Will the World Cup give MLS a bump?
The new advertising campaign for Major League Soccer proclaims: "For Club And Country."
Because nothing stirs passionate soccer fans — and even the sport's casual onlookers — quite like the World Cup, the premier U.S. league is hoping to draw on the excitement surrounding the big event this summer.
"It's a perfect theme for our march to Brazil," Commissioner Don Garber said. "It's not just about American players wrapping themselves in their flags, it's Tim Cahill and Robbie Keane wrapping themselves in their country's flags. It's a big connection between our clubs and the national teams."
The league hopes that connection resonates with new fans.
MLS has seen a steady growth in popularity, with attendance averaging from 15,504 in 2006 to a record 18,807 in 2012 before dropping slightly last season to 18,594. The biggest jumps in attendance over that span have come in the seasons following World Cup years. Television viewership, which the league continues to struggle for, also bumped up in the season following the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The league's 19th season gets underway on Saturday, when defending MLS Cup champion Kansas City visits the Seattle Sounders. It is the first of seven games on the schedule for that day.
The top teams from last season didn't make all that many moves.
Sporting KC, which went 17-10-7 last season, returns 10 of 11 starters from the MLS Cup match. About the team's only loss was the retirement of goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen. This season, longtime backup Erik Kronberg will have the best chance to replace him.
Sporting defeated Houston to claim the Eastern Conference title before besting Real Salt Lake in a dramatic shootout for the league title.
Salt Lake went 16-10-8 last season and won the Western Conference by downing upstart Portland after eliminating the two-time defending league champion Galaxy in the semis.
RSL heads into this season with new coach Jeff Cassar, hired after Jason Kreis took the head coaching job with the expansion New York City FC, which joins the league next season.
Like Sporting, RSL enters the season with close to the same lineup as last year. Another similarity? Injuries. Salt Lake will be without veteran Robbie Findley and promising second-year forward Devon Sandoval to start.
The New York Red Bulls, who finished atop the Eastern Conference and won the Supporters' Shield for best record at 17-9-8, return veterans Cahill, Thierry Henry and Jamison Olave.
Because of the World Cup, MLS will take a break from June 12-24. The league's All-Star game will be held on Aug. 6 at the newly renamed Providence Park, home of the Portland Timbers.
Timbers coach Caleb Porter, last season's MLS Coach of the Year, will lead the All-Star team against Bayern Munich in a match scheduled for later than usual in the season to avoid World Cup conflicts.
Portland finished atop the Western Conference last season with a 14-5-15 record under Porter.
Five things to look for in the upcoming MLS season:
REF LOCKOUT: Because of an ongoing labor dispute, opening weekend games will feature replacement refs. The Professional Soccer Referee Association, which represents MLS referees, assistant referees and fourth officials, and the Professional Referee Organization, which was created by the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS in 2012 to manage match officials in U.S. and Canadian professional leagues, have been unable to come to terms on a Collective Bargaining Agreement. The PRO announced the lockout on Friday.
CHIVAS STRUGGLES: The MLS purchased Carson-based Chivas from its previous owners and appointed Nelson Rodriguez as president to run the club until a new ownership group is finalized. The team finished 6-20-8 for the league's second-worst record and was hit by several lawsuits alleging discrimination.
FRESH FACES: In addition to Cassar, there are six other new head coaches for MLS teams this season. But one team, the Colorado Rapids, is still lacking a permanent coach after Oscar Pareja went to FC Dallas. Retired former Rapids star Pablo Mastroeni has taken over the job on an interim basis, but it appears strange to some onlookers that he hasn't been given the job outright.
LANDON DONOVAN: With one more goal, the LA Galaxy striker will take over the league's career goals mark with 135. The 12-year MLS veteran matched Jeff Cunningham with 134 goals last October when he scored in the Galaxy's 5-0 victory over Chivas. Donovan has already set the all-games goal record with 156 and he's ranked second with 117 assists.
CHANGES COMING: The league is expanding next season to 21 teams, bringing in New York City FC and a team in Orlando, the league's first franchise in Florida since the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny folded following the 2001 season. New York City FC already hired Kreis as its head coach — sending him to Europe to familiarize himself with Manchester City, the expansion team's owners along with the New York Yankees.