Major League Soccer returns to the pitch on Saturday. And from the number of players joining the US World Cup team to the top-tier Americans returning from Europe to play in the United States, this should be one of the most exciting MLS seasons ever.
Sports Illustrated Kids has everything you need to know before the Seattle Sounders and defending MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City kick off the season tomorrow night!
MLS's biggest stars will be headed to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup
Now that the Winter Olympics are over, the next big international sporting event is just around the corner. The 2014 World Cup will be played in Brazil from June 12 through July 13, and the eyes of the world will be focused on soccer. That includes the U.S., where the national team's run to the Round of 16 in 2010 converted many into fans of the beautiful game.
This year, the road for the U.S. won't be easy. The team is in a group with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana, and many experts don't give the Americans much of a chance. (Some even call it the Group of Death!) But even if the team fails to go deep into the tournament, soccer — and Major League Soccer — will get a boost. "Nothing brings attention to our sport in this country like the World Cup," MLS commissioner Don Garber said in December.
In 2010 the U.S. roster featured four MLS players. While the final 2014 team hadn't been announced when we went to press, it's safe to say that number will be considerably higher this year. Twenty-five of the 26 players invited to the U.S. men's national team camp in January play for MLS clubs.
Not all of them will make the trip to Brazil, but the league should be well-represented. Look for Clint Dempsey (above) of the Seattle Sounders, Landon Donovan of the Los Angeles Galaxy, and Graham Zusi of Sporting Kansas City to lead the way.
"Collectively, it's a lot of the guys from Major League Soccer, so we're all excited to get here," Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler told reporters in January. "We usually play against each other, but now we're coming together."
With MLS soccer academies, you could become the next U.S. soccer great
MLS has its eye on the future. As a way to connect with communities and develop young talent, each club runs a soccer academy. Every team has a different model, but in some programs kids between the ages of six and eight can join. As they get older, the kids with MLS potential climb the youth ladder. The next steps are college, development league play, and, finally, a spot with the MLS home club's first team.
A player that goes through at least one year of the process is considered to be homegrown. That means they can sign a special contract without having to go through the MLS SuperDraft. Through January 22, more than 60 homegrown players were on first-team rosters. This off-season, six clubs signed a total of nine homegrown players, including the Chicago Fire's addition of Notre Dame captain Harrison Shipp (left).
No Place Like Home
Fans won't have to look far to watch top soccer talent
Until recently, top-tier American soccer players usually left for Europe to compete in some of the world's most prestigious leagues. But some big moves this past year show that times may be changing: Top American talent is going to MLS.
One of the biggest developments of the off-season was Toronto FC's signing of U.S. national team star Michael Bradley (left). The 26-year-old midfielder got his start in MLS with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now called the Red Bulls), and for the past few seasons has played for one of the top clubs in the world, AS Roma in Italy. But, at the peak of his career, Bradley is coming back to play in North America. And he's not alone. Forward Clint Dempsey signed a three-and-a-half-year deal with the Seattle Sounders. Dempsey was drafted in 2004 by the New England Revolution but had played in Europe since 2007.
It's not just Americans who are starting to take MLS more seriously. In January, Toronto lured Tottenham striker Jermain Defoe, a London native, to North America.
"[Owners] jump in financially and want the best American players [to play] in America," U.S. men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann said at a press conference in January. "Suddenly they bring back a Clint Dempsey from Tottenham, they bring back a Michael Bradley from AS Roma, and they are working on other players as well. This is huge for football in the United States."
The shape of Major League Soccer has changed dramatically since the league began play in 1996. Back then, there were 10 MLS clubs. This season, there are 19. In 2015, MLS will add two more teams — Orlando City SC and New York City FC. Here's the current landscape of MLS.
Photos: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, GEORGE HOLLAND/CAL SPORT MEDIA (DEMPSEY), DERIK HAMILTON/ICON SMI (SHIPP), DANIEL R. HARRIS/ICON SMI (BRADLEY)
2014 MLS Preview: Kickoff Time!