2021 MLS schedule: The games you can't miss, when Austin will meet its rivals, matches worth staying up for

By now, you've undoubtedly pored over your club's 2021 schedule, circling days on the calendar for every rivalry matchup, and if you're really ambitious (and vaccinated), looking into flights and hotels for that special trip to watch your team in an away venue. It's an exciting time of year that doesn't leave much time for stopping to smell the roses elsewhere in Major League Soccer.

Don't fret, though. We've sniffed all the league's floral arrangements, bringing you the games you can't afford to miss, the matches worth staying up late for, when you should get your first taste of Austin FC, and what sort of travel the U.S.-based Canadian clubs will be in for.

Can't-miss games

April 17, 3:00 p.m. ET | Atlanta United FC vs. Orlando City SC: Josef Martinez played just 69 minutes in 2020 before a torn ACL ended his season, but he's raring to get back on the field in 2021, not least because Atlanta's season opener is against Orlando, the rival the 27-year-old has lived to torment (seven goals in six games against the Lions).

May 8, 8:00 p.m. ET | LA Galaxy vs. LAFC: We don't have to wait long for arguably the most entertaining rivalry in MLS, pitting Mexico internationals Carlos Vela and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez against one another. El Trafico always plays out like one of Tinsel Town's award-winning thrillers (previously starring box-office talents like Zlatan Ibrahimovic), and with Greg Vanney overseeing the rebirth of the Galaxy, there's no reason to expect that to change.

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July 7, 7:30 p.m. ET | FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew SC: Hell is Real, as Ohio's derby is known, and Cincinnati has been living it. While Columbus' Lucas Zelarayan & Co. were busy lifting MLS Cup last season, Frankie Amaya's FCC was propping up the league table. But after a busy offseason that included recruiting creative talents like Brenner and Luciano Acosta, and a brand-new soccer-specific stadium opening downtown in May, Cincy has reason to believe in its resurrection.

Sept. 25, 7:30 p.m. ET | New York City FC vs. New York Red Bulls: Caden Clark is 17 for another two whole months as of this writing, and by the time this match rolls around, he'll be three months away from a transfer to Bundesliga giants RB Leipzig. Catch him while you can. A Hudson River derby is as good of an opportunity as you'll get.

Oct. 31, time TBD | Minnesota United FC vs. Sporting Kansas City (stream live on ESPN): Halloween seems a perfect backdrop for the Nicest Rivalry in Sports (as the clubs refer to their friendly disdain for one another), a moniker that will be put to the test a mere week before Decision Day, with these two Western Conference powers sure to be jockeying for prime playoff places.

Matches worth staying up for

Many on the East Coast often struggle to stay awake for games that start at a reasonable hour in the Pacific Time Zone, be it kickoff, tipoff, first pitch or puck drop, and it's no different in MLS. In fact, the league's surfeit of contending clubs on the West Coast makes what social media has dubbed "MLS After Dark" appointment viewing. These are three nights worth pushing back your bedtime in order to watch MLS' offerings, even if it means a groggy morning to follow.

June 19, 10:30 p.m. ET | Portland Timbers vs. Sporting Kansas City, LA Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders FC: Circle this Saturday on Mom and Dad's calendar, make sure they know that it's the slumber party of the summer, because two games featuring four of the West's best teams kick off simultaneously. Drag a second TV into the living room for the ultimate second-screen experience.

July 28, 10:30 p.m. ET | LAFC vs. Minnesota United: These two teams have a lot to prove in 2021, for very different reasons. LAFC will need to demonstrate that a seventh-place finish in the West in 2020 (without captain and talisman Carlos Vela) was an aberration, and Minnesota - from coach Adrian Heath to the Wonderwall -- has long clamored for league-wide respect and will need to back up last year's fourth-place finish to prove it was no fluke.

Aug. 29, 10:30 p.m. ET | Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers (stream live on ESPN): While El Trafico is perhaps the most fun rivalry in MLS, Seattle-Portland remains far and away the league's best. One of these teams has represented the Western Conference in each of the past six MLS Cups, winning three of them. That, coupled, with a history going back 45 years, makes this matchup appointment viewing, even if the full-time whistle won't blow until after midnight on the East Coast.

Austin get first dibs of Precourt derby

Expansion side Austin FC will enjoy two in-state derbies and perhaps a burgeoning live-music-mecca rivalry with Nashville SC, but its June 27 home date with defending MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew SC will provide the groundwork for an intriguing grudge match.

After Anthony Precourt announced he was exploring the option of relocating the Columbus franchise to Austin in 2017, Crew fans began a seemingly longshot grassroots campaign to keep one of the league's original teams from leaving Ohio. The #SavetheCrew movement revitalized local interest in the club, which was eventually sold to a new group that included Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam. Under the deal, MLS awarded Precourt an expansion side in Austin, whose ownership group includes Matthew McConaughey.

Austin hosts the first edition of the Precourt derby, so Columbus fans will likely have to wait until next season to properly welcome the new kids on the block. Regardless, it still sets up to be an exciting matchup between two clubs that should have similar playing styles. Austin coach Josh Wolff was a longtime assistant of Gregg Berhalter at Columbus, and was considered for the job before Caleb Porter was hired in 2018.

Canadian sides face travel adversity

The three Canadian teams -- Toronto FC, CF Montreal and the Vancouver Whitecaps -- will begin their seasons playing in the United States amid ongoing travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. The teams also had to finish their 2020 seasons outside of Canada (going a combined 30W-7D-32L last season, buoyed by Toronto's quest for the Supporters' Shield), so time will tell whether another prolonged road trip will affect their performances.

Montreal will "host" Toronto for its season opener on April 17 at Inter Miami CF's stadium in Ft. Lauderdale. The Whitecaps, based in Utah, open the season against Cascadia rivals Portland Timbers on April 18. Toronto will play what is considered its home opener against Vancouver on April 24 in Orlando.

Toronto and Montreal are playing under new coaches, adding another hurdle to the beginning of their seasons. Chris Armas inherits an aging but still talented Toronto team, while Wilfried Nancy takes over for Thierry Henry at Montreal, with the former Arsenal legend citing the ongoing travel difficulties as one of the reasons he stepped down after one season on the job.

The teams are making arrangements for players' families to join them in the U.S., but it remains unknown how long they'll have to wait before their matches are held in Canada again. As U.S.-based sides slowly open up their stadiums to a limited amount of fans, the Canadian squads' inability to even head home anytime soon serves as a stark reminder of the ongoing challenges brought forth by the pandemic.