Major League Soccer's 2021 season, the league's 26th, kicks off officially on Friday with two matches in what may be the most highly anticipated MLS season to date. The 25th season was one with huge expectations, but the impact of COVID-19 contributed to a season like we've never seen with no fans and an altered schedule.
But ahead of Friday's action, what do you need to know about the campaign? Here is our league preview:
Will there be fans in attendance?
Seventeen of the league's 27 teams are planning to have fans at all home games. The Los Angeles Galaxy and LAFC are set to allow 100 spectators per match, while Atlanta United is aiming to cap capacity at 50 percent, which is about 22,000 fans. Most of the clubs allowing fans are looking between 5,000 and 15,000 fans. Some clubs have yet to decide what they will do in terms of attendance.
New kids on the block
Major League Soccer's expansion continues with Austin FC making their debut as the league's newest franchise to begin play. Coached by former U.S. men's national team player Josh Wolff, Austin FC have received some positive reviews in the preseason. The club features former Talleres talent in Argentine designated player Tomas Pochettino, as well as Paraguayan winger Cecilio Dominguez. Both have chances to be MLS All-Stars this season. On top of that, expectations are high for Daniel Pereira, the No. 1 pick in the SuperDraft. The talented midfielder out of Virginia Tech is from Venezuela and has fine technical ability and vision.
LA teams looking to rebound
LAFC were contenders in the league during their first couple seasons, and the Los Angeles Galaxy have always spent the money to, at least on paper, compete. Both teams enter this season looking to rebound from poor 2020 campaigns. LAFC finished a surprising seventh in the Western Conference with huge defensive woes, and the Galaxy were even worse, finishing in 10th place and winning just six of their 22 games.
Both teams feel like their defenses improved, but they each need to find some stability in attack to really produce deep runs.
While we know what Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi can do, the key will be to keep both of them healthy. The club feels confident in Jesus Murillo taking another step in defense to help the unit improve.
With the Galaxy, it is all about Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez performing like the player he is. A dismal first season saw him deal with injuries and score just two goals in 12 games. Now, with arguably their best player gone in Cristian Pavon, somebody is going to have to contribute alongside him.
They are counting on new signing Samuel Grandsir of Monaco to be that guy. The former France U-21 winger is just 24 years of age and had 27 appearances for Brest while on loan last season. While it will all start with defense, these teams still have big questions in attack if they are to really be contenders to win it all.
Lots of eyes on Atlanta United
There will be plenty of eyes on Atlanta United as they look to return to the summit, and they have the squad to do it. But the main reason they achieve any sort of success this season will be because of new manager Gabriel Heinze. The former Manchester United and Real Madrid defender takes over the club as they hope to have a repeat of the "Tata" Martino era by trusting another Argentine to come in and implement defensive pressure, technical quality and a style of play that wows the fans.
Heinze, 42, has only coached in Argentina but did a fine job at Velez Sarsfield and also helped Argentinos Juniors earn promotion in 2017.
Atlanta brought in numerous players this offseason, including three from Argentina that Heinze is high on. But, none more so than Santiago Sosa from River Plate. The 21-year-old midfielder has the quality to be in Europe now, he has star written all over him, and he's played numerous matches already for the Argentina U-20 team. Expect him to be a player that doesn't quite excite in terms of flashy play, but with him sitting deep centrally, he will be crucial to recovering the ball and getting it forward in a timely manner to start the attack.
New faces to watch
FC Cincinnatti landed a highly touted young Brazilian striker in Brenner from Sao Paulo who really has the chance to be the most exciting attacker in the league, and keep an eye on Ramon Abila of Minnesota United. The former Boca Juniors striker is on loan at the club to team up with Emanuel Reynoso, and "Wanchope" Abila has everything needed to dominate this league. While he doesn't have pace, he is big, strong and acrobatic, and it's realistic to think he can get over 15 goals this season if he stays healthy.
Lots of teams have opted to loan moves over transfers, and we'll just have to see how it plays out.
But one of the more interesting moves is that of Bobby Wood. The former USMNT striker joined Real Salt Lake on a free move from Hamburg as he looks to revive his career.
Opening weekend schedule
All times Eastern -- games on FS1, ABC and FOX are streaming on fuboTV (try for free)
Friday, April 16
Houston Dynamo vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 8 p.m. on ESPN+
Seattle Sounders vs. Minnesota United, 9:30 p.m. on FS1
Saturday, April 17
Montreal Impact vs. Toronto FC, 2 p.m. on ESPN+
Orlando City vs. Atlanta United, 3 p.m. on UniMas
LAFC vs. Austin, 6 p.m. on FOX
FC Dallas vs. Colorado Rapids, 8 p.m. on ESPN+
DC United vs. NYCFC, 8 p.m. on ESPN+
New York RB vs. Sporting KC, 8 p.m. on ESPN+
Chicago Fire vs. New England Revolution, 8:30 p.m. on ESPN+
Nashville SC vs. FC Cincinnati, 8:30 p.m. on ESPN+
Sunday, April 18
Inter Miami vs. LA Galaxy, 3 p.m. on ABC