LOS ANGELES: A new club in Los Angeles and an influx of talented players from South America will take center-stage as Major League Soccer kicks off its 23rd season this weekend.
After a year of record-breaking attendances in 2017, MLS will aim to build on that success as it expands to 23 teams with the introduction of Los Angeles Football Club.
LAFC's arrival will provide one of the most intriguing storylines of the new season as they attempt to exploit the decline of five-time MLS Cup champions Los Angeles Galaxy.
The expansion side looks perfectly poised to supplant Galaxy as the pre-eminent team in the California metropolis.
An ownership group that contains NBA legend Magic Johnson and Hollywood actor Will Ferrell has ensured a sprinkling of stardust while the team will play home games in a new 22,000-seat stadium close to downtown Los Angeles.
On the field, LAFC have assembled a cosmpolitan squad which will be spearheaded by Mexico striker Carlos Vela and Costa Rica international forward Marco Urena.
Vela and Urena will be supported by Uruguayan teenager Diego Rossi, one of more than 60 South American players plying their trade in MLS.
Los Angeles will be coached by former US national team coach Bob Bradley, who returns to management after his ill-fated 85-day stay with Swansea City in the English Premier League in 2016.
Bradley is itching to get started after spending more than a year on the sidelines following his departure from Swansea.
Los Angeles open with a daunting away game against the 2017 Western Conference champion Seattle Sounders on Sunday.
"It's a great way to start," Bradley told reporters this week. "Whenever you play against one of the top teams in your conference, you get an idea from the beginning where you stand and it helps you look closely at a lot of little details. We're looking forward to it."
Sunday's opener is the first of six consecutive games on the road before Los Angeles make their home debut on April 29.
By then, Bradley hopes to have a clearer idea of his new team's identity having built it from scratch in the space of less than two months. The team only began training for the new season in late January.
"After five weeks I don't want to pretend we're exactly where we want to be," Bradley cautioned. "I think in terms of the picture of what kind of team we want to be and the football we want to play, that part has moved along in a good way."
LAFC's recruitment of Vela (28) and Rossi (19) reflects a broader recent trend of MLS teams pursuing more youthful players, with South America often a prime market.
Atlanta United, who reached the Eastern Conference playoffs last season in their debut year, scored a notable transfer coup in the close season with the acquisition of Argentine starlet Ezequiel Barco for an MLS-record $15 million.
Barco will miss the opening weeks of the season due to a thigh injury sustained in training this week, but Atlanta nevertheless look primed to build on the success of 2017.
Argentine Hector Villalba, Paraguay international Miguel Almiron and Venezuela's Josef Martínez all return while the addition of US international Darlington Nagbe offers another source of goals from midfield.
Atlanta open their campaign against Houston Dynamo in Texas on Saturday.
Reigning MLS Cup champions Toronto FC, meanwhile, begin their quest for back-to-back titles with a home opener against Columbus Crew on Saturday.
Toronto skipper Michael Bradley is bracing for a renewed challenge within the Eastern Conference, with Atlanta, Chicago, New York City FC and New York Red Bulls all strengthening their rosters.
"They're going to be determined to knock us off of our perch," Bradley said. "We have to be ready for everything that's coming."
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