Major League Soccer's 24th season kicks off on Saturday, ushering in a 2019 campaign that's brimming with potential.
The league will look to ride the wave of momentum with which it ended 2018, when Atlanta United won MLS Cup in front of a crowd larger than that of the Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A 24th team, FC Cincinnati, joins the league, which has shortened the duration of the season and altered the playoff format with an eye on incentivizing regular-season finishes and setting up an exciting run to a November 10 championship match.
There will be one new stadium in Minnesota and a renovated one in Portland to go along with the temporary home in Cincinnati. A number of top talents and rising stars have departed the league or been sold off, with MVP-caliber talents David Villa, Miguel Almiron and Sebastian Giovinco all heading elsewhere, meaning MLS will be turning to others–new signings, already established stars and, yes, some aging European standouts–to fill the top tier of starpower and carry the flag for the league.
With all that said, here are the top 24 storylines, questions, themes, players and managers to watch entering the 2019 season:
1. How will big changes impact Atlanta United's encore?
Atlanta United may not have won the Supporters' Shield a season ago, but it rolled its way to MLS Cup in memorable fashion. The club dazzled with its play under Tata Martino, while Josef Martinez set every single-season scoring record MLS has. In truth, it's going to be difficult to top. What complicates matters are changes in two key areas. Gone is Martino, off to the Mexican national team and replaced by Frank de Boer. Almiron was offloaded to Newcastle for a record haul, which more than covered the outlay to sign Gonzalo "Pity" Martinez from River Plate in his place. A team can't replace a manager and attacking fulcrum and expect things to transition seamlessly–that much was clear in Atlanta's Concacaf Champions League first-leg loss to Herediano last Thursday. De Boer's system and approach and Pity Martinez's ability to have an immediate impact are two huge points of emphasis for a club whose early-season schedule could be quite congested if it is able to overturn the deficit to Herediano and embark on the long CCL run it desires.
2. What will a full year of Zlatan bring?
According to The Lion himself, it will bring a new name in the record books, with Ibrahimovic publicly pledging to break every mark the league has. Another return of 22 goals and 10 assists would surely be sufficient, though, as long as the Galaxy don't miss out on the playoffs and rectify their issues in the back. A few classic, goal-of-the-year contenders couldn't hurt, either.
3. Can Rooney sustain his success for a full year?
Wayne Rooney answered all of his doubters and critics in leading D.C. United from last place to the playoffs in his first half-season in MLS. Now comes the real hard part: doing it for a full season. The Robin to his Batman, Luciano Acosta, was nearly offloaded to PSG on transfer deadline day, but a move ultimately didn't materialize. Given how well the two worked together last season, that's a boon for Rooney's outlook, but he still has a high bar to clear to justify D.C.'s outlay for the duration of his contract–not just the first four months of it.
4. Was 2018 a fluke or a sign of things to come for Toronto FC?
We're just over a year removed from Toronto FC putting the finishing touches on what was, at the time, the greatest season in MLS history. Now, the questions are piling up for the Reds. Giovinco is gone, and so is Victor Vazquez, both sold to clubs in the Middle East. Jozy Altidore is in the last year of his contract. The club followed up its MLS Cup triumph by narrowly missing out on winning Concacaf Champions League and managing to miss the playoffs. Last week, it was humiliated by a nondescript Panamanian side in the first leg of the CCL last 16. The red flags are popping up everywhere, and reinforcements had better be on the way.
5. At what point do CBA talks become prominent?
The league's collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of January 2020, which is less than a year away. The looming threat of a work stoppage that is always a possibility when CBA talks take center stage, though that wouldn't impact this season. Still, as this season goes along and winds down, the rhetoric will start to pick up from both sides. Last time around, the players and league were able to stave off a work stoppage by agreeing to a very limited form of free agency, and you can expect the fight for better pay and more player freedom to strengthen as the next offseason approaches–which will be a month sooner than usual given the new competitive format.
6. Are the Galaxy ready to resurface among the elite?
Once the David Beckham statue is unveiled at Dignity Sports Health Park, the curtain will rise on a Galaxy side under pressure to get it right. Still the league's most decorated franchise, LA is in danger of continuing to be lapped by the league's other ambitious projects–one of which is located just across town. The Galaxy have appeared in nine MLS Cup finals, but none since winning it all in 2014 to cap a three-title-in-four-year run. With Dennis te Kloese as the new GM and Guillermo Barros Schelotto the new manager, the braintrust has evolved. After inexcusably missing the playoffs a season ago, the play had better evolve, too. The season begins with one glaring question: How can the club become roster compliant and sort out the four-DP-for-three-slot conundrum featuring Zlatan, Romain Alessandrini and Dos Santos brothers Giovani and Jonathan? (UPDATE: Giovani gone.)
7. How will expansion side FC Cincinnati fare?
FC Cincinnati put on a clinic of how to build a club from scratch when it took USL by storm with its engaged and huge crowds and successful team a few years ago. Can it replicate that feat in MLS? Manager Alan Koch has an intriguing roster to play with, albeit one that looks a little light on the attacking end. The pieces for a sound defensive structure appear to be in place with experienced MLS standouts like Kendall Waston, Alvas Powell and Greg Garza, but the expectations on this team appear to be more in line with a Minnesota United-like first season as opposed to an Atlanta- or LAFC-type. Time will tell if that's a fair judgment, but Nippert Stadium will be rocking one way or another.
8. The Crew were saved–now what?
The Columbus Crew are staying put after a yearlong battle from the fans to hold onto their precious club, and the focus can fully turn back to the product on the field after distractions galore. Gone is Gregg Berhalter, off to manage the U.S. men's national team, and he's replaced by Caleb Porter, who is back after a yearlong hiatus from the bench. Zack Steffen will be leaving in July for Manchester City, and no significant upgrades have been made to the roster amid all the executive and front office personnel changes. The loss of attacking left back Milton Valenzuela is a massive letdown entering the season, and while the club has been saved for the city, new GM Tim Bezbatchenko may have to work some in-season magic in order to save the club's status as a playoff team.
9. The influx of managerial talent
Including Cincinnati's Koch (given the change in league), there are seven managers in their first seasons with their clubs–nearly a third of the league. The additions of De Boer, Porter, Schelotto and Matias Almeyda, in particular, mark the next step in the continued evolution of the MLS manager, while Luchi Gonzalez in Dallas figures to continue building on the youth movement and in-house foundation Oscar Pareja put in place. Almeyda's introduction in San Jose, more specifically, is fascinating following his success with reigning Concacaf champion Chivas de Guadalajara. The Earthquakes were once among the league's best, but last season, they were the quite literally the league's worst. That'll be a potential turnaround to watch.
10. Year 2 for last season's new stars
Last winter was marked by a clear trend of signing young, TAM-worthy Latin American prospects that clubs could benefit from on the field and then turn around and sell off for profit. Not all were instant hits, though. The most highly regarded of the bunch, Atlanta's record signing Ezequiel Barco, was largely insignificant (four goals, three assists) in the club's run to the title. Orlando City's Josue Colman and Portland's Andy Polo also entered with higher expectations than what they delivered, which was a combined two goals and seven assists in bit roles for their clubs. NYCFC's Jesus Medina (six goals, seven assists) and LAFC's Diego Rossi (12 goals, nine assists) were more prolific and, like their less successful counterparts, will be counted on for bigger contributions with a year in the league under their belt.
11. Will Minnesota's roster revamp vault the club to the playoffs?
Minnesota made a clear effort to strengthen the spine of its roster. In are Jan Gregus and Osvaldo Alonso in central midfield, Ike Opara in central defense and Vito Mannone in goal to help fortify a side that has conceded 70 and 71 goals, respectively, in its two seasons in the league. With those pieces in place, a full season of Darwin Quintero on the way and a gorgeous new stadium to open, there's plenty of reason for optimism for the Loons.
12. Portland's season-opening road trip, backloaded home slate
Last season's runner-up is having its home stadium go through an extreme makeover, which is generally awesome–except for it displacing the club until June 1. The Timbers' first 12 games will be played away from the in-progress Providence Park, making for a new set of challenges for Giovanni Savarese's side. Portland fared decently away from home last season and was exceptional in the playoffs on the road, but this season-opening stretch will dictate plenty. Take a good chunk of points from the first three months of games, and they're set up for success, with 17 of the final 22 at their fortress. Revert back to 2016 form, when the club went winless on the road, and the margin for error at home disappears completely.
13. Wondo Watch
Chris Wondolowski enters the season just a goal behind Landon Donovan's all-time scoring record of 145 regular-season goals. After a remarkable run of nine straight seasons with double-digit scoring, the 36-year-old Wondo will surely become the league's scoring king–perhaps as soon as Saturday night at home against Montreal. When he does, it will mark the culmination of the most unlikely player story in league history and perhaps give fans something else to point to first instead of that miss vs. Belgium.
14. Europe keeps calling
It's not just the more established talents being sold off. Teenagers Chris Richards and Taylor Booth left FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake, respectively, to sign with Bayern Munich, following Alphonso Davies' big-money departure from Vancouver in the fall. Tyler Adams is off to a flying start with RB Leipzig. Steffen is headed to Man City in the summer. Young North American talents, some fresh out of (or not even out of) academies, are getting more opportunities to further their development overseas, and the bigger European clubs are taking notice. All indications are that this is just the beginning of a bigger wave.
15. Orlando and Philadelphia's pricey risks
Nani and Marco Fabian are two accomplished players with plenty of good soccer behind them. The very expensive question is how much is left in front of these two Designated Players? You have to credit their two clubs, who are both so hungry for success, for taking swings, but Nani is 32 and entering an Orlando team that failed to harness its attacking potential last season. The 29-year-old Fabian, meanwhile, is just a year removed from a serious back injury, though if healthy and motivated could wind up being a newcomer-of-the-year candidate. It'll be fascinating to see these two fare in MLS.
16. A test of the Red Bulls system
After winning three Supporters' Shields in six seasons, there's proof the Red Bulls Way works in MLS (at least in the regular season). But losing Adams to Europe is one move that will put this system to the test. The U.S. rising star was so valuable for the club, which did not go out and replace him with a big signing this offseason. Will an in-house replacement be sufficient? The Red Bulls did manage to stave off Club America to keep Kaku, while the Tim Parker-Aaron Long center back tandem returns after each signed a new deal and Mathias Jorgensen is on board to help take some attacking pressure off Bradley Wright-Phillips.
17. What to make of all of that Vancouver turnover
The Whitecaps will field almost an entirely new team after offloading 21 players, signing 15 new ones and bringing Marc Dos Santos in as manager. The way things fell apart last season, perhaps a full teardown is what's needed to bring a winner to the Canadian corner of Cascadia. New DPs Hwang In-beom and Joaquin Ardaiz and the return of Fredy Montero make for what the 'Caps hope will be a new dynamic trio on a completely remade side.
18. Feeling the heat in Chicago
Things in the Windy City have not been great for some time. Bastian Schweinsteiger is back and so is manager Veljko Paunovic, but there are plenty of questions to be asked of a team that was dreadful a season ago and whose stadium situation looks worse by the year as new downtown and state-of-the-art facilities spring up around the league. January USMNT breakout midfielder Djordje Mihailovic should play a more central role now that he's fully fit and healthy, but the Fire will need Nemanja Nikolic to find his 2017 scoring form, new winger Przemyslaw Frankowski to be an instant hit and for its defensive pieces to coalesce if it's to make any noise at all.
19. Can Morris's return spark Seattle?
Jordan Morris missed all of last season with a torn ACL, and it took the club months to find its way (though for reasons other than just his absence). With a full season of Nicolas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz opening things up for the Sounders attack, a healthy Morris could find himself with a prolific season and a return to the U.S. national team while bringing Seattle back to prominence.
20. Can Colorado send Tim Howard off with success?
Tim Howard's farewell tour will get plenty of love over the course of the season, with the former U.S. national team No. 1 goalkeeper announcing this season will be his last. The club quietly had a pretty notable offseason, though, acquiring MLS-proven talent that could extend Howard's stay by a few weeks with a potential playoff berth. Benny Feilhaber, Kei Kamara, Diego Rubio and Keegan Rosenberry are all signings that should, in theory, improve the team, while the club has secured Kellyn Acosta on a long-term deal after trading for him last season. That said, Feilhaber and Kamara are both 34 now, and it might take a bit more to creep into a crowd of loaded teams in the Western Conference, but the Rapids should at least be better.
21. The instant hot seats
MLS has always been a league of forgiveness for managers given the length of the season, the lack of relegation threat, the salvation possible in the playoffs and how many teams make it to the postseason. That said, the tide is turning some, and the pressure to secure results is on. NYCFC lost all momentum when Domenec Torrent replaced Patrick Vieira; how much time will he be given to show his methods can take hold? Joey Saputo may have loosened the reins on his control of the Montreal Impact, but with five managers in seven seasons, the club hasn't exactly been a safe haven for coaches, putting Remi Garde on early notice. Those are just two instances of a handful that bear watching in the early going.
22. All of the white kits
23. The new playoff structure
We won't know until October and November how the big change impacts the league–save for the extra, seventh playoff spot up for grabs in each conference–but there will be months of anticipation leading up to it. The single-elimination format incentivizes the higher seeds and eliminates away goals from the conversation and should inject more excitement into the postseason, which will end a month earlier in 2019 than it did in 2018 and no longer have its momentum derailed by the FIFA international break.
24. Who will be next to join?
Nashville, Miami and Austin are all on deck. One place remains on the road to 28 teams, and Sacramento, St. Louis and Phoenix appear to be at the head of the pack. Detroit was adjudged to be among the finalists in the previous round of growth that resulted in Cincinnati and Nashville winning out. Charlotte is making noise again thanks to the new Carolina Panthers owner's interest in an MLS franchise. There's no indication the league will stop at 28, with all signs, in fact, pointing toward further growth. But to how many teams? And what will that do to league alignment and scheduling? The answer to "who's next?" sparks a whole new series of questions, which surely will be answered in due time.