After the shortest season in league history, one interrupted for four months by the coronavirus outbreak, MLS teams open training camps Monday in preparation for a year that is shaping up to be hugely consequential.
The league is expanding to 27 teams with the addition of a franchise in Austin, Texas. The flow of young South American talent has continued with FC Cincinnati’s addition of Brenner, a 21-year-old Brazilian forward, on a $13-million transfer, and Atlanta adding Argentine youth internationals Santiago Sosa and Franco Ibarra. And new stadiums are opening in Austin and Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, continuing a spurt that will see the league add at least 10 soccer-specific stadiums between 2017 and 2023, a building boom that rivals Major League Baseball’s at the start of this century.
All that happy news took a bit of a hit late Friday when billionaire businessman Ron Burkle pulled the plug on the planned expansion team in Sacramento, citing the ongoing effects of the pandemic.
That’s not the first blow COVID-19 has dealt to MLS. Because of the pandemic, the league cut last season to 23 games, which were played mostly in empty stadiums, costing the league $1 billion in revenue, according to commissioner Don Garber. Similar losses this year could cripple MLS going forward, which is why Garber threatened the players union with lockouts twice in the last eight months to win concessions in a seven-year collective bargaining deal agreed to in early February.
Now Garber just wants to get the games started.
“All of us want to get past this pandemic, want to figure out what the next new normal is going to look like,” he said. “We are ready to get back to work, get our fans back in our facilities, get our players back on the field, be able to have normalcy with global health and safety.”
Because talks on the collective bargaining agreement went into extra time, the official start of training camp was delayed until Monday, and the regular season was pushed back until April 17, the latest opening date in MLS history (which is fine since the league has yet to finalize its schedule, owing to uncertainties over when the U.S.-Canadian border will reopen to nonessential travel).
Toronto FC, which is playing in the Canadian Championship final, reported to camp Feb. 17. Atlanta United, Columbus, Philadelphia and Portland, which have qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League, opened camp Wednesday and were set to begin full-squad workouts a week later.
In Southern California, players with the Galaxy and LAFC were expected to report for medical exams and coronavirus testing and quarantines Monday, although many already have been cleared to begin training voluntarily at the team facilities. Full-squad practices are scheduled to begin March 8.
For the Galaxy, the new year offers the chance at a fresh start after the worst four-year stretch in club history. As part of that rebuild, general manager Dennis te Kloese chose Greg Vanney, a standout defender on the first Galaxy roster, to replace Guillermo Barros Schelotto as manager.
“This is going to be a process,” Vanney, the Galaxy’s fifth head coach in as many seasons, said of the team’s rebuild. “We’ve got to develop a team that fits the image, and we’ve got to get the personalities that are ready to come in and work and have the right humility to get themselves on the right side of what the expectations are here in L.A.”
The roster remains a work in progress. Gone are five regulars from last season — defenders Rolf Feltscher and Emiliano Insúa, goalkeeper David Bingham and midfielders Joe Corona and Perry Kitchen. Vanney said the team was looking to add a defensive midfielder, freeing Jonathan dos Santos to play box to box and contribute to the attack. Te Kloese is also continuing complicated negotiations with Argentine club Boca Juniors over winger Cristian Pavón, who led the Galaxy in goals and assists last season while on loan.
Even if the Galaxy lands Pavón, he’ll miss the first month of the season after undergoing surgery on both ankles in February.
It’s also been a busy, if short, offseason for LAFC, which made it to the final of the CONCACAF Champions League in December after a disappointing MLS season that ended with a seventh-place finish in the Western Conference standings and a first-round playoff loss.
“Everybody knows 2020 was a tough year, in all aspects,” said defender Tristan Blackmon, who was called in to his first national team camp this winter. “As a club, we went through highs and lows. It was evident to everybody watching us.”
Blackmon blamed part of that on a hangover from 2019, when LAFC won the Supporters’ Shield with the best regular-season record in MLS history.
“Maybe there was some complacency. Which isn’t a good thing,” he said. “You’re never supposed to be in that head space.”
LAFC returns the last two MLS scoring leaders in Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, but the pair started just four regular-season games together last year after Vela sat out the MLS Is Back tournament, then tore the MCL in his left knee in his first game back.
General manager John Thorrington strengthened a defense that allowed a club-record 1.77 goals per game last season, adding right back Kim Moon-hwan, a South Korean international, and trading for Portland Timbers left back Marco Farfan. Up front, versatile forward Corey Baird, acquired in a trade with Real Salt Lake, will help fill the hole left when Brian Rodríguez moved to Almería of the Spanish second division on loan.