With the change of the calendar from February to March, the beginning of the Major League Baseball season is coming, but also for another of our professional sports leagues: Major League Soccer. The MLS is gaining in popularity steadily over recent years, and could get a boost from the excitement of the World Cup last summer. The season gets underway on Friday, so let’s take a look at five things to watch heading into this year’s season.

Will ratings improve? We alluded to the excitement of the World Cup last summer and what that could mean for soccer ratings for the domestic league moving forward, and apparently major TV networks are betting on the same kind of rise in viewership. This year the TV rights for MLS games will be split between ESPN and Fox Sports who reportedly paid a combined $75 million per season for the next 8 seasons while Univision will kick in $15 million per year. That’s an increase of $18 million in revenue from the previous contract. Although, the networks will need to see results from the ratings side to continue to make that investment.

New franchises. For the first time since 2012, the league will expand by adding Orlando City FC and New York City FC to the league.  Adding a second team to the New York market allows a split to develop like Yankees-Mets, or Jets-Giants in other sports between the new NYCFC team and the New York Red Bulls. What these two new franchises can bring to the table attendance wise and notoriety wise will be a storyline to watch.

Credit: GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images

Influx of International Stars. The trend of big international names coming to the MLS continued this offseason with the likes of Stephen Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Kaka, and Sebastian Giovinco all coming to various franchises. We’ve seen other players like Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, among others come over to play in the MLS in the past and this trend continues, we’ll see whether these big names draw more fans to the stadiums. 

Return of USMNT stars. A huge boon for the league in the wake of its most recognizable star (Landon Donovan) retiring is the fact that multiple members of the USMNT will return to play in the league this season.  There’s been a lot of debate over the years about whether U.S. stars should stay home to grow their own domestic league or if they should go and play in more challenging leagues in Europe. These young stars coming back home along with the international stars named above could continue to raise the quality of play in the league.

The status of the CBA. Like our other professional leagues, collective bargaining agreement talks often stall between the two sides and come down to the eleventh hour. The MLS is no different as it is currently operating without one after the previous CBA ended on January 31st. The main bone of contention between the players association and the league? The minimum salary for players, which currently sits far lower than any of our other leagues. Can the two sides get this resolved before it affects the season? We shall see.

A new season is upon us and soccer fans everywhere can get excited about the league beginning anew.

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