Major League Soccer embarks on the 2021 season Friday with a new labor agreement, the return of two big stars, a new team in Austin, Texas, and lessons learned from 2020.
Full crowds still won’t be in most places, but MLS has reasons to be optimistic for its 26th season as more Americans get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The season begins Friday night with two games: San Jose at Houston and Minnesota at Seattle. The newest team, Austin, opens Saturday against LAFC in Los Angeles.
The league was two games into the season last March when the pandemic shut down sports in the United States. Play resumed in the summer with a tournament in a bubble in Florida before an abbreviated season was held in local markets. Columbus won the league championship.
MLS estimated losses at nearly $1 billion last season, mostly the result of playing in empty stadiums and charter flights for teams. While that will likely improve, the league is expecting another financial hit this year. As a result, it invoked the force majeure clause in the collective bargaining agreement last year.
After a rather contentious back-and-forth — the players had already agreed to concessions in 2020 — a new agreement was struck in February that will run through the 2027 season.
“MLS has always been about momentum,” commissioner Don Garber said. “More teams, more stadiums, more fans, more players and players that are representing all the exciting activity that takes place on the field. We had the momentum going into last year, and then clearly that got put on pause a bit with with the pandemic. Now that momentum has kicked back in.”
It appears two of the league’s top stars, LAFC’s Carlos Vela and Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, will be back.
Vela, who had an MLS-record 34 goals in 2019, missed most of last season because of his wife’s pregnancy, the birth of their child and then injuries.
Martinez was knocked out of last year’s season opener with an ACL injury that required multiple surgeries. He’s not quite at full strength heading into United’s opener, but close.
Martinez got advice and emotional support from Zlatan Ibrahimovic during his recovery.
“Day-by-day, I am stronger. Obviously not 100 percent, because I think I’ll get there once I start playing more games. But I feel okay,” Martinez said. “I know it’s hard because I haven’t touched the ball in a year, so my timing with the ball when I have to cross is not very sharp right now, but we’re close.”
Austin FC joins this year after overcoming challenges presented by the pandemic, like pulling together a roster and staff in the Zoom era, selling 15,000 season tickets and building a $260 million stadium. They were assisted by a bit of star power: Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey is the team’s minister of culture.
“This is a city on the rise that marries perfectly with a league on the rise. There’s so much energy, there’s so much pent-up demand in that city. You think about the fact we’re the first professional sports league to be in that city,” Garber said.
There are seven “new” coaches this season. Greg Vanney has moved from Toronto FC to the LA Galaxy, where he’ll be tasked with getting a talented roster led by Chicharito on the same page.
His replacement in Toronto, Chris Armas, previously coached the Red Bulls, so he’s got league experience, too. Gerhard Struber was hired by the Red Bulls last October and made his coaching debut during the playoffs, but basically this is his first season.
The genuine newcomers include Josh Wolff at Austin, Hernan Losada at D.C. United, Gabriel Heinze at Atlanta and Phil Neville at Inter Miami.
The Montreal Impact has rebranded as Club de Foot Montreal, or CF Montreal. The makeover includes a new crest that has a snowflake-like emblem and a new motto “Droit Devant,” or “Always Forward.”
WE THE NORTH
The league’s Canadian teams will have a tough go of it again because of travel restrictions. Quarantine rules make traveling over the border untenable, so the teams will once again play in the United States for the foreseeable future.
The Whitecaps have relocated to Real Salt Lake’s facilities in Utah, while Toronto and Montreal have set up shop in Florida.