The time is nigh.
The 2018 season is upon us, as the nine-month odyssey that culminates with one of the league’s 23 teams hoisting MLS Cup in December kicks off on Saturday.
Whether you’re new to MLS or have been around since 1996, there’s been a lot to keep up with this winter, with a new member club, three new stadiums under construction around the league and one of the busier transfer windows in recent memory.
As you gear up for opening day, here’s a primer on went down during the offseason.
Expansion: LAFC are here; welcome Nashville, Miami and …?
Carlos Vela: ready for his closeup | LAFC
The season’s onset brings the debut of the Los Angeles Football Club – better known as LAFC, of course – the hotly-anticipated expansion newcomers who aim to raise the bar much like ambitious Atlanta United did a year ago, starting with their MLS debut match at Seattle on Sunday (5 pm ET | ESPN).
The SoCal side splashed out on showcase Designated Player and Mexican international Carlos Vela, brokered several trades to gather talent from around the league and brought in former US national team coach Bob Bradley to lead the project. But their roster remains well short of full size, suggesting that the club still has some more moves to make.
The league’s 23rd team, LAFC will be followed in the next wave of expansion by Nashville and Miami, both of whom were officially added over the winter, as well as one more still-to-be-determined market, with Cincinnati, Detroit and Sacramento the three finalists for that slot. After that, a range of candidates will be in contention for two more spots which will take MLS to 28 teams at some point beyond 2020.
Victor Vazquez, Ola Kamara owe their current destinations to TAM transactions | USA Today Sports Images
Targeted Allocation Money, or TAM, has become one of the league’s most commonly-uttered acronyms since it was introduced in 2015, and you’re going to hear plenty more about in the days to come.
In light of TAM’s positive impact over the past two seasons, in December the league ramped up the program. Every club will continue to receive $1.2 million in TAM for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and they’ll also have the ability to spend an additional $2.8 million in TAM if they wish, funded by the team, per year in both 2018 and 2019. It's already fuelling new acquisitions across the league.
We sometimes risk getting lost in the weeds when talking about TAM, GAM (General Allocation Money) and other MLS roster rules. As our own Ben Baer explained, the key thing to remember here is that TAM helps teams pack more talent into the top end of their rosters, providing greater depth and an uptick in the league’s overall level of play. Another update worth noting: Teams that sell Homegrown Players abroad now receive the full amount of the transfer fee, rather than sharing a portion with the league.
TFC aim for dynasty status
The TFC juggernaut aims to keep rolling | USA Today Sports Images
The Reds won MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield (awarded to the league’s top regular-season finisher) and the Canadian Championship in 2017. Over the winter they brought in reinforcements like Dutch World Cup veteran Gregory van der Wiel, Brazilian wide man Auro and Spanish playmaker Ager Aketxe.
This TFC side is loaded for bear, and it’ll take real quality to knock them off their perch. They’ve already begun their season with CONCACAF Champions League action, where they look like the best hope to become the first team in league history to win the regional championship in its current form.
Five Stripes keep going big
Barco: ATL's newest jewel | Atlanta United
Atlanta United drew bumper crowds, charmed their city and played some of the most scintillating attacking soccer in the league in their inaugural season – not to mention qualifying for the playoffs. Their winter activity made clear that they’re not about to rest on their laurels in Year 2.
The Five Stripes doggedly pursued and completed the signing of teenage Argentinean attacker Ezequiel Barco for an MLS-record transfer fee reported to be around $15 million. They bolstered their defense with two more South Americans, Franco Escobar and Jose Hernandez. And they shipped what could prove to be a record amount of allocation money – a potential total of $1.65 million – to the Portland Timbers to acquire US international Darlington Nagbe, club executives even going the extra mile to pick him up and deliver him to the ATL in a private jet.
Now their world-famous coach, Tata Martino, must try to make sure the on-field results live up to all the excitement.
Orlando City reload for win-now 2018
Jason Kreis leads an expectant Orlando | USA Today Sports Images
While the splashy newcomers from Georgia reveled in a euphoric inaugural campaign, the frustration only grew for their budding Southern rivals Orlando City SC. The Lions fizzled in their first full season under Jason Kreis, missing out on the postseason for their third straight year since they played the role of expansion darlings back in 2015.
So the Lions responded with some aggressive moves of their own, trading for established MLS stars Justin Meram and Sacha Kljestan, signing young Paraguayan playmaker Josue Colman to a DP deal and bringing former Sporting KC midfield linchpin Oriol Rosell back to MLS, among others.
The upshot? It’s “win now” for the Lions … and Kreis won’t need to be reminded of the unspoken second half of that phrase: “or else.”
Overhauls in Colorado, Montreal, New England, LA
New bosses Hudson, Garde, Friedel and Schmid | USA Today Sports Images
Even more thorough offseason renovations unfolded for three sides under new leadership. The Rapids welcomed ex-New Zealand national team manager Anthony Hudson and promptly reconfigured their squad to play a 3-5-2 system with flying wingbacks.
The Impact hired former Olympique Lyonnais and Aston Villa boss Remi Garde, who has overseen a shift towards a more proactive, possession-oriented approach staffed by more Homegrown and Canadian players.
Having tabbed former USMNT hero Brad Friedel to steer the ship, the Revolution enter 2018 with new faces and new hope. They’ve yet to land a true head-turner of a signing thus far, however, and it being Friedel’s first head coaching job at pro level, their playing philosophy is not quite clear yet.
And the LA Galaxy took steps to rebound from the worst season in their history, bringing in Ola Kamara, Perry Kitchen and a range of other reinforcements to right the ship under Sigi Schmid’s second stint in charge and – they hope – assert themselves as the kings of SoCal as LAFC hit the scene.
Under construction in DC, LA, Minnesota
MNUFC owner Dr. Bill McGuire at under-construction Allianz Field | Minnesota United
Three gorgeous new stadiums are currently being built across MLS, with two set to be christened this year and another coming on line in 2019.
LAFC will debut their glittering downtown palace, Banc of California Stadium, on Sunday, April 29. D.C. United will move into Audi Field, their long-awaited waterfront home less than two miles south of the U.S. Capitol, in mid-July. And Minnesota United are brimming with anticipation as Allianz Field, their future home in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, continues to take shape ahead of an opening day 2019 curtain-raiser.
If you’re seeking a big-picture affirmation of MLS’ progress, these are three more bricks-and-mortar proofs of concept.