By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - It was an eventful 25th anniversary for Major League Soccer last season but not the celebration commissioner Don Garber had planned as the COVID-19 pandemic spoiled the party and left owners nursing a nearly billion dollar hangover.
With a new MLS season set to start on Friday, Garber struck an upbeat tone - "momentum, momentum, momentum" he repeated despite the fact that MLS, like every other professional sports league in North America, continues to see little forward thrust in the face of stiff COVID-19 headwinds.
"The story in MLS has always been about momentum - more teams, more stadiums, more fans, more players," said Garber, putting the best possible spin on what will be another pandemic challenged campaign during a pre-season media call.
"We had the momentum going into last year and clearly that got put on pause by the pandemic and now that momentum has kicked back."
Columbus Crew won the MLS title last season and there will be more competition this term with Austin FC joining the league and three new stadiums - in Austin, Cincinnati and Columbus - but more fans, in the stands at least, remains wishful thinking.
To start the season most clubs will have limited spectators with stadiums operating at reduced capacity of 10 to 50% as teams continue to respect COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Certainly there will be no fans in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver with the league's three Canadian clubs taking up temporary residence in the United States due to COVID-19 travel restrictions between the two countries.
"We have new health and safety protocols and we are very, very hopeful about getting fans back into our stadiums," said Garber. "Hopefully as more and more people get vaccinated people will come back."
A new campaign begins with MLS still digesting the close to $1 billion losses it sustained last season and the gate-driven league bracing for a second billion dollar hit if fans are unable to return in significant numbers.
The season opens on two fronts on Friday with Houston Dynamo hosting the San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders welcoming Minnesota United.
But it is the weekend when MLS will roll out the star power not just on the pitch but off it as well.
In a match delayed for 13 months by the pandemic, Inter-Miami will play on Sunday what was supposed to be their home opener last season when they take on co-owner David Beckham's former club the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The match will mark the Miami coaching debut of Beckham's former Manchester United and England team mate Phil Neville, after the sacking of manager Diego Alonso, while experienced Argentina and ex-Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain is back and eager to improve on a rocky first season in South Florida.
On the same day, the Columbus Crew open the defence of their MLS crown against the Philadelphia Union.
On the West Coast, Austin FC minority owner and the club's "Minister of Culture", Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey, will be in Los Angeles on Saturday to watch his team take the field for the first time against LAFC, who also count a Hollywood A-lister in Will Ferrell among their ownership group.
"How much success can we have in year one? We'll see," said McConaughey. "But we didn't build Austin FC in a day, and we're not going to be a fad. This is the beginning."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)