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MLS celebrates 22 teams in 22 years this season

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In this Dec. 2016, file photo, Seattle Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, front left, hoists soccer’s MLS Cup with teammates after defeating Toronto FC in the playoff game. Launched with 10 teams in 1996, MLS has plans to expand to 28 teams in coming years.

The theme for Major League Soccer this season is 22 in 22, as the league embarks on its 22nd year with 22 teams — including two new teams in the Atlanta United and Minnesota United.

The theme could just as easily be expansion, expansion, expansion.

Launched with 10 teams in 1996, MLS has plans to expand to 28 teams in the coming years. The replacement for the defunct Chivas USA, Los Angeles FC, joins the league next season. It is hoped that a long-anticipated Miami franchise, an effort led by David Beckham, will materialize as the league’s 24th team.

There were 12 bids submitted earlier this year for the final four teams. In a preseason interview with The Associated Press, Commissioner Don Garber said a decision about two of the teams could come by the end of this year and they could begin play in 2020, while the final two will be announced sometime thereafter.

“I think it’s fair to say that this year and the last number of years we’ve been very focused on strategically growing the league and celebrating new markets coming in and building a fan base, helping to create this soccer nation that we’ve been so focused on,” Garber said. “And this year is probably no different. We’ve got a team coming in that is setting records for attendance in Atlanta, and a team in Minnesota that’s similar to Portland in that it is coming into Major League Soccer after many decades of support for the professional game.

“I think you’ll continue to see more and more stories coming out of our league that are about growth, but I try to focus as much on celebrating all the great things that have gone on in so many markets for the last number of years.”

The 12 bids, along with Atlanta United’s season-ticket sales topping 30,000, are proof that soccer continues to gain a foothold in the American sports landscape.

“It just speaks to the overall development and growth of our sport in our country and Canada,” Garber said. “I continue to be impressed by how many of our clubs prove that it is irrelevant how big your market is or where it’s located. It really is about your plan, your focus, your commitment. … If the ingredients are right I’m convinced we can be successful in any city, any state in the United States. And that’s not something we believed 10 years ago.”

GAME OF THE WEEK: MLS officially opens its season on Friday night with a match between the host Portland Timbers and the expansion Minnesota United on national television. The Timbers were the MLS Cup champions in 2015 but failed to make the playoffs last season. The rabid Providence Park fan base — the Timbers have sold out every home match since joining the league in 2011 — should make for entertaining viewing of the Loons’ historic debut. The two teams played to a 2-all draw in the preseason.

BEST OF THE REST: The defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders visit the Houston Dynamo on Saturday night, marking the return of Clint Dempsey from a heart ailment. NYCFC visits Orlando City on Sunday evening, marking the debut of the Lions’ new soccer-specific stadium, while Atlanta makes its MLS debut later that night against the New York Red Bulls.

NEW DIGS: The 25,500-seat Orlando City Stadium, which is also home to the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer league, is sold out for the opener. Originally, it wasn’t expected to be ready until three weeks into the season.

The stadium includes 49 rainbow-color seats in section 12, a permanent tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting last year.

DEMPSEY’S BACK: While Dempsey is expected to be in the lineup for the Sounders on Saturday, he will be closely monitored. Seattle’s star forward said he first noticed symptoms last February during training camp, but felt good playing for the United States during the Copa America. In September, the Sounders ruled him out for the rest of the season after he underwent an undisclosed procedure.

“It was a heart issue. It’s something that’s difficult to kind of explain,” Dempsey said last month. “But at the same time I’m not feeling those things anymore and I’m happy to be back playing.”

GOING TO THE TAPE: MLS has plans to implement video replay this season following the All-Star Game. The technology will be tested throughout the league during the first half of the season. Garber said pursuing replay made sense for MLS, given that all the other major sports in North America use some form of it.

“I don’t think it’s going to be without its challenges. It’s a new development, a new technology,” Garber said. “I want to remind all of our fans that it’s not going to be foolproof — officiating the games still relies on enormous judgment, even if it’s the judgment of a review official — but I’m convinced it will correct some of the real mistakes that are made.”

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