A second team has arrived in Los Angeles while an original member appears on its way out of Ohio. There’s expansion activity, a Canadian juggernaut, a long-awaited stadium in Washington and an influx of league cash to bolster rosters. Alas, there’s no World Cup for MLS’s elite U.S. players.
It’s Year 23 for 23-team Major League Soccer, which will christen the season this weekend with 10 matches, including D.C. United at Orlando on Saturday.
Here is the Starting 11 …
1) MLS loves local rivalries, which, in soccer parlance, is known as the “derby.” And with the arrival of Los Angeles FC, the league has erected the framework for a second metro derby, in addition to the New York Red Bulls vs. New York City FC. The California tussle will pit the downtown-based newcomers with the suburban Galaxy in not only three annual matches, but in a battle for fans and media attention. The timing is terrible for the Galaxy, a five-time champion that, after finishing last in the 2017 overall standings, sits vulnerable to a Southern California insurgence.
2) Unlike several recent expansion teams, LAFC will not need to play in a temporary home. Banc of California Stadium, a 22,000-seater costing $350 million, will open April 29, adjacent to the Coliseum and on land that once housed the L.A. Sports Arena. D.C. United’s 14-year wait to replace crumbling RFK Stadium as its home will end July 14 with the opening of Audi Field, a 20,000-capacity venue at Buzzard Point in Southwest D.C., two blocks from Nationals Park. Next in line: Minnesota United’s Allianz Field, a 19,400-seat park in St. Paul that’s scheduled to open early next year.
3) LAFC’s unveiling comes one year after Atlanta made a massive debut splash by setting the league attendance record and Minnesota joined the fold to less fanfare. If MLS sticks to its plan, the league will expand to 28 teams within a few years. Nashville was awarded a team in December and Miami, led by investor David Beckham, gained approval in February, raising the total to 25. Their starting dates remain unclear. MLS had planned to name another city this winter — Cincinnati, Sacramento or Detroit — but pushed back the date. Phoenix could reenter the race for one of the last two slots.
4) While MLS has drawn praise for expanding into the right markets, it has been widely pilloried for not stopping the Columbus Crew from moving to Austin after the 2018 season. Citing low attendance and claiming an unfavorable business climate since taking charge in 2013, investor Anthony Precourt announced relocation intentions last October. The Crew is a founding member and two-time MLS Cup finalist. The league has given its blessing, but Austin hasn’t exactly rolled out the red carpet. Perhaps the #SaveTheCrew campaign, which spread to many MLS markets, has some life left in it.
5) Every four years, MLS goes dark for a few weeks in June while many of its best American players head off to the World Cup. The league will take the usual break for the group stage, but all of those U.S. stars will remain home instead of going to Russia. Last fall’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, breaking a streak that began in 1990, was a black eye for both the sport in this country and the league that employs many national team players. Nonetheless, MLS will send maybe two dozen to the World Cup, representing Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and several other countries.
6) The class of new coaches comprises three from abroad, one from the second tier and two with deep roots in U.S. soccer: New England’s Brad Friedel, a former national team and Premier League goalkeeper; and LAFC’s Bob Bradley, who guided the 2010 U.S. World Cup squad, Egyptian national team and Premier League’s Swansea City. Giovanni Savarese jumps to Portland from the NASL’s New York Cosmos, while San Jose’s Mikael Stahre (Sweden), Montreal’s Remi Garde (France) and Colorado’s Anthony Hudson (New Zealand national team coach) are new to the league.
7) Will Toronto FC end MLS’s rut in the CONCACAF Champions League? It’s been 18 years since an MLS team won the regional competition, which is the only true international platform for the league to measure itself. In the past dozen years, Mexican clubs have advanced to the finals 21 times and won every title; MLS teams have gone twice (Real Salt Lake in 2011, Montreal in 2015). Of the MLS entries, Toronto appeared best equipped for a breakthrough this spring. Among the challenges is getting up to speed early in the MLS calendar and keeping pace with opponents in midseason form.
8) Speaking of Toronto, Greg Vanney’s squad is the clear favorite to not just win MLS Cup again, but defend the Supporters’ Shield trophy (most regular season points) and repeat as Canadian cup winner. Well-funded by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the NBA’s Raptors and NHL’s Maple Leafs, the organization took full advantage of MLS’s deeper pool of acquisition funds to sign former Dutch national team defender Gregory van der Wiel and Spanish midfielder Ager Aketxe. Toronto also added Brazilian defender Auro (on loan) to a high-powered roster.
9) The salary cap for each team is $4.085 million, which, in this day and age of wild spending in sports, is adorable. There are, however, exemptions for up to 10 players and several roster guidelines that allow teams to sign players without destroying the cap. Toronto’s payroll last year was more than $22 million. Houston was at the bottom with $5 million (yet still advanced to the Western Conference finals). This year, with the league furnishing additional flexibility, MLS might begin to see a noticeable performance gap between teams taking advantage of new rules and those stuck in the past.
10) No U.S. league makes as much news in its offseason as the NBA. Baseball’s hot stove league crackles to life every winter and NFL free agency keeps fans engaged. MLS pales in comparison but is starting to make more noise during the break. This winter, several prominent players were traded: Darlington Nagbe (Portland to Atlanta), Sacha Kljestan (Red Bulls to Orlando), David Accam (Chicago to Philadelphia), Justin Meram (Columbus to Orlando), Gyasi Zardes (Galaxy to Columbus), Ola Kamara (Columbus to Galaxy), Kei Kamara (New England to Vancouver) and Benny Feilhaber (Kansas City to LAFC).
11) While trades are the primary form of player movement within the league, transfers are the way to bring players into MLS. This winter, Atlanta set the league record by purchasing midfielder Ezequiel Barco, 18, from Argentine club Independiente for $15 million. (He’ll miss the first 4-6 weeks with an quadriceps injury.) LAFC signed Mexican standout Carlos Vela from Spain’s Real Sociedad for a reported $5.9 million. It works the other way, too: Outgoing players included Bill Hamid (D.C. United to Denmark’s Midtjylland), Cyle Larin (Orlando to Turkey’s Besiktas) and Jack Harrison (NYCFC to Manchester City).
More soccer coverage: