The 2021 MLS season is now in the books. The good news is that, well, it's in the books, something that was by no means a sure thing when the campaign began its delayed start in mid-April.
Now that it's all over, ESPN's Jeff Carlisle looks back on the 26th season in the league's history.
NYCFC's run to (and celebration of) MLS Cup
New York City FC wasn't anywhere near the top of the favorites heading into the season. A playoff team? Sure, but the Blues seemed well behind the likes of New England, Philadelphia and the reigning champs the Columbus Crew.
The Cityzens weren't all that stellar during the regular season, and at one point looked like they might not make it to the postseason, but NYCFC conjured up a five-game unbeaten streak to end the regular season and then ran through the best of the Eastern Conference to meet the Portland Timbers in MLS Cup. Despite the gut punch of conceding an equalizer in the last minute of stoppage time, NYCFC was able to push through and prevail on penalties, leading manager Ronny Deila to keep his promise from two years ago and strip to his skivvies in celebration.
The fact that the New England Revolution fell to New York City in the postseason after setting a record for most points in the regular season will sting, but the Supporters' Shield-winning Revs still impressed, especially with the attacking verve shown by Tajon Buchanan, Adam Buksa, Gustavo Bou and MVP Carles Gil. Even with Buchanan heading to Belgian side Club Brugge, the expectation is that Bruce Arena's team will be back contending next year.
Wondo bows out in style
San Jose Earthquakes fans knew this day was coming, but it still brought a tear to an already-damp eye when Chris Wondolowski hung up his boots for good at the end of the season. In his final MLS game against FC Dallas, he capped off his career with a typical Wondo goal: all clever movement and an authoritative, one-touch finish. He ends his playing days with the all-time MLS record of 171 regular-season goals, along with 42 assists.
The COVID-19 conundrum
Given the state of the pandemic, COVID-19 deserves a category all its own, and it was a decidedly mixed bag.
There wasn't a single game -- playoff or otherwise -- that was postponed or canceled due to cases of the coronavirus. That is a credit to the league's push to get players vaccinated (97% of players got the jab) as well as the continued protocols. The fact that MLS Cup was played in front of a capacity crowd at Portland's Providence Park was a sign that MLS has navigated its way through the pandemic pretty well.
But an argument can be made that the league benefited from good timing as much as anything. As of this writing, cases and postponements are breaking out in other North American sports as well as in soccer leagues overseas. And in the end, MLS did get bit, as the Philadelphia Union were forced to play the Eastern Conference final against NYCFC with 11 players sidelined due to the dreaded "health and safety" protocols. It definitely cast a pall over the postseason.
One can only hope that the pandemic has abated significantly before the 2022 season opens on Feb. 26.
Yes, in the end, a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was agreed to and -- most important of all -- ratified, but getting there took some doing. The CBA was renegotiated three times in less than a year. The players gave up an estimated $200 million to $260 million in pay increases and benefits. Among the gains for the owners was extending the agreement through the end of the 2027 season.
It would appear that there will be labor peace until then, but one little-known milestone was passed on Dec. 1: The force majeure clause, which was used to bring the MLSPA back to the bargaining table earlier this year and was shelved for the duration of the 2021 season, can be invoked again if complications from COVID-19 become more of a regular occurrence.
Rumors about how MLS teams play fast and loose with the salary budget rules have been around for about as long as the league's 26-year existence, and finally, a team got caught. Inter Miami was busted for essentially having five Designated Players on its roster, two more than league rules allowed, with midfielder Blaise Matuidi and former defender Andres Reyes miscategorized. Miami was also found to have underreported the salaries of three players.
The penalties were stiff, with a $2.271m reduction in salary budget space applied over two years, which amounts to about 11.9% of the team's available salary budget. It could be a tough two years for the Herons as sporting director Chris Henderson -- who inherited this mess -- tries to maneuver around the penalties.
Player bets on MLS games
Sports betting is becoming a more ubiquitous presence in the North American sports landscape, and has been legalized in 31 states. But one of the downsides of sports betting was revealed in October when it was announced that Sporting Kansas City midfielder Felipe Hernandez was found to have bet on MLS games, although none included his team.
The league is increasing its presence in the sports betting space, and has a partnership with MGM Resorts. An independent investigation found that there was no evidence that Hernandez had "confidential or otherwise non-public information concerning those two MLS matches," but it still drives home the challenge the league faces in terms of entering the sports betting landscape and maintaining the integrity of its games.
The Colorado Rapids were one of the better stories of the season, as Robin Fraser's unheralded side claimed the top spot in the Western Conference. Honor is due as well to GM Padraig Smith for putting together a roster long on domestic players.
NYCFC's Valentin Castellenos was an unlikely Golden Boot winner. Early in the year he seemed more adept at squandering opportunities than converting them, but he got hot down the stretch, scoring 19 regular season goals (the same as D.C. United's Ola Kamara but had three more assists) and tallied in each of his three playoff appearances.
LAFC was plagued by inconsistency, and allowed manager Bob Bradley to leave at the end of the season. Toronto never got going under new manager Chris Armas, who was fired midway through the campaign, with Bradley taking his place after the season's end. Injuries hampered the Crew's title defense, although the failure to reach the playoffs highlighted an oddity of manager Caleb Porter's career in that the two-time MLS Cup winner has never reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons.