WASHINGTON, March 2, 2015 – Major League Soccer is about to embark on its 20th season. North America’s experiment in professional soccer is generating an excitement that has not been seen here since David Beckham joined the league back in 2007.
Two well-funded teams have been added to the league, along with big-name star players. There has been a realignment of the conferences and a tinkering with the playoff format.
That said, a shadow still hangs over the league, which is scheduled to kick off on Friday, March 6, when the reigning champion Los Angeles Galaxy host the Chicago Fire. The league is currently bogged-down in collective bargaining negotiations with the players union. The players are seeking some level of free-agency in the single-entity league which controls all the player’s contracts rather than the individual teams. Both sides say they are hoping to avoid a work stoppage.
The exciting news is the addition of expansion clubs, New York City FC and Orlando City SC, the first MLS franchise in Florida since the demise of the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay in 2002. Orlando will play at the Citrus Bowl, while New York City FC will play its first season at Yankee Stadium. Both expansion clubs have plans for their own venues in the works.
Chivas USA, a regular team in the league since 2005, which shared the StubHub venue, in Carson, California, with the Galaxy, has folded. A new L.A. team will begin play in 2017.
This year also sees the addition of a number of world famous stars. Brazilian 2002 World Cup winner Kaka, 32, has signed with Orlando, while Spanish 2010 World Cup winner David Villa, 33, will star at New York City FC. Later in the season, English Premier League veterans, Frank Lampard, 36, and Steven Gerrard, 34, will join New York City FC and the Galaxy respectively.
A stream of U.S. national team players have also returned to play in the league. Jozy Altidore, 25, has left Sunderland in England and signed with Toronto FC where he will play alongside fellow U.S. ace Michael Bradley and new-signing Sebastian Giovinco, 28, a talented Italian attacking midfielder from Juventus, who will be the highest paid player in MLS, earning a reported annual salary of $7 million.
American World Cup midfielder Mix Diskerud, 24, has moved from Norway to link up with New York City FC, and U.S. national team winger Brek Shea has joined Orlando, after a bouncing around a number of English clubs. Other former U.S. team players, Sacha Kljestan, 29, and Juan Agudelo, 22, are back in the league. Kljestan has joined the New York Red Bulls from Belgian side Anderlecht, while 2011 U.S. regular Agudelo, is back with the New England Revolution after a stint in Holland.
New York City FC and Orlando will join the ten-team Eastern Conference for the 34-game season, while the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City move from the Eastern to the ten-team Western Conference. All 20 teams will play their last league games on Sunday Oct. 25.
The playoffs will involve 12 teams, up from ten in recent years, with the top six teams from each conference qualifying. The first round of the playoffs will have the third-seed team hosting the sixth-seed and the fourth hosting the fifth. The winners will enter the semifinals where the conference top-seed will play the remaining lowest seed and the conference runner-up taking on the next lowest seed. The MLS Cup will be played in early December.
In a new TV deal, MLS games will be aired on ESPN, Univision Deportes and Fox Sports, with nationally aired games on Sundays and Friday evenings.
The San Jose Earthquakes will open its season at its new soccer-specific 18,000 capacity venue, Avaya Stadium.
There have been a few coaching changes. Dominic Kinnear returns to coach the Earthquakes; former Premier League coach Owen Coyle arrives in Houston where he replaces Kinnear, and in a surprising move, Jesse Marsch replaces Mike Petke at the Red Bulls.
Local team D.C. United, which begins the season with a future new stadium plan finally sealed, will be missing its star striker, and newly-minted designated player, Fabian Espindola, for its first six games due to suspension. The club’s other designated player, Eddie Johnson, has missed the pre-season with medical problems.
United stunned the league last season by winning the East, but slipped up in the playoffs to the Red Bulls.
On paper, the Galaxy, Toronto, Seattle, New York City FC, and New England look to be the strongest teams going into the season.
Sadly, the league will be missing Galaxy star Landon Donovan who retired at the end of last season.
John Haydon covered soccer for The Washington Times for over 20 years.