Jack Knowlton

The MLS is making its return this week after the Columbus Crew took the crown in last season’s competition in December. Here are the most important players, teams and stories to watch for ahead of this year’s competition.

New Kids on the block: Not only will this season feature new players, but also the debut of a brand new MLS side. Austin FC will make its MLS debut against LAFC and as the MLS has continued to expand it will be exciting to see what’s in store for the new club. Despite this being the Texas club’s first season, Austin FC roster boasts some familiar names. Center-back Matt Besler has over 40 appearances for the USMNT and will be a familiar name for MLS fans when he suits up for Austin. On the younger side, Daniel Pereira was a member of Generation Adidas, a program that helps recruit young soccer players in the US and has produced the like of Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. Austin FC is in good hands should the 20 year old stay and Pereira certainly boasts a lot of exciting potential for MLS fans in general. Austin FC also has Sebastian Berhalter, the son of USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter and who at 19 could develop into a decent MLS talent.

The Contenders: Columbus Crew took home the championship last season after a 3-0 win over the Seattle Sounders. The Crew are certainly poised to make another run returning all of last year’s starters including midfielder Lucas Zelarayan who despite making just 16 appearances, scored six goals and won the MLS Newcomer of the year award. Despite all the returners, Columbus have also added a few signings to bolster their chances to repeat and there is no reason why the Ohio side can’t run it back this season.

However, it is LAFC who open as betting favorites to win the MLS Cup. Led by 23-year-old Diego Rossi who scored 14 goals and grabbed four assists last season, the LA side are poised to make a charge at the title. LAFC have also added a few key signings in defense which will be helpful for a side that allowed 39 goals in 22 games last year, the most of any playoff team in the western conference. They of course also boast Carlos Vela, who has been one the MLS’ most consistent performers since his move from Real Sociedad in 2018. While Columbus took home the title over Seattle last season, it is LAFC that serve as the best challengers to a Crew repeat in 2021.

Orlando City presents another intriguing team to watch this season. The Floridian side were runners up in the MLS Is Back Tournament last season and could look to make a run at the MLS Cup this year. Orlando added another former European star in Alexandre Pato who, at 31, can add to their attack force with his experience playing for Chelsea and AC Milan in Europe prior to making his move to Orlando. The side also has Nani, an experienced winger who is coming back for his third season with Orlando and Chris Muller, another winger who enjoyed a breakout season with Orlando scoring 10 goals in the 2020 campaign which also saw him make his first two appearances for the USMNT where he already has two goals.

Best returning players: Javier Hernandez returns for another season in LA with the Galaxy and his Mexican teammate Carlos Vela will suit up once again for LAFC. Both players have experience and sublime talent and should dazzle the MLS for yet another year, making El Traffico a much anticipated derby. Alejandro Pozuelo is another intriguing name to watch after the Spaniard took home the MLS MVP award last season. After a stellar campaign scoring nine goals and grabbing 10 assists and playing attacking midfielder for Toronto, running it back with the Candian club should see Pozuelo repeating that performance again this season. 

On the younger end of the age spectrum, 21-year-old Brenner is set to start his first season with FC Cincinnati this season. Brenner hails from Brazil and scored 22 goals in 38 starts for Brazilian club Sao Paulo this season. Not only is it a big move for Cincinnati who paid a whopping $13 million to sign the young forward, but it’s also a big move for the MLS as a whole. If the MLS can become a league developing young talent as well as attracting older stars from Europe it certainly will boost the overall pedigree of the league itself. Brenner joining an MLS side feels like a step in the right direction for the MLS. Not to mention he adds a potent attacking style to a Cincy side that finished dead last in the Eastern Conference last season and will need the help to work their way up in the standings.

Josef Martinez has risen to become one of the MLS’ biggest stars and the main reason why Atlanta United have become consistent contenders. This season should be no different assuming we see the same Martinez. The Venezualen striker didn’t feature at all last campaign for Atlanta after tearing his ACL. Atlanta struggled without Martinez finishing 12th and scoring just 23 goals, the second least in the Eastern Conference. However, with Martinez back Atlanta should be prepared for a quick turnaround. In his four seasons in the MLS, with the 2020 campaign seeing just one start for Martinez before the ACL tear, Martinez has scored an astounding 77 goals in 84 games for Atlanta. That kind of output is nearly impossible to replace for any side and Atlanta and their place in the standings and goalscoring charts should see a major improvement with their best player back in the side.