The 2021 MLS schedule is out, and some semblance of soccer normalcy is just around the bend.

No doubt you’re already poring over your club’s 34-game slate, circling can’t-miss dates and plotting out a path to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Might as well start planning those bubble watch parties now, that is until we’re all vaccinated (or close to it) and it’s safe to begin filling our stadiums once again. That day is coming. Soon, I hope.

Honestly, it’s all I can think about now that we know the when, where and who of Major League Soccer’s 26th season. I want to make memories again, in-person ones. I want to share my love of the game and this league alongside all of you. I want us all to return to our collective happy place, knowing we did what we had to do to keep each other safe. I want to honor all those we’ve lost, arm in arm.

I’m imagining a late-summer evening. My three-year-old son Cameron, wide-eyed and giddy, looking down upon Children’s Mercy Park’s immaculate pitch. The green stretches out in front of him, beckoning to him just as it does to his father. What will we see? What will we experience together? What is this thing that daddy loves and hopes his sons — mom and the one-year-old will join us when the little guy is ready — will fall in love with, too?

The players warming up hold his attention, but not for long. There are snacks to be consumed, a plaza full of activities for kids to be explored. We find our seats, soak in the pregame pageantry and the national anthem. The questions start tumbling out of his mouth. Who are those people standing and singing behind the goal? Who are the “good” guys and who are the “bad” guys? Why is everyone around us wearing the same striped shirt? Can we get ice cream?

The home team scores and the place goes nuts, more than a year of pent-up emotion emptying out of all of us. I hoist him on my shoulders. We yell and clap and blend into the cacophony of the crowd. He looks down at me, a smile plastered across his little face. This is fun. This is life, shared. This used to be normal. Now, it is everything.

This is what we have to look forward to, and it makes me want to cry with joy. My quick schedule-release thoughts follow…

Bless the schedule makers

I would do just about anything to help this sport grow in the US and Canada, but I would never want to be responsible for putting together MLS’ schedule. There isn’t a kitchen big enough to fit all those cooks.

Bless Schedule Czar Brad Pursel and his team, who’ve done yeoman’s work the past year to keep our league rolling along in challenging times and made sure the first seven weeks of the 2021 season were as special as possible. We’re jonesing for MLS here, and those first two months feature nonstop action that’s easier to watch than ever before. By easier than ever, I mean 30 nationally televised games, including four each on ABC, FOX and Univision.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you could only commit to games free over the air, though we all know you need ESPN+ to get the full MLS experience. Here’s what you’d get, if you’re in the US, for zero dollars out of your own pocket, through Memorial Day …

Week 1

  • LAFC vs. Austin FC (Fox)
  • Inter Miami vs. LA Galaxy (ABC)
  • Orlando City vs. Atlanta United (UniMas or Twitter)

Week 2

  • San Jose Earthquakes vs. FC Dallas (Univision or Twitter)

Week 3

  • Houston Dynamo vs. LAFC (Univision or Twitter)

Week 4

  • FC Dallas vs. Houston Dynamo (Univision or Twitter)
  • LA Galaxy vs. LAFC (Fox)
  • Inter Miami vs. Atlanta United (ABC)
  • Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders (ABC)

Week 5

  • LA Galaxy vs. Austin FC (Univision or Twitter)
  • FC Cincinnati vs. Inter Miami (Fox; West End Stadium opening)

Week 6

  • Portland Timbers vs. LA Galaxy (ABC)
  • Chicago Fire vs. Inter Miami (UniMas or Twitter)
  • Seattle Sounders vs. Atlanta United (Fox)

Week 7

  • LAFC vs. New York City FC (UniMas or Twitter)
  • LA Galaxy vs. San Jose Earthquakes (UniMas or Twitter)

That’s 16 games featuring 14 teams. All for free with an antenna or an internet connection. And if you’ve got access to ESPN, FS1 and ESPN+, well you’ll be in soccer heaven. In Canada, CTV, TSN and RDS have you covered.

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Heineken Rivalry Week

Anyone who’s followed Extratime over the years knows we love Heineken Rivalry Week. This year’s 10 day, two weekend version is just about the best format I’ve seen yet. That’s thanks to the supporters who make these games so special and the growth of the league, which gives us more geographical proximity from club to club.

Take a deep breath and repeat these Heineken Rivalry Week fixtures with me fast…

Cali Clasico, The Nicest Rivalry in MLS, New York Derby, Copa de Tejas x 2, Rocky Mountain Cup, Hell is Real, Canadian Classique, whatever the supporters are going to call the southern quadrant matches (Atlanta United, Orlando City, Nashville SC and Inter Miami), El Trafico and the Cascadia Cup.

By late August, there ought to be a decent amount of fans in the stands, and we all know these games mean nothing without them.

Playoff field set at 14 teams

One team more than half the league. Every regular-season match matters. You can’t fall behind and hope to catch up. The margin for error has shrunk. Even more so because of the regional nature of the schedule. You can't give away points to the other conference and be OK. You'll lose ground fast.

That’s what I like to see, and I hope all 27 clubs see that and feel the pressure. Accountability for every single play, decision and result is what we should demand of our clubs, our players, our managers and our league. It’s what will make us better.

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