(Reuters) - Major League Soccer, having struck a last-minute labor deal to avoid a players strike, can now focus on opening its loudly-heralded 20th season this weekend with plenty of new faces.
Expansion sides New York City FC and Orlando City SC kick off their MLS existences on Sunday when they go head-to-head in front of what is expected to be a sellout crowd of 62,000 at the Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium.
That game will feature former AC Milan and Real Madrid midfielder Kaka lining up for Orlando against New York’s David Villa, the former Barcelona and Spain forward.
The two players joined the league as “designated players,” a rule that was adopted when David Beckham joined the league in 2007 and allows for big-money deals outside of the salary cap.
No expansion team has ever won the MLS Cup in their first season and the favorites this year are once again the defending champion LA Galaxy who will be seeking a sixth title.
The Galaxy have lost their franchise player in all-time MLS leading scorer Landon Donovan, who retired last year, meaning they will rely even more on the goal-scoring prowess of Republic of Ireland striker Robbie Keane.
The 34-year-old former Tottenham striker has scored 53 goals in 84 appearances for L.A., winning three MLS Cup titles since joining the club in 2011, but much of the buzz around the Galaxy focuses on the arrival of former England captain Steven Gerrard.
Gerrard will not move to MLS until his Premier League season with Liverpool is over but his presence will give the league a mid-season boost especially coming in conjunction with his ex-England team-mate Frank Lampard’s switch to NYCFC in July.
The club under the most pressure this year is Toronto FC who, despite plenty of investment, have failed to make the playoffs in eight seasons in the league.
In a bid to finally end that barren run, Toronto spent big to bring in Italian forward Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus.
The Seattle Sounders, with American Clint Dempsey and Nigerian Obafemi Martins, are aiming to finally dislodge the Galaxy in the Western Conference.
In the East, the New England Revolution, runners-up in last year’s MLS Cup Final, will be expected to challenge again with former Schalke 04 midfielder Jermaine Jones as their leader.
Reporting by Simon Evans in Washington; Editing by Frank Pingue