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MLS season starts with hopes of returning to normalcy

Major League Soccer embarks on the 2021 season with a new labor agreement in hand, the return of two big stars, a new team in Austin, Texas, and lessons learned from 2020.

There still won’t be packed crowds in most places, but there are reasons to be optimistic for the league’s 26th season as more Americans get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The league was two games into the season last March when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports in the United States. Play resumed in the summer with the MLS is Back tournament in a bubble in Florida before an abbreviated season held in local markets. The Columbus Crew emerged as the MLS Cup champions.

MLS estimated losses at nearly $1 billion last season, primarily playing in empty stadiums and charter flights for teams. While that will likely improve, the league is expecting another financial hit. As a result, MLS invoked the force majeure clause in the collective bargaining agreement last year.

After a somewhat contentious back-and-forth – the players had already agreed to concessions in 2020 — a new agreement was struck in February that will run through the 2027 season.

The season kicks off Friday night with games: San Jose at Houston and Minnesota at Seattle. The league’s newest team, Austin FC, will play its inaugural game Saturday against LAFC in Los Angeles.

“MLS has always been about momentum,” Commissioner Don Garber said. “More teams, more stadiums, more fans, more players and players that are representing all the exciting activity that takes place on the field. We had the momentum going into last year, and then clearly, that got put on pause a bit with the pandemic. Now that momentum has kicked back in.”

STARS RETURN

It appears two of the league’s top stars, LAFC’s Carlos Vela and Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, will be back.

Vela, who had an MLS-record 34 goals in 2019, missed the MLS is Back tournament because of his wife’s pregnancy and the birth of their child. Then he was hampered by injuries and appeared in only eight regular-season games. Martinez was knocked out of last year’s season opener with an ACL injury that required multiple surgeries. He’s not quite at full strength heading into United’s opener, but close.

Martinez got advice and emotional support from Zlatan Ibrahimovic during his recovery.

“Day-by-day, I am stronger. Obviously not 100%, because I think I’ll get there once I start playing more games. But I feel OK,” Martinez said. “I know it’s hard because I haven’t touched the ball in a year, so my timing with the ball when I have to cross is not very sharp right now, but we’re close.”

NEW TEAM

Austin FC joins this year after overcoming challenges presented by the pandemic, like pulling together a roster and staff in the Zoom era, selling 15,000 season tickets, and building a $260 million stadium. They were assisted by a bit of star power: Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey is the team’s culture minister.

“This is a city on the rise that marries perfectly with a league on the rise. There’s so much energy; there’s so much pent-up demand in that city. You think about the fact we’re the first professional sports league to be in that city,” Garber said.

Charlotte joins the league next year, and St. Louis will participate in 2023. An expansion franchise planned for Sacramento fell apart amid the pandemic, and MLS is looking at its options for a 30th team.

NEW COACHES

There are seven “new” coaches this season. Greg Vanney has moved from Toronto FC to the LA Galaxy, where he’ll be tasked with getting a talented roster led by Chicharito on the same page. His replacement in Toronto, Chris Armas, previously coached the Red Bulls, so he’s got league experience, too. Gerhard Struber was hired by the Red Bulls last October and made his coaching debut during the playoffs, but basically, this is his first season.

Molly Aronson

Molly Aronson is a 26-year-old government politician who enjoys bowling, running and jigsaw puzzles. She is creative and exciting, but can also be very greedy and a bit greedy.She is an australian Christian who defines herself as straight. She has a post-graduate degree in philosophy, politics and economics. She is allergic to grasshoppers.

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