From the highs of NYCFC title triumph to the lows of Miami’s Matuidi-gate

The 2021 MLS season is now on the books. The good news is, well, it’s on 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 league history.


NYCFC Race to (and Celebration of) the MLS Cup

New York City FC were not far from the top of the favorites heading into the season. A team in the playoffs? Sure, but the Blues seemed well behind New England, Philadelphia and defending champions the Columbus Crew.

The Cityzens weren’t that stellar during the regular season, and at one point looked like they wouldn’t make it to the playoffs, but NYCFC referred to a five-game unbeaten streak to end the regular season and then went on to crossed the best of the Eastern Conference to meet the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup. Despite the blow of conceding an equalizer in the last minute of the stoppage time, the NYCFC managed to win and win on penalties, leading manager Ronny Deila to keep his promise to two years ago and undress to celebrate.

Record diets

The fact that the New England Revolution fell to New York in the playoffs after setting a record for most points in the regular season will sting, but the Revs-winning Supporters’ Shield have always impressed, especially with the offensive verve shown by Tajon Buchanan, Adam Buksa, Gustavo Bou and MVP Carles Gil. Even with Buchanan heading to Belgian club Brugge, the Bruce Arena side are expected to be back next year.

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Wondo bows out in style

San Jose Earthquakes fans knew that day was coming, but it still brought a tear to an already wet eye when Chris Wondolowski definitely hung up his boots at the end of the season. In his last MLS game against FC Dallas, he capped his career with a typical Wondo goal: all smart moves and a bossy finish in one touch. He ends his playing days with the all-time MLS record of 171 regular season goals, as well as 42 assists.

The conundrum of COVID-19

Given the state of the pandemic, COVID-19 deserves a category of its own, and it was a decidedly mixed bag.

There hasn’t been a single game – playoffs or otherwise – that has been postponed or called off due to coronavirus cases. It is in honor of the league’s efforts to vaccinate players (97% of players received the jab) as well as ongoing protocols. The fact that the MLS Cup was played in front of a large crowd at Providence Park in Portland was a sign that MLS had made its way pretty well through the pandemic.

But it can be argued that the league has benefited from good timing as much as anything. As of this writing, cases and reports are popping up in other North American sports as well as in overseas soccer leagues. And in the end, MLS was bitten, as the Philadelphia Union was forced to play the Eastern Conference final against the NYCFC with 11 players sidelined due to the dreaded “health” protocols. and security ”. It definitely put a damper on the playoffs.

One can only hope that the pandemic has eased considerably before the 2022 season opens on February 26.


Work conflict

Yes, in the end a new collective agreement was made and – most important of all – ratified, but it took a long time to get there. The ABC has been renegotiated three times in less than a year. The players waived roughly $ 200 million to $ 260 million in pay and benefits increases. Among the gains for the owners was the extension of the deal until the end of the 2027 season.

It looks like there will be labor peace until then, but a little-known milestone was taken on December 1: the force majeure clause, which was used to bring the MLSPA back to the bargaining table earlier this year. and has been set aside for the duration of the 2021 season, may be summoned again if complications from COVID-19 become more frequent.


Rumors of how MLS teams play fast and freely with the salary budget rules have been around for about as long as the league has been around for 26 years, and finally one team got caught. Inter Miami have been arrested for having essentially five named players on their roster, two more than league rules allowed, with midfielder Blaise Matuidi and former defender Andres Reyes poorly ranked. Miami also underestimated the salaries of three players.

The penalties were severe, with a reduction of $ 2.271 million in salary budget space applied over two years, representing 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 the mess – tries to sidestep penalties.

Player bets on MLS games

Sports betting is growing in the North American sports landscape and has been legalized in 31 states. But one downside to sports betting came to light in October when it was announced that Sporting Kansas City midfielder Felipe Hernandez had bet on MLS games, though none included his team.

The league is strengthening its presence in the sports betting space and has a partnership with MGM Resorts. An independent investigation found there was no evidence Hernandez had “confidential or non-public information regarding these two MLS games,” but it still highlights the challenge the league faces in terms of entry. in the sports betting landscape and maintaining the integrity of its games.



The Colorado Rapids were one of the best stories of the season, as Robin Fraser’s little-known side took first place in the Western Conference. The honor is also due to general manager Padraig Smith for building up a long list of national players.

NYCFC’s Valentin Castellenos was an unlikely Golden Boot winner. At the start of the year he seemed more adept at wasting opportunities than converting them, but he got carried away in the home stretch, scoring 19 goals in the regular season (the same as DC United’s Ola Kamara but with three more assists) and scored in each of his three playoffs. appearances.

The bad

LAFC, Toronto FC and Columbus Crew all had to fight for the MLS Cup. In the end, none of them even made it to the playoffs.

LAFC was plagued by inconsistencies and allowed manager Bob Bradley to leave at the end of the season. Toronto never started under new manager Chris Armas, who was fired in the middle of the campaign, with Bradley taking his place after the end of the season. Injuries hampered the crew’s title defense, although the failure to reach the playoffs highlighted an oddity in manager Caleb Porter’s career in that the two-time MLS Cup winner did not. never reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

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