Sunday, May 9

As the MLS season begins with the Columbus Crew chasing a rare repeat, the league must seize the opportunity to take the next step forward.

The teams that won the top two trophies in Major League Soccer will open their seasons on Sunday night on national television. This is very important for the teams involved. It should probably be something more important to the league as a whole.

The Philadelphia Union won the Supporters’ Shield at the end of the 2020 season cut short by COVID, compiling 47 points in 23 games. It was the club’s first major trophy, but the celebration was cut short by its first-round playoff loss to New England.

The Union played a role three weeks later when Columbus Crew SC won the league’s most coveted honor, the MLS Cup champions, on a cold Saturday night at Crew Stadium.

“We are not the only ones who want the ultimate prize, which is the MLS Cup,” Union coach Jim Curtin told Sporting News. “We are disappointed that our season ended at our home field against New England last year. … It is always devastating when the year ends. But I think that also motivates us.

“We were able to raise the Fan Shield, test how that feels to our young players and our experienced guys. For some of them it was their first trophy. And that’s a flavor and a feeling that you want to have over and over and over again throughout your career. There are a lot of great teams in MLS this season. The league keeps getting better and better. These are exciting times for fans now as they slowly return to the stadiums. “

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According to Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer, this is the first time that the winner of the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS Cup champion have opened the following regular season against each other. This is probably something the league would do well to make a tradition. It is quite important that FS1 show the game.

MLS season 26 begins Friday with a Houston Dynamo-San Jose Earthquakes game (8 pm ET, ESPN +) and one matching Seattle Sounders and Minnesota United (9:30, FS1).

However, as MLS continues to try to grow among the US professional sports leagues and into the larger landscape of soccer, it continues to suffer from something of an identity problem. It is not a crisis, but perhaps a riddle. It is less covered as a sports competition than the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, or NHL. This is in part a result of the fact that very few teams in the league are covered daily by the mainstream media and that much of the conversation about the league takes place on a national level.

As Commissioner Don Garber took the time Monday to speak with reporters about the 2021 season, the main focus was the introduction of another new team, Austin FC, and the eventual opening of new stadiums in Cincinnati and Columbus. The comment he made that generated the most reaction involved a player currently competing in England, Darryl Dike.

Loaned out to Barnsley in the English championship division, Dike could return to Orlando City FC or be sold during the summer transfer window.

“That’s a $ 20 million player,” Garber told reporters.

“Really, the history of Major League Soccer today is about the youth,” he said. “We are now at the youngest average we’ve ever had in league history. We are investing deeply in player development, with academies in each particular market. And now you have to have programs that can provide opportunities for young players to perform at their best, develop at their youngest stage, and ultimately build a professional career. “

Those who cover MLS generally express the view that it is positive for the league to produce players like Dike, Tyler Adams (now with RB Leipzig in German) and Brendan Aaronson (who started 23 games and scored four goals for the Union last season and then moved to RB Salzburg in Austria).

It’s probably best for the US men’s national team to have players who develop and compete on multiple fronts. It is surely an advantage for young players to develop in professional academies as more established soccer nations have done for decades. And that’s part of the reason there is a focus on advancing MLS as what some would call a “selling league.”

However, to gain more traction in the US sports market, it must be viewed as a league first and foremost. Fans need to worry about his career, ranking, playoffs and champion as much as how much one of his young stars could get in transfer fees.

That’s one area where the Crew could be of great use to the league this season. With star player Lucas Zelarayan injured part of last year, they finished third in the East Division. But their return to health allowed them to overcome the playoffs and defeat the favorite Seattle Sounders 3-0 in the MLS Cup final. The organization kept most of the lineup intact and deepened the roster by signing striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who ranks sixth on the league’s goal list.

Columbus’s quest for a second straight championship could return the league’s focus to the field. Winning two in a row is not easy, as Bruce Arena is the only coach to have done it twice: 1996 and 1997 with DC United, 2011 and 2012 with the Los Angeles Galaxy. And that’s part of what makes it attractive.

“Last year was a strange year. I give the Crew all the credit for winning the MLS Cup, as well as Philadelphia for winning the Supporters’ Shield. But I think it will be very different this year, ”said Arena. “Columbus certainly has a good team, and I’m sure they look forward to competing throughout the year not just for the Supporters’ Shield, but also for their return in the MLS Cup.

“I think it will probably be more difficult with more teams. This year, too, the calendar is different now. Now we are playing with conference schedules instead of playing with everyone in the league. The league is undoubtedly as competitive as it has been. It will certainly be a challenging year for anyone trying to win the MLS Cup. “

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