THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The 2021 Major League Soccer season kicks off this coming weekend, the 26th season of continued success. It sees a new expansion team, taking the total number of teams in action to 27. A couple of times the start of the campaign has been delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions, and this mid-April start is the latest time on the calendar that a season has begun. The regular season is due to end on November 7, making it the latest end date to a season. Following on from this, of course, will be the MLS Playoffs, culminating with the MLS Cup which is scheduled for 11 December.
As with other sports, there will be a limited capacity around the league's stadiums. Most teams have already announced their proposed capacity fill, with Atlanta United, FC Dallas, Orlando City and Real Salt Lake all allowing up to 50% of their grounds to be full. Teams in Canada - Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver - will be playing their home fixtures away from home, as their travel restrictions are still in place. They will be playing behind closed doors in stadiums in Miami, Orlando, and Salt Lake City so the teams in those host cities will not be compromised. West End Stadium, the new home of Cincinnati FC will host its first game on May 16 with a capacity decision to be made nearer the time. The same goes for the new expansion team Austin FC, who will have to wait even longer for their first home game in their new Q2 Stadium on 19 June. This means their first seven games will be played on the road.
There have been a few coaching changes during the off season, and maybe the most notable newcomer is former England Women's National team coach, Phil Neville. In January this year he took over the top job at Inter Miami, his top-class playing career and fine work while in charge of the Women's team making him a standout choice. A former teammate of his is co-owner of the Miami team, a certain David Beckham. "I know his qualities as a person, his decency, loyalty and honesty, and his incredible energy and work ethic," Beckham said of his ex-Manchester United colleague, "Anyone who has played or worked with Phil knows he is a natural leader, and I believe now is the right time for him to join." Neville was obviously buoyant after taking over, "This is a very young club with a lot of promise and upside, and I am committed to challenging myself, my players and everyone around me to grow and build a competitive soccer culture we can all be proud of. This fantastic soccer loving market deserves consistent performances and a winning mentality, and I look forward to getting to work."
Austin FC are ready to make an impact in their first season, with added Hollywood sparkle. The soccer hotbed of Texas will now have a new team to cheer on and their new stadium certainly looks the part. The state-of-the-art $260m 20,500 seat stadium broke ground in early September 2019 and will have the finishing touches applied to it over the next few weeks. The design team wanted to be contemporary and take influence from the surrounding area, given the usual high temperatures during the year in Texas they included cooling technique systems that will maximize airflow circulation, and even mesh seating in some areas. One of the main investors in the team is none other than Hollywood star Matthew McConaughey, and back on the historic ground-breaking day he told reporters, "The legacy of a great team in our great city starts today. From our stands, the world will look at us. Let's give them a reason to look up to us. On our pitch, in our stadium, lets showcase who we are, Austin."
Sporting Director Claudio Reyna, a hugely experienced figure in US soccer will be looking to build a successful team quickly. "It's an honor to be granted the opportunity to join Austin FC and be part of building a world-class club, in a world-class city," he said. The Head Coach is another USMNT veteran Josh Wolff. They have their work cut out, as any new franchise does, but they have been placed in the strong Western Conference, and a top half finish will be considered a good season and would land them a playoff spot at the season's end. A top five finish in either conference brings the bonus of being entered into the following season's Leagues Cup, which combines the best of MLS and Liga MX, Mexico's top league. The winner of each MLS Conference gets a bye into the semi-finals, and a chance to play in the CONCACAF Champions League, the equivalent of Europe's top club competition but featuring teams from North and Central America, as well as the Caribbean.