Another MLS season is upon us, and with it comes the usual slew of changes. Another expansion side, St. Louis City SC, will make its debut. The usual passel of players and managers made moves in the offseason, too. And a new campaign wouldn’t be complete if the league didn’t make a head-scratching move or two.
Here’s what’s new as MLS embarks on its 28th season.
Meet me in St. Louis
As a league, MLS has barely put a foot wrong in terms of picking expansion markets. The teams have been received with considerable enthusiasm, and the national footprint looks robust now that 29 teams are on board, with St. Louis City the latest addition.
And when it comes to St. Louis, there’s a bit of “What took you so long?” that creeps into the conversation. The Gateway City’s affinity for the game runs deep, with a vibrant grassroots soccer scene that has sent numerous players to U.S. national teams dating back to the mid-20th century, with Becky Sauerbrunn and Tim Ream among the most recent.
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Granted, it takes more than a love for the game to garner an MLS team. Deep-pocketed investors as well as a stadium (usually) are needed to get a team up and running, and there were some agonizing near misses in terms of finding the right owners to get St. Louis an MLS team.
But with an investor group led by Carolyn Kindle, that is now done. And the fact that Citypark, the team’s 22,000-seat stadium, will be up and running from the get-go should help the organization get off to a running start.
There are bound to be hiccups during the inaugural season. Sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel — the sport’s wandering journeyman after featuring for more than 20 different clubs during his playing career — has put together a side bereft of big names, leaving it to former New York Red Bulls assistant (and former interim manager) Bradley Carnell to try to turn SLC into a cohesive unit.
That said, there is something that feels right about having a top-flight team in one of the cradles of American soccer.
Old names in new places
The MLS offseason is the time when the change-of-address forms are in demand, as are the moving companies, especially now that the league’s limited form of free agency is part of the landscape.
There are a few players in particular for whom donning a different jersey will induce some double-takes. Seeing 2018 MLS MVP Josef Martinez in the pink and black of Inter Miami CF will be flat-out jarring following his prolific spell with Atlanta United. The same will be true for Aaron Long, who moved from the New York Red Bulls to LAFC. Sean Johnson will attempt to revive the fortunes of Toronto FC after leading New York City FC to an MLS Cup in 2021.
But perhaps the more surprising moves came within the managerial ranks. Wilfried Nancy parlayed an outstanding campaign with CF Montreal into a move to the Columbus Crew, evading the overbearing ownership of Joey Saputo. He was replaced by Hernan Losada, who was cut loose by D.C. United last season after his obsessive methods regarding weight, among other things, grated on the players. Losada will have to make the best of a difficult situation with CFM after its roster was pretty much stripped down to the frame.
And speaking of D.C. United, Ben Olsen, the face of that organization for so long, has now landed with the Houston Dynamo in a bid to return the team to the glory days of the mid-2000s, when they won back-to-back MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007. Former FC Dallas manager Luchi Gonzalez joined the San Jose Earthquakes after spending the past few years in the U.S. men’s national team setup.
And some brand new faces, too
MLS continues to mine the international transfer market for reinforcements, and with one or two exceptions, they didn’t break the bank. That could change if Lionel Messi ends up signing with Inter Miami, of course, but the vast majority of the newcomers are of the strategic variety.
One team that did make a significant financial outlay was the Portland Timbers, who spent a reported $10 million transfer fee on FC Midtjylland midfielder Evander. The Brazilian has drawn favorable comparisons to reigning MLS MVP Hany Mukhtar of Nashville SC, and if he can even approach Mukhtar’s impact, that will bode well for the Timbers’ chances of getting back to the postseason.
Other notable reinforcements are D.C. United’s Mateusz Klich, formerly of Leeds United, as well as former Racing Club midfielder Enzo Copetti, who joins Charlotte FC. Copetti will be aided by former Aston Villa and Burnley midfielder Ashley Westwood. Belgian striker Dante Vanzeir will attempt to provide the goals for the New York Red Bulls, having netted 29 times in 67 senior appearances in little more than two seasons for Union Saint-Gilloise.
On the defensive side of the ball, Inter Miami have brought former Shakhtar Donetsk center-back Serhiy Kryvtsov to shore up that part of the field for the Herons. Finland international Leo Vaisanen will try to do the same for Austin FC following the departure of Ruben Gabrielsen.
The postseason format debacle
MLS’ spot at the top of the Let’s Tweak Things For No Good Reason Power Rankings remains secure. Eighteen teams will now qualify for the revamped postseason — up from last year’s 14 — and the rounds will be mostly single-elimination. Specifically, the first set of games will be play-in games where the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds square off. The next round will see the rest of the teams join in for a best-of-three series. Every game will have a winner, but no word yet on how that will be determined. Then the format will whiplash back to single elimination for the conference semifinals, conference final and MLS Cup.
Much of this is being driven by the league’s new broadcast rights deal with Apple TV, which wants more postseason games on the calendar than last year’s 13. Now there could be as few as 25 games and as many as 33. There is also the desire on the part of MLS owners to host at least one playoff game, the better to bring in more revenue.
Never mind that announcing this less than a week before the regular season is a bad look. The “solution” that MLS has hit upon lacks consistency in terms of format from round to round, and with 18 teams qualifying for the playoffs, it further devalues the regular season. And does the league want a scenario where a team advanced because it “won” two games via penalties and lost a game in regulation?
MLS only had to borrow some concepts from Liga MX to find a format that would easily work. You want more teams? Fine. Not ideal, but fine.
Have eight teams from each conference qualify and make each round a simple home-and-away affair, and if the teams are tied after 180 minutes, the higher seed goes through. This format would result in 29 games. Everyone wins. The regular season actually has some meaning, Apple TV gets more games to broadcast, the owners get their desired additional revenue and the format remains consistent and easy to understand. You also can get drama without the vagaries of a penalty shootout.
But hey, this is MLS, where the roster rules require you to be a lawyer and a forensic accountant. The more complicated the better!
Roll on the regular season.