Thursday, June 13, 2024
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MLS 101: Trophies, key storylines and USMNT connections

Major League Soccer has hardly been business as usual since the arrival of Lionel Messi in Miami last summer. Yet the league is much more than the Fort Lauderdale-based club. The 2024 season kicks off on Wednesday, and 29 teams are vying for glory. Here’s what you need to know.

Hardware up for grabs

The 34-game regular season spans from February 21 until October 19. The team that tops the regular season table is crowned Supporters’ Shield winners, one of four major trophies every year. The LA Galaxy and D.C. United currently share the record for most Supporters’ Shield wins with four each, while FC Cincinnati won its first last season.

Eighteen teams qualify for the playoffs (nine in each conference), with the winner of the knockout tournament winning MLS Cup — generally considered the biggest trophy up for grabs. The MLS Cup final is hosted by the finalist with the better regular season record. The Columbus Crew is the reigning champ, while the LA Galaxy still holds the record for most wins (5).


MLS playoff picks: Explaining the new format, and who will win MLS Cup

The CONCACAF Champions Cup — North America’s version of the UEFA Champions League — is currently underway. Ten MLS clubs qualified this year with the final coming on June 2. The winner will qualify for the expanded 2025 Club World Cup, which will be held in the U.S. next year.

The Leagues Cup, a competition featuring all MLS and Liga MX teams, is in its second year. Inter Miami and Messi hoisted the inaugural trophy last summer. The MLS regular season will pause for about a month as the tournament plays out.

Inter Miami hoists the Leagues Cup trophy after defeating Nashville SC. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu, Getty Images)

MLS is still working through plans for its participation in the U.S. Open Cup, which is America’s oldest ongoing national soccer competition and features teams from all levels of pyramid. Last year, the league controversially announced plans to enter its MLS Next Pro teams into the competition instead of the first teams. No resolution has been reached yet.

All regular season, playoff and Leagues Cup matches are available through MLS Season Pass, a subscription platform, on Apple TV.



MLS schedule release: the key dates you need to know

—Tom Bogert

Five big storylines

Can Inter Miami make the postseason with a full year of Messi and Luis Suarez?

All eyes will be on Messi and Inter Miami in 2024. The team is packed with former Barcelona stars gearing up for their first full season in the league. Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba joined mid-season and led Miami to a Leagues Cup win, but failed to make up ground to make the playoffs. Suarez joined his former teammates this winter. Expectations are once again high in South Florida.

Will Thiago Almada get his transfer abroad?

The first active MLS player to win a World Cup, Argentine attacking midfielder Thiago Almada remains at Atlanta United as rumors swirl about his future. He could be the new MLS record outbound transfer, with Atlanta likely wanting a package north of the $27 million they received from Newcastle for Miguel Almiron in 2019.

The summer seems to be a consensus for when Almada will head to Europe, but will the bids come?

Almada was the 2022 MLS newcomer of the year. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein, Getty Images)

Can the Columbus Crew repeat? Can FC Cincinnati have another great season?

All roads lead to Ohio after in-state rivals FC Cincinnati (Supporters’ Shield) and Columbus Crew (MLS Cup) each won a major trophy in 2023. Both sides are reloaded and expected to battle for the top of the Eastern Conference once again in 2024.

Is this the year the LA Galaxy returns to being a power in the league?

The LA Galaxy headed in a different direction this winter. After big-name veterans Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Douglas Costa left, the club targeted prime replacements in Brazil U-23 winger Gabriel Pec and Ghanaian winger Joseph Paintsil. The attackers were brought in for combined fees of around $20 million.

A defense anchored by seasoned center backs Maya Yoshida and Martin Caceres raises questions, but the new-look attack could carry the team up a weak Western Conference.

Will the Cascadia balance of power shift?

For seven straight years from 2015-2021, one of the Cascadian rivals in the Pacific Northwest represented the West in MLS Cup final. The Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers had previously established themselves as powers in the league, but come into 2024 with different narratives: Seattle is a team with continuity while Portland revamped its coaching staff and top of its roster.

North of the border, the Vancouver Whitecaps are among those looking to challenge at the top of the West, as well.


USMNT connections

The Veterans

While most first-choice USMNT players play in Europe, a handful of notable ones play in MLS. As of 2024 that includes goalkeeper Zack Steffen (Colorado Rapids), who returns to the league after an injury-hit spell with Manchester City and loan clubs in Europe.

A particularly large proportion of the USMNT’s center back corps play in MLS, including Aaron Long (LAFC), James Sands (NYCFC), Miles Robinson (FC Cincinnati), Matt Miazga (FC Cincinnati) and Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC). Right back DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami) joins them among backline USMNT representatives.

Further upfield, MLS is also home to USMNT depth players Jordan Morris (Seattle) and Paul Arriola (FC Dallas), along with striker Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas).

Up and coming

MLS is home to several young players who have either made an impact with U.S. youth teams or just started to break through to the senior squad. That group includes a trio of goalkeepers worth keeping an eye on: Patrick Schulte (Columbus Crew), Roman Celentano (FC Cincinnati) and Chris Brady (Chicago Fire).

Interestingly, two of the better U.S. left back prospects are also starring in MLS now: Caleb Wiley (Atlanta United) and John Tolkin (New York Red Bulls).

Wiley is a rising option in defense for the U.S. (Photo by Elizabeth Kreutz, Getty Images)

The group also includes a solid midfield trio in Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew), Jack McGlynn (Philadelphia Union) and Timothy Tillman (LAFC), along with exciting creative midfielder Diego Luna (Real Salt Lake) and striker Duncan McGuire (Orlando City).



What comes next for Duncan McGuire

Many of these players play big roles for their respective MLS teams, and many could also be in the picture to represent the U.S. at the 2024 Paris Olympics, which for men’s soccer is an under-23 tournament.

Top-tier European connections

U.S. based fans more accustomed to watching soccer in the morning — that is, soccer played in Europe — will find plenty of familiar names among MLS’ current ranks. Los Angeles FC signed Hugo Lloris from Tottenham, hoping he can be similarly impactful as his former teammate Gareth Bale. The New York Red Bulls brought midfielder Emil Forsberg over from sibling club RB Leipzig, while Suarez joined former Barcelona teammates Messi, Alba and Busquets at Inter Miami.

Lloris joined LAFC this offseason. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy, Getty Images)

Other notables in MLS who previously played in major European leagues include Xherdan Shaqiri (Chicago Fire), Cucho Hernandez (Columbus Crew), Christian Benteke (D.C. United), Mateusz Klich (D.C. United), Héctor Herrera (Houston Dynamo), Martin Caceres (LA Galaxy), Riqui Puig (LA Galaxy), Teemu Pukki (Minnesota United), Victor Wanyama (CF Montréal) Carles Gil (New England), Roman Bürki (St. Louis City), Federico Bernardeschi (Toronto FC), Lorenzo Insigne (Toronto FC) and Ryan Gauld (Vancouver Whitecaps).

Four coaches have recent Premier League ties: new Charlotte FC boss Dean Smith, Portland Timbers manager Phil Neville, former Leeds and Manchester United assistant Chris Armas (Colorado Rapids head coach) and potential Minnesota United head coach Eric Ramsay (Manchester United assistant). Tata Martino (Miami) had previous success with Messi at Barcelona and Argentina, while LAFC manager Steve Cherundolo was a USMNT mainstay as a player and spent his entire career at Hannover 96 in Germany.

—Jeff Rueter

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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