Articles like this are always hard. In a season like this, they’re especially hard. In an incomprehensible amount of important things happened in MLS this season, how do you condense all that into 10 digestible pieces? And now I have to pick 10 as the most important? All I can say is, I tried my best. Unlike Atlanta United, am I right? (Hello from Atlanta, where I’m totally fine.)
Anyway, in pretty much chronological order, here are the stories of the year in MLS.
A Music City welcome
The season began with 60,000 people showing up for a soccer game in Tennessee. Nashville SC arrived with a raucous crowd, wholly endearing pomp and circumstance moments before, during and after the game, elite-level tailgates surrounding the stadium and plenty of Atlanta fans making the trip up I-75 with red and black car flags flying. The Deep South’s newest rivalry took on a hilariously delightful SEC feel, and Nashville introduced itself to MLS in style.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the game became the default event of the season in MLS just a couple of weeks later. It might have been anyway. But no one really knew it at the time. And it still ended up being an absolute blast.
The team itself lost that night, but went on to put in one of the best expansion team performances of all time. Or at least definitely one of the most surprising. The Golden Boys came one game away from the Conference Finals in their first season and have set themselves up to make an easy jump forward in year two.
Nashville as a city had maybe the most unrelentingly 2020 experience of any city this year. I’m still not entirely sure how much sports mean in the grand scheme of things, but hopefully, folks enjoyed the hell out of that first game and took some joy from the team’s success. And maybe more events like that first game and more success can be something to look forward to next year.
Black Players for Change make a statement and create change
With the country reeling in part from the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police and in part from centuries of systemic racism, more than 170 Black MLS players formed Black Players for Change, an independent organization working to bridge the racial equality gap that exists in society.
BPC formed on Juneteenth, just before MLS is Back began. And with the sporting world watching as MLS became the first men’s league to return in the United States, BPC stood together on the field in Orlando and raised their arms in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd. It’s the most powerful moment of the year in MLS.
But BPC and the push for social justice didn’t stop there. In late August, after police shot Jacob Blake, MLS players joined a sports-wide boycott and decided to not participate in any games that night. In October, the league announced MLS Unites to Vote, a league-wide push to encourage voter participation. And throughout the year, BPC worked to advance attention on human rights inequalities using protests, programs, partnerships and policies that address systemic racism. In December, MLS WORKS named the organization their Humanitarian of the Year.
MLS is Back Tournament happens
Remember when we didn’t even know if soccer would be back at all this year?
The general existence of MLS is Back will go down in MLS and 2020 lore. From 9 a.m. ET start times, to the bubble, to covert Twitter accounts, to that Will Ferrell interview, to the debate over pumping in crowd noise or letting the ambiance of Ben Olsen screaming take over the feed, to LAFC’s thrashing of the LA Galaxy, to Orlando City letting the world know they were actually pretty good this year and so much more. Oh, and magic spray. Can’t forget the magic spray.
The entire event provided so many memorable moments and MLS weirdness — along with relatively few pandemic-related hitches — people started having legitimate conversations about running the entire thing back next year. Whether or not that happens, the Portland Timbers will always be the first winners of MLS is Back. The Timbers (and mostly Sebastian Blanco) put in a stellar performance and survived a few near disasters to beat Orlando 2-1 in the final. The win earned the team a spot in the Concacaf Champions League and a spot in MLS history.
They celebrated appropriately.
The Carousel starts spinning frighteningly fast
I didn’t even get to mention that MLS is Back gave us our first managerial defenestration of the year.
After Atlanta United lost all three group stage games 1-0, the Five Stripes and Frank de Boer (ahem) mutually parted ways. They eventually brought in Gabriel Heinze a few months later, but the decision to depart from de Boer kicked off a season where multiple big-name coaches wouldn’t make it to the new year.
Chris Armas got the axe in September and the New York Red Bulls brought in Gerhard Struber a month later. Ben Olsen (Ben Olsen!) ended his 10-year reign as D.C. United’s manager in October and D.C. are still searching for his replacement. Guillermo Barros Schelotto ended a short tenure with the Galaxy, which may or may not have led to Greg Vanney’s stunning departure from Toronto FC at the end of the season.
That’s five of the league’s biggest clubs all looking for someone new to be in charge this year. Which means next year five new managers will all be under a heavy microscope.
Miami goes full Juventus
Speaking of some heavy as all heck microscopes…
When Inter Miami signed both Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi from Juventus this season, it felt like a pretty big deal. It still might be. But the story for Higuain and Matuidi quickly went from “global stars with their eyes on a major impact in MLS” to “oh boy, this is happening again isn’t it?”
It’s still very early to give a verdict on the pair’s stint in Miami, but if that stint ended today, they’d join a growing list of aging global stars who came to MLS and didn’t provide much. Miami did improve once Higuain and Matuidi got settled in, but just enough to take a 10th-place spot in the East and get a immediate boot from a very expanded playoff. Higuain scored once in nine starts and Matuidi didn’t exactly receive rave reviews.
The good news (?) is they weren’t the only global stars struggling to find their footing. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez failed to impress in his first season in LA, and a regular subplot of the season became “Hey, should the Galaxy consider just not playing him?” He scored twice in seven starts, which to be fair, is a better record than Higuain’s.
The big stars are always going to make headlines when they come to MLS. But it’s becoming more and more apparent that, except for a select few, it’s not going to be a cakewalk.
The expansion-ing continues
Two new teams formally introduced themselves to the MLS world. Charlotte FC and St. Louis City SC both revealed their names and branding as the league prepares to welcome them in 2022 and 2023, respectively.
Meanwhile, Austin FC grew closer and closer to a reality. The club revealed their first primary kit, signed their first players and are fully prepared to show off their fancy new stadium as soon as people are let back into those things.
Orlando lives and LAFC stays alive
Two of the best running stories of the year were “What’s going on in Orlando!” and “What’s going on in LA?”
The Lions’ turnaround has been well-documented but that didn’t make it less fun to watch the most consistently memed team in MLS became a legitimate MLS Cup contender while playing some of the most exciting and attractive soccer in the league. Powered by young stars like Chris Mueller and Daryl Dike, and led by Nani and Mauricio Pereyra, Oscar Pareja’s team is set to build on by far the best season in club history.
Meanwhile, LAFC confused me and hurt my brain. They were good until they weren’t and then they were incredible and then bad and I’m not kidding when I say I genuinely stopped trying to figure it out. Once they finally got their full team back and healthy they...well they caught some bad breaks, weren’t at full strength again and lost to the Seattle Sounders in the playoffs. But then they really got to ful -strength and nearly won the Concacaf Champions League. So. Yeah, I’m still pretty confused honestly, but I think they might have actually been pretty good. Enjoy the fact you got to watch this team finish seventh in the West while you can.
The Team of the People gets the people’s trophy
Something became very clear to me at MLS is Back. The Philadelphia Union were all of us in 2020. I knew it from the moment Jose Martinez ignored several shouts of “JOSE, DON’T FOUL” and went to go foul the crap out of someone.
The people’s champ has to be both like us and better than us. The team constantly felt loose, unafraid, outspoken and exciting to watch. They scored gorgeous goals. They were energized by a youth movement of talented Homegrowns. They did things their own way.
They weren’t a perfect team, but they grew better and better throughout the year with it all culminating in a 5-0 absolute thrashing of Toronto that put them on the edge of winning the Supporters’ Shield. I...I loved them.
This team will look a little bit different next year. And I hope Philly fans were able to cherish a truly special season. Even if the end result didn’t quite end the way they wanted.
MLS won’t shut up about study abroad
The reason the Union will look a little different is the fact their youth movement might have been just a little too talented. Brenden Aaronson is off to Red Bull Salzburg and there’s a new rumor about Mark McKenzie every day. They’re just two parts of what was an excellent year for MLS players already, and planning to go, overseas.
Alphonso Davies won the UEFA Champions League and made FIFA’s Best XI, Tyler Adams made it to the Champions League semifinal, and a long list of academy products like Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna made impacts for major European clubs.
Meanwhile, Aaronson may be joined by Dallas’ Bryan Reynolds, Orlando’s Dike, Sporting KC’s Gianluca Busio and others in Europe soon. This year confirmed a new reality for the global soccer landscape: MLS talent is viable at the highest levels of the sport.
The Crew, from out of the fire
Whooo boy hey y’all remember when the Columbus Crew mollywhopped Seattle in MLS Cup?
Here’s what I wrote in The Daily Kickoff, MLS’s daily newsletter, the day after their 3-0 win.
Lucas Zelarayan will forever be the hero from last night. And an appropriate symbol of one of the great team-wide rebirths you’ll ever see. His signing last offseason marked a sense of club-wide ambition fully and totally earned by Columbus’s fans. In turn, the team itself earned a shot at a title.
Some folks outside Columbus may have been hoping for Seattle to lose last night out of fear for a league-wide boogeyman becoming a little too powerful. But last night is solely for the Crew. For everything they’ve been through, for everything they fought for and everything they grew out of a fire. At the end of a chaotic season, a chaotic year and a chaotic chapter, only one fanbase, one team and one club deserved last night.
In the end it’s Columbus, Columbus and no one but Columbus.
It’s hard to do a year-end review of 2020 and not talk about some heavy-handed symbolism here. A team that got pushed to the brink of nonexistence came back and reached its highest point. There’s something hopeful to that. But mostly I think it’s important to sit back, take it all in and remember that lolllllllll Seattlle got destroyed hahhahahahhahaahahah.
Now they’ll only win nine MLS Cups this decade.