By Ryan Bailey
In the latest edition of MLS 101, we go in-depth on the precursor to Charlotte FC’s inaugural season
When does the 2021 season begin?
The 26th season of Major League Soccer kicks off on Friday, April 16th. The opening game sees Houston Dynamo take on the San Jose Earthquakes.
How is the 2021 season structured?
The 2021 season will feature 27 MLS clubs, with new franchise Austin FC joining for its inaugural season. Teams are divided into two conferences: the Eastern Conference will have 14 teams, while the Western Conference will have 13.
Each team plays 34 regular season games—17 home and 17 away—with a focus on intra-conference play in an effort to reduce travel.
The regular season will end on November 7th, which is the latest the regular season has ever run. At that point, the top seven teams in each conference will progress to the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. The MLS Cup championship game is scheduled for December 11th.
In addition to MLS Cup being awarded to the winner of the playoffs, the Supporters Shield is given to the team with the best record over the regular season.
How is COVID-19 affecting the season?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, games will begin with limited attendances. At the time of writing, no stadium will have an attendance level greater than 50 percent.
Additionally, due to travel restrictions, the league’s Canadian sides will play their home matches in the U.S. at the start of the season. Toronto FC will be based out of Orlando SC’s Exploria Stadium, CF Montreal will play at Inter Miami’s DRV PNK Stadium and Vancouver will host games at Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium.
Which teams are among the favorites to win MLS Cup?
Columbus Crew will be looking for back-to-back MLS Cup wins, and have retained one of the strongest squads in the league. LAFC, who were widely tipped as favorites in last year’s competition, will also pose a threat with the likes of Carlos Vela and 2020 league top scorer Diego Rossi leading the line. And it is impossible to rule out the Seattle Sounders, who have reached four of the last five editions of MLS Cup, and have never failed to reach the playoffs.
Who are the players to look out for?
The aforementioned Vela and Rossi comprise one of the most star-studded forward lines in the league, but there are plenty of gems elsewhere. Atlanta Utd’s coveted striker Josef Martinez will be making a welcome return following an ACL injury, while Portland Timbers captain Diego Valeri has been instrumental since his arrival in Oregon in 2013.
Inter Miami, playing their first full season after making their truncated debut with Nashville SC last year, also boast plenty of talent under new coach Phil Neville. Celebrated striker Gonzalo Higuain, who counts stints at Real Madrid, Juventus and Chelsea on his resume, will be looking to make an impact on the league this season.
When is the All-Star game?
Like many other US sports, MLS stages an annual All-Star game. In recent seasons, the contest has seen an MLS All-Star XI take on an invited opponent from Europe. In 2019, for example, Atletico Madrid took on the league’s finest in Orlando.
For 2021, the MLS All-Stars will face an All-Star selection from Liga MX, the top division in Mexico. The game—which was originally scheduled to take place last summer—will be held in July at Banc of California Stadium, home of LAFC.
How do I watch MLS?
A record 37 games will be shown in the U.S. over-the-air on ABC, FOX, Univision and UniMás national network broadcasts,
MLS’ national broadcasts can be found on ESPN, ABC FOX, Univision and UniMás. Every single game that is not part of a national broadcast can be streamed on ESPN+.
For 2022, Charlotte Football Club will partner with three local Charlotte stations owned by Cox Media Group including WSOC-TV (ABC Charlotte), WAXN (TV64) and Telemundo Charlotte. All regional Charlotte FC regular season matches in 2022 will be available over-the-air to all television households within the Charlotte viewing area in English and Spanish. Additional information about the television affiliate network that will bring matches to fans across North Carolina and South Carolina will be shared at a later date.
How significant is the 2021 season for Charlotte FC?
“We are very excited for the 2021 MLS season to kickoff,” says Charlotte FC Director of Player Personnel Bobby Belair. “The importance for everyone involved in the club to consume all things MLS this year will be vital to our success in 2022 and beyond. Attending live matches will be crucial, as we look to build a competitive roster and create a unique Carolinian game day atmosphere.
“We’ll have ample opportunities to analyze our competition, scout players, and perhaps most importantly, evaluate the strategies used by recent MLS expansion clubs,” adds Belair.
“We are excited to observe Austin FC’s inaugural season, as well as the first full seasons for Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC,” notes Belair. “The 2021 season will undoubtedly provide significant learning opportunities for our organization as a whole, as we prepare to showcase Charlotte FC to the rest of Major League Soccer, the United States, and the world, in 2022.”