Albany Times Union

MLS begins its buildup to the World Cup

- By Anne M. Peterson

The push toward the World Cup in 2026 begins now for Major League Soccer.

The league, entering its 28th season this year, has a new team in St. Louis City SC and a new media deal with Apple TV. This season will also feature an expanded Leagues Cup, which will involve all of the MLS and Liga MX teams for the first time.

The tournament is part of an ever-increasing collaborat­ion between MLS and Liga MX, with both profession­al leagues looking forward to the attention they’ll see in the run-up to the World Cup hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar was already record-breaking, with 36 MLS players making national team rosters — double the league’s players that were in Russia in 2018.

LAFC is the defending MLS Cup champion and Supporters Shield winner. The Western Conference team is loaded with talent, including Carlos Vela, Kellyn Acosta and Giorgio Chiellini, but top scorer Cristian ‘Chicho’ Arango was sold to Pachuca in Mexico.

Wales legend Gareth Bale, LAFC’S splashy signing last June, retired in the offseason but not before he provided a memorable moment in the championsh­ip game with an equalizer late in extra time that sent the match to penalties and a victory over the Philadelph­ia Union.

“I think our first 11 is still pretty good, and we’re quite pleased with it. And we have a few very good players off the bench, we just don’t have as deep a bench as last season. So we’re focusing on staying healthy, and trying to manage a lot of games in a congested schedule this year,” LAFC second-year coach Steve Cherundolo said.

Philadelph­ia, the Eastern Conference’s top finisher last season, didn’t make many huge moves in the offseason but lost key sub Cory Burke in free agency. The Union scored a league-best 72 goals and allowed just 26, fewest in MLS last season and a record for a 34-game season.

“It’s going to be hard to replicate what we did defensivel­y last year, setting a record in goals-against, and then scoring as many goals as we did is certainly going to be a challenge, but this group will fight like hell for our fans and try to get back to that MLS Cup final,” Union coach Jim Curtin said.

The 28th MLS season opens this Saturday.

How about them Apples?

MLS kicked off a 10-year partnershi­p with Apple with the launch of Season Pass on Apple TV+ this season. Apple has made previous forays into sports streaming, but this is its first significan­t involvemen­t with a league.

MLS will receive at least $250 million per season from Apple. The league averaged $90 million per season under its previous eightyear agreements with Fox, ESPN and Univision.

New kids on the block

St. Louis City joins MLS this season as the 29th club. City opens the season on the road at Austin but returns home to face Charlotte on March 4 at the team’s soccer-specific stadium, CITYPARK. The team’s first home match will be played before a sellout crowd of 22,500.

City named goalkeeper Roman Burki, who came from Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga, as its captain for the inaugural season. Defender Tim Parker was named vice captain.

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