Six clubs had coaching changes, including D.C. United. Canadian teams have relocated south again. And after years of disappointment, there is renewed hope of an MLS side advancing to the world championship.
Here’s a look at what will help define the 2021 campaign:
The schedule: To keep teams out of jets and hotels as much as possible while the coronavirus crisis continues, cross-continent travel and interconference play have been largely curtailed. Instead of 13 or 14 games against teams in the other conference, MLS clubs will cross over two or three times only. D.C. United, for instance, will visit San Jose and host Minnesota.
The travel: When teams do leave home, they will fly on charters, which, in good times or bad, is common in other pro leagues and some college sports. For cost-saving reasons, MLS typically limits the number of private rides. The league waived that rule last year when it resumed play during the pandemic. In many cases, teams will also continue traveling on the morning of matches to avoid multiday stays.
The crowds: Some MLS teams welcomed back fans last fall, and more will open gates this spring but in limited and varying capacity. Atlanta will allow 50 percent (about 21,000), Colorado 44 percent (7,900) and D.C. 25 percent (5,000). Without a blockbuster TV contract, MLS relies heavily on game-day revenue. With this year’s schedule pushed back, teams will start making up for mammoth losses in 2020.
The interruptions: Because competitions overlap, MLS will pause the regular season the first 2½ weeks in June to avoid scheduling conflicts with players on national team assignments. It will also take a week off in July for the start of the Concacaf Gold Cup, lighten the schedule in early September and break in early October and November for 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
The favorites: As a reigning champion that bolstered its roster, Columbus begins in pole position. But in a balanced league, many are capable of dethroning the Crew. Los Angeles FC, featuring star forwards Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, underperformed last year. Philadelphia was the best team in the regular season but lost in the first round of the playoffs to New England, this year’s dark-horse darling. Seattle and Toronto are perennial contenders.
Texas three-step: Austin FC becomes MLS’s 27th team, joining FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo in the Lone Star State. And it comes with a high-profile spokesman: actor Matthew McConaughey, an Austin mainstay who invested in the team and became the face of the rollout. He’ll engage in a celebrity owner rivalry this weekend with Will Ferrell (LAFC). Later this season: Drew Carey (Seattle).
Expansion outlook: With Charlotte entering in 2022 and St. Louis a year later, MLS is nearing its long-stated target of 30 teams. The last slot was supposed to go to Sacramento, which for years proved its drawing power in the lower flight. But after the lead investor withdrew this winter, the scramble restarted. San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas lead the pack.
Canadian homes: Like other sports leagues, MLS has had to contend with coronavirus restrictions on travel to and from Canada. So for the time being, Toronto FC (Orlando), the Montreal Impact (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) and Vancouver Whitecaps (Salt Lake City) will again operate in U.S. locations and play “home” matches in other MLS stadiums.
New venues: Twenty-two years after opening MLS’s first stadium built for soccer, Columbus will christen a downtown venue July 3. FC Cincinnati will move from the University of Cincinnati football facility into a West End complex May 16. Austin will play its first seven games away before debuting Q2 Stadium on June 19.
NYC in N.J.: Entering its seventh season, New York City FC was supposed to have a stadium of its own by now. Not only have all plans faltered, its inadequate base, Yankee Stadium, can’t accommodate a full home schedule this year. So NYCFC will play at least nine matches in the Bronx and between six and eight at its rival’s complex, Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., a secondary home in years past.
Outgoing: MLS has become a target for European clubs seeking young talent, a trend that has led to multimillion dollar transfers. This offseason, Philadelphia sold Brenden Aaronson (Salzburg) and Mark McKenzie (Genk, Belgium), and Dallas moved Bryan Reynolds (Roma). Orlando loaned Daryl Dike to English club Barnsley, where his scoring exploits might lead to a big offer soon.
Incoming: While MLS-nurtured players are venturing abroad, two notable Americans who have never played in the U.S. league are arriving. Hawaiian-born Bobby Wood, a 13-goal scorer for the national team, will join Real Salt Lake after 11 years with German clubs. Alfredo Morales, a national team midfielder who has also spent his entire career in Germany, signed with NYCFC.
Coaching shuffle: Montreal assistant Wilfried Nancy replaced a famous Frenchman (Thierry Henry), while a well-known Englishman (Phil Neville) arrived in Miami after leaving the English women’s national team. Former Red Bulls coach Chris Armas landed in Toronto, replacing Greg Vanney, who joined the L.A. Galaxy. Atlanta (Gabriel Heinze) and D.C. (Hernán Losada) opted for Argentines with no MLS experience. Ex-U.S. forward Josh Wolff will guide Austin.
Concussion rule: MLS will participate in a FIFA pilot program that allows teams to replace up to two players who have suffered a concussion or suspected concussion, regardless of the number of substitutions already used. If a team does so, the opponent will receive an additional sub that will be available only after all five of its normal subs have been made.
Not-so-Open Cup: By definition, the U.S. Open Cup welcomes all teams from several levels of American soccer to compete for a trophy first awarded in 1914. Pandemic-related issues will limit this year’s field to 16 teams, including eight from MLS, determined by regular season points after three weekends. The remaining teams are set: Last year’s results secured the six second- and third-division entries, and a draw decided the two amateur teams.
World awaits: MLS has made steady strides but remains second fiddle to Mexico’s Liga MX, continually falling short of a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup. Mexican clubs have won 15 consecutive Concacaf Champions League titles, with MLS finalists losing four times. Atlanta, Philadelphia, Portland and Toronto have reached the quarterfinals this year and Columbus is on the cusp.
If you can’t beat 'em …: MLS and Liga MX clash in not only the Champions League but the eight-team Leagues Cup and single-game Campeones Cup. Both sides benefit from the interaction: Mexican teams gain greater branding in the United States, and MLS attaches itself to Liga MX’s superior popularity. The partnership has led to speculation of regular interleague play or a quasi-merger someday.
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