After months of handwringing, Major League Soccer and its Players Union finally hashed out a new collective bargaining agreement on Wednesday, meaning the league's 2015 season will start on time. On Friday night, the Chicago Fire will kick things off against the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy in Carson, Calif.
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So, with the CBA finally squared away for five more seasons, here are the 20 storylines we're watching ahead of MLS's 20th season, in no particular order:
1. The New York Red Bull reboot
Perhaps the Red Bulls picked the worst possible year to go cheap, now that they'll have, for the first time, a cross-town rival in star-powered expansion team New York City FC. Thierry Henry has retired and Tim Cahill left for China. So for the first time in memory, this team has no marquee player. That said, the new management has assembled a capable side and seems to have a plan. The pursuit of a first MLS Cup continues.
2. The post-Landon Donovan L.A. Galaxy
Nobody meant as much to MLS as the freshly retired Donovan. And so, by extension, nobody meant so much to the Galaxy, either. After three championships in four years, the Galaxy hope to stay competitive without the league's all-time leader in goals and assists – who holds the same records for the U.S. national team. Luckily, Robbie Keane is still the league's best striker – and the reigning league MVP.
3. Steven Gerrard
With Donovan gone, the Galaxy's third designated player slot – Keane and Omar Gonzalez occupy the others – will go to the Liverpool legend as soon as he finishes up his Merseyside career. Gerrard is expected to join the club during the July transfer window. But how much does he have left to give?
4. Toronto FC's reshuffle
So the Jermain Defoe experiment, after being wildly successful, turned into something of a disaster. He began by scoring 11 times in his first 13 starts but then his season unraveled due to injuries and his growing disinterest. This winter, TFC managed to swap him with Sunderland for Jozy Altidore and added Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus. With Benoit Cheyrou added to help out Michael Bradley in midfield, the Reds finally have the makings of their first playoff team. And perhaps more.
It was real coup expansion Orlando City SC to sign the Brazilian playmaker, who is a former superstar with AC Milan and Real Madrid, a Ballon d'Or and FIFA World Player of the Year winner and once the second-most expensive player in the world. Kaka's career has been on the decline since he joined Real in 2009, but he's still only 32 and could have an immense impact.
6. David Beckham's Miami team
It's been more than a year since the league announced that Beckham had exercised the option from his playing contract with the Galaxy to purchase a franchise – doing so well below market rate – and place a team in Miami. But since then, he's been treading water in Miami's political swamp, hardly getting close to getting a stadium deal done. And he probably doesn't get to play until he has his venue.
7. Who will be the 24th franchise?
The league will have 20 teams this year. Chivas USA has been disbanded but a second Los Angeles team will be back in a few years under new ownership. Atlanta has also been awarded a team. And Beckham's Miami team makes it 23. The league plans to grow to 24 teams by 2020, leaving just one spot. Sacramento, Minneapolis, San Antonio and Las Vegas looked to be the contenders. The latter two appear to have been eliminated, so it seems to be between Sacramento and Minneapolis.
According to reports from Spain, it's already done. According to NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna, it's not. Either way, the rumor that Barcelona's long-time playmaker could be coming to New York makes for a tantalizing prospect. Playing behind former Spain striker and onetime Barca teammate David Villa and alongside all-time Chelsea hero Frank Lampard, Xavi would bring that much more stardust, experience and savvy to the expansion side.
9. Frank Lampard
Speaking of Lamps, his so-called signing with New York has been a bit of a PR disaster so far. He was introduced amid much fanfare last summer and would go "on loan" to sister club Manchester City. But when he had a real impact there, rather than just hanging around to stay fit, it was decided he would finish the Premier League season instead of coming back to New York for the start of the MLS season. It turned out he hadn't signed, exactly, and was free to do so. The question now is whether we'll see him stateside this summer at all. What happens, after all, if Manchester City would rather he stick around a little longer again?
10. The new CBA
So a deal was finally struck. The players won a limited form of free agency, although salary caps won't rise very much above the $3.1 million it stood at last season. Some players are said to be upset. The vote to take the league's deal was apparently a close one. Could any lingering issues bubble to the surface amidst this discontent?
11. Can D.C. United stabilize?
It's been a weird and wacky ride for Ben Olsen since the club veteran was made manager halfway through the 2010 season. In 2011, his first full year in charge, his team finished seventh in the Eastern Conference. In 2012, it came in second. In 2013, it was 10th and dead last. In 2014, it won the conference. He needs to build on last year's success to return the franchise to its early success.
12. Playoff expansion
After the number of playoff teams was raised from eight to 10 in 2011, two more will be added this year. That means 12 of 20 teams will go to the postseason. (Slots seem to be added whenever about half the teams qualify because more teams have been brought into the league.) Six teams will qualify from each of the two 10-team conferences. The top two from both the East and the West will skip the first round of the playoffs, where one-off games will decide who advances. The conference semifinals and finals will be home-and-away contests. The MLS Cup final is still one winner-takes-all game. The question is: Will two more spots further dilute the importance of the regular season?
13. How far can Montreal go in the CONCACAF Champions League?
The Impact, the worst team in MLS last season, which qualified for this tournament anyway by winning the Canadian Championship, bested the New York Red Bulls and FAS to advance to the quarterfinals. There, they became just the third team to beat a Mexican club in a home-and-away series, doing so in heart-stopping fashion. They gave up a 2-0 lead away to Pachuca before settling for a 2-2 tie. And at home, they overturned a deficit with a 94th-minute Cameron Porter goal, which sent his side through with seconds to spare. Montreal squares off with Costa Rica's Alajuelense in the semifinals in the ongoing quest for an MLS team to win this tournament.
14. Will Rafael van der Vaart really come to Sporting Kansas City?
Word is, Sporting are in talks to sign the onetime Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur attacking midfielder, who has fallen out of favor at Hamburg in his second stint there. At 32, van der Vaart, who was made 109 appearances for the Netherlands, is still capable. But at a reported $4 million price tag, the question becomes what value he could contribute to an already stacked K.C. midfield. He might actually slow down their zippy playing style.
15. Owen Coyle
When Dominic Kinnear left the Houston Dynamo after nine years in charge – and four MLS Cup finals and two titles – to return to the San Jose Earthquakes, the club made an unusual hiring for his successor. Coyle, a Scotsman who recently managed Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League, was put in charge. While he's very experienced, big-name foreign managers have a rather checkered history when working for MLS clubs. In fact, the bulk of them fail. Coyle's exploits will be watched with interest.
16. Can the Portland Timbers get over the hump?
In 2013, it seemed like Caleb Porter's Timbers had finally put things together, winning the Western Conference and reaching the conference finals. But last year, they regressed to sixth place, missing the playoffs for the third time in their four years of existence. This is a savvy and well-run club, but they need to begin performing more consistently.
17. Can the Seattle Sounders win MLS Cup?
Last season, the Sounders won the Supporters Shield for the best regular-season record and, amazingly, lifted the U.S. Open Cup for a fourth time in their six-year MLS existence. Yet for the sixth year in a row, their playoff campaign stranded short of the MLS Cup final, as the Galaxy trumped them yet again. With Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins nearing the end of their primes and a deep roster built around them, the window is closing on this team.
18. Can Juan Agudelo and Charlie Davies put the Revs over the top?
The New England Revolution has now been to five MLS Cup finals. And they have lost five times. Last season, they fell to the Galaxy. Theirs is a young, deep, mostly American team that's favored to run the Eastern Conference. But in order to do so, either Agudelo or Davies will have to produce goals up front. Agudelo, a one-time phenom who is still only 22, has returned from a failed European adventure. Davies, once a budding U.S. national team star, has never quite been the same since his 2009 injury but came alive during last year's playoffs.
19. The San Jose Earthquakes' new stadium
The Quakes become the 15th MLS team to open a new or refurbished soccer-specific stadium this year. Their venue, baptized Avaya Stadium, will further up the game. It's the league's first cloud-enabled facility – of course, since it's near Silicon Valley – and steep banks of seats emulate the atmosphere and intimacy of European stadiums. Apparently, it also has the largest outdoor bar in America right beside the field.
20. Will the Western Conference rule again?
Last season, the four best teams in the league were all active in the West, according to many pundits. The Sounders, Galaxy, Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas were all better than any of their counterparts back East. This year, with Sporting K.C. and the Dynamo returning West – to make room for Orlando and New York City – it adds two more historically successful clubs. Will this cause further imbalance? Could this become a problem?
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.