NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Now that there’s a labor agreement, the 2015 Major League Soccer season is on.
MLS may be 20 years old but there is a lot that’s new this season, from the overall league rebranding, to a pair of high-profile expansion teams and an influx of internationally proven talent. It all kicks off Friday night when the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy host the Chicago Fire.
The season comes as the sport’s profile stateside has been raised with the success of the U.S. men’s national team in last year’s World Cup. There has been expanded coverage of international soccer matches on network television and the league itself has a trio of lucrative broadcast deals that should further increase soccer’s exposure.
“In many ways it’s a new start to the next generation of growth for Major League Soccer,” Commissioner Don Garber said Thursday.
Ultimately, what matters most is the product on the field. Here are some things to look for when the 2015 MLS season kicks off this weekend:
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
This season’s field includes two expansion teams, Orlando City SC and New York City FC. They will face each other on Sunday night at the Citrus Bowl before an anticipated 62,000 fans.
Orlando City will only play at the old football stadium for a season before moving into its own home downtown. Walt Disney World Resort has signed on as a founding sponsor of the team, and season tickets have nearly sold out.
NYCFC, which will play home games at Yankee Stadium, is owned by the Yankees and City Football Group, which also owns Premier League side Manchester City. The team is led by former Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis, who spent much of last year in England studying with the parent club.
NYCFC announced last week that it had sold more than 14,000 season tickets for its inaugural season. Legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera was officially season-ticket holder No. 1.
“We are delighted to see so many New Yorkers getting behind our club,” NYCFC president Tom Glick said in a statement. “We can’t wait to start playing for them.”
Along with the additions this season is one subtraction: Chivas USA. The Southern California club formally folded following last season, but it will be replaced by a new team in the same market that will start play in 2017.
MIXING IT UP
Because of the new expansion teams, the league moved the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City to the Western Conference to create two 10-team conferences.
Each team will play 34 total matches this season, including a home-and-home series against each club from the other conference and at least two matches against each conference opponent.
Twelve teams will make the MLS Cup playoffs this season, adding the sixth-place team in both conferences.
They may be new to MLS, but they’re certainly not unknown commodities: Players like Jozy Altidore, Kaka and David Villa are proven international players who are new to the league this season. Or, in Altidore’s case, making their return.
Toronto FC lured Altidore, the U.S. national team striker who played for Sunderland, as well as Italian midfielder Sebastian Giovinco, who signed a five-year deal worth a reported $7 million. With Michael Bradley returning, Toronto is loaded with talent.
The expansion teams both added some high-profile names, with Orlando City SC signing Brazilian playmaker Kaka and former U.S. national team star Brek Shea, and NYCFC bringing in national team midfielder Mix Diskerud, former Chelsea star Frank Lampard and Villa, the Spanish striker who has proclaimed he wants to make New York City “the best team in the league.”
The Portland Timbers also signed a player to watch in goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, who played for Ghana in the World Cup last summer.
After spending nearly two decades playing in college stadiums in the Bay Area, the San Jose Earthquakes have a new home in Avaya Stadium.
The $100 million soccer-specific stadium near the San Jose airport was privately funded. Built on land formerly occupied by a Bradley tank manufacturer, construction of the stadium hit a temporary snag when an underground bunker was discovered.
Among Avaya’s features is the largest outdoor bar in North America.
LIFE WITHOUT LANDON
One marked absence this season will be Landon Donovan, who retired last season after winning the MLS Cup with the Galaxy.
The league’s career scoring leader, Donovan played 14 seasons, won six MLS titles, and was named MVP in 2009.
Garber called Donovan’s decision to join the league in 2001 “one of the most important milestones in our history.” To honor him, the league has named its most valuable player prize the Landon Donovan MVP Award.
There should be no pity for his former team: The Galaxy, winners of the league title in three of the last four seasons, should be fine in the hands of reigning MVP Robbie Keane, as well as Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard when he arrives this summer.
(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)