By Rohan Ahluwalia
Entering its 21st season, Major League Soccer (MLS) has finally reached the age where it can legally drink in the United States. The league, which was launched in 1995, has endured an interesting 21 years, from being in danger of dissolving in the early 21st century to signing world superstar David Beckham in 2007 and now, having 20 teams with four more on the way.
The league will kick off the season on Sunday, March 6, with the first match taking place between the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC. MLS, unlike other soccer leagues around the world, follows the American sports model. The 20 teams are divided into two conferences of 10 teams each. At the end of the regular season, the top six teams in each conference qualify for the MLS Playoffs, in which standings are based on who gained the most points throughout the season. Each team earns three points for a victory, one point for a draw and zero points for defeat.
Coming into the 2016 season, a lot has changed. The offseason saw the departure of United States international player Omar Gonzalez, as well as Seattle Sounders fan favorite Obafemi Martins, to teams abroad. Despite these departures, the league signed upcoming American international Jordan Morris, Albanian international Shkëlzen Gashi and former Chelsea player Ashley Cole.
The reigning champions from 2015, the Portland Timbers, have seen some significant turnover. Known for their harsh-sounding supporters, the Timbers qualified for the playoffs with relative ease and imposed themselves well in the final, taking a 2-1 victory over the Columbus Crew. The team has changed a bit since its triumph, with several players, such as Will Johnson, Maxi Urutti and Jorge Villafana, moving on to greener pastures. However, the team has kept its spine intact with last season’s top-scorer, Fernando Adi, and fan favorites Diego Valleri and Liam Ridgewell extending their contracts. There are strong signs that the team could potentially put up a solid title defense.
Other than the Timbers, the Western Conference in MLS is looking as strong as ever. The league’s superstar team, the LA Galaxy, has strengthened after being eliminated early in the playoffs last season. The signings of Cole, as well as Jelle van Damme and Nigel De Jong, can help solidify an already strong team. Seattle Sounders could also put on a challenge, despite losing its main striker from last season. Like the Timbers, the Sounders squad has retained its star players and will rely on United States captain Clint Dempsey to push the team this season.
Sporting Kansas City is another team that looks to be strong, despite its lack of roster movement. The team’s biggest move was last season’s newcomer of the year, Krisztián Németh, leaving for Qatar. Finally, FC Dallas will be the favorite to end mid-table in its conference after the team retained its young core from the previous season.
The Eastern Conference will also see the Columbus Crew look to avenge its runners-up position last season. Craig Berhalter’s side does not have any “big-name” players, but they possess cohesive chemistry throughout, as shown last season. The team’s only main loss was defender Emanuel Pogatetz, but the team has buffered with MLS veterans Connor Casey and Corey Ashe, as well as Ola Kamara, an international from Norway.
One of the main rivals for the Crew will be the Red Bulls, the Supporters Shield champion from last season. The team, which was tipped to fail last season, defied the odds and won the Eastern Conference. The club’s biggest loss was American hotshot Matt Miazga to English Premier League side Chelsea. However, the team was quick to replace him with Ghanian international Gideon Baah. The Red Bulls also hope for more production from 2015 mid-season signing Gonzalo Verón. The Argentinean showed flashes of quality last season, but this season, he will have a full pre-season under his belt.
Along with those two, the Montreal Impact will be an unpredictable entity this season. The Impact, which relied heavily on Didier Drogba last season, had to fight hard to retain its star man for 2016. The amount of effort he gives the team will be telling for how the Impact will perform during the season. Toronto FC will also be a force, with MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco returning and the Canadian side addressing its weaknesses over the offseason, mainly in its defense.
Last season’s expansion teams, New York City FC and Orlando City SC, will look to make the playoffs for the first time, but neither side has been active this offseason. Orlando signed Antonio Nocerino to help in their defense and they have retained the Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin, but the club will still be reliant on Ricardo Kaká to help Larin. New York City FC’s only difference this season will be having its two marquee men, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, for a full season, but the team has failed to address its holes in defense.
Overall, expectations will increase for certain sides while others will see fans disgruntled from the start. The quality on the field has increased with every season and there’s no doubt the 2016 season will be no different.