For a change, there is no buzz about Major League Soccer’s latest expansion into a soccer-crazy market or about which aging European star is bringing his game to America. And for the first time in six years, there’s no talk about David Beckham.
On the surface, the 2013 MLS season that begins this weekend might seem ho-hum because of its stability.
But this year begins a new chapter, focused on developing the quality of play and continuing to raise the profile of a league that officials hope will become among the planet’s elite within 10 years.
‘‘There is no reason that in time Major League Soccer can’t be competitive with the world’s best,’’ MLS commissioner Don Garber said. ‘‘It’s going to take a lot of hard work and continued investment.’’
The season begins Saturday with Philadelphia hosting Kansas City, the first of six games. The Revolution open March 9 in Chicago, while Seattle, Los Angeles, and Houston have byes in Week 2 while participating in the CONCACAF Champions League.
For the first time since 2005, expansion is not a story line. The league is standing firm at 19 teams, but MLS wants its 20th team to be based in New York, although there is an increased effort in Orlando that could eventually lead to the league filling a geographic hole in the Southeast.
There are other leagues taking notice of the improved quality in the league. Geoff Cameron left MLS for England’s Premier League in August, followed by Brek Shea and Roger Espinoza during the January transfer window, and Kei Kamara is on loan to Norwich until early May.
While the depth of players is arguably at its peak, there are no obvious favorites entering the 2013 season.
Los Angeles starts the year seeking to become the first team to win three straight MLS Cup titles, but its roster will have a different look than the one that hoisted the title last December. Beckham is now at Paris Saint-Germain and it’s unclear how long before midfielder Landon Donovan will be ready to actually contribute. Donovan is expected to join the Galaxy at the end of March following a personal sabbatical away from the game, but two months of the season could be lost before he finally plays.
The Galaxy headline a loaded Western Conference.
Seattle will enter the season with a roster still in flux thanks to the late acquisition of former All-Star Shalrie Joseph. Eddie Johnson reignited his career a season ago with 14 goals for Seattle and it may possess the most talented depth of midfielders in the league, but forward Fredy Montero is on loan in Colombia and defender Jeff Parke is now in Philadelphia.
The team getting little talk before the season begins was the best one a year ago. San Jose rolled to the Supporters Shield (19-6-9), thanks largely to the MVP season of Chris Wondolowski, who finished with 27 goals in the regular season, and returns most of its lineup. Portland should be improved under new coach Caleb Porter, while Real Salt Lake was forced by salary-cap constraints to make offseason changes. Dallas already took a hit before play begins as midfielder Peter Luccin underwent surgery for a torn left knee ligament Thursday and will be out at least six months.
In the Eastern Conference, Kansas City was hit hardest by player movement, losing both Espinoza and Kamara to Premier League clubs for now. But KC also has one of the league’s best defenses and the majority of its roster back. Columbus could be on the rise again, thanks to striker Federico Higuain, while Houston is a two-time MLS Cup finalist that was undefeated in its new stadium last season. The Dynamo will have forward Brian Ching, an original member of the franchise and its career leader in goals (69), serve as a player and assistant coach under a new contract announced Friday.
DC United might have the most potent offensive attack in the East, led by Dwayne De Rosario. But the 2011 MVP will miss the first two games after being suspended by the league for violent conduct, a head-butt foul on Union midfielder Danny Cruz, in a preseason game.
New York underwent a significant offseason transition. Hans Backe is gone as coach, replaced by Mike Petke. Thierry Henry returns for his third full season while Kenny Cooper and Rafa Marquez are gone.
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The Revolution signed 2013 supplemental draft pick Gabe Latigue, a midfielder out of Elon University. Latigue, 22, was selected in the fourth round, 61st overall.