The MLS opened its 21st season on Sunday, a fitting number for a year that will feature the debut of 21-year-old striker Jordan Morris.
Few first-year American pros have stirred as much excitement as Morris, the Seattle Sounders' homegrown forward who won the NCAA title and Hermann Trophy at Stanford last season and is already in the national team mix. Morris was the most noteworthy pickup for MLS in a budget-conscious offseason. He arrives with a salary-cap-friendly contract and the unenviable task of replacing Obafemi Martins, a highlight-reel regular who was lured away by China's Super League.
Morris' ability to forge an attacking connection with Clint Dempsey in Seattle will have major implications for both the Sounders' title hopes and the U.S. national team's 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. But it is not the only story line to follow this season.
If MLS made waves in 2015 for its signings of a handful of multimillion-dollar players, this offseason was more about buying off the sale rack, and the Los Angeles Galaxy did most of the shopping. The Galaxy added three veteran Europeans — former England defender Ashley Cole and bone-crunching tacklers Nigel de Jong and Jelle Van Damme — to a team that already had Steven Gerrard, Giovani dos Santos and Robbie Keane.
If anyone can make it work, it is coach Bruce Arena, but the early returns have been mixed: The Galaxy were thumped 4-0 by Santos Laguna of Mexico last week on their way out of the CONCACAF Champions League.
New York City FC enters its second season with its second coach, former World Cup winner Patrick Vieira of France, and the expectation of a playoff berth. Last season's expensive signings, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, are expected to be better after a full preseason, but the verdict on Lampard, 37, will have to wait: He missed Sunday's wild 4-3 season-opening win over the Chicago Fire because of a calf strain.
Portland and Columbus kicked off the season with a rematch of last year's MLS Cup final, won by the Timbers, as was Sunday's opener, 2-1. But the team to watch this season may be FC Dallas, which with investments in youth development and smart signings has built one of the league's strongest rosters, which showed in its 2-0 shutout Sunday of Philadelphia Union.
Coach Oscar Pareja helped stock the Dallas academy after retiring as a player, and now he is reaping the rewards. Talented young players, arranged around a midfield led by the Argentine playmaker Mauro Diaz and speedy Colombian Fabian Castillo, could make this Dallas' year. On Sunday, Diaz assisted on both Dallas goals, including one by Castillo.
Contributing: Washington Post, AP