The Major League Soccer (MLS) will kick-off the 2016 season with the same fixture that contested the last final on December 6, 2015. On March 6 the Portland Timbers, crowned champions of the North American professional football league three months ago, will meet the Columbus Crew whom they defeated 2-1 in that final. Both teams are playing with practically identical squads as last year, and are considered contenders for the Supporters Shield, the award given to the best team at the end of the so-called “regular season”, prior to the start of the play-offs. Besides this top match there are further attractive first round encounters over the first weekend in March. Los Angeles Galaxy against DC United, and the Canadian derby Montreal Impact versus Toronto FC are among them.
After a three-month break the MLS will kick-off with 20 teams as last year. The Champions League of CONCACAF commenced at the end of February, involving the MLS teams DC United from Washington, Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders. Parallel to the preparation by the teams for the new season it has become apparent that the popularity of the MLS continues to grow. The League will be again extended in 2017, when Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC, who took over the licence from USA Chivas at the end of 2014, will join. And further locations are pushing to be included in the MLS. David Beckham is pressing ahead with his plan to introduce Miami to the League by starting negotiations with investors from Qatar who are also engaged with his former club Paris St. Germain. Minnesota, who had been represented by a club in the past, are also signalling great interest. The club’s name is United Minnesota.
New teams are expected for the 22nd season in 2017, but new stars have already moved to the MLS this year. Ashley Cole, now 35 but still showing his top-class capabilities, has moved from AS Rome to Los Angeles Galaxy. The defender earned 107 caps for England between 2001 and 2014. He played 229 matches for Chelsea FC and won two English titles as well as the Champions League with the club. Los Angeles signed another defender, Jelle Van Damme. The 32-year-old Belgian played most recently with Standard Liège, and previously with Wolverhampton in England and Bremen in the German Bundesliga. And he also helped the Belgium national team reach number one status in the world rankings. Dutchman Nigel de Jong, a defensive midfielder, was also contracted by Galaxy from AC Milan. The 31-year-old played formerly with Ajax Amsterdam, Hamburger SV, Manchester City and earned 81 caps with the World Cup bronze medallists.
With their new stars the five-time MLS champions from California are considered one of the favourites to capture the MLS Cup, even after the team of former US national coach Bruce Arena was eliminated by Seattle (2-3) in the first play-off round last November. But Los Angeles have also lost two key players: defender Omar Gonzalez, 27, born in Texas and a regular in the US team coached by Juergen Klinsmann, moved to Pachuca in the Mexican League. And former Brazilian international Juninho, 27, who played in the offensive Galaxy midfield, also went to Mexico, joining Tijuana. His brother Ricardo Goulart earns his living with Chinese champions Evergrande Hangzhou.
Two further examples show that MLS clubs are also more and more involved in the worldwide transfer market. New England Revolution have loaned Sambinha, 23, to Sporting Lisbon. The Portugal-born defender is an international for the West African country of Guinea-Bissau. The NE Revs, who signed a partnership with Sporting in October 2014, had contracted Sambinha from the Portuguese top club two-and-a-half years ago. And one of the most promising talents in US football has moved to Europe: 20-year-old Matt Miazga, formerly with the New York Red Bulls, wants to make his career at Chelsea. The defender made his debut in the US national team last year.
Acquisitions from many countries – besides the young players who have been promoted to the professional squads from the country’s colleges and universities – are in the MLS transfer sights. Only the German Bundesliga is conspicuously absent. Though it is mentioned now and then that some German players would like to continue their careers with one of the 17 US and three Canadian clubs, these plans rarely reach fruition. Prior to the 2016 season there was only one transfer from Germany: Carlos Gruezo, the 20-year-old Ecuador international, left VfB Stuttgart for FC Dallas.
Another former Bundesliga player has had problems finding a club. Jermaine Jones, a former German international who later became a US international, has been banned for six weeks for an assault on the referee during the last play-off round with the New England Revs. A move back to the Bundesliga and Hannover 96 fell through. The 34-year-old said it is difficult to find new employment in the MLS as he would not be eligible again before April at the earliest. It is possible, however, that the strong, defensive midfielder, who played with New England in the final in December 2014, will join the MLS again during the season.