Major League Soccer’s 20th season also could be its biggest in a variety of ways.
When the reigning champion Los Angeles Galaxy kicks off against the Chicago Fire at 7 p.m. Friday, it will begin an MLS season with the most teams, a record broadcasting contract, and every indication of building on the record in-stadium attendance of a season ago.
Here are some of the things to look for between the first kick on Friday and the final whistle at MLS Cup in December:• 20-team league: MLS welcomes two expansion teams — New York City FC and Orlando City SC. Both have soccer-specific stadiums on the horizon, but NYCFC will play its inaugural season at Yankee Stadium, and Orlando at the Citrus Bowl. In a nice touch, MLS has scheduled the newcomers to debut against each other at 2 p.m. Sunday, and Florida fans have responded with more than 60,000 tickets purchased.
Meanwhile, the plug has been pulled from the failed experiment that was Chivas USA. A new club is scheduled to join the Los Angeles market in 2017 along with expansion Atlanta.• Conference realignment: With both newcomers in the Eastern Time Zone, MLS realigned to establish a numerical balance of 10 teams in each conference. New York and Orlando will be Eastern Conference clubs, while former Eastern members Kansas City and Houston will slide into the West.
The shifting seemed to make the traditionally stronger West only deeper and more dominant, while the swap of two established teams for two expansion teams would seem to make the East only weaker. However, New York and Orlando have each shown a kind of ambition that indicates they could be more than typical pay-your-dues-for-a-while newcomers.
The increase in teams also led the league to increase its playoff qualifiers. Now the top six teams in each conference — meaning 12 of the 20 MLS teams — advance into the postseason.• Television contract: The new season also marks the start of a lucrative broadcasting contract with ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision. All three networks will feature an exclusive Match of the Week broadcast slot that the league hopes will build viewer habit and loyalty.
Included in the deal are national games on Fridays and Saturday, plus a 2 p.m.-4 p.m. two-network doubleheader each Sunday on ESPN and Fox.
The contract runs for eight seasons, with ESPN and Fox alternating coverage of MLS Cup.
Locally, the Sounders signed a new deal for its non-national games to be shown locally on Channel 13 and JOEtv, and regionally on Root.• Other changes: The San Jose Earthquakes will move into its new 18,000-seat, soccer-specific Avaya Stadium; the Columbus Crew has changed its crest and rebranded into Columbus Crew SC; and most of the teams in the league have reworked their primary and/or secondary uniforms.
• Top contenders: For all the changes of the coming MLS season, the league’s general balance of power seems familiar. The Galaxy is Las Vegas’ betting favorite to defend its MLS Cup, followed by the Sounders. 2014 MLS Cup runner-up New England is the favorite in the East. Real Salt Lake is expected to extend its league-high playoff-qualification run to an eighth season.