Major League Soccer embarks on 27th season as Qatar looms

Major League Soccer embarks on 27th season as Qatar looms

With the World Cup looming at the end of the year, Major League Soccer had to make some adjustments as it embarks on its 27th season.

The league’s 28 teams kick off this weekend, the earliest start ever with a quicker finish scheduled as MLS will make way for the World Cup in late November. And because of COVID-19, the 2021 MLS season didn’t start until April, about six weeks later that usual, which led to a later championship and a scant 11-week offseason.

New York City FC and the Portland Timbers have been impacted the most. NYCFC is the defending MLS Cup winner, lifting the trophy on Dec. 11 on a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw in Portland. NYCFC opens the upcoming season Sunday on the road against the LA Galaxy.

The runner-up Timbers, meanwhile, will host defending Supporters’ Shield winner New England on Saturday. The Revolution have gotten better with the addition of Sebastian Lletget, Omar Gonzalez and Jozy Altidore.

Expansion Charlotte FC opens its inaugural season on Saturday at D.C. United. Charlotte will play its home games at Bank of America Stadium, also home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. It’s the sixth straight season that MLS has added at least one new team.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has pointed to that expansion, even in the face of the pandemic disarray of the last two seasons, as one of the league’s successes.

“Between 2017, five years ago, when Atlanta and Minnesota debuted and now 2022, we’ve added eight new teams, and all of this growth, both in our markets, on the field and off the field, and the momentum have come despite some major disruptions and challenges that have marked the last two years for all of us, and certainly for Major League Soccer,” he said during his preseason address.

The regular season will run through Oct. 9. The MLS Cup championship is set for Nov. 5, ahead of the start of the World Cup in Qatar, which kicks off Nov. 21.

Nineteen MLS players were on national team rosters for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That number figures to be higher in Qatar with Canada and the United States expected to qualify.

VEGAS ON THE HORIZON?

After Charlotte, the league will welcome a new team in St. Louis next season. Las Vegas is the front-runner for the next expansion team, although Garber said the deal isn’t over the line yet.

“When we said we were going to have 28 teams, we never thought we would go beyond that; and then when we had a path to 30, we never thought we’d go beyond that,” Garber said. “As soccer becomes more popular and more cities see the opportunity with their fans and their communities to host a first-division MLS club, we have to process all that and determine whether MLS will be a 32-team (league) at some point in the future.”

INTERNATIONAL FLAVOR

A handful of prominent international players joined the league for this season, among them Swiss striker Xherdan Shaqiri, signed by the Chicago Fire; Argentine attacker Alan Velasco, brought in by FC Dallas; fellow Argentine Thiago Almada, acquired by Atlanta United; and Facundo Torres of Uruguay, signed by Orlando City.

“I wanted a new thing to try and so the opportunity came to come to the U.S. and to come to this club to help to bring the glory back,” Shaqiri said. “This is my most important thing. I want to be successful. I want to bring to this club new goals and to be successful.”

MOVING ON

A number of big names in MLS are off to Europe this season, including FC Dallas homegrown Ricardo Pepi, who went to Augsburg in the German Bundesliga, and Atlanta homegrown George Bello, who is also headed to Germany with Arminia Bielefeld.

Daryl Dike left Orlando for West Bromwich Albion and D.C. United’s Kevin Paredes is now with Wolfsburg.

New England — and national team — goalkeeper Matt Turner is set to join Arsenal in the Premier League this summer.

“It’s not really like a farewell tour, it’s probably more like a see you in 10 years — hopefully — tour, where I can come back and sort of remember the memories,” Turner said. “The way this league is growing so fast, I’m sure there will be some more new stadiums, new training grounds. So it’ll just be a totally different place in that time than it was when I first started.”

Also going to Arsenal in July is Colorado’s Auston Trusty.

NEW COACHES

There were eight coaching changes going into this season. Among the newcomers are LAFC’s Steve Cherundolo, Houston’s Paulo Nagamura, Chicago’s Ezra Hendrickson, Cincinnati’s Pat Noonan and Dallas’ Nico Estevez. Two interim coaches were made permanent: Vancouver’s Vanni Sartini and Salt Lake’s Pablo Mastroeni. Bob Bradley left LAFC to take over at Toronto FC.

Thirteen of the league’s coaches once played in MLS, and seven played for the U.S. national team.

NEYMAR DESTINED FOR MLS?

There’s been lots of — perhaps just wishful — chatter that a couple of soccer’s biggest names might one day play in MLS.

Neymar, currently with Paris Saint-Germain, was asked on a Portuguese podcast whether he’d consider going home to Brazil to finish out his career. The 30-year-old threw the hosts something of a curve: “I’d love to play in the U.S., actually. I’d love to play there at least for a season.”

Meanwhile, Columbian striker James Rodriguez, currently playing in Qatar, said on his Twitch channel that he’d like to return to Europe at some point, adding: “A good option would be the United States, which I like a lot, but that’s still a long way off”

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Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press

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