Rooney's reinvention, Almada's future and Messi-watch: Get ready for the craziest MLS season ever!

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A new TV deal, a new club and a new play-off system - this year's competition will be something special...

The 2023 MLS season is upon us and, as those that follow the league know, that means the chaos is set to begin.

The 2022 campaign ended in historic fashion, with Gareth Bale's already legendary header helping lift LAFC to their first MLS Cup.

It'll be hard to top that ending but 2023 will try, with fans blessed with plenty of intriguing storylines to follow.

From big names to up-and-comers, there are numerous players to keep an eye on, but there are also some massive overarching narratives that will be felt league-wide.

New competitions, a new TV deal and a new club take centerstage for a season that should be unlike any other...

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  1. Messi-watch continues

    Messi-watch continues

    We'll get this one out of the way: yes, the watch is, in fact, continuing.

    The rumors have gone on all offseason and, as the 2023 campaign gets set to begin, we're still not entirely sure where Lionel Messi will end up next season. Will he stay with Paris Saint-Germain? Complete his dream return to Barca? Head back to Argentina or join Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia? Or will he join Inter Miami to further his legacy in MLS?

    Messi's shadow will loom large over just about everything until he makes his decision, and Miami will certainly be prepared to wait for him should he decide to come over. The club has more flexibility financially than in years past, giving them a legitimate chance to add the Argentine star.

    Will it happen? Who knows. But if it does, it's a league-changer, for sure.

  2. Bale-less LAFC look to repeat

    Bale-less LAFC look to repeat

    After several years of coming oh so close, LAFC finally got over the line last season, with Bale playing the hero in one of the best MLS Cup finals of all time.

    But this year is a whole new challenge.

    Bale is gone, which will probably be just fine considering his limited role last season. But the losses of Chicho Arango and Latif Blessing will be felt a bit more.

    That said, LAFC still have plenty in their team to push for a repeat. Denis Bouanga, another 2022 summer signing, will expect to take a leap forward, while the club also added U.S. men's national team star Aaron Long to bolster the defense. And then there's Carlos Vela, a player that needs no introduction in MLS.

    Steve Cherundolo has work to do, sure, as LAFC will look to navigate a stacked Western Conference, but LAFC is a club that always has an ace up its sleeve, so keep an eye on them as the season continues.

  3. Can LA Galaxy overcome fan revolt?

    Can LA Galaxy overcome fan revolt?

    Across town from LAFC, the vibes are... not good.

    The LA Galaxy's fan groups are set to protest their club to start the season because of the Galaxy's continued employment of president Chris Klein and technical director Johan Korivski.

    Under the duo, the Galaxy have fallen back to the pack since last winning MLS Cup in 2014 and, to make matters worse, the club has been penalized for breaking roster rules in 2019, leaving them unable to sign international players during the summer window in addition to financial penalties.

    Despite all of that, though, the Galaxy have reason for optimism on the field. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez is as consistent as it gets, while Barcelona product Riqui Puig has all the makings of a star.

    The question is how many fans will be there to see it, at least at the start...

  4. Young players to watch
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    Young players to watch

    For some, the most interesting aspect of MLS is figuring out which player will be next to leave.

    Several stars were sold to Europe in recent months, with Jhon Duran, Gaga Slonina, Djordje Mihailovic, Ismaila Kone, Paxten Aaronson and Julian Araujo among those moving to big teams abroad. As always, though, the question is, who's next?

    Thiago Almada is the prime candidate, considering he just won the World Cup with Argentina.

    Fellow World Cup veteran Jesus Ferreira is in the mix too, though, after featuring for the USMNT, while Cade Cowell and John Tolkin could be next in line for a breakthrough.

    International starlets like Talles Magno and Facundo Torres clearly view MLS as a stepping stone, but don't overlook the Philadelphia Union's conveyor belt of talent, as Jack McGlynn or Quinn Sullivan could follow Aaronson out the door at some point.

  5. Rooney's reinvention of D.C. United
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    Rooney's reinvention of D.C. United

    Wayne Rooney took over at D.C. United midway through the 2022 season, and it did not go well. Just two wins in 14 games, to be specific. D.C. United were really, really bad.

    The hope is that this season is different as Rooney puts his stamp on a team that is becoming his. Is it enough to pull D.C. out of the basement, though?

    The club has Christian Benteke, the former Premier League regular, as well as Mateusz Klich, who joined from Leeds. They've brought in several MLS veterans as well to fill out a squad that needs a big overhaul.

    Rooney has a massive job ahead of him to lift D.C. into relevancy. He's won on a limited budget before with Derby County, and this test will require just as much managerial magic.

  6. Apple TV's debut
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    Apple TV's debut

    The landscape of the league has changed with this new Apple TV deal.

    All MLS games will now be in one place, giving fans a central location to consume any and all content regarding the league. MLS was given a whole bunch of money, Apple have a new league sports property, fans get better coverage of MLS. Everyone seemingly wins.

    Still, there are some questions about this whole thing, including how it impacts the casual fan. The league's diehards will love this, but how will the new deal connect with newcomers?

    It'll be interesting to see how MLS and Apple work this all out with a clean slate and an unprecedented project.

  7. Incoming stars?

    Incoming stars?

    There are a whole bunch of new players coming to MLS, although none of them are quite at the superstar level of, say, a Messi or a Bale. But this is the evolution of MLS, a league that has been doing much more than signing familiar faces for quite some time.

    From South American talent like Charlotte FC's Enzo Copetti or the Portland Timbers' Evander to European internationals like the New York Red Bulls' Dante Vanzir or Atlanta's Giorgos Giakoumakis, there are certainly a few potential new stars scattered throughout the league. The four mentioned above, in particular, are seen by many as potential key contributors that could be legitimate centerpieces for their respective teams.

    None have crazy recognition or Champions League trophies to their name, but that's just fine for teams looking to add key contributors after the World Cup. Maybe we see some colossal moves in the summer, but even if we don't, there are a few key players to keep an eye on.

  8. Welcome to MLS, St. Louis SC!
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    Welcome to MLS, St. Louis SC!

    MLS' latest club is here: St. Louis SC.

    The league's 29th team will open play in Austin to start the season as they begin life in MLS. Their arrival comes with plenty of local history, with St. Louis being known as one of the hotbeds of soccer despite not having an MLS side until this season.

    They've signed ex-Borussia Dortmund starter Roman Burki and named him captain, while also adding DPs Klauss and Eduardo Lowen from Europe. On paper, they don't seem like they'll instantly be among the contenders, but stranger things have happened.

    Meanwhile, keep an eye out on team No.30, which could be announced some time this year.

  9. Leages Cup takes centerstage
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    Leages Cup takes centerstage

    There really isn't anything in the world like the Leagues Cup.

    All 29 MLS teams will join all 18 Liga MX sides for a month-long in-season tournament in July with both leagues pausing their domestic leagues to compete. It begins with a group stage that turns into a knockout competition, with champions LAFC and Pachuca getting byes to the knockout rounds.

    For fans of North American soccer, it's a dream, the closest thing we'll see to a combined MLS and Liga MX. It provides both leagues with big games and increased competition, allowing the opportunity for some really fun rivalries to develop.

    It should be an incredible spectacle for all involved.

  10. Union run it back
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    Union run it back

    If you're looking for a favorite, it's probably the Union.

    They were minutes away from winning an MLS Cup and they return with basically the same young squad for another crack at the title. Indeed, their entire starting XI from last year remains intact and their Homegrown starlets are expected to take a step forward, even with Aaronson now in Europe.

    There may be reason to worry about Jim Curtin, who seems very open to a job with the USMNT but if he stays, there's no doubt he's among the best coaches in MLS. And with Andre Blake, the best goalkeeper in MLS, you always have a very good chance of winning games.

    Is this the year the Union pull it off? They certainly have the potential to do so.

  11. New playoff system

    New playoff system

    Whether you love it or hate it, it's here. And, to be fair, it looks like it'll be pretty darn interesting.

    The league unveiled a new playoff format just ahead of the regular season, featuring a Wild Card round into a best-of-three first round. After that, a winner-take-all knockout round begins from the quarterfinal on, but the fact is that there will be more playoff teams and more playoff games.

    It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out. How will teams approach the best-of-three matches? Will higher-seeded teams really have an advantage? How will clubs handle the prospect of playing more playoff games in addition to the regular season, Leagues Cup, U.S. Open Cup and friendlies?

    We'll find out in the fall. There's a lot of soccer to be played before that, though, so, for now, just brace yourself for what could be the craziest MLS season ever!