A rising American teen-age star decided to come home. A veteran Bulgarian superstar decided to stay in Chicago. A Los Angeles team won the right to compete against the best clubs in the world.
When Major League Soccer begins its sixth season today, the talent on the field will be better than ever. If attendance and TV ratings could show the same kind of improvement, the league would be an unqualified success.
As it is, the numbers have decreased slightly for four consecutive years after a promising debut in 1996. At some point, that trend has to stop the league has lost $250 million and commissioner Don Garber has decreed that this is the year it happens.
"We've been relatively flat," Garber said. "Our goal is to grow it. We've got to go up this year."
Early indications are favorable. Garber said leaguewide season ticket sales have set a record. Soccer purists reacted favorably to last year's rule changes, so the only tinkering this year is a reduction in the schedule from 32 to 28 games, which eliminates many poor-drawing midweek dates.
If the fans come, they'll see a Chicago Fire team rich in talent and expected to take the MLS Cup title after losing the championship game 1-0 to Kansas City last fall. The experience inspired the Fire's flamboyant Bulgarian star, Hristo Stoitchkov, to sign up for two more years.
"I enjoyed my first year with the Fire," Stoitchkov said. "It would have been better if we had won MLS Cup, but I strongly believe we can accomplish that. That's part of the reason why I decided to stay here a while longer."
The fans can also enjoy the talents of 19-year-old Landon Donovan, something the crowds in Germany never got a chance to do. A U.S. national team forward, Donovan left MLS two years ago to improve his game in the talent-rich German league with Bayer Leverkusen, but he never got on the field.
Now he's back and playing with the San Jose Earthquakes, a much-needed boost to a team that won just seven games last season.
"We don't want to place undue expectations on Donovan," Earthquakes general manager Tom Neale said. "That said, Landon symbolizes a lot for American soccer and for youth soccer in this country."
Perhaps the most important games played by an MLS team this season will take place in Spain. The Los Angeles Galaxy will compete in the World Club Championship from July 29-Aug. 12, having qualified by winning the CONCACAF Champions Cup in January. The trip will give MLS a measuring stick against world powers such as Real Madrid and Galatasaray.
Fans of all 12 MLS teams can be heartened by last year's worst-to-first performances by Kansas City and the New York-New Jersey MetroStars. This will be the first season that three-time champion D.C. United, hit hard by salary cap cuts, won't be an overwhelming favorite to make the title game. Parity has struck, just in time for some franchises that had been struggling.
"This is my sixth season with the MetroStars. And this is the first time we have a set roster and system," midfielder Tab Ramos said. "The other clubs respect our team now. We are no longer a doormat. We know we have as good a chance as anybody in this league."
While the league still gets mileage out of older players such as Stoitchkov, Carlos Valderrama and Alexi Lalas who came out of retirement to join the Galaxy it will benefit more if future U.S. World Cup players such as Donovan, United's Bobby Convey and Santino Quaranta, and Chicago's DaMarcus Beasley continue to choose MLS over Europe.
"Perhaps our greatest achievement is the improvement of quality of play on the field," Garber said, "the number of players who believe in this league and want to make it their own."