AP Sports Writer
For a change, the product on the field is the main focus heading into a new Major League Soccer season.
Previous hot topics like expansion and labor negotiations are secondary heading into the 2016 season that begins this weekend with all 20 teams in action. After celebrating its 20th anniversary a year ago with an appreciation for the ups and downs that got MLS to age 20, the league is now moving into its next stage of continuing growth while competing with other leagues around the world.
“We’re launching sort of the next generation in the life span of our league,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “We’re embarking on a plan that hopefully allows us to achieve our goal of being one of the top leagues in the world and doing it with great players and really deeply connected clubs.”
Expansion has been the hot topic for a number of years, but entering 2016 it’s tempered. No new untapped markets. No flashy debuts in major metropolitan areas.
Those are still on the horizon for MLS with the upcoming additions of Atlanta (2017), Los Angeles (2018), Minnesota (TBD) and possibly David Beckham’s Miami project, if it can ever gain traction. Not to mention continued interest from markets like San Antonio, St. Louis and Sacramento vying to be among those MLS includes on its path to at least 28 franchises.
But for this year, the soccer itself will take the spotlight. Coupled with the Copa America taking place in June and the Olympics in August, soccer has a chance to be at the center of the conversation for much of the late spring and summer.
“I think it’s going to be one of the biggest summers of soccer in the history of our sport in this country,” Garber said. “Copa America will be a mini World Cup. I think it will set the stage for an eventual bid for the World Cup in 2026.”
Here are things to watch as MLS begins its 21st season:
CASCADIA CHAMPIONS: It seemed inevitable that an MLS Cup champion would eventually come from the soccer-crazed Pacific Northwest.
The Timbers capped a memorable run to the title by beating Columbus 2-1 in the final last December and immediately drew the ire of their bigger-spending, bigger-stadium rivals to the north in Seattle. The Timbers ousted Sporting Kansas City in a remarkable penalty kick shootout to open the playoffs, knocked out Vancouver and Dallas and then shocked Columbus on the road.
And Portland could be just as good again, returning the majority of its key pieces from that title run, including midfielder Diego Valeri and striker Fanendo Adi.
BORDER BATTLE: The three Canadian clubs could all be among the best this season. Toronto finally made the playoffs in 2015 thanks to league MVP Sebastian Giovinco, along with American standouts Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Montreal welcomed Didier Drogba into the fold during the summer and made a powerful late run into the postseason. And Vancouver was near the top of the Western Conference all season.
Giovinco, Bradley and Altidore are all back with Toronto; Drogba is ready for a full season in Montreal; and Vancouver may have among the deepest rosters in the league. It could be the year a Canadian club makes a run at the title.
BEASTS OF THE EAST: New York Red Bulls put together a masterful run last season to win the Supporters’ Shield before getting bounced in the playoffs by Columbus. The Red Bulls return very much intact while many other teams in the East have questions to answer. Toronto and Montreal may be ready to rise, and New England, led by Lee Nguyen, could be the type of team to jump from fifth last season to the top of the conference.
But don’t sleep on Columbus after Kei Kamara led the Crew to the MLS Cup final last season.
BEST IN THE WEST: The Western Conference again appears to be significantly deeper than the East. Consider that Portland may be the fifth- or sixth-best team at the beginning of the season. Vancouver could end up being the class, but young FC Dallas is only going to get better with experience after nearly making the MLS Cup final. Sporting Kansas City may have the best midfield in the league, and the talent in Seattle’s starting 11 can rival anyone in the league.
NEW FACES: MLS again was able to tap into overseas leagues to bring in some notable names for the 2016 season including Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong in Los Angeles; Antonio Nocerino at Orlando City; and Shkëlzen Gashi in Colorado. The biggest moves involving American players came with one arrival and one departure. New York Red Bulls saw young defender Matt Miazga leave for Chelsea, but Seattle was able to convince Jordan Morris to stay at home and sign with the Sounders.