Growth is still the name of the game as 2019 MLS season begins

Major League Soccer embarks Saturday on its 24th season with, appropriately enough, 24 teams.

FC Cincinnati joins the league this season, with Nashville and Miami teed up to start next year and Austin coming aboard in 2021. MLS has added 11 teams in the past decade.

So it’s no wonder Commissioner Don Garber says MLS is still very much “a growth story.”

One more expansion club, to be announced by the end of this year, will bring the league to 28. Sacramento and St. Louis are the front-runners.

The league won’t necessarily stop there, Garber said.

“The future plan is something we’re going to be working with our expansion committee on over the next year or so, and try to determine whether or not Major League Soccer is going to grow past 28,” he said. “There’s been no decision whatsoever in that regard and I’m not sure when exactly that ultimate decision will get made.”

Apart from expansion and everything that goes with it, the league also needs to make sure it is properly developing talent, wisely managing rosters and ensuring the right designated players are coming into the league, Garber said.

Cincinnati opens its first MLS season on Saturday night against the Seattle Sounders. Cincinnati did well in the lower-division United Soccer League last season, compiling a 23-8-3 regular-season record. Season ticket sales have so far surpassed 20,000.

The Philadelphia Union host Toronto FC in the league’s opening match of the season at 10 a.m. Saturday, and the Earthquakes open against Montreal at Avaya Stadium at 7 p.m.

Key departures: MLS has raised its profile on the international transfer market and in recent months has moved several rising stars to high-profile European teams. Canadian teenager Alphonso Davies left the Vancouver Whitecaps for Bayern Munich, former New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams went to RB Leipzig, Miguel Almiron left MLS Cup champion Atlanta United for Newcastle United and Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen is headed to Manchester City in July.

Coaching changes: The league welcomes four new coaches this season, including Matias Almeyda, the reigning CONCACAF Coach of the Year, who is taking over the Earthquakes. Caleb Porter, who led the Portland Timbers to the MLS Cup in 2015, joins the Columbus Crew after a year away. Also new is Guillermo Barros Schelotto, a former league MVP and recently the Boca Juniors manager who is now coach of the LA Galaxy. Frank de Boer, who has stints at Ajax, Crystal Palace and AC Milan under his belt, assumes the reins with Atlanta following the departure of Tata Martino for the Mexican national team.

Shorter season: MLS is shortening its season by a month, going to single-elimination playoffs and setting the MLS Cup final on Nov. 10 — its earliest finish since 2002. Because the league has expanded to 24 teams, MLS is also expanding the playoffs to include 14 teams — seven from each conference.

The all-knockout postseason replaces the two-leg format for the conference semifinals and finals that the league started using in 2003.

2018 recap: Atlanta, in just its second season, won the MLS Cup last year, beating the Timbers 2-0 in front of a crowd of more than 73,000 at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Atlanta’s Joseph Martinez was the league’s Most Valuable Player after setting the league record for goals in a season with 31.

Anne M. Peterson is an Associated Press writer.

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