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The 26th season of Major League Soccer begins with the opening game between the Houston Dynamo and the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday night.

The Columbus Crew are the defending champions, and everyone will be eager to take the trophy away from them. It’s also a deep field of challengers, as at least half of the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals are made up of MLS clubs.

What can we expect in 2021?

Key storylines of the MLS 2021 season

Can the crew repeat?

MLS has not seen any consecutive champions since the 2011/12 galaxy. But when you look at the additions Columbus made this off-season with veteran winger Kevin Molino and timeless goalkeeper Bradley Wright-Phillips, there’s no reason to believe the crew can’t. Oh, and don’t forget the MLS Cup MVP Lucas Zelarayán. This team is stacked and has a shiny new stadium to prove it.

Will the Sounders win the west again?

Seattle has won the Western Conference for the past five years, with the exception of 2018, and has won two championship titles during that time. Last season’s quest ended in the MLS Cup in Columbus, and star winger Jordan Morris has since been loaned to Swansea City. But the core is back for another run.

(Michael Wagstaffe / Emox News)

Austin FC, welcome to MLS

One of the fastest growing cities in the US is poised to become the new discussion center in MLS. Matthew McConaughey is a co-owner and two established MLS veterans Josh Wolff and Claudio Reyna are part of the staff, and fans are eager to keep the legend growing.

Will Chicharito jump back?

By Galaxy standards, the last year has been an abomination. As if the pressure around Javier Hernandez wasn’t always high, this season is all about redemption. Chicharito says he is in the best shape of his life both physically and mentally. With the takeover of a permanent coach like Greg Vanney, the rejuvenated mentality that the galaxy is gaining traction begins again, with Chicharito’s success as a front runner and above all as a goalscorer.

Which youngsters will bloom?

MLS academies produce talent moving abroad. Players like Bryan Reynolds (AS Roma), Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg), Reggie Cannon (Boavista) and Chris Richards (Bayern Munich), who make the leap, continue to inspire the new generation and expand the league. Keep an eye out for Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Efrain Alvarez (Galaxy), Mauricio Pineda (Fire) and Caden Clark (Red Bulls).

Can Josef Martínez be in top form again?

2018 MVP and Golden Boot winner Josef Martínez has been one of the league’s most exciting players in recent years. Martínez put an ACL injury at the start of last season on hold for 2020, but he’s back. Seeing him get good minutes and try to get back in shape CONCACAF Champions League is a great sight. Now the 27-year-old Venezuelan can make up for lost time. Atlanta United’s first game is against Orlando City and we all know how much Martinez loves to score against Orlando.

5 MLS games are a must

Inter Miami v LA Galaxy, April 18: Thirteen months later than expected due to the pandemic, this game is finally taking place. The team that David Beckham owns versus what he historically made in MLS. There’s a statue of him outside the stadium in California, but it’s all about Inter finally playing a home game in front of fans in South Florida.

LA Galaxy v LAFC, May 8: El Trafico doesn’t need any help with marketing. Maybe the odd 2020 season was a little fun given the circumstances and the number of times the teams have seen each other, but that’s different. This is in Carson, with some fans in the stands and finally the coveted matchup between Chicharito and Vela that we have been waiting for. Prepare your popcorn.

Austin FC v San Jose Earthquakes, June 19: Austin FC’s seven street games to kick off the inaugural season are a difficult start. But when they’re finally able to play at Q2 Stadium while the barbecue aroma fills the air and feverish fans rock verdeIt will be an absolute spectacle.

Cincinnati FC v Columbus Crew, July 7th: Speaking of new stadiums, Cincinnati has a pretty nice one to look forward to. Hell was indeed real for Orange and Blue in a difficult 2020, including losing their rivals 7-0 in two losses. But the last time they played in October it was a win for the FCC. The admission of the defending champions into a new home makes this rivalry even more exciting.

Philadelphia Union v Columbus Crew, October 2: Respect the 2020 Supporters’ Shield winners. This matchup of last year’s two best teams also takes place on the opening weekend, but it’s something to look forward to when you watch it on a certainly chilly October evening in Pennsylvania with potential ramifications plays back on the playoffs.

Former Boca Juniors striker Ramón Ábila, now with Minnesota United, is one of the top newcomers to MLS in 2021. (Photo by MARCELO ENDELLI / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

Keep an eye on newbies

Bobby Wood (Real Salt Lake from Hamburger SV): At one point, Wood was named the USMNT’s next marquee striker. Things didn’t quite go that way, but the jump from Bundesliga 2 to MLS could be good for him. He won’t join RSL until July 1, and if he does, he will be paired with Rubio Rubin, another striker who has been capped by the senior USMNT. An RSL team that finished 11th in the west last season are looking for a small spark and Wood could possibly start the fire.

Brenner (FC Cincinnati from São Paulo): The 21-year-old Brazilian striker wants to bring some Yoga bonito to a team that is badly lacking. He came from São Paulo, where he scored 21 goals in 39 games in all competitions. In context, Cincy only scored 12 goals as a team last year. Enough said.

Alexandre Pato (Orlando City from São Paulo): Pato appeared as a teenage phenomenon for AC Milan many years ago. His resume includes stops in top leagues around the world, but the 31-year-old Brazilian was intrigued by playing in the US. If he stays healthy, Pato can be a serious treat for the fans and the worst nightmare for the defenders alongside Nani.

Ramón Ábila (Minnesota United from Boca Juniors): The Loons grabbed an Argentine striker who will deliver some highlight moments. “Wanchope” scored 34 goals and added 13 assists in 81 games for powerhouse Boca Juniors. More importantly, he’s reunited with friend Emmanuel Reynoso, with whom he played in Argentina, to bring the South American flair north.

What MLS players and coaches are saying

Carlos Vela on the hunt for the MLS Cup (LAFC striker): “I think our team is stronger now than in previous years. I hope we can do great things and win a trophy this year.”

Bruce Arena (New England Revolution coach): “I give Crew the entire MLS loan-winning Cup, as does Philadelphia, which won the Supporters’ Shield, but I think this year will be very different. “

Phil Neville (Inter Miami Trainer): “I think it’s one of the toughest leagues in the world to win because of the size, the quality of the teams, the travel, the humidity and the different time zones.”

Greg Vanney (LA Galaxy Trainer): “I think this has the capacity to be the most competitive season of all as the teams continue to define where they are and who they will be on and off the field.”

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