The 25th season of Major League Soccer is set to kick off on Saturday. With 26 teams competing in two conferences, the league has come a long way from its early days and is now a stable entity financially with four more teams slated to enter the league by 2022. There are two new expansion teams this year, Inter Miami and Nashville SC that will try to make their mark early in what is seen as an increasingly parity-driven league. What can we expect from both expansion teams in their maiden season?
Inter Miami- The concept of the team began 13 years ago when English superstar David Beckham agreed to play for the LA Galaxy. In his contract was the right for Beckham to purchase an MLS franchise after his retirement from football for a fee of $25 million. This amount pales in comparison to what the league charges today, with the current franchise fee at $200 million. After a slow start in the Miami bureaucratic approval process and a change of several principal parties, the current ownership group led by Beckham and new local investor Jorge Mas were able to finalize an agreement with Miami (although they will open their MLS campaign in a re-designed Lockhart Stadium in nearby Fort Lauderdale).
After an exhaustive search, Miami hired Uruguayan Diego Alonso as their head coach, who played professionally in Spain and Argentina and has managed several top-flight clubs in Mexico. As for the roster, while Beckham has publicly stated that he wouldn’t mind having Ronaldo or Messi as part of the starting eleven, the current squad is a bit more pedestrian. Made up mainly of MLS veterans, the team is captained by goalkeeper and former Red Bulls man Luis Robles. He will be protected at the fullback spot by fellow MLSers Ben Sweat, Alvas Powell, Roman Torres and A.J. DeLaGarza, with 19-year-old Venezuelan Christian Makoun available to fill in at either center fullback or as a defensive midfielder. The midfield is comprised of league veterans, with Lee Nguyan and Wil Trapp playing alongside designated player (and Liga MX star) Rodolfo Pizarro. Up front, look for Miami to showcase their Argentinian left wing Matias Pellegrini, who at age 19 has already played on the senior roster of Juventus in Italy. Along with fellow countryman Julian Carranza and former Revolution veteran Juan Agudelo, these are the main guys coach Alonso will be depending on for offensive firepower.
Nashville SC- Having fielded lower division soccer teams as far back as 1982 (American Soccer League), Nashville feels it is ready to step up to the top-flight in the United States. The team is owned by businessman John Ingram and the Wilf family (current owners of the NFL Minnesota Vikings), who paid MLS a franchise fee of $150 million for the rights to Nashville SC. Currently playing in temporary quarters at Nissan Stadium (home of the NFL Tennessee Titans), it is expected that their under construction $275 million soccer-specific stadium located at the Nashville Fairgrounds will be completed in time for the 2022 season.
Nashville is managed by Englishman Gary Smith, who has overseen clubs in England as well as the MLS Colorado Rapids. Having spent his last two years as manager of the club as part of the lower division USL, he has a perspective of the Nashville fan base and their expectations. Aside from designated player midfielder Hany Mukhtar of Germany, the team is made up of MLS veterans. Their starting goalkeeper is expected to be 31-year- old Joe Willis, having spent a number of years with the Houston Dynamo and DC United organizations. Helping him defend the goal is former LAFC defender and US international Walker Zimmerman, his former teammate Dave Romney, along with MLS veterans Jalil Anibaba and Daniel Lovitz. The midfield will be anchored by Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy, who have a combined 20 years of MLS experience. Along with designated player and playmaker Hany Muktiar and former Minnesota United man Eric Miller, Nashville believes they have a solid midfield. Their strikers consist of Dominique Badji, David Accam and Abu Danladi, all MLS veterans. While lacking any big-name signings, Smith is more interested in a team-centric approach, which is how he has managed his squads in the past.
Excitement is running rampant in both cities, but with Miami’s opener against LAFC and Nashville’s debut match against Atlanta, the reality of competing as an expansion team should temper expectations. While both teams are well-funded and are expected to gradually improve, look for Miami and Nashville to finish near the bottom of their respective tables at the end of their first season and at least one of the two head coaches sacked as well. While every expansion team wants to start their inaugural season like Atlanta FC, the Five Stripes should be seen as an outlier with the savvier teams having a three to five-year plan for improvement and success