Major League Soccer 2020: Five storylines to watch for heading into MLS' milestone 25th season
The new MLS season gets underway this weekend, with eight matches on Saturday
Major League Soccer is almost back. On Saturday, the 25th season begins with the Seattle Sounders as the reigning champions and looking poised for another big year. The league continues to grow with two new franchises beginning play with high expectations, an influx of South American talent and plenty of stars from Liga MX giving the league a try.
Here are five storylines to watch for the 2020 campaign.
1. A milestone season ahead
It's hard to believe MLS is entering it's 25th season. I still vividly remember the first season back in 1996 with a Mauricio Cienfuegos-led Los Angeles Galaxy taking on what was the beginning of the D.C. United dynasty in the final in Foxboro Stadium. I was just eight years old, but Eddie Pope's golden goal winner in the 94th minute is still fresh in my head. That moment feels like it was still yesterday for Pope.
"I think for me it was sort of a crazy season," Pope told CBS Sports. "I didn't start with the team. I was with the [USA] Olympic team. I was getting reports that the season wasn't going well. They made some swift changes ... I was anxious to get there and be part of the group.
"Three quarters of the way through, we started feeling like we had a chance at winning. Fast forward to that game, it was such a crazy game. They were going to play it, then they weren't because of the rain ... We were dying to get the game going."
Tied 1-1 in extra time, D.C. won a corner kick and Pope was convinced he could put it away. He credits one of the league's most prominent coaches for his help in getting it done.
"It was a game with a lot of ups and downs, but we were also confident even though we were down," Pope said. "On the corner, on the goal, [LAFC coach] Bob Bradley who was the assistant on the time, made Marco Etcheverry and I work on corners the last week. He made us do extra work on practicing corners. Marco could put the ball anywhere. I knew if he got it anywhere near me, I'd be able to out-jump most anybody and be able to get it. It was just how we practiced on the practice field. It was a great feeling to be the first champions."
From there, the league's growth continued and the excitement grew with each season, and Pope is thrilled to have played a part. He still can't believe the league is where it is today.
"I don't think anybody could have known or said I'm 100 percent positive this thing is going to be around and be where it is now," Pope said. "Especially coming so close to the league possibly folding, obviously there have been teams that have had to move on ... Where it is now, it's been fantastic."
There was a drama, an excitement and a building of a brand that has led to this season. With stars coming and going, young talent making an impact and exposure overseas increasing. From 10 teams to 26 teams, more money in the game and soccer-specific stadiums, oh how far it has come. 25 years is a huge milestone for the league, and this season brings higher expectations than ever.
"I think there has been tremendous growth on the field and off," former D.C. United and United States men's national team star John Harkes told CBS Sports. "When you talk about that first year and a lot of the unknowns in that '96 season, for me coming back from West Ham into the league, I had about two weeks of a break and we kicked off right away in April.
"How far we had come in that first year just on being salesman alone. We had to be out in the community."
Harkes said there was a lot of pressure on the players to put out a good product but also to get out in the community to show the league's intent to become relevant and a contributor in the community.
"It wasn't just to kick off but to last and stay," he said.
Harkes underlined just how huge it is for the league to continue to become relevant on the global scale by being able to point to former players who are still connected to the league in David Beckham and Thierry Henry. Beckham is the president of Inter Miami while Henry is coaching the Montreal Impact.
"Now there are stadiums being built, identities of clubs. We know who they are now. They are making an imprint in the community," Beckham said.
2. Rising star set to become American face of the league
The foreign talent in Major League Soccer is richer than ever before, but just as key for the league is getting American talent into the spotlight and show the youth in this country that there is a path to professional soccer and stardom. The latest player to become the young face of MLS is United States men's national team rising talent Paxton Pomykal.
A talented midfielder who continues to rise, Pomykal underwent surgery for a muscle issue and is eager for this 2020 season to begin. What's fueled him is early on in his career when he wasn't getting a lot of minutes, which is common for new, young players. But his drive made him want to play always and to fight for this minutes in training. Now that he is a starter, he never wants to experience it again.
"I started out on the bottom, and it's better because you know what it feels like. You have those moments of doubt," Pomykal told CBS Sports. "To not be in that position, it makes me want to push even harder ... There is always room for improvement."
His stability on the ball and creativeness should fuel an FC Dallas attack that has so much talent. But Poymkal doesn't need much to get going -- he just holds himself to the highest standard. Though from the outside many see him as a top MLS talent who will continue to garner interest from overseas, he wants to find consistency and called some of his own performances poor, using it at motivation.
After FC Dallas made the playoffs last season and nearly knocked out eventual champion Seattle, there are even bigger expectations for this season. Pomykal knows what they need to do to get better with him, Reggie Cannon, Brandon Servania and Jesus Ferreira leading the youth movement.
"Just overall as a unit, last year was a learning curve," Pomykal said.
"We have a lot of young guys who are learning the league, learning how to win games, manage games. I think we will be a lot better off. We have to clean up some performances and learn how to win on the road."
3. Galaxy aim to return to the top with 'Chicharito'
The Los Angeles Galaxy remain the biggest club in Major League Soccer from a historical standpoint with the most MLS Cups all time with five, but there's no doubt that Los Angeles FC has moved ahead of them in terms of contenders. Still, don't count the Galaxy out as they hope to turn the page from the Zlatan Ibrahimovic era with a fresh face leading the team. Out is Ibra and in comes Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez in what's a big year for the Galaxy. The team has one of the top Mexican talents leading its front line with Cristian Pavon and Aleksandar Katia on either side, but a large portion of potential success will boil down to the defense. The Galaxy backline last season was absolutely awful, conceding 59 goals in 34 regular season games. The team likely won't have that defense truly fixed until the season begins. Sources tell CBS Sports that the Galaxy remain engaged in talks with Argentine club Independiente for the potential transfer of centerback Alan Franco, though Independiente's asking price as stalled things. The club is confident in continuing talks and possibly reaching an agreement before long.
If the team does bring Franco in, along with Chicharito up top, it could be a big year for the Galaxy who are hungry for a return to the summit.
4. Expansion teams take the field with high expectations
It's always exciting when new teams begin play, and two join this season in Inter Miami and Nashville SC. Both teams are expected to have rowdy fan bases to begin the campaign, but it's always tricky to predict what kind of success they may have. Nashville likely isn't a playoff team in year one, but they've set themselves up for success with wise acquisitions, like centerback Walker Zimmerman from LAFC.
Inter Miami will have the higher expectations to begin, which is simply part of just being a new team in a big city where the spotlight is bigger and more intense. With a talented manager in Diego Alonso and some real talent, Inter Miami will expect to push for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With D.C. United and New York Red Bulls in rebuilding mode, they could make it. The only question is whether young 19-year-old striker Julian Carranza can be the man up top when he returns from a foot injury that will keep him out until April or May.
5. It's title or bust for Carlos Vela and LAFC
All eyes are on LAFC as the 2020 season begins. With so much quality in attack with Carlos Vela and Uruguayan duo Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez, the club is expected to surpass is record 85-goal season from 2019. They've added some depth, but many questioned why they sent Zimmerman to LAFC without a proper replacement.
After running away with the Supporters' Shield but falling in the playoffs, this could be the year they win it all. The new playoff format of win or go home makes things even trickier, and losing to eventual champion Seattle last season stung. But it's only fueled the club to continue its improvement.
The pressure will be on again in 2020. LAFC should cruise into the playoffs, but as they found out last year, one off game can doom you.
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