A new Major League Soccer season will kick off on Saturday with
24 teams for Year 24.
That's the most number of teams in league history. But in addition to a new team in Cincinnati, there's a lot of new things around the league.
Here's a look at what's new in MLS in 2019 ...
1. Stars in their prime. The offseason saw the departure of Miguel Almiron from champion Atlanta United and David Villa from New York City FC, but both teams have brought in high-priced replacements.
Gonzalo "Pity" Martinez, who cost Atlanta United a reported $17 million, is the biggest in-his-prime signing in MLS history, replacing Almiron after leading River Plate to the 2018 Copa Libertadores title and winning El Rey de America as the best player playing in the Americas. Martinez, 25, doesn't have Almiron's open-field game but he will make Atlanta United every bit as exciting -- and the favorite to repeat.
Romanian Alexandru Mitrita has been compared to another departed MLS star, Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco, so he isn't a like-for-like replacement for Villa, a pure goalscorer. Mitrita, 24, showed glimpses in preseason that he will be worth the reported transfer fee of $8.5 million NYCFC paid.
2. Coaches. Six teams have new coaches in 2019. All five coaches with previous pro experience have won league titles:
-- Atlanta United's Frank de Boer (Eredivisie four times with Ajax);
-- The LA Galaxy's Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Copa Sudamericana with Lanus and Argentina's Primera Division twice with Boca Juniors);
-- The San Jose Earthquakes' Matias Almeyda (Argentina's Primera B Nacional with River Plate and Banfield and Liga MX and Concacaf Champions League, among others, with Guadalajara);
-- The Columbus Crew's Caleb Porter (MLS Cup with Portland); and
-- The Vancouver Whitecaps' Marc Dos Santos (Montreal Impact in the USL and San Francisco Deltas in the NASL).
The one rookie head coach is Luchi Gonzalez, whom FC Dallas promoted from his position in its academy program.
3. Redline. Before we get much farther, it should be noted that the red line has been moved -- the top seven teams in each conference will make the playoffs in 2019. That's one additional team in each conference.
Every four years, going back to 2011, MLS has now added two playoff teams: from eight to 10 in 2011, from 10 to 12 in 2015 and now 12 to 14 in 2019.
4. Focus on youth. The sales of Alphonso Davies and Chris Richards to Bayern Munich, Tyler Adams to RB Leipzig and Almiron to Newcastle United have opened the eyes of MLS owners to the money that can be made on player transfers. And the early success of Adams and Almiron at their new clubs will give legitimacy to the MLS brand.
Who's next to go? No young player is immediately ready to step in and start at an ambitious big-five European team like Adams and Almiron, both game-changers at their clubs, but the MLS assembly line should include the likes of Luciano Acosta (D.C. United), Kaku (New York Red Bulls), Ezequiel Barco (Atlanta United) and Diego Rossi (LAFC), all South Americans.
If Paxton Pomykal (D.C. United), Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia), Chris Durkin (D.C. United) or Frankie Amaya (FC Cincinnati) get a chance to play for the USA at the Under-20 World Cup, their MLS careers could be short.
5. Owners. A year ago, it was uncertain if the Columbus Crew would still be around in 2019. Its future was up in the air following declarations by owner Anthony Precourt that he was exploring a move to Austin. Well, Precourt has moved on, but the Crew is back -- with new owners and new enthusiasm.
Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam purchased the Crew's investor-operator rights along with former team owner Pete Edwards and Dee Haslam and Edwards have been very visible in the Columbus community, creating renewed fan and corporate support.
6. Expansion team. FC Cincinnati joins MLS as its 24th team. The bar has been set high by big-spending expansion teams like Atlanta United (MLS champion in its second season) and LAFC (most points by a team in its expansion year).
Better examples to measure FC Cincinnati expectations will be Orlando City and Minnesota United, which came up from the USL and NASL, respectively, and have yet to make the MLS playoffs.
Off the field, FC Cincinnati will be a hit -- which is why it jumped to the head of the pack in the expansion race. It has already sold 20,000 season-tickets, joining Seattle and Atlanta United as the third expansion team to hit that mark.
7. Play-by-play announcer. English commentator John Champion will be the new voice of ESPN's MLS coverage, doing play-by-play alongside lead analyst Taylor Twellman in the booth, beginning Sunday night with D.C. United-Atlanta United.
Champion was a full-time ESPN commentator when ESPN UK covered the English Premier League, the Europa League and the FA Cup final (2009-2013). He's relocated to the United States with his family.
8. Stadium. Minnesota United owner Dr. Bill McGuire calls Allianz Field “beautiful and unique, environmentally sensitive, intimate and fan-oriented, and true to the sport of soccer and those who love the game. It is arguably the finest soccer stadium in North America.”
And he should have added it's ready for the April 13 opener against NYCFC. The $250 million stadium, located in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, will seat 19,400 fans. It will be the 17th soccer-specific stadium an MLS team has built from scratch.
9. Stadium addition. Providence Park isn't new -- it was first built by the Multnomah Athletic Club in 1926 and used for college football, cricket and greyhound racing -- but it will get a new addition.
The Timbers, who have sold out every MLS home game they've played since joining the league in 2011, are in the final stages of adding a new section to the east side of the stadium with about 4,000 additional seats bringing the capacity up to around 25,000.
The down side: the Timbers will have to start the 2019 season with an MLS-record 12-straight games on the road before opening at home against LAFC on June 1.
10. Playoff format. MLS will introduce the biggest change in its postseason since 2003 when it introduced two-game aggregate series. (Before that, it played best-of-three games and then most points in a maximum of three-game series)
The 2019 playoffs will feature ...
-- A single-elimination format throughout the postseason (no more two-leg series);
-- An expansion of the field from the top six to top seven teams in each conference;
-- Only the top seeds in each conference will get a first-round bye; and
-- A four-week postseason between the October and November FIFA windows.
MLS will be done by Thanksgiving for the first time since 2011. How finishing a month early will impact the start of 2020 and beyond is not yet known.
Photos: MLS, LAFC. Rendering: Portland Timbers FC.