Overtime: Top 10 storylines of the Major League Soccer season

Major League Soccer begins its newest season on Feb. 29 with a matchup between D.C. United and Colorado. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

JOSHUA DOERING | DIGITAL MANAGING EDITOR | jdoering@butler.edu

On Saturday, Major League Soccer begins its 25th season with a slate of eight games. The day begins when D.C. United hosts the Colorado Rapids at 1 p.m. ET and features defending Eastern Conference champion Toronto FC traveling to face the San Jose Earthquakes. After a dramatic offseason featuring the departure and arrival of international icons, coaching changes and all of the other wonderful chaos that makes MLS so entertaining, here are the top 10 storylines to follow as the season gets underway. 

  1. How much of an impact will the arrival of Mexican stars have on the league?

Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Alan Pulido and Rodolfo Pizarro join MLS with a combined 147 appearances for the Mexican National Team. Hernandez, who spent time at Manchester United and Real Madrid, comes to the Los Angeles Galaxy as the most popular Mexican player in the world. Pulido is expected to be the goal-scorer Sporting KC so desperately needs and Pizarro will serve as the creative hub for Inter Miami in its inaugural season. These three players, along with reigning MVP Carlos Vela, allow MLS to seriously compete with Liga MX for the attention of Mexican-American fans for the first time. 

  1. Nashville SC and Inter Miami join the fold

Both Nashville SC and David Beckham’s Inter Miami have built rosters comprised of young players with potential and MLS veterans for their debut season in the league. Nashville made headlines by acquiring 2019 MLS Defender of the Year runner-up Walker Zimmerman from LAFC. Inter Miami landed former Columbus Crew captain and U.S. National Team member Will Trapp, as well as former New York Red Bulls captain Luis Robles, who is still one of the best goalkeepers in the league at age 35. Never before have expansion teams placed such an emphasis on adding high-level MLS veterans to their roster. 

  1. Major changes in New York

The Red Bulls’ decision to part ways with Robles and striker Bradley Wright-Phillips — crucial pieces to the team’s success over the past five seasons — signifies the start of a new era for the team. Doménec Torrent’s departure and the arrival of new manager Ronny Deila signals the same for NYCFC. The most fascinating question heading into the season is how both New York teams handle the transition from one era to another. 

  1. Year three for Los Angeles Football Club

LAFC went from making the playoffs in year one to the best regular season in MLS history in year two. Postseason success still eluded Bob Bradley’s team, though, as it fell at home to Seattle in the Western Conference final. LAFC is the best team in the league on paper again and has a realistic chance to do what no MLS team has ever done: become not only MLS champions but the best team on the continent by winning the CONCACAF Champions League — a competition between the top teams of leagues in North and Central America. It is time for LAFC’s breathtaking attacking style to deliver something more than regular season records. 

  1. How does MLS cope with the loss of two global superstars?

Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimović provided notoriety and production during their time in MLS, a rare combination for aging European stars who come to the U.S. Ibrahimović is an irreplaceable source of entertainment that has only helped grow the league’s brand. The on-field product will be fine without Rooney and Ibrahimović, but it is worth noting there is not a single globally-recognized star playing in MLS for the first time since David Beckham joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. For a league still trying to establish itself internationally, that is a dangerous place to be. 

  1. What happens in Cincinnati?

FC Cincinnati managed just 24 points in its first season in Major League Soccer, at least 10 fewer than every other team. An offseason that saw significant upgrades to the roster in the form of two new designated players and former Philadelphia Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin was highlighted instead by the resignation of coach Ron Jans. Jans resigned on Feb. 18 after allegations that he made racially insensitive comments. What looked like a team taking steps in the right direction now finds itself in even more turmoil. 

  1. Young players from the U.S. are ready to shine

The young talent coming through the U.S. soccer system will be on full display in 2020. Mark McKenzie, 21, and Brendan Aaronson, 19, are expected to be regular starters for the Philadelphia Union. Roster uncertainty in Colorado means plenty of playing time for winger Jonathan Lewis in his first full season with the team and the recently-acquired Auston Trusty. James Sands and Paxton Pomykal were excellent for playoff teams last season as teenagers. The list goes on. Christian Pulisic and Gio Renya are grabbing headlines for what they’re doing in Europe, but don’t sleep on the young talent at home. 

  1. What do Minnesota United and the Philadelphia Union do for an encore?

Minnesota United and the Philadelphia Union were the surprise teams of last season, winning a combined 31 games after only securing 21 victories between them in 2018. Minnesota returns the core of its team that finished fourth in the West and gets a full season from 19-year-old designated player Thomás Chacón. Union sporting director Ernst Tanner finally has a roster suited to his preferred 4-4-2 diamond formation thanks to new signings and the return of Jamiro Monteiro on a permanent deal. The talent is there for both of these teams to find themselves near the top of the standings again. 

  1. The return of Theirry Henry 

Following a rather disastrous foray into management with Monaco of the French Ligue 1, two-time runner-up for FIFA Player of the Year Theirry Henry is back in the league where he played with the New York Red Bulls from 2010 to 2014. His task is to revitalize a Montreal Impact team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2016. His appointment as Montreal’s manager in November made perfect sense for both sides. Henry needs to develop his managerial skills in a lower-stakes environment, and Montreal needs an infusion of energy and fresh ideas. There is a chance this works beautifully. At the end of the day though, the Impact are still taking a chance on a guy whose coaching resume is highly questionable to say the least. 

  1. Will the league’s parity translate to the playoffs?

New York City FC, LAFC, the New York Red Bulls, Sporting KC, Toronto FC, the Portland Timbers and FC Dallas have all entered the playoffs as the top seed in their respective conference at least once in the past five seasons. The only one of those teams to reach MLS Cup as a No. 1 seed was Toronto in 2017. Five of the past 10 teams to reach the final were not a one or two seed. However, four teams — Toronto, Seattle, Atlanta and Portland — have five championships and nine MLS Cup appearances among them in that five-year period. Does the trend continue in 2020 or is this the season where a new champion emerges?

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