Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Seattle Sounders and MLS 3.0: The top 10 storylines of 2019

2019 was a huge year in MLS. It was a long one, too. 

Starting with a number of transfer sagas last winter, to the league growing again with a new expansion team, stadiums and more, while the quality of play jumped once again with stars aplenty. 

With a ton to choose from, here are the top 10 storylines of the year that was in Major League Soccer:

Miguel Almiron's league-record transfer

Miguel Almiron in Premier League action | Reuters

Yep, that happened in 2019! 

For months at the end of the 2018 season, Atlanta United's star midfielder was linked with a host of teams across Europe. In December, as Almiron was busy winning the 2018 MLS Cup, Newcastle United became the likeliest destination. The Premier League club, with a reputation of being frugal in recent years, would have to break their club-record fee to get Almiron.

It took all of January, but Atlanta and Newcastle (finally) reached an agreement just before England's winter transfer window closed. Almiron now had the weight of expectation on his shoulders by being both MLS's record outgoing transfer and Newcastle's record incoming transfer. 

Throughout the year with the club, his impact on the team cannot be measured merely in goals, of which he scored his first recently, as Almiron quickly became a fan favorite as well as one of the first names on the team sheet under two different managers. 

Meanwhile, Atlanta United reinvested the cash to acquire Pity Martinez, the reigning South American Player of the Year. It wasn't always easy for Pity, Frank de Boer and the new-look Five Stripes, but they still walked away with two trophies in 2019 after winning the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup. 

Toronto FC's offseason of change

After climbing to peak altitude by reaching back-to-back MLS Cups, winning one, while setting the then-league record for points in the regular season as well as reaching the Concacaf Champions League final, 2019 signaled a big shift atop Toronto FC

First, the architect of those teams, Tim Bezbatchenko, left to take over a new project in Columbus. Then, Victor Vazquez left before the big one: Sebastian Giovinco, unable to agree to terms on a new contract, was transferred to Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal FC. 

Club president Bill Manning and new GM Ali Curtis immediately got in motion to replace those stars, while inking Jozy Altidore to a new contract. They settled on Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, which turned into the saga that took hold of February and March.

Toronto triggered Pozuelo's release clause from Belgian leaders Genk, who were desperate to hold onto their captain until the summer. They claimed there was an agreement that he'd stay until the end of the season. Then there were club statements, player statements and talks of legal action. 

After meetings to find common ground, the clubs finally reached an agreement for Pozuelo to arrive and make his memorable debut in the end of March. It worked out alright, as Pozuelo's Best XI campaign led the club to an MLS Cup appearance in his first season. 

MLS welcomes FC Cincinnati

The league grew to 24 clubs in 2019, as FC Cincinnati made their debut.

It wasn't an ideal season on the field for Cincy, who struggled early and often before parting ways with head coach Alan Koch, appointing Gerard Nijkamp as GM then Ron Jans as head coach. It goes to show, despite the success Atlanta United and LAFC had in recent years: Expansion seasons ain't easy.

It wasn't all bad, though. 

The club routinely drew big crowds, their "Hell Is Real" Ohio rivalry with Columbus Crew SC is legit, their home debut was a memorable 3-0 victory and the club continue to build their brand-new West End Stadium. 

Minnesota United open Allianz Field

Speaking of memorable home debuts: Minnesota United christening Allianz Field in April was a day years in the making. And it lived up to the billing. 

The beautiful stadium sparked the club's first run to the postseason, starting with their exciting 3-3 draw against NYCFC. The Loons lost only once at home during the regular season, plus another three Open Cup matches, before the LA Galaxy eliminated them from the playoffs on their home grass.

Still, it was a historic season for Minnesota, with plenty of memorable renditions of Wonderwall from their home supporters. 

Quakes burst into life under Almeyda

The league's bottom club in 2018, the San Jose Earthquakes turned heads when they hired Matias Almeyda in the offseason. Lacking much flexibility to overhaul, the club retained much of the same roster, thus expectations weren't sky high in 2019. That notion seemed to be confirmed after the club lost their first four games in convincing fashion. 

Then Almeyda's high-octane man-marking system really took hold and the Quakes became one of the most fun teams in the league.

San Jose ran their way up the Western Conference standings, as Chris Wondolowski broke the league record for career goals along the way. Jackson Yueill blossomed into a USMNT-caliber midfielder and Tommy Thompson was a revelation at right back. All of that coupled with their shoot-on-sight policy and Almeyda's mesmerizing hair made them a fun team for neutrals. 

They ran out of steam by season's end, falling in a win-and-you're-in Decision Day match against the Portland Timbers. But over the summer, they captivated the league. 

The Zlatan Experience

Zlatan's gonna Zlatan. And that means outrageous goals, quotes and some controversy. 

This season was like many others in the Swede's legendary career, in which he had 30 goals and seven assists in 29 appearances. He had a hand in 37 of the Galaxy's 58 goals, ending their two-year playoff drought. 

Along the way, Ibrahimovic was never far from the headlines. He spoke highly of Efrain Alvarez, took some shots at Carlos Vela and said things like "I'm the MVP of MVPs." Then, this November, his two-year sojourn with the Galaxy ended, the striker announcing his departure from the league. 

It was always entertaining, to say the least. 

LAFC's (and Vela's) chase for history

It was clear at the beginning of the season: LAFC were one of MLS's best teams. Before long, it became clear they just might be one of the best regular-season teams in league history. And they had a host of records in their sights. 

They outpaced the rest of the league quickly, making the Supporters' Shield race a formality, focusing only on chasing ghosts – granted, the "chasing ghosts" phrase doesn't work perfectly considering the points record had been set just last year by the New York Red Bulls, but still. All the while, Vela was on pace to break Josef Martinez's single-season goal record. 

An uncharacteristically slow end to the season meant the points record would be decided on Decision Day, as did a late-season injury to Vela for the goal chase. To close the season, Vela netted a hat trick and LAFC cruised to an easy victory, officially re-writing the record books. 

The biggest Conference Semifinal in league history

After five scintillating regular-season El Traficos, the LA Galaxy and LAFC would meet in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. 

Though just a Conference Semifinal, the game came with a huge amount of hype. After all, not one of the first five editions of the rivalry had disappointed and LAFC were yet to beat their in-city rivals. 

That changed in the playoffs. 

Vela stepped up big-time with two goals and an assist, while fellow galacticos Ibrahimovic and Cristian Pavon also had big games in a barnburner that ended in a 5-3 (!) LAFC victory.

Seattle closing the decade in style

While it was LAFC who won the Supporters' Shield and set records, it was the Seattle Sounders who hoisted MLS Cup. 

After LAFC beat the Galaxy, Seattle came to the Banc of California Stadium with a place in MLS Cup on the line. A masterclass both in tactics and execution, Raul Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro led the Sounders to a 3-1 upset of LAFC. Meanwhile Toronto orchestrated an upset of their own over ATLUTD in the East, allowing Seattle to host the cup final.

In front of a raucous crowd at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders got the better of TFC, winning their second MLS Cup in four seasons. To go with their 11-year playoff streak, three U.S. Open Cups (four total) and Supporters' Shield, Bobby Warshaw made the case that Seattle were the club of the decade in MLS.

MLS 3.0?

Alan Pulido | Action Images

The calendar year ended with big transfer news. But, unlike how it started with Almiron departing for a league record fee, it closes with four (!) MLS clubs breaking their own record transfer fees on new signings. Sporting Kansas City (Alan Pulido), Vancouver Whitecaps (Lucas Cavallini), San Jose Earthquakes (Cristian Espinoza) and Columbus Crew SC (Lucas Zelarayan) all spent big money on stars.

We could look at each deal and ramble on about them individually. We have done that and will continue to do that. But it's a huge storyline overall because it signals the league taking yet another step forward, as lavish spending has become the norm, not the exception. 

Those moves follow suit from big summer moves, including LAFC's opulent acquisition of Brian Rodriguez and the New England Revolution's club-record capture of Gustavo Bou. Pozuelo, Alexandru Mitrita and Brian Fernandez also arrived under large transfer fees this calendar year. 

It's another new era in Major League Soccer. What will 2020 have in store?

Series: 
Topics: 

MLS Unites to VOTE

Join Major League Soccer, Black Players for Change, and the MLS Players Association in participating in the November 3 general election. In-person early voting has started in 44 states. Make a plan to vote.