the playoffs, kept the core pieces (Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore) intact for a second season and addressed actual needs in the offseason. As far as ceilings go, there’s nothing higher in the East.

As for Sunday’s matchup, it’ll be a battle of strength versus strength — RBNY’s midfield trio (Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan and Felipe Martins) vs. TFC’s midfield trio (Bradley, Will Johnson and Benoit Cheyrou). Woo, tasty. A slight advantage has to go to RBNY for the fact that all three players are holdovers from last year, while Johnson only arrived this winter. That said, TFC have the ultimate MLS difference maker (Atomic Ant), and that almost always counted for something in 2015.

Prediction: Red Bulls 2-2 TFC

Portland Timbers vs. Columbus Crew SC — Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Rematch of MLS Cup 2015 on opening day 2016, you say? Blah, I say. Sure, MLS needs to improve its television ratings in a big way, and leading off with a rematch of last year’s title game is one way to do that, I suppose, but doing so gives the game little chance of exuding the kind of quality you’d hope to see on display between two title-contending teams. The first month of the MLS season is very rarely anything close to resembling good soccer, but that’s just my two cents.

Didn’t we just finish discussing the tactical battle between these teams? Oh yeah, so just about everything from MLS Cup remains relevant on Sunday: Darlington Nagbe as a central midfielder is the new engine of the Timbers buzzsaw; Fanendo Adi and Kei Kamara are nightmares both physically and in terms of their off-ball movement, so good luck, center backs; Crew SC’s full backs (Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful) are going to be insanely dangerous up and down the flanks, and even more fun to watch this year; they’re both lethal on set pieces and dreadful at defending them, which shouldn’t have changed much in the offseason.

Prediction: Timbers 1-1 Crew SC

Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting Kansas City — Sunday, 7 p.m. ET, FS1

Sounders versus Sporting KC is quickly becoming one of the better under-the-radar rivalries in MLS, for two distinct reasons: 1) the games almost always arrive with massive consequences with regard to the standings — they’re both really good every year, and figure to be so again in 2016 — 2) the games are almost always heated and full of tempers flaring up and plenty of controversy. This makes for an entertaining spectacle.

It’ll be tough sledding in early days for the Sounders, who’ll have to adjust to life without Obafemi Martins, but fortunately for them, Clint Dempsey is still around and Jordan Morris is ready to become the greatest American soccer player ever chip in 10 or so goals this season to pick up the slack. Forewarning to the rest of the league: Joevin Jones is going to slay at left back for the Sounders. As for Sporting, they’ll attempt to run it back once more with a squad that’s won two U.S. Open Cups and an MLS Cup over the last four seasons, with the notable loss of would-have-been-superstar Krisztian Nemeth, which is offset by the arrivals of Brad Davis and Justin Mapp. These teams will be very good again in 2016, but it’s going to take a bit of time.

Prediction: Sounders 0-1 Sporting KC