4 things you should know for MLS kickoff this weekend

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Atlanta United has taken over

Since arriving in the league in 2016, Atlanta has been in a different class. The Five Stripes have literally checked every box on their way to becoming arguably the biggest club Major League Soccer has ever seen. Superstar talent: check. State-of-the-art stadium: check. Sell-out crowds: check. The community and infrastructure to support all of the above: check.

A few months out from winning the team’s first MLS Cup in only its second season, Atlanta is entering 2019 with a new level of respect from the league office and supporters around the country. The Stripes sold their star player, Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almirón, to Newcastle United in the Premier League for a record fee of $27 million and simultaneously replaced him with the 2018 South American Player of the year, Pity Martínez.

Their ability to galvanize the city by attracting and making a profit on young superstar talent is unmatched in the league. Atlanta will run with the hype, hoping to defend its title for the first time since the LA Galaxy did it in 2011-12. United will open up its season against Wayne Rooney and D.C. United on Sunday at 3 p.m. on ESPN.

MLS, welcome to Zlatan — again

If you don’t know the name by now, you will eventually. Zlatan Ibrahimović is now 37 years old and has won basically everything an international soccer player is capable of winning. He has titles with FC Barcelona and multiple Italian clubs and has scored some of the prettiest goals of all time during his career in Europe.

The same can’t be said after his first season in the U.S. playing for the LA Galaxy, after being eliminated from playoff contention in the final regular-season game of last season. For that reason alone, Zlatan is back to avenge not only himself but the most successful club in MLS history.

He is a dominant force on the field, and he will be the first to let you know. On “Pardon the Interruption” this week, a mainstay in ESPN’s sports analysis show lineup, Zlatan had this to say: “They’re all saying my age is too old and all of these things, so I’ll do them the favor and break every record there is.”

The Pacific Northwest is king

The Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers are the clubs that birthed the Atlanta Uniteds and FC Cincinnatis of the world. They set the precedent for the rest of the league and continue to do so to this day. Like in Atlanta, it’s nearly impossible to find an empty seat in the stadiums.

Both clubs have storied histories in this country starting as early as 1975. As the different leagues have come and gone, these two clubs have stayed constant. The teams have also appeared in each of the last four MLS Cup finals, with Portland making appearances in 2015 and 2018 and Seattle in 2016 and 2017.

The most beautiful thing about these two clubs is they absolutely despise each other. From the clubs to the supporters and everywhere in between, a season’s success hangs on which team beats the other. If you were to only watch one matchup this entire MLS season, I encourage you to tune in to this one. It’s something special.

New playoff format means every game counts

MLS has given the green light to a new single-elimination March Madness-style bracket structure for the playoffs this season. Contrary to last season, regular-season games now hold slightly more importance, as they now affect seeding for the postseason tournament, just like in basketball.

It’s too early to say whether this format will become the new norm, but it sure as hell makes for a one-of-a-kind and unbelievably exciting soccer experience. No other league in the world has a single-elimination setup as the MLS does now, and I’m here for it. Taking away the customary two-leg format increases not only the drama but also the glory.

Spencer Golanka covers softball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @sgolanka.