Fear not, soccer fans, the 2021 MLS Season starts today! In year 26, there's never been a better time to follow your club to glory! Here are five things you need to know going into the 2021 MLS Season, along with some way too early predictions for key MLS Honors.
Austin FC Make Their Debut
Austin FC is a groundbreaking franchise on several levels. Co-owned by Matthew McConaughey, Austin FC is the first top-level professional sports franchise to represent the Capital of the Lone Star State. Kicking off their season against LAFC on Saturday, Austin FC seems to be ready to come into the league strong, with a roster and strategy built towards very aggressive offense. While expansion franchises usually have it tough in their first season in any sport, Austin will still be a club worth watching this year, if only to see the development of their very young roster. The biggest signing for Austin this year seems to be Rodney Redes, a young Paraguayan signed from Club Guarani. At just 21 years old, Redes will have some growing pains in his first season, but Austin hopes that he can grow into an eventual role as their first franchise player.
It Ain't Too Lonely At the Top
Image: Columbus Crew SC
Reigning MLS Champions Columbus Crew SC were clear frontrunners to repeat immediately after the conclusion of the 2020 season, and they only solidified that notion with the incredible signings they made in this offseason. Former two-time MLS Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright Phillips joins the Crew after spending his 2020 with LAFC. The former NYRB top scorer has already been key in Columbus' current CONCACAF Champions League run, scoring in the second leg against Real Esteli to punch a ticket to the quarterfinals. The Crew also managed to add Kevin Molino from Minnesota United, who should be solid at the wing once he returns from injury. All of this star power is being added onto returning players such as Gyasi Zardes, who could make a serious push for this year's Golden Boot.
While Columbus will have a strong start to their 2021, don't think the Western Conference won't have some powerhouse teams of their own. LAFC is in position to make a serious run this year. With aging stars, LA is entering "Title or bust" mode with their current roster, so expect them to come out of the gate swinging. Even if they're not at the top by midseason, the return of Brian Martinez from loan this Summer could give the Black and Gold a big midseason push. Until then Jesus David Murillo should provide plenty of goals for LA fans.
While these two clubs are the big two to watch, Seattle Sounders and Philadelphia union should each play solid roles as spoilers in their respective conferences.
Bobby Wood Makes His MLS Debut
Image: Stars and Stripes FC
So far, Bobby Wood's career at the club level should be the foundation of every young American star going forward. Luckily, it looks like guys like Christian Pulisic are following this structure, which consists of beginning your club career outside the US, and coming back to MLS in the later half of your career once you've developed with some of the best clubs in the world. While it was cool to see guys like Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard test their skills in MLS before heading over to England and then back again, starting in Europe is much better for developing the skills of USMNT hopefuls. After more than a decade of playing in Germany at the youth and senior level, Bobby Wood will make his first MLS cap with Real Salt Lake on Saturday against Minnesota United.
New Roster Rules Shake Up The League
Image: Soccer Today
While I would prefer top American players to start their careers abroad, I don't mind any young stars that want to shine on an American Stage. Neither does MLS, which seems to be why they've enacted what they call the U22 Initiative. Much like the Designated Player rule, which helps MLS clubs stay competitive in the international transfer market, the U22 Initiative would allow clubs to be a bit more flexible in the salary cap when signing a top young player. Players signed under this rule would be able to earn up to $200,000 above the Maximum Salary Budget Charge. It would take a few years, but it would be interesting to see if this will incentivize young, international talent to head to MLS early.
MLS Clubs Dominate Internationally
For those who aren't aware, the beautiful thing about soccer is that if you truly love your club, you can watch them in more competitions outside of standard league play. For MLS teams, the biggest competition outside the Regular Season is the CONCACAF Champions League, in which the top MLS teams from last season compete against the best clubs in the Continent. Usually, this tournament is dominated by Mexican teams almost every single year. However, all five MLS teams in the tournament this year advanced to the Quarterfinals, meaning the league accounts for more than half the total teams remaining. The MLS has gotten to the finals in recent tournaments, such as LAFC last year, but this could finally be the year an American squad finally takes it all. If this happens, it would be MLS' first North American Club Championship since the LA Galaxy in 2000.
Early 2021 MLS Predictions:
MLS Cup Champions: LAFC. As I mentioned before, LA are going to be late bloomers this season, but if they get hot come the playoffs, I can really see them taking it all.
Supporters Shield: Columbus Crew SC. The Crew are the best team right now that are well-equipped for a long season. They'll be the team to beat all throughout the postseason after amassing plenty of wins.
Golden Boot: Gyasi Zardes. Normally I wouldn't pick a guy on a club with a lot scorers to win the Golden Boot, but Zardes is just that good. Honorable mention goes to Josef Martinez, but I just think his knee could hold him back in his first couple of games.