MLS returns this weekend, and unlike most of the big soccer leagues in the world, it can do so in front of some fans. We won’t hear the sheer wall of noise we would usually get in Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, and Orlando, or in more and more places these days, just yet. But it will be a relief to hear actual crowd noise along with our footy instead of the canned stuff that’s been adorning our coverage for the past eight months that’s always a second behind the play and throws you off but maybe that’s how things will be anyway thanks to VAR (Video Assistant Referee) and offside rules and oh god everything’s just the worst….
Sorry. Got away from me there. Anyway, in the past I’ve been pretty skeptical and down about MLS. But you can’t go through life being a miserable sod, even if society today pushes you that way. It’s bad for the heart. So I’m really going to try to stay positive, attentive, and inquisitive about the league this time. Doesn’t mean I will, but I’m going to try. Or I’m going to try to try.
So, in my best Seinfeld voice…
What’s the deal with MLS in 2021?
They’re seemingly off to a great start even before the season has started. How’s that? Well, all five MLS teams in the CONCACAF Champions League advanced out of the round-of-16 this week, meaning the quarterfinals are 62 percent MLS teams. It included Toronto knocking off Mexican champions León, while dragging around what’s left of Michael Bradley and Jozy Alitdore! Quite the accomplishment! An MLS team has never won the CONCACAF Champions League, which comes with a berth to the FIFA Club World Cup in December, so that’s sort of a thing.
BUT THAT’S NOT WHY YOU CALLED.
So who’s good?
Columbus won the whole thing last year, and everyone seems to think they got way better than that squad with the additions of Kevin Molino and Bradley Wright-Phillips. Wait, BWP is still considered a boffo addition? Ok, I said I was going to stay positive...but BRADLEY WRIGHT-PHILLIPS?! Sorry, I’ll rein it back in. Man, BWP still getting it done I guess.
Philadelphia Union won the Supporters’ Shield last year, meaning they had the best record in the league, which in pretty much every other country means they would have won the title. But we don’t do things that way here. They lost their offensive engine Brendan Aaronson, as he toddled off to Europe, but still figure to be pretty good.
Atlanta was abhorrent last year, but were also without perhaps the league’s best player in Josef Martinez after he tore his ACL. Seeing as how he poured in 77 goals in three seasons before that, you could say he’s a touch vital to their hopes.
Some seem pretty bullish on Orlando FC, but they might lose their striker Daryl Dike to a European transfer after he’s torched the English Championship since the January transfer window. They brought in once Brazilian wunderkind Pato, but I’ve seen what happens to teams that depend on Pato.
On the other side, the West, LAFC is always good, as Carlos Vela continues to toy with this league. Seattle were the analytic champions last year, and lost the actual championship to Columbus in the MLS Cup Final. Jordan Morris was on loan at Swansea, but he blew his knee out, so he won’t be playing for either team for quite a while. They signed Fredy Montero and Kelyn Rowe, who I’m fairly sure have been playing in MLS for 48 years combined.
Let’s throw Sporting KC on the list, because they have the angriest man in the world managing them still in Peter Vermes and I don’t want him to come looking for me.
Ok, are there players I should be watching?
More than a few I’m told! Martinez and Vela are at the top of the list. Where the real study is in the younger side of things, as the league has structured things to make it even more valuable for clubs to find and develop young players to sell them off to Europe. MLS seems to be embracing its “seller’s league” profile.
Diego Rossi runs wild on the other side of Vela at LAFC and is almost certainly destined for bigger things. His teammate and fellow Uruguayan, Brian Rodriguez, is another. How does LAFC ever lose anyway? Oh right, that whole “playing defense” thing. Whatever, defense is for nerds! Ayo Akinola seems to be moving Altidore aside in Toronto, and is the subject of a tug of war internationally between the U.S., Canada, and Nigeria. Caden Clark at RBNY is another player many seem to have an eye on, and the hope is he’ll flourish a la the company policy of any Red Bull club to basically play like someone singed your scrotum.
Speaking of Canada, where are those teams playing?
Yes, much like the Blue Jays, the league’s three Canadian teams will prove you can’t go home again. Vancouver will play in Utah, and Montreal and Toronto will become Floridians, as we all know Canadians end up in their dotage anyway. There is hope that they will be able to return to The Great White North at some point in the season, though that will depend on restrictions and vaccines and science and such.
Of course! This is MLS, there will be a new team every year from here to perpetuity. Austin FC joins the fray this year.
You may remember they’re owned by that asshole, Anthony Precourt, who tried to hijack the Crew out of Columbus, but it was the rare case of the fans fighting back and winning, with the owners of the Cleveland Browns helping out. So MLS gave Precourt his very own expansion franchise, while also begrudgingly accepting yet another expansion fee of $150 million.
Are the playoffs still weird?
Totally! Seven teams from each conference make it, with each conference champ getting a bye to the conference semifinals. Which then become a gauntlet of late goals and bad luck and baffling refereeing decisions where usually the best teams crash out. But it’s also usually chaotic and loud and deep down we all kind of love it even though we’ll never say so out loud.
What about precautions for the whole pandemic that’s still going on?
Kind of the same as last fall. Most of the schedule will be intra-conference and accented to teams that are geographically near each other to reduce travel. Though why spending two hours on a plane is that much different than spending four is up to you to decode.
Let’s get it on!