Hello. I’m sensing someone in the crowd is new to MLS. Or maybe I’m sensing someone close to you is new to MLS. And that if you’re reading this your name starts with an R and you graduated in 2001?
Less sure on that last one. But I am a little more sure that you or someone you know is new to MLS this year. And what an excellent year it is to be new to MLS. The talent level keeps rising, new stadiums are appearing by the day, Jack Elliott is here, and the best atmospheres in professional sports should be back to full strength by the end of the year. You might have missed out on some sick jerseys and rad nicknames and The Digital Crawl some 25-odd years ago.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t jump headlong into the wonderful world of Major League Soccer. The good news is that the folks (me) at MLSsoccer.com are here to help you or a friend in need do just that.
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Sports are just more fun when you have someone to root for. Or maybe even a couple of teams to cheer for that will inevitably disappoint you. Now the general rule of thumb for all sports is that if you’re living in a team’s city or in the area surrounding that city, you should root (root root) for the home team. But perhaps you are new to where you live. Maybe you’re geographically isolated from a team in general. Maybe someone with an Atlanta United bumper sticker cut you off on Interstate 285 the other day and you’re questioning how anyone could support a team filled with fans actively working against the common good that you personally embody as the protagonist of life.
All those reasons are fair and maybe even hit close to home for authors based in Atlanta such as myself. Which means you might be wondering if there’s an extremely hard-to-follow and altogether poorly executed visual medium to help you decide who to cheer for……
Just start at the hexagon or ... erm ... ok, I don’t even know where I put the start here but maybe this will help.
There are too many incredibly entertaining players in MLS to keep up with. But I still want to give you a few options. These are just some of the players that you can turn on the TV pretty much any weekend and see do something spectac...….do something very entertaining.
Josef Martinez, Atlanta United
He’s back! You may not know that being new and all, but he is in fact back. After an ACL tear, the second-greatest goalscorer in MLS history will return this season.
He’s constantly angry, he stares at the crowd when he scores, he wills the ball into the net at impossible angles, he curses in interviews, he dyes his hair at random, he wears one of those dangling cross earrings, he’s awesome. He’s genuinely the closest thing we have or may ever have to a professional wrestling heel. Throw in an added redemption arc this year after the ACL tear and no one is going to command more narrative and attention than Josef Martinez. You can either choose to love him now or you’ll be forced to love him later.
Carlos Vela, LAFC
After I mentioned Josef as the second-greatest goalscorer in league history, you may have been wondering who the first is. It’s LAFC's Carlos Vela, a 32-year-old star from Mexico. He dropped an MLS record 34 goals (plus, ya know, a casual 10 assists) in 2019. He is also back after an injury-filled 2020. And once or four times a game he’s liable to do something with his left foot that completely breaks your brain.
Nouhou Tolo, Seattle Sounders
Emanuel "Bebelo" Reynoso, Minnesota United FC
Bebelo is the new kid who shows up at school one day and the next day is instantly in the popular crowd. He rolled into MLS late last year and immediately started dishing out assists. By the time the playoffs came around, he assisted on seven of Minnesota’s eight playoff goals and scored the other as the Loons came minutes away from making MLS Cup.
Oh, and the goal looked like this.
Dude did all this and has been doing this his whole career despite being shot in the knee during a robbery when he was just 18. There’s a chance he may be the best player in MLS this year. You’re gonna want to get in on this early.
Jose Martinez, Philadelphia Union
We’re not repeating here, this is Jose not Josef. But a lot of the things that will make you love Josef will make you love Jose. The passion, the intensity, the “Crazy Guy In The Fight” energy outside paired with the “They Think I’m Crazy Which Means I Have An Advantage Because I’m Actually Totally In Control” energy inside, and the (newly!) dyed hair make them heroes. Jose does it at a totally different position, though.
Those attributes, plus his general talent, brains and ability help him exist as one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS. And almost certainly the most entertaining.
Daryl Dike, Orlando City SC
Oh man, you’re going to love Daryl. Just 20 years old, took an improbable path from high school ball, to college, to one of the top strikers in the league in just one season. Extremely nice and very bright. Hits the ever-living heck out of the ball. He’s on a study abroad tour right now in England. But he’ll back any second. Annyyyyy second now. Just wait. He’s coming back. Let’s just sit here for a bit until he comes back...
You have a team. You have a favorite player. Now it’s time to fill you on everything else.
Building an MLS roster
So TAM stands for Targeted Allocation Money and what that means is that some players who could be Designated Players, otherwise know as “DPs,” are bought dow…………..
One of the fun parts about MLS is that you don’t have to really worry about the roster rules!
The Concacaf Champions League
So in the most basic, Americanized way to explain it, Concacaf Champions League is basically like college football. You have teams play in their “conferences” (leagues like MLS, Mexico’s Liga MX etc.), and the best teams from those conferences compete in the “college football playoff” (Concacaf Champions League) that chooses a regional champion based on a knockout tournament. Except both the league and this competition are running simultaneously and entry is based on a previous year’s results.
Maybe that made it more confusing. Hold on, I can find a better comparison…
...Oh! Ok, yeah. Got it.
In the most basic, Americanized way to explain it, Concacaf Champions League is like the movie “Bloodsport.”
You may be worried, as someone perhaps new to the league or the sport itself, that games may end in “ties.” Well, don’t worry. We totally do that if you’re someone who is concerned with an “authentic footballing experience.” But we used to settle ties in the most spectacular way possible...
Ahh yeah. Lookit that. Incredible. Can you imagine changing that in any way? Not me. This definitely still happens. Everyone else be quiet, and as for you, please ignore the fact that everyone looks like they got their haircut from the barber who did the cast of a mid-90’s teen soap opera.
Which speaking of, did I mention that Melrose Place’s Andrew Shue once played for the LA Galaxy? See. Doesn’t everything make a little more sense in the world now? No, you say? Not at all, you say? It actually hurts more than ever, you say? That’s just a side effect of all this incredible MLS hitting you at once. Embrace it until you’re stronger for it.
The Regular Season
You remember in old cartoons when everyone gets into a big fight and it’s just a cloud of dust that eventually clears at the end and you suddenly realize who won and who got a piano dropped on their head or something? It’s kind of like that, but every weekend for about seven or eight months. Sometimes it happens at night, everyone tweets #MLSAfterDark and things get even more confusing. It’s awesome.
After that, though, it’s time for the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. Where things somehow make even less sense. MLS is a league predicated on keeping you on your toes. Anything can happen. Teams can lose and win due to the spectacular or hilariously banal and you never know where you’re going.
Seven teams from each conference make it. It’s single elimination. And then you get to the endearingly titled MLS Cup. It’s a truly amazing ride filled with twists and turns, heartbreak and joy, triumph and failure. The cloud of dust that embodies the regular season becomes more beautiful, more frenetic, chaos-infused and exhilarating. Then the dust clears and Toronto or Seattle or both are in MLS Cup.
Now you know the basics. You just have to figure out how to watch.
For me, I think you watch MLS as a passionate fan of your team and a passionate observer of everyone else’s. You can live and die with each result your team incurs. It may hurt. It may bring meaning. It may even result in a glimmer of happiness. But it will certainly bring community, a necessary and sustaining lifeforce we’ve been regularly denied over the last year.
If following your own team is enough, that’s fine. But that community grows even larger when you expand your gaze to the entirety of the tangled strands and threads that make up the MLS universe and watch as they constantly try to unwind and constrict themselves in a way that may not make sense up close, but becomes beautiful once you step back to take it all in.
It all creates a steadfast community that becomes emboldened by uncertainty. One that thrives in coming together to thrust itself into the unknown. And there’s nothing quite like it in the world. How do you watch MLS? Hand-in-hand, heading straight into the abyss, knowing that even if you don’t come back from it, at least you won’t come back together. That’s how you watch MLS.
Oh, wait, oops. I’m being told it’s actually just mostly on ESPN+. You can find a bunch on ABC/ESPN, FOX, Univision/TUDN, TSN and TVA Sports, too. TV & Streaming listings