MLS 2021 season preview: Key questions, who to watch and much more

Major League Soccer's 26th season is about to kick off, with the opening match between the Houston Dynamo and San Jose Earthquakes on Friday evening.

The Columbus Crew are the defending champions, and everyone will be eager to take the trophy off them. It figures to be a deep field of challengers, too, with at least half the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals comprised of MLS clubs.

What can we expect in 2021?

Key MLS 2021 season storylines

Can the Crew repeat?

MLS hasn’t seen back-to-back champs since the 2011-12 Galaxy. But if you look at the additions Columbus made this offseason in adding skilled winger Kevin Molino and ageless goal machine Bradley Wright-Phillips, there’s no reason to believe the Crew can’t do it. Oh, and don’t forget about MLS Cup MVP Lucas Zelarayán. This team is stacked and has a shiny new stadium to prove it in.

Will the Sounders win the West yet again?

Seattle has won the Western Conference each of the past five years except for 2018, and earned two league titles in that span. Last season's quest ended in MLS Cup in Columbus, and star winger Jordan Morris has since been loaned out to Swansea City. But the core is back for another run.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

Austin FC, welcome to MLS

One of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. is ready to become the new center of discussion in MLS. Matthew McConaughey is co-owner, and a pair of established MLS veterans Josh Wolff and Claudio Reyna are part of the staff, and the fans are eager to grow the legend.

Will Chicharito bounce back?

By Galaxy standards, last year was an abomination. As if the pressure around Javier Hernandez isn’t always high, this season is all about redemption. Chicharito says he’s in the best form of his life both physically and mentally. With a solidified coach like Greg Vanney taking over, the rejuvenated mentality for the Galaxy to return to prominence begins with Chicharito’s success as a leader, and more importantly as a goalscorer.

What youngsters will blossom?

MLS academies are churning out talent that's moving abroad. Players like Bryan Reynolds (AS Roma), Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg), Reggie Cannon (Boavista) and Chris Richards (Bayern Munich) making the jump only continues to inspire the new generation and grow the league. Keep a close eye on the likes of Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Efrain Alvarez (Galaxy), Mauricio Pineda (Fire) and Caden Clark (Red Bulls).

Can Josef Martínez return to top form?

2018 MVP and Golden Boot winner Josef Martínez has been one of the most exciting players in the league over the last few years. An ACL injury in last season’s opener sidelined Martínez for 2020, but he’s back. Seeing him get quality minutes and trying to regain form in the CONCACAF Champions League is a great sight. Now the 27-year-old Venezuelan gets to make up for lost time. Atlanta United’s first game is against Orlando City, and we all know how much Martinez loves scoring against Orlando.

5 can’t-miss MLS games on the schedule

Inter Miami vs. LA Galaxy, April 18: Thirteen months later than expected due to the pandemic, this game is finally happening. The team David Beckham owns vs. the one he helped make historic in MLS. There’s a statue of him outside of the stadium in California, but this one is all about Inter finally playing a home game in front of fans in South Florida.

LA Galaxy vs. LAFC, May 8: El Trafico needs no help marketing itself. Maybe the odd 2020 season took a little of the fun from it considering the circumstances and how many times the teams saw each other, but this is different. This is in Carson, with some fans in the stands, and finally the coveted Chicharito vs. Vela matchup we’ve been waiting for. Get your popcorn ready.

Austin FC vs. San Jose Earthquakes, June 19: Austin FC’s seven road games to kick off their inaugural season are a rough start. But when they're finally able to play at Q2 Stadium with the barbecue aroma filling the air and feverish supporters rocking verde, it’ll be an absolute spectacle.

FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew, July 7: Speaking of new stadiums, Cincinnati has a pretty nice one it's excited to show off. Hell was indeed real for the Orange and Blue in a rough 2020, including being outscored by their rivals 7-0 in two losses. But the last time they played in October, it was a win for FCC. Hosting the defending champs in a new home adds extra excitement to this rivalry.

Philadelphia Union vs. Columbus Crew, October 2: Put some respect on the 2020 Supporters’ Shield winners. This matchup of last year’s two best teams is also happening on the opening weekend, but running it back in what will certainly be a chilly October evening in Pennsylvania with potential playoff implications is something to look forward to.

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

Newcomers to keep an eye on

Bobby Wood (Real Salt Lake from Hamburger SV): At one point, Wood was being talked about as the USMNT's next marquee striker. Things didn't quite pan out that way, but the hop from the 2. Bundesliga to MLS could be good for him. He won’t be joining RSL until July 1, and when he does he figures to be paired with Rubio Rubin, another forward who's been capped by the senior USMNT. An RSL side that finished 11th in the West last season is looking for any little spark, and Wood might be able to light the fire.

Brenner (FC Cincinnati from São Paulo): The 21-year-old Brazilian forward is looking to bring some joga bonito to a team desperately lacking it. He arrived from São Paulo where he scored 21 goals in 39 games across all competitions. For context, Cincy as a team scored only 12 goals last year. Enough said.

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

Ramón Ábila (Minnesota United from Boca Juniors): The Loons snagged a loanee Argentine striker who will deliver some highlight-reel moments. “Wanchope” scored 34 goals and added 13 assists in 81 matches for powerhouse Boca Juniors. More importantly, he’s reuniting with friend Emmanuel Reynoso, who he played with in Argentina, to bring that South American flair up north.

What MLS players and coaches are saying

Carlos Vela on chasing MLS Cup (LAFC forward): "I feel right now our team is stronger than other years. So I hope we can do great things this year and win a trophy."

Bruce Arena (New England Revolution coach): "I give Crew all the credit winning MLS Cup, as do I give credit to Philadelphia for winning the Supporters’ Shield, but I think it’s going to be a lot different this year.”

Phil Neville (Inter Miami coach): "I do think it is one of the hardest leagues in the world to win because of the vast nature, quality of teams, traveling, humidity, different time zones."

Greg Vanney (LA Galaxy coach): "I think this has the capacity to be the most competitive season out of all of them as teams continue to define where they are and who they’re going to be on and off the field."

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