The 2019 MLS season kicks off on Saturday as the Philadelphia Union host Toronto FC on a day where 20 teams are in action. The new season brings even bigger expectations for this ever-growing league, one that has once against expanded and recruited important players from foreign countries. You can watch select nationally televised games on fuboTV (Try for free). Here are five reasons to be excited for Major League Soccer in 2019:
1. Zlatan of course
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a treasure. Not just a Swedish one, but a global one. Since around 2004, he's been one of the top handful of strikers in the world and has moments where there was no better No. 9 in the world. He's a magician with the ball and proved it once again in his first season in MLS, in which he joined halfway through. He had 22 goals in 27 games and is hungry for more. In his first full season, now with Guillermo Barros Schelotto leading the Galaxy, expectations are even higher.
If he stays healthy, expect him to potentially push 30 goals on the campaign, and the Galaxy should have enough to make the playoffs. From there, anything can happen, especially when you have Zlatan.
2. New star players from abroad
This has always been a big part of the interest, especially abroad. Seeing those familiar names from Europe, or South America, playing in MLS raises the profile of the league. And while we've seen the league shift away a bit from the past-their-prime talents, this year's class has three players who still have plenty left to give and could make massive impacts. The first in Pity Martinez in Atlanta, tasked with replacing star Miguel Almiron, now at Newcastle. The former River Plate man and Copa Libertadores winner was one of the top talents in the Argentine first division, and like Almiron, he arrives in MLS with enough quality to already be playing in the top divisions in Europe. He's pacey, he can set up his teammates and he has an eye for goal. He could make an Almiron-like impact for Atlanta United.
Secondly, Marco Fabian in an intriguing one for the Philadelphia Union. The 29-year-old Mexico international is a talented, creative midfielder who just didn't play much for Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany. The Union made the playoffs last season, and with a defense that struggled, Fabian can help them win some of the more high-scoring matches this season and push higher up the table.
Lastly, and more recently, Orlando City SC announced the signing of Nani. The former Manchester United star is so fast, unbelievably technical and still has a bunch of class. He's someone who could be in the MVP discussions, like Martinez, in his first season. Expect to see a lot of his back-flip celebrations because he should rack up the goals in Florida.
3. A chance for a new champion
Atlanta United still has more than enough to win MLS Cup again, but it's going to take time. With coach Tata Martino gone and being replaced by Frank De Boer, along with the departure of Almiron, adjusting to a new style of play and De Boer becoming more familiar with his players won't come quickly. That wasn't more evident than on Thursday, Atlanta went to Costa Rica and lost to Herediano 3-1 in the first leg of the Round of 16 in CONCACAF Champions League. It's still so early, but Atlanta isn't likely to be the high-power machined it was last season, at least initially. That could open up a window for teams like the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United to win the Eastern Conference.
4. Impact of expansion team
FC Cincinnati are the new boys on the block this season, but they are hoping to come in and perform right away after making the leap from USL. FC Cincy has some established players like U.S. men's national team veteran Greg Garza, MLS vets Darren Mattocks and Fanendo Adi and a rising star in midfielder Allan Cruz of Costa Rica. But the most impressive part is the atmosphere.
English coach Alan Pardew took Crystal Palace to FC Cincy, still in USL at the time, for a preseason match in 2016 and said the atmosphere was like a cup final. A preseason game in the United States being described as a cup final-like atmosphere by a coach who has taken his team to the FA Cup final. Just listen.
Expectations will be to contend for a playoff spot in its first season, but that may prove difficult even with a weakened Eastern Conference. One thing is for sure though -- this club is going to have a packed house for all of its home games.
5. Rising stars
There is plenty of young talent in this league even after Alphonso Davies left Vancouver for Bayern Munich and Tyler Adams went from New York Red Bulls to RB Leipzig. Whether it is LAFC's young Uruguayan striker Diego Rossi, Atlanta United's Ezequiel Barco or FC Dallas' Reggie Cannon, there are a boatload of guys who are on the verge of becoming high-level stars in MLS or possibly doing enough to earn significant interest from teams overseas.
One guy to keep an eye on is Djordje Mihailovic of the Chicago Fire. He is in his third season with the Fire and has a knack of moving into the right spaces, playing quickly and setting up his teammates. He just debuted for the United States men's national team and scored in the match.
Those close to the league have described him to me as either a future star in MLS or a significant contributor to a European club in a few years.