Within the realm of sports leagues, Major League Soccer has never been one to conform to tradition, with some purists still recoiling in horror at the memory of using a shootout to settle ties during the league’s first three seasons.
But a quarter of a century after it first kicked a ball, this newish kid on the sporting block is continuing to stare down conformity as it begins its 26th season on Friday. Earlier this week, MLS doubled-up Major League Baseball’s groundbreaking hire of Kim Ng in Miami by hiring a second female general manager of its own, with Lucy Rushton taking over at D.C. United 22 years after Lynne Meterparel was appointed GM of San Jose.
And there’s a Hollywood feel in Texas, as expansion Austin FC begins play as the league’s 27th franchise, most vocally represented by part-owner Matthew McConaughey – the league’s first minister of culture.
There’s change in the air for two-thirds of Canada’s teams, too, with both Toronto FC and Club de Foot Montreal, as the Impact is now known, breaking in new head coaches, while the Vancouver Whitecaps will attempt to snap a franchise-long three-year playoff drought.
Here’s a look at some key storylines heading into opening weekend.
Armas era begins In Toronto
With Greg Vanney, the most successful head coach in TFC history, now in charge of the Los Angeles Galaxy, Chris Armas is the man in the BMO Field hot seat. Except that the seat won’t be overly hot given that he’s only been in the job a matter of months, and it won’t be at BMO Field, at least not yet. TFC is beginning the season playing its home games in Orlando and Tampa.
Armas is trying to implement a new high-energy, high-intensity style of play with a largely unchanged roster from last year. The early results have been impressive, with a largely second-string lineup eking out a 3-2 aggregate win over defending Mexican champions Club Leon on Wednesday to move on to the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final.
Much like some of the best teams in Europe, Armas wants TFC to be hard to play against without the ball, executing a relentless press to regain possession of the ball. Defender Justin Morrow, who scored the winning goal on Wednesday, said he’s seen enough of the system in training to come away impressed.
“It’s really uncomfortable [to play against] the way they put pressure on the ball, the way they step up,” he said. “And on top of that we win the ball and we’re going in the other direction fast. It’s a little bit different than we’ve had in the past but it’s very fun to play in, and very hard to play against.”
Wilfried Nancy will be the first MLS head coach with the privilege of game-planning for Armas’s system as Montreal plays host to Toronto on Saturday – in Fort Lauderdale, where Montreal will be ground-sharing with Inter Miami. While Nancy is likely relishing the task, he’s got more than enough on his plate trying to implement a few system tweaks as an incoming head coach himself, having succeeded Thierry Henry in the off-season.
Along with an overhauled name, logo, colour scheme and coach, Montreal has embraced wholesale changes in the playing staff, too. Gone are familiar names such as Bojan and Maxi Urruti, and in their place are Djordje Mihailovic, Kiki Struna and Norwegian striker Bjorn Johnsen. In all, Nancy has 10 new players to integrate into his roster, a diverse-looking squad that represents 14 countries.
But Nancy is confident that the youth in his lineup will have the energy to carry out his on-field plans, which include adding a more dynamic defensive presence, resulting in more turnovers. And while the Frenchman will be busy integrating the newcomers, he can fall back on his long-standing relationship with some of the holdovers, having been an assistant coach with Montreal since 2016.
“What I like about my team is they are open to the concepts I want to put in place and we have also the quality to apply these concepts,” he said.
Whitecaps on the rise
Three years in the MLS Cup playoff wilderness is a long time to wait for Whitecaps fans, who have had to content themselves by watching old boy Alphonso Davies and his blossoming career take off in Europe.
But 2021 is the third year of the three-year plan that the club announced to build the team into a contender following Davies’ transfer to Bayern Munich in 2018. It’s also year three for head coach Marc Dos Santos, who oversaw a marginal improvement to nine wins from eight between 2020 and 2019, even while playing 11 fewer games, as well as playing out of a suitcase in the team’s home away from home in Portland.
This season the team will play home games in Salt Lake City to begin the year, and like Nancy in Montreal, Dos Santos will have his work cut out building team chemistry among a raft of new players.
While striker Fredy Montero has moved on, the team brought in an exciting trio of Brazilian midfielder Caio Alexandre, Colombian winger Deiber Caicedo, and Portuguese fullback Bruno Gaspar, who should all nicely complement the blossoming talents of Canadians Lucas Cavallini and Michael Baldisimo.
But the tinkering isn’t finished, even as Vancouver prepares to open the season against Portland on Sunday.
“Did we take the right steps to move forward? Yes, we did,” Dos Santos said. “Are we done with the building of the roster? No, we’re not. I think it’s clear to everyone that we’re still talking about some pieces that we want to bring and better the roster.”
Youth is served
It used to be that MLS was viewed from outside of North America as a retirement home for aging players looking for one last payday and perhaps a chance to embrace a new city and culture before hanging up their boots.
Heading into the new season, that attitude has largely evaporated, with most teams embracing a youth movement.
“I think that trend is changing,” Inter Miami head coach Phil Neville said. “I think what you’re seeing now is a younger average age … a younger type of player coming to the MLS.”
The numbers back up the former England Lionesses coach. Last year, four of the 10 youngest players in MLS history all made their debuts, and the average age of players from academies signing for their MLS teams has fallen to a record-low 17.1 years old last year from 19.4 years old five years ago .
What exactly is a minister of culture?
Good question. McConaughey readily admits he’s something of a soccer neophyte, but adds that he’s immersed himself in the sport after meeting his wife, who is Brazilian, some years ago. And he’s simply doubled down on that passion since buying into the expansion team in his hometown of Austin, Tex., a couple of years ago.
“For a team that’s going to be representing the city of Austin, I need to be there as someone who knows Austin really well, that the two are mirror images of each other,” McConaughey said on a conference call ahead of the team’s first game on Saturday, against Los Angeles FC.
“The team, the product we put on the pitch and the fan experience in that stadium. My goal, as minister of culture, is trying to align [the two]. When you take a snapshot above Q2 Stadium on any given night that we play, you should be able to see in the crowd the diversity, creative colours and vibrancy of Austin.”