As Major League Soccer embarks on its 25th season with two new expansion teams, it seems worth noting how far the league has come in that quarter-century.
And what better way to look at that evolution than to ask its first employee.
MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott has been around since long before legends like Landon Donovan, Carlos Valderrama and David Beckham graced the league.
Abbott has seen the expansion of MLS from 10 teams in 1996 to 26 teams this season. Four more are on the way.
He joined MLS three years before its first season and wrote the league's business plan. He rode out the dark days of contraction in 2002 before the re-emergence of the league under current Commissioner Don Garber.
He's seen soccer go from the "next big thing'' to a legitimate major league sport.
"If you think about the modern era of professional soccer, beginning with the World Cup in the United States in 1994, if you think about how people were 6 or 7 or 8 years old at the time, and maybe that was the first time they were watching a sport or sporting event. Now they're in their late 20s or early 30s. So you have an entire generation of people who grew up with soccer as a mainstream sport in this country, which was different than the way I grew up. And so I think it has been a process of the market developing, and the league making investments to help develop that market." Abbott said. "Clearly in the last few years, when you see what's happening in some of these markets where you get 70,000 people in Atlanta, or what happened with our MLS Cup in Seattle, or what's happening with our El Trafico game in Los Angeles, you realize this league means a lot to a lot of people."
Atlanta midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, a 15-season MLS veteran, echoed Abbott's thoughts.
“The children that are now in their 30s, the biggest sport to them growing up was soccer. And that's kind of where we're at,” Larentowicz said. “So the iron is hot, it's time to strike. I think the league is doing that, expanding and trying to really push that. That generation is here.”
The stats back him up. A Nielsen survey showed interest in MLS grew 27% between 2012 and 2018. And a Gallup poll from two years ago showed soccer was tied with basketball in popularity behind American football among fans ages 18-34.
The 25th season will be the first for teams in Nashville and Miami. Charlotte, Austin, Sacramento and St. Louis will get clubs in the next two seasons, bringing MLS to 30 teams.
For now, the plan is to sit tight at 30, Abbott said. As the 1994 World Cup on home soil led to the start of the league, the 2026 World Cup, a joint effort between the United States, Mexico and Canada, is on the horizon.
“We began with the league launching as an outgrowth of the World Cup here in 1994, and it will be our 30th season (in 2026) and I think an opportunity really to show the country and the world that soccer, and Major League Soccer, is a major-league sport and one of the top leagues in the world.”
But before getting too far ahead, here's what to look for when the 25th season of Major League Soccer begins this weekend:
The LA Galaxy, no stranger to big-time signings, brought in Javier Hernandez — better known as Chicharito — to replace another big name, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The speedy Mexican international has spent the last decade in Europe. He'll be tasked with replacing the offensive firepower of Ibrahimovic, who had a franchise-record 30 goals last season before he bolted for Milan.
The 31-year-old Chicharito is the top goal-scorer in the history of the Mexican national team, which has a fervent following among Los Angeles' expansive Latino population. His signing has already resulted in a boost in ticket sales, and points to an epic El Trafico rivalry with LAFC and fellow Mexican international Carlos Vela.
MLS and its players agreed to a new five-year contract this month, avoiding the possibility of a work stoppage to start the season.
It includes greater investment in player spending, and flexibility for the league's teams in spending those funds. It also expands free agency and allows teams to take more charter flights, which the players had prioritized.
The deal gives players a share of the media rights deals in 2023 and 2024.
After some seven years of planning, David Beckham's MLS team is at last a reality. Inter Miami, with its sleek Miami Vice-reminiscent pink logo complete with herons, appears to be off to a solid start.
Sporting director Paul McDonough was key to Atlanta United's successful launch, coach Diego Alonso is a CONCACAF Champions League winner and Rodolfo Pizarro is a flashy attacking midfielder who built a reputation in Liga MX.
“There wasn't one moment where I said, 'You know what? I'll walk away from this.' Because I knew that Miami was the right place to do this,” Beckham said. “My commitment was always to the league. Like I said, I wanted to be successful on the field, and thankfully I was, but my commitment was always to the MLS and to try and grow this league.”
HOWDY MUSIC CITY
While Miami FC looks to make a splash, Nashville SC appears to be looking more at the long game and building a connection with the city and its fans. Coach Gary Smith, who led the Colorado Rapids to the 2010 MLS Cup title, has built a foundation of capable veterans like Dax McCarty and Walker Zimmerman to complement young talent like Hany Mukhtar.
“I think the core and the spine of our group is very capable, it's strong and experienced, which will serve us well,” Smith said. “I've actually been most impressed with the way that the group has managed the ball — not necessarily creatively, but how we've set about our business in possession and some of the choices that are made."
Ten players from Mexico's top league, Liga MX, have joined MLS in the offseason. They include Miami's Pizarro, D.C. United's Edison Flores, Sporting K.C's Alan Pulido, and Vancouver's Lucas Cavallini, who was lured back to his native country by the Whitecaps.
Nine of those players have represented their countries in international play, with more than 200 appearances and 38 goals between them.
MLS is expanding its tournament with Liga MX. The competition debuted last season with four teams from each league. Last year's winner was Cruz Azul, which downed Tigres UANL 2-1 in Las Vegas in September.
This season there will be eight teams on each side. The Philadelphia Union, Real Salt Lake, Minnesota United, LA Galaxy, Toronto, D.C. United, Portland and the Red Bulls will be pitted against Monterrey and other Liga MX clubs to be determined.
MLS Eastern Conference
Coach: Frank de Boer
2019 Record: 18-12-4, second in the East. Eliminated in conference final by Toronto.
Key Players: Forward Josef Martinez, goalkeeper Brad Guzan, forward Pity Martinez.
Lowdown: Josef Martinez, the 2018 MLS Golden Boot winner, followed up his MVP debut season with 27 goals last year, including a 15-match scoring streak. He makes Atlanta go, but he's also got a tremendous supporting cast, including national team goalkeeper Brad Guzan. This may be the season that high-profile transfer Pity Martinez and 20-year-old Ezequiel Barco take the next step. If that happens, Atlanta's attack will be hard to stop. United, the 2018 MLS Cup winners, won both the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup last season.
Coach: Raphael Wicky
2019 Record: 10-12-12, eighth in the East. Did not make the playoffs.
Key Players: Forward C.J. Sapong, midfielder Gaston Gimenez, midfielder Alvaro Medran.
Lowdown: The Chicago Fire underwent an extreme makeover in the offseason, thanks in part to the forward thinking of Joe Mansueto, who took over as majority owner. The team is moving back to Chicago and will play again at historic Solider Field. The Fire also got a total rebrand, with a new logo and colors. In addition to new coach Raphael Wicky, sporting director George Heitz and technical director Sebastian Pelzer are also new. And the roster looks completely different. 2020 should be interesting.
Coach: Yoann Damet (Interim)
2019 Record: 6-22-6, 12th in the East. Did not make the playoffs.
Key Players: Forward Jurgen Locadia, midfielder Allan Cruz, forward Yuya Kubo.
Lowdown: Cincinnati's start to 2020 has been tumultuous. Coach Ron Jans, hired last August to get the league's worst team on the right track, resigned about two weeks before the season's start after he was accused of using a racial slur while singing along to music playing in the team's locker room. Jans apologized. He was replaced in the interim by Yoann Damet, who also was interim coach when Cincinnati let go of Alan Koch.
Coach: Caleb Porter
2019 Record: 10-16-8, 10th in the East. Did not make the playoffs.
Key Players: Forward Gyasi Zardes, midfielder Darlington Nagbe, midfielder Lucas Zelarayan.
Lowdown: Between coach Caleb Porter, forward Fanendo Adi and midfielder Darlington Nagbe, the Crew are a bit of a reunion of the Timbers. Adi and Nagbe played for Porter in Portland. For Nagbe, it's also a homecoming. He settled in Ohio as a child and played for Porter at Akron. An ACL injury essentially ended the career of fan favorite Federico Higuain, but the addition of Lucas Zelarayan should help fill that gap.
Coach: Ben Olsen
2019 Record: 13-10-11, fifth in the East. Eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by Toronto.
Key Players: Midfielder Edison Flores, goalkeeper Bill Hamid, midfielder Julian Gressel.
Lowdown: Wayne Rooney is gone, so is Luciano Acosta. Midfielder Paul Arriola has a torn ACL and could miss the season. But coach Ben Olsen doesn't need to fret because of a what appears to be a solid and deep roster. United added attacking midfielder Edison Flores from Liga MX, acquired versatile midfielder/defender Julian Gressel from Atlanta, and took the "on loan'' designator off goalkeeper Bill Hamid. Ola Kamara is a proven scorer up top.
Coach: Diego Alonso
2019 Record: Expansion team for 2020.
Key Players: Midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, midfielder Matias Pellegrini, forward Robbie Robinson.
Lowdown: All eyes are going to be on David Beckham's team in its first season. Sporting director Paul McDonough has built a solid team under two-time CONCACAF Champions League winner Diego Alonso. Playmaking midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro is the centerpiece. The team's designated player comes to MLS via Monterrey, which won the Liga MX Apertura and the CONCACAF Champions League titles last year. Alonso was Pizarro's coach. Top draft pick Robbie Robinson out of Clemson could start after a strong preseason.
Coach: Thierry Henry
2019 Record: 12-17-5, ninth in the East. Did not make the playoffs.
Key Players: Midfielder Saphir Taider, forward Romell Quioto, midfielder Bojan Krkic.
Lowdown: Arsenal legend Thierry Henry is back in MLS, this time as a coach. Henry played for the New York Red Bulls from 2010-2014 before moving into coaching. He spent a season as head coach of Monaco in his native France. He'll be challenged in Montreal. The Impact will be without star Nacho Piatti, who returned home to Argentine club San Lorenzo. Piatti spent six seasons with the Impact, scoring 78 goals. The team was also hurt when center back Rudy Camacho was hurt against Saprissa in the opening leg of CONCACAF Champions League play.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
Coach: Bruce Arena
2019 Record: 11-11-12, seventh in the East. Eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by Atlanta.
Key Players: Midfielder Carles Gill, forward Gustavo Bou, goalkeeper Matt Turner.
Lowdown: Under five-time MLS Cup winning coach Bruce Arena, the Revolution hope to improve on last season, when they went to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Carles Gill had 10 goals and 14 assists last year in his debut MLS season and was named the league's Newcomer of the Year. Goalkeeper Matt Turner's play last season helped him earn call-ups for a pair of U.S. national team camps.
NEW YORK CITY FC
Coach: Ronny Deila
2019 Record: 18-6-10, first in the East. Eliminated in the conference semifinals by Toronto.
Key Players: Midfielder Maxi Moralez, forward Heber Araújo dos Santos, defender Gudmundur Thorarinsson.
Lowdown: Coach Ronny Delia, hired by NYCFC in the offseason after the team parted ways with Dome Torrent, saw success as coach of Celtic from 2014-16, leading the team to a pair of Scottish Premiership titles. It was one of the few changes NYCFC made in the offseason. The team returns much of its roster from last season, led by midfielder Maxi Moralez, who led the league in assists last season with 20. Brazilian center-forward Heber had 15 goals in just 22 appearances with the team last season.
NEW YORK RED BULLS
Coach: Chris Armas
2019 Record: 14-14-6, sixth in the East. Eliminated in the first round by the Philadelphia Union
Key Players: Midfielder Kaku, midfielder Daniel Royer, forward Brian White
Lowdown: It's the end of an era with the departures of Luis Robles, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kemar Lawrence. Forward Brian White spent part of last season with the Red Bulls II, but in his 16 games with the MLS side he had eight goals. He considered Wright-Phillips a mentor. Ryan Meara is tasked with replacing Robles in goal, while rookie Patrick Seagrist will have a daunting task at fullback in place of Lawrence, who went to play in Belgium.
Coach: Oscar Pareja
2019 Record: 9-15-10, 11th in the East. Did not make the playoffs.
Key Players: Forward Dom Dwyer, midfielder Nani, goalkeeper Pedro Gallese.
Lowdown: Coach Oscar Pareja returns to MLS after a short stint with Tijuana. Before that, Pareja was coach at FC Dallas, where he spent seven seasons as a player. He's certainly got a challenge with the Lions. Nani, the former Manchester United star, had 12 goals in 30 matches with the team last season, but his production slowed in the latter half of the season. The addition of goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, who spent last season on loan to Alianza Lima in his native Peru, should boost the defense. Brazilian center back Antonio Carlos should help, too.
Coach: Jim Curtin
2019 Record: 16-11-7, third in the East. Eliminated in the conference semifinal by Toronto.
Key Players: Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, forward Kacper Przybylko, forward Sergio Santos.
Lowdown: Brazilian Kacper Przybylko showed promise last season with 15 goals but was hampered by a foot injury. He is healthy heading into 2020 and the Union are hoping he develops consistency. Jamiro Monteiro's tenure with the Union was made permanent and Alejandro Bedoya is reliable. They've been hit a bit with injuries during the preseason, and left back Kai Wagner will sit out the start of the season with a calf injury. The Union are deep once again, and should contend at the top of the table.
Coach: Greg Vanney
2019 Record: 13-10-11, fourth in the East. Lost to Seattle in the MLS Cup final.
Key Players: Forward Jozy Altidore, midfielder Michael Bradley, midfielder Pablo Piatti.
Lowdown: Michael Bradley is out until at least May because of offseason ankle surgery. His on-field leadership will be missed. But Jozy Altidore also provides veteran leadership, along with proven scoring prowess. He had 11 goals and seven assists in 22 games last season. Fellow vet Justin Morrow helps hold down the back line. Pablo Piatti, who played for more than a decade in La Liga, is a versatile newcomer.
MLS Western Conference Preview
Coach: Robin Fraser
2019 Record: 12-16-6, ninth in the West. Did not make the playoffs.
Key Players: Midfielder Younes Namli, forward Kei Kamara, midfielder Kellyn Acosta.
Lowdown: Although he's 35, veteran Kei Kamara is a reliable scorer with 14 goals in each of the past two seasons. He's climbing the MLS career list for goals, currently ranking fifth with 126. Keep an eye on 25-year-old Lalas Abubakar, an imposing 6-foot-1 defender. The club added attacking midfielder Younes Namli, a crafty left-footed Dane. One notable loss from last season: Goalkeeper Tim Howard has retired.
Coach: Luchi Gonzalez
2019 Record: 13-12-9, seventh in the West. Lost in the opening round of the playoffs to Seattle.
Key Players: Forward Jesus Ferreira, midfielder Thiago Santos, midfielder Michael Barrios.
Lowdown: Jesus Ferreira, the son of former MLS MVP David Ferreira, recently made his national team debut. Born in Colombia, Ferreira became a U.S. citizen in December. FIFA waived a rule that would have required him to wait five years before joining the national team. So look for him to build his resume in Dallas. Keep an eye out for the arrival of forward Franco Jara from Liga MX club Pachuca this summer.
Coach: Tab Ramos
2019 Record: 12-18-4, 10th in the West. Did not make the playoffs.
Key Players: Forward Alberth Elis, forward Darwin Quintero, goalkeeper Marko Maric.
Lowdown: It's Tab's team now. Ramos was the first player to sign with Major League Soccer and played for the Metro Stars from 1996 until his retirement in 2002. He had a stellar national team career, appearing in three World Cups, and is in the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame. He also saw success in his eight years coaching the U.S. under-20 national team. He replaces Wilmer Cabrera, who parted ways with the team last August. One notable absence for the Dynamo is DaMarcus Beasley, who retired last season.
Coach: Guillermo Barros Schelotto
2019 Record: 16-15-3, fifth in the West. Eliminated in the conference semifinals by LAFC.
Key Players: Forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, midfielder Jonathan dos Santos, midfielder Cristian Pavon.
Lowdown: See ya, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Hello, Chicharito. The 31-year-old striker is the Mexican national team's all-time top scorer with 52 goals in 109 appearances. He's appeared in three World Cups for Mexico. He's also played on such club teams as Manchester United, Real Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen over a 15-season pro career (He signed with Guadalajara at age 15). He's already having an impact in Los Angeles: The Galaxy have reported that season ticket sales jumped in the wake of his signing. The team hopes he'll have an impact on the field, too.
LOS ANGELES FC
Coach: Bob Bradley
2019 Record: 21-4-9, first in the West. Eliminated in the conference finals by Seattle.
Key Players: Forward Carlos Vela, forward Diego Rossi, forward Bradley Wright-Phillips.
Lowdown: LAFC appeared on course for the MLS Cup title game but was shocked at home in the conference finals by the Sounders, who went on to win the league championship. Bob Bradley's squad won the Supporters' Shield with the league's best regular-season record and an all-time league record 72 points and 85 goals. MVP Carlos Vela won the Golden Boot with a single-season record 34 goals. So yes, LAFC was good last season and there's no reason to expect anything less in 2020. Plus, the rivalry games with the LA Galaxy and new forward Chicharito are going to be fun.
Coach: Adrian Heath
2019 Record: 15-11-8, fourth in the West, eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by the Galaxy.
Key Players: Defender Ike Opara, goalkeeper Tyler Miller, forward Luis Amarilla.
Lowdown: The Loons lost 2019 Goalkeeper of the Year Vito Mannone to Denmark but they still have Defender of the Year Ike Opara. Defense won't be an issue, but offense will if United hope to build on last season. Forward Luis Amarilla, acquired in the offseason, was leading scorer in Ecuador's top league last season and should start for Minnesota this season. Then there's promising teenage midfielder Thomas Chacon. And there's still a chance the Loons could get Boca Juniors attacking midfielder Emanuel Reynoso. Tyler Miller, who played for LAFC last season, takes over as goalkeeper.
Coach: Gary Smith
2019 Record: 2020 is the team's inaugural MLS season.
Key Players: Midfielder Dax McCarty, defender Walker Zimmerman, midfielder Hany Mukhtar
Lowdown: It looks as though coach Gary Smith, who was coach of the Colorado Rapids team that won the 2010 MLS Cup, has put an emphasis on defense for Nashville's first MLS season. In addition to Dax McCarty and Walker Zimmerman, the roster includes Anibal Godoy. Goals may be the issue, with designated player Hany Mukhtar as yet untested in MLS play. After plans for a stadium stalled last fall, the team reached a new agreement with Mayor John Cooper in February.
Coach: Giovanni Savarese
2019 Record: 14-13-7, sixth in the West. Eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by Real Salt Lake.
Key Players: Midfielder Diego Valeri, midfielder Sebastian Blanco, forward Yimmi Chara.
Lowdown: The Timbers were able to bring back fan favorite Diego Valeri after failing to agree on a contract extension with the midfielder last season. A key addition is Yimmi Chara, the younger brother of longtime midfielder Diego Chara. MLS terminated the contract of the team's top scorer last season, Brian Fernandez, after he entered the league's substance abuse and behavioral health program.
REAL SALT LAKE
Coach: Freddy Juarez
2019 Record: 16-13-5, third in the West, eliminated in the conference semifinals by Seattle.
Key Players: Midfielder Albert Rusnak, midfielder Kyle Beckerman, goalkeeper Zac MacMath.
Lowdown: The biggest question to face RSL this season is big: How do you replace legendary MLS goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Salt Lake hopes the answer is Zac MacMath, who has been a backup at LAFC for the last two seasons. The team still has another league journeyman, Kyle Beckerman, to provide veteran leadership. Winger Corey Baird hopes to rebound after struggling last season.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
Coach: Matias Almeyda
2019 Record: 13-16-5, eighth in the West. Did not make the playoffs.
Key Players: Forward Chris Wondolowski, midfielder Cristian Espinoza, defender Oswaldo Alanis.
Lowdown: Wondo is BACK! Chris Wondoloski broke Landon Donovan's career goals record in MLS last season, and many thought he might retire after reaching the milestone. Wondolowski left the door open that he might hang up his boots following the final match of the season, but the team announced in late October that the 36-year-old had agreed to a one-year deal with the club. In fact, the Earthquakes' roster is much the same as it was last year. Almeyda appears to have the Quakes on the right path.
Coach: Brian Schmetzer
2019 Record: 16-10-8, second in the West. Won the MLS Cup.
Key Players: Forward Raul Ruidiaz, midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, forward Jordan Morris
Lowdown: The defending MLS Cup champions will no doubt contend for the Cup again. The offense should be as stout as ever, but the defense took a bit of hit in the offseason with the departures of Roman Torres, Kim Kee-Hee and Brad Smith. The Sounders still have their defensive anchor, goalkeeper Stefan Frei, and there's plenty of talent still there on a deep roster. So don't expect much of a dropoff.
Coach: Peter Vermes
2019 Record: 10-16-8, 11th in the West. Did not make the playoffs.
Key Players: Goalkeeper Tim Melia, forward Alan Pulido, defender Matt Besler.
Lowdown: Sporting made a big splash in the offseason by bringing in Liga MX's top scorer, Alan Pulido, from Chivas Guadalajara. They also signed Croatian defender Roberto Puncec and West Ham United vet Winston Reid. Winger Khiry Shelton is back from a stint in the Bundesliga. The message? Missing the postseason last year was an anomaly.
Coach: Marc Dos Santos
2019 Record: 8-16-10, 12th in the West. Did not make the playoffs.
Key Players: Forward Lucas Cavallini, midfielder Inbeom Hwang, forward Fredy Montero.
Lowdown: This team got a makeover for 2020 with Cavallini, a Canadian who played the last two seasons in Liga MX. He's young and can set the tone for the club going forward. Vancouver had just 37 goals last season, so they need the boost. The 'Caps also acquired Colombian winger Cristian Dajome. Goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau had a breakout season last year with Vancouver despite the difficult circumstances.