1.) What’s new for the league’s 19th season?In terms of the big-picture framework: not much. This is MLS’ third season as a 19-team league, and the familiar format remains. There once again will be a 34-game regular season with the top five teams in each conference qualifying for the playoffs, which will unfold in the now-familiar way (although with some changes in the tie-breaker rules).
In the Western Conference, each club once again will play their eight in-conference opponents three times and all of the Eastern clubs once.
For the Sounders, this is a repeat of two seasons ago when they will play Cascadia rivals Portland and Vancouver once at home and twice away.
The major twist on this season is a break in the schedule from June 12-24 to accommodate group play in the FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
The MLS All-Star Game will come to the Northwest on Aug. 6 when Bayern Munich meets the MLS stars at Portland’s newly renamed Providence Park.
2.) What will be different on the pitch?One change could be major and negative: There is a still-unresolved labor dispute with the league’s referees, who were prepared to strike before being locked out Friday. Commissioner Don Garber said the league will begin its season will go forward with or without the regular refs.
More positively, 2014 will mark the first time that every MLS team opens its season with at least one designated player. The off-season infusion of talent was topped by U.S. national team member Michael Bradley, who highlighted Toronto FC’s major off-season rebuilding.
The coaching carousel also spun furiously as Jason Kreis moved from Real Salt Lake to the New York City FC, which enters the league next season; Osaca Pareja left Colorado for Dallas; Frank Klopas moved from Chicago to Montreal; and Frank Yallop, formerly of San Jose, landed in Chicago.
3.) Which coach is on the hottest hot seat?That would be Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, at least according to consensus of media covering MLS. After the ugly nosedive that ended last season, Sounders ownership paused to at least consider a coaching change before quickly deciding against it. But many MLS watchers think the owners could reach a different conclusion if the Sounders once again disappoint despite a roster that ranks among the best and most expensive in the league with likes of Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Osvaldo Alonso, Marco Pappa, Kenny Cooper, Chad Marshall, Brad Evans and DeAndre Yedlin.
4.) What’s new with Seattle’s Cascadia rivals?Portland clearly wasn’t content to look back fondly on its Western Conference championship of 2013. The Timbers have continued to add pieces and go into 2014 on anyone’s list of MLS Cup contenders. They signed Noberto Paparatto to improve their central defense -- especially against set pieces -- and added Gaston Fernandez and original Sounder Steve Zakuani to help the already potent offense.
To the north, Vancouver had a difficult off-season with yet another coaching change – Carl Robinson takes over the top job, stepping up from first assistant – and the loss of MLS Golden Boot winner Camilo Sanvezzo and his 22 goals and six assists. The additions of right back Steven Beitashour and the DP signing this week of Chilean attacking midfielder Pedro Morales should help. But the defending Cascadia Cup champions open the season seeming extremely unlikely to repeat.
5.) What looms on the MLS horizon?The relative status quo of this season seems about to give way to major changes. New York City FC and Orlando will begin play in 2015, and scheduling and playoff format changes could arrive with them.
Garber indicated the league will grow to 24 teams by 2020 with Miami and Atlanta seeming the best bets among a list of potential expansion cities also including Minneapolis, St. Louis, Sacramento, San Diego and the Texas twosome of San Antonio and Austin.
This also is the final season of the current television contracts and the final season of the collective bargaining agreement with the MLS players union. Negotiations will be going on this season, and the results of each will be far-reaching.
Chivas USA is expected to be rebranded and operating under new ownership by 2015, likely with plans in place to leave the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., although they will not leave the Los Angeles market.