The 2017 MLS season kicks off on Friday with the expansion Minnesota United playing its first game at Portland, followed by seven games Saturday and three more on Sunday. Steven Goff gives you the top story lines with his Starting XI.
1. United front
United will play United three times: United will face United once, and United will play United once. Confused? With expansion Atlanta United and Minnesota United joining original member D.C. United, raising league membership to a record 22, MLS is quite united these days. On the way to a stated 28-team circuit, the league will welcome Los Angeles FC in 2018 and continue reviewing 12 applications for four or five slots in the near future. (David Beckham’s drawn-out effort to bring a team back to Miami is in limbo.) St. Louis and Sacramento were the early favorites for the next two prizes (slated for approval late this year), but strong bids from places such as San Diego, Detroit and Phoenix have clouded the situation.
2. Stadium surge
Almost every year, it seems, a new stadium sprouts on the MLS landscape. Two will open this year, and three are slated for 2018. On Sunday, Orlando will christen a 25,500-seat, privately financed downtown venue. The team played its first two seasons at Camping World Stadium (formerly Citrus Bowl). The new venue will also house the Orlando Pride women’s team. Atlanta will start at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium before moving into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which will replace Georgia Dome for the NFL’s Falcons. Minnesota will play at a college football facility, TCF Bank Stadium, while it builds its own place. Los Angeles FC is erecting Banc of California Stadium next to the Coliseum and D.C. United broke ground this week on Audi Field, scheduled to open next summer.
3. New leaders
Atlanta went for an internationally seasoned head coach, while Minnesota chose an MLS-tested boss. Atlanta’s pick, Gerardo Martino, guided Paraguay at the 2010 World Cup, FC Barcelona in 2013-14 and his native Argentina for two years, ending with last summer’s Copa America Centenario. Minnesota turned to Englishman Adrian Heath, who led Orlando City as a third-division operation and in the top tier for 1½ seasons before being fired last summer. In Los Angeles, Bruce Arena’s return to the U.S. national team opened the door for Curt Onalfo, a former Kansas City and D.C. boss who had guided the Galaxy’s third-division squad. Houston declined to upgrade Wade Barrett from interim status and hired Wilmer Cabrera, who oversaw youth national teams and defunct MLS side Chivas USA.
4. Seattle’s reign
In their first seven seasons, the Seattle Sounders won four U.S. Open Cups and a Supporters’ Shield while setting attendance records. The MLS Cup trophy remained elusive until December, when they capped a four-month resurgence with new Coach Brian Schmetzer and without Clint Dempsey (heart condition) by defeating Toronto FC in a penalty kick tiebreaker. Can they repeat? With a healthy Dempsey, blossoming Jordan Morris, full year of Nicolas Lodeiro and two smart acquisitions via trade — forward Will Bruin from Houston and midfielder Harry Shipp from Montreal — they’ll begin the season as the Western Conference front-runners and league favorites. Lodeiro, a big-ticket signing from Boca Juniors last summer, is MVP material.
5. Outgoing stars
On the surface, it was a damaging mass exodus of star power: Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Landon Donovan have left the league! But upon further inspection, the English duo of Gerrard (Los Angeles) and Lampard (New York City FC) was ready to retire and Keane, the 36-year-old Irish striker who won the 2014 league MVP award, was set to move on after 83 goals, 45 assists and three MLS Cups in 5½ seasons. Drogba was an instant success in Montreal in 2015, but a year later had worn out his welcome. Donovan, the most prolific scorer in MLS and U.S. national team history, came out of retirement last summer to rejoin the Galaxy but wasn’t the same. He flirted with joining Real Salt Lake this winter but didn’t reach a deal.
6. Coming home
About 100 Americans are employed by clubs abroad, and while the romance of playing overseas will always tempt some, MLS’s appeal has expanded, thanks to rising salaries and general growth. Incoming this season: Brad Guzan (Middlesbrough to Atlanta this summer), Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City to Orlando), Greg Garza (Tijuana to Atlanta), Fabrice Picault (St. Pauli to Philadelphia), Josh Gatt (Molde to Minnesota) and Brooks Lennon (Liverpool’s U-23s to Real Salt Lake on loan). Oguchi Onyewu, a two-time World Cup defender who had spent 13 years in Europe, signed with Philadelphia after a two-year injury layoff. Other notables in recent years: Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard, Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya and Sacha Kljestan.
7. Grand TAM
The designated player rule allowed teams to throw their own money at glamorous figures. Collective bargaining agreements have raised wages for the working class. What was missing was a mechanism to improve salaries — and, in turn, the quality of starters — for the class of talent one pay grade below superstardom. Introduced in 2015, Targeted Allocation Money is having a considerable impact as funds — provided from league coffers and exempt from salary cap rules — that teams apply toward players whom they’ve signed for between $480,625 and $1 million. For example, D.C. used TAM to retain playmaker Luciano Acosta and re-sign defender Steve Birnbaum, who otherwise might’ve played out his contract this season and bolted overseas next winter.
8. Homegrown sons
Sixteen prospects signed homegrown contracts this winter, bypassing the draft and other acquisition platforms because of direct ties to an MLS youth academy. Two names stand out because of family history: D.C. United’s Ian Harkes, 21, and FC Dallas’s Jesus Ferreira, 16. Harkes’s father, John, a former U.S. national team midfielder, captained D.C. to league titles in 1996 and ’97. Ferreira’s father, David, a Colombian, starred for Dallas in from 2009 to 2013 and was MLS MVP in 2010. Dallas has the most current homegrowns (nine), followed by the Red Bulls (eight). The most notable MLS homegrowns: Seattle’s DeAndre Yedlin (now at Newcastle) and Morris; D.C.’s Andy Najar (Anderlecht) and Bill Hamid; and Los Angeles’s Gyasi Zardes.
9. On call
For many MLS players, the next eight months are critical to 2018 World Cup dreams. With CONCACAF in the final stage of qualifiers, about 20 MLS-based Americans are in the running for two-match assignments in late March, early June, late summer and October. Several players from Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago — as well as a few other countries — are also affected. The league has done better in recent years with minimizing scheduling conflicts with official FIFA dates, but some continue to exist. With the U.S.-hosted Gold Cup pulling numerous players from MLS teams for up to four weeks in July, the league will pause for the 12 days of group matches. MLS will also break for a FIFA window during the playoffs in November.
10. Beyond borders
MLS’s on-field growth has not extended internationally, with annual shortcomings in the only true testing ground, the CONCACAF Champions League. In the current format, Mexico has won all eight trophies and claimed all eight corresponding berths in the Club World Cup. MLS teams have reached the regional finals twice — despite having the most representatives (five) in the annual 24-club field. Dallas and either Vancouver or the Red Bulls will be in the semifinals this spring. The calendar, though, leaves the league at a disadvantage: Early in the year, MLS teams are in preseason form while Mexican sides are deep into their campaign. The competition will change this summer: Smaller countries will play in a separate event from August to October, with the winner joining bigger sides in the round of 16 next February.
11. Video replay
Soccer in general has been slow to embrace technology, but this preseason, MLS was granted permission to experiment with video reviews on goals, penalty decisions, red-card incidents and cases of mistaken identity. When a questionable play or decision arises, a video assistant referee communicates with the referee to prompt a review. During the first part of the regular season, the league will test the system offline in every venue without interrupting the match or changing decisions. It then plans to implement video review into select matches after the All-Star Game. FIFA experimented during the Club World Cup this winter, and the Bundesliga will test next season. An international board will decide in 2018 or ‘19 whether to apply reviews universally.
Opening weekend schedule
Minnesota United at Portland Timbers, 9:30 (FS1)
Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew, 2
FC Dallas at Los Angeles Galaxy, 4 (Univision)
Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake, 4:30
New England Revolution at Colorado Rapids, 6
Sporting Kansas City at D.C. United, 7 (NewsChannel 8)
Seattle Sounders at Houston Dynamo, 8:30
Montreal Impact at San Jose Earthquakes, 10
New York City FC at Orlando City, 5 (ESPN)
New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United, 7:30 (FS1)
Philadelphia Union at Vancouver Whitecaps, 9:30