Major League Soccer (MLS) begins its 23rd season this weekend with a new team – the league’s 23rd – two new stadiums, intensified rivalries, a continued influx of dynamic young players, and the expectation that it will be the league’s next giant step in advancing the popularity of the game across the U.S. and Canada.
The season is highlighted by the debut of Los Angeles Football Club, which plays its premier match on Sunday in Seattle in a nationally televised game on ESPN. Owned by an impressive team of business leaders and famous faces from sports and entertainment – including Peter Guber, Magic Johnson, Will Ferrell, Tony Robbins and Mia Hamm – LAFC, which will establish an immediate rivalry with the LA Galaxy, is led by former U.S. National Team coach Bob Bradley, a fiery leader who knows how to build a championship team.
“With a new team, you want to make a strong first impression,” said Bradley. “We believe we can compete at a high level.”
Among the stars on an extremely talented first-year roster for LAFC are Mexican National Team midfielder Carlos Vela and 19-year-old Uruguayan Diego Rossi. In April, the club opens Banc of California Stadium, a spectacular soccer venue located in the urban core of Los Angeles.
This season will also feature the opening of Audi Field, the new home of D.C. United, in the heart of the nation’s capital. In 2019, when Minnesota United FC opens Allianz Field, MLS will have 20 stadiums built for soccer.
Every team and its supporters enter this season justifiably believing their club can contend for a championship, as MLS is the most competitive soccer league in the world, with nine different champions in the last 11 seasons. However, the last two MLS Cups have been contested between Seattle Sounders FC – who won in 2016 – and Toronto FC, last year’s winner. The reigning champions begin defense of their crown in a rematch of the 2017 Eastern Conference Championship when they host Columbus Crew SC on Saturday on TSN. Toronto FC return the core of their title squad, led by Italian forward Sebastian Giovinco and U.S. Men’s National Team staples Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley.
Behind the star power of its elite athletes, increased investment in player development and acquisition, and strategic expansion, MLS continues to experience an extended period of explosive growth. In 2017, the league set another attendance record and saw a significant rise in broadcast viewership on ESPN, FOX Sports, Univision, TSN and TVA Sports – making it the only major professional sports league in North America to experience an increase last year in television ratings. On the field, some of the best young talent in the world joined MLS clubs, and players developed in MLS academies are making an impact with their first team. The trend continues in 2018 as the league’s clubs utilized increased investment from ownership to sign the youngest and most talented group of newcomers in league history.
The MLS calendar in 2018 is filled with crucial matchups and major events from March until December. This year’s MLS All-Star Game presented by Target will take place on Aug. 1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of Atlanta United FC. In its debut season in 2017, Atlanta United FC was a smash on and off the field – playing to crowds of more than 70,000 and qualifying for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Heineken Rivalry Week takes place from Aug. 22-26 with the most action-packed slate of games ever in the series – including matchups between NYCFC and New York Red Bulls, Seattle-Portland Timbers and LAFC-LA Galaxy. Decision Day presented by AT&T arrives on Oct. 28, with 11 matches all beginning at 4:30 p.m. ET in the final quest for berths and seeding in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
While this season will be spectacular, MLS still has its eye on the future as the league continues to grow strategically across North America. Further establishing the league’s footprint in the Southeast, new teams were recently announced for Nashville and Miami. Three more clubs are expected to be added to reach the league’s goal of having a total of 28 teams in the next five years.
(Major League Soccer)