The Dallas Morning News

New season starts with hopes of returning to normalcy

There still won’t be full crowds in most venues, but optimism is there

- By ANNE M. PETERSON

Major League Soccer embarks on the 2021 season with a new labor agreement in hand, the return of two big stars, a new team in Austin and lessons learned from 2020.

There still won’t be full crowds in most places, but there are reasons to be optimistic for the league’s 26th season as more Americans get vaccinated against the coronaviru­s.

The league was two games into the season last March when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports in the United States. Play resumed in the summer with the MLS is Back tournament in a bubble in Florida before an abbreviate­d season held in local markets. The Columbus Crew emerged as the MLS Cup champions.

MLS estimated losses at nearly $1 billion last season, mostly the result of playing in empty stadiums and charter flights for teams. While that will likely improve, the league is expecting another financial hit. As a result, MLS invoked the force majeure clause in the collective bargaining agreement last year.

After a rather contentiou­s back-and-forth — the players had already agreed to concession­s in 2020 — a new agreement was struck in February that will run through the 2027 season.

The season kicks off Friday night with a pair of games: San Jose at Houston and Minnesota at Seattle. The league’s newest team, Austin FC, will play its inaugural game Saturday against LAFC in Los Angeles.

Stars return: It appears two of the league’s top stars, LAFC’S Carlos Vela and Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, will be back.

Vela, who had an Mls-record 34 goals in 2019, missed the MLS is Back tournament because of his wife’s pregnancy and the birth of their child. Then he was hampered by injuries and appeared in only eight regular-season games.

Martinez was knocked out of last year’s season opener with an ACL injury that required multiple surgeries. He’s not quite at full strength heading into United’s opener, but close.

New team: Austin FC joins this year after overcoming challenges presented by the pandemic, like pulling together a roster and staff in the Zoom era, selling 15,000 season tickets and building a $260 million stadium. They were assisted by a bit of star power: Oscar winner Matthew Mcconaughe­y is the team’s minister of culture.

“This is a city on the rise that marries perfectly with a league on the rise. There’s so much energy, there’s so much pent up demand in that city. You think about the fact we’re the first profession­al sports league to be in that city,” MLS Commission­er Don Garber said.

Charlotte joins the league next year, and St. Louis will join in 2023. An expansion franchise planned for Sacramento fell apart amid the pandemic, and MLS is looking at its options for a 30th team.

New name: The Montreal Impact has rebranded as Club de Foot Montreal, or CF Montreal. The makeover includes a new crest that has a snow-flake-like emblem and a new motto “Droit Devant” or “Always Forward.”

We the north: The league’s Canadian teams will have a tough go of it again because of travel restrictio­ns south of the border, so the teams will once again play in the United States for the foreseeabl­e future. The Whitecaps have relocated to Real Salt Lake’s facilities in Utah, while Toronto and Montreal have set up shop in Florida.

Diversity and inclusion: Athletes across sports took a more active role in social justice issues following the death of George Floyd. In MLS, the Black Players for Change group was launched by Toronto’s Justin Morrow to address systemic racism both in soccer and society.

MLS appointed Sola Winley to the position of executive vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer in February to ensure underrepre­sented groups are included in league and team offices, programs and initiative­s.

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