As Major League Soccer enters its 19th season, a series of extraordinary signings have been dominating the headlines. Toronto FC have led the way in this respect, acquiring USA international Michael Bradley, England striker Jermain Defoe and Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar, all since the last campaign concluded in December 2013 when Sporting Kansas City beat Real Salt Lake 7-6 on penalties.
And while the Canadians have been at the forefront of activity, the entire league has seen some remarkable changes over the past three months, including the introduction of the first-ever MLS Caribbean Combine, since when Suriname starlet Stefano Rijssel has signed for Seattle Sounders. Additionally, a league-mandated ownership change at Chivas USA and the promise of expansion in the south-eastern United States, with Orlando City FC set to begin play next year and a club based out of Miami spearheaded by David Beckham likely set to take the pitch in 2017, has made for busy times ahead of this latest campaign.
FIFA.com previews the season to come, along with exclusive input from some of the league biggest stars.
With the season kicking off on Saturday, several eyes will be on reigning champions Sporting Kansas City, who visit Seattle Sounders in the premiere match-up of the weekend. USA international Clint Dempsey, fresh off a disappointing 2-0 loss to Ukraine on Wednesday, will look to lead a Seattle side who feature standout players such as a fully-fit and rested Obafemi Martins and Kenny Cooper. Their opponents, led by Peter Vermes, themselves boast several Brazil 2014 hopefuls, including Graham Zusi, centre-back Matt Besler and midfielder Benny Feilhaber.
When asked about Kansas City’s ability to defend their MLS Cup title, Feilhaber replied: “We can’t be modest or content about where we’re at as a club. It’s harder to stay at the top than to get there one time. We’re still totally motivated to keep doing the same things that won us the title last season too. We don’t want to just win once, but every year. We want to be a dynasty.”
Toronto aiming high
Although Toronto - one of the league’s three Canada-based outfits - will not feature in the league’s opening weekend, plenty of expectation surrounds a team that has reportedly spent over $100m USD during the off-season on the likes of Bradley, Defoe and Julio Cesar. All of these purchases have been made in an attempt to right the ship after coach Ryan Nelsen guided the team through a rocky 2013 season that saw the club win six games, draw 17 and lose 17.
With the firepower Nelsen has brought to the table – not to mention the safe hands of keeper Julio Cesar, whom Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has publicly stated is in his plans – the Reds are predicted to do well in a Eastern Conference that has continued to struggle against a considerably stronger western equivalent.
Two sides from the west that always seem to be in the play-off hunt come the end of the season are MLS Cup runners-up Real Salt Lake and San Jose Earthquakes. Kyle Beckerman, Salt Lake’s veteran midfielder, believes that his side have what it takes to triumph this season, despite former coach Jason Kreis heading to expansion side New York City FC, who are expected to join the fray in the 2015 campaign. “Before Jason came we were a team that finished at the bottom every single year, but he changed that mindset right away,” Beckerman told FIFA.com. “The theme became: you fight for the guy next to you. We knew if we could do that then we would be a tough team to beat. It’s all part of our identity as a team.
“One of the things I pride myself on is that you always know what you’re going to get out of me. I give everything I have. With Salt Lake, that kind of thing is contagious. We all do that, every day.
While MLS has welcomed plenty of exciting newcomers, existing favourites such as New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry and Australia's all-time leading scorer Tim Cahill indicate how the strength of the league continues to grow among the 19 competing sides. Brad Davis, the Houston Dynamo midfielder, has seen this improvement transform in front of him in the past few years.
“Without a doubt the league has improved a great deal,” Davis said. “When I was first drafted in New York, we trained at a local community college, we had no gym and they laid sod down at the meadowlands for our games. Now look at Red Bull Arena and you can pretty much see one of the big differences.
“Most of the team’s have soccer-specific stadiums. It’s fun to be a part of this league. We have our own stadium in Houston and it finally feels like we’re legitimate professionals, and it took a while, honestly, to feel that way – maybe ten years or so. It’s the tail end of my career, but it bodes well for the young guys coming through.”
Elsewhere, D.C. United's attack will be bolsters by the addition of designated player and USA international Eddie Johnson. The black and red begin the season against Columbus Crew, while Eastern Conference rivals New England Revolution visit Houston. Galaxy welcome Salt Lake to the StubHub Center, with Landon Donovan looking to set the MLS scoring record. The USA icon currently sits on 134 goals, tied with Jeff Cunningham at the top of the all-time standings.