As we look ahead, here are some of the key story lines as we enter the 2015 season:
The Stars Align
This offseason proved to be one of the most active transfer sessions in recent memory. More importantly, it saw the signing of multiple high profile American and international players – signings that have reinforced MLS' vision to become one of the top sports leagues in the world. Included in these signings are some of the very best U.S. Men’s National Team players who have made their way back stateside, including Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (NYC FC), Brek Shea (Orlando City SC) and Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls). The group of newly minted American stars joins a growing number of international icons that have also chosen to play in MLS, the likes of World Cup winners David Villa (NYC FC) of Spain and Kaká (Orlando City SC) of Brazil, English legend Steven Gerrard (LA Galaxy) and Italian national team forward Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC).
The 2015 season will put many of the League's young talents on display, highlighting the progress of a youth development system that has produced nearly 150 homegrown players who have signed professional contracts with MLS clubs. Leading the way is 23-year-old LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes who had a breakout season last year, scoring 19 goals across all competitions, including one in the MLS Cup final.
Other exciting Homegrown talents to keep an eye out for this season are midfield general Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC), U.S. goalkeeper Bill Hamid (D.C. United), midfield standout Harrison Shipp (Chicago Fire), Canada’s Russell Teibert (Vancouver Whitecaps FC) and San Jose’s first-ever Homegrown signing Tommy Thompson (San Jose Earthquakes).
A Year of "firsts" in MLS
Expansion clubs Orlando City SC and New York City FC will make their highly anticipated debuts led by two World Cup and UEFA Champions league winners in Kaká (2002 World Cup winner with Brazil; UEFA Champions League winner with AC Milan) and David Villa (2010 World Cup winner with Spain; UEFA Champions League winner with FC Barcelona). With the addition of the two new clubs, MLS announced that the conferences would be realigned with the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City moving to the Western Conference, creating two 10-team conferences. This year, 12 teams will also qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs as the sixth-place team in both conferences will have the opportunity to vie for a chance at making the arduous trip to MLS Cup 2015.
Two-time MLS Cup champions San Jose Earthquakes will also have a year of firsts as it inaugurates the League's 15th soccer-specific stadium when they open the doors to Avaya Stadium on March 22 against the Chicago Fire.
The 2015 season will also mark the first of an eight-year historic broadcast and media right partnership between MLS and ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision Deportes. UniMás will televise a Friday night game of the week and every Sunday evening will feature a doubleheader on ESPN and Fox Sports.
Bedrock for the U.S. Men's National Team
On the heels of an electrifying World Cup campaign, the U.S. Men’s National Team will prepare for a busy year filled with continental competition as the Americans will participate in the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup and Olympic qualifying. MLS will play a large role in both competitions as the League and its players continue to serve as the bedrock of the U.S. Men's National Team. In the most recent annual January camp, head coach Jürgen Klinsmann named a total of 24 MLS players to a 29-man camp that featured exhibition matches against Chile and Panama. The squad featured a variety of MLS talents, including U.S. veterans such as captain Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), midfielder Michael Bradley (Toronto FC) and 2014 MLS Cup runner-up Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution), and promising youngsters like Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC), 21-year-old playmaker Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), 22-year-old speedster Tesho Akindele (FC Dallas) and 24-year-old defender Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United).