One of the longest offseasons in Major League Soccer’s history comes to an end Saturday, when D.C. United and the Colorado Rapids kick off the league’s 25th season at Audi Field.
In the four months since the Seattle Sounders hoisted MLS Cup, the league has experienced yet another transformation.
Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez leads the latest influx of international talent, while two expansion teams — Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF — are debuting in 2020.
Off the field, the MLS Players Association and the owners came to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement that addressed some of the concerns the players brought about during the 2019 campaign.
Five MLS teams (Atlanta United FC, Los Angeles FC, Montreal Impact, New York City FC and the Seattle Sounders) have already started their respective seasons on the international stage in the Concacaf Champions League.
All 26 clubs will kick off their domestic campaigns Saturday and Sunday.
Before the first ball is kicked, here is a look at 25 things to watch during the 25th season of MLS.
MLS finally landed its white whale signing when the LA Galaxy inked Hernandez to a deal in January.
The 31-year-old with 109 international appearances for Mexico and experience in three of Europe’s top leagues brings a buzz to the field that no one else in MLS can match. Hernandez is projected to draw Mexican fans to the league and the Galaxy now that he is back in North America.
— LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) February 23, 2020
On the field, Hernandez will be tasked with replacing the impact of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored 52 goals in 53 regular-season games in his two seasons with the Galaxy.
Hernandez also will be counted on to help the Galaxy keep up with cross-town rival LAFC, who has its own El Tri star in Carlos Vela leading the line.
2. El Trafico
May 16 and Aug. 23 are the two dates you must circle on your calendar right now.
The 2020 editions of El Trafico, the rivalry between the Galaxy and LAFC, will be two of the most anticipated matches in league history.
They will likely be two of the most-watched events in MLS’ existence due to the presence of two Mexican superstars playing against each other.
The May 16 clash takes place at Banc of California Stadium and will be broadcast on ABC. The Aug. 23 edition, which occurs during Rivalry Week, appears on Fox from Dignity Health Sports Park.
The Galaxy have two regular-season wins to LAFC’s zero, but the Black-and-Gold did earn the upper hand in the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Bob Bradley has built a powerhouse at LAFC.
During the club’s second season, it took home the Supporters’ Shield with Vela leading the charge in the final third. But the Black and Gold are successful due to other reasons than just the 30-year-old’s form in front of goal.
Bradley has struck the perfect balance of emerging South American talent, experienced international stars, MLS veterans and American role players in his roster building.
The midfield trio of Mark Anthony-Kaye, Eduard Atuesta and Latif Blessing was one of the best units the league had to offer in 2019, and Diego Rossi provided support for Vela in the scoring column.
If those players raise their levels once again, LAFC could be the team to beat for the Supporters’ Shield, but some questions lie in defense after Walker Zimmerman was shipped off to Nashville SC in the middle of preseason for a large chunk of allocation money. The club has a new goalkeeper too in 34-year-old Kenneth Vermeer, a veteran of the Dutch league.
4. Expansion teams
Speaking of Nashville SC, it is one of two sides taking the field for the first time this weekend.
Nashville was slotted into the Western Conference, while Inter Miami CF was added to the Eastern Conference to make the split between divisions even at 13.
Zimmerman is one of many players with MLS experience that will be relied upon by head coach Gary Smith to provide some stability in the opening months of the campaign while the club finds its on-pitch identity.
Dax McCarty, David Accam and Daniel Lovitz are among the other MLS veterans Nashville added. The club has spent the last two seasons competing in the USL Championship.
Inter Miami has been tagged as the flashier of the two expansion clubs because of its ownership group that includes former Manchester United, Real Madrid and England star David Beckham.
While Miami has brought in experienced MLS players like Luis Robles, Roman Torres and Wil Trapp, the flashiest part of its roster are the designated players.
Rodolfo Pizarro and Matias Pellegrini are the club’s first two DPs and will have pressure on them from the start, but the question looming over them is, will they be the highest-profile players brought in by the club this season?
Miami has been mentioned in the same sentence as plenty of big names playing in Europe, but none of them have landed in South Florida yet, and we might have to wait until the summer transfer window to see one of those moves come to fruition.
5. FC Cincinnati
Nashville and Miami have plenty of lessons to learn from the disastrous expansion campaign of FC Cincinnati in 2019.
Cincy gave up the most goals in a single season in league history, fired its first head coach early in the campaign and finished dead last in the Eastern Conference.
The off-season was supposed to be a refreshing time for the club to hit the reset button, but instead it was mired by off-the-field issues. Ron Jans was let go as manager after accusations of using racial slurs and Darren Mattocks was issued felony charges for insurance fraud.
The technical staff brought in plenty of intriguing names, including Siem de Jong, Yuya Kubo and Jurgen Locadia, but how it all comes together is still a massive question.
Cincy may not be the best team in the Eastern Conference, but with so much going on inside the club, it is worth watching to see if it can avoid being a dumpster fire for the second straight year.
6. Chicago Fire’s transition phase
The Chicago Fire are one of the league’s original clubs, but they have an expansion-like feel going into the new season.
Chicago finally ditched the unfriendly confines of Bridgeview, Illinois to move back into Soldier Field, where the club hopes to increase attendance and overall interest in the club.
However, that did not get off to a great start when most fans were critical of their new logo design.
Still, the new logo will be the least of the team’s concerns if it can’t improve on the field under first-year head coach Raphael Wicky.
The Fire have qualified for the playoffs once since 2013 after being a consistent figure in the postseason for most of their existence.
7. How will new coaches fare?
Wicky is one of five new head coaches installed for the 2020 campaign. The 42-year-old was coaching the U.S. U-17s before he jumped at the opportunity to lead the Fire.
Thierry Henry has returned to MLS to coach the Montreal Impact, New York City FC hired Ronny Deila and Houston brought on Tab Ramos to lead its squad. They will coach their first MLS matches over the weekend.
Orlando City’s Oscar Pareja is the one familiar face to rejoin the coaching ranks. He had successful spells with the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas before he left to join Club Tijuana in Liga MX in 2019.
In 2019, three of the five new head coaches took their sides to the playoffs, while six franchises parted ways with managers during the season.
8. With Henry and without Piatti
Henry was one of the most captivating players in MLS when he put on the New York Red Bulls shirt from 2010-14.
After his playing career was over, he was an assistant for the Belgium national team and had an ill-fated spell at Monaco in Ligue 1.
Henry will now take the reigns in Montreal, which is on its sixth head coach since the start of 2013.
The Frenchman has one of the toughest tasks in MLS, as he builds a young squad without the influence of Ignacio Piatti, who returned to Argentina with San Lorenzo. During his time with the Impact, Piatti was one of the best attacking players in MLS. He had 66 goals and 35 assists in 135 regular-season games and the focal point of every opponent’s defensive game plan.
Losing Piatti is a tough blow, but the Impact should know how to play without him since he missed a good chunk of the 2019 campaign with injuries.
9. New York City FC’s new look
Ronny Deila is the fourth coach in NYCFC’s short history.
Despite the turnover from Jason Kreis to Patrick Vieira to Domenec Torrent, the Pigeons have been one of the more consistent sides in the Eastern Conference.
NYCFC has dealt with transition phases as well as any club could, as it found a replacement for David Villa in Brazilian striker Heber, who should be a contender for the Golden Boot in 2020.
Deila has promised to bring an attractive style of soccer to the Bronx, and depending on how the recent string of stadium rumors play out, 2020 could end up as an exciting year on and off the field for the defending regular-season champion in the East.
10. What’s next for the Hudson River Derby?
Before El Trafico shot to the top of the MLS rivalry rankings, the Hudson River Derby was the one that generated a ton of buzz on a national level.
The hate between NYCFC and the New York Red Bulls was real, and there were plenty of memorable results at the start of the rivalry (most in favor of the Red Bulls) that showed how great it could be.
Going into 2020, El Trafico has been discussed much more than the East Coast rivalry built on similar geographic principles.
The new decade will usher in a new era of the rivalry, with Bradley Wright-Phillips gone from the Red Bulls, who are relying on younger players and relative unknowns to achieve success.
NYCFC is the clear dominant figure in the series right now, but how that translates to the rivalry will be intriguing, to say the least.
11. Is this finally the year for a CCL triumph?
Before NYCFC attempts to triumph on a local level, it is one of five MLS teams looking to achieve continental glory.
Many squads have tried their hardest to take the trophy out of the grasp of Liga MX clubs, but none have been successful yet.
There is a chance one or more of NYCFC, Seattle, Montreal, Atlanta or LAFC is eliminated from the CCL before league play begins, but a few have advantages heading into their second leg of Round of 16 match-ups.
For the teams that advance past the opening stage, the challenge in front of them will be balancing the demands of league and continental play without damaging hopes of in-league success.
The quarterfinal legs will take place over the second and third weeks of March, the semifinals are played at the start of April and the two-leg final occurs in late April and early May.
If an MLS side or two goes far in the tournament, the roster strategy employed by those squads will be closely monitored since none of them want to fall in a hole like Toronto FC did in 2019.
12. What exactly is the Leagues Cup?
I’m glad you asked, because a lot of us are still confounded by the creation of another international tournament involving MLS clubs.
The Leagues Cup was created in 2019 and it is a competition directly between MLS and Liga MX squads.
A year ago, the participants were chosen by each league, but there is a more scientific way to describe the qualifiers for this year’s event.
The third through seventh-place finishers in the East and West, or all the playoff teams that did not qualify for the CCL, are entered on the MLS side.
The Philadelphia Union, Real Salt Lake, Minnesota United, LA Galaxy, Toronto FC, D.C. United, Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls will be seeded in that order for the competition’s draw.
Monterrey is the only Liga MX side to be confirmed for the tournament as the 2019 Apertura winner. The 2020 Clausura champion, 2019-20 Copa MX champion and top five sides from an aggregate table will be awarded the remaining spots.
The competition kicks off July 21 and the final will be held Sept. 16. It occurs in the middle of an important stretch of the MLS season, so it will be interesting to see how clubs approach it and if any success comes from it for MLS.
13. Olympic impact
The on-field product of MLS could be affected by the Summer Olympics.
The tournament, which is a U-23 event for men’s soccer, takes place from July 22-Aug. 8 and it could leave some teams short-handed during the start of the playoff push.
Qualifying is the first focus for the United States, which means some of the best young talent will be away from MLS from Mar. 20-April 1 for Concacaf’s qualification tournament.
If the Americans qualify, FC Dallas’ Paxton Pomykal, Philadelphia’s Brenden Aaronson and several others could be away from their respective clubs for a month or two.
14. Will a No. 1 seed make MLS Cup?
For the 14 teams that navigate through all of the hurdles the regular season presents, another challenge awaits.
Over the last five seasons, a single No. 1 seed has qualified for MLS Cup. Toronto FC did so in 2017 and won the title on home soil.
The new playoff format used for the first time in 2019 gave the No. 1 seeds in each conference over two weeks off. Every club had at least one week off because of the October international break.
Last season, LAFC was knocked out by the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference final, while NYCFC fell in the Eastern Conference semifinals to Toronto FC.
With the same format in place for 2020, will the top seeds manage the layoff better, or will the lower seeds continue to benefit off the momentum gained from a late-season playoff push and a first-round victory?
15. Can Seattle continue its playoff success?
Seattle has been the most successful postseason club over the last four seasons.
Brian Schmetzer’s club somehow flew under the radar in 2019, perhaps due to the all the attention drawn by the clubs in California. But once again, the Sounders rose to the occasion in the postseason to earn their third MLS Cup berth in four years and second championship in that span.
Winning a third crown in five years would be a remarkable achievement and make Seattle the third side ever to win three or more MLS Cups.
But there will be plenty of challenges in front of the Sounders, including the foray into the CCL and the threat of LAFC, among others.
Schmetzer has proven throughout his time in charge that he can navigate anything thrown at him, and if any club is capable of earning such an achievement, the Sounders could do it.
16. How many trophies will Atlanta United win?
Atlanta United has done something remarkable in its short existence.
By winning the 2018 MLS Cup, 2019 U.S. Open Cup and 2019 Campeones Cup, we expect the Five Stripes to win at least one trophy per season and be competitive in all of the major tournaments.
In Frank De Boer’s first season in charge, the club won two titles and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.
While there was some roster turnover — including the losses of Julian Gressel, Tito Villalba and Darlington Nagbe — the Five Stripes still have Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco and Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez in place to lead an explosive attack.
The Five Stripes also added some new talent this season, bringing aboard Anton Walkes, Fernando Meza, Brooks Lennon, Matheus Rossetto and others to reinforce areas of the pitch that could be concerns.
Atlanta will not be perfect from the start because it has to integrate some new faces, but it is expected to be near the top of the MLS standings and competitive in the Open Cup and CCL in an attempt to add to its growing trophy case.
17. Golden boot race
Chicharito. Vela. Josef. Heber.
A Golden Boot race between those four strikers would match the drama we saw between Vela, Martinez and Ibrahimovic in 2019.
While those four will likely be in the mix to be the league’s top scorer, others could be in contention, as six of the seven top scorers from 2019 are back in 2020. Ibrahimovic is the only one that has moved on from the league.
Thirty players eclipsed double digits in the scoring column in 2020, so there is a chance for variety, especially early on, in the scoring race.
18. Wondo’s last hurrah
The best goal-scorer MLS has ever seen is hanging up his boots after 2020.
Chris Wondolowski, who broke Landon Donovan’s all-time scoring mark in 2019, has scored at least 10 goals in every season over the last decade.
The 37-year-old is coming off a 15-goal campaign in Matias Almeyda’s first season in charge of the San Jose Earthquakes.
With the chance to go out with 11 straight 10-goal seasons, expect to find Wondolowski in a familiar spot: right in front of goal.
19. Replacing a legend
Real Salt Lake will experience a changing of the guard in net with Nick Rimando now retired. Rimando spent 13 seasons with the Claret-and-Cobalt and made 514 appearances in his MLS career with three different teams.
Nineteen-year-old David Ochoa is viewed as the heir apparent to Rimando in the long-term, but he does not have much MLS experience at the moment.
Ochoa should be the future answer to replacing Rimando, but RSL could call on veteran Zac MacMath or Andrew Putna on a few occasions in 2020 as well.
20. What direction will D.C.’s attack go?
D.C. United are also tasked with replacing a legend in their squad.
Wayne Rooney was not in the league nearly as long as Rimando, but he left a large impact on the squad in a short period of time.
The Englishman ushered the Black-and-Red into a new era with Audi Field opening, and the club showed it wasn’t afraid to splash a large amount of cash on a big-name player.
With Rooney and Luciano Acosta gone, Ben Olsen’s side has some of the largest attacking questions in the Eastern Conference. The task was made even harder when Paul Arriola announced he tore his ACL in preseason.
The additions of Edison Flores and the versatile Julian Gressel to midfield should help, as will the presence of Ola Kamara, who has three 14-plus goal seasons in MLS.
But if Kamara struggles at any point, D.C. needs secondary scorers to step up. Arriola was expected to be one of the sources of that production, but now Flores, Gressel and others have to contribute more to keep D.C. in the playoff mix.
21. Will Sporting KC bounce back?
Finding a consistent goal-scorer has been considered as one of Sporting Kansas City’s primary issues for a while.
That was dispelled a bit in 2019, when Felipe Gutierrez, Krisztian Nemeth and Johnny Russell combined for 29 goals, but there was a drop off after those three players.
The addition of Alan Pulido and return of Khiry Shelton to the Sporting KC attack should bolster those numbers as the club looks to bounce back from an awful 2019.
Peter Vermes’ squad carries plenty of experience, and it is worth noting this is a team that finished first in the West just two years ago, but it will be important for the young core to blend well with veterans like Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to erase the poor campaign.
22. Will Porter-Nagbe reunion reap rewards?
The Columbus Crew are also hoping for a return to prominence after a disappointing 2019, which was Caleb Porter’s first year in charge.
As part of the plan to reverse the 10th-place finish in the East, Porter brought in Darlington Nagbe from Atlanta United.
Nagbe — who has long been one of the most talented midfielders in MLS — was a major part of Porter’s success with the Portland Timbers and the Akron Zips in the college ranks. The 29-year-old, fresh off helping Atlanta capture three trophies, is expected to have a similar impact back home in Ohio.
Porter also acquired Fanendo Adi — who he previously coached in Portland — from FC Cincinnati to bolster a forward line alongside Gyasi Zardes.
Pedro Santos showed signs he could be an impact player in 2019 and the addition of Lucas Zelarayan is expected to bring more flair to the attack.
Columbus appears to have all the pieces in place for a rebound, just like SKC, but it will not be easy will most of the playoff teams improving their rosters as well.
23. Which team emerges as 2020’s biggest surprise?
There is a good chance all 14 playoff teams from 2019 do not return to that stage in 2020.
A year ago, Philadelphia surprised many by finishing third in the East, while Real Salt Lake and Minnesota United earned home playoff games as the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in the West.
Columbus and Sporting KC are among the candidates to be the league’s surprise contender in 2020, while Orlando City and Houston Dynamo could also fit the billing.
The Lions brought in an experienced head coach in Pareja, who is a perfect candidate to help the club reach its first postseason.
Tab Ramos had plenty of success with the United States U-20 teams and now he has a chance to work wonders with a talented Houston roster led by Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas, who have potential to move abroad if they continue to find the back of the net.
The ultimate surprise would be FC Cincinnati rising from the ashes, but a playoff berth seems out of reach until it can prove its worth on a consistent basis.
24. Milestone watch
Over the past few seasons, league legends like Wondolowski and Rimando were on milestone watch from the start of the campaign.
While no one is breaking the all-time goals or wins records in 2020, there are some milestones to keep an eye on.
Kei Kamara currently ranks fifth on the all-time scoring chart with 126 goals. With eight tallies, he can eclipse Jamie Moreno, and with nine he could move past Jeff Cunningham into third place behind Wondolowski and Donovan.
If Drew Moor appears in 18 contests, he will become the fourth player to play in 400 games, and if Diego Valeri somehow hits 19 assists, he could be the eighth player to hit the century mark in that category.
One of the league’s most successful head coaches has one of its oldest franchises moving in the right direction again.
Bruce Arena guided the New England Revolution to a seventh-place finish in the East after taking over for Brad Friedel mid-season in 2019. Arena is no stranger to success in MLS, and no matter how much the league has evolved, he seems to find a way to win.
The Revs have a loaded attack led by Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou and added reinforcements across the roster in an attempt to move up the table.
While MLS has evolved so much year over year, Arena’s success rate remains the same, and it would not be a surprise to see one of the league’s most recognizable figures in the spotlight once again in 2020.