MLS 2021 storylines: Columbus Crew take aim at title defense, expansion team Austin FC debuts

Major League Soccer kicks off its 26th season this weekend.

The 13-game opening slate is filled with intriguing matchups, starting Friday night when the Seattle Sounders host Minnesota United (9:30 p.m. ET, FS1) in a rematch of last season's thrilling Western Conference final. On Saturday, Los Angeles FC hosts an expansion team in its first game for the second season in a row (6 p.m. ET, FOX), giving Austin FC its baptism by fire against a preseason MLS Cup favorite. Then Sunday, the "Beckham Bowl," as the team David Beckham co-owns, Inter Miami CF, hosts the team Beckham played for, the Los Angeles Galaxy (3 p.m. ET, ABC). Following that game will be the defending MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew hosting the 2020 Supporters' Shield-winning Philadelphia Union (5:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

Here are five key storylines to follow during the 2021 MLS season:

1. Top 2021 MLS Cup contenders

The reigning champion Columbus Crew reloaded over the offseason, adding Kevin Molino, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Alexandru Matan to an already talent-laden roster, and enters the season aiming to become the league's first repeat champion since the Los Angeles Galaxy won back-to-back MLS Cups in 2011-12. In a league built for parity (it's had seven different champions in the last eight seasons), that's a big ask. In the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Union, New England Revolution, Orlando City and Toronto FC are foreseen as the biggest challengers to the Crew.  

Out West, the defending conference champion Seattle Sounders look to increase their league record for consecutive playoff seasons to 13. Despite a drop-off in performance in the 2020 season, Los Angeles FC is expected to contend with Seattle, with the Portland Timbers, Minnesota United and Sporting Kansas City also in the mix.

2. Austin FC, co-owned by Matthew McConaughey, debuts

Alright, alright, alright! Austin FC becomes the 27th MLS team as the league will get to 29 in the next couple years with Charlotte FC (2022) and St. Louis City SC (2023) slated to join. Austin also is one of three teams – the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati the others – opening new stadiums this season, increasing the number of stadiums built with the purpose for MLS clubs to 23. 

Actor and producer Matthew McConaughey is part of the ownership group for MLS expansion team Austin FC. (Photo: Eli Imadali, AP)

'NOT INTERESTED IN JUST BEING A MASCOT': Matthew McConaughey on role with Austin FC

With Austin on board, Matthew McConaughey becomes the latest celebrity co-owner in MLS, joining the likes of Will Ferrell, Mia Hamm and Magic Johnson (Los Angeles FC), Drew Carey, Ken Griffey Jr., Macklemore, Russell Wilson and Ciara (Seattle Sounders), Brooklyn Nets teammates Kevin Durant (Philadelphia Union) and James Harden (Houston Dynamo), and former soccer star/global icon David Beckham (Inter Miami CF). McConaughey also is Austin FC's "Minister of Culture," a hilarious title he also holds at the University of Texas. If he's as visible at Austin FC games as Ferrell is at LAFC games, fans are in for a treat.

3. MLS newcomers to watch in 2021

Austin FC brings two new designated players to the league in midfielder Tomás Pochettino and forward Cecilio Domínguez, with the pair being counted on to link up on the attacking end.

FC Cincinnati arguably made the biggest splash of the offseason, bringing in 21-year-old Brazilian forward Brenner on one of the highest transfer fees in MLS history (a reported $13 million). Brenner will be counted on to boost an attack that scored a depressing 12 goals in 23 games last season.

While Cincinnati acquired a young Brazilian goal-scorer, Orlando City signed a veteran Brazilian forward in hopes of continuing its ascent from also-ran to championship contender. With Alexandre Pato, who's played for Italian powerhouse AC Milan as well as the Brazilian national team, Orlando will look to build off its most successful season yet.

In Los Angeles, LAFC hopes South Korean international Kim Moon-hwan can solidify the team's right back spot, and the Galaxy brought in experienced defender Derrick Williams and goalkeeper Jonathan Bond from clubs in England to help sort out what had been a spare parts defense.

After missing the playoffs last season, Atlanta United brings a revamped roster under new coach Gabriel Heinze into 2021. Midfielder Santiago Sosa (21 years old) and defensive midfielder Franco Ibarra (19) move from the Argentine Primera División to MLS and are expected to play key roles for an Atlanta team aiming to regain its status among the league's elite teams. Atlanta United also welcomes back 2018 MVP and Golden Boot winner Josef Martinez, who missed all but one game last season with a knee injury.

Josef Martinez returns for a revamped Atlanta United. (Photo: Dale Zanine, USA TODAY Sports)

4. Up-and-coming USMNT prospects

Play the kids, as they say, and MLS has made a concerted effort to do so. 

Of course, it helps when MLS teams have been able to move homegrown players to Europe for robust transfer fees, with Bryan Reynolds from FC Dallas to AS Roma and Brenden Aaronson from the Philadelphia Union to Red Bull Salzburg among those to make the move over the winter. Both players are 20 years old or younger and figure to be U.S. national team fixtures for years to come. 

There's a promising list of national team prospects to follow in MLS who are 20 or younger and have yet to earn their first USMNT cap, among the notables being defender/midfielder James Sands (20 years old, NYCFC), forward Gianluca Busio (18, Sporting KC), midfielder Caden Clark (17, New York Red Bulls), midfielder Cole Bassett (19, Colorado Rapids), forward Ricardo Pepi (18, FC Dallas), midfielder Cade Cowell (17, San Jose Earthquakes), midfielder Kevin Paredes (17, DC United), midfielder Paxten Aaronson (17, Philadelphia Union), midfielder Aidan Morris (19, Columbus Crew),  and midfielder Efraín Álvarez (18, Los Angeles Galaxy), who has yet to decide if he'll play internationally for the U.S. or Mexico.

5. Concussion substitutions

MLS is participating in a FIFA pilot program that allows teams up to two additional substitutes for concussions or suspected concussions each game. These substitutions are in addition to the five substitutions that are already allowed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (typically, teams are allowed three subs per game). 

The English Premier League has allowed use of concussion substitutes since February, and FIFA is considering the rule for this year's Summer Olympics in Tokyo. 

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