Major League Soccer kicks off its 25th anniversary season this weekend, with a full slate of eight games Saturday and another five on Sunday. Two new teams will be making their MLS debut, bringing the total number of teams to 26. Nashville FC will host league juggernaut Atlanta United Saturday, while Inter Miami visits 2020 MLS Cup favorites, Los Angeles FC Sunday.
LAFC (+340) are coming off their first Supporters’ Shield, having set league records for points and goal differential last year. They are heavy favorites— particularly in the Western Conference— to avenge a shocking defeat in the Western Conference Finals, and capture their first MLS Cup title. That loss came at the hands of the Seattle Sounders (+1100), who won their second MLS Cup in four years. Both squads, however, might get bogged down in early CONCACAF Champions League action.
In the Eastern Conference, last year’s MLS Cup runners-up, Toronto FC, and 2018 MLS Cup champion, Atlanta United, are co-favorites (+750). The Five Stripes engaged in a frenzy of wheeling and dealing this offseason, giving manager Frank de Boer a real challenge in Atlanta. By contrast, the Reds largely stood pat. This might give them a slight edge, should the two squads renew their acquaintances, after last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
The league’s newcomer to watch is none other than Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, arriving on a $9.4 million transfer fee from Spanish side Sevilla. He, essentially, replaces another high-profile import, the incomparable Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at LA Galaxy (+1800). The Mexican national, and El Tri superstar, is already being hailed as one of the most significant player acquisitions in the league’s 25-year history. Why? “Five or 10 years ago, Chicharito would’ve come back to Chivas at age 31,” MLS analyst Matthew Doyle told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Now instead he comes to the Galaxy. This is progress.”
Inter Miami (+3400) and Nashville FC (+12000) are hoping to avoid the fate endured by last season’s debutant, FC Cincinnati (+10000), dead last in truly historic fashion. Cincinnati finished with fewer goals than games, and conceded a league record 75, for a ghastly -44 goal differential by season’s end.
David Beckham is finally able to cash in a 13-year promise, which allowed him the option to own an expansion team at a discounted rate once he signed with the Galaxy. Becks has already been rumored to lure in plenty of star power. Nashville’s goals, by contrast, are simple. As midfielder Dax McCarty put it, “we can’t try to emulate LAFC. We can’t try to emulate Atlanta United. We don’t want to emulate Cincinnati.”
The league’s ever-expanding roster means 2020 will be the first season in league history where every team will not play every other team at least once. If 26 teams weren’t enough, even more are on the way. Charlotte and Austin join the party next season, while Sacramento and St. Louis bring the league to 30 by 2022.
Americans’ appetite for soccer doesn’t seem to be diminishing either, and the league wants you to know that games are easier than ever to watch in the United States, Canada, and some 190 countries and territories worldwide. MLS is also arguably the most cord-cutter friendly of America’s major professional leagues. Several teams have exclusive deals with streaming partners, like YouTube TV, to provide in-market broadcasts of matches. Condensed games, as well as full-match replays, are also available streaming for free, which is nearly unheard of across other leagues.