By Ryan Bailey

The conclusion of the 25th season of Major League Soccer is upon us—here’s a look at how an unusual year of soccer unfolded

How did the 2020 season begin?

The campaign kicked off on Feb. 29 to great fanfare, as the league celebrated its quarter-of-a-century milestone. Many predicted this would be LAFC’s year to triumph in MLS Cup, given their runaway success in 2019’s regular season. Their crosstown rivals, fueled by the arrival of Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, were also expected to challenge. Meanwhile, the league welcomed two new franchises: Inter Miami and Nashville SC who both debuted in the Eastern Conference.

However, the action was suspended on March 12th—the same day as the NBA suspended its season—due to COVID-19. Just two match days had been played at that point, and the suspension was initially planned to last only 30 days.

The hiatus was extended until teams were allowed to return to training in a limited capacity in early May. The following month, the league announced a unique solution to the suspension of play: the MLS is Back Tournament.

How did the MLS is Back Tournament fit into the season?

Taking place at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida, the MLS is Back Tournament was played behind closed doors from July 8-Aug. 11.

The tournament was structured like the UEFA Champions League or the World Cup—a group stage followed by elimination rounds. Each team played three group games, all of which counted towards the regular season standings. Sixteen teams then progressed to the single-elimination knockout rounds, not counting towards regular season records.

The Portland Timbers eventually defeated Orlando City 2-1 in the final, earning them a berth in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.

What happened after MLS is Back?

The day after the action concluded in Orlando, the first phase of the resumed regular season began, with teams playing against opponents within their own conferences. During the comeback phase, the three Canadian teams only played each other due to travel restrictions, while Nashville and FC Dallas played a series to make up for their absence from the MLS is Back Tournament.

The rest of the regular season played out with all teams staying within their conferences and the Canadian teams playing their home matches in the United States. Vancouver Whitecaps, for example, hosted their games in Portland, Ore., while Toronto FC concluded their home slate in Connecticut.

A shortened 23-match regular season was played (there are typically 34 games), however, eight of the Western Conference’s 12 teams were unable to play all their matches due to the pandemic.

Who won the Supporters Shield?

The annual Supporters Shield is typically awarded to the team that accrues the most regular season points.

Given that some teams had not played all their games, and not all were present for the behind-closed-doors tournament in Florida, it was initially decided that the Supporters Shield would not be awarded for 2020. However, after consultation with fans, that decision was reversed, with conference standings being decided by points per game (PPG), rather than total points.

With an average of 2.04 PPG, the Philadelphia Union claimed their first-ever Supporters Shield.

How did new franchises do?

Surprisingly well considering the circumstances.

Inter Miami were winless in their first five games, including all three of the MLS is Back Tournament outings. However, Diego Alonso’s side progressed to earn a 7-13-10 record, which was good enough to qualify for the play-in round of the playoffs, there meeting fellow first-year side Nashville.

Not only did Miami overcome a difficult start and reach the postseason, they also secured two highly coveted signings from Juventus: Blaise Matuidi and Gonzalo Higuain.

Nashville, meanwhile, waited until August for their first-ever win—due to their absence in Florida—and finished the regular season with an impressive 8-7-8 record.

They soundly defeated Inter Miami in the Play-In round and progressed to the Conference semifinals, where they lost in extra time to eventual MLS Cup finalists Columbus Crew.

Not so long ago, it was rare for a new franchise to make the playoffs, so Miami and Nashville’s respective inaugural seasons offer a positive trend for Charlotte FC in its 2022 campaign.

What happened in the MLS Cup Playoffs?

Eighteen clubs entered the Playoffs—up from 14 last season—with a single-elimination format retained from 2019. There were some wildly entertaining games, notably Sporting Kansas City’s meeting with San Jose Earthquakes in the Western Conference first round. Kansas took a 3-2 lead in the 91st minute, only for Chris Wondolowski to find an incredible 97th-minute equalizer for the Earthquakes. In the shootout, San Jose missed all three of their penalties.

Who will feature in the MLS Cup?

Columbus Crew will host the defending champion Seattle Sounders at Mapfre Stadium in the 2020 championship on Saturday night.

It marks an emotional return to MLS Cup for the Crew, who lost to the Portland Timbers when they last hosted the final in 2015. Since then, the Crew’s fans came close to losing their team entirely, but saved it by virtue of a successful grassroots protest campaign. Their rebirth now sees them with a strong squad, and a brand-new downtown stadium for next season.

The Sounders, meanwhile, are one of the league’s most successful teams: they have reached the playoffs in every season of their existence and will contest their fourth MLS Cup in five years. Seattle, seeking their third MLS Cup title, are forging one of MLS’ great dynasties and are very narrow favorites to lift the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy for the second consecutive season.

Their dramatic victory in the final minutes of the semifinals on Monday night still has the sports world buzzing:

Columbus and Seattle have met this season already, when they played out a 1-1 draw shortly before the season was postponed. This match will also be tight—and likely an entertaining affair.

How do I watch MLS Cup 2020?

The match will be shown live on FOX on Saturday, December 12th at 8pm ET.