MLS preseason has officially kicked off around the league ahead of the 2020 season, with winter preparations the first sign that real matches are again on the horizon. Two new clubs bring the league's total to 26, while its existing ones maneuver to dethrone MLS Cup champion Seattle and Supporters' Shield holder LAFC. The latter continues to stockpile and retain its top talent after a record-setting season and will enter the season with the biggest target on its back despite coming up short in the playoffs.
Elsewhere, Zlatan is gone, but a slew of new star signings have been completed, others are still expected and Chicharito is indeed on the way. Five managers have taken over at existing clubs–including Thierry Henry in Montreal–while Nashville brings 2010 MLS Cup-winning manger Gary Smith back to the league and Inter Miami brings Diego Alonso into the fold. That doesn't mean there aren't some significant uncertainties entering the league's 25th season, one whose start date could wind up in flux absent some key conversations and decisions in the next 11 days.
With all that said, here are three key questions surrounding the league as winter preparations heat up for the new year:
Will there be a strike?
It's been awfully quiet–at least publicly–on the collective bargaining agreement front, despite the current CBA being set to expire on Jan. 31. The league conducted its annual media day festivities out in Los Angeles last week on schedule, and preparations have begun in earnest for a season–an important one for the league given all the fanfare that surrounds its landmark year–that is due to begin on Feb. 29.
As is often the case with CBA talks, deadlines spur action, and talks, demands, concessions and compromises should begin to transpire in the next week or so. But until the new agreement is reached and signed, that's a pretty big question to have floating in the wind.
There's a month between the expiration of the CBA and opening day (and 18 days between the deadline and the start of Concacaf Champions League play), so an inability to reach a new deal by the end of the month wouldn't necessarily postpone any matches. Given how important the year is to the league, though, and how it's always managed to avoid a work stoppage in past CBA-expiration years, you would think there would be an emphasis on reaching a clean and swift agreement so all parties can move amicably forward, put the focus back on the field and avoid a nasty, drawn-out, public battle.
Will Inter Miami make a big splash ... at all?
Inter Miami has been linked to just about every big name on the planet. There are the audacious, never-happening "links" to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The more attainable yet still curious "links" to James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale and Edinson Cavani. The more reasonable links to David Silva and Roger Martinez. Yet with six weeks to go until opening day, the highest-profile players on the team are Argentine rising talents Julian Carranza and Matias Pellegrini and established MLS talents like Lee Nguyen, Luis Robles and Roman Torres.
In some ways, that's emblematic of the entire Inter Miami project thus far: Monumental promises and statements of intent followed up by actions that simply don't match them. Take the stadium saga, for instance, where the most recent plan to build a state-of-the-art facility in Miami has been held up and still has a final political hurdle to clear. The club was always planning to temporarily play at a rushed-out second facility in Fort Lauderdale at the site of the old Lockhart Stadium, which is meant to eventually be a training center and home for its USL club. But how long it takes to actually have that be the case remains to be seen. That's all after a five-year road from MLS announcing its intent to honor David Beckham's ownership clause in Miami to green-lighting the franchise, with the world-class stadium plan supposedly the final piece of the puzzle to put the league's worries at ease. It knows it can't get it wrong in Miami for a second time.
There's still time before the season begins, and perhaps Miami, which is being held to a higher standard than most expansion projects given the grand nature of its existence, deserves the benefit of the doubt until the curtains rise. Alonso is a reputable manager, and sporting director Paul McDonough has a sound track record of building expansion clubs and claims the marquee signings are indeed on the way.
“We have significant international players still to sign," McDonough recently told MLSsoccer.com. "We have an international winger that we’ve got agreed, we’re doing personal terms with. We have a DP striker that we’ve agreed [a fee] with the club, trying to see if we can get personal terms done."
Given what's transpired so far, though, it's hard to take Miami at its word. Only actions and ink drying on contracts will suffice, and until then, MLS's grand expansion project will continue to look like no more than a haphazard operation that fails to meet lofty expectations.
How will the long layoff impact the start of the new year?
With the changes to MLS's schedule, the league's teams and players have been off for a while. Decision Day 2019 was on Oct. 6, meaning 10 clubs have been off for over three months already and will almost hit five before the first kick of 2020. The Nov. 10 MLS Cup means that the last teams standing will have had breaks of over three months.
Gone, seemingly, are the days when top talents would go to European clubs on loan over the winter months to stay active and in form, and the extended period of downtime seems more extreme than ever. Concacaf Champions League coinciding with preseason has always been an issue for MLS clubs, but you wonder how much more rust there may be for the Seattle Sounders, LAFC, NYCFC, Atlanta United and Montreal Impact given the schedule wrinkles.
If, for whatever reason, a work stoppage extends the layoff even more, then things could wind up being appallingly sloppy to kick off what is supposed to be a celebratory season.