Major League Soccer begins its season on Saturday, with an earlier start and an accelerated finish to accommodate the World Cup, another expansion team (and plans for more) and — for the first time — a New York-area club as the league’s reigning champion.
Why the rush?
The regular season will start in February so that it can wrap up with the M.L.S. Cup final on Nov. 5, the earliest date for the championship game in 20 years, and more than a month earlier than last season’s final. The shift has been made to keep the season out of the way of the World Cup, which kicks off on Nov. 21 in Qatar.
A disruption-free season is the goal after the pandemic led to a significant revamp of the 2020 campaign and a delay and stadium restrictions in 2021. The league reports that its players are 97 percent vaccinated, which should help a lot.
For the sixth straight year a season opens with a new expansion team: This year the newcomer is Charlotte F.C., growing the number of Major League Soccer teams with Football Club in their names to a dozen.
There are more to come: St. Louis City S.C. (Soccer Club) joins next year, bringing the league to a city with a robust soccer heritage. St. Louis will be the league’s 29th team when it takes the field, and Las Vegas is expected to follow for an even 30. This week, Commissioner Don Garber said the league was already looking beyond that. “We’re beginning the process of deciding if it should expand to 32,” he said. “There are other North American leagues with that many teams, and I think our league could handle that.” No final determination has been made, though, he said.
With Charlotte playing in the 75,000-capacity Bank of America Stadium, home of the N.F.L.’s Carolina Panthers, there is an expectation that its home opener against Los Angeles F.C. on March 5 will break the M.L.S. attendance record of 73,000, which was set at the 2018 final in Atlanta.
Who are the title contenders?
New York City F.C., which won its first league championship last season by defeating the Portland Timbers on penalties, is returning most of its key players, notably Valentin Castellanos, who led the league with 22 goals. It has since added the 26-year-old Brazilian Thiago Martins to bolster its defense. But despite its playoff heroics, N.Y.C.F.C. had only the eighth best record in the regular season, and Cup repeats are rare: No team has done it since the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011 and ’12.
“That’s the goal, of course, to win again,” Coach Ronny Deila said this week. He said that while his team’s season ended where it wanted to be last season, not everything was perfect, and that, he hoped, would drive his team to improve.
“We’re a champion,” he said. “It’s always hard to replicate that. At the same time, we were 20 points behind New England last year.”
The New England Revolution posted the league’s best record in 2021, a stunning 22-5-7 mark that was 12 points clear of the next best team, but it will look a bit different. New England sold Tajon Buchanan, the 22-year-old Canadian midfielder, to Belgium’s Club Brugge; traded forward Teal Bunbury to Nashville; and will soon lose its rock, goalkeeper Matt Turner, to Arsenal. (Turner, now the United States national team’s No. 1, is expected to stay in New England through midseason.) The good news for the Revolution is that the reigning league M.V.P., Carles Gil, is back, and the veteran Jozy Altidore has been added for some more scoring punch.
The Seattle Sounders nearly won the Western Conference last year despite playing all year without forward Jordan Morris, who sustained a second major knee injury while on loan at Swansea City in the Premier League, and the Philadelphia Union will have plenty of motivation after losing to New York in the playoffs when missing 11 players because of Covid.
And L.A.F.C. is always going to be a contender as long as it has attacker Carlos Vela. “Having Carlos is incredible,” Coach Steve Cherundolo said. “He’s a goal scorer. He can set up goals. He’s an offensive threat, no matter what particular position he’s in. It’s great to have him.”
Who are the new faces?
But the new faces also include younger players, like the 20-year-old Argentine midfielder Thiago Almada, who joined Atlanta United for the highest transfer fee ever paid by the league: $16 million.
“We are recently part of the global soccer ecosystem,” Garber said. “That was not the case several years ago. This is the first year the league has been in the top five in both incoming and outgoing player sales. That’s not by luck and happenstances. It’s a focused strategy to invest in youth development, to take advantage of a ripe and fertile market, and ensure we continue to have an attract product with international players.”
Did I hear that Lionel Messi might be coming to M.L.S.?
Messi recently told a Spanish television channel, La Sexta, “I always had the dream of being able to enjoy and have the experience of living in the United States,” setting off an expected frenzy among stateside soccer fans. Of course, there is no evidence that he actually plans to come.